Why Teach About Colonization and Decolonization?

by Sarah Yanuck

June, 2019

One day when I was in high school, I stood by the photocopier with my advisor, Jamie. I may have been working as his teacher’s assistant at the time, or maybe I was just hanging around while he prepared for the following day’s classes. As we stood there, I lamented a decision that felt impossible: whether to focus my life on environmental issues or on social justice issues. (I know, big stuff.) Jamie gave me one of his classic, amusing non-answers, presumably trusting that I would soon learn about Environmental Justice. (Why he hadn’t already taught me about it, I don’t know!)

The following summer, I did learn the term environmental justice. I was participating in a summer program where, among other things, we unpacked environmental issues from various angles. I remember one session particularly clearly: it was a role-play debate about a real world project called Cape Wind. We all took on the roles of characters and began to read about the characters’ opinions of the Cape Wind proposal. The project aimed to build 130 offshore wind turbines in Nantucket Sound off the coast of Cape Cod. At face value, from what I understood, wind farms were a good idea.

As we all read about our characters, though, the picture became more complicated. Characters labeled “environmentalists” supported and/or opposed Cape Wind depending on their priorities and perspectives. Some who were focused on mitigating climate change favored the wind farm, while some who were thinking of the local ecosystem opposed it. There were other characters in the mix, too: people who owned summer homes on Martha’s Vineyard, professional fishers, tourists, and more. Among them, there was a perspective that surprised me: the local Indigenous people were against the wind farm. Specifically, those people were the Mashpee Wampanoag and the Aquinnah Wampanoag.

For these Wampanoag tribes, their uninterrupted view of the sun rising over the water in the East is crucial for their spiritual practice. For this and other reasons related to spirituality, culture, and history, the Wampanoag were against Cape Wind.

I don’t remember where we landed in our debate, but I left the activity feeling unsettled. Although I knew almost nothing about the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island (North America, in the worldview of some Indigenous peoples), I somehow knew that they should be honored and heeded. At the time, I didn’t know how to reconcile what seemed like a utilitarian environmental “good” with the objection of the Wampanoag. I couldn’t fully unpack that situation because I didn’t understand the colonial context of our lives here.

The Wampanoag were thriving before Europeans arrived. With European arrival came both unprecedented diseases and intentional European violence. These killed vast numbers of the Wampanoag and traumatized the survivors. Settlers even targeted the survivors’ connection to their own culture, pressuring them to convert to Christianity and to assimilate in other ways. Before this active violence, there was a period of friendship between the settlers and the Wampanoag, but settlers ultimately betrayed what trust was built.

There is, of course, much more to this story and a few more centuries of history since that time. Essentially, settler colonialism has been – and is – genocidal and oppressive for the Native peoples of this land, and many people argue that the United States owes Native Americans whatever we can offer to make this right. Different Indigenous people define reparations in different ways, but each specific definition comes down to the same idea: we who have done harm must do what is necessary to help heal the harm. There are material (land, money, health), relational (community, governance, power, interpersonal relationships), and spiritual (theft of spiritual culture, the trauma of being colonized and the trauma of enacting such violence) wrongs to right. We must right them. At the same time, some of what settlers stole cannot be replaced. In those cases, what do we do?

If I had known this context more deeply at the time of our Cape Wind debate, it would have changed my analysis. I would have understood more clearly that, given centuries of disenfranchisement and genocide against the Wampanoag and other Indigenous peoples, the United States has a responsibility to heed Indigenous peoples’ voices—and to honor the wisdom of their long relationship with this land—in every decision. What reparations can mean beyond that, I am still learning.

Kids—well, all of us—need an understanding of colonization and decolonization in order to understand the world around them. It is remarkable how consistently Indigenous peoples’ history is left out of curricula in both public and independent schools in the United States. This is a grave disservice to our students. It leaves them ignorant about the world they live in and ill-equipped to engage with current events and history. It is also violent; when teachers ignore Indigenous peoples and Indigenous history in our current events and history studies, we teach our students that Indigenous people don’t matter, and Indigenous people bear the real-world consequences.

Other kinds of violence are also embedded within colonialism: what is happening in the United States regarding immigration is a stark example of perpetual imperial colonial dynamics – the artificial borders created by nation states facilitate the violence we see at the U.S.-Mexico border and in xenophobic U.S. agencies and policies. We could go on – an understanding of colonialism gives context to every aspect of our lives: the current climate crisis, anti-Blackness and other forms of racism, misogyny, cissexism, and of course the ongoing genocide, theft of land, and forced assimilation of thriving Indigenous nations.

Clearly, as we teach about colonization and decolonization, we navigate fraught terrain: as with many topics in history, many of these stories are painful. How do we teach truthfully without overwhelming or depressing students?

As we teach the painful stories, we must also focus on the good news. Without the wonderful and healing stories that are also part of Indigenous history here, we leave out part of the truth. The history of colonization that led to the United States includes horrible things, but it also includes the resistance and resilience of Indigenous peoples and of some settlers who have fought with them. The whole truth includes all these stories and more.

In addition to our responsibility to tell the whole truth, if we exclude the good news, we paint a grim and hopeless picture for our students. Building awareness of history is important, but it is not much use if the result is dejected people. Students should emerge from school with a sense of agency. To feel capable of making a change, students need to know that good things happen. Sometimes good things – small, and even large – happen in situations that feel hopeless.

We are living in a moment when Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island are getting the attention of settlers, through mainstream media, in a new way. We are also living in a moment when numerous conversations are emerging in various movements about the need for healing and justice to happen together. It is a fraught time now, with frightening news coming frequently, and it is also a moment of immense possibility. It is my hope that this young generation will have a truer knowledge than I did of the world they live in, so that they can live more justly on this Earth with all people. Having an understanding of the colonial and decolonial dynamics of the place they live is necessary for the fulfillment of that hope.