Decolonization Questionaire

The October Journal editorial board asked if anti-imperialism was more urgent than decolonization practices within museums. If you can get a copy (Fall 2020), it is an eye-opening issue that includes 35 responses. Below was my contribution. 

The Long Knives

Before addressing decolonization or anti-imperialism, I want to consider how violent displacement is transformed. For Ojibwe People, our displacement was historically achieved at the pointy end of a knife. The word for white people in the Ojibwe language is chi-mookamanag. It translates as “long knives” referencing the bayonets that white settlers used to force Native people into submission. The settlers had lost their humanity when they decided to physically assault Ojibwe People which had caused the settlers to transform into bayonets in the minds of traumatized Ojibwe People. To restate this point, the settler’s bodies dissolved into the background behind the object that represented an urgent physical threat. Beyond killing us, they removed us from our land, dug up our ancestors, displayed/display our funerary belongings, flattened our burial mounds, burnt our scrolls, replaced our governments, imposed Christianity on us, criminalized our ceremonies, criminalized dancing, weaponized disease, stole our children, enslaved many of us, poisoned our water and land, threatened our languages, our grammars, our knowledge and epistemologies.[1] Colonization is genocide. Today the bayonets have largely disappeared, and the settlers have rematerialized into people again, but we can still detect invisible colonial weaponry that aims to displace us. 

As part of my art practice I discuss colonization at length using the English language. Strangely, I don’t know the word for colonization in Ojibwemowin. There may exist words for colonization in Ojibwemowin, but they aren’t prominently discussed in Ojibwemowin. Ideas that are frequently discussed within the language are varying aspects of cultural revitalization. Words like mashkiki (medicine), noojimo’iwewin (healing), nanda-gikendan (he/she seeks to know something), and gikendamowin (knowledge) are terms that frequently surface in conversational Ojibwemowin. This preoccupation with health and knowledge may be described as decolonization but it is achieved without a settler audience, without relying on colonial institutions. Our healing and language acquisition are not contingent upon a museum’s Land Acknowledgement, or maybe is in a tangential way. Anishinaabe scholar Grace Dillon offers the Ojibwemowin word bishkaabiiyang as a term analogous for decolonization, translating it as “returning to ourselves.”[2] Much like the idea of Indigenization, a term that describes centering Indigenous People within the decolonial process, there is no return or special place afforded to non-Natives. Returning cannot mean going back in linear time to someone’s fantasy of an authentic, pre-invasion Native life. In this way, it is unlikely that the decolonization of the mid-twentieth century period is something that can be returned to either, or at least not without some romantic misgivings. Returning, in that context, implies a gap in time, but that gap has not been observed by Native People who have maintained continual resistance through decolonial means. Again, this is what Native People have been actively doing for ourselves. Museums and other institutions that haven’t hired or included Native People in their power structure may have no proximity or appreciation of that bishkaabiiyang-type of decolonization. They might even resent it if they had it. Indigenous museum workers, I see you!

My art in museums and that access point has given me much to agonize over. Sometimes I wonder if my inclusion is only to support settler futurity. I have a cynical theory about the perceived uptick in museum support for the discourse around decolonization: museums were begrudgingly doing some of their most impactful, actionable decolonial work in secret, and now they want to have a conversation about decolonization as an abstraction. The Native Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 mandates that federally funded museums return grave-robbed burial belongings and bodies. Native activists worked hard to get this legislation passed. Museum compliance with NAGPRA was largely taken on unceremoniously or in private. Tell me what museum wants a photograph of their staff handing over hundreds of cardboard boxes of bones splashed across the variety section of their local newspaper? Museums are currently embracing Land Acknowledgments, statements that inform guests whose land they occupy and what commitment the institution has to said people, but it was rare to see museums issue apologies only a few years before while returning our ancestor’s grave-robbed belongings. Some museums went to court to fight against NAGPRA and the descendant communities whose things were robbed.[3] Without naming names, museums with the splashiest displays of decolonization are often hiding the most bodies to this day. Again, colonization is genocide, and it is hard to de-genocide when that has been the active currency of the United States and so many other countries around the world.

I’m willing to shelve decolonization practices for a moment to refocus my distrust on anti-imperialism as a practice. What does an anti-imperialism look like? What vision rises out of those ashes? I have many visions for decolonization, because part of Indigenous futurity planning involves agency, visibility, and self-representation. An example of a decolonial museum intervention can be seen at a number of Canadian museums where didactics and museum catalogs featuring contemporary art by Native and non-Native artists are presented in the Indigenous languages of the area, as well as English. The museum may highlight that move as decolonial, but would it be considered a move towards anti-imperialism too? Maybe it isn’t going far enough to be anti-imperial. Are anti-imperial museum interventions motivated by exposing economic ties? In many situations that would also be the work of decolonization too. Any multi-pronged approach would recognize the urgency in both decolonization and anti-imperialism and the undefined territory between the two. 

If anti-imperialism is more urgent than decolonization, we must ask ourselves if anti-imperialism is yet another tool for displacing Native People. Even the best-intentioned decolonization efforts have displaced Native People, as non-Natives take up the work under the guise of solidarity without involving Native People whatsoever. Native People hold special interests, and we insist upon our sovereignty. Many anti-imperialists have an understandably antagonistic view of national sovereignty, but they tend to skip Native American preference for – and understanding of – sovereignty altogether. As much as nationalism is a problem, our sovereignty pulls us out of being understood in terms of race. It provides distinction between our over-600 people groups. The United States government is actively working to undermine the sovereignty of Native Americans by characterizing our nations under legal definitions of race. That is neocolonialism and active genocide. If there is a desire through anti-imperialism or decolonization to recognize and stop moves to displace and disappear Native People, then urgency belongs to that work whatever we call it.

[1] There are some readers who, without a doubt, are thinking to themselves that this is a guilt trip, that, even though I have not compared this plight to another group’s, they might characterize this as “oppression Olympics,” or, perhaps, they are thinking that guilt is an ineffective strategy for solidarity, that it shuts down the non-Native reader. Those readers are sharpening their invisible bayonets.

[2] Dillon, Grace L. Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. University of Arizona Press, 2012: 10.

[3] See Repatriation Comix:

Using Format