Understanding Decolonization: White Savior and Noble Savage Tropes

Earlier this week I gave a five minute talk on "white savior" and "noble savage" tropes in conservation.  Sometimes I speak off the cuff, but this time I read from prepared remarks.  Here's a recording of me giving this speech, along with the text.
Colonization is alive and well in the United States today. I was born on Guam, one of the five US territories, and identify as Native Chamorro. The official stance of the United States government is that I belong to an “alien race” of “savage and restless people” unable to understand “Anglo-Saxon principles.”

When I lived at home in the islands, I did not have the same rights as other American citizens, including representation in the White House or Congress, and people I did not have the power to vote for made decisions on my behalf. Any reasonable person with a sense of justice should be able to see why this is problematic, not just for conservation, but for all decisions made on behalf of a colonized community.

I did not start my career with the intent to focus so much of my time and energy on Indigenous conservation. I went to college and studied biology and environmental policy and 20 years later I find myself at a think tank in DC working on conservation. And I just happen to be Indigenous.

Throughout my career I’ve worked with Indigenous people in different geographies. I did not always initially seek to work with Indigenous people, but often found them because of the criteria we used to identify places important for Nature conservation. For example, a program I worked on early in my career used four criteria to conduct a global scan to identify areas that could potentially become large scale marine protected areas: We looked for places that were (1) large, (2) that were largely unfished, (3) in countries with a history of conservation, and (4) with some hope of enforcement post designation.

When you look at the globe through these criteria, you tend to land on places that are overseas territories of wealthy countries with large militaries. In most of these places, the decision-making authority lies in the capitals of London, Paris, and Washington, DC. Nearly all of these places are home to Indigenous people, marginalized people who have survived five centuries of colonization. So now, when given the opportunity, I talk about conservation NGOs making a commitment to decolonization. This should not be a commitment taken lightly, but just as our institutional leaders have made public statements about racism, a commitment to decolonization is the just and right thing to do.

White Savior Tropes
A lot of conservation stories are told from the White perspective, even when Indigenous people play the leading role. The “White savior” is a common trope in Hollywood – think of films like the Last Samurai, Last of the Mohicans, or Dances With Wolves– and it can be easy to parachute into this type of narrative when experts from Washington, DC drop into communities and offer solutions without fully understanding local contexts or definitions of conservation success.

Western conservation NGOs can be partners with Indigenous People and/or Local Communities, but we must understand that it is an unequal partnership and that we are not often on an equal footing. Just as an example, I’m very privileged to have an employer who pays to fly me to international science and policy conferences, and I often find myself the only indigenous person sitting in the audience while a white person speaks publicly about their experiences working with Indigenous people. Imagine the lessons we could learn if instead of flying western scientists to conferences to talk about their experiences with Indigenous people, we flew Indigenous people to talk about their work with western scientists!

Noble Savage Tropes
When we do center Indigenous people, we sometimes fall into another common trope, the “Noble Savage.” This is often the idea that Native people have achieved harmony with nature and that they have no problems whatsoever.

While I understand #oceanoptimism, and the desire to be inspirational, there will be times when we will want to talk about colonization. A lot of people in our Indigenous communities see colonization and militarization, and the social and economic structures created by that, as the greatest threats to nature and our livelihoods. Speaking to these issues the right way gives us credibility and authority with Indigenous communities. Also, these actually are the structures destroying nature today.

We have to recognize this duality, and learn to be comfortable talking about the hopeful and the inspirational, without erasing the history of land theft, marginalization, and genocide.

We can also recognize that Indigenous people are people, and they are just as diverse as every other community on this planet. There are greedy Indigenous people – including several of my cousins -- opposed to conservation, too.

So when we talk about decolonization in conservation, it’s about deconstructing the barriers that keep indigenous people out of the decision making processes that affect their lives, their cultures, and their children. A better way forward is to empower Indigenous people at all levels of conservation through decolonization.

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