Decolonize and Indigenize: A Reflective Dialogue


Wendy Ng, Manager of Learning, and J’net AyAyQwaYakSheelth, Indigenous Outreach & Learning Coordinator, Royal Ontario Museum

Image caption: J’net AyAyQwaYakSheelth, ROM Indigenous Outreach and Learning Coordinator, talking to students about ancestral objects found throughout Toronto. Photo © Royal Ontario Museum

Borne from the cabinets of curiosities of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, museums embody colonial worldviews rooted in white supremacy, and have long perpetuated colonial narratives about Indigenous peoples (Karp, 1992; Pieterse, 1997; Smith, 1999). The recent controversy at the Walker Art Center has put a contemporary spotlight on the long movement to decolonize museums. As renowned Indigenous education scholar, Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Ngāti Awa and Ngāti Porou iwi) defines, “Decolonization, once viewed as the formal process of handing over the instruments of government, is now recognized as a long-term process involving the bureaucratic, cultural, linguistic, and psychological divesting of colonial power” (1999, p. 98).

The term “decolonize” has been widely used by non-Indigenous peoples who have experienced colonization in their ancestral lands as well as diasporic communities who have settled on or were forcibly enslaved on Turtle Island, also known as North America. For example, Decolonize Brooklyn Museum has written an open letter in response to the museum’s recent hiring decisions. Given the specific context of North America, the enslavement, migration, and settlement of all other groups was predicated on the colonization of Indigenous peoples. Therefore, any use of the verb “decolonize” and the noun “decolonization” must be used in reference to the colonization of Indigenous peoples, argues urban education and Indigenous studies scholar Eve Tuck (Unangax) (2012, p. 3).

How can museums decolonize? Amy Lonetree (Ho-Chunk), Indigenous history and museum studies scholar, advocates that museums “must address legacies of historical unresolved grief that persist…as sites of decolonization through honoring Indigenous knowledge and worldviews by privileging Indigenous voices and perspectives” (2016, April 15). This article illustrates ways to intentionally center Indigenous peoples and knowledges in order to drive strategic departmental change.

We, the authors — Wendy Ng, Manager of Learning, and J’net AyAyQwaYakSheelth, Indigenous Outreach and Learning Coordinator — have developed a working relationship for over four years that is reflective of the Seven Sacred Teachings, such as respect, humility, and truth. Our collective efforts to enact change are rooted in our mutually shared goal to decolonize and indigenize education in the museum. We have structured this article as a reflective dialogue between colleagues in the hopes of capturing our voices, our relationship, and our approaches to working in an authentic way. The questions italicized throughout our dialogue are questions that we encourage you, the reader, to ask yourself as part of a self-reflective practice.

Wendy: J’net, what motivates you to decolonize and indigenize museums?

J’net: During my job interview, I openly shared that I have a career goal to thaw out colonized minds and my central motivation is disrupting the illusion that Indigenous peoples have vanished. My role allows me to raise consciousness about our collective responsibility to learn about a colonial history designed “to alter cultural priorities” (Nandy, 1987, p.170), and reflect on the contemporary lived realities of Indigenous peoples. I feel driven to break the silence on the continuous damage inflicted by the oppressive legislation in Canada known as the Indian Act. This federal law set the foundation for Canada’s formal assimilation policy to be carried out, in part, by the Canadian government and the Catholic Church through the residential school system, where generations of Indigenous children were imprisoned. The remainder of the Indigenous populations were forcibly removed and relocated onto reserves that disrupted their land-based economy in order to make way for European colonial settlement and resource extraction.

For 67 years under the Indian Act, the Potlatch Ban legally denied and criminalized Indigenous peoples for any expression of traditions and ceremonies, and caused tremendous harm to generations of Indigenous families, communities, and nations. My education has afforded me the ability to value facts and be mindful of when there are gaps, and to be a relentless champion to break the erasure and exclusion of Indigenous voices and presence within Canadian society. How about you…what motivates you?

Wendy: Diversity, equity, and inclusion are central to both my personal and professional values. This stems from my earliest childhood experiences of museums as White, elitist spaces where I did not see myself reflected in the people and things within them. Fundamentally, I’m motivated to change museums from being tools for colonization to being tools for social justice. When I was writing an article with Syrus Marcus Ware and Alyssa Greenberg (2017), we defined allyship as a process, “a way of working together, across multiple identities, to create work environments, programming, and exhibition content that embraces all humanity, specifically racialized and marginalized peoples, from a social justice lens” (p. 143). As a person of color, I am aware of my positionality as an immigrant and settler living, working, and creating on colonized land. I am also aware of my positional power as a manager within a hierarchical institution. With these understandings, I’m motivated and committed to doing what I can to transform museums from what Amy Lonetree (2012) describes as “sites of colonial harm into sites of healing, and restoring community well-being” and “from sites of oppression…into sites of revitalization and autonomy” (p. 173).

J’net: We’re pretty motivated to make change, but what are we changing?

Wendy: Canada has been forced to reckon with its colonial history and current legacy with the publishing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action. Decolonizing our work as museum educators has meant fundamentally challenging the master narrative perpetuated by museums and questioning how do we know what we know. Whose voices do we hear in museums? What are they saying and how are they saying it? Whose voices do we not hear? Why? What are the bodies of knowledge that are traditionally drawn upon in museums rooted in? How can we decolonize museums by privileging Indigenous ways of knowing and actively listening to perspectives voiced by those with lived experiences as Indigenous people? How can non-Indigenous staff recognize their positionality and use their unearned privileges to contribute to truth-telling and reconciliation efforts? These are the challenging questions we’ve asked of ourselves, our colleagues, and our museum. What are some challenges you’ve experienced doing this work?

J’net: Time and again, I am stunned at how uninformed most mainstream North Americans are about Indigenous and colonial histories. This leaves a vacuum of details, experiences, and social injustices that are not taught in the Western education system, which is a systemic form of erasure. The Indigenous professional learning sessions that we offer to other internal departments and external groups including provincial ministries, school boards, and post-secondary institutions, focuses on learning about Indigenous and colonial histories, identifying and dismantling prejudices and stereotypes about Indigenous peoples, and making connections to living Indigenous cultures through object-based learning in our galleries. During these sessions, I still encounter how Western ways of knowing have cultivated an inherent reluctance to see Indigenous oral tradition and ecological knowledge as valid. This can be challenging on many levels if we take a moment to understand language systems and how they give form to our relationships. Western European languages are hinged on binary/split relationships of power/powerlessness, civilized/uncivilized, human/animal, etc. Emiliano Guevara (2006) describes how linguistic binary structures contribute to the core of every component of society.” (p. 4) In comparison, the Task Force on Aboriginal Languages and Cultures (2005) describes Indigenous languages as “based on relationships…embodied…in the land” (p. ii), are verb-based, and are taught through a learn-by-doing experiential approach. This approach involves taking responsibility for our actions toward living a good life by not being in competition with the world, but rather, starting with the path of least resistance and seeking harmony.

In your experience doing this work, what strategies are impactful and why?

Image caption: Tristan Blackbird Martell aka Bboy Tanmantiou (Cree from Waterhen Lake First Nation) teaching students Indigenous hip hop dance in the ROM’s historic Rotunda. Photo by Wendy Ng.

Wendy: When I began at the museum, I was charged with creating a strategic plan for the Learning Department within my first year. In response to the needs of our educational stakeholders, Indigenous education and digital learning were established as strategic priorities because, in essence, what we learn and how we learn have changed, and context is everything. The strategy gave our ship a rudder, so to speak, allowing us to steer towards a clear set of goals as well as avoid waves that would take us off our course. Also, representation matters. When I began at the museum, my first task was to hire an Indigenous Outreach & Learning Coordinator. Having you, J’net, in this role has been critical to the visioning and implementation of our decolonization and indigenization efforts. Together, our core strategy has been to center Indigenous voices in all that we do to support these efforts.

Once you were on board, the first thing we did was establish an Indigenous Advisory Circle consisting of an elder, knowledge carriers, educators, artists, and youth representing different nations and educational stakeholders to ensure the work of the Learning Department was supported by a “cultural backbone,” as you’ve often described. Most recently, we’ve created and hired for a new teaching position in the department, Indigenous Knowledge Resource Teacher, to recognize Indigenous knowledge as a body of knowledge valid unto itself and filled by those with lived experiences as Indigenous people. Having six individuals from a diversity of nations and perspectives ensures we avoid the stereotype of one monolithic group with a singular culture. As you always say, we need to pluralize — peoples, communities, perspectives, etc.

We’ve also invested in ongoing training for our team of museum educators led by Indigenous staff, elders, knowledge carriers, and artists as well as museum professionals of color. We are quite intentional in the way we sequence and structure these opportunities year over year in order to be responsive to the learning needs of our team, and to what is happening in the education sector more broadly. Personally, this has been the most difficult yet rewarding work to build the capacity of our team in anti-oppression and anti-racism pedagogies and methodologies — work that continues.

There’s still a long way to go on this ongoing journey, but I feel like we’ve turned a corner in making that “heart–mind” connection, as you’ve often described, between knowing the truth of our colonial history in our minds, and understanding our role in reconciliation in our hearts. What other strategies would you add to this list?

J’net: As educators we must ensure historical gaps are filled with facts, and as noted by Sium and Ritskes (2013), “Indigenous truth rests on the empowerment of Indigenous land and sovereignty, not needing any legitimation from colonial states or modernity” (p. II). This breaks through the silence and allows us to all have a larger historical backdrop from which to improve how we speak about the truth of Indigenous experiences. Museums play a vital role to house memories, and our humble efforts in the Learning Department to raise consciousness ensures the memories presented are not selective. As educators in the museum, we aim to assist visitors in fostering compassion and critical reflection about the social injustices still endured by Indigenous populations who have been displaced in their own lands. One way we’ve done this is by building the capacity of our non-Indigenous museum educators to tell the truths about our colonial history and to infuse Indigenous perspectives into their teaching. In fact, we came to develop our Indigenous professional learning sessions after a parent chaperone who participated in her son’s school field trip was so impressed by what she learned from one of our teaching colleagues, she asked if we could develop a professional learning workshop customized to the provincial ministry where she worked.

Wendy: I’ve often described museums as big ships that may not turn on a dime, but they do turn, with coaxing, eventually…what do you think museums need to move forward?

J’net: What we need to move forward is for Indigenous professional learning to become mandatory and ongoing for museum professionals and volunteers within every department of our public institutions. We need a solid foundation of truth that raises awareness of the ongoing colonial legacy of social injustices that Indigenous peoples continue to be subject to in contemporary times in order for authentic reconciliation to happen. This depth of truth-telling is less about assigning blame and stirring up guilt, and more aligned with efforts to be informed as a society to avoid repeating the wrongs of the past, and to allow all that call Canada their home to cha-chim-hey-aqulth, a phrase in my Nuu-chah-nulth language that translates to “go the right way”. In essence, we must ensure we do not repeat or replicate the past for any marginalized populations living under neo-imperial rule, hierarchies, and patriarchal systems that continue to dominate the discourse.

Image caption: A ROM Indigenous Knowledge Resource Teacher sharing stories about a buffalo robe with students. Photo © Royal Ontario Museum


Decolonization is a long-term process that must start with ourselves. Commit to educating yourself about the colonial history of Turtle Island through sources authored and voiced by the colonized, not the colonizer. Commit to understanding how colonization has continued to this day through systems that disproportionately target and oppress Indigenous peoples including policing, incarceration, and foster care. Commit to learning the stories of Indigenous resistance, resilience, and successes including social, political, scientific, technological, and economic contributions to society. Commit to the ongoing process of critical self-reflection and awareness of your privilege and power, and use your positionality to amplify Indigenous voices and perspectives. Commit to a teaching practice rooted in anti-oppression and anti-racism pedagogies and methodologies.

As a community of museum educators, support Indigenous representation on staff by removing systemic barriers to recruitment and retention. Engage and involve Indigenous elders, knowledge carriers, artists, and youth directly in museum work, and be willing to take their feedback / direction / criticism with respect and humility. Face the truth of your museum’s role in perpetuating colonial narratives and work to redress through what you interpret and how you interpret in your galleries. Fundamentally, Hishookish-Tsawalk — We are all one. All humanity is connected; therefore, all of us are responsible for dismantling the colonial legacy and building a new future where distinct cultures dictate their own narratives.

Wendy Ng

Wendy Ng is currently serving as Manager of Learning at the Royal Ontario Museum. She strategically directs the Learning Department and its educational programming, which includes School Visits, Travelling Exhibitions & Programs, and the Hands-on Galleries. She is steadfastly committed to social justice in non-profit organizations, and has published on this work in the Journal of Museum Education and the book Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today. Wendy has a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a Bachelor of Education from York University, a Master of Arts in Teaching (Museum Education) from The George Washington University, and is certified by the Ontario College of Teachers. @twin_muses

J’net AyAyQwaYakSheelth

J’net AyAyQwaYakSheelth (One who gives away and still stands tall) is a member of the Ahousaht community within the Nuu-chah-nulth ancestral lands on Vancouver Island, BC. J’net holds a permanent position with the Royal Ontario Museum as the Indigenous Outreach and Learning Coordinator. In her role, J’net engages with Indigenous communities to assist the ROM to authentically represent and work with Indigenous peoples in educational and outreach programming. She also coordinates and leads Indigenous professional learning sessions customized for internal departments and external groups across sectors to help build their capacity for truth and reconciliation. @koous


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