Embracing Change through the Lens of Decolonization

I watch a scruffy young white man in front of the neighbouring liquor store dancing and waving his hands. “Yeah it is the apocalypse!” he cries. This term, whose literal meaning is unveiling or revelation, is understood by many as a term from the Christian scriptures and is connected to the idea of mass destruction and the end of the world.

“Not Our Apocalypse” is the title renowned Maori scholar and educator Linda Smith gave to her April 7th, webinar session on Accessing Deep Indigenous Knowing Amidst Covid 19, a series offered by the New Zealand based K.I.N. Knowledge in Indigenous Networks. While some Indigenous people feel uncomfortable with the Christian term, Anishinaabe religion scholar Larry Gross, whom I refer to in my book Unsettling Spirit: A Journey into Decolonization, has called the ongoing destructive impacts of colonialism the Post-Apocalyptic Stress Syndrome. Indigenous peoples have already experienced their end time. Colonialism forced them off their lands, and killed most of their populations through wars, disease and starvation. Settler colonial governments systematically planned the eradication of Indigenous cultures, education systems, economies, food systems, modes of governance, language, and ceremonies through vehicles like residential schools and legislation like the Indian Act. Despite this, Indigenous peoples and cultures have survived. Not only that but the present movement of Indigenous resurgence points to ways of being that may allow humans the possibility of righting the tremendous imbalances that COVID – 19 has laid bare for even the most hardened hearts to see.

Colonialism had been an integral component of the capitalist project. With the COVID – 19 pandemic the utter bankruptcy of capitalism is evident. Systemic inequalities have left majority populations most vulnerable while the privileged safely isolate in their multi bedroom, bathroom homes. This is just one more example of a system that has benefited the wealthy through exploiting the disposable bodies of Black, brown and Indigenous peoples globally, and through profiting from extractive economies that have devastated lands and waters. Yet capitalism is not equipped to deal with this crisis, its only strategy in trying to save lives is to stall the machinery of capitalism with inadequate and privatized health care systems while propping up neo-liberal structures with temporary subsidies that benefit corporations more than the poor and working class.

However, there is an opening now, a space created by this pandemic. As my daughter-in-law said recently, maybe we are in the midst of a miracle and we don’t know it. While that may be true for settlers, Indigenous peoples are already on another path, with many accessing the deep knowledge and resources that have enabled their survival over and through the years of colonialism. It is so easy for the mainstream press to repeat the same victim narrative about Indigenous communities as poor, unhealthy and vulnerable to the pandemic. It is true that many lack potable water to wash hands and adequate housing for distancing, and there are many people with health challenges that are the result of the systemic inequities of ongoing colonialism. However many communities are coming together in strong ways and demonstrate resilience, preparedness, and creativity while drawing on their local knowledge systems. They are practicing ways of being that reflect what is called an ethic of care. Dara Kelly, of the Leq’á:mel First Nation, of the Stó:lō Coast Salish peoples, and a Professor in the Saunders School of Business at SFU, speaks of an Economy of Affection, referring to an economy that is based on a Coast Salish definition of wealth, reciprocity, and valuing the collective good over individual good. She refers to the teaching of the late Coast Salish Chief Robert Malloway– “feed the people and you will never go hungry.”[i] Indigenous peoples have alternative economic models to draw on in these perilous times.

Capitalism has thrived on a culture of individualism, the belief that it is possible to control life and maintaining autonomy as a highest value. Never has this framework been more challenged with the pandemic. Despite this there are mutual aid networks springing up everywhere and every night we hear people banging pots, playing music, honking horns, to honour the health care workers, the retail workers, the janitors and the cleaners, delivery people, all among the most poorly paid and the most exploited in this system, and on whom our lives so clearly depend. At the same time, I watch as the human death statistics rise and I wonder why the death of millions of species in recent years across the globe never received the same attention. This anthropocentric way of viewing the world had been one of the core elements of the problem. Death and birth are part of life and we have chosen not to save or honour in the same way the death of plants, trees, fish, birds, and crawling ones in our world as we focus on human survival at the expense of the planet.

For many of us a decolonizing lens is urgently needed now. My own journey, which I recount in my book, has been about discovering the deeper meaning of the term relations and relationships. It is one thing to intellectually grasp that all beings, human and more – than – human, are kin or relatives. It is another to experience this in an embodied way and to live out the values implicit in the statement that the salmon is my relative or the cedar tree. How can we live in a reciprocal relationship with these beings? And how can a relationship framework- which means we act as if all beings are relatives – change what we value and the choices we make. How can we ensure elders and children are always protected and cherished? That retail workers, health care workers, janitors and cleaners are our relatives whose work needs to be honoured and respected? Interconnectedness of all beings is a fundamental principle in Indigenous cosmologies. My Zen teacher reminded us recently that mindfulness is about relationships and when we wash our hands mindfully we are washing them for all beings. As well, impermanence and change is part of life grounded in relationships. Indigenous peoples have always had a long view of change, often called the seven generation perspective, and relationships with ancestors and those who are to come impact decisions made.

We need an alternative socio-economic and spiritual vision that moves beyond the present economic framework of capitalism and neo-colonialism. As Linda Smith has said, capitalism is resilient, but this is an opportunity for many to learn from Indigenous ways of knowing and the futures many Indigenous artists and prophets are calling forth. How can we deepen the social networks that are emerging? How can we, as humans, step aside from our illusion of being the center of the universe, and develop an ethics of accountability to future and past generations?

Indigenous peoples traditionally made all social, economic, and political transactions within ceremony. Treaties were based in ceremony because the obligations and responsibilities enacted are sacred. The spiritual was never left out because all beings are interconnected and sacred. For settlers this means looking seriously at decolonization, not as an intellectual project but as a way of revaluing and relearning in an embodied way our inner landscapes, our relationships to community, land, waters, economies of reciprocity, and to follow and respect the legal orders of the hosts in whose territories in which we live. As we face this global pandemic and contemplate next steps, we can no longer leave the spirit dimension aside.

1 Dara Kelly, “Feed the people and you will never go hungry: Illuminating Coast Salish economy of affection,” PHd. University of Auckland School of Commerce, 2018

Originally published as a guest blog for McGill-Queen’s University Press, publishers and sellers of Unsettling Spirit.

One thought on “Embracing Change through the Lens of Decolonization

  1. Wonderful! Thanks so much for the culmination of your broad based learning to put this message into a context today that honours the reason for life. We are not a perfect species, but due to our differences we are able to learn the principles of living a good life.

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