I (Michael Ralph) wrote this article for another publication, but through circumstances amid the COVID-19 pandemic it did not publish. I share it here in order to make it available as part of our discussion in episode 056 on Indigenous erasure.
Educators are seeing increased urgency around efforts to promote an anti-racist perspective within K-12 education and within teacher preparation programs in the United States. As a white man in education, I have come to understand that I have a role to play in dismantling overlapping oppressive systems, including systems that have benefited me personally to the detriment of my female and BIPOC colleagues. Part of this dismantling involves and necessitates decolonizing education, a process that begins not with immediate action, but with listening and reflecting.
Decolonization is distinct from deconstructing mechanisms of anti-Black racism or misogyny, even while it overlaps and shares goals with those efforts. Broadly speaking, decolonization is the process of acknowledging that Indigenous people live on land that the United States government forced them to be on, and endeavoring to give them a more equitable share of resources and access to infrastructure within the paradigm of a colonizing nation. The pursuit of decolonization is to listen to what Indigenous people want for their nations and help them pursue it, even when it inevitably conflicts with what the United States might want.
Take, for example, the ongoing controversy of the Thirty Meter Telescope, a proposed Extremely Large Telescope that planners would like to locate on Mauna Kea, a mountain sacred to Native Hawaiians. Indigenous activists in Hawaii are adamantly advocating for the preservation of those lands. While there are scientific reasons to place the TMT on Mauna Kea, doing so would harm an Indigenous community. To proceed with plans to place the TMT on Mauna Kea without the consent of Native Hawaiians is colonialism.
It is a seductive myth that colonization was a historical event that has ended in our “modern” world, and it persists in education. “Decolonizing education” is an effort to counteract inequities created by colonization, with particular attention to who has had their voice silenced and power suppressed, by deconstructing the mechanisms in education that are about assimilation and finding ways to make space for other ways of knowing. For example, most Americans don’t learn during their primary and secondary education that Mount Rushmore is situated on sacred Sioux land. In working to decolonize my own ways of thinking and being, I have incorporated land acknowledgements into how I communicate in education.
It can be easy to imagine “decolonize education” as a metaphor, but it is literal. My land acknowledgement is a statement explicitly defining the real and ongoing colonization of the land upon which I live and work. I speak the words to make space for the reality that Indigenous nations affect our world today, and are affected by occupation today. Native Americans are creating art today. They are doing science today. They advocate for causes that affect us all today. They lead both their nations and the United States, including serving as the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.
The goal of my acknowledgement is to combat erasure of the stories and lived experiences of Indigenous nations. Making space to discuss colonization, even briefly, is my effort to normalize discussion of Native voices who have historically been silenced. It is also part of my commitment to continue to listen and learn from Native voices so I can reconsider how my choices affect others. It is my commitment to learn so I can advocate with my time, my voice, my money, and my vote.
I currently live on the ancestral lands of the Kanza, Kickapoo, and Osage. The Kanza, or the Kaw Nation, have a headquarters in Kaw City. The history of these nations continues to be written today, and their leaders are working for change right now. One example is Chair of Kaw Nation Lynn Williams. She served in the U.S. Public Health Service for 25 years before retiring and returning to be elected Chair, where she now advocates for the return of the Shunganunga boulder to a sacred Kanza site and participates in conversations about how to respectfully reference the Kanza region in event names and descriptions.
With each opportunity to acknowledge the land upon which I am presenting, I have an opportunity to learn more about the Indigenous nations to whom the land belongs (I learned about the work of Chairwoman Williams while writing this article). Combating erasure of Indigenous stories is a commitment, and my goal is to never let the acknowledgement become simply another copied and pasted checkbox in my writing or presenting routine. I am deliberate in refusing to trivialize it, and it took me time and reflection before I was ready to begin making the acknowledgement. The first step was listening and learning, rather than immediately starting to talk (and doing more harm in my ignorance).
My best learning has come from following the voices of experts on the subject who have invested years in their own learning. Dr. Megan Bang showed me how personal land acknowledgement is for Indigenous people by modeling the process in a talk I attended. I learned about the land upon which I live today from Native Land, an excellent tool for visualizing Indigenous lands. Dr. Earl Aguilera helped me integrate acknowledgements into a broader philosophy of humanization. Dr. Michael Dominguez showed me how to approach teaching praxis and teacher preparation from a position of decolonization. shea martin modeled the importance of continuing to learn Indigenous stories through their land acknowledgements.
Decolonization is an essential component of my journey toward justice in education. It interweaves with anti-racist work, gender inclusion, and LGBTQ+ advocacy. If you are early in your journey toward decolonization, you can learn more about land acknowledgements from endawnis Spears from the Akomawt Educational Initiative and her interview with the Federation of State Humanities Councils. Consider acknowledging the lands as the first step in a lifelong path that will include supporting Indigenous work, uplifting Indigenous art, honoring Indigenous ways of knowing, and advancing Indigenous calls for their justice and liberation.
I work and live on the ancestral lands of the Kansa, Kickapoo, and Osage. These peoples continue to work and live here in the midwest. Today I learned Kansas, the state in which I have lived and taught my entire life, makes no mention of Indigenous nations anywhere in its civics standards. I am reflecting on my role as an educator on these lands, what part I have played in Indigenous erasure in my classroom, and what I can do to disrupt erasure moving forward.