Expanding the Imperative to Include the Asterisk

ACPA18 Convention Planning team asked ACPA member Melvin Monette, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians tribal member and President of Indigenous Education, Inc., to revisit his thoughts after writing a blog post for the ACPA17 Convention (check it out here if you’re interested) about the need to include Decolonization in our work with the Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice & Decolonization.

“Racial Justice” and “Decolonization” are used together, not interchangeably, very deliberately as we prepare to gather in Houston. The move to include decolonization in the imperative was a deliberate decision– a decision that followed a difficult and cleansing conversation between two individuals working to understand one another.  It was that dialogue that changed my heart.  My heart. I can only speak for myself, as I stated here last year.  While my words and sometimes my actions were always deliberate in bringing all the oppressed groups into campus dialogues, admittedly, my heart was never along for the ride. It always pains me to have to be “that guy” or “the Indian” in the room who reminds the group about Native colonization.

It’s not the same as racial injustice. Many of us share physical features that might make us self identify or be perceived as a race. Many of us are stopped or arrested at higher rates than our white counterparts (learn more here). But many know the story of how our lands were stolen and our ancestors removed to remote geographies for economic growth of the colonists. Our families reside on reservations where the land on which their homes stand cannot be used as collateral and therefore wealth cannot be built. Homes must be government issued or financed forcing dependency on residents. For decades, business and industry could not grow unless it was federally contracted.  My parents owned a very successful house moving business. My mother wanted to build a garage onto her house – and pay for it herself – and could not because the federal office of Housing and Urban Development didn’t think it was a good idea.   A garage would have been nice for my father as he left home in subzero temperatures at 5 AM. This has changed some.  HUD is better, tribes have their own lawyers and advocate and interpret federal contracts better than in the past.  But that’s colonization.

It’s not the same as racial injustice.  Boarding schools were implemented to “Kill the Indian and save the man.”  White colonizers imposed gender roles on tribal people. Colonizers imposed a method of education that was not only punitive but also dismantled the family and clanship structure in the children who were removed. When the children returned home, the lessons they learned were not welcomed but the abuse they suffered at school taught them that their community was wrong.  White colonizers imposed a fear of tribal ways into generations of families causing discord that could not be repaired. In my own family, both parents are products of boarding schools and were both abused for “talking like an Indian” several times.  As such, growing up, we were not abused but there was an expectation we use proper grammar and enunciation and a deliberate denouncing of any colloquialisms and local dialect.  It wasn’t until later in life that I realized the power of socialization – colonization.  An entire group of people set out to be assimilated was turning on one another while struggling with retention of traditional ways.  That’s colonization.

Decolonizing an education system was an act of Congress when tribes were granted the right to open and maintain Tribal Colleges and Universities. These institutions have many goals but one very important goal is allow community to learn from one another. Something as seemingly simple as basketry, in my tribe, introduces Anishinaabe spirituality to the conception of the idea of a basket, the location of the proper willow(s), the harvesting and thanking the earth (our Mother) for the gift of a basket not yet created, the technical aspects of preparing the willow(s) and the appropriate conversations and thoughts during the weaving of the basket and the eventual giving and using of the basket. In this one possible course, are the application of several sciences (biology, physics, ecology, geology, climatology), math, language arts, creative expression, spirituality/religion, sociology, psychology and the western idea of writing. The indigenous people of the Americas had an education system. It was strong and it was vibrant. It just wasn’t the colonizers idea of education; new methods of teaching and learning were forced on us. That’s colonization.

As we prepare to gather in Houston, I encourage you to attend the sessions being offered by our Native community members. Share in our excitement as our students, although small in number, persist for their community. Learn about Nation Building. Learn about communal thought and decision making while we work to indigenize the academy.  Hear how Native student affairs professionals are taking imposed colonization and pushing against it while attending or working in both Native and non-Native institutions. Learn why organizations like mine are integral to our student’s persistence.

Decolonizing isn’t ours alone – DACA students, immigrants and refugees aren’t victims of racism alone. They, like Native communities, have a unique political relationship that further needs to be discussed, explored and understood. This is why I initially opposed the Racial Justice Imperative as a stand-alone process in ACPA. I did not want to lose the imperative but wanted colonized voices to be fully included. Several colonized members felt the same way. While ACPA has come a long way, there is work still in fully recognizing and including Native voices, experiences, and ideas.  As an organization we aren’t fully there.  As new young professionals enter the field, it is our work to inform them about these things that are seemingly not being introduced (or at least are too minimally introduced) in course work. Until Racial Justice and Decolonization is woven into the thread of curricula we will continue to talk among colleagues and peers. It is my hope that the influence of ACPA and the membership will positively impact theory and practice for all people and communities.

Find me. Find Native, Aboriginal, and Indigenous Network (NAIN) members. Find those impacted by colonization.  Find us to engage in dialogue with us. Native peoples might sometimes appear angry or upset but it’s not at you specifically. It’s the system. We are exhausted being the only voice and the smallest voice and being told our numbers are too small to matter.  But we are hopeful being recognized in recent years within ACPA.  We are hopeful being included in the dismantling of colonized governance structures that didn’t realize it left out groups of people.  We are hopeful in the transition of leadership, as we prepare for ACPA18, that the many strides already taken are continued and built upon will continue for our ACPA community.

Melvin E Monette is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and has dedicated his career to seeking for and providing scholarship opportunities for American Indian and Alaska Native students in higher education.  He lives in Albuquerque, N.M. with his husband John and John’s mother. They enjoy spending time with the four grandsons who recently moved in across the street.

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