«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
Setting aside her focus on individualistic formulations of purpose, Evelyn does not assume a capacity on her part to effect change. In fact, she seems to understand her solidarity work in self-making terms when pointing out, “I haven’t figured [myself] out fully yet.” However, the liberal desire to renounce privilege and in this case switch sides (as if it were possible) is evident. It would seem that white settler women’s moves to reinstall ourselves as (all) knowing subjects are “invariably haunted by a sense that [our] position is a precarious one ethically speaking.”25 Some of what is depicted in Indigenous participant narratives as white settler self-serving behaviour is more often presented in white participant narratives as a desire for (or account of) self-improvement. Certain renditions of the story, for example, include gaining a renewed sense of self-worth through involvement in solidarity. For Chloe, solidarity work gave her life value
and enabled her to heal from difficult experiences:
It helped me get over the anger I had felt from my treatment as a separated woman in Canada. It helped in the healing I had to do; it helped by doing things and meeting people who not only valued my help and understood it, but who basically appreciated it.
.. and to a certain extent my life was of value then. And everybody wants to feel that their life is of some value.
Foreshadowing the discussion in Chapter 5 on so-called Western societal deficiencies, Evelyn contrasts the respect she is given as an older woman in “non-hierarchical” Indigenous contexts
with the lack of respect towards feminists and the women’s movements in mainstream settings:
It’s the first time that as an older woman where my grey hair is showing gave me some level of respect without even garnering that respect. I got to eat first. By virtue of being a woman I got some respect. That harkens back to where feminism kind of failed.... If not everybody was onboard with [feminist ideology], it didn’t work because you’re the only one thinking you were important. If the rest of your co-workers, female or male...
didn’t think it was important, it didn’t matter whether you were a feminist or not. In this [Indigenous] group, in these teachings, there’s a sense of everyone’s important, every voice needs to be heard, the non-hierarchal aspect of it, everyone’s valuable.26 These scenarios illustrate the role potentially played by gender in white settler self-making processes in solidarity work (and beyond). For both Chloe and Darcie, the solidarity encounter is a place where their subordinated status as women can be challenged and redressed, but where their dominant status as settlers might go (temporarily) unnoticed.
Echoing Chloe in particular, Alicia describes having acquired “an element of purpose” through
working with Indigenous women (and men):
I feel in a sense that I’ve been enlightened a little bit to some of the issues. I think that’s an important area to be in. I think we’re all looking for something to drive us in our lives, to feel passionate about. Something that we feel is important. This is something I feel is important and gives me an element of purpose in my life.
A sense of fulfillment imbues all three women’s narratives: their personal self-worth has been positively reinforced through solidarity work. These examples demonstrate how the pursuit of proximity to the Indigenous Other can serve the individualistic (self-making) aspirations of the white settler woman subject.
The recuperation of self-worth is but one element of the “narratives of becoming” that mark and enable the liberal subject’s desire to be reconstituted as autonomous and (yet) dominant. In her analysis of the film Dancing with Wolves, Ahmed (2000) describes the main character Dunbar’s
attempts to transform himself via his encounters with the Sioux nation on the American frontier:
Hybridisation becomes, not a means of transgression [of self], but a technique for getting closer to strangers which allows the reassertion of the agency of the dominant subject.
The story remains organized around [Dunbar’s] ability to move and to overcome differences (his “difference” from them). (p. 123) The white settler man cannot abide his “difference”—illegitimate settler status—which he must
overcome. As Ahmed (2000) notes, the fantastical (il)logic of stranger fetishism allows for that:
The way in which this narrative of becoming Indian most clearly involves fantasy is in the very assumption that the structural relations of antagonism between Indians and white men can be simply overcome through the act of getting closer. [Dunbar’s] agency is central to this fantasy of overcoming; not only can he make but he can unmake the border between self and other, between natives and strangers. (p. 124, emphasis in original) I would argue that a similar “fantasy of overcoming” what Ahmed (2000) calls “the structural relations of antagonism between Indians” (p. 124) and white women is found in some of the white participant narratives of this study. To do so, however, requires a gendered reading of the solidarity encounter, since Ahmed’s focus is on the operation of colonial masculinity.
As evident in their narratives, Chloe and Darcie clearly get something out of their encounters with Indigenous people, namely an increased sense of their value and respect as women. Their gain, in other words, is gendered in a specific way, a consequence of their positioning as white settler women. The question remains if there are other ways in which white settler desires for proximity and the attendant “narratives of becoming” are gendered. Recall the passage above in which Alicia expresses her desire for a sense of community/acceptance, something that Dunbar in fact shares. As Ahmed writes, “The shift from confrontation to becoming emerges through [Dunbar’s] desire for company; his desire for access to the multiplicity that he lacks” (p. 121).
Alicia, like Dunbar, has been “drawn in” by “a sense of community” that she lacks: “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.” In this case, is there a (gendered) difference between Alicia’s and Dunbar’s respective interpellation as settler subjects? Had I also interviewed self-ascribed settler men, my response would be more fulsome and less tentative than it is here. Nonetheless, I propose that at least a partial answer can be gleaned in the following quote from Alicia’s narrative: “I started to cry because I felt so… bad that my intention was to help. And the fact that another woman was telling me that I was wrong, that I was pathologizing, that I wasn’t helping was just so deflating for me ‘cause I wanted to help so much. And to find out I had hurt someone in some way...” This suggests that (white) settler women are interpellated into the colonial context as helpers in a way that (white) settler men are not. I bracket “white” to highlight the difference that gender and race make to settler subjectivity, e.g., analyses of settler man subjectivity should apply a race analytic.
Returning to the topic at hand—the white settler woman’s desires for and techniques of transformation, I look to the narrative of Peggy, a white participant who describes her (subject) status as “in-between” as a consequence of having spent extended periods of time working with
Indigenous women (and, more recently, men):
In political organizing... we can get these ideas that are useful. But if you just construct them as binaries and there’s nothing in-between—and I’ve been in-between a lot of the time, all the time.... I was not trying to be Native [in the dream]. I was not doing any of that, but the spirit world spoke to me; according to [a Native friend] that was what happened.... I’ve been so deeply influenced after all these years of working with Indigenous people in various ways that I can’t say I only work from a Western perspective. And yet I can’t say that I write from a Native perspective.... But what is it?
And it’s not just appropriation; it’s also engaging really deeply and fully and respecting Indigenous concepts, teachings. We don’t really have a word for that yet or we don’t have an acknowledgement of who we [white people] become when we’re changed through this process.
Peggy’s narrative—and subjectivity—is laden with complexity. She is clear about the political nature of the solidarity encounters in which she has been engaged. She is also concerned about (being mistaken as) misappropriating Native ideas. At the same time, she notes having been transformed by “working with Indigenous people in various ways.” Like Alicia, Peggy has gained from her encounters, in her case, a Native perspective. Are there comparable fantasies of becoming and/or overcoming harboured in their stories? Does either woman hope to supersede structural power relations through self-transformation? Peggy herself asks what transformation (of the white settler woman subject) without appropriation would look like or be called. But, why focus on transformation? To reiterate, my aim is not to make a definitive judgment about their particular cases.27 Without collapsing the narratives into one, I want to highlight the “narratives of becoming” that each woman articulates and the ongoing inter/subjective negotiations such narratives point toward, i.e., the need to grapple—explicitly and continually— with the structural dominance of the subject position white settler woman. Importantly, like Dunbar’s, each woman’s “narrative of becoming” presumes the possibility (if not probability) of movement in their respective identities in that they can be altered or transformed by their encounters.
Alicia subsequently confirms that her solidarity experiences have led to her self-discovery. Here
she describes her participation in and reaction to an Indigenous community research forum:
It was totally different from any other academic forum I had been in. Everything was done in a circle formation and we did a really long check in. Everyone cried, people sang and did drumming. I started to realize that this work wasn’t just about yet another white woman swooping in and wanting to help; this was also a good opportunity for me as a person to expand my ways of knowing and my ways of being for the better, that I had lived a life that was relatively cognitive in nature up until then just as a virtue of the culture that we’re in. Yet here was a group of people who were being emotionally expressive... who were shedding a tear about whatever was moving them at the moment... who had a spiritual connection. These other dimensions opened up to me that I hadn’t really been exposed to prior to that.... Here I was in a space where there was drumming and singing and smudging, and people were speaking differently about things and they were thinking differently about things. I was very intrigued as the little scientist, but I was very moved emotionally by this new sort of forum to be in.
Once again, Alicia’s account of an eye/soul-opening experience resembles my own. In this passage (from my journal circa 2008), I recall my time with MINUGUA in the 1990s. More
specifically, I reflect on my memory of a hike with two Indigenous Guatemalan men:
At that moment, something shifted in me; I was struck by the power of the land beneath me, its living essence, its spirit, indeed its sadness at having borne witness to so many years of anguish and trauma. There was no explaining the slaughter of hundreds of Indigenous people, forever etched into the memory of the land beneath my feet. [...] Having been an avid hiker since my youth, through this particular interaction with two Q’ekchi’ men I was able to rekindle in myself a respect for the sacred, the sacredness of “Mother Earth.” At the same time, this and other experiences served to demystify for me the image of the “noble savage,” a figure who I had learned to imagine, by virtue of having dutifully consumed Western ideology, as the quintessential inferior “other.” In employing the use of discourses around the “sacred,” my story paints a similar picture to that of Alicia’s although in a different context: I had been spiritually (and politically) transformed through my “interaction with two Q’ekchi’ men.” (I discuss some Indigenous references to sacredness below.) While not a solidarity encounter with Indigenous women in Canada, my tale of transformation merits inclusion given its striking parallels with that of Alicia’s; in both cases, it would seem that our structural dominance as settler/extranjera28 overdetermined our “strange encounters” with the Indigenous Other.
In the above passages, both Alicia and I describe our transformation as an opening up of a previously underdeveloped emotional/spiritual side. We again appear to resemble Dunbar from Dances with Wolves: our respective self-discoveries are “mediated as a discovery of the truth
about the Indians” (Ahmed, 2000, p. 123) where the “Indians” remain Other:
Although the narrative involves his becoming other, it does so by positioning the Indians as a means to his self-discovery. The Indians remain other—they remain at the service of a white, masculine story of (self)-discovery. Rather than being annihilated as a threat, they become reincorporated to provide what is lacking in him self.... Becoming could be read as the de-forming and re-forming of the white masculine face through the absorption of the other.... The story of transformation could be read differently—as the story of the ability to transform oneself. (p. 123) Once again, the role of gender in constituting white settler subjectivity is not entirely clear in these examples. However, read in their entireties, Alicia’s interview and my journal suggest that the difference lies in the white settler woman subject’s residual doubt about her transformation.
The question becomes, is she a more or differently haunted settler than her male counterpart?