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Decolonizing Conquest Consciousness

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7 minutes of reading

Tansi Kia, Boozhoo Nindinawemagaanitog! I greet you all as relatives. I acknowledge and give thanks to my Anishinaabe, Cree, French, and Norwegian ancestors for giving me life. I am evidence of their survivance. I acknowledge that I live and work on the lands of the Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo peoples, represented by the sovereign nation of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. I take a moment to recognize and give thanks to all of the First Peoples of Mickinaak Minis (Turtle Island), our Anishinaabe name for North America, and all of you around this sacred Earth. Here we are in Dagwaagin (fall), Waatebagaa-giizis (Leaves Turning Moon)—sometimes also called the Fall Corn Harvest Moon, as it’s a time for harvesting foods and preparing for winter. Autumn is a time of inward turning, with longer nights and deeper dreams. I ask you to please take a minute to acknowledge the First Peoples on whose land you are on, wherever you are. Who are the Indigenous peoples who took care of that place for centuries and millennia? Remember that their living descendants are still here today, although not often visible due to ongoing histories of conquest and colonization. Yet they—we—persist, and have our own understandings of the past, experiences of the present and visions for the future.

We are facing problems unprecedented in the global history of humanity. These converging crises are what poet Gary Snyder has called, “post-industrial pre-collapse.” Others are saying the collapse is upon us. Others are calling this time the beginning of an apocalypse. “Apocalypse” is a powerful word, meaning revelation or literally “to no longer conceal.” No longer hiding the colonial, racist, sexist, anthropocentric ideologies and structures that the US was founded on; no longer concealing the truth of genocide that occurred on Turtle Island. On the edge of many precipices, we are living in prophetic times, where the gifts of the ancestors are revealing possibilities for pathways forward. But the path forward can only be traversed after reckoning with the past. At this turning of seasons, the broken parts of our world are being uncovered and uplifted so we can see differently, re-learn to be human and heal. Yet, how do we intelligently and compassionately respond to the broken world and act in times of such turmoil? What can we do to transform individual and planetary consciousness to live respectfully with the land, its creatures and with one another?

First, let’s examine the root causes of our predicament. The problems we are facing, from climate chaos to societal upheaval, are not causes but are symptoms of a deeper imbalance in our relationship to the Earth, ourselves and thus each other. As chief Oren Lyons, faith keeper of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, has said, there will be no peace on Earth until we end the war on Mother Earth. We end this war by listening to the wisdom and warnings of Indigenous leaders, including greater respect for Indigenous peoples’ distinct land-based sustainable practices. As Robin Kimmerer astutely observes, we need to restore the Earth but equally if not more importantly, we need to restore our relationship to the Earth. That is what has been broken on Turtle Island through over five hundred years of colonial ruptures and injustices. Humanity must transform conquest consciousness to kinship consciousness. The dominant worldview of conquest and greed must be transmuted to one of kinship, reciprocity, and generosity if we are to survive and thrive as human beings on a living Earth.

As modern humans we must decolonize conquest consciousness, which focuses on fragmentation, domination, competition, materialism, arrogance, and black-and-white binary thinking. This colonial mindset represents a hierarchical abuse of power that is exhibited in patriarchy, white supremacy, extractivism and the commodification of the sacred, whether that be genetically modified seeds or human trafficking. Most of us have, sadly, been impacted and infected by conquest consciousness and need to decolonize our minds and behaviors to shift toward a new kinship worldview and lifeway. 

In our Anishinaabe oral tradition, we have stories about the dangers of conquest consciousness embodied in a greedy, frightening cannibal monster we call Windigo. This conquest consciousness has infected many and has eaten its way into the heads of countries. It is another type of pandemic—an addictive, insatiable mental illness of sorts. Humanity’s urgent challenge is to resist and banish the windigo consciousness. We need to embrace a worldview and way of living that recognizes all life as interwoven kin and understands that humility and generosity are essential laws of nature to ensure life continues.

There are many theories about the root causes of our global crises and most point to mistakes made in human thought. As Einstein profoundly noted: “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” A systemic mis-take in human consciousness separates me from we. This root delusion manifests in a constellation of events—past and present: monocultural agriculture that leads to material accumulation, abstract capitalist hierarchy and patriarchal power, represented in monarchies, slavery, and organized religions. Additional historical factors include the origin of European sciences with the valorization of the so-called objective knower and scientific self. This belief in a subject/object duality created a machine model of the universe where “man” could dissect and control nature for his own desires. This age of scientific discovery went hand-in-hand with the Vatican’s fifteenth century Doctrine of Discovery, which led to the exploitation and commodification of humans and nature in the name of God and empire. Human exceptionalism was codified in this doctrine that justified global imperialism and mass genocide of Indigenous and “other” peoples not deemed Christian or human. This pattern of historical events gave humans the terminal belief that they were superior to all other life and could dominate and control life for their benefit. The idea that humans, especially male, white humans, were unique, entitled and ultimately, superior, gave justification to conquest consciousness. It also provided the blueprint for structural oppression that has led to untold suffering and injustice still faced by many people and Earthly relatives.

Indigenous leaders are calling on Pope Francis and other religious leaders to repeal the Doctrine of Discovery and usher in a Doctrine of Recovery. We must start the long, important pathway toward truth, justice, reparations, and healing. This repair must take place to acknowledge and heal from the religious wounds inflicted on Indigenous and othered peoples in the name of God and religion. We need to heal the wounds inflicted on Mother Earth in the name of progress and civilization.   

Indigenous and other traditional land-based peoples have demonstrated, over millennia, what Enrique Salmón and Dennis Martinez have termed a “kincentric” philosophy of life.  We humans are profoundly interrelated in kinship networks with the entire fabric of life; from rocks to redwoods, butterflies to bears, clouds to corn. As Enrique Salmón shares: “Indigenous people view both themselves and nature as part of an extended ecological family that shares ancestry and origins. It is an awareness that life in any environment is viable only when humans view the life surrounding them as kin.” The Lakota say “all my relations” and all tribes and Indigenous peoples the world over have similar teachings and practices to acknowledge our humble role in the web of life. Our bodies—the Earth bodies and celestial bodies—are deeply tied through breath and wind, sun and warmth, moon and tides, rivers and tears. We are truly all related, and modern science is finally beginning to understand this too through new insights about shared DNA, common evolutionary origins, and quantum entanglement. We must re-learn how to truly honor our common home, the Earth, and be better guests attuned to the ecological fabric we are inherently woven into. We must also strive to be better relatives, neighbors, and allies to members of our own species, what the Navajo call the five-fingered people.

Throughout the US there are currently dozens of massive fires raging in the West. Concurrently, a continuous cycle of hurricanes and freak storms ravage the Southeast. Some places have had 60 days of hazardous air, other places have no water or electricity, and yet others have too much water with extreme flooding and 125 mph winds ravaging towns. Climate chaos is shaking us up. We are re-learning, the hard way, to respect those processes that give us life: Air, Water, Earth, Fire. These elements are speaking to us and reminding us how precious they are. They provide essential physical support and also give us immense beauty and inspiration which are the foundations of culture and art. The natural world stimulates and fertilizes our imaginations. The Earth gives us what we need physically, but also what humans need emotionally and spiritually, that is the beauty of summer thunderclouds, autumn maple leaves, hummingbird movements, and crashing ocean waves. We bear witness to this beauty and also to the destruction of this beauty at the hands of the Windigo. But we can still protect and restore what has been damaged through a process of decolonization and transformation at the individual, community, and societal level.

All peoples have origin stories. Indigenous Peoples have Original Instructions that remind us of our ecological consciousness, which includes our human family. We have many teachings that outline humans’ primary role in being a good relative. We are given Cosmo-Visions in our creation and origin stories that tie us, like an umbilical cord, to the Universe and the Earth. We are given our metaphoric and rational minds and learning spirits that together make it possible for us to grow and gain knowledge and ultimately, wisdom. Time-tested land-care practices of reverential reciprocity help us nourish and be nourished. We think inter-generationally, honoring our ancestors and preparing for seven generations in the future. We are taught that we are active and important participants in all natural processes, from the water cycle to sacred fire. As Anishinaabe, we are given our Seventh Fire Prophecy where fire represents the generations, the movement of the people across the land, and the transformative power of vision and story. We must renew our kinship with fire once again. Our Seven Grandfathers Teachings remind us to act with Respect, Love, Courage, Honesty, Humility, Truth, and Wisdom, in all that we do. What if humans increased our ability to implement these values in our daily lives?

We need a full spectrum transformation to decolonize, banish, and compost conquest consciousness from our heart-minds, communities, governments, and world. We must embrace kincentrism because our lives and the lives of so many others, depend on it. What will it take to be a good ancestor for future generations? We can all look to our own Original Instructions and life-affirming practices to honor the sacredness of life and enact radical kinship. We can immunize ourselves from the Windigo spirit with loving kindness and learn how to live as good allies, settlers, and relatives wherever we live. By revitalizing our kinship with each other and the Earth, we can transmute poison to medicine, disturbance into growth, pain into justice, and destruction into creation.

Melissa K. Nelson (Turtle Mountain Chippewa)
Indigenous Peoples Day 2020
Mount Tamalpais, Coast Miwok Territory
Turtle Island 

Illustration by Echo Yun Chen.

  • Melissa K. Nelson

    Melissa K. Nelson is a professor of Indigenous Sustainability in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. Nelson is an Indigenous ecologist, writer, editor, media-maker, and scholar-activist. Melissa Nelson is Anishinaabe, Cree, Métis, and Norwegian (a proud member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians).

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