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Decolonization and cultural responsibility

This is part of Boston Artist-in-Residence Erin Genia's Cultural Emergency Response project.

What is decolonization and how can it help address a state of cultural emergency?

"Decolonization is the concept and practice that Indigenous peoples and colonized peoples all over the world are using to break free from the cycles of violence, discrimination and despair that have been created by hundreds of years of colonization. To accomplish this, tribes are relying on traditional methods or values, and applying creative, collective, resolute thought and action to help them evolve to meet the needs of their people in a rapidly changing world.

Decolonization can mean relying less on structures imposed by the dominant colonizing power, and is directly linked to tribal sovereignty. The act of decolonization is an effective and essential path towards restoring cultural rights. Decolonization involves telling the truth about history, acknowledging the damage done by assimilation, working towards gaining justice, and achieving true self-determination."

— Erin Genia, The Landscape and Language of Indigenous Peoples’ Cultural Rights, Arizona State University Law Journal, Vol. 44, No. 2, 2010

Cultural responsibility

How can we understand who is culpable when addressing issues at a cultural level?

Our culture informs all aspects of life, from personal decisions and community activities, to municipal, national and institutional operations. We must be accountable for:

  • the philosophies that guide our society’s institutions and leaders, and
  • our own thinking, actions, and roles within these sectors that perpetuate them.

The cultural supremacy that is at the heart of American norms has held our culture back. It prevents us from engaging in a process of critique that will strengthen our society.

To survive, people must orient themselves to the societal systems that create harmful byproducts. People may or may not know the harms they cause, or, may be willing to accept them in the course of living life. It is possible to acknowledge these challenges and also provide space to be critical about how we orient ourselves to these systems. Because of this, everyone in our society shares some responsibility for perpetuating cultural harm.

So, each person must honestly own their position and role within the state of cultural emergency. As we hold our institutions accountable, we must also hold our communities and ourselves accountable. Changing our behaviors at each level is difficult and requires:

  • strong support
  • economic stability, and
  • community involvement.
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