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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


Maps must be used critically. They potentially function as colonial artifacts and represent a very particular way of seeing the world – a way primarily concerned with ownership, exclusivity, and power relations.

There are a ton of issues when it comes to using maps.  If not attended to, maps may prove more harmful than valuable.

Critical Questions:

  • What are the difficulties when it comes to mapping Indigenous territories?
  • How does the modern idea of a ‘nation-state’ relate to Indigenous nations?
  • Who defines national boundaries, and who defines a nation?
  • What sources are being used, and what biases are in those sources?
  • How have colonial maps attempted to dispossess Indigenous people of their land?
  • What is Indigeneity? Who counts as Indigenous?
  • Are these maps useful, or do they contribute to colonial ways of thinking about Indigenous people?

Conceptualization of space is only one tool that was used to create three basic entities on paper to help shape and redefine the indigenous perspective of space:

  • Line: used to create boundaries, map territories, to survey land, create properties, and to mark the limit of colonial powers.
  • Center: orientation on colonial power, with everything else being in relation to it.
  • Outside: everything outside the limits of power was considered irrelevant or non-existent.

The concept of mapping has had a tremendous impact upon indigenous peoples for centuries. Since it was first developed, the indigenous ways of orienting themselves on their lands were redefined. As soon as lines were drawn on maps by European hands, indigenous place names, which are intricately connected with indigenous history, stories, and teachings, were replaced with English names, erasing indigenous presence from the lands. Traditional homelands were divided and classified into different geographic features, properties and imperial nations states, dividing and separating indigenous families. Languages and cultural teachings were lost as children were forced to attend residential schools and learn western ways of knowing.

Smith, L. (2021) Decolonizing methodologies: research and indigenous peoples. London [England]: Zed Books.
To the colonized, the term 'research' is conflated with European colonialism; the ways in which academic research has been implicated in the throes of imperialism remains a painful memory. This essential volume explores intersections of imperialism and research - specifically, the ways in which imperialism is embedded in disciplines of knowledge and tradition as 'regimes of truth.' Concepts such as 'discovery' and 'claiming' are discussed and an argument is presented that the decolonization of research methods will help to reclaim control over indigenous ways of knowing and being. 

Big Ten Geoportal Land Grab resources:

Correa, M. M. (2020). Mapping landscapes of movements: representing indigenous space signification. Alternative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples, 16(2), 117–128. This article explores the conceptualization of intangible heritage through the placement of traditional practices, by providing a method for cultural heritage inventories on Indigenous territories. Landscapes of movements are the theory that allows the analysis of Indigenous cultures and territories in terms of context, inhabitants, heritage, policies, traditions, symbolism.

Native Land Digital is a Canadian not-for-profit organization and is Indigenous-led. It strives to create and foster conversations about the history of colonialism, Indigenous ways of knowing, and settler-Indigenous relations, through educational resources such as the interactive mapTeacher’s Guide, Territory Acknowledgement Generator, a blog, as well as lists: Territories, Treaties, and Languages. The research project strives to go beyond old ways of talking about Indigenous people and to develop a platform where Indigenous communities can represent themselves and their histories on their own terms. In doing so, Native Land Digital creates spaces where non-Indigenous people can be invited and challenged to learn more about the lands they inhabit, the history of those lands, and how to actively be part of a better future going forward together. What is being mapped is more than just a flat picture. The land itself is sacred, and it is not easy to draw lines that divide it up into chunks that delineate who “owns” different parts of land. In reality, the land is not something to be exploited and “owned”, but something to be honored and treasured. However, because of the complexities of history, the kind of mapping this project undertakes is an important exercise, insofar as it brings an awareness of the real lived history of Indigenous peoples and nations in a long era of colonialism.