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Peace and Justice Week keynote address focuses on U.S. “settler colonialism”

Decoloniality, anyone? This big-chewy-cookie of a word is the theme for the Sixth Annual Peace and Justice Week being held from March 21-26 on the Gettysburg College campus.

On Monday, Dina Gilio-Whitaker, Lecturer of American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos, provided the keynote for  the week with a lecture on “Decolonizing and  Indigenizing Environmental Justice” at 5:00 PM  in Mara Auditorium. Her 2019 book As Long As Grass Grows tells the story of Native American resistance to environmental injustice and urges activists to learn from that tradition.

Gilio-Whitaker was introduced by Daniel Jones, student president of the campus Peace and Justice organization which sponsors the week.  Jones explained that the group is offering fabric art based in Native American traditions for sale during the week. Money raised from the sale will benefit community education programming at the Carlisle Indian School where Native American children taken from their families were housed and educated.

The American environmental movement, Gilio-Whitaker argued, has been shaped by what she described as “settler colonialism” that dehumanized Native peoples and appropriated their land. The doctrine of Manifest Destiny, she said, legitimized this displacement and relocation of Native tribes.

As an illustration of this doctrine she referenced the 1872 painting by John Gast entitled American Progress that portrays an angelic female figure dressed in a flowing white gown floating above the prairie at dawn. She carries a book symbolizing education and an unwinding roll of telegraph wire. Beneath her, settlers on the ground march westward while bare-chested Native Americans hold up torches to help light their way.

This image of progress has distorted our understanding of American history, the speaker argued, meant “cultural death for Native American people,” and legitimized profound damage to  the American landscape and environment. This damage, she said, often affected Native people disproportionately and ranged from the disruption of salmon fishing with the building of dams in the Pacific Northwest to more than 1000 abandoned uranium mines, often on Native land, throughout the American West.

Two things must happen now, she said, to “decolonize” the American environmental movement. First, Native American perspectives must be brought into our understanding of American history, and the whole story of that history must be told. Secondly, environmentalists and others must learn from Indigenous traditions and knowledge about the land.

This knowledge is practical and not just theoretical and is usually based in a particular landscape. She cited the controlled burning of forests by Native Americans as an example of this practical knowledge. But this approach is also based on a set of principles, she said, that can be expressed as “the four R’s.” These are relationality, reciprocity, respect, and responsibility.

Relationality recognized the importance of relationships between people and between people and nature. Those relationships should always be reciprocal. When you take something out, you must give something back. The first two R’s, she said, lead naturally to mutual respect and to a sense of responsibility both to the land and to one another.

Peace and Justice Week continues with workshops for students on Tuesday and Wednesday and a tour of the Carlisle Indian school on Friday. On Thursday, March 24, photojournalist Eric Lee will present on Breathing through the Tear Gas: Documenting Unrest in the Nation’s Capital at 5:30 in Joseph Theater on the Gettysburg Campus.

Featured image: American Progress by John Gast [Public domain, via Wikimedia]

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Will Lane, a founding member of Green Gettysburg and the Green Gettysburg Book Club, is a Lecturer in English and Affiliated Faculty Member with Environmental Studies at Gettysburg College.

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