Decolonizing Peace Studies: Moving toward Settler Responsibilities for Colonialism

By Polly Walker

Osiyo. I write as a woman of Cherokee and settler descent, a member of the Cherokee Southwest Township, a satellite community of the Cherokee Nation. The lands that grew me up are the traditional lands of the Mescalero Apache in New Mexico; my family’s cattle ranch bordered the reservation, areas alive with all our relations and the ancestors of those who had lived there for centuries. I write during the time of COVID-19, in which the deadly legacies of colonialism are evident. Indigenous peoples around the world are disproportionately contracting and dying from the virus. Colonialism has resulted in reduced economic opportunities, diminished quality of health care, and other stressors that place Indigenous peoples in extremely high-risk categories.

I was mid-career when I turned to Peace Studies based on my lived experience of settler colonialism in New Mexico. I was working in a public education system that did not address any of the Mescalero Apache students’ issues arising from colonialism. I became disturbed by the injustice and decided to seek a graduate degree in conflict transformation. After I began my doctoral studies at the University of Queensland (UQ) in Australia, I noticed a stark difference in Indigenous and settler acknowledgement of, and attention to, decolonization. Within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Unit at UQ, courses and educational experiences largely arose out of Indigenous knowledge systems, were embodied by Indigenous peoples and designed to address direct, structural and cultural violence toward Indigenous communities. In contrast, in the Peace and Conflict Studies Program the voices of Indigenous peoples were largely absent; the long histories of Indigenous peacemaking, diplomacy and conflict management were not evident in peer reviewed journal articles, nor within the general conversation within the field. Approaches to reconciliation and land reform were developed, to a great extent, through the lens of colonialism and elided engagement with many of the complex, painful and ongoing injustices against Indigenous peoples.

Shortly after completing my PhD. thesis on transforming conflict between Aboriginal and settler Australians, I published an article on decolonizing conflict resolution, calling for a critical analysis of the field. I focused on decreasing ontological, epistemic and cosmological violence toward Indigenous peoples, articulating some of the differences between Indigenous and dominant Western worldviews, and describing the ways in which scholars working out of Western worldviews had assumed hegemony within the field, marginalizing and suppressing Indigenous approaches to peace. I argued that a decolonizing approach would include respectful engagement with Indigenous peoples and their worldviews, as well as the acknowledgement of historical and contemporary Indigenous approaches to dealing with conflict and building peace. Since I wrote that article sixteen years ago, little has changed, with relatively few Peace and Conflict Studies peer reviewed articles, research projects or books arising out of Indigenist perspectives/approaches.

Today, I am concerned that my previous article fell far short of ethical recommendations for decolonizing the field. As Tuck and Yang maintain, claims of decoloniality require addressing the ongoing legacies of colonialism through relationality, restitution, and repatriation of Indigenous lands and life. Without engaging in these complex, messy, ‘unsettling’ processes and relationships, claims of decolonizing Peace Studies may become a type of ‘settler moves to innocence’ that reinforce settler colonialism in new forms within the field.

Decolonizing the field of Peace Studies requires engaging in collaborative Indigenist research, which is centered in Indigenous knowledge systems, led by Indigenous scholars and knowledge holders and responds to the needs of Indigenous nations and communities. These endeavors do not foreclose the possibilities of settler researchers and scholars being engaged in decolonizing research. However, scholars of settler descent working to decolonize the field would be working within Indigenous paradigms and with Indigenous peoples. In the Indigenous Education Institute, of which I am currently chair, we call these relationships ‘collaborations of integrity,’ part of ongoing decolonizing processes that address current cultural and structural violence and that create more just, generative and ethical relationships that can be called on to address future conflicts.

To decolonize Peace and Conflict Studies we must work toward the restoration of Indigenous lands. At the 2016 Peace and Justice Studies Association Conference at Selkirk College in British Columbia, Wab Kinew, a member of the Ojibway of Onigaming First Nation, gave the opening keynote address. He emphasized the necessity of dealing with the issue of land restoration and restitution. He emphasized this point with a memorable illustrative story told to him by one of his friends.

As I remember the story, Wab said:

reconciliation in Canada might be compared to a situation in which you have an antique pickup truck that has been in your family for generations and then was stolen by someone. After a while, you see the truck driving by your home on a daily basis and you confront the person driving it, who says they bought it from someone else and did not know it was stolen. They apologize for the harm and distress the loss has caused you and your family. And then they continue to drive the bright red classic pickup truck by your house every day.

Wab then went on to explain that meaningful and just reconciliation in Canada has just begun and that fuller measures of justice would require that Canadians address land restorations and restitutions. Likewise, if we are to decolonize Peace Studies, justice initiatives focused on these issues must become part of our work.

We will be also required to develop collaborations of integrity that restore the Indigenous lifeways that have been impacted by colonialism. As Blackfoot knowledge holder Leroy Little Bear explains, many Indigenous peoples hold ‘jagged’ worldviews that have been shaped by Western institutions while at the same time having deep foundations in Indigenous cosmologies. Leroy describes Indigenous cosmologies as characterized by everything in the cosmos being in flux, with a focus on processes and energy, in which everything is animate, based in extended relationality, expanded notions of time, and celebrated through cycles of renewal. Indigenous cosmologies are also Place based, arising out of, and in relationship with, Place. Decolonizing forms of peace studies will engage justly with Indigenous peoples and their cosmologies, disrupting the colonialism of dominant paradigm Western research and practice.

All of these processes will require unsettling the settler, of moving into territory that is contested, complex and painfully messy. It may at times seem impossible to effect meaningful and long-lasting change, given the intractability of colonialism. Nevertheless, we have each other to call on as we move toward balance and harmony. I often cite the work of Grandfather Leon Secatero, a knowledge holder of the Cañoncito Band of the Navajo, who describes the times in which we live as the times of ‘the five fingered ones’ of all humans, Indigenous and settler. Grandfather Leon is now passed on, but his teachings are alive within many of us who were honored to learn from him. I don’t recall him ever using the term decolonial, but I understood his message to be one of decoloniality.

He said that his ancestors had foretold of the times when the white people first came to Turtle Island in big boats, explaining that there was then an opportunity for all humans to work together in a good way; a way that respected Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island (now called North America) and their knowledges and that engaged with the newcomers and their ways of knowing. But rather than a respectful, relational and reciprocal engagement, the explorers, invaders and colonizers moved to eliminate Indigenous peoples from their lands and cosmologies. Grandfather Leon went on to explain that we are now in a cycle in which a new world will be born, that it can be born out of great pain and loss, or it can be born more gently into justice, into balance and harmony, if all five fingered ones work together.

I carry Grandfather Leon’s words in my heart and being, and have thought of them many times as I collaborate with other Indigenist researchers, scholars and knowledge holders to restore balance to our cosmos and cosmologies. Now in the time of COVID19, his words have even more urgency for us to imagine the world we want to envision and support after the corona virus is no longer a global threat. We have opportunities to decolonize our minds, lands and lifeways, and we are being called to do so.



Little Bear, L. “Introduction” in Cajete, G. Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence, (Clear Light Publishers, Santa Fe, NM, 2000).

Research and Reconciliation: Unsettling Ways of Knowing Through Indigenous Relationships, eds. Shawn Wilson, Andrea V. Breen, & Lindsay DuPré (Toronto: ON: Canadian Scholars, 2019P).

Secatero, L. (2004). personal communication. Seed Dialogues, Albuquerque, NM.

Tuck, E. & Yang, K.W. “Decolonization is not a Metaphor.” Decolonization, Indigeneity, Education & Society, (2012), 1, 1, 10-40.

Walker, P. ‘Journeys Around the Medicine Wheel: A story of Indigenous Research in a Western University,’ The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education. (2001). 29, 2, 19-22.

Walker, P. O. “Decolonizing Conflict Resolution: Addressing the Ontological Violence of Westernization.” American Indian Quarterly. (2004), 28, 3/4, 527-549.


Polly O. Walker, Director of the Baker Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, and Elizabeth Evans Baker Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Juniata College in Pennsylvania. She is of Cherokee and Anglo descent, and a member of the Cherokee Southwest Township. Polly’s doctoral degree in Conflict Transformation is from the Department of Social Work and Social Policy, University of Queensland. Her research and practice focus on Indigenous/Settler conflict transformation, Indigenous Knowledge systems, and the role of the arts and cultural work in transforming conflict. Polly is an executive board member of the IMPACT project, a co-editor of Acting Together, a two volume anthology, and on the boards of the Peace and Justice Studies Association and the International Peace Research Association.