‘De-colonization’ vs. ‘conscientization’ or ‘consciousness-raising’

The following is an excerpt of the keynote address given by Graham Smith at the Alaskan Federation of Natives (AFN) Convention in October of 2003. The whole speech is required reading for indigenous people, in my opinion. It can be found >here.

Introduction: Maori Case Study

The New Zealand case study examines the period of the 1980’s in New Zealand that has produced a range of societal changes for Maori, some which are still impacting in 2003. More importantly perhaps, the Maori example is a practical one in that it is not simply a set of ideas removed from practice. In considering the Maori example, there is a need to be clear what the real revolution was that occurred in New Zealand in the 1980’s. The revolution was not so much about the stunning language revitalization initiatives, (which is the popularly espoused interpretation of the revolution); in this view these were merely the outward visible signs of a much more profound revolution. The ‘real’ revolution of the 1980’s was a shift in mindset of large numbers of Maori people – a shift away from waiting for things to be done to them, to doing things for themselves; a shift away from an emphasis on reactive politics to and an emphasis on being more proactive; a shift from negative motivation to positive motivation. These shifts can be described as a move away from talking simplistically about ‘de-colonization’ (which puts the colonizer at the center of attention) to talking about ‘conscientization’ or ‘consciousness-raising’ (which puts Maori at the center). These ways of thinking illustrate a reawakening of the Maori imagination that had been stifled and diminished by colonization processes.

In accepting increased responsibility for transforming their own condition and subsequently ‘getting out from under the influence of the reproductive forces of dominant society’ Maori found a way to get momentum towards change. This was a critical moment in Maori history. In particular it involved dealing with what I have termed the ‘politics of distraction’. This is the colonizing process of being kept busy by the colonizer, of always being on the ‘back-foot’, ‘responding’, ‘engaging’, ‘accounting’, ‘following’ and ‘explaining’. These are typical strategies often used over indigenous people. The ‘logic’ (notwithstanding that many of these practices are not even thought about – they are better described as bad habits) seems to be that if the ‘natives’ are kept busy doing ‘trivial pursuits’ there will little time left to complain, question or rebel against the ‘status quo’ conditions. There are also various ‘distractions’ (that must also be confronted) that are perpetrated by ‘Maori’ against ‘ourselves’. This ‘self-abuse’ is aptly described in what Antonio Gramsci (1971) labeled as ‘hegemony’. Hegemony is a way of thinking – it occurs when oppressed groups take on dominant group thinking and ideas uncritically and as ‘common-sense’, even though those ideas may in fact be contributing to forming their own oppression. It is the ultimate way to colonize a people; you have the colonized colonizing themselves! The counter strategy to hegemony is that indigenous people need to critically ‘conscientize’ themselves about their needs, aspirations and preferences. This calls for a ‘freeing-up’ of the indigenous imagination and thinking given that one of the important elements of colonization is the diminishment of the indigenous ability to actually imagine freedom or a utopian vision free of the oppressor. Thus a critical element in the ‘revolution’ has to be the struggle for our minds – the freeing of the indigenous mind from the grip of dominant hegemony.

And of course a little bit on the Moari’s famous Language Nests.

Critical observations from the NZ context

Despite a history of educational policy failure in New Zealand, the 1980s saw a radical change occur in respect of Maori education and schooling. This change did not come out of the education and schooling system that was essentially designed to reproduce and perpetuate the status quo of Pakeha (White New Zealander) dominance. The educational and schooling revolution that occurred in New Zealand in the 1980’s developed out of Maori communities who were so concerned with the loss of Maori language, knowledge and culture that they took matters into their own hands and set up their own learning institutions at pre-school, elementary school, secondary school and tertiary levels. The initial pre-school movement was developed following a research program initiated by the NZCER and the senior researcher Dr. Richard Benton who in 1971 reported the alarming news that Maori language was in the last throes of language ‘death’. It was this finding that finally moved Maori to such an extent that radical action was initiated. Maori communities across the country were united in the need to defend their language and culture. To cut a long story short, the Maori language nests (Te Kohanga Reo) set in motion a string of schooling and education interventions undertaken by Maori people themselves. These initiatives were initiated as ‘alternative’ ideas, developed as resistance initiatives outside of the ‘mainstream’ system. This is one of the very reasons for their success – they were able to unhinge themselves from the ‘gate-keeping’ reproductive elements of the dominant controlled system. In quick order Kura Kaupapa Maori Elementary Schools, (Maori immersion philosophy and practice schools), Kura Tuarua (Maori immersion secondary school options) and Whare Wananga (Maori Tertiary options) were established. Another key understanding is that all of these responses were developed by individuals and communities who were prepared to take action for themselves and were willing to go outside of the constraints of the system to achieve it. A common catch-cry was that was used as a justification was that ‘we can’t do any worse than the system is currently doing – there is only one way to go – upwards’. The lessons learned from the Maori example do have relevance and meaning in other indigenous contexts. However, one must be careful in adopting these strategies uncritically or without proper consideration of the specific cultural context in which they are being re-applied. Some bits will be useful other elements may not be so relevant. It is also important to understand also that the Maori political context is circumscribed by a single Treaty agreement signed in 1840 between Maori tribes and Crown and also that Maori have a single language spoken across all tribes with some minor tribal variances. Both of these elements enabled tribes more easily to develop a unity that cut across individual tribal situations and develop and ‘national front’ on these issues.


About Vince

I am a Tlingit, born and raised in Tlingit Country, and a proud member of the Tlingit Nation.
This entry was posted in Decolonization, Lingít Language, Tribal Education. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to ‘De-colonization’ vs. ‘conscientization’ or ‘consciousness-raising’

  1. Pingback: PIELC Panel: Cascadian Bioregionalism and the Indigenous Future | The Dangerous Times

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