Decolonial Salad

by Zena Cumpston

The following recipe for “Decolonial salad” is grounded in my own battles and experiences working as an Aboriginal woman in colonial institutions.

Although this recipe is written in a raw and slightly facetious tone that may be hard for some to swallow, it is important to have spaces where we don’t need to filter our critiques to protect non-Indigenous people’s feelings. The reality is, if we don’t name the violences of settler colonialism and Western/white supremacy, then it will not be possible for us to interrupt them. In order to write this poem, I gave myself permission to fully embody my frustrations and speak without filters, while recognizing this is just one part of me speaking.

This recipe emerged after listening to the audiobook of Hospicing Modernity: Facing Humanities Wrongs and the Implications for Social Activism by Vanessa Machado de Oliveira. The book has helped me to understand that I am not a “bad apple,” and that the institutional narratives that pathologize and deficit-theorize Indigenous peoples want us to believe that the harm we experience is our fault, rather than the result of a colonial system. These narratives are crafted to uphold settler innocence, and secure settler futurities. But these narratives are not easy to interrupt and unlearn. As Hospicing Modernity reminds us, there are no shortcuts. We will need to go through all the shi*t that has been accumulated over the past several hundred years of colonial violence in order to metabolise it, compost it, and use that compost to prepare the ground for something different to grow.  

I am fire-hardened, just as our women’s powerful, regenerative digging sticks are put through fire to stop them from breaking. I have what I need to grow all that is necessary to be healthy and to continue to thrive. The fire was difficult to go through, but without the fire, I would not have this extra strength that will carry me through the rest of my life.

Having been through the fire myself, I offer this poem as a reminder to other Indigenous people that colonial institutions do not define us. In fact, these institutions were created to discipline and disappear us. But the poem also contains a reminder that we are not immune from getting sucked into the colonial mindset, and even weaponizing it against each other. This is exactly what the colonial system wants – it incentivizes us to serve its destructive agenda, including by destroying each other, while settlers can claim their hands are clean. I include some questions at the end that can support Indigenous people to digest the poem.

I also offer this poem as an invitation for white settlers to stop trying to transcend colonialism without giving anything up, and without composting their own shi*t. As the GTDF Collective says, “No shi*t, no starter.” Although Indigenous peoples are diverse and we have multiple different perspectives on reconciliation, this poem can give you a glimpse into some of the deep frustrations that can arise when we perpetually encounter the window-dressing commitments that sustain colonial business as usual. The poem offers you a chance to assess your own capacity to take in critical feedback – and thus, to see what your compost pile really looks like. As you read the poem, I invite you to consider that, until you are ready to do your own composting work, your lofty promises about commitments to reconciliation and decolonization will likely ring hollow, perpetually recreating the same “decolonial salad” that is making us all sick – including you. I offer some debriefing questions at the end that can support settlers to digest the poem as well.

Decolonial salad


claims to innocence (fresh)

superior knowledge (stale)

reams of data (bulk buy)

extractivism (pure)

capitalism (unadulterated)

expert knowledge (single source – blind bake until nothing can penetrate)

white fragility (bulk buy, always combine with expert knowledge)

compliant browns and blacks (steeped in mediocrity)

reparations (frozen, do not thaw)


  • Stick to the western canon – ignore any questioning of outdated modes of knowledge production. Deride and negate non-European/non-western ways of seeing, doing, knowing, being, and relating. For example, insist that (western) science is not, in any way, influenced by the baggage (i.e., white supremacy) of the culture within which it was rigidly designed and developed. Insist (western) science is innocent, a magically curated collection of pristine, unadulterated hard facts. Most especially, discard knowledge that has been handed down over thousands of generations, emanating from peoples who have continuously interacted with their Country (Mother) in a non-extractive relationship generating reciprocal abundance.
  • Do not record, respect or acknowledge the careful observation and scientific practice of the other, at every opportunity assert it is not science. If you do record it, re-name it and claim it as your own, suck your informant(s) dry, erase them and kick them to the curb.
  • 200-years-plus after your people invade lands, continue to myopically view Indigenous peoples and communities as a mining opportunity. Take their resources, take everything you can, it’s much better in your hands than theirs. Remember – you’re saving their knowledge and putting it to good use, you’re helping them, they’re useless. If they don’t want to be a part of your incredible collaborative project (that you thought of all on your own using your brilliant superior knowledge) it’s because they’re dysfunctional and disorganised, and you tried. Never consider that your idea offers zero benefits to their collective aspirations. Never truly consider reciprocity. Above all else, be the great white explorer, go boldly into the wilderness, that mythical and intoxicating landscape untouched by humans. Declare yourself the discoverer.
  • Lament the dysfunction of the indigenes, explain to potential research partners and especially to potentially respectful (woke) types how hopeless, and how difficult they are to deal with. Add a pinch of sour assertions questioning their authenticity as indigenes. Avoid the inconvenient mess of doing anything respectfully and culturally grounded with communities. Find one Indigenous person to sign off on everything, an oracle of sorts, perhaps with their own consulting company on the side, a triple dipper. They’ll deal with anyone in the cheap seats who speaks up, who isn’t happy with the scraps being thrown. No one knows better how to eradicate their own than a native policeman (especially one with a penchant for Mercedes Benz). 
  • Sprinkle tiny novelty bits of easily digestible Indigenous knowledge onto your superior knowledge as a lovely little garnish that adds a pop of colour, a fun hint of spice, but will never distract from the main course.
  • Find something buried deep from within the ‘archive’, the glorious product of maniacal collective hoarding – the treasure trove of disastrously poorly provenanced shit, stripped of its cultural knowledge and belonging, classified into obscurity, sterilised through solitary confinement, blocked from the communities who can breathe life and meaning back into it. Take a lovely pic of you handing the useless archive something to brown and black people. Encourage them to look interested and grateful, even though you’ve handed them the equivalent of a shit sandwich, and most often directed them to eat it too.

Recipe notes

Control the narrative. Make a Reconciliation Action Plan, elevate it, and wave it about threateningly if the natives become restless. Flip it on a 45 record (or a streaming audio site for the younger folks) so you can dance to it and forget how you benefit from genocide.

Ensure that self-determination stays well out of reach. Maintain the status quo to honour the legacy of your recent ancestors, those people you came from who did all these bad things that have nothing to do with you or the daily violence and disenfranchisement happening right now. Do not acknowledge or dissect your own systemic advantages or ask who has paid the price so that you can enjoy them, carefree. Never consider you are part of the problem. Never consider you are part of the solution.

Above all else never, ever hand over any real power, or land.

Bio: Zena Cumpston is a Barkandji woman with family and ancestral connection to Wilcannia, Broken Hill and Menindee in western New South Wales. She currently lives in Melbourne on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri people with her partner and two young boys. Zena is passionate about truth-telling and undertaking projects that directly benefit Aboriginal community. Zena is a writer and also works as a curator, consultant, researcher and artist. In 2020 Zena produced a popular free e-booklet exploring Indigenous plant use that has been used widely by schools and community groups. In 2021 she curated the exhibition Emu Sky for the Ian Potter Museum of Art, exploring Aboriginal knowledge and bringing together over 30 Aboriginal community members, sharing their stories, research, knowledge and art works. She also spent 2021 writing for the Australian State of the Environment Report across several chapters. In 2022 her co-authored book Plants; past, present future was published by Thames and Hudson as part of the First Knowledges series. Zena recently began exploring translating her research work into visual art and her linocut/collage prints and weaving are featured in the exhibition ngaratya (together), beginning in Melbourne in May 2023 and touring nationally. Her artwork and writing will also feature as part of the Soils exhibition at the TarraWarra Museum of Art in 2023. 

Debriefing questions

Questions for Indigenous people

  1. To what extent do the issues named in the poem resonate with your own experiences?
  2. What responses emerged for you when reading the poem? (e.g., did you feel relief that these things were being named, did you relive your own frustration at experiencing these things, did you feel angry that these things are still happening, etc)
  3. To what extent and in what ways can you speak about the issues named in the poem (and related issues) in your own context without fear of reprisal?
  4. What would you say to your colleagues if you were not worried about the repercussions? Is there a difference between what you need to say and what they need to hear, or are they the same thing?
  5. How would the settlers in your context likely respond to this poem? How do you know? How do you think that reading this poem would affect their commitment to (non-tokenistic) decolonizing work over the long haul?

Questions for settlers

  1. A common response to this poem amongst settlers is defensiveness. Did you witness defensiveness emerge within yourself as you were reading the letter?
  2. If you felt defensive, were you able to hold space for it or did you sense an immediate desire to appease it (e.g., position yourself outside of the problem, or prove you are “one of the good ones”)? What are the potential harms of this desire? How might you interrupt this desire, while still taking seriously what you are learning from your own defensiveness, and from the concerns that are named in the poem?
  3. What other responses emerged for you (shame, guilt, fear, anxiety, impatience, etc)? Consider the same questions as above in relation to each of these responses.
  4. How prepared are you to receive critical feedback, especially from Indigenous friends, colleagues, or collaborators, without feeling overwhelmed? Did it help that the introduction to the poem foregrounded that it might be difficult to read?
  5. To what extent and in what ways can Indigenous people in your own context voice their concerns without fear of reprisal? How do you know? If not, what might be the first steps toward creating the institutional and relational conditions where this is possible?
  6. What affective capacities or practical strategies do you currently have that can enable you to compost what emerged for you in response to the poem? What capacities or strategies might you still need to develop? How can you begin to develop these?
  7. What do you feel the poem is asking of you? How do you know? Do you feel obliged to respond to these requests (or demands)? If so, in what way?

One Reply to “Decolonial Salad”

  1. I have been told my a few Indigenous people that are local to my region that the “window-dressing” compassion that I have tried to bring forward can (most effectively) be made authentic by my embrace of learning the Abeneki language. This is a next step for me.


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