6 min read

Decolonizing Futures Book Release: Reflections

On December 9-10, 2022, contributors to the volume Decolonizing Futures gathered at Uppsala University in the unceded traditional territory of the Sámi People, Sápmi. Contributors presented the content of the volume, shared perspectives unelaborated in the book, and discussed potential future collaborations between contributors.

I am a settler American writing this reflection on the book release. As the least experienced researcher to attend this event, and as a settler American, I am attempting to write this reflection in a manner that does not presume to reflect the knowledges or experiences of Indigenous contributors. To achieve this, I am writing this reflection in two parts. In an extended report, I will offer the notes I took on contributors’ presentations. In this reflection, I will offer some of the lessons I learned about my mistakes, roles, and responsibilities as a settler who aspires to collaborate in decolonization. I hope that my reflections assist other settlers in realizing our differentiated responsibilities to decolonization, including the responsibility to guide each other.

Lessons I learned about my settler colonist roles in decolonization from “Decolonizing Futures” release

During the Book Release, and since leaving, I have learned a few lessons about my place as a settler colonizer in decolonization.

  • Settler colonists are not entitled to Indigenous teachers’ knowledges or instruction.

This lesson came first from June Lorenzo’s point that settler colonists feel entitled to steal Indigenous knowledges, and may only realize that we are not welcome to these knowledges unless they are formally protected as intellectual property. Indigenous Peoples should not have to resort to colonial concepts - such as intellectual property law - to have their privacy respected. I felt this lesson reinforced as I read Tuck and Yang’s “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor” shortly after leaving Uppsala. These authors urge us to realize that we settler colonists do not need to feel accepted into Indigenous communities, do not need to extract Indigenous knowledge, and do not need to ask for Indigenous Peoples’ instructions in order to start the work of abandoning, committing treachery against, and dismantling the institutions that we create. We need to follow Indigenous leadership and run any prospective decisions by Indigenous Peoples who have chosen to interact with us - which is not all Indigenous Peoples, and not all who choose to lead us are obligated to do so all the time - but we should not burden Indigenous Peoples with telling us the specific means to dismantle a global framework that they did not create.

  • Settler colonists are not entitled to Indigenous collaborators’ friendship or loyalty.

We must recognize that we will commit decolonizing actions sometimes, but there is no achievable, permanent status of “decolonizer” or “ally”. Thus, we are always subject to Indigenous Peoples’ criticisms, responses to the harm we cause, and revocation of agreements to work with us as we inevitably commit harm and imperfectly address it. We must not let our anxiety about being unneeded in certain spaces and conversations, or about causing harm, lead us to exit the work of decolonization. We cannot let our self-centered fears lead us into seclusion, settler shame-wallowing, defensiveness, or demands for comforting validation of an illusory “ally” status. The key is to learn to work around, or perhaps transform, anxieties that can become debilitating into a constant reminder to check ourselves: are we asking for things we are not entitled to? Are we making demands that perpetuate colonialism? Are we diverting appropriate requests for emotional support away from other settler colonists and towards Indigenous Peoples? Are we centering ourselves in Indigenous lives by asking Indigenous Peoples to tell us how to act, how to perceive ourselves, how to decolonize? Are we appropriating Indigenous ways of knowing in search of answers about ourselves? Are we assuming that we are closer friends with Indigenous colleagues than they feel us to be, and that we therefore can assume the authority to speak over and for them as though we are exempt from colonial harm by proximity? In order to deal with the existential anxieties and identity crises that come with decolonization, which entails destroying the very frameworks through which we have always understood ourselves and the world, we must recurrently evaluate our thoughts and actions by asking these and other questions.

  • There is space for both Indigenous Peoples who are open to sharing with settlers, and Indigenous Peoples who are not.

After leaving, I reached out to a few of the contributors to ask their opinions on a question I had about settler states’ performative decolonization, (more on this below). Many did not wish to engage with my question, but some others did. I found myself feeling so anxious about how I pushed away those who didn’t reply that I forgot to appreciate those who did believe my question might be valuable to their own decolonization efforts. This is a reminder to cultivate relationships of inquiry and learning when they are welcome, but not to demand that those less comfortable with our presence reassure us or engage with us.

  • Settler colonists will be blind to Indigenous Peoples’ needs if we do not follow Indigenous leadership every step of the way.

During the conference, we found out that we did not consider the needs of all the contributors - particularly those who did not feel very comfortable speaking in English without a script. Had we thoroughly consulted with the diversity of contributors beforehand, we may have learned that the limited notice we gave to artists about their presentations, the requirement to have these presentations given in English, along with the time-limited lecture style we mandated, would make any meaningful communication about Indigenous difficult for many. Additionally, June Lorenzo, Elizabeth Sumida Huaman, Julie Edel Hardenberg, and Belinda H.Y. Chiu explained to me that they expected more time for free interaction and roundtable discussions, as well as a better-timed period for developing action steps towards decolonization.

  • Settler colonists will commit deep harms without realizing in the moment, and we will become aware of and address these harms in imperfect ways.

I realized this lesson once I contacted a few contributors about the question I mentioned above. I asked a question that pertained to Sagka Stangberg’s presentation about language reclamation. I had discussed this topic with Stengberg during our lunch break, and wished to ask her a specific question during her presentation. She willingly offered her stories, life history, and insight regarding this work to an audience of mixed Indigenous and settler peoples, and though I had asked her to share this vulnerable information, I chose to take a phone call during the middle of her talk. After the conference, I asked her and others to continue the labor of giving up their knowledge to me, yet I hadn’t even bothered to listen when Sagka was sharing that knowledge consensually. This was an act of disrespect, entitlement, and disregard for their labor, all of which came from my settler belief that I have a right to access their life stories for my own education, and that I have the ability to meaningfully support their work despite the violence I cause as a settler. I sent an apology to those contributors after asking my question, even though I recognize that apologizing often implies an expectation of being forgiven and validated. Thus, the act of apologizing in a way that recognized the harm caused and leaves an open line of communication for further critique and feedback is an imperfect action. I am still not sure how I could have gone about this in a less harmful way.

  • Settler colonists must fight against our conceptions of timeliness, knowledge sharing, and intellectual thinking in order to privilege Indigenous conceptions

As noted earlier, we organized timed lecture-style presentations, limited to English, which did not make space for on-the-spot creativity, sharing in one’s most comfortable language, or thorough investigation of one’s inquiries. Lectures can limit interpersonal dialogue, and might create a question-and-answer dynamic that forces Indigenous presenters to justify their ideas to audiences whose very understandings of the world may be  incommensurable with their own.

  • Settler anxiety can cause us to become hypercritical of ourselves and others, to the point that we start to destroy connectivities with Indigenous Peoples and other settler coconspirators.

This is more of a personal lesson, but I want to remind myself and other settlers that we will feel inadequate, out of place, unsure of everyone’s boundaries, and possibly paranoid about how we are being perceived. These are discomforts that we need to learn to feel, regulate our emotional reactions towards, and manage our anxieties about in our own time so that we do not demand that Indigenous Peoples do the emotional labor of reassuring us. The fact we must accept is that we are often obstacles to open conversation, unneeded, and harmful. To ask for Indigenous Peoples’ validation is to seek absolution and innocence, which is a fleeting means to soothe our anxieties and decenter Indigenous attentions towards colonizer identities, thus compromising decolonization.

  • This is particularly for settler colonist researchers: Being critical of the State and its apparatuses, with the ultimate intention of suggesting revisions to the State as a means to address Indigenous Peoples’ needs, is not the same thing as decolonizing.

In The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, Moten and Harney articulate that critical academia actually ensures the survival of the University, Professionalization, and ultimately, settler colonialism by redirecting our attention to issues within these systems, and thus encouraging us to find systemic solutions to the problems our systems cause. What we fail to see is that these systems as a whole, the very framework of reality that recognizes settler colonialism as a real and criticizable and therefore salvageable system for existence, is the problem. We must learn ways to exist and work beyond settler colonialism, in the Undercommons. How can we give up ownership of land, the power to design solutions and make decisions, and the privilege to work within colonial institutions that protect us and eliminate the Indigenous Peoples we need to build decolonizing futures with?