«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
I propose that if the problem with settler colonial subject production is the desire for proximity (and concomitant invasiveness and creation of racial hierarchies), then the solution involves distance/distancing, or a shift into intersubjective dynamics that produce subjects in nonhierarchical relation (Lorde, 2007). Drawing on scholars such as Ahmed (2012), Smith (2013a) and Leslie Thielen-Wilson (2012), I point to the reconfiguration of boundaries (material, discursive and thus intersubjective) as a central condition for fostering non-colonizing solidarity in theory and practice. This would involve a reorientation of white settler women allies in solidarity spaces, a “stepping back, but not out” (as put by Gabriela, an Indigenous participant) to bring collective white settler privilege (back) into view (Ahmed, 2012a). Such a reorientation would embrace relationality and delineate certain limits, striking a balance between proximity (too much of the wrong kind of investment on individualistic terms) and distance (too little or no investment at all). This framework calls upon the white settler woman subject to exercise her agency, but through/at a distance. I also reconsider the fraught promise of self-reflexivity as a mechanism in this framework.
I end by recapping those moments of white settler woman ally subject-making that most require our pause and vigilance. As white settler women allies, we must learn to identify those times when, spurred by a deep-seated desire for legitimacy, our self-interest takes centre stage, when individualistic desires (for acceptance, inclusion and/or forgiveness; for healing, empowerment or purpose) compel us to overstep our (intersubjective) bounds and diminish the collective political work of solidarity. I start and end with the premise that, for the white settler woman ally, negotiating an ethical position in solidarity work is a never-ending process.
Summary and Contributions The solidarity encounter between Indigenous women and white women in Canada is inescapably entrenched in broader colonial relations. And, political solidarity under these circumstances is a fraught, though necessary, endeavor. In this study, I reflect on the proposition that solidarity work between hierarchically-positioned subjects can be refashioned in noncolonizing ways. I bring a novel concern to scholarship on political solidarity by focusing on its intersubjective relations, charting the interlocking effects of colonialism, race (whiteness) and gender therein. In this way, I make a unique contribution to current conversations about the terms of political engagement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples—especially who sets them.
First, I provide an in-depth look at the micro-dynamics that comprise the solidarity encounter. In so doing, I expose the cracks and fault lines along which the reinstallation of the white settler liberal self is attempted, and thus along which solidarity is attempted. In particular, I explore the ways in which a deep-seated desire for legitimacy appears to undergird white settler women allies’ subjectivities, with its mutually constitutive desires for improvement/transformation, innocence and exceptionalism that are in turn expressed and operationalized through the desire for proximity. Moreover, I show that this desire requires appropriation, both material and figurative, and (allows for) the negation of structural inequality and/or settler complicity therein.
On the other hand, most if not all white participants do struggle to varying degrees with their/our historic settler status. We seek to avoid the quintessential helping behaviour that has marked the white settler/imperialist woman subject’s interactions with Other women.
Nonetheless, I note a strong psychic underpinning (Pratt, 2008) to the desire for legitimacy that even the most self-aware white settler woman seems unable or unwilling to permanently give up.
I also propose a framework for fostering non-colonizing relations in solidarity work. It calls for a reconfiguration of intersubjective boundaries in which white women would curb the complexly layered “needy do-gooder” behaviour that Indigenous women find so problematic.
Concretely, for white settler women allies, this means questioning our sense of entitlement to “do/be good”; our right to unfettered access to Indigenous spaces; our capacity to “know” the Other and “fix” things; and our ability to claim the status of exceptional settler who has earned an exemption from complicity in colonial relations. In short, we are called upon to identify the moments when we begin to think/act like liberal subjects. To forestall the “impulse to solidarity,” I suggest that white women allies re-conceptualize our seemingly personal desires (for friendship, belonging and intimacy) as largely a reflection and consequence of our structural positionality as members of a white settler collectivity. Perhaps if we can see political solidarity as not necessarily bound to friendship or belonging, we can disrupt the impulse to proximity and the “individualistic” self-serving/self-making processes it serves. In other words, we must continually remind ourselves of our structural positionality—we remain settlers complicit in colonial relations, irrespective of our ability to connect to Indigenous people or communities.
According to recent estimates, there are 1,181 total cases of missing (164) and murdered (1,017) Indigenous women and girls across Canada (RCMP, 2014). CBC correspondent Trinh Theresa Do (2014, May 2) reports on the disproportionality of missing and murdered Indigenous women: “[The RCMP report] also included the point that while aboriginal women make up four per cent of Canada’s population, they represent 16 per cent of all murdered females between 1980 and 2012, as well as 12 per cent of all missing females on record.” The term Turtle Island is widely used in Indigenous activist circles and beyond, and reflects the importance of the turtle in the origin stories of many Indigenous nations in what is now called Canada and the US. While Indigenous activists discuss the phenomenon as nation-wide, the focus of their organizing is local, provincial and/or national.
It has become common practice among some academics to identify Indigenous scholars by their nation as a way to make Indigenous scholarship more visible. I adopt this practice to some degree, identifying a scholar’s nation when they do so themselves or when it seems especially relevant to the point being made. Otherwise, as when referencing non-Indigenous scholars, I make no mention of their positionality in this regard.
No More Silence (NMS) is a Toronto-based group co-founded in 2004 by an activist and documentary film-maker of mixed Indigenous/Euro-immigrant ancestry, and a feminist educator ally of European ancestry. Our mandate includes ending the impunity of state actors (the police, judiciary and coroners’ offices) in cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Since 2006, we have organized an annual February 14 ceremony in front of Toronto police headquarters. In subsequent chapters, when relevant, I discuss NMS and my involvement in it since 2006.
By using the phrase “women/feminists,” I acknowledge that not all self-identified women self-ascribe as feminists. While I sometimes use only one of the terms—women or feminists—that acknowledgement still stands.
In subsequent chapters, I discuss how good intentions, and “friendship” in particular, are imagined (by the white/settler subject) to function as a leveler of unequal structural power relations.
By messiness, I am signaling the way in which intersubjective practices and dynamics defy neat theoretical description. I also allude to the indeterminate nature of intersubjective relations wherein struggles to negotiate and overcome inequitable power relations are ongoing. In reflecting on and writing about NMS, Audrey Huntley and I made describing the messiness of the encounter our foremost goal (D’Arcangelis & Huntley, 2012).
INM’s reach has transcended Canadian borders. Amanda Morris (2014) writes, “According to [Sylvia] McAdam, human rights violations by multinational corporations as they relate to land use are a concern for Indigenous peoples worldwide and are not just restricted to Canada.... [and] Idle No More has been an inspiration in the global fight around loss of land, language, and Indigenous cultures” (p. 254).
The less well-known, but arguably more radical Indigenous Nationhood Movement considers Indigenous activism in terms of resurgence. See nationsrising.org and Glen Coulthard (2014, p. 151ff).
Simpson referred to the unresolved matter of stolen Indigenous land as the “elephant in the room” during a public talk that I attended on May 13, 2014 at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
According to FirstVoices Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) Community Portal, “the name of our Nation is Kanien’kehá:ka, which means ‘People of the Flint Nation’” (FirstVoices, n.d.). I have inferred Kanien’kéha to be the adjective form of Kanien’kehá:ka; any error in this formulation is mine.
While sharing his critique of reconciliation discourse in its post-apology incarnations at a public talk at the University of Toronto (February 16, 2012), Alfred also stated that non-Native allies are needed to advance Native political struggles.
For example, I received this email on January 20, 2011 written by a prominent Indigenous woman activist: “It is good to hear the organizations [in Toronto] are uniting [around the February 14 event]... Solidarity is one of the tools we need to bring awareness and to help promote safety nets for our beautiful women and their children, our future generations. We have to teach our children to work together so that things get done.” Maracle made this statement in her keynote address at a public forum on “challenging racism and appropriation in our classrooms and schools” on November 8, 2011 at the University of Toronto.
Even the most conscious/conscientious of white settler women face this challenge: how to curb the desire to “equalize Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations under conditions that are not yet ‘equalizable’” (D’Arcangelis & Huntley, 2012, pp. 53–54).
I primarily cite literature emerging from Turtle Island, but also from Australia and Aoteara/New Zealand.
Indigenous scholars/activists are usually careful to direct their critiques of feminism to mainstream, hegemonic or dominant forms, which have privileged the issues of white, middle-class Western women. Verna St. Denis (2007) calls attention to “the varied trajectories of feminism” (p. 34), i.e., the pluralistic, heterogeneous and dynamic nature of feminist theories and practices over time. Authors do not always define the term being used, however, which can lead to generalizations/oversimplifications. In this essay, I employ the term(s) used by the scholar/activist in question, aware of the risk of reproducing these same generalizations.
The utility of feminism as a political or theoretical stance to further Indigenous struggle has been intensely debated among Indigenous women themselves. There is no single Indigenous position on feminism (Arvin, Tuck & Morrill, 2013; Green, 2007a). Devon Abbot Mihesuah (2003) emphasizes the heterogeneity of both Indigenous women and their opinions about feminism: “How we as Native women define ourselves as female and how we relate to the concept of feminism, to feminists, and to each other... depend on our relation to our tribes, our class, appearance, life partners, education and religion”(p. 159). See also Joyce Green (2007b), Rauna Kuokkanen (2007) and Verna St. Denis (2007).
In this literature, Indigenous feminist scholars have taken issue with the “common argument” by some Indigenous women themselves that feminism is not relevant for Indigenous women (LaRocque, 2007, p. 56; see also St. Denis, 2007; Smith & J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, 2008). They call for the reclamation of feminist theory as a useful tool for theorizing the gendered aspects of colonial oppression as well as creating visions of change, both of which have been neglected by mainstream feminist movements. I am not suggesting that Indigenous women have only now acquired a feminist sensibility, but rather wish to acknowledge a vibrant and growing body of Indigenous social and political thought “within the confines of [Western] academia” (Ladner, 2000, p. 37).
In using the term “women of colour,” I am following Christina Gabriel (1999) “to suggest a political constituency as opposed to a racial category” (p. 154, note 3). Additionally, following the lead of many Indigenous women in Canada, I do not include Indigenous women in the term “women of colour.” I refer to the well-known critique of mainstream, white feminism as universalizing, ethnocentric and exclusionary articulated most vociferously by women of colour since at least feminism’s so-called second wave. However, as Enakshi Dua (1999) points out, “since the arrival of Europeans, Canadian anti-racist feminists have been actively engaged in deconstructing race and gender relations” (p. 7). Contemporary scholarship of this ilk includes the work of Himani Bannerji, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Sherene Razack, Bernice Johnson Reagon and Sunera Thobani among others. See also the ground-breaking Combahee River Collective Statement (1997) published in 1979.
Several US-focused anthologies about the unique, yet heterogeneous elements of women of colour feminisms followed, including This bridge called my back (Moraga & Anzaldúa, 1981) and Home girls (Smith, 1983). For more on Canadian anti-racist feminist thought see edited collections by Dua and Angela Robertson (1999) and Sherene Razack, Malinda Smith and Sunera Thobani (2010).
Patricia Hill Collins, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde and Sojourner Truth are prominent among the list of feminist scholars and activists mentioned by Indigenous women.
Maracle (1996) writes, “Embodied in my brilliance is the great sea of knowledge that it took to overcome the paralysis of a colonized mind. I did not come to this clearing alone. Hundreds walked alongside me—Black, Asian and Native women whose tide of knowledge was bestowed upon me are the key to every CanAmerican’s emancipation” (p. 139).