«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
(Belinda) I think some people would label me an activist. Some people would say I’m a warrior. In my bio, I don’t use the title [activist] because I don’t think I’ve made a conscious [decision that] I’m going to become involved in activism. I’m just trying to uncover the layers. That’s more what I’m doing. I think if that’s what people call activism, that’s okay, but I think that might be an inadequate label. It’s more I’m trying to survive and do what I need to do. Maybe I’m being a good role model versus an activist. (Lydia) Belinda’s statement especially echoes LaRocque’s (2010) characterization of political
A simple assertion of one’s (Native) humanity is a form of resistance, given the magnitude of dehumanization over a span of 500 years. In this overarching history of colonization, Native peoples have developed a collective sense of relationship to the land and to each other, and to the common cause of decolonization. In this sense, every politically aware Native teacher, scholar, writer, artist, filmmaker, poet, or activist is ultimately a producer of resistance material. (p. 23) As suggested by these passages, politically aware Indigenous women (and men) have felt and indeed have been compelled to “produce resistance material” by the colonial circumstances that engulf us all, although in quite distinct ways. That is, their subordinate positionality within the colonial encounter writ large figures prominently in their decisions to take political action, however defined. For Moreton-Robinson (2000), it is precisely this subordinate positionality that induces Indigenous women to become consciously astute political actors in their everyday lives: “What women anthropologists have failed to understand in their desire to represent Indigenous women are the complexities Indigenous women face in a world under conditions not of their choosing. Where they must translate and interpret whiteness, while being ‘Other’” (p.
89). Thus, while both white women and Indigenous women choose to be politically involved, Indigenous women do so by highlighting what they see as their politically charged social location as members of a particular dispossessed and marginalized collectivity.
It is in this sense that Rubina refers to her responsibilities as an Aboriginal woman when asked
if she considers herself to be an activist or part of an activist community:
I would say I’m upholding my responsibilities as an Aboriginal woman to this land. If that’s what you call activism, so be it, but I’m not really going to label myself that. I’m going to insure that I uphold Guswenta, the Two Row wampum.... If that’s activism, well, then it’s activism; but for me, it’s just being who I am. It’s the responsibility.
In other words, her responsibilities “as an Aboriginal woman to this land” require her to engage in what others might call political activism. Lydia also upholds a Native woman’s responsibility
to her community as an indelible component of engaging in political activism or solidarity:
When any Indigenous woman takes on something, she has communities, a reserve community, whether the whole nation, behind her. Like Sharon McIvor, she has a whole nation of Indigenous women that she’s caring for, same as Jeannette Corbiere-Lavell.
When a white woman comes in and makes a decision, she doesn’t have those responsibilities. People like Sharon and Jeanette and Sandra, when they take on their...even women in the reserve communities trying to establish, let’s say, a shelter or a food bank, they have a community of people that they’re caring for. White women don’t have that. Sure, white women may have kids at home, but they don’t have a whole country of oppressed people... that they’re caring for, and so they have a privilege that Indigenous women don’t have. They don’t have the same pressure. I think that’s the biggest thing... they seem to not understand that this is not just activism.
To Lydia, her political responsibility as a Native woman is “not just activism,” but rather derives from her subject position in historical context and is in contrast to white women who “don’t have a whole country of oppressed people... that they’re caring for.” In this way, she highlights the power structures that position and constrain Indigenous women differently with respect to political engagement and by extension solidarity work. Although in agreement that Indigenous women have a particular role in (and awareness of the need for) fostering positive societal change, Danielle sees this as a responsibility extending to all people.
In explaining why she does political activism/solidarity work, she consistently links political mobilization to “our [Native and non-Native] principal duty and responsibility to all of Creation”:
As I stood there, I thought about... how I was lining up with the earth and the moon and the sun and stirring the ashes and saying, “I can do this. I know I can handle this...” Because what it’s about is ensuring that the cycles of life continue. And what it’s about is respecting all of Creation. And what it’s about is doing our principal duty and responsibility to all of Creation, and that’s to be kind and to care.... What we’re experiencing today is a pretty mean and nasty come-around—when we’re dealing with earthquakes... and fires and... floods. We’re the ones that bombed the shit out of Tora Bora. We’re the ones that made war. We’re the ones that are starving our people. We’re the ones that are letting Aboriginal people live in conditions that are rated 74th in the world while we enjoy conditions that are eighth.... So I like to put in that bigger perspective of why I do the work. I do the work so that when I go across that sky and I take my place back up there with my ancestors, and I got to face my grandma, and I get to see my Great Grandmother Moon, I don’t want her to be ashamed of me.
Fifty-four percent of our [Native] population is under the age of 27. I say to people, what does that look like in 50 years—my lifetime—what does that look like? For me, I choose to think that it looks like a pretty rosy picture. It’s not so rosy if we don’t do anything.
It’s real damn rosy, though, if we meet the needs of those kids, if we stand them up and give them what they need, and we feed them properly, and we connect them to their role and their responsibility and their duty. That’s a huge army. That’s a huge army for peace and kindness and tolerance and understanding, and all those things that we know we have to get to if we think we’re going to end violence against women.
Although broad in its parameters, Danielle’s definition of activism centres her responsibilities as an Indigenous woman vis-à-vis her Indigenous ancestors (Great Grandmother Moon) as well as future generations, that is, in collective terms. Danielle’s message about how “we’re going to end violence against women” recalls Dawn’s above on the same topic when she (as a white woman) suggests all Canadians should be “respecting and honouring Indigenous culture” as a way to mitigate the destruction of “Grandmother Earth” and “the feminine on almost every level.” Alongside rendering the Indigenous woman subject as inescapably political, many Indigenous participants highlight their dedication to collective political struggle (as opposed to the more self-serving, individualistic needs they ascribe to many white women) as the primary motivating factor in their decisions to do solidarity work. Their engagement in solidarity would result from, and not cause, their political activism (whereas they would claim the opposite to be the case for some white women). In short, achieving solidarity per se is not the main goal of Indigenous women’s political (or solidarity) work; solidarity becomes a means to a political end. Moreover, some Native women describe ending up in solidarity encounters without having chosen to be in them. Take Wanda—a seasoned, self-ascribed Indigenous activist: only recently has she
purposely worked in a mixed Native–white organization:
I don’t know if it’s a conscious decision [to work in solidarity]. I didn’t step out of the world to do it. My world is basically most of the time filled with Aboriginal people. To be honest with you, I don’t use the term “solidarity” and all those other kinds of things.
That wasn’t something that we used, except for in the Leonard Peltier movement.... I mean, I’ve been involved in different protests and those kinds of things, and it’s never been an issue whether [people] have been white or not white. The issue was what was the matter. I think this is the first time I’ve been involved in a [mixed Indigenous/nonIndigenous] group. And it was really good for me to be a part of that. I’ve seen some things that I probably needed to see in my life.
In hesitating to call her decision to work with white women a conscious one, Wanda minimizes the centrality of solidarity in her political work; in her experience, “the issue”12 is what has mattered most to Native women (and, Wanda suggests, men). Lee, who corroborates Wanda’s point, adds this nuance: “I like the Indigenous sensibility about, we’re on a journey of exploration, that we’re trying to understand each other in the process of doing this work, and that the more important thing is the work, but we are struggling to understand each other” (emphasis added). Positive cross-cultural intersubjective relations, Lee argues, are important, but should figure as a consequence of the greater goal or “more important thing,” which is the work itself. This is not to say that the Indigenous women with whom I spoke did not ever seek solidarity or see it as vitally necessary. Danielle in particular is emphatic about the need to “create allies, informed allies, who aren’t working out of the ignorance, who have the proper information and the truth.... That’s why I go and do any talk that I’m invited to do... because what I’m doing is creating allies and I’m informing people.” As a Native organizer, Ryah has
also sought non-Native allies for specific projects and offers this account of one such coalition:
There was an urgency to [the activism] because this was specific legislation that we did not want put in place and so we were calling on a coalition. So it was great that nonNative people joined the coalition, but it turned out that many needed so much educating, you spent all your time educating people, and they’re at various levels of their education. And then you hear the white guilt that comes out of them, and then you realize, “I don’t want to invest so much time into this.”13 In sum, these Indigenous participants state that, to the extent that they seek solidarity with white women, they generally do so for a specific cause or project. In contrast to white participants’ narratives of their solidarity trajectories (and Indigenous participants’ readings of white women in solidarity work), which I discuss in Chapter 4, Indigenous participant narratives do not contain obvious allusions to the desire for proximity with white women.
When pressed on the question of choice in relation to solidarity work with white women, Wanda clarifies that “for me [this last time] it was a conscious decision; but a lot of times you’re absolutely right, it’s not. I don’t have a choice. It’s already in place, and they’re already there.” Complicating matters further, Wanda distinguishes between acknowledging the need for allies and expressly desiring them. That is, while seeing allies as essential in political struggle (she notes the alternative as “standing at Parliament Hill by myself with a sign”), Wanda admits, “I would still say I don’t want to work with white women.... It would depend on what it’s going to be that we’re doing or the white woman who wants to be involved with us.” At that moment in our conversation, I had deliberately veered away from an open-ended interview style in order to corroborate two impressions I had developed by that point in the data collection: that solidarity is represented as a means to an end by many Indigenous women; and that, while recognizing the need for allies, they do not always want (or want to actively recruit) them.
Zainab, another Indigenous woman with decades of activist experience, much of which has
involved solidarity encounters with white women (and men), shares Wanda’s view:
It takes a lot out of me. I used the word “re-traumatized” before and I’m not kidding about that.... I walked into a room at one point where I was one of two Native women in the room and everybody else there was white.... I felt like I was surprising people when I spoke or made suggestions about things because I just had this sense people had low expectations of my ability to think, to organize, and I just felt like every time I made a suggestion, people were like, “Wow, she’s got a brain” kind of thing. I just got sick of it.... So it’s not my priority. If white people are there and they’re supportive and stuff, it’s fine. If they’re included, it’s fine. It’s not like I avoid them, but... my priority, in terms of relationship-building, would be with racialized people.
Zainab ends by describing her engagement in solidarity with white people as “just hard work.” Indigenous romanticization as re-affirmation and resistance Reconstruction entails both deconstruction and romanticization. For Native academics, especially, because of the ideological complex of our dehumanization, we have woven our idealizations throughout our deconstructive argumentations. However, the fabric of our weaving is anything but simple. We carry the weight of “the colonizer’s model of the world” (to borrow Blaut’s phrase); in our case, specifically, we remain shadowed by the savage, both the noble and the ignoble. Our resistance is our reconstruction, which does remain textured with idealization and internalization.