The current discussion about the future of democracy in the United States is, beneath its surface, also a conversation about the preservation of a settler-colonial project. It is about assuring settler futurity. Colonization is fundamentally achieved through the material theft of land and labor and the elimination and exploitation of people and culture. Educational institutions have played a crucial role in the destruction, fetishization, and marginalization of indigenous culture and in the creation and promotion of worldviews that legitimize colonial violence. This year, the Undergraduate Program at Goddard College have committed to reflect critically and honestly upon its participation in the settler-colonial project that is the United States, and to use its unique experiential, learner-centered pedagogy to facilitate a decolonial approach to education.
Education and Colonial Violence
The Undergraduate Community sits together in the Haybarn Theater and watches and discusses the film “Dawnland.” The film follows a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, formed in Maine to respond to the state’s role in separating Wabanaki families. The cultural genocide of the residential school system has continued through child welfare services. The documentary exposes the ways that the politics of power and whiteness emerge within the commission itself. In the discussion afterwards, it is clear that students’ and faculty members’ responses draw from their own experiences of racialization. Anger, pain, guilt, and discomfort echo in this cavernous barn, this space that was built as part of a gentleman’s farm, a projection of Vermont’s rural idyll onto Abenaki land.
Days later, in a workshop on “extractivism,” Leora Gansworth, an Anishinaabe geographer and poet and Goddard faculty member, identifies the material practices of dispossession, extraction, and contamination that are part of the settler-colonial project. She points out the role that the knowledge systems or epistemologies of colonizer cultures play in making land “legible” to extraction.
The examples above offer some insight into the terrain of colonizer pedagogies and the decolonial work that is necessary to unlearn them. Argentine theorist, Walter Mignolo describes “decoloniality” as:
the exercise of power within the colonial matrix to undermine the mechanism that keeps it in place… Such a mechanism is epistemic and so decolonial liberation implies epistemic disobedience.Mignolo, Walter D., and Catherine E. Walsh. On decoloniality: Concepts, analytics, praxis. Duke University Press, 2018.
Decolonial education is work that needs to be personalized in ways that allow students to engage meaningfully with the legacies that they bear within themselves, the histories and social identities that inform their worldviews. It is the work of understanding the relationship between systems of knowledge, or epistemologies, and the material impacts that these have upon the human and non-human world.
Goddard is in the process of rewriting its undergraduate degree criteria to support students in this work. The new requirements are aligned with Hawaiian scholar Poka Laenui’s five-stage process of decolonization. These five stages: recovery, mourning, dreaming, commitment, and action provide students tools to “take imaginative and responsible action in the world” in ways that are critically conscious of the legacy and perpetuation of colonial conquest.
In the upcoming residency, the duo Brother[hood] Dance, will present their new work Afro/Solo/Man, a multimedia piece that engages the themes of origins, nourishment, heritage, nature, sexuality, and technology in the 21st century as it follows the stories of two Black men as they explore their relationships to ancestry and personal memory. Then, Michelle Cook, a Diné lawyer and activist, and one of the founding members of the Indigenous Women’s Divestment Delegation will present a keynote address “Can Wall Street Decolonize?” She will discuss her experience at Standing Rock and her work to encourage international divestment from extraction industries. Both presentations are free and open to the public.
These presentations illustrate different aspects of Laenui’s five stages of decolonization, applied in radically different modalities of learning and change making. Respectively, they demonstrate the ways that this decolonial shift in pedagogy might impact the constitution of Goddard’s BFA in Socially Engaged Art and BA in Sustainability and Individualized Bachelor of Arts.
But there are real risks when predominantly white institutions adopt the language of “decolonization.” In their essay, “Curriculum, Replacement, and Settler Futurity,” Eve Tuck and Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández write about the character Natty Bumppo, from James Fennimore Cooper’s 1826 novel, The Last of the Mohicans as an example of the way settler cultures erase indigenous practices through appropriation and replacement:
Natty Bumppo is educated in and by nature, and grows to disdain both the Natives who raise him, whom he sees as barbaric and uncivilized, as well as the European settlers, whom he sees as incapable of surviving in harmony with nature.
In Natty Bumppo, the future of the settler is ensured through the absorption of those aspects of Indigenous knowledge that ensure survival, only to justify erasure and subsequent replacement.Tuck, Eve, and Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández. “Curriculum, replacement, and settler futurity.” Journal of Curriculum Theorizing 29, no. 1 (2013).
Tuck and Gaztambide-Ferández warn that white scholars risk a contemporary Bumppo-ism when they use the rhetoric of “decolonization.” They risk the replacement of indigenous scholars and cultural critics. As a historically white institution, Goddard has a responsibility to account for its participation in the settler-colonial project of the United States and to dismantle the colonizing epistemologies embedded in the norms of “higher education.” At the same time it can only engage the work of “decolonizing” with humility, courage, solidarity, and the patience and respect that relationality requires.
There is no easy way for settler culture to take on this work. It is work that is dangerous. If done right, it involves direct opposition to violent machineries of extraction and elimination that continue the work of colonization today. If done wrong, then the very language of decolonization becomes another site of extraction, another piece being stolen. But the risks of avoiding this work are far greater.