Publication Date

March 19, 2018


Indigenous, Slavery

Editor’s Note: The National History Center retired this resource collection in 2021. This article remains as a record but there are broken links.

In a Native American history class, during our second in-class discussion of the semester, I mentioned the term “decolonization” while deliberating over that week’s readings about ancient Cahokian and Caddoan civilizations. My professor stopped me mid-sentence: “Is everyone familiar with this concept? Decolonization?” My classmates remained silent, and my professor turned back to me. “Please, elaborate.” 

Antiracist theorist and anticolonial revolutionary Frantz Fanon speaks to a crowd at the All-African Peoples’ Conference at Accra in 1958. Image courtesy of the London Review of Books

I was surprised to find myself in a situation where I had to explain decolonization in an academic setting. Last September, I was hired at the National History Center to help create a new decolonization resource collection for educators and students who strive to incorporate this field of history into the classroom. This project, an outgrowth of the center’s decade-long International Decolonization Seminar, is part of an ongoing effort to assist in engaging the broader historical community with the study of decolonization. So, having spent the previous six months reviewing hundreds of sources related to the field, I knew something about how relevant decolonization is to North American histories.

In academia, decolonization is a term usually used to refer to the process by which European empires collapsed in the decades following World War II. But the term extends well beyond the mid-20th century, for where there is colonialism, there is, inevitably, indigenous-settler conflict. Scholars, particularly indigenous scholars and activists, have expanded the scope of study to settler colonial states such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and others. Because the history of Native America so deeply informs the present and future of indigenous peoples, a part of me expected fellow students of Native American history to at least be familiar with the term itself.

It was difficult to come up with an articulate answer on the spot. I used the Mau Mau Rebellion, the Indian Independence Movement, the Pueblo Revolt, and the Suez Crisis as a few examples of decolonization in action. These movements, as well as other anticolonial military and political struggles, have earned their rightful place in history textbooks as the tensions that eventually forced the fibers of empires to snap. But like any field, I added, decolonization isn’t just a collection of ticks on a timeline; while these conflicts may seem like vestiges of the past, the war to control the history of the world and the bodies and minds of its peoples persists in the literature we read and the language we write. I emphasized that decolonization is a process that transcends political, physical, or social realms—it extends to ridding the assumedly postcolonial mind of colonial influence.

A speaker addresses a crowd before voting commences for the 1956 territorial referendum in British Togoland (Ghana). Image courtesy of the United Nations

The study of decolonization remains marginal in the general American history curriculum. This doesn’t—and shouldn’t—come as a surprise; the historical archive has been carefully written in favor of the colonizer. After all, the purpose of colonization, in many cases, is to reform the “uncivilized,” and language and history are no exception to this endeavor. As a result, we’ve adopted a mindset inclined to justify the colonizer’s side of the conflict. When we do approach these conflicts with a critical eye, we still make excuses that there are no veritable sources available from the perspective of the colonized.

This internalization of historiographical bias is what makes the study of decolonization such a unique—and tenacious—field of history. Indeed, a core tenet of the field is to bring justice to the colonized, those long silenced by the archive. It aims to challenge existing narratives surrounding anticolonial struggles in history, such as the Algerian War, the Bandung Conference, the Portuguese Empire’s Carnation Revolution, and more. But when the historical narrative is tailored to protect the enduring legacy and legitimacy of the colonizer, the task of bringing justice to the archive is far more challenging than simply incorporating new sources or supplying nuance. Resisting the colonizer means renaming the Indian Mutiny as India’s First War of Independence, or Pontiac’s Conspiracy as Pontiac’s War. These small yet significant changes in vocabulary and approach can often mean the difference between subordination and sovereignty, or, at the very least, villainy and valor.

A sign calls for the abolition of Columbus Day, the federal United States holiday, at a 2016 rally in Flagstaff, Arizona. Image courtesy of the New York Times

This is why the National History Center has created the Teaching Decolonization Resource Collection. This digital collection offers a diverse set of documents, articles, and books to the academic community, providing instructors at all levels with the resources necessary to incorporate decolonization into their survey courses, seminars, syllabi, and more. The site contains primary and secondary sources organized by region and by theme, as well as supplemental teaching materials designed exclusively for instructors. Students at any grade level and studying any field of history can use the collection for their own research and writing.

With the Teaching Decolonization Resource Collection, the National History Center aims to promote critical discussions in history classrooms and inspire new approaches to a variety of fields. We encourage instructors, students, and scholars of history to use the collection and provide the creativity and critical judgment necessary to advance the study of decolonization. The collection features a rich assortment of scholarship from those who have transformed the field with new approaches and methods, offering aspiring scholars of decolonization much to learn from and, more importantly, build upon. Using secondary sources for inspiration and guidance, students can analyze the collection’s primary sources and approach decolonization databases with a deeper appreciation of their potential for historical analysis and insight.

Whether in a 100-person lecture hall or a seminar room with a 10-person maximum capacity, the classroom can be an opportune environment for the study, discussion, and, most significantly, the action of decolonization. The term “decolonization” deserves more use—and more recognition—in history classrooms. How do we achieve this feat as instructors, students, and scholars? To heed the advice of Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: it starts—and ends—with decolonizing the mind.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

Annabel LaBrecque is an undergraduate student studying history and political science at the George Washington University. Her primary areas of interest are Native American and colonial history.

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