The art of unlearning

Following Standing Rock, the Decolonization Project aims to deprogram colonial mindsets

Practicing the opening to a sacred dance that communicates to the gods.

Practicing the opening to a sacred dance that communicates to the gods.

Photo by Devin Armstrong

Follow The Decolonization Project


Upcoming Events

3/17, 6pm: New Moon Ceremony, E and 1st streets in West Sacramento

3/20, 4pm: Native Gathering for Indigenous Peoples’ Day, City Hall, 915 I Street

5/6, 2pm: Decolonizing Beauty Standards Zine Workshop, The Washington Neighborhood Center, 400 16th Street.

4/10, 2pm: Sandra lilia vasquez discussion and performance, 400 16th Street

The folks who gather at The Washington Neighborhood Center enter the space with different intentions. Some want to teach, others want to listen, learn and become better allies to marginalized communities. And when they follow the distinct smell of sage and the sounds of laughter into a classroom, they might find healing.

Late last year, the program’s founder, Ixchel Moscoso, stepped out onto new terrain by putting a call out on Facebook. Moscoso invited the community to share potluck dishes and discuss a loaded topic—decolonization.

“I expected maybe five or 10 people,” said Moscoso, who also goes by Mariana and the pronoun they. “We had over 50 people show up. … And the momentum really hasn’t died down.”

Just shy of a season has passed since the day Moscoso launched The Decolonization Project, an indigenous-led program that uses decolonization as the framework for healing and building community. It explores how colonization has permeated our culture and aims to heal communities—particularly those historically harmed through colonization—through art and cultural activities.

According to Moscoso and his peers, decolonization is the unlearning of the dominant values of colonialism and capitalism. These normalized values—individualism, ownership of land and the commodification of natural resources—can be replaced with communal activities and sharing resources between land and man.

In its short life, the project has hosted several weekly and one-off classes, workshops, a fundraiser concert featuring indigenous artists, a youth empowerment group and three new moon ceremonies. Along the way, it’s picked up nearly 3,000 Facebook followers—an impressive feat for a volunteer-based organization with a virtually nonexistent budget. Most costs come out of Moscoso’s pocket.

Since that first day, many activities have been run out of The Washington Neighborhood Center, a space in Alkali Flat with its own history of activism. The center boasts several classrooms, a weight room, kitchen, art spaces and an open graffiti wall. Originally founded as a church outreach program in the early 1950s, it was later the site where Royal Chicano Air Force, Brown Berets and other activist groups offered resources and ran community programs.

“It’s a place (that) has a lot of revolutionary potential,” Moscoso said with a smile. “Its foundations are made of it.”

The right time

Activist Fiorella Lema thinks Sacramentans’ interest in the project is a sign of the times: Californians are hungry for solutions to environmental and social issues. The project’s framework of decolonization allows folks to challenge the common knowledge built on colonialism and form new consciousness, sometimes using indigenous methods.

Some of the questions they explore: “How do we decolonize ourselves? How do we navigate the world around us in a decolonial lens, and what does that mean?” asked Lema, who hosted a workshop earlier this year.

National support for indigenous-led movements gained momentum in 2016, when the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock Indian Reservation received international coverage and widespread support under the #NoDAPL movement. Americans from around the country joined the protest in North Dakota, concerned about the project impacting water quality and disrupting sacred sites on the land. At the time, Moscoso became more deeply involved with community organizing through NoDAPL Sacramento, which dissolved after the pipeline was completed in the spring of 2017.

“I continued to think about what it means to have an indigenous-led movement or community,” they said. “There are people with an enormous amount of skills. … You realize they’re experts in whatever little area they’ve chosen to concentrate in. Recognizing that each of us has the potential of giving something back.”

The Decolonization Project presenters and teachers include yoga instructors who blend self-defense methods, UC Davis department coordinators who research precolonial gender norms in the Philippines, healers and musicians. Every workshop begins with the reminder that we are on borrowed land, as Moscoso thanks the indigenous Maidu, Miwuk and Nisenan tribes who cared for the land before us.

“Humans are community-oriented, and we’ve been stripped away from that,” Moscoso said. “Learning from our community seemed like a really powerful concept to bring to the table.”

Getting there

Eager to learn about unlearning, participants filed into the Washington Neighborhood Center on March 11 with plates of green salad, black beans and potluck foods. Soon after, a conversation about the use of the term “indigenous” revealed underlying tension in the room.

As a few white people argued in favor of using the term “indigenous” to describe a fire-starting workshop, those with indigenous heritage found it problematic—particularly since the skills could not be tied to a specific region or tribe—and suggested names like “Survival Skills 101.”

As the conversation started to get heated and go in circles, Moscoso and other participants explained that the project addresses black and brown healing first, and arguing with white folks about dictionary definitions should take a back seat.

The meeting closed with everyone gathered in a circle, passing burning sage from hand to hand, tension set aside for that moment.

“I think the best way to get empathy right now is through knowledge,” said Ny Sohaib, who was born in Algeria and plans to host workshops with the group. “I hope we see more dialogue that makes people uncomfortable, so we can confront what we think we know. … We’ve had decades of us doing it polite … and it’s just not working.”

In their original Facebook event post, Moscoso described The Decolonization Project as “a year of unlearning and creating.” With the intention of representing the coming of a new light, the project was launched on the first day of winter. Reflecting nature’s cycle, each season is assigned a theme and activities.

Lema hosted a prayer bag workshop during winter with the focus, “What does decolonization look like?” She brought herbs and plants to represent the elements—lavender for air, rosemary for earth, seashells for water and cinnamon for fire. She invited participants to smell the herbs to inspire reflection, respond to a writing prompt and share their thoughts with the rest of the class.

“I asked the participants, ’How do you keep your fire going? How do you feel the fire of others?’” she said. The program’s strength, she adds, is that it uses many tools to promote healing.

“It’s supposed to engage in this long-term process of deconstructing yourself and critically analyzing the environment around you,” she said. “Everyone gets there in their own way.”

Doing that work alone is not an option, and Moscoso, who works full-time as an arts-in-corrections program analyst for the California Arts Council on top of this labor of love, is glad to give others ownership over the project.

“This is not my program—it’s a vision that I had, but clearly others had it, too,” Moscoso said.“Decolonization is a process, and we actually don’t know what that looks like. We can imagine it and start to create what that means, but we don’t actually know.”

If the project died and became something new tomorrow, Moscoso would want those involved to recognize the value that everyone had brought to it.

“I feel honored. I’m honored that they joined me on this crazy journey,” they said. “Even though they’re one person, when we’re together, we become an entire body.”