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date: 08 August 2020

Rhetorical Contexts of Colonization and Decolonization

Summary and Keywords

Colonization and decolonization continue to be debated both in terms of their meaning and their efficacy in Communication Studies scholarship and across related fields of inquiry. Colonization is part of ongoing processes of subjugation that are linked to other forms of oppression including labor, occupation, and resource extraction. Inquiries about processes of colonization also involve examining corresponding efforts in decolonization processes. Decolonization entails an effort to critically reflect on colonialism and its impact upon colonized people and environments, it involves processes entangled with issues of sovereignty, self-determination, and territory, and so on. Indigenous Studies scholarship helps to foreground Indigeneity as a place from which broader inquiries on colonization and decolonization may be launched. The legitimacy of colonialism and its communicative dimensions has been a concern for scholars. Within the field of Communication, it notes particular contexts of colonization inquiry that overlap across topics and various areas of the discipline. Research on colonialism and its influence spans throughout rhetorical theory and critical/cultural studies to organizational communication and global communication. This scholarship has employed expansive methodologies from applied research to theoretical work and considered a wide range of issues from domestic, international, and transnational perspectives. The study of these powerful structures in rhetoric draws on interdisciplinary fields and raises challenges to intellectual traditions of the West, which have maintained the rhetoric canon. Rhetorical scholars call for the need to examine artifacts that exist at the “margins” and “outside” the imperial centers. They have theorized methods of rhetorical analysis that attend to the colonial and decolonial elements of discourse, power, and identity.

Keywords: rhetoric, colonialism, context, communication and critical studies, decolonial, decolonization, discourse, empire, Indigenous, postcolonial


The European continent has had a profound impact on understanding colonization throughout world history. Modern Europe maintained possession of various forms of colonies and civilizing missions that defined and characterized access to the world and continue to influence global populations. Driven by capitalist, racist, religious, and scientific ideologies—among other motives—European claims to hegemony staked out imperial expansion and development. The spatial and chronological dimensions of European colonialism also include economic and military expansion.

Colonial possessions were considered to be a cultural, economic, and political right—as well as an obligation to fulfill civilizing missions—contributing to every country in Europe’s participation either directly or indirectly in the colonial division of the world. Colonial rule is not unique to Europe, as the Aztecs in Central America and the Russian and Japanese empires offer distinct but comparable examples of structures of colonization. However, no other continent possessed as many different forms of colonies as Europe did when it claimed hegemony through the papal-initiated Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. The treaty divided the globe equally between the Iberian empires of Portugal and Spain and clarified that only non-Christian lands fell under the doctrine of discovery. This discovery doctrine unilaterally established exclusive rights to colonize, which all European states subsequently relied on and later embraced for European monarchical colonizing projects. While uniformity exists from such doctrines, forms of colonial power also differ, even from the same governing body—for example, British colonialism in India manifested in distinct ways from formations of British colonialism within Australia.

The era of decolonization from European powers such as Britain, France, Portugal, and Spain is marked by particular phases: the turning point when North American colonies declared independence from the British Empire in 1776; the freedom movements in Central and South America in the early 19th century (e.g., Haiti, Venezuela, Peru); and independence movements of Asia and Africa in the mid-20th century (e.g., Algeria, Indonesia, Japan, Egypt). Of course, Belgium, Germany, and Italy, also had their own colonial systems. The continuity of European, Chinese, and U.S. colonialism illustrates the complexity of colonial relationships where despotism, violence, war, economic control, and political dependency persist. While not an expansive history, this brief summation provides a sense of colonization and its global legacy, while highlighting some of the particularities and distinctions of these structures.

The formation of the United Nations (UN) in 1945 provided a cogent response to this legacy of colonization. At that time almost one-third of the world’s population lived in non-self-governing territories, that is, places dependent on colonial powers. Since its inception, more than 80 former colonies have gained their independence. The UN monitors the process of self-determination through General Assembly declarations and a Special Committee on Decolonization, which is dedicated to the eradication of colonialism. In 2011, the UN declared the third international Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism, marking the institution’s continued focus on decolonization. The UN is one arena where the stated focus on addressing colonization prevails, and yet critiques abound about the forum. For example, 17 non-self-governing territories (NSGTs) remain throughout the globe, signaling the incomplete and bureaucratic process of decolonization through UN mechanisms. Groups continuously petition at the UN General Assembly to collectively address the world’s 17 remaining NSGTs.1

This article focuses on some of the core scholarship about decolonization and examines ongoing struggles against colonization waged by and with Indigenous peoples worldwide. It launches broader inquiries on colonization across geographical and topical coverage of Indigenous contexts. Foregrounding Indigeneity, it considers how these issues and struggles continue to garner attention from Communication scholars and also notes particular global contexts of colonization that overlap across topical areas of the Communication discipline. These contexts are not exhaustive but offer a broad sense of important categories, questions, and approaches within the field of Communication.

Communication Studies scholarship is primarily concerned with processes of human communication and meaning making across a variety of contexts. The discipline uses various modes of inquiry to examine all forms of communication and its consequences. Thinking complexly about the discursive dimensions of colonialism attends to how and why colonialism marks and constitutes the founding and historical development of particular locales. Rhetorical scholars maintain colonialism as a crucial analytic framework for understanding the entangled past and persistent forms of colonization, with work in this area building on insights of recent critical Indigenous studies, postcolonial theory, ethnic studies, ethnography, and critical geography approaches (to name a few). Thus, processes of colonialism and how discourse operates as part of the colonial project are of particular interest to Communication scholars. This article surveys the literature of communication inquiry around colonialism, first defining colonialism and empire and then focusing on particular theoretical, historical, contemporary, and issue-specific contexts. The article then reviews elements of decolonization within communication literature.

Colonialism and Empire

Generally, “colonialism” is defined as an ideology of domination over territories and peoples, manifested through development or exploitation of resources. It is a practice that often involves subjugation of one people to another through formal methods of political control and conquest over space through territorial expansion. Expressed through authority, territorial control is both symbolic and material and often involves the use of military power. In this configuration, the belief of an inherent moral and material superiority of the imperial agent over an “inferior” Indigenous society provides the impetus for colonial praxis and justification for oppression. Functioning both politically and territorially, colonialism also has symbolic and material impacts. At the linguistic level, the imposition of language (e.g., English, French, Spanish, or other colonial languages) also reflects power dimensions that set the terms of discourse and constituting our world. Raymond Williams (1983) argued that colonialism “cannot be reduced, semantically, to single proper meaning. Its important historical and contemporary variations of meaning point to real processes which have to be studied in their own terms” (p. 160). After conducting an extensive study of the physical and psychological impacts of colonialism in a Canadian context, Mohawk scholar Taiaiake Alfred (2009a) argued that

colonialism is best conceptualized as an irresistible outcome of a multigenerational and multifaceted process of forced dispossession and attempted acculturation—a disconnection from land, culture, and community that has resulted in political chaos and social discord within First Nations communities and the collective dependency of First Nations upon the state. (p. 52)

These positions resonate with others who argue that to emphasize colonialism is “to acknowledge that continental conquest and the diverse forms of unincorporation, inclusion, and partial sovereignty perpetuated by the United States remain incomplete, unsettling, unresolved, and ongoing” (Goldstein, 2014, p. 9). The particular historical conditions of colonialism and the complexities of their ongoing iterations work to reconfigure the Caribbean, the Pacific, North America, and other areas of the world. The global historical record indicates that colonialism is a critical paradigm shaping the contemporary context—its influence is pervasive and communicative. However, colonialism cannot be restricted to a particular time or place; it is not a monolithic force that is employed in standard form in each area. Therefore, to understand the ongoing impact of colonization means recognizing the varied characteristics and structural conditions of these regimes. This broad understanding of colonialism directly connects with concerns about discourse, language, power, meaning making, and empire within Communication Studies scholarship.

Colonialism and imperialism are often considered to be twin concepts because both equally denote domination of one nation by another and focus on extending control or sovereignty through economic or political means. The connections between colonialism and empire building have influence on the geographical scope of the contemporary world and are often the subject of communication critiques, with scholars examining how various communication media impose a distinct control of knowledge that configures power (Kennis, 2016; McLuhan, 1995) and utilizes colonial tropes and discourses for empire building and maintenance (Hartnett & Mercieca, 2007; Hartnett & Stengrim, 2006). Historical tracing of the field provides insight to the political and ethical modalities available in contemporary communication and its entanglements with empire, as well as rationales provided to the public for its naturalization, maintenance, and defense (Gehrke, 2009; McLaren, 2006).

Understanding the politics of colonialism requires an understanding of the places it reaches and the bodies of people that contest it and reproduce it throughout the Caribbean, the Pacific, North America, and other areas of the world (Betts, 2004; Davis, 2015; Silva, 2007). Colonialism is sustained by claims of preemptive and superior rights over Indigenous people and lands, having the totalizing effect of subjugation. This understanding of a colonial system is based on inequalities of power steeped in invented differences between colonial powers and their subjugated subjects (Cook-Lynn, 2007; Fanon, 2004; Gilroy, 2004; Herod, 2009). Claims of superiority are also explained in Chandra Mohanty’s (1988) analysis that “colonization almost invariably implies a relation of structural domination, and a discursive or political suppression of the heterogeneity of the subject(s) in question” (p. 61). Edward Said (1979) demonstrated the categories that dominant groups use to define subordinate peoples, spaces, and places—enabling colonizers to identify areas for conquest and articulate colonial discourse. Said’s work has inspired studies of U.S. colonialism that deepen understanding of American occupation guided by racialized knowledge and the cultural constructions of colonial subjects (Thompson, 2002). These works strive to make critical sense of the links between empire and colonialism as a mode and project of power and discourse.

In the 21st century, empire is truly global. Contemporary studies of empire include concerns about militarization, the study of decolonization as a discrete field of inquiry, inequality, migration, new forms of racialization, evolving forms of capitalist accumulation, contraction and expansion of democracy, and the development of social movement challenges to address these world changes. For example, in modern empire the imperial powers have created “states of exception” that become particularly visible in cases of U.S. military operations in semisovereign states or unincorporated territories (Stoler, 2006). These situations sharply contrast with the assumption that the world is made up of sovereign nation-states. Recognizing articulations of such exceptional states, many Indigenous-centered critiques of various forms of U.S. imperialism highlight the importance of centering Native American cultures, histories, and peoples that have been continually present but profoundly absent from Euro-Western theory and critical engagement with colonization (Byrd, 2011). Many argue that there is a dialectical relationship between imperial practices and the world around them, such that empire is understood as both overseas and domestic. Thus, empire is an especially critical term for examination given the contradictions, fissures, and historical particularities of imperial processes. This work highlights the importance of communication inquiry about these interconnected processes of colonialism and empire by asking: What is colonialism and who does it affect?

Relatedly, colonization and decolonization are key words with various meanings and contested approaches within Communication Studies and other disciplines. These words continue to be debated, both in terms of their meaning and their efficacy across related fields of communication inquiry. The legitimacy of colonialism and its communicative dimensions has been a concern for scholars, with research on colonialism and its influence spanning from rhetorical theory and critical/cultural studies to organizational communication and studies of global communication. This scholarship has employed expansive methodologies from applied research to theoretical work and considered a wide range of issues from domestic, international, and transnational perspectives. However, attention to colonial registers does not always, or necessarily, engage in a direct critique of colonization. Therefore, scholars also strive to correct the systematic omission of colonized peoples from the study of communication by adopting as a necessary point of departure those excluded from the processes of communicative exchange and inquiry—examining how communicative practices and strategies are rooted in their lived experiences and practices of citizenship, coalitions, conquest, criminalization, and forms of colonial and imperial control (Chávez, 2013; Rowe & Tuck, 2016; Watts, 2001). Many also contend that decolonization should be the intellectual and political project of Communication scholars, yet questions remain about what decolonization entails and whether it is the best framework for articulating struggle (Alfred, 2009b; Sium, Desai, & Ritskes, 2012). Recognizing the overlapping and indefinite positions on these key terms, this article explores colonization and decolonization by focusing on these issues within the Communication Studies and Rhetoric and Composition disciplines. The sections that follow broadly address some core perspectives on colonization and decolonization manifesting in various contexts of rhetorical inquiry.

Contexts of Decolonial Inquiry in Communication Studies Literature

This section divides communication literature into contexts of decolonial inquiry. This framework enables a review of colonization issues across a range of categories within the discipline while recognizing the difficulty of finding consensus on finite definitions, categories, and terms of colonization and decolonization. In addressing and expanding inquiry of these phenomena, several threads of scholarship organized as contexts of decolonial inquiry highlight some common approaches, categories, and questions within the selected literature. While not completely comprehensive nor necessarily organized chronologically, these contexts address temporal to thematic issues, including theoretical, historical, oratory, activism and resistance, government-Indigenous relations, apology, truth and reconciliation, memorials and museums, sports mascots, popular culture, identity, and militarization. These contexts also include key works from Rhetoric and Composition and Communication disciplines, as the two are related and it is important to examine their interventions together. Intersecting issues within disciplines such as Native American and Indigenous Studies are also included to deepen the understanding of the dynamic ways in which colonial contexts are examined from historical, theoretical, and interdisciplinary approaches. This also helps to understand the public and scholarly debate and issues and the implications of colonial discourse and rhetorical cultures.

Theoretical Contexts

Considered to be both transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary in nature, critical/cultural communication scholarship offers insights about the necessity of incorporating cultural practices into communicatively oriented analyses (Ono, 2009). These approaches are primarily concerned with examining public discourses and how they relate to different audiences and seek to bridge the gap between cultural and political/economic analyses of colonization. Recognizing that communication is a broad category, this review also includes the work of the discipline of Rhetoric and Composition to highlight how scholars have leveraged neocolonial, postcolonial, and decolonial theory in studies of communication phenomena.

Neocolonial Theory

Colonization involves hierarchical relationships that are instantiated through the material as well as the symbolic. The function of these symbolic structures is labeled neocolonization, which Jason Edward Black (2012) describes as “the process of how representations and memories of the ‘other’ by colonial forces come to hegemonically ensnare subaltern cultures” (p. 638). From this understanding, neocolonialism refers to the contemporary continuation of colonialism that manifests in new ways—differing from traditional forms of colonialism often associated with Western empires—to instead operate through cultural, economic, and political control over a society, peoples, and institutions. The term “neocolonialism” has become widespread to address countries that are still being subjected to new forms of colonialism even after independence or the process of decolonization has begun.

Scholars argue that a critique of neocolonialism is necessary to address the present form of colonialism, developed primarily to understand and critique the contemporary colonial condition of nation-states (such as the United States) and other locales to emphasize how colonialism has adapted to meet contemporary cultural and political exigencies (Ono, 2014, p. 171). While much of this work focuses on developing nations or “Third World” areas, neocolonialism is not geographically bound but instead operates through patterns of class and institutional discourse. For example, many countries depend on immigrant labor to support their existence in cultural, economic, and political arenas. Yet, these service industries, which function almost exclusively from immigrant populations, are often rejected in immigration policy discussions. These examples further highlight how neocolonialism is, as Kent A. Ono (2014) explains, “a contemporary form of colonialism that relies heavily on rhetoric, discourse, and representation for its continuing power” (p. 169). Circulations of neocolonial discourse can have an impact on publics and underlying ideologies that constitute a particular public’s civic imaginary (Black, 2012; Stuckey & Murphy, 2001). Therefore, neocolonial scholars are interested in the multilayered dimensions of power (Nkrumah, 1996). Some explore linguistic levels of discourse and how colonial languages such as English impact education, industry, and global exchange (Spivak, 1985; Tsuda, 2010). Others consider elements beyond language and language use to examine patterns of practices, institutions (Broadfoot & Munshi, 2007; Munshi & McKie, 2001), and race as key components of neocolonial power relations (Rowe, 2000).

Neocolonial approaches also address particular remnant features of colonialism within a given society, and have become an essential theme within African political philosophy and communication inquiry toward the African continent (Asante, 2020; Hanchey, 2018). Critical/cultural communication scholars have used neocolonial theory with the goal of making known the way that colonialism continues to manifest in popular cultural texts (Ono, 2009). They examine rhetorical texts from Disney productions and other films to television shows about travel abroad and international cuisine and use neocolonial critiques to argue that these artifacts affirm whiteness and limit subjectivity of the racial “Other” through rhetoric and media in various ways (Ayotte & Husain, 2005; Buescher & Ono, 1996; Kelly, 2012, 2014b; Vats & Nishime, 2013).

Postcolonial Theory

Communication scholars have taken up postcolonial theory to critique the Eurocentrism of beliefs and scholarship about rhetorical and communicative practice and to center knowledges produced from other subjects and locales. This theoretical intervention gained legitimacy in the 1990s with Raka Shome’s (1996) significant essay that introduced postcolonial theory to the field of communication and argued that rhetorical scholars and the canon would benefit from engaging with postcolonialism. Generally, postcolonial theory attends to questions about how cultures persist after colonization, the use/misuse of knowledges about colonized peoples, how formerly colonized and colonized peoples respond to systems of oppression, and the subjugation of colonized peoples’ histories and epistemologies (Chávez, 2009). Formulations of postcolonial thought have manifested in poststructuralism, culturalism, materialism, and psychological concepts and methodologies (Bhabha, 1994; Caruth, 1996; Césaire, 2000; Dirlik, 1994; Memmi, 1991; Spivak, 1990).

For many scholars, postcolonial studies provide a helpful element to the project of Communication Studies by specifically examining issues of colonization (Hegde, 2005; Schwartz-DuPre, 2014) and Indigenous issues. Postcolonial theory suggests that our ways of knowing and even culture and communication are deeply embedded in colonial history of modernity. Therefore, it focuses on reconfiguring structures of knowledge to challenge established disciplinary knowledge that has sustained imperialism and the impacts of modernity. Postcolonialism also rejects understanding of objectivity, instead demonstrating how modern education and knowledge production practices are informed by histories of colonial power. By attending to the specific geographical, geopolitical, and historical aspects of modernity, postcolonial theory offers a transnational dimension to considerations of power along axes of race, class, and gender. For example, scholars analyze colonial discourses and how representations of race and gender reinforce Othering of non-Western people (Asante, 2019; Parameswaran, 2002). Postcolonial studies challenge and continue the project of communication studies and its work in theorizing communication as concerned with “the lasting effects of nationalism, ethnicity and race, and colonialism” (Grossberg, 2002, p. 369).

Scholars use postcolonial theory to address the politics of knowledge production and Western modernity, and as a means of interrogating, deconstructing, and exploring communicative processes (Hegde, 2005; Shome, 1996; Supriya, 1996). Postcolonial theory and criticism are used to analyze and deconstruct discourses and colonial representations within rhetorical studies and contexts (Hasian, 2001). Examining discussions, debates, and trends produced within postcolonial communication studies, Schwartz-DuPré (2014) unites a collection of interdisciplinary scholarship focused on historical foundations and contemporary elements of postcolonial theory and communication. The volume engages key questions about the space and place of colonialism and how postcolonial dialogues might be engaged, renewed, or extended in the field of communication studies. For example, an analysis of the film Avatar is used to illustrate how film, media, and cultural artifacts reproduce well-trod colonial figures and thus function as present-day colonial rule (Ono, 2014).

Furthermore, postcolonialism decenters identity beyond simple notions and binary opposition, instead turning to a positive system of identification that is often theorized through ideas such as double consciousness, hybridity, subalternity, and third space (Grossberg, 2002, p. 369). It also turns attention to how language works in the colonial formation of cultural and discursive practices.

Scholars argue that prioritizing Indigenous narratives and histories within postcolonial studies can further demonstrate the complexities of how both colonization and Indigeneity are conceived (Allen, 2012; Byrd, 2011). This approach seeks to center Indigenous perspectives focusing on settler colonialism as a perspective that is focused on Indigenous peoples (whereas, postcolonial theory tends to focus on the “Native”—more broadly understood as the “non-Western”). Considering ongoing debates about the ability of postcolonial perspectives to address various aspects of colonization, settler colonialism provides an important bridge between postcolonial perspectives and moves toward decolonization. Additionally, critical scholarship considers how combining postcolonial and decolonial frameworks facilitates understanding incommensurability that influences and organizes power relations, and helps to re-center indigeneity (Na'puti & Rohrer, 2017; Rowe, 2017).

There are certainly criticisms of postcolonial theory, with some scholars arguing that the perspective places too much emphasis on the colonial impact of the West. Another concern suggests that postcolonialism ignores or denies the importance of material factors and economics and places too much emphasis on culture.

Decolonial Theory

Indigenous perspectives have addressed colonization and decolonization in a variety of ways, with decolonial theory being taken up to offer a long view of colonialism conceptualized as the dark side of modernity. Using decolonial approaches, communication scholars argue that colonial relations are rhetorically naturalized and maintained, and critique how colonial relations of power continue to structure understandings of Western communication, its false universalism, and its imposition on the rest of the world. Therefore, investigating colonial sites is imperative to understanding how these processes operate. To this end, rhetorical studies has been charged with the task of rethinking dominant theoretical frameworks in the rhetorical canon itself (Chávez, 2015; Shome & Hegde, 2002); marking the centrality of the U.S. nation-state while forwarding the transnational turn within communication scholarship (Dingo, 2012; Hesford, 2006; Hesford & Schell, 2008); and critically examining the rhetorical insistence on colonial distance from the Other and its role in justifying U.S. imperialist adventures (Cloud, 2004). In expanding frameworks, decolonial scholars address issues that extend beyond the rigid canonical view of communication concepts as exclusively rooted in intellectual traditions of the West.

Decolonial theorists work to expand global communication studies as a decolonizing project that blurs the dialectical distinctions between national/transnational and global/local (Chen, 1998; Veronelli, 2016). Critical rhetorical theory also moves beyond considering coloniality as a predominantly economic-political system, to instead address the issue of epistemic coloniality (Enck-Wanzer, 2012). This effort moves toward a decolonizing rhetoric and rethinks the historical narrative and Western normative perspectives and ways of knowing and being (Chávez, 2015; Wanzer-Serrano, 2015).

Decolonial approaches focus on theoretical deconstructions of colonial structures, addressing the connection between coloniality and modernity that continues to influence global power relations (Anzaldúa, 2012; Mignolo & Walsh, 2018). Decolonial epistemology focuses on directly challenging the foundational myth of European modernity and centering on embodied knowledge. For Walter Mignolo (2007), decolonial thinking involves rupturing the foundation of Western concepts and accumulation of knowledge in order to create an epistemic shift among the people who have been oppressed by Western imperial history. The concept is also explained as requiring a dual strategy of “unveiling the logic of coloniality” and “de-linking from the totalitarian effects of Western categories of thoughts and subjectivity” (Mignolo, 2007, p. 60).

Considering the epistemic stakes of decolonial approaches, scholars theorize relationships among identity, indigeneity, and land to interrogate colonial legacies and the cultural production of Indigenous erasure (Gross, 2016; Mack & Na'puti, 2019; Na'puti & Rohrer, 2017; Rowe, 2017; Rowe & Tuck, 2016; Silva, 2017). By offering textual criticism of intellectual histories that have been largely unconsidered in other studies of Native American rhetorics, scholars reassert epistemological foundations and robust presences of indigeneity (Lyons, 2010; Vizenor, 1999; Warrior, 1994; Wieser, 2017). Through arguing that the process of colonialism attempts to demean and destroy Indigenous intellectual, historical, literary, and resistance traditions, scholars reconstruct those legacies as an act of anticolonial resistance (Camacho, 2019; DeLisle, 2019; Estes, 2019; Olson, 2010; Silva, 2017). In addition, scholars center and even privilege Indigenous knowledges by examining colonization and communication phenomena in sites throughout Caribbean, Indigenous, territorial, and sites often considered colonial peripheries (Antoine, 2017; de Onís 2016; Dutta & Basu, 2018; Na'puti & Bevacqua, 2015). Such epistemic interventions can also be understood through Latinx scholars who have addressed decolonial vernacular as a means to address colonial oppression (Enck-Wanzer, 2011; Holling & Calafell, 2011).

Maintaining commitments to a decolonization project, scholars have argued for reevaluating assumptions about theorizing and critical rhetorical work to attend to coloniality and race (Baugh-Harris & Wanzer-Serrano, 2018; Hasian & Delgado, 1998; Lacy & Ono, 2011; Sandoval, 2000; Shome, 1996; Yep, 2010) and for using decolonial perspectives to address whiteness, white-nationalist rhetoric, and antiblackness (Chakravartty, Kuo, Grubbs, & McIlwain, 2018; Corrigan, 2019; Ramasubramanian & Miles, 2018). Critical scholars also utilize decolonial methodologies in theory, research praxis, performance, and rhetoric (Calafell, 2014; Chirindo, 2016; de La Garza, 2004; Wanzer, 2012); push for practices of decolonial rhetorical history (Dougherty, 2016; Powell et al., 2014) and multilingualism (Sowards, 2019).

Following Gloria Anzaldúa (2012), Maria Lugones (2010), Catherine Walsh (2010), and other foundational works of feminist decolonial theory, communication scholars have developed a decolonial methodology to address how performance practice addresses embodied problems of colonialism and bodily performances of indigeneity (Holling & Calafell, 2007; Olson, 2010, 2012). Decolonial approaches to gendered violence (Mack & McCann, 2018; McKinnon, 2016; Talcott & Collins, 2012) draw insights from Lugones and other Native feminist scholars who have long argued the importance of examining the settler colonial nation-state and its racializing and gendered logics of elimination.

Settler Colonial Theory

In Communication Studies, scholars embracing a turn toward analyzing settler colonialism make available broader interdisciplinary discussions with strong rhetorical and conceptual power in crafting arguments and understanding cultural production (Ono, 2014; Rowe & Tuck, 2016). Addressing decolonization as an epistemological given provides a space for situating issues of citizenship, gender, race, sexuality, and nation at the center of methods and theories—facilitating a more transnationally responsible reading of politics and representation in global contexts (Hegde, 2005; Shome, 2016). The theoretical approach of settler colonialism offers a way to understand the dimensions of colonization and how it manifests.

Settler colonialism is a specific colonial formation, set apart in the annals of Western colonial ventures that articulates the context between Indigenous peoples and their relationship with the nation-state. It is often defined as a structure of permanent invasion that focuses on usurping land rights of Indigenous peoples that operates through simultaneous internal/external colonial modes (Tuck & Yang, 2012; Wolfe, 1999). Distinct from other forms of colonialism, settler colonialism refers to the phenomena of settlers coming with the intention of making a new home on the land and inscribing settler sovereignty over everything within the new domain. As such, settler colonialism is a foundational precursor to nation-state formation and involves a process of political configuration in which settlers claim sovereignty over territory and seek to eliminate Indigenous peoples’ rights to those territories. This phenomenon is solidified through massive depopulation, dispossession from land and culture, language loss, and politics of blood quantum that entail statistical elimination. These processes make colonialism palpable, demonstrating the material relations of colonization that are manifest in complex psychological and physical realities and have long-term intergenerational impacts (Coulthard, 2014; Riding In, 2004; Turner, 2006).

Fundamentally understood as a social formation and territorial project, settler colonialism relies on imported labor that then territorializes native lands while replacing natives on their land as the primary motive for elimination (Veracini, 2011). For example, in North America an increase in population of laborers means obstructing settlers’ access to land, thus implementing restrictive racial classification of the Native population and furthering the logic of elimination. This structure facilitates appeals to race-based discrimination claims that fuel controversies and legitimate claims to rights and land. Many Indigenous scholars have worked to analytically separate racism from colonization, arguing that Native peoples should be understood as colonized groups seeking decolonization. While racialization and colonization can be understood as concomitant global systems, research cautions against the conflation of racialization into colonization and indigeneity into racial categories that depend on blood logics (Byrd, 2011; Teves, Smith, & Raheja, 2015).

The attempted erasure of Indigenous peoples occurs in literal, discursive, and legal modes. The particularities of historic conditions of colonialism continues to inform, inflect, and constitute contemporary lived experiences and communication practices.

In Communication Studies, scholars embracing a turn toward analyzing settler colonialism make available broader interdisciplinary discussions with strong rhetorical and conceptual power in crafting arguments and understanding cultural production (Rowe & Tuck, 2016). Communication scholars interested in understanding the discursive aspects of colonialism may ask how language excludes and oppresses (Thiong’o, 1986) and how communication offers tools to challenge Indigenous erasure and “grapple with the politics of settlement on Indigenous land” (Rowe & Tuck, 2016, p. 7).

Historical Contexts of Colonization

Considerations of historical contexts of colonization often focus on North America or the continental United States. This research tends to examine colonization as a historical phenomenon, periodized in particular ways, which has been critiqued for its tendency to also historicize and erase Indigenous peoples. For scholars of rhetoric, examining historical contexts provides a way to locate, collect, and circulate indigenous voices. Scholars examine Indigeneity and its representations in historical contexts (Black, 2009; Kelly, 2010), including considerations of historical texts from Indigenous peoples (Cook-Lynn, 2001; Cushman, 2006). These works focus on historical examples ranging from particular speeches to policies that constitute the history of the North American continent (Kennedy, 1997). Such research examines the rhetorical means that Native Americans have used to establish and maintain social hegemony over time, often understood in contexts of relations with tribes, other native nations, and the nation-state (Kelly, 2010). Historical approaches have examined 19th-century narratives of Native American education (Morris, 1997) and analysis of Native rhetorics during allotment and removal policies (Black, 2015), the relationships among rhetoric and colonial violence used as justifications for violence against Native Americans in the 18th century (Engels, 2005), and examinations of 17th-century colonial era Native acts and writings with connections to living traditions and contemporary performances (Bellin & Mielke, 2011).

Scholars have considered historic accounts and trajectories of colonized experiences in discourses and as expressed in Indigenous rhetorics (Anzaldúa, 1983, 2012; Black, 2009; Cushman, 2008; Olson, 2014; Stuckey & Murphy, 2001). Historical perspectives chart rhetorical strategies and entangled experiences across scholarly and canonical conversations about colonization and decolonization (Chávez, 2015; Rowe, 2004; Shome, 1996). Miles (2011) raises questions about the Rhetoric and Composition canon, arguing for a refiguring by the work of Indigenous writers. Rowe and Tuck (2016) argue the stakes of disciplinary complicity in settler colonialism—from cultural studies to other disciplines. The circulation, collection, and translation of historical texts from Indigenous voices has also been of concern for those interested in examining rhetorical processes of colonization (Olson & Casas, 2015).

Indigenous-Government Relations

Another context of communication inquiry involves historical and contemporary relations between Indigenous peoples and nation-states. In North America, the contexts of Euro-American relations and alternative temporal orientations provide the backdrop for understanding historical government and Indian relations (Lake, 1983; Schuetz, 2002; Yagelski, 1995). Examining the dynamics of these relationships includes considerations of cultural differences between government officials and Indigenous populations that impact treaty provisions and negotiations (Balgooyen, 1962; Cole, 2011).

Government treaties and U.S. Supreme Court cases provide objects of inquiry and legal texts for rhetorical critiques of colonial discourses (Black, 2008; King, 2011; Lyons, 2010). Examining cultural differences between Native Americans and government or traditional rhetorics of Western civilization, scholars have distinguished how Native rhetorics are not necessarily equivalent or comparable to one another (Balgooyen, 1962; Philipsen, 1972). More contemporary scholarship has utilized decolonial methodologies to learn about colonial relationships and presence of Indigenous communities in order to examine broader publics from cities, communities, and institutions (Mack & Na'puti, 2019; Rowe, 2017). These works offer rich contextualized examples of the communicative processes of Indigenous peoples and tribal nations, governments, negotiations of treaties, and refusals. Scholars also articulate how sovereignty, renegotiating relationships with the federal government, and federal acknowledgment coheres around agency constituted through and connected by the past and present—to establish a form of Indigenous history making (Den Ouden & O’Brien, 2013; Estes, 2019). Understanding such dynamic communicative relations connects with inquiries about speech and voice.


Communication Studies addresses questions of voice and whose voices are considered legitimate throughout colonization. Scholars analyze oral traditions, particularly of Indigenous peoples, to consider how chants, prayers, songs, speeches, and stories reflect beliefs and values (Einhorn, 2000). This scholarship reexamines Indigenous North American oral traditions as alternatives to Western discourses through the study of Indigenous rhetoric spanning speakers, nations, regions, and time periods (Balgooyen, 1962; Strickland, 1981; Sunwolf, 1999). Centering on a discussion of the importance of oral traditions for American Indians, works reiterate the importance of oral tradition for sovereignty and discourse practices (Gustafson, 2000; Lyons, 2000). Several 20th-century publications and collections of “Indian Oratory” claim to provide authentic texts of historic speeches comprising Native rhetorics (Blaisdell, 2000; Galloway, 1997; Vanderwerth & Carmack, 1971). These works address issues of eloquence and other elements of speech (Jones, 1965). However, these compilations are critiqued for focusing “on speeches of those presumed by non-indigenous people to have power; often failing to include contemporary indigenous voices; focusing on the ‘failure’ of indigenous peoples to resist Euro-Americans; perpetuating the myth of the vanishing Indian, and perpetuating colonialism” (Stuckey, 2018, p. xii). Such works have also been challenged for their universalist claims and lack of authority to speak on behalf of Native traditions and for their tendency to position Indigenous rhetors within dominant understandings of politics and rhetoric that perpetuate stereotypes of inferiority or victimization.

In contrast, other interdisciplinary scholarship emphasizes contemporary lived experiences, voices, and people who do not occupy positions of political power (Bird & Harjo, 1998; Goeman, 2013; Powell, 2002; Rifkin, 2012). Focusing on particular populations, scholars work to reclaim Native voices by considering speaking style, traditions, and historiography of American Indian oratory and a wide range of Indigenous rhetorical traditions (Mann, 2001; Wieser, 2017). Beyond North American geographical contexts, considerations of rhetoric in oral cultures and societies had demonstrated how rhetoric functions in Aboriginal Australian culture (Kennedy, 1997), impacts of colonization in East Asia (Chen, 2010), in sub-Saharan Africa (Chirindo, 2016; Hanchey, 2016), and in Indigenous cultures of Oceania (Dutta & Elers, 2020; Na'puti, 2019) to name a few. Oratory and oral cultures are a focus for communication scholarship addressing colonization throughout global sites and raising related questions about how individuals and organizations communicate opposition to colonization.

Activism, Organizations, Protest, and Resistance

Rhetorical scholars examine social movements and organizing against colonization, often focusing on contemporary cases from the 19th through the 21st century. This research addresses Indigenous rhetoric and associated situations of nonviolent civil disobedience and processes of racialization that impact populations in North America and the continent of Africa (Bacon, 2007; Chirindo, 2016; Condit & Lucaites, 1991; Cruz 2015; Pough, 2002; Putnam, 2012; Terrill, 2000), Caribbean islands and diasporas (Browne, 2013; de Onís, 2018; Enck-Wanzer, 2006), Oceania (Ganesh & Stohl, 2010; Na'puti, 2019), Latin America (de los Santos, 2012; Olson, 2010), Asia and Southeast Asia (Gouda, 1993; Wang, 2013), and among Muslims as well as in the Middle East (Ghabra, 2018; Hayes, 2016).

In North America, scholarship focuses on the Black Power Movement and the rhetoric of the Black Panther Party to reveal the discursive impacts on Black audiences and intersectional issues (Hoerl, 2018; Pough, 2002). Scholars also articulate how the English language and rhetorical and legal texts situate enslaved and other minoritized, racialized populations within colonial rhetoric (Richardson & Jackson, 2007; Sowards, 2019) and consider discourses of American Indian activism, organizations, and rhetorical elements of resistance (Black, 2009; Endres, 2011; Kelly, 2007; Lake, 1983, 1991; Meister & Burnett, 2004; Morris & Wander, 1990; Sanchez & Stuckey, 2000). These works examine particular challenges of political rhetoric, conceptions of power, and activism. For example, rhetorical work attuned to activism of the 1960s and 1970s focuses on the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the rise of the Red Power Movement (Sanchez, Stuckey, & Morris,1999). Studies consider the rhetorical means Native Americans use to protest hegemonic discourses, to challenge displacement of distinct tribal identities, and to reveal how conceptions of legitimacy, time, and power are communicated in unique ways (Black, 2015; Endres, 2011; Kelly, 2007, 2014a; Lake, 1983, 1991; Morris & Wander, 1990). These selected works illustrate how communication scholars have examined contestation to contemporary rhetorical cultures of colonization.

In contrast, Euroamerican discourses overwhelmingly characterize colonization as a historical phenomenon rather than a contemporary discontent facing continuous opposition. Native and Indigenous Studies scholars address this problematic temporal framing and argue that colonization—and resistance to it—is an ongoing, contemporary concern rooted in historical significance (Cole, 2011; Goeman, 2013; Stromberg, 2006; Vizenor, 1999). Communication scholars also align with this approach by critiquing the exclusion of Indigenous perspectives and highlighting how Indigenous actors rhetorically align to wage resistance, articulate activism, influence policy change, and assert sovereignty against colonialism (Kelly & Black, 2018; Kelly, 2014a; Lyons, 2000; Morris, 1997; Sanchez et al., 1999; Sutton, 2018). For example, scholars focus on the communicative tactics of the U.S. government and federal cases that maintain colonial ideology and foreclose debate (Sanchez et al., 1999), examine Indigenous argumentation practices against colonization (Black, 2009, 2012; Kelly & Black, 2018; Palczewski, 2005), and center on the rhetorical power of Indigenous communities to frame their decolonization efforts and assert agency (Black, 2015; Dutta, 2015; Dutta & Elers, 2020; Jackson, 2017; Kemper, 2010; Munshi, Broadfoot, & Smith, 2011; Nordstrom, 2010; Powell, 2002; Vizenor, 1999; Warrior, 1994). Taking their studies to aesthetic, legal, and pedagogical considerations scholars examine the complexities of colonial practices and activism against it (Charland, 2007; Endres, 2011; Ganesh & Stohl, 2010; Kelly, 2014a; King, 2012; Olson & Casas, 2015; Wang, 2013). Communication scholars continue to argue for more scholarship to persistently account for rhetorical negotiations of colonization and resistance, among other phenomena (Cisneros, 2011; Wanzer-Serrano, 2015). These considerations connect with scholarly discussions of apologies, truth and reconciliation, and reparations for the enduring impacts of colonialism.

Apology, Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations

Apology, truth, reconciliation, and reparations are common concerns for rhetorical scholars that critically account for colonization. Government-issued apologies are relatively common means of communicating about redress for injustice and working toward Indigenous self-determination for sites comprising the Global North (Corntassel & Holder, 2008; Henderson & Wakeham, 2009). Scholars examine apology and arguments about reconciliation from state governments like Canada (Belanger, 2012; Chrisjohn & Wasacase, 2009) to presidential efforts to apologize for crimes associated with colonialism (Edwards & Shaw, 2013).

Scholars examine the possibilities of truth and reconciliation commissions to address human rights abuses and engage in community action and dialogue to seek justice from colonialism (Henderson & Wakeham, 2009; Jovanovic, 2012). Studies on truth commissions consider the role of communication in reconciliation processes from Peru to Serbia (Hoecker, 2018; Nikolić-Ristanović, 2015). Scholars critically examine dominant discourses and rhetorical strategies of truth and reconciliation to more directly address colonialism and decolonization (Augoustinos, LeCouteur, & Soyland, 2002; Charland, 2007; Doxtader, 2003; Frank & McPhail, 2005; Short, 2005; Wakeham, 2012). Critiques of reconciliation raise challenges to how nation-states deploy reconciliation as a strategy of incorporating Indigenous peoples into liberal democracy.

Global discussions of colonialism focus on the possibilities of reparations in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand (Moses, 2011), Japan (Edwards, 2005; Izumi, 2011; Yamazaki, 2004), South Africa (Doxtader, 2001; Hatch, 2003; Mack, 2014; Salazar, 2002; Wilson, 2004), and the United States. Research on redress and reparations attends to the role of restorative justice and communication and examining debates about Indigenous affairs and policies (Charland, 2007; Hasian, 2014; Jackson, 2017; Matsunaga, 2016; Vizenor, 2008). In June 2019, the debate about reparations for descendants of enslaved peoples and the system of slavery came to the forefront—an issue that has also been a demand from the Movement for Black Lives and among other prominent intellectuals (Coates, 2014; Paschal & Carlisle, 2019). The reparations issue was raised in U.S. legislative hearings and 2020 Democratic presidential candidates discussed the case, which highlights a shift toward open communication about colonization. Such consideration of the possibilities for addressing colonization also occurs within contexts of physical locations and sites.

Museums, Monuments, Memorials, and Rhetorics of Place

Communication scholars argue that specific sites such as memorials, monuments, and museums are important locales for understanding colonial logics. For example, engaging the rhetoricity of place through museums helps consider how presence and absence construct place and public memory (Chevrette, 2016; Cram, 2016; Dickinson, Blair, & Ott, 2010; Dickinson, Ott, & Aoki, 2006; Hasian & Wood, 2010). Scholars examine rhetoric and museums to address colonial pasts and contemporary practices that exhibit exclusionary “master” memories and histories, and that gloss over colonial violence embedded within these places (Dickinson et al., 2005, 2006; Hasian & Wood, 2010; Ott, Aoki, & Dickinson, 2011). Museums also intersect with issues of representation, sovereignty, visuality of space, power, and national belonging (Browne, 1999; Chevrette & Hess, 2015; Davis, 2016; King, 2011; Wright, 2005). Scholars focus on museums to examine practices of repatriation and bounded notions of place through colonial frameworks (Barney, 2014; Cram, 2016; Fforde, Hubert, & Turnbull, 2002). Critical perspectives around museums connect with inquiry about monuments as key sites for engaging colonization and decolonization.

Monument building is tied to the process of nation building, public consciousness about national heritage, and practices of memorializing (Aldrich, 2012; Ashley, 2015; De Jorio, 2006). Monuments and memorials provide unique sites for examining imagery and practices of commemoration and colonialism (Ewalt, 2011; Wright, 2005), visual argumentation, and the role these structures play in stabilizing particular histories (McGeough, Palczewski, & Lake, 2015). Memorializing that occurs in multifaceted dynamic spaces of commemoration and remembrance often reflect the perpetuation of grand colonial narratives and rhetorical elements of discourse, settler colonialism, and the nature of conservation within particular collective places. For example, events in the continental United States have seen Civil War monuments pulled down and ignited discussions about the violent histories of slavery, antiBlackness, war, and settler colonial violence (Sanchez & Moore, 2015). These events have ignited discussions about dominant discourses of whose history is told and remembered, as well as how absences, silences, and erasures are embedded in monuments (Nielsen, 2019). Of particular interest is how monuments function to collect and coalesce public memories in particular ways—often glorifying colonists and homogenizing individual memories (Poirot & Watson, 2015). These sites raise questions about which monuments might come down and how discourse circulates to maintain or contest elements of commemoration in relation to colonial violence, antiBlackness, and Indigenous erasure.

From monuments and museums, rhetorical scholarship also conducts broader examinations of place-based rhetorics. By attending to material, embodied, affective, and sensorial experiences in relation to colonialism, scholars address the rhetoricity of place and space in relation to power, violence, culture, art, food, and race (Arnold, 2009; Bruce, 2019; Corrigan, 2019; Goeman, 2013; Hasian & Wood, 2010; Jackson, 2017; Sutton, 2018; Towns, 2016; Underhill, 2016). Authors also examine contestations over place to consider the functions of argument and Indigenous epistemology in sacred land and racialized places (Basso, 1996; Jackson, 2017; Na'puti & Bevacqua, 2015), in memoryscapes (Chevrette, 2016; Lee, 2016), in oral histories, performance, and dance (Morris, 2010; Pollock, 2005; Sanchez, 2001), and the role of Indigenous peoples in dynamic urban cultures (Thrush, 2007, 2016). Scholars also examine the communicative processes shaped through colonization and settlement within and beyond the continental U.S. nation-state borders (de Onís, 2018; Olson, 2010; Salvador & Clarke, 2011). This context raises questions about memory and place, highlighting the importance of examining colonization through contexts of representation.

Sports Mascots and Colonization

Representations of Indigeneity and colonization through sports mascots provides another robust context of communication inquiry. Within the field of Communication Studies’ and its subfields, this research tends to examine Native American and American Indian nations, peoples, symbols, and iconography as representations of broader North American sports culture (Billings & Black, 2018; Black, 2002). Offering Native American and Indigenous perspectives of the issues surrounding mascots, authors consider ways to provide insights from the peoples often excluded from public discourse about mascots, cultural artifacts, athletic performances, and identities (Bruyneel, 2016; Endres, 2015; King, 2003; King & Springwood, 2001). The struggle over control of images, acceptance or disapproval for Native American mascots, and protests over the use of Native American symbols and heritage are areas for rhetorical examination (Bresnahan & Flowers, 2008; Miller, 1999). Scholars also attend to broader issues of colonization arising in the context of global sport and colonization, such as mobility and migration (Besnier, 2015), commodification and colonial violence (Lee, 2012), and representation and gender (Blithe & Hanchey, 2015). These issues intersect with other contexts of colonization, such as media and popular culture.

Popular Culture and Mass Media

Popular culture contexts investigate how colonization influences dominant media structures and how communities craft arguments about colonial situations. This literature focuses on common concerns such as appropriation, authenticity, representation, and colonialism to understand how popular discourses address colonization and decolonization in the 21st century (Vats & Nishime, 2013; Wanzer-Serrano, 2015). For example, theorizing about “colonized communication” addresses how music genres relate to colonialism. Analyses of how hip-hop and electronic music resist power, settler colonialism, and logics of erasure exist for Indigenous North America (Arola & Arola, 2017; Ball, 2011), Palestine (Maira & Shihade, 2012), Brazil and throughout the Afro-diaspora (Henson, 2019), and for global media (Parameswaran, 2002). Scholars also examine how music relates to Kanaka Maoli (Indigenous Hawaiian) identity, performance, cultural production and politics within contemporary “American” national commusnities (Clark, 2012). And they analyze representations and embedded colonial discourses in television shows like South Park and Hawaii Five-0 to uncover how satire, appropriation, and settler colonialism functions in Hawaii (Maile, 2017; Miyose & Grimshaw, 2019).

Studies of media representations of American Indians in popular culture attend to how gender is constructed (Bird, 1999), how “Indian” identity is played and performed in wrestling (Black & Harrison, 2018), and film studies about how non-Indigenous rhetors commodify and appropriate indigeneity within a North American context, focusing on films such as Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves, and the The Indian in the Cupboard (Buescher & Ono, 1996; Lake, 1997; Sanchez & Stuckey, 2000). Broader studies of cultural representations in films illustrate how racialized rhetoric perpetuates erasure and exceptionalism within the dominant U.S. media industry. By analyzing the most influential films of all time, Satchel (2016) argues that popular culture and media contexts maintain historic ideologies and work cyclically to perpetuate racialization over time. Others consider how Native/American Indians are portrayed in mass media and how narratives, stereotypes, and tropes shift when Indigenous perspectives are included (Carstarphen & Sanchez, 2010; Fitzgerald, 2010; Kelly, 2017; Lacroix, 2011; Merskin, 2001). Homing in on the news media and journalistic practices, scholars address how media operate through rhetorical colonialism that influences Indigenous identity and contributes to erasure of Indigenous peoples from their own stories (Lang, 2015) and how tribal journalists exercise rhetorical sovereignty (Kemper, 2010). Examining popular culture artifacts illustrates how decolonial rhetoric emerges from various historical and sociopolitical contexts. Colonial experiences also impact cultural representations and identity perceptions in contemporary society.

Identity and Representations

Communication scholars attend to topics of colonization and decolonization through a particular focus on Indigenous peoples, identities, and representations. In U.S. communication scholarship, one of the primary trends of this research focuses on Native American or American Indian nations, colonial communication, cultural and rhetorical practices, activism, the frontier myth, and resistance (Carney & Stuckey, 2015; Endres, 2009; Lake, 1983, 1991; Morris & Wander, 1990; Sanchez & Stuckey, 2000; Strickland, 1981; Stromberg, 2006). Studies take interest in how non-Indigenous rhetors appropriate and commodify indigeneity, particularly in North American colonial contexts (Black, 2002; Buescher & Ono, 1996; Ono & Buescher, 2001; Rogers, 2007). This expanding research area considers the role of communication in relation to the material, physical, symbolic, and rhetorical colonization of Indigenous peoples.

Scholars address how Indigeneity is articulated as an identity and incorporated within the nation-state (Bizzaro, 2004; Halualani, 2002; Olson, 2012). Using cultural critiques this research often asks how representations of Indigenous identity manifest in historical and literary discourses, and among mediated, textual, and graphic depictions that communicate absences and erasures (Harding, 2006; Krupat, 1992; Lyons, 2010; Silva, 2017; Vizenor, 2000). These works take into consideration how culturally specific and distinctive models enhance understandings of Indigenous discourses and texts in China (Wang, 2010), throughout Sweden and Canada (Roosvall & Tegelberg, 2013), in Oceania (Dutta & Elers, 2020), and in other global contexts. Scholars have also called for opening up research to alternative dialogues and marginalized voices (Dutta & Pal, 2010; Shome, 1996) and for understanding both the historical antecedents of colonization and ongoing efforts toward decolonizing (Holling & Calafell, 2011) within Communication scholarship. Rhetorical studies have addressed these calls by arguing that environmental rhetorical criticism should be conducted in alliance with queer, decolonial, racial/ethnic, feminist, disability, and working-class scholarship (Pezzullo, 2016) and by encouraging broad engagement in racial rhetorical criticism and issues of whiteness (Chakravartty et al., 2018; Flores, 2016).

Questions of race and processes of racialization are the core of scholarly works in the U.S. nation-state and other transnational contexts (Corrigan, 2019; Lacy & Triece, 2014; Martin, Nakayama, & Flores, 1998). These critical rhetorical works seek to facilitate “unmasking relations of domination within the context of race” (McKerrow, 2010, p. x). Such inquiries also tend to focus on cultural practices, incorporating them into analyses that are both transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary in nature and addressing whiteness and colonialism within the communication discipline (Chakravartty et al., 2018; Halualani, 2002; Ono, 2009). They carefully and responsibly account for processes of racialization and racialized bodies that impact identity constructions (Flores, 2016).

Militarization and Environment

The relationship between colonization and militarization is interconnected, often reinforced by assumed monopolies of states through police and security forces (Chávez, 2012, 2017). Militarization broadly refers to “the use of military rhetoric and ideology, as well as military tactics, strategy, technology, equipment and forces” (Dunn, 1996, p. 3). Thus, examining how militarization operates hegemonically and deploys rationalized violence entails understanding discursive, symbolic, structural, and material forms of militarization (Bernazzoli & Flint, 2010; Chávez, 2012; Kaplan, Loyer, & Daniels,2013). These forms highlight how militarization and the land it occupies cannot be extricated from one another (Pearson, 2012), particularly as the toxicity of military bases remains and continues to have devastating physical and social impacts on global climate change and on surrounding communities (Colgan, 2018; Goodyear-Ka’ōpua, 2018).

Militarization is the single most ecologically destructive human endeavor in the world (Marzec, 2015). For example, the U.S. military is the largest global force, single biggest consumer of fossil fuels, largest producer of greenhouse gases, and the entity most responsible for destabilizing Earth’s climate (Harris, 2015; McNeill & Painter, 2009). As the greatest polluter worldwide, the U.S. military also has a continuous record of destroying environments and generating massive amounts of hazardous waste for its routine operations (McNeill & Painter, 2009). Negative impacts of military activities and bases include birth and health defects, hazardous waste contamination of ecosystems, sea level rise, desecration, and devastating consequences for global climate change (Blackford, 2004; Colgan, 2018; de Onís, 2018; Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua, 2018).

Environmental destruction demonstrates the overwhelming costs of colonialism, particularly among Indigenous communities disproportionately affected by militarization and climate change (Camacho, 2012; LaDuke & Cruz, 2012). Understanding how communities and publics address climate change means attending to issues of equity and justice (Pezzullo & de Onís, 2018). From the continental U.S. context and other “domestic dependent nations” or “U.S. territories,” these forms of militarization encompass federal military impacts on Indigenous peoples, economies, and lands including cultural change in heavily militarized communities with the highest per capita enlistment and veteran rates in the armed forces (LaDuke & Cruz, 2012). Impacts of militarization and security operations are also evident in the dynamics of resource extraction and radioactive and hazardous waste on Indigenous lands. In North America, Native American reservations are degraded by contamination from spills and dumping of hazardous toxins and are also heavily courted as the sites for temporary and permanent storage of nuclear wastes (Endres, 2009; Taylor, 2014). In distinct but similar fashion, the U.S. military policies of nuclear testing and training on Indigenous lands highlight the need for more communication inquiry into militarized contexts and environmental impacts caused by the military around the world—from the Nevada Test Site to Vieques, Puerto Rico, and the Marshall Islands (Dvorak, 2018; Endres, 2018; Kennis, 2016; Soto, 2018).

Further complicating relationships to place and homeland, contemporary movements are deeply impacted by these colonial, environmental, and military structures that provide a catalyst for out-migration from ancestral lands (Klepp & Herbeck, 2016). Environmental threats, sovereignty, and decolonization are also central fights for resistance activities to U.S. militarization in places such as Okinawa, Kaho‘olawe, Vieques, and other archipelagos and island contexts (Blackford, 2004; Davis, 2015; de Onís, 2018; Ginoza, 2012). This phenomenon continues to manifest globally through common violence, environmental degradation, and displacement—particularly for communities with military bases. These examples illustrate the significance of examining the United States as an empire of military bases (Vine, 2018). State-sanctioned violence, often taking place through militarized law enforcement, has also been used to quell unarmed Indigenous protectors.

Communication scholars also examine environmental impacts of colonialism, addressing the material and discursive formations that constitute and control energy forms (de Onís, 2018), nuclear weapons production and testing processes (Endres, 2018; Taylor & Hendry, 2008), the militarization of borders (Chávez, 2012, 2017; Hasian & McHendry, 2012; Lozano, 2019), and related forms of violence. Ecological approaches to understand the impacts of colonization and militarization direct focus on interconnected issues of racialization and indigeneity and how violence has been legitimated. Colonial violence is often enacted through arrests and excessive use of force on Indigenous nations and relations who are on front lines, but it is also dispersed slowly through laws and regulations that are applied and also experienced disproportionally by other marginalized populations (Nixon, 2013). These and other forms of violence are directly related to other modes wrought by environmental racism and settler colonialism.

Catastrophic environmental and human dangers are ongoing threats born out if settler colonial processes where economic and military interests converge. For example, in 2016 the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s resistance to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline highlighted the impacts of settler colonialism on traditional and treaty-guaranteed Sioux Nation Territory. This resistance argues that the pipeline violates U.S. environmental regulations and treaties, presenting similar dangers as the Keystone XL pipeline (“NYC Stands,” 2016). Indigenous peoples protecting the environment often experience violence on the front lines through excessive force and arrests, and violence also results from the dispersal of laws and regulations that are disproportionately experienced by other marginalized populations (Nixon, 2013). Understanding the wider historical, economic, cultural, and political context illustrates how Indigenous peoples throughout the world have been resisting on the frontlines of energy and land conflicts for centuries (Estes, 2019).

Settler colonialism has been explicitly linked to environmental injustice, with theories and research from Indigenous peoples highlighting distinct beliefs, practices, and cultures that are characterized by connections with land and ecological relationships (Cajete, 1999; Carroll, 2015; Whyte, 2018). These non-Western ecological epistemologies encompass systems of responsibility as approaches to the environment that avoid essentializing and stereotypes of Indigenous peoples. While not exhaustive, these general contexts provide a sense of what colonialism is and its affects.


Native scholars have argued that decolonization is “intelligent, calculated, and active resistance to the forces of colonialism that perpetuate the subjugation and/or exploitation of our minds, bodies, and lands, and it is engaged for the ultimate purpose of overturning the colonial structure and realizing Indigenous liberation” (Waziyatawin & Yellow Bird, 2005, p. 2). From this perspective, decolonization involves contention and contestation as a specific response to colonial power dynamics and refers to the withdrawal of colonial powers from direct constitutional and legal control over territories. Frantz Fanon (2004) argued that the success of decolonization lies in a “whole social structure changed from the bottom up,” a change that is “willed, called for, demanded” by the colonized. Attending to the physical toll of colonization and the necessity of rhetorical work and consciousness is crucial for Fanon, especially because colonized people often internalize the identity of their oppressors and ultimately perform those identities. Decolonization also makes a positive intervention of “‘unsettling’ settler colonialism,” (Sailiata, 2015, p. 315) and is a process that necessarily disrupts discourses, systems, and structures—from colonial geographies to colonial institutions. It demands a dismantling of the economic system associated with the current settler state, centered on a critique of the entire structure of colonialism.

Decolonization can be understood as both a process and a project. As a project it does not take as its starting point a rejection of colonialism, but instead “seeks to reimagine and rearticulate power, change, and knowledge through a multiplicity of epistemologies, ontologies and axiologies” (Sium, Desai, & Ritskes, 2012, p. iii). Indigenous epistemologies offer launching points for decolonization, and provide particular challenges to the discourses and shifting terrain of the colonial project. As a historical process, Frantz Fanon (2004) explains decolonization “cannot be understood, it cannot become intelligible nor clear to itself except in the exact measure that we can discern the movements which give it historical form and content” (p. 36). Kuan-Hsing Chen (2010) argues for positioning “a decolonization movement which attempts to disarticulate the colonialist and imperialist cultural imaginaries that are still actively shaping our present,” and urges scholars to study the process by remapping “critical discourses generated ‘outside’ the imperial centers” (p. 2). Theoretically, decolonization also emerged as “a research process with its own methodology and while it can draw from both interpretive and critical/emancipatory theories, it does not easily fit into a pre-existing Western category” (Kovach, 2005).

Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012) refers to the process as a “decolonizing methodology” that centers Indigenous concerns and then comes to know and understand theory and research from the perspectives and purposes of Indigenous peoples. Specifically, a decolonizing methodology challenges Western educational legacies, pedagogies, and philosophies to read and write more critically about ideologies that have not fully accounted for perspectives and knowledge of colonized peoples (Simpson & Smith, 2014; Thaman, 2003). The challenge is to place Indigenous and personal histories at the center of the writing, to take up a position articulated by many writers within the category experiences of “indigenous” and otherwise marginal communities (Wilson, 2004). These perspectives demonstrate the centrality of decolonization in both the process of social movements and to the colonized individuals who struggle collectively against oppression. As Jodi Byrd (2011) explains, the process of decolonization “restores life and allows settler, arrivant, and native to apprehend and grieve together the violence of U.S. empire” (p. 229). Thus, part of the process of decolonization involves continuous interrogation and reinvention of language and terminology. Yet, Tuck, and Yang (2012) argue that decolonizing discourse that makes decolonization a metaphor (e.g., “decolonizing our schools” with no mention of Indigenous peoples) re-centers whiteness, extends innocence to the settler, and ultimately obstructs more meaningful alliances and evades progress toward the political project of decolonization (p. 3).

Decolonization is also a project distinct from other human rights and civil rights–based social justice projects. The project involves Indigenous peoples, their struggles for recognition of sovereignty, and their contributions to theorizing decolonization. It entails practices of resurgence, of reconnecting with cultures, communities, and homelands; and enabling the transmission of cultural practices to future generations (Corntassel, 2012). As an ongoing project and a cultural imperative, decolonization cannot be reduced to a political event but instead must be the focus of communication inquiry and ongoing social, political, and theoretical projects.

Debate exists about the politics of decolonization, with some scholars critiquing the process for implying extraction whereby Indigenous peoples are responsible for eliminating and reversing colonial/colonized ideas and practices. This position argues that the term “decolonization” is problematic for several reasons: (a) it often separates indigenous peoples from those engaging in anticolonial struggle; (b) it generally overlooks the links between colonialism and other forms of oppression; and (c) it suggests a politics of purity that centers on removing colonial impulses when it is impossible to remove the impact of colonization on communities and peoples. This debate over terminology, and the complexity of standards for being recognized as having Indigenous identity, have led to calls for “strategies of decolonization” that are “poised not only to make ourselves ‘more visible’ but also to structurally intervene in how indigeneity is being made increasingly hypervisible, with the same vanishing effects” (Arvin, 2015, p. 115). While there is no consensus on how to achieve decolonization and the process can take many forms, Communication Studies and many related fields continue to assert the importance of engaging in critical analyses of colonialism as cornerstones of scholarship. Among these approaches to conceptualize decolonization are the issues of sovereignty, self-determination, and survivance.


Sovereignty is a key issue related to decolonization. However, it is a highly contested term with no fixed understanding of its meaning, a range of opinions on how it matters to the people who invoke it, and a variety of conceptualizations and uses within Indigenous, national, or international law. Within Western frameworks, the meaning of sovereignty is contingent upon conceptions of the modern nation-state and ideologies of the individual. Exercised through communicative procedures and rationality, sovereignty rested primarily with the “public,” constituted by communicating individuals who are largely acting out of self-interest in the maintenance of the nation-state (Calhoun, 1992; Fraser, 1990; Habermas, 1991).

In contrast, scholarship that centers Indigenous perspectives on sovereignty examine a wide range of issues that de-center the nation-state or focus on the individual. As an ideal principle, sovereignty attempts to revive possibilities, providing a path to agency, power, and community renewal. Claims to sovereignty entail an attempt to survive and flourish as a people, it guides the pursuit of self-determination, which offers a general strategy that aims to recover losses or near-losses (including cultures, lands, languages) from colonization. Scholars consider how rhetoric asserts particular political subjects and the character of sovereignty as a political objective (Wilkins, 1997). This work focuses on the centrality of sovereignty claims and discourse within various sociopolitical contexts—such as contemporary immigration debates (Demo, 2005), media imagery as a symbol and index of sovereignty (Teves et al., 2015), and global movements (Charland, 1987; DeChaine, 2002; Enck-Wanzer, 2006; Ganesh & Stoll, 2010).

In many Indigenous discourses, sovereignty has become solidified as an inherent right emanating from “historically and politically resonant notions of cultural identity and community affiliation” (Barker, 2005, p. 20). As Alfred (2005) explains, within a sovereignty paradigm “indigenous people have made significant legal and political gains toward constructing the autonomous aspects of their individual, collective, and social identities” (p. 39). In the simplest terms, sovereignty signifies a political movement and a struggle for land and self-determination for a people (Teves et al., 2015). What becomes central is not just the demand for sovereignty but a political articulation of what sovereignty entails—as historically contingent and “embedded within specific social relations in which it is invoked and given meaning” (Barker, 2005, p. 21). Scott Richard Lyons (2000) explains: “Rhetorical sovereignty is the inherent right and ability of peoples to determine their own communicative needs and desires in this pursuit, to decide for themselves the goals, modes, styles, and languages of public discourse” (pp. 449–450). Lyons asks how “rhetorical sovereignty” functions in the broader realm of colonization and resistance—arguing that American Indians are expressing sovereign control of meaning through their writing practices. Sovereignty is a creative act that holds possibilities for disrupting stereotypes of Indigenous peoples and communities in the wake of colonialism. Thus, scholars demonstrate how communicative acts must reconcile with the politics of colonization and Indigenous populations (Charland, 1987; Olson, 2014).

Sovereignty remains a central concern in analyses of power and appropriate political objectives for Indigenous peoples. Questions remain over the implications of adopting sovereignty—a European term and idea—as an embedded notion of power and governance to structure systems for Indigenous communities today (Barker, 2005; Teves et al., 2015). Such queries continue as sovereignty has become indelibly linked to self-determination.


As one of the elements of the process and broader project of decolonization, self-determination is an internationally recognized mechanism of recourse for determining the legitimacy of control of particular populations and geographic locations (Barker, 2005; Kly & Kly, 2001). Self-determination is a core concept in international customary and treaty law, and affirms Indigenous peoples’ rights conventionally associated with statehood to the sovereignty of governance, territorial integrity, and cultural autonomy (Anaya, 2004; Barker, 2015). Concurrent with associating sovereignty with self-determination are efforts to signify rights, cultural practices, and efforts to transform and decolonize social institutions.

From the founding of the United Nations and continuing thereafter, the international community increasingly recognized that former colonies must be terminated and that colonized peoples—and later Indigenous peoples—had the right to form independent nation-states and that their self-determination must be assured. The agenda and chronology of the UN often structures current historiography, although most overviews situate the history of decolonization prior to 1945 (Banivanua Mar, 2016). With the 1945 UN Charter, “self-determination, as a subcategory of inherent human rights, had been inextricably linked to the maintenance of global peace and harmony” (Banivanua Mar, 2016, p. 141), signaling a period of member states collectively turning attention to colonialism and articulating a discourse of decolonization. Other UN instruments afford the universality of an entitlement to the norm of self-determination of “peoples,” although the meaning of the term remains contentious in international law. For example, the wording of the UN Charter engineered a weak framework and an “abiding mismatch between the right of self-determination residing in all peoples and the more restrictive right of self-government residing in non-self-governing territories” (Banivanua Mar, 2016, p. 141). The UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 1514, which asserts that “by virtue of that right [of self-determination] they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development” (United Nations, 1960, no. 2). Resolutions 1514 and 1541 attempted to resolve these concerns about unevenness and questions regarding self-determination and rights of self-government, and signaled the official global priority of decolonization. In practice, however, these decolonization priorities are continually bogged down in the maintenance of territorial integrity of national and colonial borders.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) of 2007 emerged from decades of debates and deliberations over definitions of “peoples” among many other elements between Indigenous and state actors (Anaya, 2004; Anaya & Wiessner, 2007). From these antecedents and questions of self-determination, scholars argue that the UNDRIP provides some of the most comprehensive enumeration of the key issues and effective protection of these rights. Ranging from self-determination to other rights to culture, development, land, redress, and socioeconomic development—the UNDRIP content reflects broader significance and future challenges in making it work (Charters & Stavenhagen, 2009; Xanthanki, 2009). There are many contested positions about the UNDRIP, its adoption of collective human rights positions often couched in the framework of individual nation-states, and the international peoples’ movement that played a key role in its development (Champagne, 2013; Charters & Stavenhagen, 2009), yet the Declaration and existing resolutions uphold the principle of self-determination that was primarily responsible for the decolonization process that shaped the international community (Castellino, 2000). Debates and concerns remain over the salience of rights discourse to sustain decolonization (Corntassel, 2012; Coulthard, 2014; Eisenberg et al., 2014) and the appropriation of Indigenous struggles into civil rights rubric (Barker, 2005). Focusing on indigeneity, the concept of survivance also warrants discussion as an element of decolonization.


Coined by Gerald Vizenor, the term “survivance” indicates more than basic physical survival. also It refers to continued Indigenous presence through cultural and spiritual practice and stories—it is a life force that is crucial to the understanding of how indigeneity foregrounds considerations of decolonization (Vizenor, 1999, 2008). The term refers to “an active sense of presence over absence, deracination, and oblivion; survivance is the continuance of stories, not a mere reaction;” a resistance and life force (Vizenor, 2008, p. 1). Stromberg articulates that “survivance connotes active presence and renunciation of victimhood in the rhetorical and literary tradition of indigenous peoples” (Stuckey, 2018, p. xiv).


This article charts key elements of colonization and decolonization to situate these complex concepts and expand on connected dimensions among these issues across contexts. The literature from Critical Cultural Studies, Rhetoric and Composition, Native American and Indigenous Studies scholarship, and other disciplines highlights how interdisciplinary inquiry addresses dimensions and structures of colonialism. Scholars in Communication Studies would be well served to continue to center their focus on Indigenous perspectives, lands, and lives. Such an approach would strengthen efforts to interrogate the structure of settler colonialism and the power of empire. It would take seriously the need for decolonization and prioritize this work as central to considerations of how research questions are framed, projects are imagined, and everyday discursive processes unfold. The United Nations’ Third International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism (2011–2020) marked an aspirational goal of eliminating colonialism in the world—although decolonization is not likely to be complete within this timeframe. The task of centering Native and Indigenous people’s land and lives is paramount. Work must continue to engage frameworks and cultivate approaches to unhinge the pervasive legitimacy of colonialism and its power to name, dispossess, attempt to eradicate, and erase Indigenous peoples. This work is required for imagining and enacting decolonial futures.

For primary sources on colonization and decolonization, major sources are often found in archives and collections. Consider contemporary and historical sources, cultural resources, and sources from Native and Indigenous researchers, scholars, and community members.

National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) Archive Center, Washington, DC

The NMAI is committed to advancing knowledge and understanding of Native cultures of the Western hemisphere. The Archive Center serves as a repository for records of contemporary Native American activists, artists, writers, and organizations. Collections focus on Native art, culture, knowledge, movements, and politics. The NMAI houses approximately 1,500 linear feet of manuscripts and thousands of photographic objects, complementing the museum’s object collections that are used for exhibitions, documentary productions, educational and Native community activities, and scholarly research

Native American Rights Fund (NARF), Boulder, Colorado

This nonprofit 501c(3) organization applies existing laws and treaties to guarantee that state and national governments uphold their legal obligations. Providing legal assistance to Indian tribes, individuals, and organizations nationwide that might otherwise lack adequate representation, NARF focuses on critical areas of treaty rights, tribal sovereignty, natural resource protection, and Indian education among other important rights of Indians and tribes. NARF also hosts the National Indian Law Library, maintaining a valuable and unique collection of Indian law resources and assisting people with Indian law-related research needs.

The National Archives: Colonies and Dependencies

This is one of the primary sources for the records of British colonies and dependencies. These records consist of documents from British government departments responsible for colonial affairs The National Archives does not typically maintain the records of colonial governments themselves. For research on particular governments, seek out the records and archives from the countries concerned.

The United Nations and Decolonization

This UN website offers a complete list of archived videos, historical documents, resources, press releases, and primary documents and sources regarding its decolonization proceedings. This source also archives the various UN committees and seminars tasked with decolonization, such as: Committee of 24, Regional Seminars, Special Political and Decolonization Committee (Fourth Committee). It includes Secretary-General’s reports, information and documents from Non-Self-Governing Territories, and documents on the implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples by various specialized agencies and international institutions that are associated with the UN.

Unsettling America: Decolonization in Theory and Practice

This website provides resources from autonomous groups and individuals as part of a decentralized network devoted to decolonization throughout Turtle Island and the “Americas.” The content and materials focus on decolonization and liberation from below and attention to struggles for true self-determination and sovereignty for all people.

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(1.) I have joined these efforts to speak about Guåhan (Guam) and its need for decolonization. As a Chamoru and a Communication scholar, I am particularly interested in understanding how Indigenous communication strategies function against colonization in Oceania. My positionality and experience highlight the status of colonization in the 21st century, and also acknowledges collective responsibilities to challenge Indigenous erasure and work toward a project of decolonization.