«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
By way of caveat, I’d like to clarify that proximity discourses are often co-present and/or coconstitutive in any one narrative. In my analysis, however, I artificially isolate discourses for heuristic purposes. In actuality, each participant describes a complex, interrelated bundle of reasons for doing solidarity work—bundles that would need to be kept intact to get a sense of any given person’s subjectivity. (That being said, in many cases, a hierarchy of motivations appears, meaning that some reasons for engagement seem more relevant or primary than others for a particular person.) Thus, I make no claims about a particular participant’s investments in solidarity, but rather identify discursive patterns across participant narratives in much the same way as do Schick (1998) and Heron (2007) in their respective studies.
Desiring proximity—telling (about) autobiographical moments
I begin the discussion with an anecdote from my own life. Among many statements that gave me pause while conducting the interviews, one by Ardra, an Indigenous participant, stands out.
While discussing the parameters of white women’s roles as allies, she speculated about their
motivations for doing solidarity work with Indigenous women:
I just questioned whether it was actually more of an opportunist reason meaning that the [white] allies are in [the group] more because they want to work with Native women than because they really want to work on these issues. So if there’s no more Native women, than they’re not getting what they really came to the group for and so it’s motivated by that rather than a commitment to what we say we are doing.
Our conversation and Ardra’s insights ignited a chain reaction in my own thinking, which
conjured up, among other things, a prior interview with the white participant I call Darcie:
There’s only one Indigenous woman in [the program]. I know we had... an Aboriginal history class and there were no Aboriginal people in it. I don’t know; it’s an interesting phenomenon that there’s seven white people learning from an Aboriginal woman... but she’s the only one who can speak from that experience. So, I mean, it could be a good thing because it shows some white people are interested in learning about it; but then it’s also, like, it feels like maybe there’s something missing there.
What could be missing? Avoiding the temptation to state emphatically what Darcie must have meant, I can state with certitude what I took from her words. In the moment, I experienced an unmistakable and discomfiting sense of identification with Darcie. After the interview, I recalled various times in my life—before and during my involvement with No More Silence—when I had felt “something missing” in an encounter that I hoped would consist of interactions with Indigenous women (or men). Schick’s (1998) reading of the white desire for proximity to
Indigenous people is particularly relevant here, as it also invokes a classroom environment:
Desiring the other [for white people] is a way of disassociating from the revulsion of genocide and colonization and feeling good about themselves in the process. Sometimes the desire is for Natives themselves to be available in cross-cultural classes—embodied and present—as cultural guides and Native informants to describe their experiences of the everydayness of being the other. (p. 186) In the following excerpt from my journal, I consider the possibility that my solidarity work has been motivated by the prospect of “feeling good about” myself. I reflect on finally having felt
accepted/recognized as a “good ally” by an Indigenous woman with whom I’d worked for years:
There’s something nice about this “new found fame,” but also something discomfiting.
Is this what I’ve been seeking? Is this why I’ve been involved in solidarity work? I remember years ago seeing a white woman on a panel speaking articulately about being a settler. I had quietly, internally vowed to attempt to walk this path. Have I for years been trying to arrive at the point of the good ally? Was that the end of the road for me, as opposed to Indigenous sovereignty or an end to violence against Indigenous women?
It is clear to me (now) that as a white settler woman I retain the hope of distancing myself from colonial processes and logics. I continue to understand how this is so: have I attempted to keep this “distance,” as Ahmed (2000) suggests, through seeking proximity to Indigenous women?
Do I reproduce hierarchical Indigenous/settler difference by placing Indigenous women on a pedestal of sorts? In answer, I’d say that solidarity work for me remains in part a personal, that is, self-making journey, regardless (or perhaps because) of my efforts to acknowledge my privileged subject position. My own desire to be the good ally is never permanently assuaged.
I could also ask, had/have I been looking for a contemporary version of the noble savage, as LaRocque (2010) suggests is still the case for some non-Native Canadians? Consider this 1899
passage by Charles Mair, secretary to the Halfbreed Scrip Commission for northern Alberta:
There presented itself a body of respectable-looking men, as well dressed and evidently quite as independent in their feelings as any like number of average pioneers in the East.
... One was prepared, in this wild region of forest, to behold some savage types of men;
indeed, I craved to renew the vanished scenes of old. But alas! One beheld, instead, men with well-washed unpainted faces, and combed and common hair; men in suits of ordinary store-clothes, and even some with “boiled” if not laundered shirts. One felt disappointed, even defrauded. (cited in LaRocque, 2010, p. 129, emphasis added) Mair’s 1899 longing to have his stereotypical notions of the noble savage affirmed, as LaRocque (2010) explains, is striking and, in contrast with the impulse to solidarity, decidedly not well-intentioned by twenty-first century standards. Nonetheless, I am struck by the white settler desire for proximity that seems to spill out across temporal, spatial and political spectrums, and more so by the opaqueness of my thinking around this: Darcie’s comment—and my emotive responses to it—would have remained unremarkable to me save for Ardra’s observation. Only after the interview was I able to render these incidences intelligible as indicators of my own desire for proximity, and to more fully recognize the need to historicize that desire.
Becoming/overcoming and transformation in the solidarity encounter Here, I draw from selected white participant narratives (primarily those of Alicia, Evelyn, Chloe and Peggy) to provide an in-depth reading of the operation of proximity discourse. I begin with a lengthy quote from my interview with Alicia. This particular passage usefully exemplifies the multiple layers of and interconnections between the proximity desires (and perceived benefits)
that suffuse many white participant narratives to varying degrees:
Obviously people get something out of the work they’re doing or else they probably wouldn’t be doing it. Whether they’re aware of it or not is another story. I like being in the community, I like being in the culture, I feel at home, I feel like it’s a happy time for me to be in the community, to see community people coming together. I think a sense of community is an important part of mental health and wellness, and among the general population of regular Western Canadian people I don’t necessarily feel that there’s a community of people. So there’s a sense of community there that has drawn me in, that I feel a part of. I feel aligned with, as I said, the beliefs and values and the spirituality of it almost as if I was a spiritual person in a past life or something. There’s some kind of thing going on. I’ve spoken with lots of spiritual leaders and elders who’ve said to me, I’m thinking of one woman in particular who’s a healer who said to me, “I think that you were a Native woman in a past life.”... Maybe she meant metaphorically that there’s something in you spiritually that is driven or aligned.... Of all my siblings why am I the only one who’s into any activist work, who has a ton of gay friends, who has lived abroad?... I don’t know why that’s different for me... I feel a bit like a citizen of the world. I don’t feel very aligned with being Canadian.... But I don’t feel entirely Western in my mind either because I’ve been exposed to different cultures and peoples.
Alicia’s narrative conveys a heightened awareness of her positionality as a white settler woman, as well as how she has pursued proximity to Indigenous women (and men) through both activism and (we later learn) academic research. Recall that the pursuit of social justice is central to Alicia’s initial involvement in solidarity work (she was outraged upon learning about the disproportionably high levels of violence experienced by Indigenous women and girls).
(Elsewhere, she notes that she has been continually encouraged along the way by Indigenous women to get/remain involved with Indigenous issues.) At the same time, she is forthcoming about a host of other reasons that caused and sustained her interest in solidarity. In fact, this passage touches upon nearly my entire spectrum of proximity discourses: the desire to be accepted by or included in a Native community24 (coupled with mentioning Western culture’s lack of communal sensibility); the desire for self-improvement (e.g., to gain a sense of purpose and to learn other ways of knowing); and an attraction to and identification with Indigenous “beliefs and values and the spirituality.” On this last point, Alicia later cites respect for women and a “non-oppositional” blending of spirituality and political activism as attractive features of the Indigenous cultures with which she is familiar. Additionally, there is the distinct but related desire to render herself as exceptional (as cast differently from her siblings and most Canadians;
see Chapter 6). This passage is underscored by a sense of white ontological expansiveness (Sullivan, 2006)—the sense that the world is/should be available and Alicia free to move through it and be enriched by Others (hooks, 1992). Finally, her desire to be a good person is palpable.
Perhaps more significantly, Alicia’s entire narrative is indicative of white participants’ struggles to come to grips with our historic positionality as settlers and consequent desires for proximity.
For one, she expresses some awareness of why doing solidarity for self-interested reasons might be problematic. After referencing a “laundry list” of colonial laws and practices including the Indian Act, residential schools and the Sixties Scoop, she states, You kind of have to empathize with where [Native people] are coming from.... I know I sound hypocritical because I just said I was carrying around that baggage, but to some extent you can’t take things personally all the time. If you really get the context of what the work is, then you really shouldn’t take things personally. If you really take things personally all the time, then maybe you’re still too caught up in the self, the ego self.
She also expresses ongoing and profound reservations about her right of access into Indigenous community contexts: “I have all these doubts that I second guess my work in the area as a white woman.” Rather than dissuade her, these doubts have led her to think more carefully about how to be an ally: “The only way I’ve made peace with it so far is to say that I see myself as someone who is here to help. It’s not someone setting the agenda. I’m here as a tool with certain skills and resources. Please use me if I can be of service.” Importantly, she understands “help” to mean someone who does not dictate the terms of the encounter. Alicia is also aware that “the term ‘research’ is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism” (L. T. Smith, 1999, p. 1) and that lingering suspicions remained about her role as a researcher in the
I worked with... [an] Aboriginal woman and she was wonderful to me. Open arms, “great-that-you’re-interested-in-this-let’s-get-to-work” kind of thing. I’ve had mixed reviews as a white woman coming into work in this community and I understand why.
There’s a legacy of a lot of negative behaviors by white researchers, etc. coming in and trying to do the work. Some people were not okay with me being there. I’d say the majority of my story has been pretty positive. I think for the most part people have said, “Thank you for giving a shit. You didn’t have to. A lot of people don’t who are nonNative. But you seem to, so thanks for caring to some degree.” There were some people who were very suspicious of my motives and what I was doing and that kind of thing.
With [this Aboriginal woman] I didn’t just get the Masters [degree], I got involved.
In “giving a shit,” Alicia can be seen as answering the aforementioned Indigenous calls for settlers to take up issues of colonial inequity. And much to her credit, she repeatedly questions her role and effectiveness as a white settler woman working in Indigenous communities.
Alicia is not alone in voicing self-reflexive misgivings about her role as white settler woman ally, including about her entitlement even to do the work. Evelyn, who I also mention above, is
also “still trying to find [her] place” as a white settler woman ally to Indigenous women:
I just know I want to be on that side, and not the side I’ve been given or privileged to have been born into. That sounds weird, kind of odd. I’m not negating who I am. I haven’t figured that one out fully yet. […] I’m still trying to figure that out, is there a purpose for me to be aligned with Indigenous women? Whether I do have anything to offer because... It’s probably minimal. I don’t have the education behind me; I don’t have prospects ahead of me that... I have very minimal… I can do a few things at work..
.. But, I don’t have any leverage so in that way I’m not of much use to anybody. That’s like saying my life is useless. I think there’s a minimal amount that I can offer. That’s what I’m willing to give.