[How Do We “Know” the World Series] Looking Back to Walk Forward: Decolonisation as Self-Determination

by Vanessa Bradbury

Aotearoa, the long white cloud. A vast country secluded by ocean; a depth of ecological beauty with rolling hills of green, empowering mountains that cut through soft white clouds; rivers, lakes and oceans that flow with the crisp, clean air; sunsets that radiate the surroundings with a peachy gentleness; long roads and vast land; a silence that fills the void with reflection.

Two years ago, I was extremely fortunate and humbled to find myself located in Aotearoa with strong, inspiring voices, challenging the parameters of knowledge. The ‘Matariki Indigenous Peoples’ Programme’ was host to scholars across the world, whose voices represented the Maori’s of New Zealand, the First Nations and Native Americans of North America, and the Aboriginals of Australia. The Matariki programme was challenging, daunting and exhausting, but it was a safe space built to share stories of intergenerational trauma; honour diversity; and build dialogue to right the wrongs of the past. Most importantly, it was a space led and guided by indigenous peoples.

The Matariki programme was a profound experience for me. One that truly shifted everything I thought I knew, and pushed me to face some uncomfortable truths. What was my role, as a non-indigenous anthropologist, focusing my research upon a perspective that arguably, is not mine to tell? How could I interrogate my positionality sufficiently in line with what I had learned and understood about the effects of colonisation? How could I bring these legacies of learning back home (the U.K.), and can I even conceptualise them accurately? Certainly, it made me hugely aware that any movement towards positive social change relies heavily on the ability to be critical and self-reflexive. And with hope that perhaps, an ‘outside’ perspective is necessary in order to further the debate and raise awareness of the importance of self-determination.

The collective voices at Matariki illuminated that the central and most devastating impact colonialism has had is on their traditional governance systems. The goal of decolonisation and decolonising thought is thus a goal to dismantle colonial frameworks to give way to the right to self-determination. With this in mind, I have felt unnerved on my short but intense journey so far in academic scholarship in Anthropology, and now Development Studies. Reflecting on the Matariki experience since, I have begun to ask myself what we (development actors) really mean by ‘decolonisation’. Engaging with postcolonial and post-development theory has indeed provided the robust foundation to be aware, cautious, and critique hegemonic ideals of Western progress and thought. I have come across fantastic writing that illuminates the value of indigenous knowledge (for example, Fairhead & Leach 1997; Sillitoe 1998), indigenous conceptions of well-being and the ‘good life’ (Gudynas 2011; Sarmiento Barletti 2015; Scott-Villiers 2011), and an array of the importance to decolonise methodologies (Tuhiwai Smith 2012; Langdon 2013; Gaudry & Lorenz 2018). Despite this, ‘decolonisation’ in the taught learning environment seems to be treated as a term with no explicit mention of indigenous peoples, their struggles with ongoing experiences of colonialism, or indeed any assessment of the efforts being taken to ‘decolonise’.

Engaging with Maori tino-rangatiratanga (self-determination) in line with decolonised thought highlighted the imperative need for non-indigenous scholars to enter the ‘uncomfortable’ journey of critical self-reflexivity in order to disrupt the spread of privilege and colonial attitudes in producing knowledge. Self-determination should be a key concept within decolonised thought, in order to highlight the ongoing experiences of colonialism parallel to indigenous peoples’ efforts at reclaiming specific territories, resources and governance (for more, see Barker 2005), as well as signifying and giving space for indigenous peoples to reclaim and construct identity in their own terms.

A quote that will always remain in the forefront of my mind is from one Maori leader who said:

“Sometimes what I’d like to say to Pākehā’s is, the problem with you guys is you never lived in our world… but you forced us to live in yours.”

Let us be clear: colonisation and its impacts are an ongoing and painful reality for indigenous peoples. Colonisation represented, and continues to represent, a deep epistemic, ontological, and cosmological violence (Tuck & Wang 2012) against indigenous peoples. Dividing groups geographically and politically, colonisation tore through livelihoods on cultural, political, economic, legal and physical lines. In alienating indigenous peoples from their land and resources (Wilmer 1993), treaties were negotiated and imposed to distinguish land title in favour of the colonising, now ‘settler’, society. Extermination policies (such as the forced sterilisation of indigenous women in North America, Palmater 2015) were replaced with assimilation policies. Assimilation policies (such as the Residential School system in Canada – sought to ‘kill the Indian in the child’; see King 2012 & Palmater 2015) continued to perpetuate colonial legacies – a ‘weapon of cultural destruction’ (Pidgeon 2016) that attempted to diminish the vast diversity of indigenous livelihoods and identity. Alcohol and drug abuse; sexual, physical, psychological and emotional abuse; educational blocks – fear of failure; suicide; destruction of social support networks, is a reoccurring and common theme throughout indigenous groups across the world. The effort to decolonise in a manner that supports indigenous livelihoods in their terms continues to be weak.

Essentially, post-colonial, post-development, and anthropological literature have indeed offered profound contributions in asking ‘whose knowledge counts’, but we must now seek transformative change by critically redefining who comes to represent these knowledges. With the colonial roots that development studies and disciplines alike have, there is a responsibility, as academic scholars, to rebuild and reconciliate the relationship we have with indigenous peoples. This must be a mutual process (Gaudry & Lorenz 2018). As I understand it, quite often, the issue with non-indigenous advocates for indigenous rights can stem from a place of comfort. It is ‘comfortable’ being the outsider, to choose what affects you and what one (even if sub-conscious) would rather ignore. In my opinion, if we (as non-indigenous) are not feeling uncomfortable during this journey towards decolonisation, the spread of privilege and colonial attitudes and actions will prevail; in a world that will otherwise continue to be, non-optionally, uncomfortable for indigenous peoples.

Vanessa Bradbury is currently at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) undertaking a masters degree. She is passionate about Indigenous Rights and Self-Determination, and is hoping to embark on a PhD in the near future. Vanessa can be reached at vanessabradbury10[at]gmail[dot]com.

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