Decolonising Geographical Knowledges in Settler States

By Jillian Smith, University of Birmingham 

Is decolonising geographical knowledges actually reproducing coloniality? Geographers have recently been posed this question for consideration; in fact, the 2017 RGS-IBG chair’s theme states that debating decoloniality might be a good starting point towards decolonisation (Esson et al., 2017). This statement complements Tuck and Yang’s earlier notion that the recent proliferation of decolonial language by non-Indigenous scholars can have the effect of reproducing coloniality (2012). Esson et al. (2017) assert that as we open geography out to the world in an effort at decolonisation, we actually “run the risk of speaking instead of those eager and equipped to speak for themselves.”

I took this last statement as an invitation to offer up my own unsolicited version of what prompted my interest in geography ­– my Indigenous forefathers. At the risk of romanticizing my Métis heritage, I often think of my Indigenous ancestors as early geographers. As Indigenous trappers, fur traders, and Voyageurs on the Great Lakes of Turtle Island (now North America), my ancestors undoubtedly had vast geographical knowledge of their territory. But like so many things in the colonial era, it did not last. The quasi-nomadic lifestyle ended as new settlers arrived and the First nations and Métis people living in Canada were assigned parcels of land under new colonial structures. By 1840, my 4th great-grandfather had signed a petition (with all the makings of an early treaty) requesting traditional land back from the Crown.  Though his petition was unsuccessful, I am a proud that my grandfather was not only an early geographer, but an aspiring decoloniser.

Indisputably, one of colonisation’s earliest effects was Indigenous land dispossession; as such, it is imperative that any discussion of decolonisation must include programming to reconnect Indigenous peoples to the land that was lost, and the knowledge, languages, and relations associated with the land (Wildcat et al., 2014). Tuck and Yang (2012) go further to suggest that decolonisation must go beyond repatriation of land; they infer that decolonisation is also about deconstructing colonial institutions.

Meanwhile, Matsunaga (2016) notes that governments and academics are expanding transitional justice theory to harms inflicted to Indigenous peoples in settler states such as Australia, Canada, and the United States. Matsunaga adds that two faces of transitional justice will need to be examined if decolonisation is to occur: an internal focus on reconciliation, and an external focus on the expertise required to heal a fragile state.  The use of the term ‘fragile state’ here is significant. Recall that fragile states have traditionally been regarded as post-conflict states. Australia, Canada, and the United States are certainly not ‘fragile’ in this context. Nonetheless, a historical injustice has occurred in each of these nations, and as Teital (2003) astutely notes, the paradoxical goal in transition is to undo history. The mechanism in which transitional justice will contribute to decolonisation in Canada, or in any settler state, remains to be seen (Park, 2015).

Esson et al. (2017) concur with Tuck and Yang (2012) and explain that the decolonisation of geographical knowledges cannot occur while structures inherited from geography’s colonial past are upheld. It is, however, still possible (and indeed, desirable) that geographers engage in discussions about Indigenous worldviews. Without Indigenous involvement in these discussions, however, they are moot. For example: the reputable British journal, Third World Quarterly (an egregious 40-year-old journal name itself), recently published a piece entitled, “The case for colonialism.” Astoundingly, the author, Bruce Gilley, states that colonisation has been wrongly vilified and that it is time to re-colonise parts of the world (2017). Would my Indigenous ancestors, friends, and relatives of Turtle Island believe that re-colonisation is a good idea? Assuredly not. A petition asking for the article’s retraction has been signed many thousands of times and fifteen of the journal’s thirty-four editorial board members have resigned in protest (Flaherty, 2017). Though the outrage over the piece has been swift and ferocious, the fact that the article was published at all illustrates a point that Western notions of ideology still exist in academia.

Resistance, reconciliation, repatriation, storytelling, deconstruction, transitional justice – decolonisation means different things to different people in different parts of the world.  Perhaps it should be less about what decolonisation is, and more about who is unlocking their voice in the discussion. Indigenous voices have been silenced for hundreds of years. If we collectively spend more time listening, and less time proselytising, perhaps those of us attempting to decolonise knowledges will have a better chance at avoiding any reproduction of coloniality.

Feature image caption: Rupert’s Land


Esson, J., Noxolo, P., Baxter, R., Daley, P., & Byron, M. (2017). The 2017 RGS-IBG chair’s theme: decolonising geographical knowledges, or reproducing coloniality? Area, 49:384-388. doi:10.1111/area.12371

Flaherty, C. (2017). Resignations at ‘Third World Quarterly’. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/09/20/much-third-world-quarterlys-editorial-board-resigns-saying-controversial-article

Gilley, B. (2017). The case for colonialism. Third World Quarterly, 1-17.

Matsunaga, J. (2016). Two faces of transitional justice: Theorizing the incommensurability of transitional justice and decolonization in Canada. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 5(1), 22-24. Retrieved from: http://decolonization.org/index.php/des/article/view/26530/19735

Park, A. S. (2015). Settler Colonialism and the Politics of Grief: Theorising a Decolonising Transitional Justice for Indian Residential Schools. Human Rights Review, 16(3), 279– 293.

Teitel, R. G. (2003). Transitional Justice Genealogy. Harvard Human Rights Journal, 16, 69.

Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1), 1–40. Retrieved from: http://decolonization.org/index.php/des/article/view/18630/15554

Wildcat, M., McDonald, M., Irlbacher-Fox, S., Coultard, G. (2014). Learning from the land: Indigenous land based pedagogy and decolonization. Decolonization: Indigneity, Education & Society, 3(3).

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