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Indigenous Psychologies in an Era of Decolonization

 by Serdar M. Degirmencioglu

Title: Indigenous Psychologies in an Era of Decolonization
Author(s) : Nuria Ciofalo (Editor)

Reviewed by Serdar M. Degirmencioglu

Signs of injustice, oppression and colonialism are much easier to recognize in the New World, particularly in Central America and Mexico. About a decade ago, the Interamerican Congress of Psychology – one of the largest gatherings of psychologists from the north and the south – was held in Central America. From the first session until the very end, there was a clear demarcation: The non-indigenous were at the center; the indigenous were at the periphery. The descendants of the non-indigenous organized and ran the conference. The indigenous peoples of the land were also visible, but they were distant and silent. They made sure the campus was well-kept and the rooms were clean. It was a private university, catering to children of the non-indigenous elites. Most of the visiting psychologists, even those from neighboring countries, did not seem to care about the demarcation. The fact that the indigenous peoples of this country were subjected to a genocidal campaign did not seem to matter  either. This was a very mainstream conference. The opening ceremony featured, just as might be expected, an honorary degree bestowed on a famous psychologist from the US. He had produced some work on moral disengagement. He certainly knew about the topic: He had never dwelled on the war on Vietnam in his early career or on the genocidal campaign in the host country for the conference. Some of those attending felt very uneasy and left the room.

Nuria Ciofalo’s new book, Indigenous Psychologies in an Era of Decolonization, reads like a full-blown response to this picture. It not only sheds light on the power imbalance but also turns it upside down. The indigenous peoples and their voices are at the center of the book. They are not silenced but heard. They are not ignored but taken very seriously. The book invites the reader to learn about indigenous psychologies and lives: Commitments, passions, professional and personal dedications, collective memory, spirituality, dreams, and imagination. (p. vii)

The book is the product of Ciofalo’s clear commitment to and organic connections with indigenous peoples: She has dedicated her “life and vocation to the understanding of indigenous cosmogonies and praxes”; forged a meaningful relationship with indigenous communities in Mexico and Hawaii; cherished intergenerational relationships with the Mayan Lacandon community of Lacanja Chansayab, and built collaborations with young and adult leaders of the Lacandon Rainforest over eight years. (p. v).

The book, therefore, is a deeply personal and a deeply intellectual product. Ciofalo situates the book in a colonized land, where children were loved and cared by indigenous domestic workers. She is not shy to say that she learned to love her Nahuat (Aztec) surrogate mother more than her parents. Her desire to learn about the legacy of colonialism brought her even closer to the colonized. Her world was a product of colonization and she came to deeply despise her parents, her family legacy, and even herself.

The book provides a powerful challenge for mainstream psychology. In Chapter 1, titled “Indigenous Psychologies: A Contestation for Epistemic Justice“, Ciofalo does an excellent job in explicating the challenge. It might also be useful to frame the challenge in business terms because the book unsettles the “import-export” model: In this model, objective, curious and industrious psychologists in a number of places in the Global North produce the theoretical, methodological and therapeutic tools for the entire world (Degirmencioglu, 2016). These psychologists are experts, with shiny diplomas, and their products are valuable. Valuable psychological knowledge and practice are marketable products, and they are exported from the center to the periphery. Most, but not all, psychologists at the periphery eagerly import the exported products. Psychology as an “import-export” business offers the same products for the “generic” individual, community, or society.

Ciofalo rejected the “import-export” business early on. She earned a psychology degree in the Global North but questioned the validity of her training and her psychological tools for the indigenous communities she wished to practice in. After she returned home, she took the next big step and rejected the norms of the “helping profession”. The Zapotec children and families she worked with in the state of Oaxaca were facing pervasive environmental hazards. Instead of focusing solely on their psychological suffering, she focused on building relationships with communities so as to address the “injustice, human rights’ infringements, ecological degradation” and learning from their “rich cosmogonies and praxes” that have endured the violence. It was clear that psychology imported from the distant lands (i.e., Global North) was of no use in indigenous communities. Ciofalo shifted her attention to studying systems, liberation, indigenous psychologies, and completed her graduate studies in community psychology, rural and regional planning.

Some readers might quickly question the utility of the contents of this book for their own work in their own setting. “A book about indigenous psychologies? Psychological experiences of Mayan Lacandon community?” they might ask. A good read will prove them wrong. The book offers insights for the Old as well the New World. Here is an example: The editor and her indigenous co-authors had long and painful discussions about the validity of the term “indigenous” for local people. The co-authors wanted to be named after their languages, such as Lacandon, Tzoltzil, and Tzeltal. Other descriptors did not feel right because they were given to them by the colonizers.

This discussion relates to a short but heated exchange I had in a cafe on the campus of Goethe University in Frankfurt. I had a meeting with a professor and I had invited another colleague to join us. We were all from Turkey and all three of us lived in exile. The person who served us coffee was from Turkey, too. Having heard us speaking Turkish, she greeted us in Turkish and soon asked us if we were Turkish. The professor I had just met confirmed. The other colleague did not speak. My response was negative. She was surprised. She asked me if I were Kurdish, Armenian, Greek, Jewish and soon exhausted all other options. My negative responses were unacceptable. I had to be something. Because I was speaking Turkish, I had to call myself a “Turk.” She did not want to consider why I did not want to be labeled. I told her I was a visiting professor and my office was nearby. I asked her to stop by so that we can discuss the “matter” but she declined. She wanted clear-cut ethnic descriptors, just as the nation-state in Turkey always demanded.

I asked her to consider the land, not the label, as our commonality. She disagreed: The land had a name. The people living on it also had a name. My refusal was nonsense. She did not want to hear me explaining that an individual or a community had a right to resist the labels, the language, the religion imposed by colonizers or other oppressors. The fact that the gentle refusal came from a social scientist and the setting was a university did not matter. She lived in an urban world and references to the land did not carry much weight. In the Lacandon Rainforest the land provided the common bond. There are various ethnic groups living in the rainforest and they speak different Mayan languages. But they consider the same rainforest their home. Parents in the Mayan Lacandon community make sure that children speak their language and acquire the wisdom that has allowed them to “preserve the pristine rainforest and its immense biodiversity”. What matters is the land and this is why “the Lacandones know how to take care of the lungs of the world.” (p.85)

I kept thinking about time as I read the book: In Mayan Lacandon life, time is experienced differently. The past and the future are construed differently. I did not want to rush through the book thinking about the number of years Ciofalo spent on this book. She took time to listen to people. For instance, she listened to Yuk, a 4-year old boy, and contemplated upon his simple but profound description: “The earth is a ball and it rotates in space. It can fall and we will all die.” (p.96) This reminded me of how fast time runs in the “import-export” model. Training has to be quick. Delivery has to be quick. The exporters often make wild statements about their product. I remember a famous psychologist’s remark: “Give me five minutes and I will tell you what the couple has going wrong.” Those who are truly interested in communities and social change act differently. Eduardo Almeida and Maria Eugenia Sanchez Diaz de Rivera, Ciofalo’s mentors, have spent 40 years working with the same community in Tzinacapan.

To sum up, this is a book community psychologists should devote time to read and discuss. It is a timely book because racism, nationalism, xenophobia, and war-mongering are all on the rise. It is clear that vast numbers of people are still ill-informed about the injustices caused by colonialism and imperialism.

This book will be cherished not only by those who are committed to grounded community praxis and to decolonizing psychology, but also by those who care about the future of the earth and the imminent climate collapse. Anthony J. Marsella should be commended for including this book in the International and Cultural Psychology Series.


Degirmencioglu, S. M. (2016). Challenging the "import-export" business: Possibilities and challenges for community psychologies. Paper presented at a symposium titled, “Decolonising Community Psychologies: Dispatches from The Global South”, 6th International Conference on Community Psychology, Durban, South Africa.

Ciofalo, N. (Ed.). (2019). Indigenous Psychologies in an Era of Decolonization. Springer.



Serdar M. Degirmencioglu

Serdar M. Degirmencioglu, developmental psychologist by training, a community psychologist by commitment, and a peace psychologist in practice. He has produced ground-breaking books on young people’s participation, martyrdom and militarism, psycho-social consequences of personal debt, and corruptive influences of private universities, and an award-winning documentary on the university entrance exam in Turkey. He has served as president in children’s rights and professional organizations, including the European Community Psychology Association and the Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict & Violence (Peace Psychology). As an outspoken advocate of children’s rights, he writes a Sunday column focused on children’s issues in a daily newspaper in Turkey. He was a professor in Istanbul when he was fired in April 2016 for having signed a peace manifesto. In 2017, he was banned from public service for life. He has been in exile since 2016 and has worked in Cairo, Macerata, Brussels and Frankfurt. He and his wife now live in Athens as political refugees.

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