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«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»

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Erickson (2011) explains Grey Owl’s popularity in terms of securing the solvency of the Canadian nation: “Like Atwood, who suggests that we be more like Grey Owl, Attenborough, Sheridan, and many others see the space Grey Owl inhabits as part of a moral message that speaks to the heart of the nation of Canada. Indeed, this message helps justify Belaney’s complete transformation into Grey Owl. In these celebrations, the wilderness he produced becomes a necessary part of Canadian life. Its meaning depends upon the same logic of race embedded within Indian surrogacy, where Canadians look to it as a palliative space against the destabilizing effects of capitalism.

Like Grey Owl’s cabins, wilderness exists as a vacation spot to reflect back the whiteness of the nation to itself” (p.


According to David Rosner (2013), “Anti-modernism [is] a conservative reaction to Europe’s spiritual disintegration in the period between the World Wars.... Because it reflected a longing for the traditions and certainties which held true before the advent of modernity, just as it sought a futile return to a lost world, the antimodernist movement will be analyzed in this essay particularly as a discourse of melancholy.” Willow (2009) sets out to “examin[e] the Ecological Indian image as a construction of Western society, and the cultural and political consequences that follow from its use” (p. 59, note 6). Her main point is that by romanticizing Indigenous peoples’ relationships to the land as inherently environmental/ecological, we fail to appreciate the ways in which Indigenous environmental activism is linked to broader struggles of Indigenous sovereignty.

Thank you to my colleague Arie Molema for his insights on this matter.

Champlain seems to be an integral player in this discourse; Saul (2008) writes, “Champlain said, ‘Our young men will marry your daughters, and we shall be one people.’ I can’t think of a European governor—French, British or other—making such a policy statement in any other colony from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. With this sentence, he reveals the nature of the First Nation/European relationship—at the very least one of equals. His masters in Paris sent him constant instructions to subject the locals to French control, to assert European racial, cultural and political superiority. He was on the spot. He knew better. He knew what reality required. That he made such a declaration suggests that he felt his colony’s position to be weak. But it also suggests that he believed such a mix of the two civilizations could work” (p. 10).

The issue here is the disproportionate numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls across Canada. Interestingly, while solidarity per se was not the goal, interpersonal friendship played a crucial role in cementing Wanda’s participation in the group: she joined at the behest of a close Indigenous woman friend.

Wanda’s appeal to friendship as a motivating factor for her involvement in solidarity must be distinguished, however, from friendship as a technique of knowledge (Ahmed 2000). Ahmed contrasts a white ethnographer’s (Bell’s) use of friendship with that of a Native informant (Nelson) to illustrate the difference: “Bell calls for friendship in general, as a new agenda for research that can overcome the barriers of strangeness. In contrast, Nelson is describing a particular friendship that exists which led her to want Bell to write ‘this story for (her)’” (p.

65). In Chapter 6 I discuss the role that the notion of friendship can play in the white desire for proximity.

See also Chapter 6 for a discussion about the role of guilt in white women’s impulses to exceptionalism, which is often sought through/as proximity.

Ryah, for example, counsels white women to familiarize themselves with their own ancestry and traditions before seeking knowledge about particular Native religious cultural practices: “Everyone has to do their own work. I think that’s that subtlety, when people are like, ‘Teach me, show me.’ You have to do it yourself, too, look at your own life. How are you impacted by colonization, your family? The dynamics between you and your own mum, your parents, the roots of your ancestry. Who are you? Once you figure that out...not figure it out, but explore that before you just go to something else. Explore it, because that’s who you are. Then we can share aspects of our spirituality and philosophies with each other.” Tokenism was an issue at one point in NMS: “We have grappled with how to incorporate (or not) Indigenous ‘traditions’ and worldviews into our work. But, what happens when there are differences in interpretation among Indigenous women? Do allies tend to deny heterogeneity among Indigenous women[?]... What about Indigenous secular activism? In fact, an Indigenous former NMS member who did not identify strongly with Indigenous spiritual traditions expressed discomfort with having to be an ‘expert’ on Indigeneity. The extent to which NMS could accommodate Indigenous women not necessarily empowered by reclaiming Indigenous traditions remains unclear” (D’Arcangelis & Huntley, 2012, p. 49).

Simpson’s (2011) work on Indigenous resurgence is among this literature. She reminds us that it is only one iteration of Indigenous intellectualism and theory that has existed apart from Western academic practices and been developed by “Elders, Faith-Keepers, Clan-Mothers, traditional leaders, Grandmothers, Grandfathers, languagekeepers and Knowledge-Holders, [and] not western-trained academics” (p. 27, note 19).

Other texts authored or edited by Indigenous women scholars in the Americas, not mentioned in earlier chapters, include Winona LaDuke (2005); D. Lavell-Harvard and Jeannette Lavell (2006); Barbara Alice Mann (2000, 2006);

Grace Ouellette (2002); Michelene Pesantubbee (2005); Cheryl Suzack (2010); and Waziyatawin Angela Wilson (2005).

Indigenous feminists especially are mindful of the complex interplay between colonially-imposed patriarchal Indigenous “traditions” relating to Indigenous women; struggles for Indigenous sovereignty or nationalism; and Indigenous women’s cultural revitalization efforts, sometimes referred to as “re-traditionalization” (FIMI, 2006).

See Joyce Green’s (2007a) edited collection for chapters on these and related issues; Kiera Ladner (2000) on the inaccuracies of interpreting Indigenous nations’ understandings of nationalism (and the historical role of women therein) in Western academic terms; Andrea Smith (2008b) on Indigenous feminist understandings of the nation/state; and Lina Sunseri (2000) on “an anticolonial feminist perspective on Aboriginal liberation struggles.” See also my article on Indigenous feminist relational sovereignty (D’Arcangelis, 2010).

In retrospect, I came to understand this intense reaction as a sign of my own investment in being (seen as) the exceptional/good white ally. Having signed up to address violence against Indigenous women, I experienced the idea of broadening the focus to all women as threatening. I felt the ground shift beneath me as my purpose in the work seemed (to me) to be evaporating. In Chapter 6, I discuss in more detail the white desire for exceptionalism.

Several years later, I had a conversation with a Toronto-based Indigenous activist about the precise language used by organizers to frame the disappearances and murders of women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES). It is understand that a disproportionate number of these women are Indigenous. And, notably, Indigenous women are at the helm of the organizing of the February 14 memorial march. In fact, the event is organized around Indigenous ceremonial principles. However, the language of the Women’s Memorial March Organizing Committee has remained inclusive, i.e., they honour all the women who have gone missing or been murdered in the DTES. I cite this as an example of how it is possible to acknowledge specificity while also being inclusive.

The full quote reads as follows: “But the Dead Indians I’m talking about are not the deceased sort. Nor are they all that inconvenient. They are the stereotypes and clichés that North America has conjured up out of experience and out of its collective imaginings and fears. North America has had a long association with Native people, but despite the history that the two groups have shared, North America no longer sees Indians. What it sees are war bonnets, beaded shirts, fringed deerskin dresses, loincloths, headbands, feathered lances, tomahawks, moccasins, face paint, and bone chokers. These bits of cultural debris—authentic and constructed—are what literary theorists like to call ‘signifiers,’ signs that create a ‘simulacrum,’ which Jean Baudrillard, the French sociologist and postmodern theorist, succinctly explained as something that ‘is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none’” (King, 2012, pp. 53–54).

Wanda cites a deadly example of appropriation: “I’ve been following the trial of the man in Sedona that had a sweat lodge, one of those new age life coaching things they have now, that he put people into a box, and heated that box, and four people died. They keep calling it a sweat lodge, that wasn’t a sweat lodge, it was a death box. We get the fall-out from that. What has changed now is that we organize sweat lodges, we have to have a release. So if you get hurt, you know you’ve been given one of those things. During that trial, that man said he wasn’t responsible for anyone in his so-called sweat. One of my first teachings was that I was responsible for anyone who goes in that door. I’m responsible for their life when they go in there. I don’t take that lightly. How do you invite someone into a ceremony and not be responsible?” Indigenous feminists have been raising and addressing the question of how romanticized notions of Indigenous “tradition” can perpetuate (often colonially-imposed) patriarchal notions of Indigenous womanhood that can in turn inform or fuel patriarchal visions of Indigenous nation building. See Rauna Kuokkanen’s (2007) formulation of the debate in relation to Sami society.

Chapter 6

Making Exceptions: The “Good White Settler Ally”

–  –  –

In this chapter, I examine the discursive operation of claims of exceptionalism such as Julia’s in white participant narratives. I argue that the settler quest for legitimacy is reflected in how the white settler woman ally subject positions herself as exceptional (outside of colonial power relations) through, for example, recourse to a good/bad settler binary or notions of “friendship.” Put simply, the white settler woman subject hopes to position herself as the exceptional “good white settler ally.” My argument here (and throughout the study) rests on the idea that moves to exceptionalism are fostered by an individualistic understanding of solidarity work: it is the white settler woman subject (who thinks of herself as) entering solidarity as an autonomous individual, rather than as a member of a white settler collectivity, who can sustain the fantasy of overcoming colonial power relations. An individual can conceivably be/become exceptional and overcome power relations, whereas a member of a collectivity cannot—at least not without fundamental structural change.1 In short, I argue that exceptionalism is part of the liberal subject’s arsenal of strategies to deny/transcend structural white/settler privilege.

Put differently, I theorize the move to exceptionalism as yet another manifestation of the white settler desire for legitimacy. I look to the insights of critical race scholarship to suggest that white subjectivity itself is constituted through claims to exceptionalism/innocence, drawing on theories about “white disaffiliation” (Wiegman, 1999); “White stigma” (Kowal, 2011); white moral agency (Applebaum, 2010); and friendship (Thompson, 2003). I also consider the role of declarative statements (Ahmed, 2004) and self-reflexivity (Smith, 2013a) in the micro-workings of exceptionalism discourse. Finally, I refer back to the fraught promise of self-reflexivity for tempering this particular facet of the impulse to solidarity (see also Chapters 2 and 7).

My analysis begins with considering the role of white settler guilt in these dynamics. I ask to what extent exceptionalism discourse is an attempt by white participants to alleviate this guilt by positioning ourselves outside of colonial power relations. I also explore the notion of friendship (through proximity) as a discursive strategy to achieve exceptional status. I then describe the following common moves in exceptionalism discourse—the white settler woman subject’s efforts to prove her superior worth as an activist-ally relative to the average Canadian and/or to other activist-allies. The first move typically involves describing herself as more knowledgeable than the average Canadian about colonial history. The second could involve positioning herself as exceptional in any number of ways, including in her willingness to acknowledge her settler status and complicity in colonial relations; her capacity to be/become friends with Indigenous women; or, even her ability to identify the problem with unilateral (ally) declarations of allyship. Moreover, the pursuit of exceptionalism can crystallize as competition among white settler women allies, with self-righteousness and a sense of entitlement often comingled therein.

In more theoretical terms, moves to exceptionalism involve the white settler woman subject’s attempts to demonstrate how she has (worked to) “become” different from most settlers.

While this overall study looks at the interlocking effects of race, gender and colonial relations on intersubjective dynamics in the solidarity encounter, in this chapter I focus on the central role of whiteness and white guilt in exceptionalism discourse. Therefore, my analysis frequently draws on critical race/critical whiteness scholarship, which does not necessarily employ colonialism as a central analytic. By the same token, I also rely on scholarship that centres colonialism but not gender. Therefore, I attempt to make conceptual linkages between race, gender and colonial relations in my analysis whenever possible. I also try to identify the relevance of a particular idea for understanding intersubjective relations in the solidarity encounter. I begin with the notion of whiteness as exceptionalism.

Whiteness as Exceptionalism

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