The Emotional Work of Decolonization

This post was authored by Margo Lukens, Abbe Trustee, who shares her perspectives as a board member and as a non-Native person committed to co-developing decolonizing museum practices.

jillthinkingWhen I joined the Abbe Museum’s Board of Trustees, I understood I’d be supporting the institution in various ways: expanding the Museum’s network more widely, cultivating new members, doing committee work, and contributing financially to the degree I am able.  I was excited to engage in decolonizing practices, where my research on Wabanaki literary history and experience teaching about privilege and oppression would be useful.  Decolonization means, at a minimum, sharing governance and authority for the documentation and interpretation of Native culture. Decolonizing practices at the Abbe are collaborative with tribal communities, privilege Native perspective and voice, and include the full measure of history, ensuring truth-telling.  And right now, trustees and staff are deeply committed to a process to implement a strategic plan to decolonize museum practices and develop new protocols.

Our recent strategic plan was years in the making, and was not a fait accompli at the start. Educating the Board about issues of sovereignty for Wabanaki people was a necessary step to creating a plan focused on  decolonizing practices.  Once trustees gained information about Wabanaki people’s historic struggles for survival and self-determination, it was easier for them to question historic museum policies, and to envision a better museum that tells truth about Wabanaki culture, with Wabanaki voices at the center.  As we have described it, museum decolonization specifically addresses the legacies of settler colonialism and seeks to undo the ills this created and build new structures that uphold the principles of decolonization and heal this legacy.

We started with a Decolonization Committee that met frequently and was focused on bringing all the board and staff of the Abbe face-to-face with an aspect of decolonization we may not have anticipated: our own emotions about race.   We now have a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services to “engage in learning sessions around anti-racism, the impact of acculturation and how servant leadership models can shelter the process of decolonization; and we will engage in cultural competency assessments.” With this work we will be entering an emotional dimension, an experience that may be painful in its surprise and surprising in its painfulness.  And this emotional experience will surely extend to visitors who are paying close attention to the Museum’s exhibits.

The Metaphor of Facing Loss

A problem we face as a traditionally majority-white board of trustees* is that, like the population of the State of Maine, many of us have relatively little experience with anything but a majority white society.  How do we ensure we can keep moving forward in our work when the foundation of our identity and authority is identified as the central problem?  And how do we ensure that white board members take responsibility for our own emotional experience, and don’t lean on Wabanaki members to make us feel better about ourselves?  A little more than a decade ago, I got some big help on this issue from an Oneida scholar named Carol Cornelius.  She came to UMaine to speak about facilitating reading across cultures, especially when the readers are white people who don’t have much experience examining their own racial status.

Professor Cornelius says when you encounter other people’s versions of (hi)stories you thought you knew, you go through a process parallel to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of facing death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (see Kubler-Ross’s 1969 book On Death and Dying).  These are stages of loss—that’s where the link is.  People in the dominant culture (white people, whether or not they are actually descended from the colonizers) might experience serious challenges to their ideas of why things are the way they are; most painful is the realization that the United States grew and profited so much on the blood and sweat of Native Americans and Africans whose descendants have lived to tell the story.  The State of Maine has its own particular story of betrayals and oppressions in and since the colonial encounter.  The impacts are visible today. It’s possible to feel various kinds of loss in learning these things—the loss of innocence, of being one of the good guys, of your place as “the way life should be.”  You don’t experience the emotional stages in a linear way, and you may find yourself going around and experiencing a stage more than once. I realized how useful the analogy could be for the Abbe trustees, as we learn more about Maine-Wabanaki shared history and undergo further training in cultural competency.

Here’s a sample of how I explain the process:

  • Denial is where you don’t really believe the stories, they don’t match the stories you already know, so they can’t possibly be true, or they’re exaggerated or they’re biased…. For example, in a fake news era this is especially true; from some quarters, we hear a complete denial of genocide. Or you can’t hear it because it’s simply too confusing to integrate the information.
  • Anger is another response to your new view of what happened because of colonization; you feel angry there are major problems in the world because of what happened “back then.” You want to find the villains, and you’re frustrated that you weren’t there to fix it—and for white people, they are used to having the power to fix things, and want to show up as “the savior.”  Or maybe you’re mad because you feel blamed for something you didn’t do:  “My family wasn’t part of this. Why are you putting this on me?” Or you’re mad because you think you’re being told you should feel bad for being white. (Don’t feel bad for being who you are, but DO critically examine the advantages you get if you are white).
  • Bargaining is when you’re looking for a way to avoid the burden of grief. You may feel, “I know Native people and other people of color have been oppressed to make the system work for people like me, BUT MAYBE if I . . . ” and then you can fill in the blank: “hang a dreamcatcher from my rearview mirror, buy lots of Wabanaki baskets, or just feel extraordinarily guilty for the things I didn’t do, then somehow that’s going to compensate….”  But it doesn’t.  (By which I do not mean to discourage anyone from buying Wabanaki baskets, by all means, do!)
  • Then there’s Depression, which is, “Colonization and its structures have been at work here for 500 years. This makes me really sad, I’m just one person, and there’s nothing I can do about it.  So why bother?”
  • You want to get to the stage of Acceptance, when you know the stories you’ve heard all along, the history you learned in school or at home, but now you begin to be informed by another version. There may be truth to the colonizer narrative, but you realize there’s also truth in the narrative of the colonized and the person who was enslaved.  Once you can hold those contradictory stories in your mind and your heart, then you get to choose how you’ll behave in the world, and think about the effect of any action you decide to take.  And that’s what Acceptance is about—it’s about accepting the truth of a story that may challenge us, and understanding what it can tell us about the impact of colonization.

What To Do With the Feelings

Learning to expect the strong emotions helps.  I advise venting: I advise my students to write, or scream into a pillow, or to have a good cry all alone in their car—and I also say, give yourself a break and expect that you’re going to experience these things—don’t be shocked, and trust that the feelings will evolve and eventually be manageable.  White people, particularly, have an opportunity to develop emotional flexibility where we are presently rigid or fragile.  As Rio Ramirez of the Tohono O’odham Nation says, “Those feelings are okay as long as we move past them and try to help each other now as human beings.  No one here today made these things happen.  But we are the ones who are living now, and we need to understand that we are all in this together.”

If we are taken unaware by the onslaught of emotions, we may be immobilized or turned inward or just plain turned off.  However, if we expect a bit of a rough emotional ride, then we are less likely to get stalled by guilt, or by feeling blamed, or by our own sorrow (all of which are aspects of white fragility).  Consciously engaging the emotional experiences can help us, no matter who we are, to understand the impacts of colonization (upon others and upon ourselves) and why decolonization might be important to us—and specifically decolonizing the Abbe Museum.  It all comes back to your vision of the way life should be—I know the reason we’ve already come so far is our shared desire to live in a world of truth and justice.

Margo Lukens, July 2018

About the author

Margo Lukens is Professor of English and Director of the McGillicuddy Humanities Center at the University of Maine. Current projects include publication of traditional Penobscot texts in bilingual format, and writing/performing a solo show about race.  She teaches literatures of colonization, 19th-century Anglo-American, and Native American literatures.  Her research interests include Wabanaki literary and storytelling history, Native American and First Nations drama, and making whiteness visible to white people. Her publications include editing Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers and other Untold Stories: Five Plays by William S. Yellow Robe, Jr. (UCLA, 2009) and Indigenous New England, a special issue of Studies in American Indian Literatures on Northeastern Native American writers (with Siobhan Senier, winter 2012). She has produced and directed Native American plays on campus and in the region, sings with EUPHONY “Orono’s chamber choir,” and participates in as much theater as possible. She may be reached at

Staff Note

To make an authentic commitment to decolonization, it requires personal, emotional work. Each one of us can do this. Here are a few resources to help you get started on your journey.

Seeing White (Scene on Radio podcast series)

Code Switch (podcast)

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo (book)

Waking Up White by Debby Irving (book)


*By August 2018, the board of trustees will be 50% Native and it’s expected that by 2019, the board will be majority Native. This is the result of conscious change made by the governance committee and the board.


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