«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
—Emma LaRocque (2010, p. 120) LaRocque (2010) theorizes that Native scholarly and/or literary texts (read as resistance discourse) are inescapably inflected by the colonial figure of the ig/noble savage. LaRocque’s thesis is relevant for the solidarity context—in describing their roles in and experiences of political activism/solidarity, many Native participants in my study go to significant lengths to depict themselves and their communities as deeply human/e. In the above narratives especially, Indigenous women emphasize certain aspects of their involvement in political struggle and solidarity, namely, prioritizing the collective welfare of Indigenous peoples and the specific project at hand. In synch with the above white participant critiques, Indigenous women also embed negative appraisals of Western social values and practices within positive depictions of themselves and their communities or nations. For example, what they describe as the Native affinity to listen and deliberate is contrasted with the Western tendency to interrupt, argue and be impulsive in communicative interactions. Wanda cites an example—a white woman’s
unsuccessful attempts to control the agenda for a meeting:
She wants to control everything, which means a list of questions. And the list of questions came from her perspective, not the people’s perspective. That’s another thing about us: we think about everything behind us and ahead of us when we speak. NonNative people don’t think like that. White people don’t think like that.
In agreement, Lee explicitly names colonialism and patriarchy as the underlying culprits of what
she calls invasive behavioral practices:
This would never happen in [our Native] community. Someone wouldn’t cut you off before you finished your thinking, and they would actually think about what you said, especially if they disagreed. They would really play with what you said.... because it doesn’t need to get solved today. What needs to happen is you have to give weight to that person’s words.... When someone is doing this argumentative thing and cutting me off, I don’t get to be me, so it’s very annoying. So some differences actually rob your ability to be yourself, and the person doesn’t realize it, but the differences are the invasive behavioral practices that come from a colonial and patriarchal society, and I don’t think that everyone that’s non-Native or non-colonized have analyzed that enough and... looked at the cultural practices that arise out of that. Because those aren’t just differences, you see. They’re colonizing behaviours.
Danielle also implicates patriarchy, but in fostering a racist divisiveness in Western society:
I think it comes down to a European mentality and kind of patriarchal way of thinking— that everybody believes that we have these colours on us. We see that circle, the four colours of man, as one. It’s not our analysis, it’s not our way of looking at things, that you’re white and I’m brown, and somebody else is yellow and someone else is orange and somebody’s got pink polka dots. That’s not our way. We look at each other as human beings. We look at each other as Onkwehon:we, carriers of water here on land...
. That was really what we saw when Christopher Columbus come bopping across. They looked at him as a human being and extended their friendship and their kindness, because that’s our duty and our responsibility, to work together with all of Creation.
That’s the oldest law. That law supersedes Canadian law. I think that’s what they tried to wipe out, that real protocol and the medicine and the strength that comes from working together and accepting each other and tolerating each other as individuals.
Belinda accesses a similar discourse in her description of Indigenous ways of relating:
Native people, they don’t close the door on anybody. They don’t say, “You can’t come here because you’re not this or too that.” Well, maybe they do in some situations, like with traditional ceremony; there are certain rules. But I mean in organizing groups they don’t leave anybody out, especially when there is food when someone’s hungry.... And they tend to tolerate a lot more than white people do because they realize that some people just don’t know any better and maybe they’ll learn. And, you know, kindness is the most human thing you can do.... It was one of those things that made us so vulnerable, that kindness and openness and generosity, that made them exploit us.
Whereas both Danielle and Belinda associate divisiveness and exclusion with Western ways of being, they associate unity, cooperation, inclusivity and respect with Indigeneity. Both argue, in fact, that it was because of Indigenous societies’ capacity to do, in Belinda’s words, “the most human thing you can do” that they were targeted for exploitation. Teresa, another Native participant, maintains that the same predisposition toward inclusivity can render Indigenous communities vulnerable in the contemporary solidarity encounter: “I think that it’s really important in working in solidarity that we do a profile of the people that come into our circles...
. I think our communities are a bit too welcoming to people who come in. There might be violence issues, abuse issues, addiction issues.” Danielle would concur with Teresa, as is
evident in her example of a “needy” ally’s behaviour:
She just needs to be listened to and heard and have attention because she’s lonely and living alone, and her family never comes to see her. And here are these Indians, always so kind and so caring and welcoming and tolerant. “Put up with me and give me attention and don’t correct me when I’m offensive and monopolizing the meeting, and talking and talking so no one else gets to express anything. I’m just talking for the sake of talking.” Meanwhile... [she] should have had respect for that elder. Don’t waste his energy, because he doesn’t have a finite supply, and neither do I. I’m happy to do the work. I’ll work hard, but I won’t waste my time. I don’t have time to waste.
Kindness, tolerance, the generosity of spirit with which Indigenous peoples greeted Europeans—as much as these attributes may be in part idealizations of Indigenous culture and subjectivity, they are also strong reaffirmations of the humanity of Indigenous peoples. As LaRocque (2010) points out, “Because of the ideological complex of our dehumanization, we have woven our idealizations throughout our deconstructive argumentations” (p. 120).
Native spirituality (often the target of much idealization or romanticization) is not a significant reference point for the Indigenous participants in my study, at least not in the same way that it is for the white participants quoted above. Most Indigenous participants who bring up the issue of spirituality do so not in relation to their own spiritual/religious beliefs, but in relation to white women—citing the latter’s need for healing and the consequent appropriation of Indigenous religious beliefs or practices that can ensue, and the measures Indigenous and white women can take to mitigate that appropriation.14 There are several possible explanations for this, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive. First, Indigenous women’s religious or spiritual beliefs were not the focus of this study, nor did I ask direct questions about them. Indigenous participants may have determined simply that their religious or spiritual beliefs were irrelevant to the topics under discussion. Second, it cannot be assumed that spirituality or religion is always a significant factor in the lives or solidarity practices of all (or even most) Indigenous women.
This would be to essentialize and/or tokenize Indigenous women, and to leave little room for atheism or secular beliefs on their part.15 Third, given my subject position as a white woman, Indigenous participants may have been hesitant to discuss certain beliefs with me (recall Belinda’s comment regarding restrictions that can be placed on non-Indigenous access to some ceremonies). That being said, spirituality does come up in a personal way for Kellie, a participant who identifies as Indigenous from beyond Turtle Island. She describes the benefits she has attained from engaging in Indigenous political activism in a way that evokes Evelyn’s
personal transformation as a white woman doing solidarity work:
It’s been really great because it’s allowed me to become more in touch with my spiritual roots. Because I find with mainstream white culture, there’s not a spiritual element to their activism. I think that leads to all the burnout that we see, and anger and aggression, and people just going to a demonstration and yelling at the police because they’re pissed and they’re angry.... you know, the smart thing to do is to be the intellectual activist who’s agnostic and who’s very rational, linear-minded, right?... That’s what I mean...
activist culture for First Nations is very different than when it comes to mainstream white culture, even when it comes to the heroes. Definitely my life has improved, not just in activism, but in general, being more open to allowing spirituality to be part of my activism and see how they belong together. It’s unnatural to separate them.... Not to say that spirituality cures everything, but it definitely keeps you on your centre.
Kellie’s response is reminiscent of white participant narratives such as Alicia’s and my own (see Chapter 4), and raises at least two important points that remain unexplored in this study. First, some Indigenous women, like their white counterparts, may be driven to solidarity work in part because of their own spiritual/cultural disenfranchisement that is a consequence of colonial oppression. It is conceivable that, especially as an Indigenous woman from beyond Turtle Island, Kellie has found it important to access commonly-circulating discourses about Indigeneity for her own self-making purposes. Second, Indigenous women (and men) may face varying pressures to meet Indigenous communities’ own requirements for authenticity (Lawrence, 2003).
Deconstructing the “Indigenous woman subject”
Indigenous participants (including some of the ones I cite above) offer more nuanced narratives of their political activism and of the figure of the solely communally driven Indigenous woman activist and/in a homogeneous Indigenous collective. That is, Indigenous participant voices offer deconstructions of their own romanticized and essentialized depictions of Indigenous peoples as inclusive, respectful, etc. (and Indigenous women as single-mindedly concerned with their communities’ well-being). For example, Danielle’s sarcasm, evident in her comments about a white woman’s attraction to “these Indians, always so kind and so caring and welcoming and tolerant,” is an acknowledgement of the caricatured nature of this depiction—especially in the minds of who she calls “needy” allies. Adding to this view, Lee reminds us that we all swim in
the same colonial waters and that Native people can also exhibit colonial behaviours:
The thing is, you can’t compensate for [the massive inequity between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal populations]. And some [white] people try to by being overly generous and all that sort of stuff, letting Aboriginal people behave badly is another example. So that’s not going to help.... We all have colonial patterns of behaviour. Europeans generally have a bigger sense of entitlement, are generally more invasive and all that, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t find the reverse to be the case, too. Sometime white people are more humble than they need to be, and sometime Native people are more arrogant than they should be. So we have to take care of it all. We have to be on the lookout for some basic sense of decency and understanding.
According to Lee, Native people who “behave badly” can be enabled in their bad behaviour by the white desire to “compensate” for the massive inequity that defines settler colonialism (see Chapter 6 on the related white desire to vindicate oneself as a “good” settler). While distinguishing Indigenous and Western societal organizing principles, Lee would reject the existence of a rigid dichotomy between the two (see also Waters, 2004c).
Lee’s view of solidarity also debunks simplistic visions of the Native woman as the unindividuated subject dedicated solely or selflessly to her Native community/nation. This is
accomplished when Lee acknowledges the personal advantages/aspects of solidarity work:
You have to figure out how to get the job done without your various cultural and personal differences getting in the way, too. So really doing work with someone outside of family makes you a broader and more accepting person. So I try to do things with other people besides family for that reason, because it’s going to help me grow as a human being. In the end, I’ll be a better grandmother, a better friend, a better sister, a better aunt.... I’ll be happier spiritually; I’ll have more connections; I’ll be more loved.
I think that all of these efforts we make... so I think it’s way more than solidarity for me.
Lee highlights components of individual growth and well-being in her view of solidarity, albeit components she sees as bound up with the primary goal of solidarity encounters for many Native women—“to get the job done.” Lee’s approach to solidarity also invokes what is arguably an underlying tenet of Indigenous philosophies—the indivisible interconnectedness of the “I” and the “we”— as explained by Viola Faye Cordova (2004). Indigenous ontological understandings of the world hold that individual and collective subjectivities are inextricably coconstituted and that, therefore, individual autonomy must be respected and individual gifts enhanced to ensure the benefit of the collective (see also Anderson, 2000). Simpson (2011) makes a similar point about the individual–collective dynamic in discussing Nishnaabeg