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Decolonizing Education: Native Americans

This guide was originally created for the use of instructors and students in the reACT Decolonizing Education Experiential Learning Program funded by the 2022-2023 TLTC Curriculum Grants. Specifically: ARCH460; ARCH478; ARCH601; ARCH678; CHBE473; ENCH648


So, we acknowledge the truth that is often buried: We are on the ancestral lands of the Piscataway People, who are the ancestral stewards of this sacred land.  It is their historical responsibility to advocate for the four-legged, the winged, those that crawl and those that swim. They remind us that clean air and pristine waterways are essential to all life. -- Source: UMD Land Acknowledgement, 2022.

This new UMD Land Acknowledgement was written with members of our Native/Indigenous colleagues and partners, on and off campus.  Our Native/Indigenous Elders have authorized and approved this Land Acknowledgement for UMD.

Environmental education tends to teach about place in terms of data and presumed scientific objectivity. Indigenous perspectives view place itself as the teacher, and our human role in relationship with the land as learners and caretakers.


In 1700, after signing a treaty of friendship and amity with the colonial regime, the Tayac (hereditary chief), along with many Piscataway tribal members left their homelands. Many remained, and others later returned to find their lands usurped.  They faced threats of violence when asserting claims to their homelands but have proven to be resilient. They reframed their lives as tenant farmers/sharecroppers,  and a few became landowners of small farms. Despite ongoing exclusion and erasure from most public discourse, histories, and education, the “People Who Live  Where Water Blends Below the Rapids,” have sustained their identities and are tenacious in restoring their place in their homelands. -- Rico Newman, Elder, Choptico Band of Piscataway Conoy, 2021

The Piscataway-Kanawha (Piscataway) are the “People Who Live Where Waters Blend Below Rapids.” Prior to colonization, the Piscataway developed well-orchestrated lifeways that sustained them for centuries. The traditional economy was based on subsistence practices that provided for the needs of the community,  and traditional technologies sustained local resources and ecosystems. During colonization, Piscataway men transitioned into fur trading, crop production, and hunting to obtain colonial goods, and Piscataway women took on domestic roles in colonist’s homes, when they found their traditional skills unneeded in a Eurocentric market economy. The Piscataway were pressured to use the English language when conducting affairs with the settler-colonial government and its people, which threatened the survivability of the language. -- Rico Newman, Elder, Choptico Band of Piscataway Conoy, 2021

Source: Stoltz, A., et al., (2022) "Tribal Collaborations and Indigenous  Representation in Higher Education Challenges, successes, and suggestions for  attaining the SDGs"  publication forthcoming.


What is the indigenous concept of land? For many Aboriginal cultures, land means more than property– it encompasses culture, relationships, ecosystems, social systems, spirituality, and law. For many, land means the earth, the water, the air, and all that live within these ecosystems.

Our land is more valuable than your money.  It will last forever.  It will not even perish by the flames of fire.  As long as the sun shines and the waters flow, this land will be here to give life to men and animals.  We cannot sell the lives of men and animals; therefore we cannot sell this land.  It was put here for us by the Great Spirit and we cannot sell it because it does not belong to us.  You can count your money and burn it within the nod of a buffalo's head, but only the great Spirit can count the grains of sand and the blades of grass of these plains.  As a present to you, we will give you anything we have that you can take with you, but the land, never.  -- Crowfoot, chief of the Blackfeet, circa 1885

I wish all to know that I do not propose to sell any part of my country, nor will I have whites cutting our timber along the rivers, more especially the bark.  I am particularly fond of the little groves of oak trees.  I love to look at them, because they endure the wintry storm and the summer's heat, and--not unlike ourselves--seem to flourish by them.  -- Sitting Bull, Lakota warrior, quoted in 1932

You ask me to plow the ground.  Shall I take a knife and tear my mother's bosom?  You ask me to cut grass and make hay and sell it and be rich like white men.  But dare I cut off my mother's hair?  -- Anonymous Native America, circa 1880s

Humankind has not the woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it.  Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.  All things are bound together.  All things are connected. -- Chief Seattle, 1854 

Source: Native Americans Describe Traditional Views of Land Ownership


Everything on the earth has a purpose, every disease an herb to cure it, and every person a mission. This is the Indian theory of existence. -- Mourning Dove (Christine Quintasket, Okanogan)

Sustainable decisions on resource uses and economic development are best learned from societies who learn inter-generational leadership skills and where traditional knowledge helps them to adapt to live within the bounds of industrialized societies. These are people who think and live bounded by traditional knowledge learned within their communities but are able to integrate knowledge from their conquerors to adapt to the altered world that they live in today. They have succeeded in a way that can teach the western world some lessons. Their tools are ethically grounded because they have not lost their culture-link to nature. They do not assume that technology or economic assessments will provide us all the answers to resolve the “ills” of today’s societies. The western scientific approach to environmental problems has been to search for solutions after we have already lost something. This situation has played out numerous times throughout the history of the western world.

Native Americans have knowledge and a deep relationship with their natural environments that has developed over many generations. Climate change and massive population growth, which will impact habitat loss and increased use of water resources, will affect Native Americans and indigenous communities more than anyone else because of their cultural and daily link with rivers, lakes and oceans.

Source: Marchand, M. (2014). The River of Life: Sustainable Practices of Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples. ebook.


One way to achieve harmony with nature is to relate our life to the Medicine Wheel. The Wheel is based on the sacred number four. The first four numbers of the universe are embedded in music, astronomy, geography, and metaphysics. They make up the basis for the whole physical universe. For example, there are four elements of geometry: The Point, the Line, the Surface, and the Solid. (Also the 4th dimensions of the observable universe, 1st, 2nd, 3rd dimension and Time.)

These same four numbers are used by particle physicists to define the fundamental forces of the universe: – An attractive or gravitational function:

  • North on the Medicine Wheel. – A radiative or electromagnetic function
  • East on the Medicine Wheel. – A receptive or psychoactive function 
  • South on the Medicine Wheel. – A transmitting or informational function
  • West on the Medicine Wheel.

These four integers indicate unity of the psyche and matter. Today we are in a four-dimensional continuum: three-space dimensions and one time. The four winds described in many Indian legends are the same as the four directions of the Medicine Wheel except the wind indicates movement or something happening. It is related to many spiritual beliefs of the rest of the world. The Medicine Wheel is a powerful metaphor for the totality of life. All aspects of creation and consciousness, inclusive of the mineral, plant, animal, human and spirit realms, are contained within the center and four directions of the Medicine Wheel. They overlap and interweave to form the whole. It is in the center of the Medicine Wheel that we find the void, black hole, sacred zero, the chaos at the course of creation, containing all possibilities. Each of the elements—Earth, Water, Fire, and Air—is guided and molded by the sacred life force energy contained within the void. It is the source of chi, which is the life force energy. Life could not exist without the life-force energy of the void, which is the catalyst for all the powers that are found within the 360 degrees of the Medicine Wheel.

Source: Marchand, M. (2014). The River of Life: Sustainable Practices of Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples. ebook.


The things we do and say today, we do not for ourselves. We do this for the children, grandchildren, and those yet to come.
—Traditional prayer of the Oceti Sacowin (Seven Council Fires)

Seventh-generation thinking says you have enough: Earth already provides everything you need to be happy and healthy, so take care of it well -- Rick Hill, Tuscarora Six Nations 

We give thanks to the Creator for these fruits of the Sea. We ask his blessings on the food that we eat and on all generations that follow us down to the Seventh Generation. May the world we leave them a better one than was left to us. -- Harriet Starleaf Gumbs, Shinnecock

In our way of life, in our government, with every decision we make, we always keep in mind the Seventh Generation to come. It's our job to see that the people coming ahead, the generations still unborn, have a world no worse than ours and hopefully better. When we walk upon Mother Earth we always plant our feet carefully because we know the faces of our future generations are looking up at us from beneath the ground. We never forget them. -- Oren Lyons, Onondaga

The Seventh Generation philosophy is integral to American Indian life. It is based on an ancient Haudenosaunee (Iroquois)* philosophy that the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future. The first recorded concepts of the Seventh Generation Principle date back to the writing of The Great Law of Haudenosaunee Confederacy, although the actual date is undetermined, the range of conjectures place its writing anywhere from 1142 to 1500 AD. The Great Law of Haudenosaunee Confederacy formed the political, ceremonial, and social fabric of the Five Nation Confederacy (later Six). 

It intensifies the bond of community, promotes stability, and provides concrete values with which each person can test his or her everyday actions.  Native American tribes hold dear the concept of seven generations planning, that the impact of decisions should be considered out seven generations into the future, about 150 years. They tended family- and clan-ties by holding the lives, memories, and hopes of all Seven Generations close. Each generation was responsible to teach, learn, and protect the three generations that had come before it, its own, and the next three. In this way, we maintained our communities for millennia.

Lucas, L. (2017). reACT House celebrates the Seven Generations Principle.  Lucas Sustainable Blog.

What is the Seventh Generation Principle?

Arden, H., Wall, S., & Horn, G. (2006). Wisdomkeepers: Meetings with Native American Spiritual Elders (1st Atria books/Beyond Words paperbook, Ser. The earthsong collection). Atria Books/Beyond Words Pub. 

Sass, J. (2013) Scientific Evidence to Support 'Seven Generations' future thinking; our toxic chemical exposures may harm our great-grandchildren Expert Blog. Natural Resource Defence Council.