If you’ve never heard the term “decolonize” but stumble across it on social media, where it pops up via hashtag or meme, the word can raise more questions than answers.
At first glance, the call to decolonize sounds like a challenge to change your way of thinking, but how isn’t necessarily made clear. The word’s origins come from a period in the 20th century when former colonies gained independence from the countries that once dominated them (think Algeria from France, or South Africa from Britain). By the 1990s, however, the term took on new meaning when academics and activists used it to describe the process of rejecting and reversing the social, economic, and psychological effects of colonization, which systemically deprived Indigenous people, in particular, of their land, resources, relationships, traditions, and culture.
For those who use the term, decolonizing is to recognize the ways colonial power still operates today; to advocate for, among other things, the return of land to Indigenous people; and to examine the ways in which colonialism, which emphasizes individuality and the exploitation of labor and resources, has shaped not just our political and economic systems, but also our way of being in the world.
It’s difficult to pack this much context into a single meme or hashtag, but creators certainly try.
TikTok viewers have watched videos with the #decolonization hashtag more than 14 million times. The themes are wide-ranging, but the most popular clips include brief explainers on how white supremacy influences nutrition and diet culture and how the Romance languages of colonizers introduced homophobia to African cultures.
Still, these brushes with the idea of decolonization are no substitute for understanding the history of colonization and its contemporary effects in the U.S. and around the world. The ideas that animate colonialism, like racial superiority and exploiting natural resources to amass vast personal or institutional wealth, are still very much alive today and affect Indigenous people’s fight for autonomy and equality.
“Macro and micro” decolonization
Jimmy Lee Beason II, a member of the Osage Nation and professor in the Indigenous & American Indian Studies department at Haskell Indian Nations University, in Lawrence, Kansas, uses his Instagram posts about decolonization as a tool for “information awareness,” in order to draw attention to the concept. He conceives of most posts as a way to invite other Native people to look at things through the lens of decolonization and provide reassurance that they’re right to challenge things like the Pledge of Allegiance and nationalism, which in turn can give them the confidence to pursue their original teachings and traditional values for themselves and within their communities. Memes and hashtags, in other words, are the starting point, not the conclusion.
Beason, who was careful to note that his observations are based on his own personal experiences as well as academic research, and that he doesn’t speak for all Native American people, believes that decolonization happens on a macro and micro level. He says the ascent of colonialism began in the 1400s, when Christian European nations like Spain and Britain began “expanding their empires, looking for gold, glory, and God.” Explorers typically viewed Indigenous people across the globe as “uncivilized” and “unable to appreciate the so-called wealth you could generate from extracting resources from the land,” says Beason. Those views ultimately informed policies in America (and elsewhere) that systematically deprived Indigenous people of everything they held dear: land, family, tradition, culture, and beliefs. In the U.S., for example, the Indian Removal Act of 1830, gave the U.S. authority to forcibly displace tribes so that white settlers could take their land.
One study recently published in Science estimated that Native Americans lost nearly 99 percent of the land they historically occupied. More than 40 percent of tribes represented in historical records have no land at all today, according to the research. The authors found that tribes were forced to inhabit land with less valuable natural resources, and that the terrain is also more likely to be vulnerable to climate change today. Importantly, that land often had little to no connection to past traditions and spiritual practices.
“Not only was the U.S. government using the military to invade our territories and colonize them, they were trying to colonize our minds…”
“It’s not correct to talk about ‘historical’ colonialism,” Kyle Whyte, the study’s co-author and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, told Science Magazine. “Colonialism and land dispossession are present factors that increase vulnerability and create economic challenges for tribes.”
Other forms of colonization are just as devastating. When the U.S. government created boarding schools to separate Native American youth from their families and tribes and sent missionaries to convert Native Americans of all ages to Christianity, it frequently led to the prohibition of tribal languages, ceremonies, and traditions. Beason describes boarding schools as places where children would have their “cultural identity erased.”
“Not only was the U.S. government using the military to invade our territories and colonize them, they were trying to colonize our minds…” he says.
In this sense, Beason says, the micro effects of colonization happen at the individual level when Native Americans lose their sense of self as it’s rooted in generations of tradition and knowledge. For Beason, decolonization amounts to reversing the process by which Native Americans were stripped of what belonged to them, while restoring, as possible, their land, livelihood, and culture.
What does decolonization mean in practice?
While anyone can practice decolonization, it may look different for Indigenous people who’ve experienced the firsthand effects of colonization. Beason says that decolonization is a very personal act for Native Americans. It can mean relearning languages and customs, getting reacquainted with relatives, and becoming reconnected with value systems that existed prior to colonization. He notes that rejecting individualism while embracing that you’re “equal parts in a greater scheme that’s kind of beyond us” is key to this process. For tribes that have lost their language and ceremonies, it can mean adopting practices “gifted” to them by other tribes, which importantly strengthens the bonds of greater kinship. Beason warns that it’s not going to look exactly the same for every individual or tribe, because they’ve experienced varying levels of colonization over the centuries.
In terms of policy, Beason says decolonization focuses on issues like restoring land to tribes, fighting police brutality, and resisting the construction of energy pipelines. Beason says non-Native people who own deeds to land that once belonged to tribes can give it back to those communities. Those who don’t possess such titles can instead be vocal about restoring land rights by contacting their elected officials, signing petitions, and financially supporting those campaigns. If that sounds far-fetched, there is in fact a movement to close Mount Rushmore and return it to the Lakota people as well as to give stewardship of the country’s national parks to the tribes that historically inhabited that land.
Understanding decolonization can also shift allies’ thinking about what justice should look like. For every parcel of land that acknowledges its previous Native American inhabitants with plaques or exhibits, like the kind you might see at a suburban nature center, it’s worth asking whether the ancestral stewards of those spaces are still fighting for access to their home rather than assuming they’ve vanished — and consider what you can do to aid them. Beason says that should start with asking what they need. Resources might include personal connections to help draw attention to the issue and material support like computers and community organizing spaces.
Sarah Rose Harper, a descendent of Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and online community manager of the nonprofit Lakota People’s Law Project, recommends this toolkit for people who want to become Indigenous allies. She urgently wants them to understand that colonization is ongoing.
As one compelling example, Harper offers the intersecting crises of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People and the “man camps” that spring up around oil and gas projects on or adjacent to tribal lands. Research and reporting have linked those camps, which house itinerant, mostly male workers, to violence against Native American women, girls, people, and Two-Spirit. (The latter is a term used by some Indigenous people to describe another gender role that is neither male or female.) Despite the high stakes, only the federal government, not tribal or state authorities, can prosecute crimes committed by non-Native Americans against tribal members. The government has historically failed to prosecute such cases, including those of sexual violence. The fight for clean water also connects to these ongoing crises since energy pipelines are known to contaminate drinking water.
Though social media often presents decolonization as a catchphrase for a different way of thinking, Harper says people should consider it as a verb. (Like Beason, she framed her remarks as representative of only her own views, not of other “Nations, Tribal Communities, or Native Peoples.”) Instead of just liking decolonization memes on Instagram, Harper says people should become curious about the idea, put any defensiveness aside, develop a general understanding of what the concept means, and act in ways that support Native Peoples’ efforts to secure their rights.
“If you are passively decolonizing…you are doing nothing to disrupt a power system that keeps people oppressed and disenfranchised,” says Harper.