«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
The performance of our “theories” and thought is how we collectivize meaning. This is important because our collective truths as a nation and as a culture are continuously generated from those individual truths we carry around inside ourselves. Our collective truths exist in a nest of individual diversity. (p. 43) In short, the individual should not be eclipsed by the collective; instead, individual diversity (or, I would add, individuality, not individualism) comprises and finds meaning in the collective.
Cordova’s (2004) work is part of a burgeoning literature on Indigenous social and political thought that explores Indigenous epistemological and ontological precepts sometimes, though not always, in comparison and contrast with Western philosophical belief systems.16 Anderson (2000) is among the many notable Native women scholars in this literature.17 In her treatise on “Native womanhood,” she touches on many of the same points made by the Native women in my study, particularly about Native women’s traditional responsibilities to their nations.
However, as if to outline the risks of romanticizing Native women and/or burdening them with too much responsibility, Anderson (2000) includes a conversation with Bonita Lawrence as the book’s final chapter. In it, Lawrence takes issue with the discourse of Native women’s
responsibility that circulates within what she calls “urban traditionalism”:
I worry about this urban traditionalism, and when I hear this constant emphasis on the responsibilities of women, it bugs me. How many responsibilities are most Native women already saddled with? Especially single mothers with the lowest income and the largest families. Native women know more about responsibility than any other group in this whole society! [laughs] And yet all the urban teachings keep going on about the “roles and responsibilities” of Native women, in ways that I think are about creating this image of womanhood which gives us pride in our nations. And this is problematic.
(quoted in Anderson, 2000, p. 270) Lawrence’s statement is part of a broader conversation among Indigenous women (often, but not always, within debates about Indigenous feminisms) about the merits and pitfalls of “tradition,” particularly as related to Indigenous women’s roles in Indigenous nation-building struggles.18 Lawrence gestures at how Indigenous women/feminists are redefining Indigenous philosophical traditions in empowering ways—reconfiguring the tenet of interconnectedness between the “I”
and the “we” to delineate a respectful relationship between Indigenous women and their nations:
I’d gotten an impression from the first Elder I worked with that following traditional ways simply meant giving of ourselves endlessly for the needs of our people. So I would do that until I was ready to drop, was so stressed and worn out. And then sometimes I’d just want to back away from that and say “I just need to look after myself”—but feeling guilty, like it’s a selfish “white” thing to do. I like how you [Kim Anderson] challenge this way of thinking—especially that analogy about how the European approach has been to treat Mother Earth like something to use up—and that this was how women have been treated as well. I like the idea that caring for ourselves is part of caring for the earth—but not in a “new age” sense—in a sense that we are an important resource which needs to be called upon respectfully. (quoted in Anderson, 2000, pp. 261–262) Complementing Lawrence’s point, Simpson (2011) explains the importance of decolonizing “our conceptualization of gender as a starting point” for any discussion of Indigenous resurgence, nation building and sovereignty, adding that “for Nishnaabeg people there was fluidity around gender in terms or roles and responsibilities” (p. 60). This is to say, Native participants’ allusions to their identity and responsibility as Indigenous women to foster and protect the well-being of self, family, community, nation and Creation have Indigenous philosophical foundations and historical reference points, and are the subject of ongoing contemporary debates about Native “tradition” as it relates to Indigenous women in particular— and must be seen in this light.
Native participants’ self-presentations are complex in other ways. While understanding that inclusivity and interconnectedness are features of many Indigenous philosophical traditions, Indigenous participants note the possible negative repercussions of such values for Indigenous women’s political struggles. Zainab, for example, notes that the culturally sanctioned move toward inclusivity can be counter-productive when it comes to organizing around violence against Indigenous women. Her point emerged in our discussion about a conference call that took place (and in which I participated) to organize the annual February 14 events to honour the missing and murdered Indigenous women across Turtle Island. Invoking inclusivity as an Indigenous value, some organizers’ wanted the events to broaden their focus to include all women, and to be publicly advertised as such. I broached the subject with Zainab to make sense of what had been my intensely negative reaction to the idea at the time.19 This prompted Zainab to talk about a unique tension facing Indigenous women who organize around the issue of colonial violence against Indigenous women.
It still bothers me that that type of thing [opening up the struggle to honour women from all nations who have been victims/survivors of violence] happens, because [violence against Indigenous women] is a very specific struggle, and you lose the specifics....
Indigenous women, yes, they are victimized by violence, and so are white women and so are black women, but we’re victimized in very particular ways, and that means the solutions are different. And if we lose that and we just say, “We’re all victims of violence, and let’s just try and work on it with the same strategies and the same groups…”; it still kind of irritates me when it comes out of that place, but I understand that, again, from the mindset that people have, and the interconnected... like, if you’re aware of the interconnectedness and you have to acknowledge and understand that we want to stop all violence against all women, because it doesn’t matter if it’s happening to me in my community or not... if it’s happening to any woman, it affects me.
Since then, I have seen the matter of how to frame activism around violence against Indigenous women come up repeatedly in different settings. I suggest that this is indicative of the broader issue facing Indigenous peoples of when (and when not) to stress Indigenous specificity in political struggles. The point I want to highlight is this: Indigenous women recognize the need to strike a balance between following “traditions” (especially in abstracted and de-contextualized ways) and veering from those “traditions” so as, in this example, to ensure that an understanding of the specificity of colonially-derived violence against Indigenous women is not eviscerated.20
The allure of the “authentic Indian”
As I suggest above, Indigenous women can also be drawn to solidarity work by the prospect of personal benefit, whether in the form of spiritual enfranchisement or personal growth (recall Kellie’s and Lee’s respective narratives). Indigenous participants further demystify the image of the selfless Native woman by describing another reason that Indigenous women (or men) engage in solidarity—to attain or retain “authentic Indian” status. Again, however, it is vitally important to contextualize these subject-making processes and, more specifically, to foreground the colonially induced conundrum in which many Native people find themselves. As Thomas King (2012) explains, Native people in North America today (who he calls “Live Indians”) live in the constant shadow of the “Dead Indian,” a “simulacrum” defined by “the stereotypes and clichés that North America has conjured up out of experience and out of its collective imaginings and fears” (p. 53).21 “Live Indians” who fail to meet white expectations of Native authenticity are deemed “inconvenient” (“an unpleasant, contemporary surprise”) by the dominant society (King, 2012, p. 66). LaRocque (2010) describes the challenge facing Native artists and intellectuals when called upon to demonstrate what has become “fetishized” Native
There is tremendous pressure today for all Native artists and intellectuals to produce works expressly or manifestly different from the dominant culture. In a continuing attempt to find a culture unspoiled by contact, difference has been fetishized, so much so that a notion of the authentic necessarily different (or alternative) native is very much in vogue. This puts Aboriginal peoples in an untenable situation: we are wrapped in stereotypes and yet are expected not only to produce “authentic” material... but even to look authentically different. (p. 135) Indigenous participant narratives suggest that Indigenous women can face a comparably untenable situation in the solidarity encounter if they are expected (or expect themselves) to act the part. Wanda reacts with offhanded humor and irony to the vogue status “Native” has attained in some solidarity circles, suggesting her disdain for anyone, non-Native or Native, who would contribute to this fetishizing of Indigeneity in the current socio-political environment: “I have a bumper sticker that says, ‘I was Native longer then it’s been cool.’” For her part, Zainab admits
with remarkable honesty to having “enjoyed my celebrity status... in white activist circles”:
There was a time when I really quite enjoyed my celebrity [status]... in white activist circles... I really enjoyed being the go-to person... being in a position of telling people off and saying, “Your politics need work” and that kind of stuff. I’ve been manipulative.... My story isn’t unusual in the sense that I’m a person who was raised outside of the Native community, outside of Native culture, who’s trying to relearn that and reclaim it.... So it’s really nice to be actually seen as someone who has skills and wisdom and is put on that leadership pedestal; whereas in my community, it was very clear that people appreciated me, like I say, for the skills that I had, but they knew the learning curve I was on. There are roles that I could never have taken on within the community that I could take on outside of the community. So I think that was a part of it.
At least in part, solidarity work for Zainab was a way to bolster her self-worth. As Zainab remarks, however, her story is not unusual—it is part of the colonial story. The tactic she employed in response to colonial dispossession and cultural loss—donning the role of “authentic” Native “go-to” person (into which she was eagerly slotted by white solidarity activists)—is also not unusual.
Similarly, Danielle critically remarks on the phenomenon of the “celebrity Native”—the Native (often male) person who is well-known in non-Native contexts and who relishes being in the public spotlight as a representative of the Native community. She also implicates the uncritical reverence of some settler activists in the enabling of such “celebrities” or “superstars.” So then, if [a non-Native activist] were going to call on somebody to do a ceremony, you would ask the Aboriginal people, “What elder do you want to come and do the ceremony?” And they’ll all say, “This [person], because he’s traditional and he speaks the language and he knows the ceremony.” And if you ask the [non-Native] activist community who they want to do the ceremony, they’ll say this guy who they’ve seen all the time, who has the media attention... So the one that’s doing the real work on the ground is left out in the dark in the cold, and here’s this guy who’s willing to be on the camera all the time, and willing to monopolize everything and willing to talk and talk and talk, whether or not he’s got anything to say at all. He’s just got the attention....
I’ve seen this more than once, where you have that celebrity elder, whoever’s on TV all the time, and you see all these white people sitting around their feet. They’re working with the eagle feathers and they’re putting the medicines together, and when it comes to taking the smudge around, it’s them: “I’ll do it! I’ll do it! Auntie, auntie, I’ll do it!” So then they’re taking the feather, and it’s like this big show... and you can just see the feather going and they’re like, “He big elder told me its gotta go this way, so then its gotta go this way.” Importantly for Danielle, the “celebrity elder” does not necessarily have extensive ties to his/her community. As an Indigenous woman from beyond Turtle Island who therefore considers
herself an ally with Indigenous struggles in Canada, Kellie would agree:
They were looking for a Native speaker, and all they saw on the horizon was [so and so] doing his posturing and stuff. I had to take them aside and say, “You know, there’s other First Nations speakers in Toronto who are equally or more competent than [him] to speak on the issues.” But they’re not the ones pounding their chests and standing at the front.... But they’re more reserved, or they’re too busy doing their work, so they don’t have time to be pounding their chest on TV.... I support First Nations issues... but my support isn’t a blanket statement thing.
For Ursula, an Indigenous woman who describes herself as having experienced light-skinned privilege, what is at stake is ultimately the success of Indigenous political struggle. In her analysis of the untenable situation of having to prove one’s “authentic Indian” status, she cites
the political pitfalls for activists of focusing extensively on colonially imposed differences: