Within and Without the Settler University: Reflections on Decolonization, Spirituality and Research as Ceremony

Marcelo Garzo Montalvo

Guiding Quotes

Although colonial universities saw themselves as being part of an international community and inheritors of a legacy of Western knowledge, they were also part of the historical processes of imperialism. They were established as an essential part of the colonizing process, a bastion of civilization and a sign that a colony and its settlers had ‘grown up’. Attempts to ‘indigenize’ colonial academic institutions and/or individual disciplines within them have been fraught with major struggles over what counts as knowledge, as language, as literature, as curriculum and as the role of intellectuals, and over the critical function of the concept of academic freedom.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (1999, pg. 65)

In Westernized universities, the knowledge produced by other epistemologies, cosmologies, and world views arising from other world-regions with diverse time/space dimensions and characterized by different geopolitics and body-politics of knowledge are considered ‘inferior’ in relation to the ‘superior’ knowledge produced by the few Western men of five countries that compose the canon of thought in the Humanities and the Social Sciences.

Ramon Grosfoguel, “The Structure of Knowledge in Westernized Universities: Epistemic Racism/Sexism and the Four Genocides/Epistemicides of the Long 16th Century” (2013, pg. 75)

The academy is never home: some of us are subject to eviction and evisceration, alongside the surveillance, discipline, and low-intensity punishment that accrues to those of us who try to build modalities of sustenance and reproduction within liberationist genealogies, particularly when we are working and studying in colleges and universities.

Dylan Rodriguez, “Racial/Colonial Genocide and the ‘Neoliberal Academy’: In Excess of a Problematic” (2012, pg. 811)

Within settler colonialism, the most important concern is land/water/air/subterranean earth (land, for shorthand, in this article.) Land is what is most valuable, contested, required. This is both because the settlers make Indigenous land their new home and source of capital, and also because the disruption of Indigenous relationships to land represents a profound epistemic, ontological, cosmological violence. This violence is not temporally contained in the arrival of the settler but is reasserted each day of occupation.

Eve Tuck and K Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is not a Metaphor”, (2012, pg. 5)

Protect your spirit, because you’re in the place where spirits get eaten.

John Trudell

By Way of Introduction

Planting seeds, sembrando semillas. Entering the university, and also, exiting. I wish to convivir, to give thanks to those who have brought us together in conversation. I am grateful to be part of this collective space, this critical dialogue—listening and sharing as a community of scholars of color (Black, Indigenous, POC); sharing ways to disrupt, transform, or at least survive and aprovechar of the neoliberal, settler research university. Projects that seek to dismantle oppressive structures and cultures—as an everyday, protracted spiritual political lifework—take on a particular shape in an institution such as the university. My hope is to share my own reflections, visions, and complex experiences traveling between multiple languages, cosmovisiones (worldviews), and “worlds” (as Maria Lugones describes them)—as a musician, danzante, cultural worker, educator, and Ethnic Studies scholar-activist (Lugones 2003). In this reflection, written as a graduate student of color interrogating the neoliberal university,[1]I began these reflections as I completed my PhD in Comparative Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley and am revisiting them now as I finish my second year as Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at … Continue reading I linger with some of the radical dilemmas that emerge when doing decolonial work within and without a colonial institution. To begin, I must situate myself, over and again, in time and place. 

Thinking and writing from xučyun (Huichin),[2]“xučyun (Huichin) is the home territory (of) Chochenyo speaking Ohlone people, it extends from what we know today as the Berkeley hills to the Bay Shore, from West Oakland to El Cerrito. The … Continue reading I greet you from stolen land—unceded, Chochenyo-speaking, Muwekma, Ohlone, Lisjan territories currently occupied by the University of California, Berkeley. Here I am a guest, a visitor; dis-placed, dis-located. I must begin by giving thanks, asking permission, and respectfully acknowledging my Ohlone relatives and their ancestral homelands. I am thinking and writing as a Latinx scholar and cultural worker of Indigenous descent—a Chilenx Mapuche exile in diaspora, in migration—where researching has become a means, not of discovery, but of re-membering and re-connection. In this way, I am often reminded of the risks of trying to carry out this work in an institution such as the university—an institution whose structure is, in many ways, fundamentally antithetical to Indigenous lifeways and pedagogies, an institution whose structure actively seeks to erase the material and epistemic existence of many of our ancestor’s knowledge systems. As I walk this path, I often find myself in a space of radical contradiction, of trying to heal in a place of harm. This does not prevent the work from being done, but only asks me to be even more intentional, more focused, more careful—especially about what I am doing within, and without, and at times in spite of, despite the university. 

I am thinking here from my own personal experiences at the University of California at Berkeley, from 2007-2009, 2010-2012, and 2015-2020. All my formal training as a scholar has been in the Department of Ethnic Studies through a comparative, or relational approach to studying African American/African Diaspora/Black Studies, Indigenous/Native American Studies, Xicanx/Latinx Studies and Asian American/Asian Diaspora Studies. I transferred to Berkeley after eight years of part-time study at California Community Colleges, also working part-time as a musician, guitar and drum tech, and/or at coffee shops to pay the bills. I am not the first in my family to go to college, though my brother and I were the first to do so in the United States. Since being affiliated and resourced by the university, I have worked as a scholar-activist with political movements and organizations working towards food and environmental justice, as well as with queer, feminist, and healing justice projects. I have taught classes and facilitated workshops in K-12 schools, universities, prisons, and popular education spaces. 

Throughout this educational and activist journey, I have also maintained an active commitment to spiritual and cultural practice. Carried out in community, and guided by our elders, youth, and ancestors, this is the work I call ceremony. This is part of the “root work” (Zepeda, 2020) many of us have been called to do as de-indigenized, de-tribalized Xicanx, Latinx Indigenous peoples—estudiosxs en nepantla. In particular, I work with music, dance, plants, and hands-on healing practices in this context of ceremony. This path of research as ceremony has taken me up, down and across Turtle Island, Cemanahuac, Abiayala, aka “the Americas” (including the Caribbean)—to Huichin (Berkeley/Oakland, CA), Payomkawichum and Kumeyaay lands (San Diego, CA), Mexico-Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), Kullasuyu/Picunmapu (Central Chile) and Wallmapu/Ngulumapu (Southern Chile) in particular. I am a descendant of these long and tangled roots/routes. It is from this path of conocimiento (Anzaldúa 2013), this meandering and shapeshifting road, that I ponder.

I carry out my work—tracing how my communities are reconnecting, re-membering Mapuchekimün, huehuetlahtolli, the wisdom of our ancestors (despite multiple ongoing genocides)—in dialogue with the complex and precarious spaces of Indigenous/Native American and Xicanx/Latinx Studies in particular. Re-membering also requires that we de-center the Eurocentric imperial university—disrupting epistemic apartheid, colonial violence, transforming pedagogical and intellectual spaces through ancestral medicine and “traditional healing praxes” (Martinez, 2013). Teaching, reading, writing, dancing, singing, thinking; trying to do the good work, in a good way. This is prayerful direct action in a secular, corporate University. De-universalizing the university, from a parallel pluriverse. Reminding myself, and each other, that we are a peaceful people, good people, we are master astronomers, mathematicians, dancers, poets, musicians, artists, scientists, warriors on our own terms, and in our own right.

On Neoliberal/Settler Continuities

In this volume that seeks to critique the neoliberal university, I ask us to consider how the neoliberal university is always already a settler university. Its epistemologies (ways of knowing), methodologies (ways of arriving to knowing), and organizing principles (ways of structuring knowing) are colonial introductions to this land and its peoples (Smith, 1999). The corporatization and privatization of this university, and the academy at large, is happening on a foundational violence that is rooted in multiple and ongoing but unsuccessful genocides. As a project, the university does not value, nor consult the knowledge that comes from the land on which it is placed. Instead, as a settler university, it “destroys to replace” (Wolfe, 2006). Through these pensamientos—self-reflecting in community—I hope to provide a theoretical x-ray speculation on the scaffolding of the modern/colonial, settler research university; ideating towards decolonial, intercultural, pluriversal futures in the present. 

Following Dylan Rodriguez, I also wish to situate a critique of neoliberalism in a longer and wider view of colonial and imperial power. While neoliberalism as an analytic helps us locate a particular moment in late capitalist cultural history, it must also be understood as a rearticulation of an originary, settler colonial violence. Multiculturalism, and related projects of diversity, equity, and inclusion, remain rooted in settler colonial, genocidal logics—and therefore are not a departure from, but recommitments to a coloniality of power and knowledge. As Rodriguez argues:

The point to be amplified is that multiculturalism and pluralism are essential to both the contemporary formation of neoliberalism and the historical distensions of racial/colonial genocide…It is for this reason that I do not find the analytics of neoliberalism to be sufficient for describing the conditions of political work within the U.S. academy today. It is not just different structures of oppressive violence that radical scholars are trying to make legible, it is violence of a certain depth, with specific and morbid implications for some peoples’ future existence as such. If we can begin to acknowledge this fundamental truth—that genocide is this place (the American academy and, in fact, America itself)—then our operating assumptions, askable questions, and scholarly methods will need to transform

(Rodriguez, 2012: 812).

Carrying out our work where “genocide is this place” requires that we reconsider the nature of academic work—maintaining a decolonial skepticism towards self-congratulatory settler reforms. To be sure, calling attention to a lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion in a settler university is not enough. If we are not explicitly calling attention to genocide and settler colonialism as foundational to the spaces in which we are working—visibilizing this violence as it permeates the everyday fabric of academic life—we may end up working to naturalize, normalize or otherwise obscure the ways in which “genocide is this place.” We must, therefore, consider at length what may be said about the settler university as such.

Dismantling the Settler University: Eurocentrism and Genocide/Epistemicide

The settler university is a Eurocentric university, one that continues to look towards Western Europe—and its fabled Modernity—as the lineage through which an appeal to Reason, and therefore Knowledge, can be made (Maldonado-Torres, 2012). As a land-grant institution it is a land grab institution.[3] See also www.landgrabu.org According to UC Berkeley’s own website:

The Morrill Act, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862, created the so-called land-grant universities, donating land left over from the building of the Transcontinental Railroad to fund the creation of institutions of higher learning…The Morrill Act gave birth to the University of California and secured the state’s pre-eminence in research, agriculture and technological innovation…

(Freeling, 2012)

In another piece of university public relations, UC President Mark Yudof celebrates the Morrill Act as it “transformed not just California, but the entire United States, from a divided, underdeveloped society into one that is vigorously diverse, competitive and advanced” (Freeling, 2012). Yudof continues, “And perhaps most importantly, it made mass education—which is the bedrock of both national and individual progress—the norm, and not the exception.” The website states clearly that, “The goal was to provide higher learning to the children of the settlers, farmers and frontier prospectors” (Freeling, 2012).

Yudof (re)articulates the tired, linear discourse of Westernizing, colonial modernity—implying a shared, universal definition and desire for Progress, Advancement, Development and other euphemisms for settler colonial violence. I return to the epigraph from Linda Tuhiwai Smith that opens this piece, when she writes: 

Although colonial universities saw themselves as being part of an international community and inheritors of a legacy of Western knowledge, they were also part of the historical processes of imperialism. They were established as an essential part of the colonizing process, a bastion of civilization and a sign that a colony and its settlers had ‘grown up’.

(Smith, 1999)

This is the imagined role of the university in the state’s colonial order—the bringer of development, technology, and social cohesion—one of the institutions through which a society can aspire to become included in “the West.” This has often been the promise of settler colonial discourses and imaginaries—empty, savage landscapes lying in wait to be civilized. This is a colonial fantasy, a settler story that is repeated ad nauseum until it is normalized as inevitable. In other words, it is a myth; an utterance that silences as it speaks. There is no such thing as “land left over.” From an Other perspective, from Below, these fables of courageous settlers bravely exploring the wild frontier are colonial chimeras—a persistent set of marketing campaigns for genocide:

On October 8, 1867, the Trustees of the College of California voted to give all their land and property to the state to create a new “University of California.” These College trustees hoped to create an institution “equal to those of Eastern Colleges.” The state repealed the act of 1866 and on March 23, 1868—thereafter celebrated as Charter Day—the legislature passed the “Organic Act,” creating the University of California. The state then expanded the college out of Oakland into an adjoining town named after George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, who, during a visit to America in 1729, spoke of educating and converting to Christianity the “aboriginal Americans.”

(“Brief History of Cal”)

This is because the settler university is a genocidal university. UC Berkeley was founded during a moment when California was high on gold, rich off bounty hunting Native peoples, buying and trading dis-membered bodies—Manifest Destiny fulfilling its self-fulfilling prophecy. The settler university seeks to kill, to eliminate the Native (Wolfe, 2006); declares black and brown Others as enemies of this endless war on dark, feminine bodies and ways of knowing.[4]If these are the ways of knowing that Audre Lorde calls “poetry” (Lorde 2007), then the university could also be understood as a dense site of the anti-poetic. Unfinished, unresolved, and unsuccessful; these genocides have always been a futile settler project—for they can never fully remove a people nor their ways of knowing from the land. Extermination, assimilation, civilization—these are stories meant to obscure the truth of their failed businesses, myths meant to celebrate an extinction that remains impossible. In other words, we are still here.

Non-Western ways of knowing have long been one of the first targets of colonial genocide. Situating the Westernized university in the “long sixteenth century”—as a project originating in the conquests of Southern Spain, Africa, and the Americas—decolonial scholar Ramon Grosfoguel describes how:

In addition to the genocide of people, the conquest of Al-Andalus was accompanied by epistemicide. For example, the burning of libraries was a fundamental method used in the conquest of Al-Andalus. The library of Cordoba, that had around 500,000 books at a time when the largest library of Christian Europe did not have more than 1000 books, was burned in the 13th century. Many other libraries had the same destiny during the conquest of Al-Andalus until the final burning of more than 250,000 books of the Granada library by Cardenal Cisneros in the early 16th century. These methods were extrapolated to the Americas. Thus, the same happened with the indigenous “codices” which was the written practice used by Amerindians to archive knowledge. Thousands of “codices” were also burned, destroying indigenous knowledges in the Americas. Genocide and epistemicide went together in the process of conquest in both the Americas and Al-Andalus.

(Grosfoguel, 2013: 80)

The amoxtin (‘codices’) that did survive this process of epistemicide were stolen and brought illegally to Europe, ending up in the private collections of the most notorious and ruthless families of the time—the Borgias, the Bourbons, and others. As if to further disrespect and distort this knowledge, these sacred amoxtli were then renamed after the families who benefited from this plunder; as Codex Borgia, Codex Borbonicus, etc. These texts remain in European collections such as the National Museum of Paris and the Vatican (Codex Vaticanus) named after their captors, far away from their descendants who know them as relatives, whose pedagogies know how to activate and dialogue with the knowledge they contain.

I seek to extend how we think of genocide even further. Genocide as structure is the attempted destruction of life writ large. Or, put another way, as a danzante, it is the desire to stop us from dancing, understood here as another way to try and destroy the essence of life itself. Part of this is containment, enclosure—and another still is desecration of the Sacred (Niumeitolu, 2019). Why else would they target and murder danzantes on multiple occasions while dancing in ceremony? It is seeking to interrupt the ancestral lifeways of peoples, for the sake of ending their existence and relationships to place, to themselves and each other. We must even redefine the notion of what makes a ‘people.’ In Mapudungun, through the concept of che, one can also refer to trees as wooden people, stones as stone people, or non-human animals as other forms of people. Therefore, the cutting down of trees, the forced mining of mountains and the mass extinction of millions of species of non-human life that has resulted from colonial extractivism are fundamental to this notion of genocide. 

The university is directly implicated in each aspect of these genocides. Every year UC Berkeley celebrates the “Big Game” against Stanford University by performatively cutting down a tree in the central plaza of campus. The University of California system was built with the wealth accumulated by white settlers mining for gold and bounty hunting Native peoples (Madley, 2016). The school mascot, the golden bear, is a bear species that went extinct as a direct result of colonial settlement—dropping from around 125,000 in the 18th century to being declared fully extinct in 1924 (Kroeber, 1925). The poisoning of the local watershed through nuclear testing and weapons development, planting the first invasive Eucalyptus grove, establishing the first Botanical Garden in the Western US—all of these are acts I wish to historicize and situate within this understanding of settler creativity and innovation as genocide. I describe these local histories of settler violence, as woven into the fabric of the university, not to restate a dominant narrative of Indigenous victimhood and supposed extinction, but instead to point to the context in which the projects of Indigenous and Ethnic Studies have taken shape—as rebellions, cross-cultural demands for a radical reimagining, enacting a complete redefinition of what it means to produce knowledge and what education (and the world) can look like. 

The university is sick. The trees, the students, the creek, are not well. It is a place of contamination and waste—of chronic illness and transgenerational violence. It perpetuates a way of being and working that is not rooted in right relations—interrupting ways of relating rooted in reciprocity, mutuality, kinship, responsibility. Here in “the academy,” relationships are weaponized for one’s own individual career aspirations. In the social sciences and humanities, single author articles published in the dusty journals of industry standards are often considered the most important—listed first in one’s tenure file review. Hearing of someone else doing work that is closely related to your own is seen as a threat, not as a synchronicity, nor an exciting opportunity to collaborate and build with a colleague. Lest we forget, this academic individualism that is actively being inculcated in our neoliberal youth is directly linked to the forced individualization of our ancestors who lived in community. Our ways of being as peoples, as nations, as collectives, are targeted. Instead, we are encouraged as scholars to claim individual ownership of “our knowledge” as property—further erasing the stolen land, stolen people, and stolen labor upon which the very concept of property relies. If there is one thing I have learned from my ancestors, it is that ownership was never the point. Knowledge was only as valuable as its ability to inspire and perpetuate collective, harmonious ways of being with each other and the land. We produce(d) knowledge through cross-cultural and humble epistemic collaboration; with each other, and all our relations—the land, the water, the plants, the stars, the more-than-human. The university dismembers these relationships, forgets, tears apart bodies, minds, hearts, spirits, and peoples. It disfigures, distorts, as it disowns its place in the cosmos.

On Spirituality

Often in protests we chant, asking each other: Whose university? The usual answer is: “our university.” I say: it is their university, because it is based on their Uni-verse, and they can keep it. From across the slipstream, we land here as inter-dimensional nepantlerxs, shape shifting outsiders within, relatives from Other worlds (Vizenor, 2012; Anzaldua, 2009; Hill Collins, 1986). In between, we bridge, we re-member, we work towards the end of the world. Even as I write these words, I must smudge myself, honor the hurt it brings to my heart, to my mind, to remember that this place, where I have studied on and off for over 13 years, is made up of these stories, still operates under these names, still reopens these wounds every time they open their doors for business. Here, healing is a seditious act. Dancing in the decolonial cracks (Walsh 2014) is an insurgent way of celebrating our survival as peoples and knowers. We don’t belong here, and that is a gift. 

This is spiritual direct action in a secular institution. This concept finds its way into my work because in my communities we do speak of ‘spirit’ in this way, though this is never at odds with the scientific, artistic nor materialist inquiry as it would be in a Western cosmology.[5]David Delgado Shorter’s (2016) critique of spirituality as a key term in Indigenous Studies cautions that Eurocentric mistranslations of religious and spiritual concepts can exist on a slippery … Continue reading I am not studying the esoteric, but the everyday concrete ways in which we can be in right relation to each other and all our relations. I don’t rely on Western divisions and binary dissections of secular vs. spiritual, art or religion vs. science, etc. We must be careful with these colonial trapdoors that compel us to re-center European categories and epistemologies. Yet, wanting to be a good relative (Pelaez Lopez 2019), be a healthy future elder and (eventually) ancestor, puts me in this conversation on spiritual terms.  

 This understanding of spirituality is also informed by Anzaldúa’s concept of “spiritual activism” as “inner work/public acts” (Anzaldúa, 2001). I resonate with this notion of activism as a project that takes place within and without—where the courage and commitment to social transformation that is embodied by the activist, the warrior, is also translated and applied to the inner terrains of struggle. For the white supremacist, the capitalist, the patriarch, the homophobe, are not only external enemies—their messages are alive and well in the internal dialogues I witness when I sit to observe my own thoughts, actions and judgements as they cross the river of my mind in meditation. Similarly, these forces are not discreetly outside of our communities, as these systems of power have thoroughly infiltrated our families, our movements, our most intimate relations. 

Within this matrix of violence, the public interventions of decolonization we enact must be guided by love if they are to become the bases for durable and multiplying transformations—love for ourselves, our peoples, the land and love for the struggle itself. As bell hooks reminds us, working from an “ethic of love,” amidst these interlocking systems of power, demands that we work to remove the barriers to love as they emerge in ourselves and our communities (“the ethic of domination”)—as an act of liberation (hooks, 1994). In other words, building and enacting an interconnected world of loving relations in this deathworld of settler colonial, everyday war is an act of spiritual resistance. In this light, one of the deepest and most urgent root causes of the crises of modernity/coloniality is unearthed—a profound spiritual poverty (Nenquimo, 2020). 

On Sedition, Re-centering, and Research as Ceremony

The charge of sedition is a prerequisite for liberation. Liberation is always outside the structure, and therefore marginalized, illegalized, and criminalized (Dussel, 2003). What then is a liberatory education? What kind of knowledge do we need now, for these times? To be clear, education is not inherently liberatory. Again, historically education has often been another word for genocide. Therefore, repurposing and transforming education into a space of re-membering and decolonizing is nothing short of a complete upheaval, a deracination of the “worm eaten roots of the structure” (Fanon, 2008). I am reminded of slogans I have seen on t-shirts: “all my heroes have always killed colonizers”, “everything I want to do is illegal”. I am reminded that Frantz Fanon, Gloria Anzaldúa, and many others were never recognized for their work until after their deaths. Their dissertations (Fanon’s Black Skin/White Masks and Anzaldúa’s Light in the Dark/Luz en lo Oscuro), were both rejected as unacceptable academic work, but were later published elsewhere (outside traditional academic channels) and have ended up re-shaping entire fields of the academy. In this way, if we fail our exams, or are told our work isn’t rigorous enough, or is ‘incomprehensible’, in a settler university, this may mean we are doing something right. 

Shifting the geo and body politics of knowledge, I ask: where am I thinking from (Mignolo, 2012)? Knowledge comes from places, from bodies, from facing different directions and asking that corner of the universe to collaborate in this moment of knowing. Since the academy will never be my home, this is an invitation to recenter myself in my communities, and especially in ceremony. By this I mean, an important center of knowing is my community’s xictli, our rewe, our community altars that open up collective, intergenerational fields of knowing. The knowledge I seek doesn’t necessarily come from the modern/colonial settler classroom. Conocimiento doesn’t only come from books, it also comes from our bones, our danzas, cuicacameh (songs), from the cosmos themselves. Writing is just one way to try and translate this knowledge. However, this knowledge, in the form of consciousness, has been here since the beginning of time, and will be here long after we go back to the stars.

By Way of Conclusion 

While writing and editing this article, I completed my doctoral thesis on Anahuacan ceremonial dance and music as forms of spiritual resistance, as ways of knowing and seeking right relations despite 500 years of genocide and settler violence (Garzo, 2020). The knowledge of the ancestors that lives in our moyocoyani (cultural memory), mapuche kimün, that dances in ceremony, mitotiliztli teochitontequiza, is not accumulated materially, nor stored in archives. It is activated through the catalyst of ceremony; as a field of consciousness that lives in community and the embodied, oral tradition of the elders. It is a living, breathing repertoire of knowing. When research is ceremony, this de-centers the university as the sole place of knowing and knowledge production (Smith, 2008). 

In Mapudungun, (the language of my Mapuche ancestors and relatives) one of the words for knowledge is kimün. The knowledge of our people as Indigenous people is Mapuche Kimün (the knowledge of the people of the land)—the knowledge that maintains our indigeneity. From this perspective, the knowledge of Chileans and Argentinians (who are also my ancestors and relatives) is wingka kimün, the knowledge of the invaders. Naming invaders as such here is not meant to be disrespectful, but simply historically accurate. In fact, it honors that the invaders also have ways of knowing that we can learn from and be in conversation with. However, what these forms of (outsider) knowledge bring is different, it is knowledge that comes from another place.

In this way, my relatives in Wallmapu (Mapuche territory) have reminded me that we must be clear about which kind of knowledge we are seeking in these times of settler collapse. How can we rely on wingka kimün—an inherently dis-placed knowledge—for our efforts to restore and regenerate the earth, to re-member who we truly are? This is not a total refusal, or denial of wingka kimün, but again, a shifting of the center. Todo tiene su tiempo, there is a time and a place for every kind of knowledge. However, in this time, how can we come to re-member, and center our many pu Mapuche kimün (knowledges of the people of the land), our deep and old ways of knowing how to be peoples of the earth?

Part of the contradiction I have been grappling with in this essay is that I have come to understand many aspects of this work through the ongoing project of Ethnic Studies as such. However, we must remember that Ethnic Studies in many ways is a misnomer, a sloppy mistranslation of the original demands and visions of the 1968-1969 Third World Liberation Fronts of San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley. Initiated by the Black Student Unions of each respective campus and won only through intercommunal solidarity and coalition building between Black, Indigenous, Xicanx, and Asian American student struggles, the institutionalization of Ethnic Studies has come at the price of compromise, dilution and abortion of a more radical Third World Studies (Okihiro, 2016). These original Third World liberation impulses demand/ed a fundamental decolonization of knowledge and power. Working for a “relevant education,” rooted in self-determination and cross-cultural solidarity, the TWLF allows us to imagine and create an Other world. 

Thinking etymologically, “ethnic,” from the Greek ta ethne “the nations,” translated the Hebrew ha goyim “the (non-Jewish) nations…Hence in Late Latin, after the Christianization of Rome, gentilis also could mean ‘pagans, heathens,’ as opposed to Christians…gentile nation, foreign nation not worshipping the true God” (“Ethno-”). In this light, perhaps Ethnic Studies is a correct name insofar as it signals the study of the Other, the study of technologies and structures of Othering. Thinking from, with, those of us who have survived in/through resistance, us decolonial heathen Others who have refused to worship the Gods of the West—Man, Capital, Whiteness, Science, etc. How can we reimagine education in these ways, not as assimilation into a genocidal, settler world, not as becoming well-adjusted to a sick society, but as the process of unlearning settler modernity and re-membering who we truly are? We are not just somebody’s (the West’s) Others. What kind of education is possible when we de-center Europe and re-center spirit, that which re-connects? Beyond sedition, is liberation, what, and how do we study there? De-centering Europe is only the first step. 


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Suggested Citation:

Montalvo, M.C. 2024. “Within and Without the Settler University: Reflections on Decolonization, Spirituality and Research as Ceremony.”  In eds. José Manuel Santillana Blanco, Kidiocus King-Carroll, Naimah Zulmadelle Pétigny, and Kong Pheng Pha in collaboration with AGITATE! Editorial Collective. Seditious Acts: AGITATE! Special Volume with CRES: https://agitatejournal.org/article/within-and-without-the-settler-university-reflections-on-decolonization-spirituality-and-research-as-ceremony/


1 I began these reflections as I completed my PhD in Comparative Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley and am revisiting them now as I finish my second year as Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at California State University, San Marcos.
2 “xučyun (Huichin) is the home territory (of) Chochenyo speaking Ohlone people, it extends from what we know today as the Berkeley hills to the Bay Shore, from West Oakland to El Cerrito. The territory is composed of what we know today as five Bay Area cities—all of Alameda, Berkeley, Emeryville, El Cerrito, and most of Oakland. Our campus extends to areas of xučyun that held a tuppentak (a traditional roundhouse), a place of celebration and ceremony, as well as a shellmound, traditional Ohlone burial sites. So, as we view Berkeley as a special place, we were not the first to recognize, make our lives in, or celebrate the unique and exceptional place that we have the privilege to stand on.” (NASD 2023).
3  See also www.landgrabu.org
4 If these are the ways of knowing that Audre Lorde calls “poetry” (Lorde 2007), then the university could also be understood as a dense site of the anti-poetic.
5 David Delgado Shorter’s (2016) critique of spirituality as a key term in Indigenous Studies cautions that Eurocentric mistranslations of religious and spiritual concepts can exist on a slippery slope that reduces questions of spirituality to individual “beliefs” about “spirits,” or something “supernatural” or otherwise categorically opposed to “matter.” Shorter situates these hasty generalizations into a long history of harm that has characterized ethnographic and religious studies in particular. My own study follows Shorter’s (2016) intervention in that “being related” is a better translation than “spirituality” (18) when thinking from many Indigenous worldviews.

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