England was once so proud of its colonial regime that it boasted, “The sun never sets on the British empire.” Today, colonialism is a bad word. It is fashionable to say we live in a ‘post-colonial’ world.
The truth is the world continues to involve relations of domination and exploitation, under new names: “globalization,” for example.
None of this is news to observers of history and contemporary affairs. The “Occupy” movement, whatever else it may be, is evidence of widespread awareness that 1 percent of the population dominates 99 percent, an arrangement similar to colonialism except it happens within as well as between nations.
The interesting—and complicated—thing about colonialism is that it encompasses not just politics and economics, but consciousness. Critical theorists such as Frantz Fanon and Paulo Freire have pointed this out.
Fanon, a black man born in the French colony of Martinique, became a world-renowned psychoanalyst and philosopher, working in Algeria. He wrote, “For a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity” [The Wretched of the Earth].
Fanon’s study of psychology and sociology led him to the further conclusion that colonized people perpetuate their condition by striving to emulate the culture and ideas of their oppressors. He wrote, “Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land but from our minds as well.”
Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator, is best known for his development of what might be called ‘liberation literacy,’ teaching literacy and political awareness together. Freire agreed with Fanon, “The oppressed want at any cost to resemble the oppressors.” He said, “the oppressed must be their own example.” Unlike Fanon, he argued that oppressors also could (and those who wanted to end colonialism must) change their own thinking: “those who authentically commit themselves to the people must re-examine themselves constantly” [Pedagogy of the Oppressed].
How do we apply these thoughts to the situation of American Indians today? The problems start with the notion that the United States is not a colonial power, or that the colonial era of American history is over. These notions are sometimes stated openly, more often concealed as assumptions behind our rhetoric.
When an Indian speaks about “our country,” what country is being talked about? Is it an Indigenous Nation or the United States? When an Indian refers to “my President,” which president is being discussed, the president of an Indigenous Nation or the president of the U.S.? These kinds of statements need to be examined to determine whether the speaker is asserting something that supports or undermines consciousness of Indigenous sovereignty.
The 1924 Indian Citizenship Act declared, “all non-citizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States…are…citizens.” Reaction among Indians was diverse, some welcoming the chance to more closely assimilate and others wary of the loss of Indigenous sovereignty. Prior citizenship acts had been tied to allotment, for example. Non-Indians were also divided in their views, some saying citizenship would “redeem… the tribes,” and others saying citizenship would empower Indians.
It may be the case that an Indian values U.S. citizenship and seeks an active role in the political system that dominates Indian nations. This approach may have some utilitarian value in struggling for Indian self-determination; but it is an approach fraught with difficulty because it uses language that can trap the speaker and listeners in an illusion of self-determination and cause them to miss opportunities for the real thing.
Patrice Lumumba, the first indigenous leader of the Republic of the Congo, called for mental decolonization in his speech to the 1960 Pan-African Congress, saying we have to “rediscover our most intimate selves and rid ourselves of mental attitudes and complexes and habits that colonization … trapped us in for centuries.” Lumumba thought it possible to work together with the former Belgian oppressors; for their part, they saw him as an enemy and facilitated his assassination.
We might say that collaboration among Indian nations and the U.S. is the best of both worlds. Even here, however, we must be careful. To ‘collaborate,’ in its root meaning, is to ‘work together’; but there is also a different meaning: ‘traitorous cooperation with the enemy.’ Which of these we mean—and which we engage in—depends on whether our minds are decolonized. ‘Working together’ requires all participants to work on themselves, their thinking, assumptions, perspectives, beliefs, and habits of mind. Decolonization is personal and political.
Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968 before becoming a staff attorney for Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services from 1968 to 1970. He taught Legal Studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst from 1970 to 2002 and is currently a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.