Berkeley Law professor Nazune Menka created a Legal Studies course fall 2021 named Decolonizing UC Berkeley, dedicated to unpacking campus’ ties to settler colonialism and its relationship with Indigenous groups in California.
The course was partially inspired by Tony Platt’s work as founder and researcher with the Truth & Justice Project, which is dedicated to researching why campus had failed to repatriate native remains following the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.
“We think about decolonization as a process by which narratives, world views, cultures and institutions that were erased by colonization are then returned, respected and honored,” Menka said. “Hopefully the students come out of the course ready to engage in thoughtful leadership around truth and reconciliation in the future.”
She noted when thinking about creating the course, she was asking, “How can we share this information to the students?” Menka was glad to find students such as freshman Connor Eubank and senior exchange student Bianca Bartolini were engaging deeply with the course.
Eubank noted when going into their first year at campus, they believed it to be a “progressive” and “liberal” school. Both Menka and Platt alleged that campus brands itself and is celebrated as a “social justice” university, but its history is entrenched in settler colonialism, warfare and conquest.
Platt alleged that this branding of the campus is “propaganda” because the university has yet to come to a serious reckoning with its history as a contributor to the erasure of Indigenous peoples.
“The university’s first slogan, which it still uses, is ‘fiat lux,’ or ‘let there be light,’ which assumes that there had been a wilderness here before; it assumed that people here didn’t know how to make use of the land, that there was nothing to learn from them.” Platt said. “The university very much brought in a very colonial attitude to its courses, its teaching, its attitude about the place, about the world.”
Menka said the readings covered in the course largely focus on how settler colonialism has “othered” Indigenous communities and other marginalized communities.
The course also discusses the importance of narratives and storytelling from Indigenous peoples and perspectives.
“I think that other institutions should take up similar courses and try to create similar models,” Eubank said. “I think this course is amazing, and I think as many people as possible should take it.”
As part of the course, students must work on a research project.
Eubank’s course is an ongoing informal class they are teaching to Berkeley High School students Fridays after school. Eubank and their students plan on working on a collaborative collage.
“I believe that it is extremely important for students to take this class in order to think critically about the systems of power that come into play in an institution such as UC Berkeley, as well as moving beyond the performativity of land recognition through an actual knowledge and awareness of the issues at play today,” Bartolini said in an email.