Decoloyarning: What is this “decolonisation” about which you yarn?

This article is a response to a piece of feedback the Decoloyarns editorial team received from a reader. They told us “you talk about decolonisation in your articles without saying what you think it means”. Thank you for engaging and giving us feedback and excellent point!

When it comes to questions about the meanings of words, it may seem like the obvious place to start is by picking up the dictionary. However, most English dictionaries are written without much input from Indigenous peoples, and the origins of decolonisation as a term comes from a way of describing Indigenous governance after colonial invasion. So here is a definition of decolonisation by Wiradjuri scholars Mary Frances O’Dowd and Robyn Heckenberg:

"Colonisation is invasion: a group of people taking over the land and imposing their own culture on Indigenous people. Modern colonisation dates back to the Age of Discovery in the 15th century, as European nations sought to expand their influence and wealth. In the process, representatives of these countries claimed the land, ignoring the Indigenous people and erasing Indigenous sovereignty… Decolonisation seeks to reverse and remedy this through direct action and listening to the voices of First Nations people."

Listening to First Nations people is crucial to decolonisation, but by continuing to fit listening into a Western world view, non-Indigenous people struggle to truly understand what Indigenous Peoples are saying, asking for, or instructing. In this article, Fenner HDR scholar and Decoloyarns editor Ruth Mills reflects on how learning about decolonisation meant noticing her assumptions and becoming aware that Western ways of thinking, doing and being aren’t the only ones.


I’d like to begin by thanking Ngunnawal-Ngambri Country, where I’m sitting and standing as I write this article, and acknowledge all the ways that Country supports my learning, my research and my writing.

Now, before I go any further, I need to clear: I’m not Indigenous. It is not my place to attempt to answer the question posed as the title of this article. But what I can do is ask some more questions, share some of what I’ve learnt from being part of the Fenner Circle and hopefully help you understand why “What is decolonisation?” is a question without a simple answer.


What is this “physics” (or “environmental science” or “geography”) about which you speak?
A year ago, I would have assumed “what is physics?” is a question about how one field of scientific research differs from others. I would have drawn on my background studying physics to try to explain what I think is most characteristic of what it means to “think like a physicist” and try to explain that in a way that makes sense to someone who has never studied physics.

I would do so knowing that other physicists would answer the question in completely different ways. But we’d all have a shared experience of doing a particular kind of research, that allows me to see where other physicists are coming from even if I don’t agree with their definition of physics. Because of course that’s the only way to approach a contested and complicated question like “what is physics?”. (Or “what is decolonisation?”)

Not necessarily. Because discipline boundaries are determined by what isn’t researched and not just by what is.

What is omitted from curricula in all disciplines, and what does this tell us about the purpose of education as we see it? Any curriculum must, by definition, exclude – the question is what is excluded and why, and whether the purpose of our education system should be to perpetuate existing power structures and norms, or equip students with the critical tools to question them.


- Dalia Gebrial in Rohodes Must Fall: Oxford and Movements for change.
Bhambra, Gurminder K.. Decolonising the University (p. 26). Pluto Press. Kindle Edition.


If you start thinking about the research academics don’t do and the knowledge institutions don’t teach, you have to start thinking about why. Why science focuses on the priorities of certain groups in society and not others and how it contributes to reinforcing certain worldviews and not others.

And of course, I can choose to open myself up to questions about the research I am not doing. I can choose to reflect on whether I am privileging viewpoints that align with my own and I can choose to critique power structures in my disciplines when I talk about where my research fits in.

But at ANU in 2022 I don’t have to.


How do we feel about research?
A year ago, I would have said: “We all feel differently about research. We might be excited about a breakthrough in our own research or to learn what other people are researching. We might be frustrated or despairing because our research feels stuck or anxious about what other people will think about it.” But underneath all of these answers is the assumption that research itself is a good thing.

Of course, right?

Not necessarily. Because the “we” who have feelings about research includes people who are being researched and not just researchers.

"The word itself, ‘research’, is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary… it stirs up silence, it conjures up bad memories, it raises a smile that is knowing and distrustful… The ways in which scientific research is implicated in the worst excesses of colonialism remains a powerful remembered history for many of the world’s colonized peoples… Just knowing that someone measured our ‘faculties’ by filling the skulls of our ancestors with millet seeds and compared the amount of millet seed to the capacity for mental thought offends our sense of who and what we are. It galls us that Western researchers and intellectuals can assume to know all that it is possible to know of us, on the basis of their brief encounters with some of us."

- Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonising Methodologies

If you knew that most of the people whose opinions you most cared about saw research as a dirty word, it would change how you approached your research. Your number one aim would be to make sure the research you’re doing is not THAT sort of research.

And of course, I can choose to prioritise the views of people who are impacted by my research and who have lived experience of the topics I am researching over the views of other researchers.

But at ANU in 2022 I don’t have to.


What do we talk about when we share our research?
A year ago I would have said: “The point of sharing our research is to reassure the reader or the listener that we’re doing good research. That we’ve been approaching our research in sensible, scholarly ways and that we’ve got a realistic plan for what comes next. We do this by talking about the literature we’re drawing on, the data we’ve collected or planned to collect and how we’re interpreting it”.

Not necessarily. Because if you value the views of Indigenous peoples over those of other researchers, then you make sure you talk about the things that matter to Indigenous peoples.

"Indigenous methodologies tend to approach cultural protocols, values and behaviours as an integral part of methodology. They are ‘factors’ to be built into research explicitly, to be thought about reflexively, to be declared openly as part of the research design, to be disseminated back to the people in culturally appropriate ways and in a language that can be understood."

- Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonising Methodologies

When cultural protocols, values and ways of being are an integral part of your research, they also become an integral part of what you talk about when you talk about your research.

And of course, I can choose to talk about cultural protocols, values and ways of being in my papers, in my seminars and in my tea-breaks. And then figure out how to say everything else I’m expected to say in less words.

But if I start to challenge discipline norms around communicating research, I might find my options for publishing and giving seminars are limited. And if I find my options are limited, it must be worse for First Nations scholars.


Who gives us feedback on and reviews our research?
A year ago, I would have thought this was too obvious to even consider. Look around the room at any research seminar: you’ll see a lot of academics and HDR students. When you submit papers, they’ll be reviewed by academic experts. When you apply for research grants, they’ll be reviewed by… that’s right academics again. All of which is no surprise, because peer review is one of the fundamental principles of western research. Where “peers” are other academics in the field you’re researching.

Now, given what I’ve been talking about so far, you might be expecting me to say that if we were to decolonise universities, then research would need to be reviewed by Indigenous peoples.

That would almost certainly be true, but this question actually goes a lot deeper. Because in Indigenous methodologies, Country gives us feedback on our research and not just people.

"The relationships and connections of Country inform what we do and when we do it. They make us who we are. Our very bodies become what they are through our relationship with the wäkun that we hunt (or not), the yam that we gather (or not), the bush turkey that welcomes us (or not). These connections sustain us, providing both physical and emotional sustenance. There is a different ethics here. This is an ethics of care and connection. The very essence of who we are comes into being through our relationships with each other and with Country."

- Bawaka Country et al,
Working with and learning from Country: decentring human author-ity

This is a completely different ethical system. One that requires researchers to ask questions such as: What do the yam think of my research? How do I get feedback from the bush turkeys?

And of course, I could choose to talk about how I will get feedback from the bush turkeys when I prepare a research application.

But I’d worry about whether my proposal would be supported by non-Indigenous funding bodies, whose reviewers are mostly unfamiliar with how Indigenous peoples use methodologies based on attending to Country to answer these questions. And if I’m worried about the reaction I’d get, as a non-Indigenous researcher, I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like for First Nations scholars.


Whose data is it?
A year ago, I would have said: “It’s the researcher’s data. Obviously. They collected it and that’s why they’re sharing it in their presentations and papers or gave permission for other researchers to use it.”

Not necessarily. Because the humans and more-than-humans you are researching might believe their stories belong to them.

"The GPR results are in, but I won’t share those with you. They have been received by the Elders who will share them, it is Wiradjuri IP, data and findings and therefore it is not appropriate for me to share that with you (this article is not about the results, it’s about the process)."

- Tracey Potts
Decoloyarning: We are all, always working on Country

This is a set of values that sees research as a service to the community. And just because you are the one “collecting” the data, it doesn’t mean that the data is yours. The data belongs to the community and decisions about how to share and use that data are made by the elders on behalf of the community.

Of course I could choose to follow these protocols and not share the data from my research.

But in doing so, I’d find myself in a difficult position. If I’m not going to share the results of my research, what do I even talk about when I talk about my research? How do I reassure the people I need to support my research that my research is “on track” and “worthwhile” and “original"?

And here I run smack-bang into sovereignty and colonisation. Because the people I need to support my research are the people considered important by colonial education systems and power structures. And not the humans and more-than-humans considered important by the Indigenous nations whose lands were never ceded.

Which leaves me with a lot of difficult questions about what decolonisation means for me and no easy answers.


Have a question about decolonisation?

Try reading the sources quoted in this article:

Get in touch with Decoloyarns and we may explore your queries next time:

  • If you have a comment or question you’d like us to respond to in a future article, email the address listed alongside this article.
  • If you would like to pitch a decoloyarn, you can find all the information about this process here.


Updated:  26 September 2022/Responsible Officer:  Director, Fenner School/Page Contact:  Webmaster, Fenner School