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Scholarly Communication

Neurodecolonization and the Cognition of Colonialism

This post is part of a series of reflections from the “Midwest Indigenous Cartography” project, which is an ongoing initiative that seeks to explore Indigenous worldviews, conceptions of cartography, and map-making practices, particularly in the Midwest.

Slim Curley’s Map (redrawn by Bernard Haile), 1977. Reprint of 1944 original

Michael Yellow Bird is a Dean and Professor on the faculty of Social Work at the University of Manitoba. “I am a citizen of the Three Affiliated Tribes, the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nations. I grew up on the Fort Berthold reservation in White Shield, North Dakota.” His research work focuses on neurodecolonization and the role that mindfulness practices, both in general and specific to his own tribal teachings, can play in decolonizing our perceptions and heuristics.

As its name would suggest, the concept of neurodecolonization focuses on a broadening of the understanding that many, if not all, of our mental shortcuts and assumptions we make daily are rooted in the mythology and rhetoric of obsolete, and in many cases intentionally malicious, paradigms. These paradigms range in their scope, from the pseudoscientific ideas of social Darwinism to the doctrine of blood quantum. Blood Quantum is defined as the percentage of native ancestry an individual has. This percentage was used, beginning in 1935, to restrict the legal definition of a native person to a traceable lineage. Blood Quantum has been used in some cases to replace traditional methods of determining tribal membership and inclusion, another tool of quantification and disintegration of Indigenous practices (Spruhan, 2007). Corrupt ideas, both literally and intellectually, permeate society from the top down. Raising awareness of and working to reverse these forces has been the focus of neurodecolonization (University of Manitoba, 2023).

In a 2011 article in American Indian Quarterly titled, “Lost in Conflation: Visual Culture and Constructions of the Category of Religion,” Michael Zogry discusses stereotypes as having two distinct categories: intellectual and popular. Today, both categories influence each other, with popular thought having much more influence on the intellectual than in decades past (Zogry, 2011). He discusses the origins of early colonial conceptions of Indigenous American life and the earliest colonizers’ relations to them. Early depictions of natives came from drawings from John White, who visited the short-lived Roanoke colony. These drawings were later disseminated more widely through wood engravings created by Theodore De Bry. Both White and De Bry’s depictions were the basis of thought for almost all later depictions and portrayals of the people of what they considered to be new land. These depictions and engravings were and are, of course, stylized. They sought to portray what the white colonizers could only describe as a religious ceremony, seeing as they had no frame of reference for the customs of the native peoples of modern-day North Carolina. From the point of its portrayal onward, native Algonquin customs and ceremonies were conflated with religion, in its Western sense.

These first visual representations of First Nation culture and mindfulness practices were displayed as a caricature of English projections. The engravings and their reproductions were stylized to represent First Nation peoples as sympathetic and useful to the English colonial goals, however false such ideas were. Zogry states that White was particularly adept at “…transforming specific observations into recognizable types” for his audiences back home (Zogry, 2011).

The term religion was ascribed to various aspects of native practice. This term was ‘imposed from outside,’ rather, not a first-person description (Zogry, 2011). European anthropological teaching at the time derived its meaning of religion from an assumption that their concept of monotheism was inherently universal. Therefore, when presented with depictions of people participating in activities unknown to them, the most fitting description was the word religion. This characterization has proven problematic in the 400 years since its inception.

To further deconstruct this idea of religion as it was ascribed to myriad First Nations ceremonies and practices, Michael Yellow Bird, among other colleagues, describes the far more integrated and harmonious relationships that First Nation peoples had with their surroundings. Their relationship was one of co-existence.

“…planetary health as a field is primarily a Western construct with Indigenous traditional knowledge (TK) systems having no clear separation between the health of the planet and the health of self or that of the community and ecosystem at large. The long-established interconnected ways of knowing embodied by Indigenous value-systems view social, economic, and ecological aspects as ‘unified systems’ with no divisional aspects apparent,” (Redvers et. al., 2020).

As the excerpt above asserts, the health of the ecosystem and the environment is an integral part of how First Nation peoples sustain themselves. Eating, playing, living, and maintaining a healthy relationship with the land around them are all one set of values, whereas the European doctrine would have such ideas carved into separate disciplines in which certain individuals can specialize. Framing the concept of ‘planetary health’ as an independent discipline of science implies that the earth and its health are important yet unrelated topics in relation to the rest of modern human society. Such framing detracts from the far more productive notion that the earth and its health are and should be at the center of every decision our society makes. This was the way of the world long before the invasion of European society across the globe and it must be a part of the future. This separation of supposedly unrelated disciplines is part of the cognitive structure of modern society that Yellow Bird and his colleagues argue must be decolonized.

Theodor De Bry, Columbus, 1594, Keazor, H. (1998). Theodore De Bry’s images for America. Print Quarterly, 15(2), 131–149.

Works Referenced
Keazor, H. (1998). Theodore De Bry’s images for America. Print Quarterly, 15(2), 131–149.

Kelley, K. B., & Francis, H. (2005). Traditional Navajo Maps and Wayfinding. American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 29(2), 85–111. 

Manitoba, U. of. (n.d.). Michael Yellow Bird. Michael Yellow Bird | Faculty of Social Work | University of Manitoba. Retrieved February 20, 2023, from 

Redvers, N., Bird, M. I., Quinn, D., Yunkaporta, T., & Arabena, K. (2020). Molecular Decolonization: An Indigenous Microcosm Perspective of Planetary Health. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(12), 4586. 

Spruhan, P. (2007). A Legal History of Blood Quantum in Federal Indian Law to 1935. Social Science Research Network.

Zogry, M. J. (2011). Lost in Conflation: Visual Culture and Constructions of the Category of Religion. American Indian Quarterly, 35(1), 1. 

For more resources related to the Midwest Indigenous Cartography Project, see our project bibliography on Zotero.

Soren Sandstrom is a senior at Indiana University Bloomington, studying Psychology and German. He has been working with the Midwest Indigenous Cartography Research Project since October and will graduate in May. He spent the 2021-22 school year at the Albert-Ludwigs University in Freiburg, Germany. He loves to learn about language and cultures and brings that curiosity to his work with the Midwest Indigenous Cartography team.

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