What is Decolonization? What is Indigenization?

Decolonization could be understood as “taking away the colonial” but this raises the question of what colonial means. Colonization involves one group taking control of the lands, resources, languages, cultures, and relationships of another group. In Canada and the US, where human habitation on these lands began with Indigenous peoples and continued with European migrants who arrived with the intent to claim the lands as their own, colonial usually means Eurocentric. This means that Western European-derived ways of being, believing, knowing, and doing are implicitly or explicitly presented as the standard or norm, and other ways of being, knowing, and doing are implicitly or explicitly presented as “other,” alternative, or less worthy.[2] Later arrivants to this territory have had to adapt to this Eurocentric norm.

In Canada, decolonization is usually discussed in terms of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, and particularly associated with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s final report and Calls to Action.[3] It is related to Indigenous resurgence (Indigenous people reclaiming and restoring their culture, land, language, relationships, health, etc., both independent of and with the support of non-Indigenous people). Decolonization is also associated with other relationships between groups of people within Canada and in other countries and contexts around the world, and for some, is linked to broader principles of inclusion and equity.[4]

Canada’s identity as a settler colonial state complicates the task of decolonization, since the original colonizers never left and since acts of colonization continue to the present.[5] For instance, in Canada settler colonialism is evident in federal government policies such as the Indian Act and the Indian Residential Schools system,[6] provincial government child welfare decisions,[7] and non-Indigenous peoples’ refusal (either blatant or subtle) to give up land or acknowledge the land and treaty rights of Indigenous people.[8]

If decolonization is the removal or undoing of colonial elements, then Indigenization could be seen as the addition or redoing of Indigenous elements. Indigenization moves beyond tokenistic gestures of recognition or inclusion to meaningfully change practices and structures.[9] Power, dominance and control are rebalanced and returned to Indigenous peoples, and Indigenous ways of knowing and doing are perceived, presented, and practiced as equal to Western ways of knowing and doing. Examples of Indigenization in education could include the inclusion of Indigenous readings, adoption of Indigenous learning approaches in the classroom. For non-Indigenous people, there can be a fine line between Indigenization and cultural appropriation and it is important to seek appropriate guidance while recognizing that guidance can come from many sources.

People disagree about what the end goal of decolonization and Indigenization is or should be.[10] We suggest that rather than focusing on the end goal, you consider two elements. First, it’s important to think about the reasons you’re decolonizing: who are you doing it for and why are you doing it? This helps avoid issues of tokenism and recolonization. Second, remember that decolonization is a process, not a product. Instead of wondering where the finish line is, take a step along the journey and see where it leads you.

[1] There is no clear definition of decolonization or Indigenization; all definitions are complex, multi-faceted, and contested. This resource offers a starting place, but understanding decolonization is a journey that takes a lifetime. It should also be noted that this document was written by a settler author for an expected audience that is primarily non-Indigenous.

[2] The concept of “Othering” originates in Said 1978. The decolonization framework of uncovering Eurocentric elements and rebalancing Indigenous elements comes from Battiste 2013.

[3] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada 2015.

[4] Tuck and Yang (2012) argue, however, that decolonization is incommensurate with these other initiatives. See Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1/1 (2012). Available: https://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/des/article/view/18630

[5] Battell Lowman and Barker 2015. Other key scholarship in settler colonial studies includes Coulthard 2014, Mackey 2016 and Mackey 1999, Moreton-Robinson 2015; Snelgrove, Kaur Dhamoon, and Corntassel 2014; Veracini 2010; Wolfe 1999 and Wolfe 2006.

[6] See the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

[7] See the Ontario Human Rights Commission report Under Suspicion.

[8] For ethnographic analysis of a few case studies, see Mackey 2016.

[9] See Coulthard 2014.

[10] See Tuck and Yang 2012.


Coulthard, Glen Sean. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

Kuokkanen, Rauna. Reshaping the University: Responsibility, Indigenous Epistemes, and the Responsibility of the Gift. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2007.
Mackey, Eva. Unsettled Expectations: Uncertainty, Land, and Settler Decolonization. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2016.

_____. The House of Difference. London: Routledge, 1999.
Moreton-Robinson, Eileen. The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

Ontario Human Rights Commission. Under Suspicion: Research and consultation report on racial profiling in Ontario.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

Snelgrove, Corey, Rita Kaur Dhamoon, and Jeff Corntassel. “Unsettling settler colonialism: The discourse and politics of settlers, and solidarity with Indigenous nations.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society 3/2 (2014): 1-32.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty and Sarah Harasym. The post-colonial critic: interviews, strategies, dialogues. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (Ottawa, 2015),

Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1/1 (2012).

Veracini, Lorenzo. Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Wolfe, Patrick. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research 8/4 (2006).

____. Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology: The Politics and Poetics of an Ethnographic Event. London: Cassell, 1999.