Who You Calling Formerly Colonized?

During the past week I have had more conversations about “decolonization” than I have had in my whole life. As I mentioned in one of my Facebook conversations, I am not entirely comfortable with the expression.

Clearly as Native people continue to carve out our existence with the dominant societies, cultures and politics around us, we find ourselves getting caught up in the next word, policy or social theory of the day.

Sovereignty became almost synonymous with Native rights. Self-governance and self-determination also began rolling off the tongues of every “tribal leader” and “Indian expert.” Oh yeah, and let’s not leave out “nation-to-nation” and “government-to-government” relations. Those were good ones.

For me, the “trust relationship” with a complete lack of the “trust” part makes that one problematic for me but that one was easy to call. This decolonization thing was a little more troublesome for me. I mean, I get it and the whole “decolonize your mind” slogan does have a nice ring to it but for me it still didn’t feel right.

I was finally able to put my finger on it today when my good friend Kerry Hawk Lessard used University of Michigan Associate Professor of Psychology and American Culture Joseph Gone’s definition in our discussion. Gone uses decolonization to describe “the intentional, collective, and reflective self-examination undertaken by formerly colonized peoples that results in shared remedial action.”

Well, there you have it. Decolonization felt to me a little too much like the abolition movement and Gone confirmed the problem for me. Just like abolition was all about addressing and ending the very successful dehumanizing institution that was American slavery, decolonization is about remediating the problems associated with “formerly colonized peoples” as though the act of colonization was both complete and successful.

I understand that colonization is a clear and well-defined concept, but at its core it is about claiming land. Just as the Doctrine of Christian Discovery really had nothing to do with converting the pagans into Christians but rather converting their land to Christendom, colonization was less about colonizing people and more about taking their land for the colonizer.

So having said that, I certainly acknowledge that almost all of our lands were stolen, defrauded, claimed and/or swindled from us for THEIR colony and most Native communities, on either side of the imaginary line (U.S./Canadian border) are led to believe their lands are held “in trust” for them by the colonial powers. But the keyword here is “most” — not all.

One of the little-known facts about Native people is that 70 percent of them do not live on Native lands and most of the remaining percent that do, live on lands that the colonizers claim to hold the title to. But that is not the case for the Haudenosanee territories I have lived on. Although our ancestral lands have been greatly reduced, all of the peoples of the Haudenosaunee still retain a portion of those once vast lands and they own it.

The lands of which I speak are not under US or state title. And they are not “held for the use and enjoyment” of our people. Our people own them. So to say it more clearly and in the context of this discussion — our land is not part of their colony. The land we still occupy has not been colonized.

Now I am not suggesting that we are the only people who can claim to have not been colonized but I would say that if they can’t claim our lands then they can’t claim us. I will also state for the record that I have never ascribed to the notion that the U.S. and Canada hold our lands for us. But I will say if you view yourself among the formerly colonized peoples then the first step you need to take is to assert your connection to your homeland.

Beyond the inability of the colonial powers to render us landless, I maintain that there is no legal basis to claim our subjugation or cite just when our clearly recognized sovereignty was ever transferred to them. It is laughable that the foundation of US and Canadian “federal Indian law” is still only based on papal bulls from the fifteenth century. In 1823 when the U.S. codified the Doctrine of Christian Discovery into U.S. law via Johnson v. M’Intosh, Chief Justice John Marshall literally suggested that Native sovereignty was diminished upon discovery. And in the wake of Marshall’s legal dicta on this ruling there began this absurd assumption that discovery could be viewed as tantamount to conquest.

Of course, even with this weak rationale building the foundation for the imperialistic belief in Manifest Destiny, neither the U.S. nor the state of New York ever claimed to own the land we retained. In fact, even when attempting to relocate the Seneca during the Removal Act era, the U.S. was forced to include language in its offer of lands west of the Mississippi that even those lands would never be claimed by the U.S. or incorporated into any state (an offer that was nonetheless rejected). As late as the second half of the nineteenth century, New York State still acknowledged in its State Judicial Reports that Seneca lands were not part of the state, that the Seneca were not represented in their legislature and that the state could not tax them.

I have many reasons for refusing to be considered a formerly colonized person. I maintain that there are many of us that are among a long line of people who have resisted and rejected subjugation and the assumption of colonization. So excuse me for not embracing the decolonization movement. My sovereignty is a birthright. That whole unalienable rights thing? That came from us. The concept of seven generations doesn’t just suggest that we consider the effects of our actions on those unborn faces — it prohibits and denies any legal and legitimate authority of anyone to sell out their future generations.

I can’t decolonize. That would suggest that I was colonized in the first place. I wasn’t and I’m not.

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  1. “That would suggest that I was colonized in the first place. I wasn’t and I’m not.”

    While you put colonization in the context of land it is a very limited (and limiting) definition in the discussion on colonization / decolonization. The primary purpose of colonization of indigenous peoples is to change the culture, habits and conditioning of people in favour of the invading nation. While this may reduce the oppostition to land grabs but it is far more devasting than that.

    It was best said by the president of of Lays Foods when asked why they were interested in expanding their markets to the Middle East after the Iraq wars: “It isn’t our goal to sell more salty snacks” he said, “it is our goal to change the culture so the people ~want~ more salty snacks”

    Thus colonization – at least the kind we need to decolonize from – is the attack on our thinking, our culture and futures as autonomous peoples. The state continues this attack by forcing our children to attend mainstream schools (or demand compliance with mainstream curriculums); to remove children from Indigenous homes and communities and place them into mainstream homes under colonial / imperial rules; to mis-characterize, mis-represent and mis-interpret Indigenous cultures, traditions and actions as barbaric and heathen; to criminalize our protest to the mainstream paradigm and; to change history to make it seem like there was any until the colonists arrived. All of these things seek to change the thinking, not so they can gain more land but in order to make us want to believe land is nothing more than useless chattel to be sold to ‘benefit us’.

    As Kanyenke’haka we might have had it easier than those children and communties that were totally immersed in genocidal colonization and had no means to fight it, but that does not mean that we were exempted from it. One need only look at their family and community trees to see the ‘isms’ caused by colonization and the total acceptance of collective mainstream thinking and practices as the pancea for our future success. Even as far back as Handsome Lake we can see the transition of Onkwehone:we from our communties start to split into divergent groups of pro-colonial and pre-colonial thinking. That split exists in our communities today and is the primary reason for the creation of factions and their claims to represent us during certain disputes.

    I can’t speak on whether or not you or your family experienced the effects colonization. However, it would be disingenuous of you to claim to speak on behalf of Rotinosoniokon:ha either. Colonization is not a community or family trait but a very personal one. And decolonization is a personal journey that we might experience if we don’t accept the fact many of us were deliberately colonized to lesser or greater extents. The reality is, that one cannot understand colonization from a fully colonized perspective. Denial is the main indicator of that colonization. No, the necessity for decolonization comes from the glimpse realizing there is ~something~ different when we become conflicted in our thinking. It is the only way to resolve two world views – ‘Two Rows’ and either you think in Indigenous terms or colonial ones – both feet firmly our canoe or in their boat. It is an individual choice but denial that one or the other exists is the first indicator for most of us whom have decolonized that one is clearly swimming in time with the rowing of the colonial boat.

  2. You and native people were never colonized. You were invaded and stolen from but never colonized and I respect that about you. Thank you for your patience and for holding to your values. You are an inspiration.

    1. Niaweh! Check each week for my column and look back at some from the past. My LTN column has appeared in every issue. Read and share!

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