On Indigenous Peoples Day, Let's Commit to an Anticolonial Mindset on Earth & in Space




On Indigenous People’s Day, Let’s Commit to an Anticolonial Mindset on Earth and in Space

By Danielle Wood  *  Written on 12 October 2020

I would like to start by acknowledging that the land from which I write is the traditional, unceded territory of the Wampanoag People. I acknowledge the painful history of genocide and forced removal from this territory, and I honor and respect the many diverse indigenous people connected to this land.[i]

The practice of giving a Land Acknowledgement at the beginning of an event or written message is not a well-established tradition in the United States as it is, for example, in Australia.[ii] While repeating the words of a Land Acknowledgement is an important step toward highlighting past injustice, such a statement can also appear meaningless if it is not followed up with action to address the ongoing forms of colonial occupation that continue in the United States and other colonized lands. I use the phrase “ongoing colonial occupation” for several reasons. First, the United States continues oppressive practices[iii],[iv] toward Indigenous People groups of North America who are the descendants of those who were living on this land when European settlers arrived in the Western Hemisphere starting in the 15th Century. Second, the United States holds several lands as “Territories” (Guam, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands), “Commonwealths” (Northern Marianas Islands and Puerto Rico), and “Miscellaneous Insular or Outlying Areas” (Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Palmyra Atoll, Johnston Island, Kingman Reef, Midway Islands, Wake Island, Navassa Island in the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea).[v] The people living in the Territories and Commonwealths experience a partial set of the rights of U.S. citizens; for example, they do not have voting representatives in Congress, and they cannot fully participate in the vote for the president.[vi]

For those of us who benefit from the powerful military and economic superiority of the United States, it is tempting to read the list of Territories and Commonwealths and simply conclude that it is strategically beneficial for the U.S. to hold land to enable economic, scientific and defense activities all over the world. Such a conclusion, however, skips over the underlying assumption that defines the Colonial Mindset: That whoever has the technology, economic means and the will to do so, has the right to claim property, territory and resources, regardless of the past, present and future claims of other people and the claims of environment. As a space engineer and policy scholar, I am concerned that this Colonial Mindset is already built into the fabric of thought as space agencies, engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs and explorers contemplate future human activity on the Moon, Asteroids, Mars and beyond. This week the global space community is gathering virtually via the International Astronautical Congress to discuss the future plans for human endeavor in space. Now is our opportunity to reject the Colonial Mindset and pursue a truly peaceful and sustainable approach to human expansion beyond Earth that balances economic, social and environmental visions of flourishing. This essay closes with five recommendations to help our global community adopt and live out an Anticolonial Mindset in Space. To achieve this, we must understand the historical and ongoing impacts of the Colonial Mindset on Earth.

This Colonial Mindset has played a consistent role to shape our modern global economic system.[vii] This same Colonial Mindset created the false division of countries into arbitrary categories of “developed” and “developing”, while ignoring the fact that a small set of economically powerful countries has created a long term, exploitative relationship[viii] with other countries, especially countries in the Southern Hemisphere, based on extraction of raw materials, encouragement of low-paid labor, dehumanization of non-white people,[ix] and long term cycles of debilitating national debt[x] held by foreign lenders – public and private.

MIT, my employer, recently changed the name of the holiday on the 2nd Monday of October from “Columbus Day” to Indigenous People’s Day in its Institute calendar. This was an important and long overdue step in MIT’s process of gradually acknowledging how the Institute and other elite universities benefited from historic practices of slavery, displacement and genocide of Indigenous People and colonial expansion of the United States.[xi] MIT must continue to support and celebrate scholarship that centers the perspective of people groups in the U.S. and beyond that have experienced oppression, inequity, genocide, displacement and slavery. In addition to the symbolic act of changing the name of the holiday celebrated on the 2nd Monday of October, MIT must continue working to ensure that members of Indigenous Communities are present and supported members of the MIT community as students, faculty and staff. If we are invited to do so, we at MIT may have the privilege to participate in collaborative research with Indigenous leaders who are working to pursue the flourishing of their lands and people.

One reason why it is significant to change the name of a holiday from “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous People’s Day” is that Columbus oversaw or facilitated the mistreatment, enslavement and death of members of the Taino people on the Island of Hispaniola.[xii],[xiii] In addition, the renaming is significant because Columbus’ actions represent a multi-century movement that paved the way for the Colonial Mindset to shape the global relationships among nations, peoples, financial institutions and the environment.[xiv],[xv]

After Columbus’ inaugural voyage, Spain, Portugal, Britain, France and the Netherlands all moved to take colonial holdings in the Western Hemisphere. During the years from the 15th century to the 19th century, we see the development of several key technologies and economic systems that are built on the exploitation, forced labor and commodification of Indigenous People and people of African descent in the Western Hemisphere, Africa and Asia. Focusing on the evolution of technology, the development of ocean-going vessels and methods for ocean navigation allow as a key transition toward routine trade across continents starting in the 15th and 16th centuries.[xvi],[xvii] The Portuguese use these capabilities to initiate a new set of European routes with an ocean-based slave trade between Europe and Africa; this gradually transitions to a transatlantic slave trade from Europe to Africa to the Americas and back. While European colonizers first travel to the Western Hemisphere in search of gold, they later find that money can be made with plantation farming, especially in the 17th to 19th Centuries.[xviii],[xix] The technological system of intensively farming a single commodity crop required a large labor force and ever-increasing access to land; both the humans and land were quickly depleted in the intensive farming, thus giving colonizers an incentive to constantly expand to new territory and further displace Indigenous People while enslaving people of African descent. Crops such as sugarcane, cotton and rice benefitted from this plantation style of farming in the Caribbean and the Southeastern portion of what is now the United States. By the 19th Century, the invention of the cotton gin greatly increased the efficiency through which cotton could be converted from a raw material to an input ready to be fabricated into textiles by the mills located in the northern portion of the United States or in several European countries.[xx] Through this series of technological and economic changes, a global system of capitalism emerged characterized by the international trade of commodities; a cycle of credit and repayment which kept farmers and ship operators working toward profit to pay debts; the transfer of people as forced laborers from Africa to the Western Hemisphere; the transfer of raw materials from the Americas to Europe; and the sale of high priced goods such as fabrics to countries in Africa. Throughout this process, the need for more land of Indigenous People and more African laborers extended the appetite of colonization; this was highly visible in the United States as the government pushed the bounds of its sovereignty further westward via wars, displacement of Indigenous People, and the creation of new states. To learn more about this history, please read the books by Prof Ibram Kendi,[xxi] Prof Paul Ortiz[xxii] and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz on the topic.[xxiii]

Columbus Day represents all of this history because Columbus’ journey was based on the fundamental premise of the Colonial Mindset, which is that those who possess the technology and the will have the right to claim and possess any territory and resources that they choose. This Colonial Mindset disregards the claims of past, present or future people who may feel connected to that territory and disregards the intrinsic value of the resource in non-utilitarian terms such as science, beauty, culture, uniqueness or longevity.

As humans embark on new activities in space, we are once again seeing the emergence of new technologies and potentially new economic systems that will create new relationships among people. We face a decision on whether we will continue to act on this Colonial Mindset, or whether we will choose instead to adopt Anticolonial Mindsets that invite fresh ways to approach the human experience on Earth and in Space. Some people argue that there is no concern about “Colonizing” space because there are no Indigenous People living on the Moon or Mars. This argument ignores several key considerations. First, multiple cultures on Earth hold bodies in space as sacred and would be offended to see some economic activities that disregard their beliefs. Second, there remains so much scientific uncertainty about the nature of planetary bodies that we do not yet know what aspects of their materials and geology should be conserved for future study or aesthetic enjoyment. Third, the global space community is bound by treaties that declare Outer Space to be the “province of all [hu]mankind.”[xxiv] We still need to find ways to ensure that any country or person has the opportunity to benefit from global human space activity. Fourth, the geological process on planetary bodies such as the Moon, asteroids and Mars have created unique formations and dynamics without human interference for millions of years, and once we as humans change these dynamics, we will not be able to undo our impact on the environment. Thus, we should proceed carefully. There are teams working to explore these issues and I highlight opportunities to expand their work below.

Here are five actions that can be taken today to adopt an Anticolonial Mindset to human activity in Space.

1.     Actions for Universities, Schools and Families: Learn and teach the history of the Colonial Mindset and its impacts on Earth (For example, read the books listed in the Endnotes and "Zinn, Howard. A people's history of the United States: 1492-present. Routledge, 2015.")

2.     Actions for Space Agencies, Universities and Research Institutions: Adopt approaches recommended in “Ethical Exploration and the Role of Planetary Protection in Disrupting Colonial Practices”, a recent submission to the Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey for 2023-2032, led by Frank Tavares and signed by over 100 scientists and interested parties:

3.     Actions for Space Agencies, Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space,[xxv] the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs, and Civil Society: Define sustainability to include economic, social and environmental balance, building on the model of the Sustainable Development Goals for Earth. Use this model to write a set of Sustainable Development Goals for locations in space, such as Earth’s orbit, the Moon and Mars.

4.     Actions for Civil Society Organizations with support from government and industry: Hold debates, design sessions and listening sessions that are open to people from many backgrounds to discuss the just way to proceed with human space activity. Such work is underway by organizations such as the Secure World Foundation, the Space Generation Advisory Council, Open Lunar Foundation and others.

5.     Actions for Universities, Space Agencies, Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space, the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs,  International Academy of Astronautics, International Institute of Space Law: Invite the perspective of Indigenous People and others that have experience colonization; hold listening sessions to consider alternative ways of conceiving of the value of the Moon and other celestial objects; consider how alternative ways of conceiving of shared property might be incorporated into future human activity in space.

The work described here builds on the existing treaties that form the basis for International Law guiding space activities, but it challenges us to include new ways to express anti-colonial mindsets on Earth and in Space. Let us pursue this work urgently. While the Colonial Mindset creates harm, exploitation and degradation, we can pursue an Anticolonial Mindset on Earth and in Space that fosters sustainability, equity and flourishing for both people and the environment.


[i] I draw this wording from recommendations provided by The MIT Indigenous Peoples Advocacy Committee (IPAC), MIT's American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), Native American Student Association (NASA) and other Indigenous MIT students/alumni

[ii] Learn more about the Australian practices of “Welcome to Country” (practiced by Indigenous People) and “Acknowledgment of Country” (Practiced by anyone):

[iii]Shawn Regan, “5 Ways The Government Keeps Native Americans In Poverty,” March 2014.

[iv] Redbird, Beth, “ What Drives Native American Poverty?”  February 2020.

[v] Source: The United States Geological Survey, “How are U.S. states, territories, and commonwealths designated in the Geographic Names Information System?” Accessed 12 October 2020

[vi] For more information on the voting rights of people from Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa and Northern Mariana Islands, see these links from the National Park Service:

a.            Puerto Rico

b.           Guam

c.            American Samoa

d.           Northern Mariana Islands

e. U.S. Virgin Islands

[vii] Kendi, Ibram X. Stamped from the beginning: The definitive history of racist ideas in America. Random House, 2017.

[viii] Amsden, Alice H. Escape from empire: the developing world's journey through heaven and hell. MIT Press, 2009.

[ix] Kendi, Ibram X. How to be an antiracist. One world, 2019.

[x] Mary Williams Walsh and Matt Phillips, “Poor Countries Face a Debt Crisis ‘Unlike Anything We Have Seen,” New York Times,, Published June 1, 2020; Accessed 12 October 2020.

[xi] Wilder, Craig Steven. Ebony and ivy: Race, slavery, and the troubled history of America's universities. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2014.

[xii] National Institute of Health, “Native Voices,” Accessed 12 October 2020

[xiii] Yale University Genocide Studies Program, “Hispaniola,” Accessed 12 October 2020

[xiv] Ortiz, Paul. An African American and Latinx History of the United States. Vol. 4. Beacon Press, 2018.

[xv] Rodney, Walter. How europe underdeveloped africa. Verso Trade, 2018.

[xvi] Ajala, O. A. "African slave trade and maritime transportation." The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration (2013).

[xvii] Swanick, Lois Ann. "An analysis of navigational instruments in the Age of Exploration: 15th century to mid-17th century." PhD diss., Texas A&M University, 2006.

[xviii] Gudmestad, Robert. "Technology and the world the slaves made." History Compass 4, no. 2 (2006): 373-383.

[xix] Clegg, John J. "Capitalism and slavery." Critical Historical Studies 2, no. 2 (2015): 281-304.

[xx] Lakwete, Angela. Inventing the cotton gin: machine and myth in Antebellum America. JHU Press, 2005.

[xxi] Kendi, Ibram X. Stamped from the beginning: The definitive history of racist ideas in America. Random House, 2017.

[xxii] Ortiz, Paul. An African American and Latinx History of the United States. Vol. 4. Beacon Press, 2018.

[xxiii] Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. An indigenous peoples' history of the United States. Vol. 3. Beacon Press, 2014.

[xxiv] United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs, “Outer Space Treaties,” Accessed 12 October 2020.

[xxv] United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs, “Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space,”

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