In recent years, “decolonization” has exploded onto the scene as a keyword of emancipatory social movements around the globe. Various mobilizations have drawn on and further popularized such an analysis, eliciting both celebration and significant backlash. In so doing, these movements have (re)animated and updated the meanings of the 20th century heritage of anticolonial independence movements that overthrew formal European—and, more generally, western—domination. A few examples: In 2016, water protectors from Indigenous nations in the US and beyond converged on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation to block the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through treaty protected lands. At the University of Cape Town in South Africa in March 2015, students in the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement called for the decolonization of education. Their demands began with the removal of a towering statue of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes and went on to create a wider movement aimed at dismantling institutional racism, including the reduction of student fees that hampered educational access for Black South Africans. On August 23, 2023, 59% of Ecuadorians voted “yes” in a referendum to safeguard the Yasuni National Park from oil extraction, lending popular support to the Waorani people’s long-term struggles to secure unthreatened autonomy over their homeland’s cultural and natural resources. The government initially refused to abide by the results of its own referendum but since caved under intense popular pressure from massive street protests.
Scholars in the arts, humanities, and social sciences have reckoned with the claims of these movements by exploring histories of colonization and decolonization. These histories track both the western subjugation of “non-western” peoples and efforts to dismantle the political arrangements implemented thereby. Historians often speak of an “era of decolonization” to mark the formal end(s) of European and US imperialism and with it the creation of the independent postcolonial nation-states as part of a new international order (c1940s-1970s). Recent movements and theoretical work draw more on a profound sense that decolonization has never yet been achieved. More than a closed historical era, this latter position asserts that decolonization is, in ways both obvious and more subtle, an incomplete emancipatory project still to be fought for.
There are multiple meanings and models of decolonization. Yet, at the core of the political urgency of decolonization today is a quite simple idea: that Western expansionism, the transatlantic slave trade, Indigenous dispossession, and the globe-spanning conquest and domination of non-Western land and labor across the Americas, Asia, Africa, and the Pacific has deeply shaped the basic structural hierarchies of wealth, power, and prestige embedded in the basic institutions of the modern world. The startling inequalities of that first phase of planetary globalization dating back to the late 15th century are still with us. These inherited practices created the West and the rest as we know it, included via alliances with the small class of postcolonial elites who oversee the staggering inequalities of most of the world. Together, these institutions determine who gets to live, let alone who gets to live well. In short, the way the world looks right now is difficult (I would suggest even impossible) to comprehend without taking these histories into account, and then examining their present-day manifestations.
One of the vexing problems of analysis here is that the ideas and ideologies that justify those very inequalities and dispiriting forms of subordination distort clear thinking on these questions. Many contemporary observers, especially in the west, view the world with callously ahistorical narrowness that disavows these histories. This disavowal leads to victim-blaming. It has also manifested in the efforts of deeply anxious and misinformed critics to smear the very use of the term “decolonization” as itself a frightening call for genocide and expulsion in reverse.
Why? The answer is that ideas matter—the people seen as worthy interlocuters on the world stage, or who are seen as people at all, are regulated based upon certain political ideas. As with any material systems that shape the functioning of our social and political world, the European empires sustained their projects by making politically created hierarchies seem natural or even theologically sanctified by a “civilizing mission.” Some of the formal institutions of those empires have fallen and been challenged by new geopolitical competitors. Still, racist ideologies that stem from these practices continue to inflect global systems of thought that proclaim western superiority and non-western inhumanity.
Simply put, colonial and neocolonial practices are coercively backed forms of resource plunder and land theft that license deep exploitation, disposability, and inequality around the world. Elites of the wealthy world still disavow their responsibility for the environmental and social ravages of resource extraction, practices which have redounded exclusively to the benefit of the imperial powers and left colonized societies in shambles. All of these practices are justified by a kaleidoscopic array of discourses representing the inferiority of those in most of the world (including those marginalized within the west) who are supposed to passively accede to their subjugation. The wealthiest countries, still mainly in the west, continue to set the terms of trade, war, investment, development, and governance to their own advantage, often hiding behind the banner of international law or pinning far disproportionate blame on postcolonial corruption. I argue that, as of this writing, the most glaring example of the brutal force of ongoing colonial conquest is the US-sponsored Israeli intensification of the siege and indiscriminate bombardment of Gaza civilians—accompanied by the Israeli government (literally) arming far-right settlers to steal land from and repress Palestinian communities in the West Bank.
In academic disciplines based on a canon of thinkers like my own field of political theory, one important (though by no means exhaustive) mode of decolonization has come through calls to fundamentally reconsider the philosophers and political actors we look to as sources of political insight. My recently published book, Remapping Sovereignty: Decolonization and Self-Determination in North American Indigenous Political Thought (University of Chicago Press, 2023) joins other scholars in taking up one small part of this massive task of intellectually confronting these hierarchies that indisputably shape our contemporary world. Specifically, I explore how North American Indigenous anticolonial movements and thinkers debated and reshaped dominant understandings of decolonization and self-determination throughout the 20th century. Across four chapters, I reconstruct and read the social and political thought of six Indigenous political thinkers in North America alongside and in dialogue with one another. Altogether, the book reckons with the political itineraries and writings of Zitkala-Ša (Yankton Dakota), Ella Deloria (Yankton Dakota), Vine Deloria Jr. (Yankton Dakota), George Manuel (Secwépmec), Lee Maracle (Stó:lō), and Howard Adams (Métis). I show how these thinkers constitute an internally varied and contested but deeply considered tradition of thinking about decolonization, one grounded in philosophies from their societies and geared towards the contexts of North American settler-colonial societies but with important political insights that also resonate beyond them.
I consider myself quite lucky to think alongside these writers. The thinkers I dialogue with in my book are stunning figures on their own terms, yet they remain unknown in my discipline of political science, let alone in the broader US and global public. Let us take a quick tour of the brilliance of a few of these thinkers, their talents often expressed under forms of duress that are difficult to imagine across the long Red Power movement of the 20th century. In the 1910s and 20s, an era in which Indigenous peoples in the United States were struggling against further dispossession and their subjugation as “wards of the state,” Indigenous activists were rejecting these oppressive terms and already looking to the politics of self-determination bubbling up among many colonized peoples around the world. Zitkala-Ša (1876-1938), born on the Yankton Sioux reservation, was a polymath, an activist and pamphleteer, fiction writer, classically trained violinist, and opera composer. Her many writings from this era, now published as American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings, offer rich and bitingly critical reflections on the coerced removal of Indigenous children to boarding schools and the authoritarianism of the US reservation system.
In the 1930s and 40s, Indigenous activists in North America struggled to reject further assimilation in and to consolidate their collective land bases as part of a modern form of self-determination. Another Yankton Dakota, Ella Cara Deloria (1889-1971) was an indescribably gifted thinker of this moment. Deloria was an ethnographer, linguist, teacher, and novelist who worked as a peripatetic informant for the famous Columbia anthropologist Frans Boaz. Borrowing some from Boas but powerfully rejecting his confinement of Indigenous peoples to pre-modernity, Deloria catalogued Dakota stories, cultural practices, and political forms for future Dakota generations. In so doing, she criticized elite policymakers in the Bureau of Indian affairs in American society at large who claim(ed) to know the best form of “self–government” for Dakota and Lakota people.
Ella Deloria’s nephew, Vine Deloria Jr. (1933-2005), was a key intellectual and activist driving the modern US Indigenous sovereignty movement of the 1960s. Rejecting the US Congress’ push for the termination of Indian tribes in the United States, Deloria aggressively promoted a politics of self-determination that he linked to the wide terrain of anticolonial independence struggles around the globe. One of the first Indigenous lawyers, he played an important role in establishing the legal reasoning and institutional infrastructure for the struggle for Indigenous self-determination, treaty rights, and sovereignty—both on the domestic and international stage. A singularly biting critic of US colonial culture from politics to film, his prolific writings are powerful and often—to the delight of some readers and to the anguish of others—morbidly funny. Alongside the American Indian Movement and many other Indigenous mobilizations throughout the world, Deloria helped to launch a contemporary era of Indigenous counter-globalization movement against the ascendance of neoliberal capitalism.
Altogether, Remapping Sovereignty interweaves the biography and surrounding political contexts of these movements with close examination of the deep insights into decolonization provided by these thinkers. Mine is not a call for multiculturalism or inclusion for its own sake. Rather, what some have called “epistemic decolonization” is an important first step because most Euro-American thinkers that have traditionally filled political theory syllabi either had very little interesting to say about colonialism or offered apologetics for its extreme violence and subjugation. They just cannot adequately speak to the movements for decolonization with which I started here. As a result, it bears enormous fruit now to turn to those who have thought much more systematically in their own contexts about the vast injustices that the US conquest and dispossession of Indigenous peoples has imprinted on (US, Indigenous, and global) political thought, action, and institutional structures—both how to characterize those injustices and how to respond to them politically.
At the center of these injustices is the fact that countries such as the United States and Canada claim to be based on consensual and democratic forms of self-rule, yet their very existence would be impossible if not for the colonial conquest and coercive dispossession of Indigenous peoples’ lands and resources. As Aziz Rana among others has shown, the United States was and still is a territorial empire whose basic institutions and ideologies have been animated by the dispossession and genocide of Indigenous peoples and chattel slavery and its afterlives for the benefit of an elite (and in some respects even a non-elite) white settler population deemed to carry the torch of republican freedom. Even before the United States turned to overseas empire with its 1899 invasion of the Philippines (the traditional starting date for American empire), the US Republic had already expanded its territorial boundaries through a massive project of demographic engineering that called for wresting lands from Indigenous peoples from coast to coast, which then extended to the Mexican republic, and to proclamations of imperial stewardship over the Caribbean and Latin America. US power “abroad” that supports present-day imperial hierarchies grew from and is inseparable from these foundations. In this respect, the very sovereignty that the United States claims to exert from sea to shining sea is systematically built upon and results from the disavowed conquest of Indigenous peoples. In a deep sense, the US is not a “nation of immigrants.” It is a (settler-)colonial society in which full membership in the form of political and economic citizenship has been utterly reliant on annexing lands and gifting the spoils of colonial and imperial plunder to dominant groups. This has meant the erasure of the land, political self-determination, ecological well-being, and economic livelihood of Indigenous peoples, and the subsequent effort to suppress and repress the very clear historical record of colonial genocide up to the present.
In looking at this history, it becomes clear that sovereignty and the nation-state are products of colonization rather than ways that modern politics overcomes archaic imperial dynamics of conquest and coercive rule. In such a context, a starting point for decolonization must be the capacity to question the unilateral sovereignty of the US to rule over Indigenous peoples. Questions of sovereignty—who has it, on what grounds, and whether sovereignty and the nation-state are desirable political forms at all—are central to the political theories of Indigenous decolonization I trace. Such a politics of “remapping sovereignty” takes on two basic forms. The first of these is what I call remapping the institutions of sovereignty. Namely, tribal sovereignty advocates like Vine Deloria Jr. sought to denaturalize and reject the unilateral sovereignty of the US and Canadian settler states used to deracinate Indigenous peoples. He turned instead to doctrines of Indigenous self-determination, treaty-based nation-to-nation relationships and rejected pervasive notions of inclusion that sought to displace and disavow the realities of colonial conquest by dismembering the collective lands of Indigenous peoples and denying struggles to repatriate such lands. Such a politics is a challenge to the gendered, racialized, and otherwise hierarchical allocation of even nominally democratic and popular forms of sovereignty that rest on these colonial practices and resolutely affirms “the prior and equal status of Indigenous societies to exercise sovereignty over their lands and resources” (12).
A second mode of remapping sovereignty I spell out mounts a different kind of challenge to what I call the “conceptual logics of sovereignty,” which cuts to the heart of “the very idea of sovereignty as a political form” (12). From George Manuel (chapter 3) to Lee Maracle (chapter 4), a range of Indigenous theorists have argued that the idea that political rule can only mean sovereignty and the nation-state is out of step with Indigenous philosophies. Whereas we are accustomed to anticolonial liberation movements assuming the reigns of sovereign nation-states, these thinkers challenge us to decouple the idea of self-determination from sovereignty entirely in order to forge new, deeply ecologically resonant, models of political community. What does this mean? In short, figures like Manuel drew on his own community’s experience to argue that Indigenous peoples envision their own self-determination through a relationship of caretaking towards their territories. If sovereignty in its traditional form demands the exercise of theoretically unlimited collective will over territory, the former notion of self-determination “is a project of fashioning individual and collective ‘selves’ so as to manifest a respectful and mutually sustaining relationship to the other-than-human earth” (18). This politics, which I also refer to as “earthmaking” (15-19), means that decolonization rests on efforts to “sustain and rebuild Indigenous self-determination” in ways that challenge sovereignty as an intrinsically colonial and ecologically unjust form of political rule. Here, Indigenous movements refuse and negate sovereign-state supremacy in affirming struggles for care-based, reciprocal, and deeply interdependent human relations with the earth itself. Decolonization, in other words, becomes a struggle to protect the earth—including human beings.
Decolonization and the Climate Crisis
The disparate, extreme effects of human-made climate change have clearly heightened the stakes of such an analysis. The excessive sovereignty of the west has set the earth on a path to rapid extinction. Climate change is a problem for everyone, to be sure. But inherited hierarchies of power and influence stemming from the ongoing occupation of Indigenous peoples’ lands means that we are not all in the same boat, according to Potawatomi scholar and environmental justice activist Kyle Powys Whyte. For example, international relations scholars have shown how the severity of impacts from extreme weather events are entrenched by the highly uneven ways that countries have been inserted into the global political economy through colonialism, from (lack of) health and material infrastructure to funding to adapt to climate change. In this respect, (formerly) colonized populations both in the global south and in the global north who have already been subject to centuries of militarized invasion, resource extraction, and environmental destruction are left in what Mia Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados, has described as “double jeopardy.” In other words, having already faced their ancestors’ dystopia of colonization and its afterlives, they are now left ill-equipped to address the extreme climate-induced weather events that are the long-term result of the global reach of colonial-capitalism that they first experienced. And for which they bear next-to-no historical responsibility. While the first apocalypse of colonization never really ended for this global majority, the second apocalypse of the climate catastrophe is already here. Only for those with significant power and resources who did not experience—and even benefited from—this first apocalypse does the climate emergency appear as a sharply novel problem.
By tracing the deep history of Indigenous anticolonial thought across thinkers and communities, Remapping Sovereignty seeks to recover some of the crucial political visions of Indigenous decolonization as indispensable to understanding how we got to where we are today. These visions for anticolonial futures have already inspired mass movements demanding just and ethical political responses to address the urgency of climate colonialism. The Indigenous revolutionary activist collective The Red Nation puts this imperative before us in the starkest—yet painfully appropriate—terms. Ultimately, they write, “The choice that confronts us: decolonization or extinction.”
David Myer Temin is Assistant Professor of Political Science and faculty in Native American Studies at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and is the author of Remapping Sovereignty: Decolonization and Self-Determination in North American Indigenous Political Thought (University of Chicago Press, 2023).