«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
In [“mixed” Indigenous/non-Indigenous] activist circles, all we think about is our differences. I think we should think more about our commonalities, because we get stuck on our differences sometimes, even among Native peoples: Are you on reserve, are you off-reserve, are you status, are you non-status, are you real, are you authentic, are you dark, are you light?... What makes you more Indian than not? This is colonial. All those questions are colonial. I mean, [it’s] important to consider... our privileges, but they’re created by the colonial system, if you think about it. Status and non-status, light and dark, whatever. I think more importantly, what nations, and how do we respect our differences in a way that will encourage stronger solidarity, because [focus on differences] is such a block.... We have to break it down and then move on, because if we’re all there, committed to doing this one thing, say a fundraiser, let’s just do it, instead of getting stuck.
Far from presenting a romanticized vision of Indigenous (political activist) communities, Ursula reveals the colonially wrought internal complexity of Indigenous political struggle.
How else do Native women (and men) negotiate their narrowly circumscribed subordinate subject position in a white settler colonial society? In a candid moment resembling that of Zainab, Belinda divulges her desire to occupy a “special place” as a Native person in solidarity circles. In contrast with other Native women in the study, Belinda talks about seeking primarily
white-dominated spaces for her political and professional work:
The [solidarity] work that I did there was mostly white women and men, white people.
You know you’re always the odd Indian... I guess I’m used to being the minority. I don’t know what that’s about really, but I’m sure there’s a reason. Well, I think I have a lot of distrust of my own people. That may be the reason I am not doing as much solidarity work with them. Or could it be that I don’t see them as having something to offer me? Possibly I feel above them. I don’t know for sure, but this seems to be a recurring theme in my life. I am isolated either by consciously choosing to be on my own and away from other Native women or… Am I more comfortable being the minority? Being “the Native person” might have its special place?
Belinda’s distrust of her “own people” provides a fleeting glimpse into the flip-side of Indigenous peoples’ efforts to reaffirm their collective humanity: the internalization of negative
stereotypes. LaRocque (2010) describes the “internalization of the grotesque, ignoble savage:
We must come back to the savage, with its polarizing spectrum of images. We struggle mightily with these images, whether we are trying to debunk them, rehabilitate them or whether we are (unconsciously) internalizing them in our everyday lives or in our intellectual pursuits.... The internalization of the grotesque, ignoble savage is perhaps the most damaging. This savage leads us to a sense of shame... and self-rejection, which often leads to the rejection of what I call the “same-other.” By same-other, I mean that one’s sense of racial shame is projected onto those of the same race or grouping, who are then unconsciously cast as other. (p. 121) For LaRocque (2010), the internalization of such negative stereotypes by Indigenous peoples is an enduring colonial legacy of incalculable harm that emerges out of the “Columbus narrative.” Simpson (2011) describes her embodied experience of coming to grips with the “legacy of
colonial abuse, the unspoken shame” that Native people carry collectively:
It is a shame rooted in the humiliation that colonialism has heaped on our peoples for hundreds of years and is now carried within our bodies, minds and our hearts.... This colonial shame felt like not only a tremendous burden to carry, it also felt displaced. We are not shameful people. We have done nothing wrong. I began to realize that shame can only take hold when we are disconnected from the stories of resistance within our own families and communities. I place that shame as an insidious and infectious part of the cognitive imperialism that was aimed at convincing us that we are a weak and defeated people, and that there was no point in resisting or resurging. I became interested in finding these stories of resistance and telling them so that our next generation would know. (pp. 13–14) Simpson’s (2011) and LaRocque’s (2010) analyses of colonially induced shame—and ongoing Indigenous efforts to resist that shame—help to further contextualize what might otherwise be critiqued or dismissed as romanticized invocations of Indigenous collectives (and of Indigenous women as the caregivers of those collectives) on the part of Indigenous participants in this study.
In this chapter, I juxtapose the storytelling practices of differently positioned subjects to highlight one form of the white desire of proximity—the romanticization and possible appropriation of Indigeneity. I argue that disrupting this particular aspect of the impulse to solidarity (that is, of white settler/liberal subjectivity) is complicated by the fact that some Indigenous women (and likely men) also sometimes romanticize Indigeneity, although for collective resistance purposes. I show that Indigenous and white participants alike access discourses around Western lack/social dysfunction and Indigenous plenitude/social cohesion, if for distinct reasons. In this way, a potentially limiting framework of cultural difference persists across Indigenous and white participant narratives. The problem, I argue, is that an inordinate focus on cultural difference occludes a focus on colonial power differences. When invoked by white settlers, “Indigenous difference” too often reproduces colonial subjectivities and hierarchical power relations. In other words, a focus on cultural difference too easily instigates the white settler/liberal subject’s desire to reproduce itself as autonomous/self-determining, i.e., as the “knower” of difference. In contrast, when invoked by Indigenous peoples, “Indigenous difference” can become a tool of resistance that potentially reveals hierarchical power relations.
White participants in the solidarity encounter are not immune to the (white) settler Canadian polity’s collective quest for legitimacy. That being said, blatant moves to romanticize and appropriate Indigeneity, as manifestations of the white desire for proximity, are relatively rare in the solidarity encounter. However, those examples that do exist in a minority of white participant narratives are striking. My analysis attempts to tease out how discourses of critique and praise (of Western lack and Indigenous values respectively) combine in participant narratives to further their bids for legitimate Canadian subject status. This involves tracing the often convoluted path from appreciation toward appropriation that white settlers risk traversing when we uncritically pursue our attraction to (often essentialist, romanticized notions of) Indigenous cultural difference. This suggests that a default colonial mentality will govern white settler collective subjectivity (within and beyond the solidarity encounter) unless we make a conscious effort to thwart our desires for proximity (in this and other forms) to the Indigenous Other.
I then turn to Indigenous participant narratives, which testify to the difficult task Indigenous women (and men) face in negotiating the questions of identity, representation and power that derive from their subject position as “the colonized” in colonial relations. Drawing heavily on LaRocque’s (2010) work on Native resistance discourse, I note that Indigenous participants position themselves as “Indigenous women” (i.e., as members of a collective) when describing their involvement in political activism/solidarity, sometimes in ways that evoke essentialized and/or romanticized notions of Indigenous women, communities and nations. As apparent from their narratives, however, Indigenous participants are aware of how Indigenous stereotypes can mark their performance in the solidarity encounter. Moreover, building on Razack (1998), I suggest that storytelling—in this case, the meaning and function of references to cultural difference—must be read in relation to the subject positions of the storytellers. Perhaps, if we were to see Indigenous emphases on cultural difference as part of Indigenous strategies of resistance (to colonial oppression), white settler women allies (among others) would be less likely to essentialize, fetishize and appropriate Indigenous difference.22 That is, we might be better able to curb a misguided focus on cultural difference in solidarity work and instead focus on the anticolonial project of redressing power differences.
This approach to the making (and potential unmaking) of Canadian national subjects, especially when taken by a white settler, is not above contention or controversy, not least due to some unsettling questions that emerge about the discursive roles that Indigenous women (and men) can unwittingly play in reinforcing a framework of difference: Could Indigenous women’s portrayals of themselves or of their nations facilitate the appropriation involved in white settler subject-making processes and Canadian nation building, and thus their subordinate collective location as Other? Again, I raise this as a question that deserves more fulsome exploration in future research.23 Rather, my intent was to accomplish several things with this approach: first, to demonstrate that identity-making processes at the micro/individual and macro/collective levels are always intersubjective enterprises (i.e., white settler subjectivities are constituted in relation to Indigenous ones and vice-versa); second, to underscore the importance of contextualizing Indigenous narratives within a settler colonial context; and, third, to reveal the somewhat ironic possibility that similar discourses about Indigeneity can work to bolster both Indigenous and white settler nation-building processes—a topic that warrants further investigation.
See Robert Berkhofer’s (1978) early scholarly treatment of how “the White image of the Indian developed over time” (p. xiv), especially Part II “From religion to anthropology: The genealogy of the scientific image of the Indian.” For a Canada-focused discussion, see Nock and Haig-Brown (2006).
In Erickson’s (2011) words, “I want to examine the production of wilderness through the life of Archibald Belaney, better known as Grey Owl, an early-twentieth-century Canadian writer who achieved national notoriety in the 1930s as a proponent of wilderness conservation.... He provides a vivid example of how wilderness is coded through the figure of the Imaginary Indian (Francis, 1992). The use and acceptance of Indian surrogacy in Belaney’s life and legacy to help us understand and preserve wilderness connects the discourse of whiteness, and the field of visibility that race relies upon, to the iconic wilderness of Canada. This image of wilderness is not only a matter of preserving ‘nature’; it is also complicit in preserving the whiteness of the nation” (pp. 21–22).
See Emma LaRocque (2010, pp. 125ff) and Susan Dion (2009) for discussions by Indigenous scholars of the myth of the “Vanishing Indian” and the damage it has wrought on Native peoples. For earlier works by non-Native authors, see Berkhofer (1978), Francis (1992) and Terry Goldie (1989).
Baldwin, Cameron and Kobayashi (2011) note such a present absence in pianist Glenn Gould’s ruminations on “The Idea of North,” which is also the name of his Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) radio program: “The shuddering absence of Inuit or First Nations voice in Gould’s contrapuntalism baldly illustrates a point now well established in cultural analysis: meaning is generated as much through presence as absence, as much through what is said as through what remains unsaid and silenced” (p. 3). See also Toni Morrison’s (1993) now classic work on the present absence of Africans and African Americans in the US white literary imagination.
Robyn Wiegman (1999) uses “identificatory mobility” to denote an understanding of anti-racist white subjectivity developed by critical whiteness scholar David Roediger (1995). It refers to the ability of white people to develop progressive political positions despite their identity as white people. As Wiegman points out, this capacity not only relies on differentiating (white) identity from (white) identification, but also on the immobility of the non-white subject: “Casting whiteness as the burden that prevents working-class whites from identifying their real interests, Roediger differentiates identity from identification in order to redirect the ‘possessive investment in whiteness’ toward political allegiances with those designated as ‘nonwhite.’ Such identificatory mobility is central to the social constructionist project, countering what we might think of as the political and theoretical immobility of an essentialized subject. For when looking white and being white are collapsed, white identity becomes saturated with, if not wholly indistinguishable from, political identifications with white supremacy. To pry apart this essentialized relation, Roediger emphasizes the mobility of political identifications, and, in doing so, he claims economic marginality as the political location for the production of the antiracist subject.” (p. 138) A prime Canadian example of this desire for proximity to an imagined Other is found in the life and times of Archie Belaney, better known as Grey Owl. As Erickson (2011) points out, despite acquiring first-hand knowledge of Ojibway, Cree and Métis cultural practices, Grey Owl “was reluctant to abandon the images he had formed as a child [in England], including that of First Nations dancing” (p. 24).