Decolonizing Education: A Conversation with Linda Tuhiwai Smith

May 18, 2021   •   By Bhakti Shringarpure

This is the first interview in a new LARB series called “Decolonize / Defund / Abolish,” in which Bhakti Shringarpure and Grégory Pierrot will engage scholars, artists, and activists in dialogues about structures of colonialism persisting in the world today, and about creative and speculative practices of freedom in response to these structures.


LINDA TUHIWAI SMITH (Māori, Ngāti Awa, and Ngāti Porou iwi) is a scholar, professor, and leader in Indigenous education in New Zealand. Her 1999 book, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (now available in a third edition from Zed Books), remains an influential and groundbreaking work of scholarship that exposes the exploitative colonial legacy of research conducted for the purposes of Western knowledge accumulation and production. Tuhiwai Smith is professor of Indigenous education at the University of Waikato (Hamilton), a Waitangi Tribunal Committee member, and a leading member of several national committees on Indigenous education and research. Last week, she became the first Māori scholar to be elected into the prestigious American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Tuhiwai Smith spoke to Bhakti Shringarpure via Zoom from New Zealand.


BHAKTI SHRINGARPURE: New Zealand has been held up as a model for COVID-19 measures. Additionally, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is viewed as an enterprising and model leader. Could you complicate this story and tell us if it looks the same from an Indigenous perspective?

LINDA TUHIWAI SMITH: Rightly, Jacinda Ardern has been credited in terms of political leadership, particularly when you compare her to the failure of political leaders in other countries. Under her leadership, the government did really well; she made some courageous decisions at the start of the pandemic by putting New Zealand into a severe lockdown before COVID-19 had the opportunity to really take hold, and she relied on scientific advice. That part has been really successful and the strategy in New Zealand is to just stamp it out so that it’s not in the community. That story, globally, is a story of success. The other side of the story for us Indigenous populations is that any pandemic causes anxiety for our communities because we remember the influenza pandemic in 1918, which hit our communities very badly. And we were abandoned by the health system.

Thus, during this pandemic, our communities took charge of the situation. They created border controls to monitor people coming in and out. They organized their own food supply chains. Younger people who were fit and healthy went and got all the groceries and delivered them to the elders who were staying home. The communities were resilient and self-reliant. They had two months to take control of their destiny, and they did very well. But others, non-Indigenous people, were affronted and said how dare they put up a border control on a public highway, and they wanted to do something about it. But we can argue that this was successful in keeping COVID out because the few that COVID hit could have gone to those communities. And that would be terrible because, you know, our communities are not healthy. Many have co-morbidities and struggle with health anyway. A COVID outbreak would have been devastating, and you can see that overseas in Brazil or even in the United States with some of the tribal nations. The impact has been just awful. These are layered stories, and from my perspective, what our people have had to do is look after ourselves and we are used to doing that.

Yes, the situation is really bad in the US, where the Indigenous communities have been disproportionately affected. Let me switch gears and ask you about your work. You are a leader in the field of education and have made radical shifts in that area at the national level. Could you tell us about your childhood, the kind of things that impacted you, and eventually brought you to this work?

Both of my parents are Indigenous, and they both come from families that valued education. My parents were teachers to begin with, and then my father did a PhD in the US and became a Māori studies scholar. He’s still alive at 94. I grew up in a home that did not simply value education for its own sake but was really committed to Māori education and the survival of our language. My father was a Māori language teacher and a Māori arts advisor. He was a traditional arts person himself, and my mother also became a Māori language teacher. My parents were committed to an education that empowered our people and our culture. And my wider, extended family on one side were farmers, and the other side of the family grows vegetables. So, we have this ethic of hard work, of valuing the land by working hard. And it doesn’t matter what you do. The expectation is that you will work, that’s our value system as a family. Even if you’re not employed, you will still work. Even our young people are workers. We believe in working together as a collective, but people also work hard individually to get to where they want.

You moved to the US for a few years as a young person. Did it change you or radicalize you politically? Coming to the US is often difficult because the injustices, inequalities, and racisms are raw and exposed here. You can suddenly discover your position in the world.

It did, and that was more to do with the moment I moved to the US. It was the late ’60s, 1965 to 1968, and it was time of great social change in civil rights and American Indian rights. It raised my political awareness, but that was also because of the experiences we had as a family. My father was on a scholarship, and so my mother and my sister all did babysitting just to get by. My friends were not other academics. My parents decided to put me in a community high school to experience real American life, and this was a school that had recently been desegregated. So, the Black students sat on one side and the white students on the other. Then the six of us different ones were in the middle and had to navigate those sensitivities. The school gave me a white student to look after me, a mentor whose family was lovely, but they were really racist and said terrible things. But they made sure that I could negotiate school and that my parents had support. My friends were from the trailer park next to the university. They were the “poor white kids,” and they were always perceived as naughty. I would just wander around, but to get to the Black kids and the Black community, you literally had to cross the railway tracks. It was really hard to establish friendships. I didn’t have friends in high school, only the mentor and these kids I used to hang out with after school. But I did graduate from high school.

This was Southern Illinois, and we then moved to Salem, Massachusetts. As a 16-year-old, I got a job at the Salem Peabody museum where my father was doing research and spent all his days. My job was to organize and re-catalog the journals of the ships that were part of the American Revolution. I would just sit in the basement and read them all. And the ship’s journals were very boring because, every day, the captain would just put in which direction the wind was coming from. But then, every now and again, there was maybe an encounter with a British ship. They were still full of observations and I enjoyed reading them. And they tolerated me there and my boss was lovely. She was a member of the Audubon Society, and she would take me along for birdwatching. These were the things I did while I waited for my father to finish his PhD so we could get back to New Zealand as soon as possible.

When you mention the ship journals you read all day, it reminded me of your book where you write about the Western Enlightenment conception of time that is so crucial for the colonization of populations. That understanding of time must have started with the ship journals.

It just always helps to travel because you understand intuitively as you experience these things that the world you have grown up with is just one version of the world. The more you travel, the more you cross boundaries, and the more you learn to navigate difference. You learn that people are different, and you have more of an awareness about time and space. For me, it was connecting it to our Indigenous worldview. Our language around time and space is very different from Western time and space.

What is the difference? How is time conceived differently by Māoris, or in your region more broadly?

There is obviously daylight and nighttime, and different sorts of seasons. We don’t have a Protestant ethic about time and we don’t have this view that people control time. It is the Western view that humans impose their rules over time and space whereas I think, for many Indigenous cultures and also other cultures, it is the opposite. Time and space, and the rhythm of time and space, govern how we live.

Your book came out in 1999 and it holds up beautifully even today. The third edition has, in fact, just been released by Zed Books. Do you feel there are important shifts that have occurred that the book did not account for, shifts that are now included in the third edition? 

When the publishers asked me to do the third edition, I thought that it’s probably old now, past its use-by date. But they did some polls and people still want it. So, I started talking to graduate students, asking them to tell me what they thought I should include in the third edition. In the new edition, I’ve added a new chapter and 20 more projects. I have also kept the 25 projects that are in the first edition since everyone assured me that they are still important. I have a new chapter on love or loving. A lot of the work that we do has to be driven from a place of love. We have to see what we’re doing as a project that demonstrates love and that is loving. We have to be loving as researchers and scholars. I also asked young Indigenous scholars from around the world to write me 800 words to put in the introduction. These different scholars talked about the relevance of the book to their careers, and I thought it might be one way to connect to the next generation of scholars. I thought that intergenerational transfer has to happen.

This idea of intergenerational transfer is so vital. I look forward to the new edition. It does seem that a lot of Indigenous scholarship is focused on education and pedagogy. I’m thinking here of the work of Eve Tuck and Sandy Grande, for example. Why do you think this is an area that scholars feel urgently needs to be decolonized and transformed?

Well, partly, the first site we interact with other than the health system and the justice system is the education system. A large proportion of Indigenous scholars have come up through the fields of education and have been trained as teachers, educators, and counselors. I’m part of the wider field of Indigenous studies, which is very multidisciplinary, and there are many scholars who are in the humanities and social sciences. There is a growing number of Indigenous scientists, and also colleagues in architecture and design. So, this is a flourishing multidisciplinary community of Indigenous scholars that is making the scholarship much broader, beyond the specific field of education. But, you know, one reason that’s the site that a great deal of Indigenous scholarship focuses on is because it is the area that keeps us down. And so, it the one that we’ve had to free and to decolonize first in order that young people can grow through it and develop through it, and not be harmed by it.

Are you seeing a new area of Indigenous scholarship that is emerging now with the next generation?

Health and health disparities. Across the world, there are a lot of scholars working in health fields and associated fields. Interestingly, there is a growing body of work by Indigenous scholars in philosophy now, since they have usually come out of the social sciences. But what is interesting about Indigenous scholars is that it doesn’t matter what the discipline is, they are creating an Indigenous studies discipline, or a field within the discipline. They are naturally trans-disciplinary in how they think. Most of them work within Indigenous knowledges and Indigenous philosophies and incorporate that into their disciplinary work. That’s what makes them strong, but it is also a barrier to advancing in the academy because they’re seen as, sort of, on the margins — a little bit different and not part of the mainstream. Breaking down those barriers is really challenging.

Do you think your work has brought about palpable shifts? A lot of academics don’t think this way, about changing the pipeline, and enabling people to get jobs and things like that. This is what I mean by palpable shifts.

Yes, absolutely. The key audience for my book was actually not scholars. It was Indigenous people. I was very clear about that. The major impact of the book was how Indigenous communities have responded and how they have been able to use the ideas to strengthen themselves and their own capacities, and to engage differently with education. A measure of the book’s impact is the way in which the Indigenous world has been able to build from it and use it to advance their aspirations. It’s a secondary aspect that it has been fairly influential in other fields and disciplines.

What were some core things that had to change? For example, can you speak about Māori education and the way in which it has intervened in the mainstream system?

We have created and established whole new types of schooling in New Zealand. We’ve created Māori-language immersion schools, which are a whole alternative system that has challenged the legislature to create a scoring system from early childhood through primary, secondary, and higher education so that our people can choose whether they want to be educated in our language. These very powerful institutions have been created, not just by me, but by parents and communities who have brought about new types of schools, new curricula, and new ways of thinking about education. And I don’t want to make it sound like that’s what the book does but the book itself was part of these wider conversations and ideas about what it means to be self-determining.

You can talk about that as an abstract idea. Or you can get up and do things and try to work things out. What does it mean to exercise sovereignty in education? If all we do is compare ourselves to white people, spend our entire lives and energy trying to either resist them or work with them or work around them, it just sucks the life out of you. We’ve tried to ignore them for a while and say, “Let’s build out, let’s not ask for permission from them to do it, let’s just get up and do it. If it fails, so what?” It’s an important lesson because we can look at the education they provided, which is a huge structural failure. So, we’ve got nothing to lose by trying something ourselves and falling down and picking ourselves up and learning from it. Part of self-determination has to be that you have to act like yourself and figure it all out because learning is a really important part of being self-determining. We can’t wait for permission. All that does is just reinforce colonialism and reinforce the fact that you’re not free.

Now, most international visitors who come to New Zealand are shocked at how much Māori language is actually used and normalized by mainstream announcers on radio, for example. We are producing a whole generation of young people who are fluent in Māori language and English. They’re bilingual.

Your observations on language remind me that my graduate student from New Zealand, Alex Dawson, wanted me to ask you a question. He was curious about your intellectual relationship with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who gave the lectures in Auckland that became the very famous book Decolonising the Mind. Ngũgĩ also thanks you in the book.

Yes, he came to New Zealand. I met him then and I have met him regularly ever since. He’s lovely.

You influenced him or he influenced you?

I was influenced by his lectures. He is a literary scholar and one of the insights we connected on was about the power of children’s literature, particularly British literature for children that was taught in New Zealand. There is a kind of cultural capital that comes from children’s literature. So, yes, he is one of a number of scholars whom I’ve been influenced by. There is Frantz Fanon, obviously. I read Malcolm X when he was a big part of the Civil Rights movement, and we were sharing literature at that time, and then Paulo Freire later. I’m an avid reader. People will see that in the book where I cite literature, poetry, anything, because when I first started writing that book, there was no literature about decolonizing. So, I went far and wide.

I think that working at the university or being an academic is made up of three parts: producing knowledge (books), doing the work of service (policy-making and administration), and activism (breaking the system and building new stuff). To me, those are the nuts and bolts of the work, yet there are big divides among these three roles. Can we do all three, or is that too tall an order?

I haven’t had a typical career. I’m naturally inquisitive and I’m a natural interferer in things I don’t like. So that’s the activist part. There is also a commitment to be a good teacher, lecturer, and curriculum designer. One of the things I enjoy is designing a course and designing assessments. I’m really good at assessments — that’s the teaching side of me. In our system, you have to be good across research, teaching, and service. It is different for younger scholars now because you can come through on a teaching pathway or a research pathway. But I advise my PhD students to learn both because our students deserve great teachers. I don’t want our PhDs to lock themselves into a research career where they don’t interact with undergraduates. To me, undergraduates keep you alive. They keep you young. They keep you connected to what’s happening in their world. I’ve been teaching for 40 years. If you don’t interact with them, you get stuck in a groove. And ultimately, that limits you and constrains you.

It is important to do the service part well. I remember getting advice from a dean, a white man who was fabulous. He was very supportive and asked me to be an assistant dean for the arts and social sciences faculty. I screwed my face up at him and said I hate administration. He said, “No, you don’t hate it. You need to learn how to approach the administration like you approach everything else. Get on top of it. Control it. Don’t let it control you.” And so, I worked with him for two years and just learned how to master the art of being an efficient administrator, solving problems, being a good communicator, thinking about solutions — not just critiquing policy documents, but trying to figure out what the solution might be. I’ve had good mentors, and if I see something in the system that is just wrong or unjust and no one’s doing anything about it, I will interfere because the thing with universities is that there is a lot of power and space to be gained inside policies and regulations. When my husband Graham and I were appointed at universities, the first thing we did was understand what the regulations were and where the soft parts were. In our university at the time, for every regulation that said you can’t do something, there was another one that said you could override it. We just sort of learned — learned the rules, and then learned how to exploit the rules.

We’re in a tough place right now in the US, and I’m seeing this play out at my university. There is a lot of funding now for anti-racism and decolonization projects. After the murder of George Floyd and the uprisings that followed, there was a call to action that was heard by universities. But one year in and it’s already clear that white people are …

… getting all the money. Yeah.

Yes. They are benefiting from it in terms of publications but also gaining a false moral authority. We’re trying to call it out and talk to the higher-ups, but it’s distressing.

It’s because they always write the rules and so it privileges them. This is why I think it’s important that some Indigenous people pay attention to policies, pay attention to rules and regulations, pay attention to wording in calls for proposals. There are many situations where we tend to think that this looks interesting, this looks fair, and this is in our area. It looks like it’s written for us. And then we don’t get it and we think, how did that happen? Well, that is because it wasn’t written for us.

You were a founding member of the Māori activist group Ngā Tamatoa (The Young Warriors), whose main intervention was to draw attention to the violations of the Treaty of Waitangi. Could you say more? 

We were one of many activist groups at a time because there were feminist groups, lesbian groups, and anti–Vietnam War groups. I was in the Māori activist group that had three aims. One was to honor our treaty and to help the country honor the treaty. Another was restoring our language as a national language. The third was about wanting our tribes to be self determining. Even our own communities perceived us as terrible, as rude and obnoxious. Many of them hated and rejected us because we were upsetting the status quo. We were obviously making white society really angry, and our communities were fearful of that.

Nowadays, our communities look back romantically at that era. Back then, we had to be creative about getting attention. This was before cell phones and instant photos and things like that. Getting into the media was a challenge. Some of our activists are still around and very famous because they were performance artists who used creative ways to get our message across. Many activists got arrested and sent to jail. I didn’t attend all the protests; I was the young woman doing all the logistics and strategies behind the scenes. One of my jobs was to split us up into different branches. Some did the legal aid, especially for those coming up for trials. Some did the communications. And I was in the group that did education. We went around to schools, businesses, and different organizations explaining what we did. People were hostile and antagonistic, but eventually they respected us for actually talking to them.

Are there differences between Indigenous identities that are marked by histories of removal, relocation, and erasure and those in a place like India where tribal peoples are still on their own lands but experience deliberate underdevelopment and disenfranchisement? Are there solidarities across those identities?

Yeah, there are, but you have to make them work. What Indigenous peoples have been able to do is recognize the way in which imperialism and colonialism have situated us all. And that some of those structures are still in place and the struggle continues in that context. And some peoples have been displaced, and there is a struggle for them. Some have been enslaved in that displacement. So, there’s this diversity of experience and there is no single, homogeneous colonial experience, other than it being traumatic and its impact on the self-determination of Indigenous peoples.

In some colonial contexts, white settlement created whole new categories of Indigenous identities. For example, there were the mixed races or what New Zealanders call “half-castes.” And, ultimately, the colonial government decided there were more Māori than white people. They were never really seen as white, but they could pass. In some countries, they became a kind of mini-aristocracy. So, when the colonial forces withdrew, this postcolonial class inherited this colonial power. In some countries, the colonizers created their own replacements. I might be oversimplifying the history, but in a number of Latin American countries, that certainly happened, and people who are part Indigenous simply denied that they were Indigenous.

Yes, it happens often. We can bring in Fanon and think about the creation of a nationalist bourgeois class that gets co-opted into colonial projects. In India, one of the ways the tribal populations are kept down is through caste because the caste system is absolutely brutal and truly terrifying in its daily violence.

It is!

And there is a prevailing wisdom that frameworks of colonialism and decolonial analytics don’t apply, that this is a different kind of problem. But what you are saying about co-opting certain groups into certain agendas reminds me that colonialism did that very well. There is an allure to having that power …

Yes, it did, and that’s what kept control.

I want to ask you about global or international Indigenous studies scholarship and how it transforms existing ways of thinking. In the US, for example, race is always the main analytic, followed by gender and sexuality. How does indigeneity reframe and decenter our existing analytics today, especially when one is thinking of decolonializing work and activism?

Well, I think it does a couple of things. First, it locates intersectionality in a particular territory that has been colonized and structures the way race functions in colonizing experiences. And then it intersects with the way sex and gender have been structured into those experiences. It offers a way of understanding how all those concepts have worked for Indigenous peoples. Even the concept of Indigenous peoples is post–World War II in terms of the creation of postcolonialism, the role of the United Nations, and the role of Indigenous peoples starting to mobilize, particularly around what became the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Having said that, Indigenous peoples existed prior to colonialism, prior to imperialism. So, another key aspect is an access to ancient knowledge, ancient ways of knowing, access to another worldview, another imagination, another way of seeing ourselves in the world. This is what we are able to bring as a strength. Colonialism hasn’t destroyed us entirely, but we’ve got to find our Indigenous knowledges, our Indigenous cultures. That is what ultimately reimagines our humanity, rather than the project of dismantling colonialism.

Actually, I did a lecture about this in London in 2019. I was talking to all these English people and I asked, if you dismantle colonialism in the English university, what will be left? What will actually be left of the university? And everyone looked at me surprised, and I said that I’m asking a serious question: If you dismantle colonialism, will you have anything left? Your world is built entirely on it. But if you ask us, if you dismantle colonialism, what will be left or what will replace it, we know exactly! Indigenous people have this culture, have this knowledge, and have ways of doing things. And it is the same around the world: there are other ways of imagining ourselves. And that is really important when we think about the contribution that Indigenous people and indigeneity can bring.

And for someone like me, whose foundations are in postcolonial studies or postcolonial theory, Indigenous studies takes away the “post” because settler colonialism is alive and well.

Yes. It is also, in reality, such a small piece of time. Indigenous peoples can trace their stories back hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. Colonialism has occupied 500 or 600 years. In the scheme of things, it’s a manageable thing. You can see that we can get out of this. We can decolonize. We can track a new future.

We have come up with a kind of Proust questionnaire for this final section. We will be asking these same questions of everyone we interview for the series. So, first, what would you DECOLONIZE?

We have to decolonize Western institutions of knowledge. Inside it are multiple other institutions — research approaches, cultures within the disciplines, and a curriculum that constitutes what a degree such as a PhD looks like. Academic knowledge is seen as science, is seen as what counts as legitimate in society. It sits in language frameworks, in theories, and in common-sense ideas like race, colonialism, and in how we talk about “the other.”

What would you DEFUND?

The prison systems. Prisons are ultimately not helpful at all. There is a minority of criminals you may want to exile from society, but the vast majority, particularly in societies like New Zealand, are often brown, poor, Indigenous. Half their crimes involve their socioeconomic circumstances or their race or their difference. Prisons don’t make people less criminal, they actually teach them to be more criminal. It’s a prison complex, so we’re not just talking about prisons but also the supporting businesses like security systems, catering, health systems that prop up prisons. These are big, global, multinational businesses in many cases because the US and others have privatized many aspects of imprisonment.

What would you ABOLISH? 

I struggled with that question because I would like to entirely abolish quite a few institutions, actually. But I realized it was not about abolishing but about entirely reconceptualizing them. For example, in New Zealand, we have the childcare and protection system: a disproportionate number of our babies and children are removed from their families and put into state care. And I would want to abolish the state acting as a parent, the state being the agency that steals our children. That’s how our activists talk about it: “Stealing our children.” That’s what I want to get rid of, and I know the same thing applies in Canada, Australia, and the US for Indigenous communities where our children are taken.

There is a price on everything in our capitalist society. What must be FREE for all?

The air we breathe, the water we drink, the sun, the moon, and the stars … the ability to feel, see, and experience nature, our access to the universe. People should have the right to forage and to grow free food. Cities should be growing free food, schools should be growing free food, universities should have orchards … When I was a child, we would wander off and eat our way through everybody’s gardens. I had an uncle who didn’t like us taking the peaches and watermelons when they were ripe. He would chase us off and yell at us, but as kids, that’s what we thought fruit was — free for everyone! Even now there are some kinds of fruit that I cannot bear to pay money for, like lemons, which grow everywhere here. As does grapefruit and certain vegetables. Those should be free, and everyone should be able to feed themselves and feed their children.

We also want to know the soundtrack to your struggle. You can pick three songs.

First, I would choose “Rua Kenana” by Moana and the Tribe. Rua Kenana was a passive resister. He created his own community based on his own religion and lived up in the hills. But because he resisted the government, they jacked up these charges and arrested him and destroyed his community. That song is honoring. And recently, about two years ago, the government — or, rather, the crown — apologized to his descendants for how they treated him. My personal connection to Rua Kenana is that my great-great-grandfather was one of his followers, and was arrested the same time he was.

Second, I would choose “Waiaroha” by Rob Ruha and Maisey Rika. Aroha means love and Wai is water. This is a duet in the Māori language, and the two musicians, Rob and Maisey, are from this region and from the different tribes that are here. Māori-language contemporary music is a vibrant art form. The unforeseen consequences of Māori-language revitalization is that, of course, young people who have the language are creative with it. There is a community of Māori artists who speak, sing, and compose in the Māori language.

Finally, I would choose “True Love” by Troy Kingi. So, you can see my theme about love here! One of the big criticisms of all of these initiatives for revitalizing our culture and our language is that Indigenous peoples will just be stuck in the past, or that we just want to practice our traditional cultures, but actually, it’s the opposite. When your language is vibrant, your people are vibrant, and then you are creative.


Bhakti Shringarpure is associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut and editor-in-chief of Warscapes magazine.