Decolonization isn’t necessarily about the reclamation of one’s singular culture, but dismantling the establishment’s control of indigenous people.
Taking colonization from its locus in my narrative, or cultural history, has been an act of decolonization. The small rez I grew up on was full of abstract ideas and action, and disagreement, and then confluence: two rivers meeting at one junction, peaceful or not—movement felt collective. I wondered, if I came from such activism—where the knowledge of colonization was prevalent among my family, and within the community school system and culture—then where could I go from there to elevate myself and politics? Decolonization is nothing if it does not transform the self and work against oppressive forces: to help the exploited, super-exploited, disenfranchised—the people.
For the writers I love, independence: social, political, cultural, psychological, and intellectual independence, it is liberation. The only way I’ve liberated myself from anything is through story. My transformation has come from framework, recalibrating what’s important to me and true, and giving myself the ability to change.
Before this, I navigated towards the decolonization my mother had envisioned for herself, which felt culturally specific, but based in a pan-Indian ideology that had her attending every conference, gathering, meeting, and protest—which brought about historic change. Through practical application she liberated herself: through diet, practice, ceremony, empathy for those around her, discourse, and through her aggressive desire to re-imagine herself as who she wanted to be, in spite of the daily oppressive forces trying to negate her desires and mobility.
It’s hard to imagine doing better than those who’ve passed, because for some of us, they were everything—the way Indians used to be has been engrained in our minds as something more formidable than ourselves, something grander, more pure, better constructed, closer to the origin of ourselves. It feels based in Christianity somehow—that there was purity, or wholeness, and then us—those who need reconciliation, who want to make amends. Rejecting this narrative has become part of my politic.
I have stopped existing in the binary my parents created for me: white people are bad, we’re good, colonization happened, and then what came was reactionary, reclamation—all we could do, and have been doing, is recovery. I realized this was incongruent with my cultural teachings, or the value system I was raised within. While my mother told me to resist imitating any eurocentric way of living, or thinking about the world, I had been putting them at the center of my story, which is about as eurocentric as it gets.
I don’t believe my mother set up the binary intentionally, but when we walked into a store and white women followed her. My mother’s grimacing, her anger, the desire for equality—to a child it looked obvious that there was a good guy and a bad guy, at least when it came to my mother. My father, not so much—but the way that story was framed was also placing racism and trauma in the middle of his story. He was institutionalized; what happened to him was part of a larger story where colonization was the true culprit. It’s not that we didn’t hold him accountable, it was that his life could not be removed from the tragedy that indigenous identity feels transfixed in. Existing as their daughter, and the descendent of their people, it was difficult to see much beyond how messed up the world is to Indians, and it was hard to focus on much else, especially when I imagined what could have been. But I think I must resist that—to put tragedy at the locus, and to give the culprits a talking part in my play, would be relenting, and giving them too much. If I am to resist, I must resist making my story eurocentric. I don’t need an antagonist, or any convention of story if it’s not within me—I don’t need time to be linear. It could simply be my story, the way my people’s stories work: as innovation—play of language, oddity, individual, and full of heart.
It’s hard, because I’ve been victimized in my lifetime, beyond the racism I experience, and moving my story away from the trauma is sometimes impossible. Putting myself into the story as the only true thing moving my life forward, or backward, it’s become a power that has helped me regain an affinity for decolonization. Autonomy, in its pluralism, has helped me imagine I can contribute to the things my people are working for.
The question is, how can I remove myself from the history of trauma? I use the word remove only because I’d like it removed from the center, placed elsewhere—where my people and I can be present and stand alone. I’ve given myself mobility. For my children, I present the truth as more than dichotomous. We exist with double-consciousness, and questions, constant questions, of what the implications are of our words and actions—my children will know me, and know my ideas shifted to what made for the best community, where unity was in mind over authority. Chaos is imperative to liberation, for me. Liberation is messy—finding the right language takes a lot of wrongdoing, wrong thinking, and opposition. If there’s one thing, it’s that my people do not hold agreeing with one another over the truth or betterment. Keeping this in mind has allowed me to pick up political theories, practices, and beliefs away from my own foundation.
I am using language for transcendence. I am not bound by the confines of essentialism, or stereotype, or history book representations of us, or the pictures of my people during the smallpox epidemic, and I am also something removed from my own culture.
Decolonization isn’t necessarily about the reclamation of one’s singular culture, but dismantling established control over indigenous people, which includes more than what’s in the binary. Taking apart the rhetoric of ‘old ways,’ that hinder indigenous women’s rights is decolonization, for me, as I know the word. Questioning my own appropriation is decolonization. Allowing a white person into my movement against a settler-colonial state is decolonization, too. Tricky, I know. Near impossible, true. Decolonizing is moving and speaking, allowing the utterance of difference and new, changing the story—culturally specific, but also working against the idea of my culture as it is taught and spoken about. I don’t really have much else, besides story, to rise up and be where I believe my mother hoped I could be: somewhere unfathomable and removed from tragedy, resistant to be pegged, even by the movements she believed in.
Terese Mailhot is from Seabird Island Band. Her book “Heart Berries: A Memoir” is forthcoming from Counterpoint Press and Doubleday Canada. She is a Tecumseh Postdoctoral Fellow at Purdue University, and creative writing faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts.