Do Not ‘Decolonize' . . . If You Are Not Decolonizing: Progressive Language and Planning Beyond a Hollow Academic Rebranding

I write this from Aotearoa New Zealand, an immigrant in this country as I was in the United States for the 15 years prior. The way I see it, I am an immigrant from post-colonial India to two settler colonial states. In addition to my identity as an immigrant cis-South-Asian woman, I also identify as an academic. I often think of myself as an accidental academic. Academia was a space that offered me refuge as an immigrant, but it also allowed me to do the thinking, critical, questioning work I needed to do – but in a safe space. I started graduate studies in the post-9/11 world. As you can imagine, academia served as a particular refuge in that particular historic moment.

I have been in academia, either in training or teaching since…well, since I was seventeen. I have learned, trained, researched, and taught in four continents – my post-doc was in Geneva (even though most of that post-doc time was spend doing research in India). There are a lot of things I do not know, but there are some things I do know – one of them happens to be the intricate workings of academia – its peoples, its egos, its structures, the spaces of suppression, subversion, and subtle resistance. Within this space I see the hard work of resistance from individuals and groups, but also the dogged structural underpinnings of academia. Between the individual struggles and systematic dogma, is the troubling paradigm where academic structures and powers co-opt the struggles as their own – but contribute little to the cause. Over the years, I have seen academia do this co-optation and rebrand itself but not genuinely willing to do the hard work required to imagine a better academia. I have learned to navigate academia, but continually remembering to view this space critically.

This blog post, written as I transition into a tenured position at the interdisciplinary Centre for Science in Society at Victoria University of Wellington, is my attempt to remember to keep thinking and engaging critically. I have been precariously employed and over the past few years, I have seen what precarity does to one’s sense of self and relationship to others. I hope I never forget that feeling as it has been one of the most intellectually exhausting, but also critically generative space. It was in this space of academic precarity as an immigrant living and working on indigenous land, that I have seen the interesting mobilizing of the word ‘decolonizing.’ I have started to see the complexity inherent in how decolonizing has been co-opted from a vibrant and critical engagement to an academic buzzword. This was recently bought home to me when I saw a student wearing a rather colourful t-shirt with a ‘Decolonize the …” typed in boldface in the front.

While it was unclear to me what they wanted to decolonize, I was troubled by the text on the shirt, not because of my dislike of buzzwords (I’ve used them before) or because of the student wearing it, but rather it was just at the end of a long line of hollow ‘decolonizing’ moves I had witnessed – online and offline. Within the academy, I have seen the sloppy attempts to ‘decolonize’ a syllabus or a programme without any real structural changes – in the programme, the class, the faculty, or the university. This is NOT decolonizing the syllabus, or the programme, or the university. To take on decolonizing work without having ever engaged with the long tradition of scholars who have written on decolonizing – is sloppy and opportunistic. Especially sloppy if you have not read the seminal Tuck and Yang article which asks you to not use decolonizing as a metaphor.

In my avowed attempt to stay critically focused, I thus hold my fellow academics to account and ask for some refrain when using the word ‘Decolonizing.’ It does a disservice to the amazing indigenous scholarship and activist work that is targeting power structures to shake and reshape them to accommodate indigeneity. So, my humble suggestion, till you are actually willing and able to do the work of decolonizing the structures you (and even me) benefit from currently, let us think of better words to do what we are actually doing.

This does not give us/you a pass to not attempt to decolonize academia, but rather start planning the ways in which to do it and putting into place plans (hiring indigenous faculty on permanent positions, provide scholarships to indigenous students, accommodate teaching/learning structures to different knowledge production sites and ways, etc.) starting now. But at this exact moment, when enjoying the privileges afforded by academia on indigenous land, and when we actively working or are unable to work towards decolonizing work, we need to acknowledge that reality.  


To that end, here are some alternative suggestions to talk about the work we are doing now, while thinking of a decolonized sovereign nation future. To really keep it simple, I even suggest words start with the letter D [1].

  • Diversify your syllabus and curriculum

  • Digress from the cannon

  • Decentre knowledge and knowledge production

  • Devalue hierarchies

  • Disinvest from citational power structures

  • Diminish some voices and opinions in meetings, while magnifying others

All of this allows for anti-colonial, post-colonial, and de-colonial work in the academy; but not make claims to a ‘decolonized programme,’ ‘decolonized syllabus,’ or a ‘decolonized university.’ It allows you to be honest – about who you/we are and how you/we are situated within certain privileges.

This means starting the work that actual decolonizing requires – but those are long term goals and require YOU/ME to do a LOT of work. They also require becoming accomplices (not an ally or spectator) in local indigenous communities and politics as the fight for land and resources continues. There are concrete plans that can be put in place and how to get there (i.e. genuinely support decolonization) in a five-to ten-year period. Do not give up on the vision…just remember, academia is not there yet.


Just in case you were wondering, what will the decolonizing future facing project look like and what you can actually do enable it? This requires work and planning (starting now), rather than taking that energy and excitement (around decolonization) to just rebrand yourself and your site of knowledge production and praxis.

There are amazing scholars who can teach us all about the ways we can do this planning work. I share their wisdom humbly and with the hope that it allows the start of a conversation about the future of the academic space you/we inhabit.

  • Hire faculty from indigenous and marginalized communities so they can magnify the voices and concerns of their communities. Change your hiring criteria (and your hiring committees), if needed, to meet this goal.

  • Hire said faculty on permanent positions – not on precariously created contracts. To bring on a junior faculty for a year or two position (while dangling the possibility of a permanent position someday) means they are on the longest interview ever!  

  • Hire faculty that actually challenge you – and listen to them (they are more than your token hire).

  • Be willing to be inter/multi/anti disciplinary – look beyond your cannon.

  • Design classes that have a ‘?’ at the end of the title. Example: Decolonizing Geography?: How, When, and by Whom? Or Decolonizing Knowledge?: (re)Imagining the Future in Sociology.

  • Do not expect your precariously hired POC/BAME/Indigenous/queer/junior faculty to do the diversity work (or, ahem, as you call it ‘decolonizing’ work for you to take credit on – we do it in our scholarship, research, teaching, thinking, talking, listening, and being in the university and we need to be rewarded for it directly).  

  • Create syllabus and curriculums that are innovative – there are more ways to assess work than the research essay, but do not use this as a short cut to not help marginalized students with academic work.

  • Make space for indigenous and marginalized students – both physical and intellectual.

Then there is the slightly more complex thing to do simultaneously, as a way to create space for indigenous and marginalized students:

Take the extra time with these students to help them/us [2] learn to read and write like ‘power.’ Teach us ways to operate in this oppressive world. Do not assume we cannot write as well as you, thus you should not put in the time or effort.


Also take the extra time to learn how we think, read, and write. Learn from us the ways we see and seek to change this oppressive world. Respect our refusal to write like you, even after you train us well to write like you.

These are not really radical suggestions. If you are one of these lovely people trying to decolonize your space, you already know this. But this is just a good reminder to myself as I move out of my precarious space and into a tenured position that decolonizing is not a metaphor!

While there are many examples of amazing scholarship that challenges colonial structures underpinning academia, I offer one example of a dear colleague doing this work every day. She offers a wonderful course that does this heavy, preliminary work of encouraging students to think of a better academia (better anthropology in particular). Lorena Gibson’s paper titled, Anthropology for Liberation is an honest and humble attempt to think about a future of a discipline without making grand claims to have decolonized the discipline or academia. Like she says, this is the first step in a long journey that she has to walk alongside other scholars, students, and communities.

Through her work (amongst others) it is clear to see that decolonizing is real work which needs to have real world structural consequences – not hypotheticals. It should not be a buzzword to increase your ‘woke’ student enrollments. Do not deploy it in service of the structures it was created to destroy.

It is my obligation as an immigrant living, working, researching, and teaching on indigenous land to respect and remember the history – and act as an accomplice to the local communities, particularity when it means unsettling my own academic privilege and identity. Together, it is our obligation as academics to make plans for a decolonized academia, to take care our students, and hold people to account who use this amazingly powerful word recklessly for their own self-interest. This is important to recognize and curtail, so we can start the very hard work of imagining and planning a decolonised academia – rather than just rebranding the current space and carrying on business as usual.

[1] Trained in cultural studies, I have consciously chosen to refrain from using ‘deconstruct.’ Not enough time in this short blog post to engage with that particular postmodern anxiety.

[2] I consciously use ‘us’ here as when talking about this focus on students, as I speak from my experiences as an immigrant student in the American academy…and what wonderful advisers I had who took the extra time with my writing and work (Thank you – Hugh Gusterson, Roger Lancaster, Rashmi Sadana, and Tim Gibson).

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Nayantara Sheoran Appleton

Nayantara Sheoran Appleton is a Senior Lecturer at the interdisciplinary Centre for Science in Society, Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. Trained as a medical anthropologist (with a PhD in cultural studies) she is interested in Feminist Medical Anthropology and Science and Technology Studies (STS); Cultural Studies and Media; Science Communication; Reproductive and Contraceptive Justice; Critical Kinship; Ethics and Governance; Regenerative Medicine; and Ethnographic Research. She has done research on hormonal contraceptives, stem cell and having recently moved to Aotearoa New Zealand, she is now starting to conceptualize a project that explores relationship between immigrant and indigenous communities – both within and beyond the medical space.



The goal of this syllabus is to frame the recent claims to Cherokee ancestry by US Senator Elizabeth Warren as part of a longer history of cultural appropriation, erasure, and settler colonialism. Warren’s claims reveal the pervasive influence of biological essentialism--through the supposed certainty of DNA testing--in the globalized present. As is documented in this syllabus, the juncture of culture, genetics, and Indigenous sovereignty has become a crucial domain of discursive and political contestation. At stake is the ability of sovereign Indigenous nations to determine citizenship and belonging according to their own cultural beliefs and historical understandings of community. In compiling this syllabus, we underscore the work of Indigenous writers, scholars, and activists, and we have focused primarily on the historical position of the Cherokee Nation in these debates. We hope that this syllabus can serve as a practical guide, but also to alleviate some of the emotional and intellectual labor that we, as Indigenous peoples, are often forced to produce in such a moment as this. In the days after Warren released her DNA test results the demand from the media was such that scholar Kim Tallbear was forced to create a press release detailing the points she has made exhaustively since her writing on Native DNA began over a decade ago. Others of us fielded dozens of interviews with reporters, and were forced to spell out the basics of Indigenous identity and sovereignty over and over. It is our hope that this syllabus can be a tool for deeper understanding, but also a first stop for those who know little about Cherokee history, identity, and DNA. Thus, rather than having to explain one more time, we hope you can say: take a look at this syllabus and then we’ll talk.


In October 2018, US Senator Elizabeth Warren released the results of a DNA test in an effort to prove her claims to Native American ancestry. Far from resolving the question of her supposed Cherokee and Delaware heritage, her actions distracted from urgent issues facing Indigenous communities and undermined Indigenous sovereignty by equating “biology” with culture, “race” with citizenship. In response, Indigenous scholars, activists, and the Cherokee Nation itself, rebuked the dangerous connection between DNA testing and Indigeneity.

The syllabus project aims to contextualize the history of colonialism erasing and assimilating Indigenous populations through the regulation of blood--found in the contemporary iteration of DNA testing. It collects some of the responses from Indian Country in the wake of Warren’s misguided political gamble, and fills in historical gaps with important scholarship about Cherokee citizenship, blood quantum, DNA and genetic testing, and tribal sovereignty.

The following texts have been compiled by three citizens of the Cherokee Nation, Adrienne Keene (@nativeapprops), Rebecca Nagle (@rebeccanagle), and Joseph M. Pierce (@pepepierce).

Key Words

DNA and Genetic Testing

Indigenous Citizenship

Cherokee History


Cultural Appropriation


Tribal Sovereignty

Readings by Theme and Topic

DNA and Genetic Testing

Gupta, Prachi. “‘Our Vote Matters Very Little’: Kim TallBear on Elizabeth Warren's  Attempt to Claim Native
American Heritage”. Jezebel. October 16, 2018.

TallBear, Kim. 2013. Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 

Tsosie, Krystal. “Elizabeth Warren’s DNA Is Not Her Identity”. The Atlantic. October  17, 2018. 

Tsosie, Krystal and Matthew Anderson. “Two Native Americans geneticists interpret 
Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test”. The Conversation. October 22, 2018.

Early responses from Indian Country to Warren

Franke-Ruta, Garance. “Is Elizabeth Warren Native American or What?”. The Atlantic. May 20, 2012.

Nagle, Rebecca. “I am a Cherokee Woman. Elizabeth Warren is Not”. ThinkProgress. November 30, 2017.

Indian Country's response to Warren's DNA test

Blake, Aaron. “Why the Cherokee Nation’s Rebuke of Elizabeth Warren Matters”. The
Washington Post
. October 16, 2018.

Brewer, Graham. “Warren’s DNA Test Perpetuates Stereotypes, Native Communities
Say” WNYC The Takeaway. October 16, 2018.

Cherokee Nation. “Cherokee Nation responds to Senator Warren’s DNA test”. October 15, 2018.

Echo Hawk, Crystal. “Changing Elizabeth Warren's story to one about Native America”.
Indian Country Today. October 18, 2018.

Estes, Nick. “Native American Sovereignty Is Under Attack. Here’s How Elizabeth
Warren’s DNA Test Hurt Our Struggle.” The Intercept. October 19, 2018.

Hayes, Kelly and Jacqueline Keeler. “Elizabeth Warren connected DNA and Native
American heritage. Here’s why that's destructive.” NBC News. October 17, 2018.

Hilleary, Cecily. “Native Americans Speak Out on Elizabeth Warren DNA Controversy”.
Voice of America. October 16, 2018.

Martin, Nick. “Elizabeth Warren’s Deception”. Splinter. October 16, 2018.

Moya-Smith,Simone. “I am a Native American. I Have Some Questions for Elizabeth
Warren”. CNN. October 15, 2018.

Nagle, Rebecca. “Elizabeth Warren’s ‘part’ Cherokee claim is a joke, and a racist insult
to Natives like me”. USA Today. October 18, 2018.

 NoiseCat, Julian Brave. “Elizabeth Warren Is Not Native American”. Huffington Post.
October 16, 2018.

Reese, Debbie. “A Curated List of Indigenous Responses to Elizabeth Warren.”
American Indians in Children’s Literature. October 20, 2018.

Cherokee History (Especially regarding Diaspora, Allotment, Adoption, and Identity)

Brown, Kirby. 2018. Stoking the Fire: Nationhood in Cherokee Writing, 1907-1970.
Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Carter, Kent. 1999. The Dawes Commission and the Allotment of the Five Civilized
, 1893-1914. Orem, Utah: 

Deboe, Angie. 1940 [1991]. And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized
. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Garroutte, Eva Marie. 2003. Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America.
Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jacobs, Margaret D. 2014. A Generation Removed: The Fostering and Adoption of
Indigenous Children in the Postwar World
. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Peterson, Dawn. 2017. Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum
. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Smithers, Gregory D. 2015. The Cherokee Diaspora: An Indigenous History of
Migration, Resettlement, and Identity
. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Stremlau, Rose. 2011. Sustaining the Cherokee Family: Kinship and the Allotment of an
Indigenous Nation
. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Becoming Indian and Cultural Appropriation

Deloria, Philip J. 1998. Playing Indian. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Farzan, Antonia Noori. “A DNA Test said a man was 4% black. Now he wants to qualify as a minority
business owner.” Washington Post. September 25, 2018.

Keeler, Jacqueline. “Pocahontas isn’t a name that should offend you”. Yes! Magazine.
December 1, 2017.

Pierce, Joseph M. 2017. “Adopted: Trace, Blood, and Native Authenticity”. Critical
Ethnic Studies
. 3:2: 57-76. [.pdf]

 Pringle, Paul and Adam Elmahrek. “House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s family
benefited from U.S. program for minorities based on disputed ancestry”.
Los Angeles Times. October 14, 2018.

Scott, Brandon. “Cherokee Nation citizens like me are used to people claiming our
heritage. It’s exhausting”. Vox. October 17, 2018.

Smithers, Gregory. “Why Do So Many Americans Think They Have Cherokee Blood?”.
Slate. October 1, 2015.

Sturm, Circe. 2011. Becoming Indian: The Struggle over Cherokee Identity in the
Twenty-First Century.
Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press.

Wiles,Tay. “Anti-public lands and anti-Native groups converge in Montana”. High
Country News
. October 19, 2018.


Keene headshot.jpg

Adrienne Keene is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and an Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University. Her research interests include Indigenous students in higher education, Indigenous student activism, and Native representations and cultural appropriation. She is the author of Native Appropriations (, where she blogs about topics of Native representations. 

Nagle headshot.jpg


Rebecca Nagle is a writer, advocate and citizen of Cherokee Nation living in Tahlequah. Currently, Nagle does writing by night and language preservation and revitalization for her tribe by day. You can read her views on issues of Native representation and tribal sovereignty in the Washington Post, Teen Vogue, USA Today, The Huffington Post, and more.

Pierce Headshot.jpg

Joseph M. Pierce is Assistant Professor in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature at Stony Brook University. His research focuses Latin American literary and cultural studies, Indigenous studies, queer studies, and hemispheric approaches to citizenship and belonging. His book Argentine Intimacies: Queer Kinship in an Age of Splendor, 1890-1910 is forthcoming from SUNY Press. He is co-editor with Fernando A. Blanco and Mario Pecheny of Derechos Sexuales en el Sur: Políticas del amor y escrituras disidentes (2018, Editorial Cuarto Propio). He is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Statement in Support of Marc Lamont Hill

We are writing as editors and board members of Critical Ethnic Studies to express our adamant support for Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, a member of our journal's editorial board. For offering an ethical and considered position on Palestinian equality, Marc Lamont Hill is facing attempts to malign his scholarship and calls to dissolve his tenured position at Temple University. These attacks are wholly inappropriate. We call upon academic communities and faculty associations to uphold the freedoms of all scholars to make critiques of state violence, particularly scholars who are Black, Palestinian, Indigenous, queer and trans (never mutually exclusive groups). We stand with Marc Lamont Hill and affirm that scholars have important responsibilities to analyze and speak out against injustice.

Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, Co-Editors of Critical Ethnic Studies

Critical Ethnic Studies Editorial Board

My Grandmother's Home

in my 婆婆’s house,

things are never used for

their intended purpose.

her oven is filled with

plastic containers,

styrofoam takeout trays,

old yogurt cups.

she does not clear them out,

never turns on the oven,

does not cook there.

the space between the metal

racks are for


my 婆婆’s five children

were all children once.

some grew up

fast —

left in Hong Kong,

or stayed clutching her pant leg,

waiting for the jet bridge to lower


to new lands.

in california,

the kids were kids sometimes,

caretakers others.

after some years,

each one escaped the house with

the oven and its plastic


and yogurt containers that held


squash, bok choy,

whatever else that needed


they walked out of the house,

closed the door,

heard it slam behind them as they

drove away.

my 婆婆 still kept the containers.

waited night and day

for children that rarely called,

made 冬瓜 soup for grandchildren

that complained.

this was not supposed to happen.

those containers

with scribbled Chinese characters

on yellow stickers

placed haphazardly over English

printed words

were supposed to

save us,

shelter us,

give us a place to call


years later,

we watch 婆婆 shuffle around her


the one my mom bought for her.

the children installed a camera

to make sure 婆婆 is safe when

no one is with her.

i always thought that 婆婆 loved

her things:

her plastic containers, her orange

shag carpet,

her hair curlers that used to

belong to my dolls.

i think though, if given the choice,

she would gladly throw away

those things,

if it meant filling up her home with

children who were not there

out of obligation

and grandchildren who could

speak 台山話 back.

Christina Ong is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research interests span womxn of color in social movements, transnational feminism, and theories of race & ethnicity. She is currently working on her MA thesis that traces the development of Asian American identity through New York’s Basement Workshop, the first pan-Asian political organization on the East Coast active in the 1970’s.