A Witches Place is in Decolonization
This essay is for settlers, specifically white settlers, reimagining belonging and living in right relationship. I am writing from a place of reflection and having grappled with authentic connection and self-accountability as a white settler for decades. I am informed by many different experiences that have shaped my understanding on building relationship. I understand this to be an ongoing journey to learn how we white settlers on this journey can honor our lineages and that of the lands we inhabit. Sovereignty is of the lands and the lands belong to Indigenous peoples. Indigenous people have a central role in our collective liberation and survival. Returning land and water back to Indigenous jurisdiction and governance is a critical pathway to reopen Native land management practices across Turtle Island.
When discussing Settler Colonialism it is important to begin with clarifying how this is a structure and not a historical event. This year at Pagan Pride, a white woman shared with me how she realized awhile ago that when she hears people talk about decolonization they are actually reacting from a place of trauma and need to let go of the past. She concluded this realization was a deciding factor for why she moved away from activism. In the moment I understood I was hearing a clear example of a concept called ‘settler anxiety’ (1). Hallmarks of settler anxiety include avoidance of the political, avoidance of being uncomfortable, and displacement of place-based politics as a self-defense (a defense mechanism). What does white benevolence reveal to us about a culture of ‘care’ for people labeled as traumatized? The performance of white benevolence aims to secure oneself as innocent and good by enacting the desire to save and help by defining the terms. It determines what care is provided and the terms for the provision of care.
Staying with settler anxiety asks the person experiencing anxiety to be present in the moment and to observe any uncertainty they are experiencing about their future by witnessing “the strangeness, meaningless, loss of self and place” within them (2). Bearing the truth about the ongoing violence of colonialism acknowledges the continued oppression of Indigenous peoples today and names colonialism as a system causing climate change. Settler colonial land regimes define legalistic, administrative, and political authority to divert water, for deforestation, resource extraction, and weapon proliferation. Anxiety is a mobilizing response. For settlers, in the face of colonialism, it’s critical to find ways to lean in and still be in right relationship by uplifting the sovereignty of Indigenous people. Participating in decolonization asks for the settler to work through the defenses of anxiety so they can show up whole hearted in community.
Being a settler does not necessarily equate to an entitled sense of belonging (2, 3). There are different systems of oppression that impact people's lives and contribute to experiences of marginalization (e.g. race, gender, disability, sexuality, class, nationality). Reimagining belonging asks settlers to meaningfully appreciate and experience the place where you live and avoid accumulating luxuries or exclusive securities (2). Reimagining belonging asks for solidarity and social justice in a shared existence akin with the Zapatismo principle of resistance: to build a world where many worlds fit.
Indigenous sovereignty activates fear and settler anxieties as if justice for Indigenous peoples means all the lands will be taken away and all the settlers will be unhoused and have to go back where they came from. Clearly, this is not realistic or even feasible (3). This is not about punishment from Native people. This is a call for settlers to be self-accountable.
Naming the ongoing effects and legacies of genocide, colonial violence, and residential schools on survivors is important. Becoming adept in understanding the current roles the helping professions have in perpetuating harm and similar effects is the Ask (5). Public health and social care were founded on the premises of white women helping Native people assimilate to whiteness (e.g. to behave white and not like a ‘savage’) under the auspices of state sanctioned policies trumped up by Captain Pratt at the Carlisle Indian School to ‘Kill the Indian, and Save the Man’ (6). Willow Samara Allen writes, “In a white settler society rushing to reconcile and foreclose a past that is ongoing, white women, including myself, must bring to bear acts of complicity in ongoing colonial violence against Indigenous Peoples” (p. 88)(5).
Self-accountability is not about guilt and shame or denying the effects of patriarchy. The virtuous white helper, however, has been shaped over centuries to not disrupt power dynamics in order to maintain professional status. Health justice concerns all of us, centering community, access to culturally relevant care, helpers with cultural humility, self determination to define who are helpers, and the role of helpers. When considering health care practices the following questions can offer guidance to not replicate harm.
How does situating colonialism in the past benefit white helper social status?
The professionalization of helping as seen in the fields of nursing, social work, psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, counseling, body work, public health, and teaching share a common history of excluding women of color, Indigenous peoples, folks of marginalized ethnicities, and people seen as foreign in order to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the white patriarchy and ruling class. This has looked like joining the ranks of government health and social reform efforts. The continuance is demonstrated by disparities in access to education, poor matriculation, increased health inequities, helper incompetence, and homogeneity.
How does understanding efforts toward decolonization as a trauma response serve white benevolence?
Decolonization is about returning the land to Indigenous sovereign jurisdiction. The minimization of decoloniality (e.g. the ongoing undoing of colonialism) to that of a trauma response serves white benevolence by avoiding confrontation with power. This bypasses listening to Indigenous peoples, understanding health equity, and pathways to Healing Justice. When decolonization is framed as a trauma response then the white helper gets to remain the expert, maintain control, and enable codependency rather than interdependence.
Settler Anxiety Chart: A person of settler experience is confronted with an aspect of colonialism in the present and physical activation, worry, irritability, and discomfort come up. When Settler Anxiety is activated but then avoided there can be momentary relief however, over time the anxiety will increase in intensity.
Indigenous knowledge systems are shaped by language and are at the foundation of Native Nations. Decolonization is about these living knowledge systems. The elimination of Native people looks like the replacement of Indigeneity by banning language and social systems to assimilate people and convert land to private property. When white settlers react from a place of anxiety and label decolonization as a matter of being stuck in the past this is complicit avoidance. Radial interdependence is about rematriation and re-earthing.
Indigeneity understands Indigenous peoples have a relationship and sovereignty with the land that predates and goes beyond the state while also now having a political relationship to the state, treaties, and different demands from multiple government jurisdictions over the land. Indigenous peoples should not be conflated with the category of ‘ethnic minority’ (3). There are three sovereigns in the U.S.: the Feds, the States, and the original sovereign, Native Nations. Tribal governments, like all communities touched by settler land regimes, embody aspects of the state (i.e. patriarchy) that aren’t in line with Native values in decolonial frameworks.
The struggle for Indigenous land to be systematically returned to Native jurisdiction is about liberation. #LANDBACK and #WATERBACK have been happening for decades, though more recently gaining wider recognition. Indigenous peoples are resilient and have been resisting genocidal acts, cultural assimilation, resource extraction, and settler colonial violence since first contact. Indigenous peoples do not need to be saved or rescued. For non-Indigenous people, anti-colonial praxis recognizes that all of our liberation is connected and asks for participation in ending the occupation, violence, discrimination, and systematic dehumanization of Native people by centering Indigenous Knowledge and land-based practices.
It is important to acknowledge many witches of settler experiences also come from lineages of colonized people and we have vested interest to do this work to be in right relationship with our peoples. Honoring our lineages, knowing our roots, and connection with the traditional practices of our ancestors are pathways to repair the harm of pagan extraction from Native spiritualities.
All Land is Indigenous Land
Before taking action it’s essential to ask around, research, and learn about the Indigenous led work already taking place in communities where you live that you can support. Decolonization is about meaningful, material change taking place on the terms of Indigenous peoples and jurisdiction.
How can witches, healers, heathens, mystics, druids, and pagans who are of the settler experience participate in decolonization on Indigenous land?
Honor Native Land Tax (HLNT) is a project of the Albuquerque Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) https://www.honornativelandtax.org
Grow Native seeds, pollinators, food, and support Pueblo Resurgents and their anti-colonial Indigenous agroecology and resurgence within Isleta Pueblo: www.puebloresurgents.com
#WATERBACK Protect our regional rivers and watersheds by supporting Indigenous led efforts like the Pueblo Action Alliance campaign to protect Caja Del Rio and #WATERBACK in New Mexico: www.puebloactionalliance.org
Uplift local Indigenous artists and organizers like the reproductive justice work of Indigenous Women Rising: www.iwrising.org
Right relationship looks like being a good neighbor and participation in community care and mutual aid projects.
Divest from white privilege and patriarchy by participating in local efforts to acknowledge the lands of local tribes, remove racist and colonial names and monuments from public spaces including schools and parks such as the work of The Red Nation: therednation.org
Tuck & Yang, 2012, Decolonization is Not a Metaphor
Slater, 2019, Anxieties of Belonging in Settler Colonialism: Australia, Race and Place
Gilio-Whitaker, 2023, Legitimacy, Accountability, and Belonging in the U.S. Settler State
Chappell, 2023, The Vatican repudiates 'Doctrine of Discovery,' which was used to justify colonialism
Gebhard, McLean, & St. Denis, 2022, White Benevolence: Racism and Colonial Violence in the Helping Profession
Jacobs, 2009, White mother to a dark race: Settler colonialism, materialism, and the removal of Indigenous children in the American West and Australia, 1880–1940