Decolonization Is For Everyone, Especially White People (Part 1)

Map of Celtic languages
The estimated density of native Celtic languages in the year 1900, during dramatic declines.

The many effects of empire and colonialism on this planet over the last 500 years have been so deep and profound that there is no region that has not been deeply scarred by them. Dialog between indigenous groups and those settled on their lands has continued to evolve and make waves in public awareness. As that shift in consciousness has unfolded over many years now in North America, many “white people” have sought a deeper understanding of how their own ancestors fit into this larger historical phenomenon and how they might help to undo some of the terrible damage done by colonization.

The fact is that it is a messy, complex, and ugly set of intersections and it takes a great deal of effort to unwind the many facets of this history in the detail that it deserves. The enormity of the challenge of decolonization, and the question of even how to begin explaining it, is on my mind as I prepare for a Hidden Glen class specifically on this topic (Radicalizing the Roots), to be offered in early 2020.

It is to the credit of indigenous peoples that they often prod the North Americans of European descent who work with them to research their own ancestral histories, so that they can reclaim and decolonize their own heritage. It, in fact, shows great compassion and wisdom on their part, and it has prompted some people to engage in important fact-finding and soul-searching missions. I was reminded of this by a message I received from doctoral student Brenda Hunter, in thanks for research materials that I have made available on my academia.edu webpage. She says:

What sparked my interest is, I’ll be honest, heritage. I have always been interested in linguistics and at 63 I am finally wondering why I never considered learning the language of my people. I helped many elementary students learn their Native American languages but when asked by an elder what my people spoke I had no words to share. It stunned me how complete the assimilation was. Not their choice, nor mine. The elder challenged me to come back and greet him in our language. I explained our history and he pointed out how they lost their language too and weren’t allowed to practice their traditions or wear their regalia. Over the years I have revisited that challenge. There are no Gaelic speakers I know of willing to teach me in Nebraska. I don’t wear tartan nor kilts for show. My grandfather had a piece that he kept away as did my grandmother. I have no idea where they went but I hope whoever has them knows the story.

I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for this to become a windy novel. It’s just that what you write about hits home. Here in the US (I am from Massachusetts) we are cultural orphans. We know our genealogy and who came from where and also why they left. Most were not from choice. Some washed ashore in PEI or Nova Scotia. The indigenous people here suggest we go home, but they find it hard to believe that we have been forgotten as if we never existed. Maybe that’s why my ancestors lost their language. Maybe they knew there was no going home again.

A friend went to Scotland to attend a conference. She asked what I wanted her to bring me from there. I didn’t want anything touristy, just a rock from the sea and a hand full of dirt, to be a tangible reminder of where we came from.

That, Michael, is what sparked my interest. It’s always there, that longing for something beyond mere words.

(Brenda Hunter, 24 November 2019)

Needless to say, I was honored that she shared these experiences and feelings with me, and I wrote her back. She told me further about a writing exercise that she did with students that she taught, who were to respond in stream of consciousness on the topic “If I Could Change the World.” Her own outpouring at that time was this:

To allow indigenous people all over the world to return to their homelands unfettered by the further effects of colonization so they can practice their ceremonies, traditions, and ways of life that support their sovereignty, self determination, and sustainability.

To support the cultural orphans, deeply damaged by assimilation due to colonization, in finding a way back to their roots. For those that have remained in their ancestral homeland, may they be willing to accept their long-lost relatives with open arms and an open mind. They are your kin. Watch for them and take them in as they relearn their place and ways. Be patient for they have lost hope and need encouragement

These are not unusual revelations, in my experience, for many “white people” working with indigenous folks: having become attuned to the value of indigeneity, many become thirsty for knowledge about their own peoples’ cultures and experiences, and want to find a way “back home” again, or want to find what “home” even means. People with Gaelic ancestry are fortunate that they have the possibility of learning about a beautiful and rich heritage that still exists, on the margins, waiting to be revitalized.

In fact, most of the students in my current Reclaiming the Roots course are engaged in these issues of decolonization and revitalization exactly because they have ongoing relationships with native peoples and communities which make these questions of direct relevance to their work and their lives.

This is knotty topic that I hope to unpack a bit more on blog posts as I prepare course materials. If you have had a similar experience, share it with me on the Hidden Glen contact page!

3 thoughts on “Decolonization Is For Everyone, Especially White People (Part 1)

  • These discussions are as important here in the “old countries” as in the “new world”. Whilst we still live in our ancestral homelands most are still colonised in the mind and dislocated from their Nordic/Gaelic heritage. So much work needs to be done to regain what has been lost; language, knowledge, self-esteem, etc. I follow your work with great interest. Taing mhòr airson gach oidhirp a nì sibh. Stiall oirbh!

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  • thank you for this observation; to add to your story ; Then there are people like me, born on a colonized island in the Caribean, with ancestors who came from India/Nepal, China, Portugal and Africa, where to find our root language/ my parents grew up in Dutch colonized Surinam and spoke that language but because they moved to Curaçao also Dutch we, the children grew up speaking Dutch. In the end we also have no cultural traditions ,heritage, or a people; we are from the Universe scattered all over the planet

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