Some of my favorite people have complained when they hear Indians or other Native peoples talking about colonization because, they say, people don’t know what that term means. Actually, it’s easy to understand from an indigenous perspective.
Beginning about five centuries ago, Europeans began arriving on distant shores with a burning desire to exploit peoples and places. Not every European had destruction in his or her heart, but in the big picture, on the nation-to-nation level, a lot of bad things happened. It is true there were other “diasporas,” incidents when people of a place went to other places and established beachheads – colonies – but in the modern context, the European arrival is the one most talked about. Europeans went all over the world, and wherever they could, they established themselves. In most every instance, they used military force in an effort to conquer the world, and this pattern unfolded in two waves. The first wave began during the 15th century and was led by the Portuguese and Spanish and was mainly focused on the islands of the Atlantic, West Africa, and the islands of the Caribbean, Central and South America. Soon other European maritime powers followed suit, including Holland, Sweden, France and, most prominently, England.
A second wave of European conquests took place during the nineteenth century as a result of the industrial revolution. By 1890, practically every inhabitable place on the globe was dominated either by a European power or a settler regime speaking a European language. European colonization produced most of the most horrific stories of all time, including numerous incidents of genocide. The Spanish destroyed the Indian populations of the Caribbean even before the great viral epidemics arrived, and Spain and Portugal exterminated the peoples and cultures of the Canary Islands. Belgium committed unspeakable acts of murder and brutality in the Congo and on one day – January 14, 1904 – Germany massacred 65,000 indigenous people in Namibia. Although there would be numerous nominees for the title of worst barbarians of all time, the English have a good claim to careful consideration. English speaking people committed numerous acts of genocide in Newfoundland, in Tasmania, and in California where whole peoples were slaughtered until none were left. They came close to success in Australia and in many parts of North America where the list of indigenous nations who greeted them diminished to but a few.
In the beginning, colonization referred to people arriving on distant shores but the way it played out the word means much more. The arrivees used force to get what they wanted, and they wanted everything of value, including land and labor, and to get this they needed to change the Native people. They treated the indigenous peoples as less than human, denying their humanity, despising their religions and traditions, and in fact demanding at the point of a gun that they, the indigenous, become their servants. In some countries, places like India, the indigenous vastly outnumbered them and in every place people developed a burning desire to send them home and to reclaim their land, their freedom, and their dignity.
During World War II – an event which can be seen as a kind of European civil war which Japan joined for its own reasons – President Roosevelt saw an opportunity to dismantle the system of European dominated colonies and spheres of influence to the advantage of American business interests. He advanced the idea of decolonization, and following the war country after country threw off the yoke of their European masters. From India to the Philippines (a U.S. colony) to China and Indonesia and eventually Africa, indigenous peoples waved a not-so-tearful farewell to the monsters who had made their lives a living hell. By 1960 the United Nations had adopted the idea that all nations had a right to self-determination.
Most of the indigenous peoples of the Americas (and all in Canada and the U.S.) faced a very serious reality. In their country, the invaders outnumbered the indigenous, sometimes by hundreds to one. They were not going to go back home. In addition, their stated goal was the eradication of the indigenous nations as nations by eroding all of the elements that make a distinct people a people: their history, their languages, their laws and customs. It took quite a while and a lot of boarding schools, missionaries, and corrupt public officials but the process – being colonized – has had an impact. When an individual loses his or her memory, they cannot recognize other people, they become seriously disoriented, and they don’t know right from wrong. Sometimes they hurt themselves. Something similar happens when a people become colonized. They can’t remember who they are because they are a people without a common history. It’s not that they don’t have a history, it’s just that they don’t know what it is and it’s not shared among them. Colonization is a kind of spiritual collapse of the nation. This is one result of a colonial education based on canonical “great books” texts. Indigenous peoples’ histories and cultures are not in those texts, and the life of the nation is not there, either. Identity is important. The colonists were very successful “racializing” indigenous identities such that people talk about being 25 percent of this or 40 percent of that, but one does not belong to a nation based on one’s blood quantum. Belonging to an indigenous nation is a way of being in the world. Holding a membership card is not a way of being and money can’t buy it.
Colonization is the greatest health risk to indigenous peoples as individuals and communities. It produces the anomie – the absence of values and sense of group purpose and identity – that underlies the deadly automobile accidents triggered by alcohol abuse. It creates the conditions of inappropriate diet which lead to an epidemic of degenerative diseases, and the moral anarchy that leads to child abuse and spousal abuse. Becoming colonized was the worst thing that could happen five centuries ago, and being colonized is the worst thing that can happen now.
De-colonization, on the other hand, means many different things to many different peoples. In principle, however, it means undoing the damage of colonization and involves elements such as living traditions and customs, language retention, and an insistence on the right to BE Lakota, or Ganienkehaka or whatever nation it is that people have a right to be.
John C. Mohawk, Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University of New York at Buffalo.