POLYLOGUES AT THE INTERSECTION(S) SERIES: (Re)imagining a ‘Good Life’ as a Settler Scholar: How Can We Decolonize and Indigenize European Studies through Indigenous Storywork?

by Markus Hallensleben

Being aware that colonization is still ongoing, with my very own presence as a white, privileged settler on the Indigenous lands of the Coast Salish people[1] perpetuating the problem, I have begun to reframe my own teaching and research in literary and cultural studies by decentering discourses of Eurocentric identity and diversity politics. What might be more fruitful instead of taking decolonialization just as a metaphor (Tuck/Yang 2012) within a solely academic social justice approach (Pluckrose/Lindsay 2020), could be an interactive and relational method of knowledge sharing (Baldy 2015; Christensen et al. 2018; Ladner 2018; Smith/Thorson 2019; Watchman et al. 2019) that aims to create an allyship built on reciprocal, responsible, relevant and respectful relationships with Indigenous peoples, their stories and their lands (Kirkness/Barnhardt 1991). Rather than reiterating Eurocentric notions of artwork, authorship, culture, education, text, literature, media, theatre, society and politics, I am looking at Indigenous “Storywork” (Archibald 2008; Archibald et al. 2019) as a collaborative narrative approach to decolonizing knowledge transfer within European Studies.

What is at stake is a self-determined position that allows for a relational, intersectional, participatory and convivial social performative approach (Adloff/Caillé 2022; GTDF Collective 2021; Yuval-Davis 2011); that leads to an interrelated, synergetic and holistic way of living together (Archibald 2008), beyond any ongoing dominant, hegemonic political discourses of belonging that construct a settler colonial liberal nation state (Ellermann/O’Heran 2021). Instead, it calls for collaboration and allyship among and with wrongly marginalized groups of people (Belcourt/Roberts 2016; Rice et al. 2020; The Kino-nda-niimi Collective 2014); it calls for people like me who have been privileged by a racist, colonial and hegemonic system, to listen to marginalized voices in the first place, to learn from their rich histories, to unlearn and reflect upon my own historical, colonial and educational upbringing, as well as to show accountability and to work with Indigenous peoples against the institutional and governing settings of colonialism and the hegemony of Western knowledge.

I truly believe that the hegemonic (Western) concepts of ownership, of ‘landing’, of immigration, and with them the ways of transferring land and knowledge, have to be questioned at the same time. If I don’t, I become a colonizer embedded within Eurocentrism. Europe, as not only Irish writer Michael O’Loughlin (2017) has stated, nowadays can be considered everywhere. We reinstate this belief with every world map we distribute and that still shows Europe enlarged and in the centre. I do not have to even leave Europe for the oppressive system of settler colonialism begins within and continues outside Europe as ongoing and systemic.

At the end, I came to understand that Europe and its traditions of settlement are intrinsically intertwined with colonialism. If I teach European studies and narratives of migration, I teach colonial studies and narratives of settlement, and I do so by imposing European languages, European literatures, European cultures, European traditions of knowledge transfer on all my students who thus learn to follow a system of European universality, no matter where they come from, how diverse they are, whether they are Indigenous, settlers or immigrants.

The best example here is the rhetoric of academic “fields”, of “investigating”, “interpreting” and “exploring”. We call this system “university” and forget about its settler colonial history and implications, based in Christianity and its tradition of missionizing people worldwide. Although it has become a secularized education system, it is still driven by the same systematic call for obedience; we no longer have to obey God as a father figure, but we obey textbooks, authoritarian knowledge keepers who are still too often male and white. As Hannah Arendt pointed out, we are responsible for the system that governs us as long as we support it (Arendt 2003: 47f.). If my university is now going forward in Indigenizing itself (Office of Indigenous Strategic Initiatives 2020), can it really do so as a settler colonial institution? Can it stop the ongoing genocide (Dupuis-Rossi et al. 2020: 5) and follow Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC Report 2015) Calls to Action of 2008 and the provincial government’s “Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act” (Declaration Act) of 2019?

Indigenizing the university system can be seen as a contradiction in itself (“Higher Education Otherwise” 2021). Or are we truly ready to follow a matriarchal system of equality (Hanson 2009) and balance based on a local knowledge system and its traditions of building relationships with land and people (GTDF Collective 2021; Stein et al. 2021)? While I actively support all these efforts, for the moment I am a bit cautious and believe that decolonizing European studies might be impossible, unless we also change the way our institutions are run and find other ways of sharing knowledge. Indigenizing my institution and my own area of German-language literature studies cannot just be done as another act of implementing more diversity (Office of Indigenous Strategic Initiatives 2020: 11). A much further reaching systemic change is needed to allow for any sort of balance that goes beyond current diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. As Mušanović and Manthripragada (2019) self-critically assert: “Structurally transformative, activist approaches insist on financial divestment from entities that continue to benefit from colonialism. These approaches demand more than symbolic reparation; they demand transformative justice.” (401)

For the same reason, I agree with Pluckrose and Lindsay (2020) on their criticism of decolonial scholarly activism that only continues a postmodern and theoretical point of view, but I disagree with their statement that situated knowledge only favours marginalized identity positions. For instance, Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s (1999) stance against “research” as tool for “European imperialism and colonialism” (qtd. in Pluckrose and Lindsay 2020: 83) they see directed against the advancement of objective academic knowledge (84). However, the supposed gap between lived experience and objective research is not the problem, when one understands that any research itself is also based on narratives that build collective memories (Kovach 2009: 97); hence the collective core narrative of research being measured by “rigor or quality” (Pluckrose and Lindsay 2020: 84) could also be looked at as a form of situated knowledge production. Even objective research, and not just the data collected and utilized, is based on lived experience. The purpose for which one chooses a method and presents the results of a study, becomes more important; to whose benefit research is done is probably the most important ethical question any research has to answer.

According to Chilisa (2012: 245), planning research from a postcolonial Indigenous research perspective entails the following:

  • Why do I do research with the formerly colonized, the oppressed, and the disempowered?
  • Will the research bring about change and transformation?
  • Will the research have a clear stance against the political, academic, and methodological imperialism of its time?
  • Will the research take a stance against Western archival knowledge and its colonizing and Othering ideologies?

What becomes clear in this catalogue of questions is a political agenda against European imperialism, settler colonialism and Western ways of Othering. Taking this into account, how can I then, through my research and teaching, constructively contribute to my university’s “Indigenous Strategic Plan” (ISP 2000)? It has become clear to me that if I do not engage with the local community, including conducting my research to the benefit of the local Indigenous people and their land, I cannot comply with the plan of rebuilding my institution to one that supports their political, economic, social and cultural interests. The very justification of my university’s and my own presence on their territories depends on my engagement with these questions, and only by doing research differently, such as by following their ethical protocols when living and working here, I can advance their communal interests, which in the end will advance our common understanding of living together and with the land.

The four Rs that have been established by Kirkness and Barnhardt as an ethical guideline when engaging with Indigenous people, their stories and their lands, are actually based on seven ethical principles from the Stó:lō and Coast Salish traditions that guide any knowledge sharing: “respect, responsibility, reciprocity, reverence, holism, interrelatedness, and synergy” (Archibald 2008: ix and 2). Jo-ann Archibald Q’um Q’um Xiiem has shared them through her educational research on “Storywork”. They overlap with any ethical procedures that are currently in place when conducting research at my university. But they also go beyond the established framework of Western ethics in that they call for a more complex phenomenological, people and environmentally centred approach, where binary distinctions between human and animal, for instance, abstract and concrete knowledge, theory and practice, source and resource, subject and object, cannot as easily be upheld. Instead, I have to put myself in a holistic relation to what I do research on; in particular, it means to do research with someone or something; to see myself, as researcher, with my lived experience, as part of the research process.

 “Interrelatedness,” as a criterium, is also more than intersectionality and inclusivity. It goes beyond social, racial and gender-based divides in that it assumes balanced relations between everyone and everything. It is an interactive concept where I, as a researcher see myself in relation to and perform a relation to someone or something. It promotes equality, but not just as a political concept, and it is a very complex method of critical diversity literacy (Steyn 2014), even more complex as any diversity politics or any ethical research protocol currently being followed. I cannot just take knowledge and utilize it for my own purpose and for the advancement of my career. Instead, I have to respect the people and their relations behind the knowledge and I have to give back to the community, including the Indigenous local community. When doing research with animals and plants, this aspect has to be as important as when working with humans. The source is never just a resource; I have to honour the synergetic relations that have been built with it. Doing research in such a responsible, reciprocal and reverent way has wide reaching implications. I can no longer just continue the way I normally used to teach, publish, “investigate” and “explore”. I have to go beyond the Western philosophical framework of Enlightenment and Posthumanism. I have to act in a good spirit and with good intentions coming from my heart; I will have to build and establish reciprocal, responsible, relevant and respectful relationships, which is after all a very time consuming and lengthy process. I will have to change my way of reading and producing text by slowing down and by acknowledging all sources that brought a book about, the natural resources included; I can no longer just cut and paste knowledge onto paper, but would have to acknowledge each person (and not just the author as a name that stands for authority) behind each “story” shared, each tree (and the water and so forth) behind each page.

What then would “literature” be? How do we define “text” and “authorship”? I am currently trying to dismantle and disrupt literary theory as an abstract knowledge that follows a settler colonial tradition of interpreting the world as text. My attempt is to go beyond the “Book of Life” metaphor (Blumenberg 1993) that has dominated my own understanding of literature, text and world for the longest time. Instead, I try to understand the “law, which is written on the land” (Ladner 2018: 246), and from which I can come to a relational way of understanding and sharing knowledge. In short, in the beginning it was not the “word” but the earth, the land. What would “scholarship” mean, when looking at teaching and research as activities that build complex, holistic relations to people and land? My bibliography at the end of this article would look completely differently by naming all these relations; no citation system is ready yet to account for such a relational approach. As a matter of fact, I have been trained for my whole scholarly career to work on forgetting about these kinds of relations, to ignore the knowledge that is embedded in such relations and relationship building that account for ecological sustainability, conviviality and communal living together in good spirit. It is time for me to work against settler forgetting as the main tool that generates objectivity and dominance. Last but not least, I can neither own and transfer knowledge, nor land. I can only share knowledge and care for the land; and I have to honour its truthful storytellers, knowledge keepers and caretakers.[2]


Being originally from Germany (after having lived in the US and in Japan), Markus Hallensleben is a permanent resident of Canada and an uninvited visitor to the traditional territory and unceded lands of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwu7mesh (Squamish), and səl̓ilwətaɁɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) First Nations. Through his role as Steering Committee Member of UBC’s Centre for Migration Studies, where he leads the Research Group on Narratives of Migration and Belonging, he is aware of the danger of carrying on with the systemic structures of colonialism. He therefore supports his university’s Indigenous Strategic Plan and works towards Indigenizing and Decolonizing European and Migration Studies.

1] I live in Vancouver and work at UBC, on xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) traditional, ancestral and unceded territory. I thankfully acknowledge their territory and honour them. These lands have always been a place of learning for Musqueam youth, who were instructed in their culture, history, and tradition, and who in turn shared their knowledge with a new generation.

[2] I cordially thank Jo-ann Archibald Q’um Q’um Xiiem for having my students and me personally introduced to her “Storywork” methodology, my research assistant Maria Jose Athie Martinez, as well as Riel Dupuis-Rossi, Charlene Hellson, Norm Leech, Travis Angus Niis Miou for sharing their Indigenous knowledge and their guidance during the decolonization workshops organized by UBC’s Centre for Migration Studies and AMSSA as part of Antje Ellermann’ SSHRC Partnership Development project on “Belonging in Unceded Territories”. I gratefully acknowledge the support of Canada’s SSHRC and UBC’s Centre for Migration Studies, as well as my former Research Assistant Kristina Parzen for her collaborative efforts.


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