“What's your team's name?” asked Betty, the cultural director of the tribe, as she collected $10 from each player.
“We're the Tigers! And we're going to win this basketball championship!” replied the boys excitedly.
“What about those two brothers? They cannot be part of your team. Aren't they from Mexico?” Betty pointed to the clause that said in capital letters: ONLY MEMBERS OF FEDERALLY RECOGNIZED TRIBES CAN ENTER THE TOURNAMENT. The children protested but Betty was firm. Finally, one of the boys said:
“They are Indian too! From the Zapotec tribe in Mexico. They're our friends and they have lived in this town forever. Both speak their tribal language at home instead of English. Not one of us knows our language. If they cannot play then our team won't play either!”
The boys eventually won the right to let the brothers play in the tournament. The kids didn't know it but they were resisting colonization; they were decolonizing.
People have a tendency to misunderstand what it means to decolonize. After all, decolonizing is a fancy European term. So we're going to provide examples and a very easy definition here: decolonizing essentially means to start thinking like an Indian.
Raymond lived in a rural town away from his tribe and studied pre-medicine at a community college. No physician in that small town would let Raymond shadow them. “You need to cut your hair in order to look professional,” the doctors would tell him. Raymond tried explaining that his tribal people cut hair only if there is a death in the family, but those protests fell on deaf ears. Now if you don't shadow a physician, you cannot get into medical school. “Cut your hair Raymond,” local Indians suggested, “you can always grow it back later.” Raymond refused and insisted on holding on to his culture and tradition. Rather than giving in to the pressures, Raymond relocated to California and resumed his pre-medical studies at a research university there; he also got a generous scholarship and is on his way to enrolling in a medical school. By sticking to his tradition, Raymond was decolonizing.
Amy's grandpa has arthritis. But he parks his car far away from the Walmart entrance when he shops, especially when it is snowing. This way people who are old, ill or weak can find a spot closer to the store entrance. Putting group welfare before individual welfare was the Indian way of doing things. Amy thought this was a very noble thing to do and she too started parking her car at the far end of the parking lot. What Amy did was to decolonize.
When Christian members of Hubert's tribal council destroyed his sweat lodge and prevented him from building a new one, he talked to the mayor of a neighboring town. Volunteers, both Indian and white, got together and constructed a new sweat lodge near the town's water tank. Hubert refuses to sweat Sundays. “I am not like a Christian who needs to go to church every Sunday. So we sweat Fridays and Saturdays or whenever we feel like it, I don't sweat Sundays,” said Hubert. ”I get drunk on Sundays instead,” he joked. Hubert does not drink though. Sweating and keeping his traditions helped him kick his former drinking habit. What Hubert did was to decolonize.
Decolonizing essentially means to start thinking like an Indian. When you think like an Indian, you get rid of all the colonial brainwashing, you reclaim tradition and go back to our roots. Reclaiming tradition and decolonizing does not mean that we have to give up dressing in jeans and go back to dressing like our ancestors. But it does mean reclaiming our ancestral ways of governance and giving up the systems and procedures we adopted from our colonizers. Decolonizing does not mean we have to go back to living in the woods. But it does mean reviving our ceremonies. It does mean restoring our cultural values. It does mean emphasizing group welfare—the welfare of people in our tribe—and giving up the focus on individual welfare.
Decolonizing does not mean that we stop shopping at supermarkets and go back to hunting buffalo. It does mean embracing Indian beliefs about hunting only for sustenance and giving up the white man's pursuit of hunting for pleasure and sport.
Decolonizing does not mean that we stop seeking modern medical care. But it does mean reclaiming the ancestral knowledge we had about herbs, plants and indigenous medicine.
Decolonizing does not mean rejecting Western education and dropping out of school. But it does mean making an effort to learn our oral histories, our songs, our languages and our coyote stories.
Decolonizing does not mean that you completely shut off the television and the outside world and live like the Amish. But it does mean undoing the brainwashing by the media. It does mean unlearning the many social evils that we have internalized like disrespect of elders, elder abuse, spousal abuse, alcoholism, racism, child abuse, misogyny, or drug abuse.
Decolonizing does not mean ejecting all whites from our land. But it does mean recognizing and undoing the cultural genocide, resisting forced assimilation, and honoring our spiritual beliefs.
Decolonizing does not mean that we reject everything that the US stands for. But is certainly means adopting traditional value systems like the integrity of our ancestors and rejecting the materialistic, capitalistic and self-centered attitudes we have internalized from our colonizers. It does mean educating the US government about how to respect people elsewhere and how to value human life and dignity in different parts of the world.
Decolonizing does not mean we completely stop participating in the US political process. But it does mean asserting our rights, rejecting federal policies that divide our tribes, standing up for Mother Earth, and resisting when corporations rape the environment and our land.
Brothers and sisters, let's reclaim our ancestral traditions and decolonize!
Mike Taylor is a student in the ALB program at Harvard University and hopes to serve as a physician on isolated and remote Indian reservations. Amy Moore is passionate about saving as many Indian languages as possible. If your tribal college or university would like to offer your indigenous language class online to a much wider audience through avenues like Coursera, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.