«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
Alicia pits putatively Western cultural traits/values such as competition, consumerism and lack of humility in stark contrast to Indigenous cultural traits/values such as attentiveness and humility. In another passage, she more directly employs the discourse of lack: “Among the general population of regular Western Canadian people, I don’t necessarily feel that there’s a community of people” (see Chapter 4). Depicting North American society as “completely dysfunctional,” Evelyn is another white participant who contrasts Native and white society. Her statement is most telling when viewed alongside a candid iteration of her desire to be accepted by Native activists. This is part of her email response to a post-interview request for clarification
about “the awkwardness and sense of loss” she felt at “not being a part of something”:
This [desire for acceptance] is not so much [for] inclusion in a Native community, but rather [for] an identifiable role or status in relation to Indigenous struggles, [which has] multiple meanings—it’s really an internal struggle for me. I am getting to feel more comfortable, gaining some niches. But when I attend a speaker’s night... I’m not an academic; [Native women’s] marches, I’m not “working” in any Indigenous agency, educational institute, community centre. I have no status, so to speak of; I’m a learner/observer, mostly. The loss refers to how I feel separate from my own culture (white, Canadian, mainstream) or the Canadian mindset/values of consumerism, etc. It (the Canadian public) does not take the destruction of land seriously enough. It does not recognize the struggle most women still have being safe and respected. [The] murder of Native women/the environment is a non-issue to most people. The loss also refers to my envious joy of the Anishinaabe bringing back their culture of inclusiveness of animals, land, creation in their daily lives; in my community this has no place. I could go on and on.
In this excerpt, Evelyn’s tone is strikingly reminiscent of the narratives of becoming I discuss in Chapter 4. Her precarious sense of self/belonging, which she reveals in wanting “an identifiable role or status in relation to Indigenous struggle,” becomes enmeshed in her feelings of “envious joy of the Anishinaabe bringing back their culture of inclusiveness.” Through repeated allusions to what she lacks (most evident in her use of “no status,” ironically, a term associated with both Indigenous and immigrant struggles), Evelyn consistently positions herself as vulnerable. She thus exemplifies the neediness/self-serving desire that, according to many Indigenous women, always marks some (but, importantly, not all) white settler women allies in the solidarity encounter. To what extent is Evelyn poised to appropriate Indigeneity in the name of belonging?
At the same time, Evelyn clearly sees herself as a settler and struggles with her historic positionality as such. How can we read her “internal struggle”? It is at least partly legible within the framework of an “absolute difference” between two worlds (Erickson, 2011). She positions herself as an outsider in relation to two spheres which she posits as largely separate: mainstream white Canadian culture versus Anishinaabe culture. Her inability to belong, or to be emplaced, as Razack (2011) might say, is contingent upon what she sees as her tenuous relationship to both contexts. Importantly, in contrasting Native and Western cultures, Evelyn does not invoke the myth of the vanishing Indian (in fact, she sees Anishinaabe culture as undergoing a process of revitalization); however, she highlights Indigenous cultural difference (and her desire to access it) as opposed to colonial structures and their impact on Indigenous social and political systems.
I turn to one final example to illustrate the white critique of Western society through identifying, in varying ways, an “absolute difference” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures.
Dawn calls on “all of us Canadians” to deal with the fact that “we are profoundly imbalanced”:
One of the possibilities in addressing the issue [of violence against Indigenous women] and respecting and honouring Indigenous culture is that we, all of us Canadians, can start connecting with that as well; so not only recognizing it in this, but actually understanding that we are profoundly imbalanced. If you look at Indigenous spiritual practices, [mainstream Canadian society] is not just beating up human women; we’re destroying Grandmother Earth. We are destroying the feminine on almost every level...
. To think that we can just overpower, have everything our way... [and] take what we want with impunity.
Dawn issues what has become (in activist circles and perhaps beyond) a common contrast between Indigenous and non-Indigenous societies: an imbalanced, overly rationale, masculinized and violent-prone Canadian culture on the one hand, and a harmonious, spiritual, feminized and respectful Indigenous one on the other. Her statement can be read as contradictory, however, in that she simultaneously recognizes the colonial tendency to “take...
with impunity” while arguably condoning more of such behaviour through references to not only “respecting and honouring,” but also “connecting” to (her rendition of) Indigenous culture.
Moreover, as we shall see, consequent with colonial logic, the process of claiming legitimate national subject status (“all of us Canadians”) hinges on the white subject’s ability to simultaneously romanticize and internalize Indigeneity, which in turn relies on the positing of two separate spheres.
There is another aspect of Dawn’s statement that merits closer attention—the “present absence”4 of whiteness that can be discerned in her allusion to “all of us Canadians.” Baldwin, Cameron and Koyabashi (2011) contend that hegemonic “Canadianness” as a sense of national belonging is always spatialized and racialized—a social construction made with recourse to place and race wherein “whiteness in all its historical-geographic variability is fundamentally concerned with spatializing racial difference in ways that allow for its spatial practices to pass unquestioned” (p.
6). For these scholars, the nation-state is not “the exclusive formation through which race, nature, and whiteness articulate”; in fact, there are a “host of other geographies—the urban, the rural, landscape, place” in which “national discourses find spatial [and racial] expression” (p. 7).
I add the “solidarity encounter” to that list and trace in Dawn’s statement, together with those of other white participants, the white settler subject’s use of critique (of the West) and embrace (of Indigeneity) to stake a claim as the legitimate “Canadian” national subject.
Appropriation and national belonging (settler gain/Indigenous loss) I now consider the possibility of the following discursive flow in white participant narratives: a critique of the Western self/culture; the praise, elevation and potential appropriation of (romanticized versions of) Indigeneity; and the disavowal and (fantastical) transcendence of white settler colonial relations. Recall Ahmed’s (2000) analysis of Dunbar, the main white (and
masculinized) protagonist in Dances with Wolves:
Dunbar’s transformation relies on a very precise imaging of the Indian as more in tune with nature, as more in tune with each other, and as “prior” to the alienations of the outpost.... The fascination with the Indians and the fascination with the wolf inhabit a similar terrain; the wolf and the Indian come to “stand for” what is lacking in the white man’s face, the desire, movement and closeness of nature itself. (pp. 122–123, emphasis added) Ahmed (2000) sheds light on how, ironically, in settler colonial contexts such as this, to invoke what is lacking in the dominant subject/culture can become a discursive strategy for the remaking of the white settler subject/culture. Toni Morrison (1993) tells the story of a different, though similarly positioned Dunbar (both are white men), lest we forget that “the quintessential American identity” was/is made possible by “wielding absolute power over the lives of others,” by which she primarily means a “rebellious but serviceable, black population against which Dunbar and all white men are enabled to measure these privileging and privileged differences” (pp. 44–45). As Morrison (1993) explains, white settler men are made anew in the Americas against a backdrop of “rawness and savagery” (p. 44). Both authors add to our understanding of the transformative dynamics of white settler subjectivity through proximity—Ahmed (2000) especially captures the appropriation of Indigeneity that is involved, and Morrison (1993), the sense of newness (read innocence) that predominates. But neither adequately accounts for its gendered dimension. For example, does the “fascination with the Indians” of Ahmed’s (2000) Dunbar take a different form among white settler women? Recall Dawn’s rationale for respecting and honouring Indigenous culture—to correct an imbalance that has led to violence against all women, and Indigenous women disproportionately so. What is lacking in Western society for Dawn has everything to do with her double positioning as a white settler woman: “If you look at Indigenous spiritual practices, we’re not just beating up human women; we’re destroying Grandmother Earth. We are destroying the feminine on almost every level.” Put simply, Dawn’s interest in Indigenous culture is bound up with a desire to reinstate respect for “the feminine.” In the following excerpt, Evelyn focuses on the lack of a spiritual relationship to land in Western culture, something that is shallowly incorporated, if at all, by mainstream
Certainly there’s an element of transformation happening for me. I’m now free to… it’s kind of odd because Native spirituality has… I’ve always felt that nature was special— flora, fauna, our kind of connection to it. But, there’s no room for that in Western culture, except for in the environmental movement, and it doesn’t go beyond protecting species and ancient seeds and the land. It doesn’t go beyond that; it doesn’t animate nature into something that is part of us. That’s allowed me a little bit more freedom in my comfort in feeling connected [to Native people].
Like both Dunbars, Evelyn experiences “an element of transformation.” According to her, two things permit this: her solidarity work with Native women (and men) and her predisposition to a spiritual relationship with the land. Is Evelyn’s interpellation as a white settler woman subject of importance here? Might this account for her “fascination” with flora and fauna and not, for instance, wolves? Importantly, Evelyn’s interest in nature extends to “Native spirituality,” which does not seem to hold much appeal for Ahmed’s (2000) Dunbar. Both Dawn’s and Evelyn’s respective “fascination with the Indians” seems bound to the gendered role of helper, their desire to help return balance—gender, ecological and spiritual—to Western society.
At the same time, Evelyn’s (and mainstream Canadian society’s) transformation, like Dunbar’s (Ahmed, 2000), depends on “a very precise imaging of the Indian as more in touch with nature” (p. 122), or what Anna J. Willow (2009) calls the “ecological Indian.” While doubly positioned as dominant and subordinate, Evelyn, Dawn and Alicia still invoke lack at the individual and/or collective levels when establishing relationality to Indigeneity; that is, they remain taken by Indigenous peoples’ presumably more balanced, harmoniously complete existence. How does this attraction facilitate the constitution of a legitimate Canadian national subject? Does it feed into what Razack (2002) describes as the “quintessential feature of white settler mythologies...
the disavowal of conquest, genocide, slavery, and the exploitation of the labour of peoples of colour” (p. 1)? How can we explain the move from fascination to disavowal? Whose interests can be served when white settlers critique Western lack and praise Indigenous wholeness?
Morgensen’s (2011) analysis of white settler subjectivity in US-based non-Native queer liberation movements is helpful in this regard: “White Americans associate marginality and resistance with the Indians as an internal antagonist to settler society, which then lets them impersonate indigeneity when they launch social critiques that reconcile them to settler society” (pp. 5–6). Read in this theoretical light, the white participant narratives cited above take on a different, possibly less benign meaning. Morgensen (2011) suggests that settler ally critiques of Western society, especially when based on essentialized visions of Indigeneity, I would add, occur along a slippery slope. Such subjects can easily slide from identifying with the “Indians” to identifying as “Indians,” thus positioning themselves to gain a sense of belonging through innocence. Margery Fee and Lynette Russell (2007) describe a similar shift in white anti-racist subjectivity as “identificatory mobility,”5 the tendency of “self-acknowledged anti-racist white people to think themselves emphatically ‘Other’, and thus [to be] able to identify with the disempowered and marginalized without ever having to try and understand their [white] difference” (p. 188). I do not claim that Dawn, Evelyn or Alicia engage in a dynamic of identificatory mobility, but rather raise this as a possibility given their location as white settler subjects. It is also plausible that the white settler desire for emplacement (Razack, 2011) gives rise to (and is satiated) by identificatory mobility. Morgensen (2011) explores this possibility in
his analysis of a text by gay rights activist Judy Grahn:
Her first sense of belonging to indigeneity arose... from the “thoroughly ‘queer’” experience of being exiled from white settler society and then taking comfort in imagining her own indigenized emplacement. White settler heteropatriarchy creates queers who resolve their exile through land-based relationships to disappeared Native people.... Her book narrates Native peoples as part of a disappeared past that white settlers inherit, and grants queer exiles solace and a means for them to come “home.” (p.