A version of this essay was published in KANATA (Issue #2) in 2009.
After some administrative notes, we begin the class in earnest. On this particular day the subject is self-government, autonomy, revitalization, etc., as it is most days in this second year Indigenous Studies course on sovereignty. We open with a broad discussion question: “given what you’ve learned so far, what is the source of most of the challenges faced by Indigenous peoples today?” An always-eager student in the back of the room thrusts up a hand and answers loudly, “White people!”
As it comes from her mouth, half of the students look down and stare at their blank notepads. These are mostly the “White” students in class. The other half, the Cayuga, Mohawk and Anishnaabe students laugh awkwardly with equal parts unease and perhaps satisfaction. And while some of the White students agree with the sentiment, too, there is something inappropriate about the comment.
After class I spoke privately to the offending student and asserted that we’ve got to be respectful of each other, Native students and otherwise. After all, everyone is here because they want to be, learning, getting an education, maybe even “unsettling” themselves. But from the student there was only defiance. A few days later I learned that our conversation was the subject of thirty-eight comments on Facebook (!). I was also discretely handed a copy of some prose from Leslie Marmon Silkoe’s “Ceremony” to prove a point:
The wind will blow them across the ocean,
thousands of them in giant boats swarming like larva
out of a crushed ant hill.
They will carry objects which can shoot death
faster than the eye can see.
They will kill the things they fear all the animals
the people will starve.
They will poison the water and they will spin the water away
and there will be drought and the people will starve (Silkoe, 1977, 16).
…difficult to argue with the sentiment. So I thought about it and re-considered the challenges we face: land loss, poor health, limited access education, absurd housing, etc. Upon reflection it was pretty difficult to avoid tracing the roots of these problems to the arrival and expansion of Europeans into Indigenous territories. So I wondered if the student was right, after all: are White people evil? And if so, what kind of relationship should exist between us, if any? What about all our White friends and allies, what about Native – non-Native coalitions?
IDLE NO MORE AND HAROLD CARDINAL
Much has been made of the relationship between Native and non-Native people throughout the more than two month-long Idle No More movement. Increasingly the story has been one of hostility: Canadians overwhelming news websites with hatred and vitrol directed at Native people, statistics that reveal low support for the movement, Twitter “trolls” provoking movement-supporters, and a cadre of old White (mostly) men writing in newspapers about “dream palaces”, unrealistic demands by Native leaders, accountability, corruption, and on, and on.
This discourse has spurred an “us vs. them” narrative in the Native community, many articulating a genuine and legitimate anger directed at the White society who presumes to tell Indigenous peoples what to do and how to do it because they know best. There is justifiable resentment of paternalism and ethnocentrism. Unfortunately “them” may not be a limited segment of society. The majority of Canadians are probably ignorant, racist or dismissive of Indigenous peoples’ desires and concerns.
Some of our most important leaders and scholars have considered this racism and the general relationship between Canadians (and Americans) and Indigenous peoples. They were largely dismissive of White people. Deskaheh said, “We would be happier, if left alone” (Akwesasne Notes, 2005, 27). Likewise, Vine Deloria Jr. asked White people to grant us a “leave-us-alone law” (Deloria 1988, 27). Harold Cardinal, in the “Red Paper”, took the discussion further and even explored questions of collaborations or potential allies. He wrote that white people “do not know what (they are) doing. (They) lack any clear understanding of the Indian…(Their) efforts confuse the issues rather than contribute to happy resolutions” (Cardinal 1969, 76).
These were the polite sentiments. Since the time of Cardinal and Deloria (or even Deskaheh), the relationship between Indigenous and White peoples in Canada has not significantly improved. Look around: Canadian governments administer services that ensure only basic survival; the media perpetuates notions of faceless native terrorists or argues for assimilation; resource development, aided and abetted by Canadian law, continues to poison Indigenous peoples out of existence. All the while Canadians remain silent. Well, mostly.
DUMP SITE #41
Those who been to an Idle No More round dance or protest surely notice all the White people. Even before Idle No More, at rallies and demonstrations at Queens Park, Ryerson, OPP Headquarters, U of T, wherever; Valentine’s Day Marches, “No Olympics on Stolen Land” events, protests in support of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug and Grassy Narrows, whatever; White people were often the majority in attendance (always an interesting sight at the KI and Grassy rallies were the Christian grandmothers, bonnets and all).
More provocative efforts also follow the trend. One of the most important causes for me over the past few years was the movement to stop Dump Site #41 in central Ontario, near the small towns of Elmvale and Midland and in close proximity to my family’s community of Gchimnissing. For years previous to last summer I watched the “Stop Dump Site #41” signs proliferate on lawns and highway fences. There was increasing concern and opposition to the County’s decision to construct a garbage dump on a particularly ecologically sensitive watershed.
So sensitive that a geo-chemist from the University of Heidelberg determined the water in the aquifer, which the dump would sit atop, was home to the planets purest! Or more precisely, the water “was comparable to the cleanest ancient Arctic ice” (The Globe and Mail, 2006). Incredulously, the County decided to move ahead anyway. But when they did, a group of Anishnaabe Kwe from Gchimnissing agreed that they had to fulfill their obligations as women, as protectors of the water, and stop the dump.
They formed a loose alliance with farmers whose land would be directly affected if the dump were it to leach into the aquifer. The Kwe were even permitted to set up a camp on a clover field directly across from the dump entrance. They stayed there for months. With the help of young men as Firekeepers, they built a lodge, they sang and drummed, they cooked, ate, chopped wood, held ceremonies, and every week hosted a Saturday afternoon potluck dinner.
The first potlucks I attended was as bewildering as the Toronto protests. Some brown faces, of course, but mostly local, White, farming families. Not just at the potluck: young White men took turns tending the fire and were invited to sit at the drum; middle-aged White women were arrested alongside middle-aged Native women. Together, for 137 days, they raised awareness, defended themselves in the media, stood in front of bull-dozers when necessary, and finally, they stopped the dump.
“WHO CARES ABOUT THE FIRST NATIONS?”
A few years before the drama at the dump I worked with the Ontario government as they attempted to convince conservation organizations, northerners, resource companies and the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) to agree to a comprehensive land use planning strategy. The plan called for twenty years of cooperation between these groups to ensure that development, protected spaces and infrastructure projects would be undertaken responsibly. It was my job to sell the Initiative to NAN.
But every time we spoke, they consistently wanted to know why Ontario felt it could develop this long-term plan when the territory was their jurisdiction. They persistently wanted to know why provincial parks continued to be established, impeding their economies (traditional non- market and market). They routinely rejected forms of resource development that would be unduly exploitative. All of this I took back to Ontario, much to their frustration. Meanwhile my colleague responsible for engaging the conservation groups was reporting another story.
Those groups claimed they were in a coalition with NAN, and in fact, the latter supported the initiative. What was going on? It seemed that a loosely agreed upon ideal of protecting the land was mistaken for collaboration. When NAN was made aware of this (and more likely when they had enough of Ontario’s failure to address their primary concerns) they pulled out of the discussions, jeopardizing the initiative. Later one of the conservation group representatives urged pushing ahead regardless, asking my colleague, “ultimately, who cares about the First Nations?”
So when considering the example above or that of Kitchenuhmaykoosib and Christian Peacemaker’s or even the Dump Site #41 coalition between Anishnaabe women and farmers, it’s reasonable to believe that the latter in each case has their own motives: the farmers to protect their lands and real estate; the Christian Peacemakers to offer the Lord’s Charity; conservation organizations to conserve “wild” places. Fair enough, altruism is a tall order.
But at what point do their interests give way to ours, if at all? How sincere are our seemingly well-meaning White allies, and really, should they be our allies? When we press them on colonization and perhaps their role in perpetuating it, will they wilt? When the cultural romantics, arguably our most consistent allies, are pushed on our rights and reveal their liberal tendencies, will they wither? They often do. Perhaps racism among these minority White Canadians is no less poisonous than the type practiced by the majority.
I know you tolerate me,
But you do not value me.
I know you permit me to speak
But you do not listen to what I say
I know you put up with my
But you do not respect them.
I know you endure the history
lessons I give you
But you still can’t admire the
strength of those who struggled.
You may think it’s enough not to
call me names,
But it’s not (Heiss, 1998, 18).
Some of my best friends are White people. My colleagues and peers, people I respect and acknowledge as experts in their respective fields doing good work for Indigenous peoples, are generally not Cayuga or Anishnaabe. Maybe some are mixed-blood, half-Native, or maybe a quarter. Indeed, I’m mixed-blood, the product of a Pottowatomi/Ojibwe Father and English Mother.
All of this complicates things and pushes me to ask more critical questions; some that so far have been missing from this discussion. Who and what are White people, anyway? Is this tendency for bigotry exclusive to one color of people; what about those dismissive Black and Yellow people; or those Red and Brown peoples who advocate assimilation; what about all the disingenuous coalitions involving mix-blood peoples…or the genuine ones?
To be honest, I don’t really think White people exist. Or rather existed, until we created them. When that student from last semester gave me a copy of the prose from Silkoe’s, “Ceremony”, she missed the context and preface of the story. It was a story about how we, Cayuga, Mohawk and Anishnaabe peoples (or our ancestors), brought White people into existence:
“They want us to believe that all evil resides with white people. Then we will look no further to see what is really happening. They want us to separate ourselves from white people, to be ignorant and helpless as we watch our own destruction. But white people are only tools that witchery manipulates; and I can tell you, we can deal with white people, with their machines and beliefs. We can because we invented white people” (Silkoe 1977, 132).
What that student missed was that White people or ‘whiteness’ is just an idea. When the story is recounted, “they” is not a type of people or race (race doesn’t actually exist, after all) rather, “they” is our fear and our ignorance and our arrogance. Certainly, light-skinned people of European descent abound and live among us but they aren’t “White” any more than those Cayuga, Mohawk and Anishnaabe peoples are “Indians”. Both notions are inventions that come from the same place.
All of this is not by any means a colonial alibi. Rather, as Taiaiake Alfred notes, it’s an acknowledgment that “the enemy is not the white man, in racial terms, it is a certain way of thinking” (Alfred 2005, 102). While this ‘way of thinking’ in North America appears to be manifest disproportionately in European settlers, it’s not exclusive to them. For us, as Indigenous peoples, it’s our own disconnection from the land and from each other. And instead of recognizing the actual source of these problems, we contribute to it in debates about identity, status, authenticity, and in turn, our own eventual destruction.
So how does this discussion of the nature of color inform the possibilities for coalitions in Idle No More movement (or otherwise)? I think that it means, first, we have to recognize that the crux of the problem of potential coalitions is not White people, but rather, this ‘way of thinking’, represented by two kinds of people: those who express their fear, ignorance and arrogance openly like those old, White male pundits. And on the other hand, the more benign, oft allies; the people you need to scratch to see beneath the surface.
Next, I think we have to concede that coalitions with either perspective is ultimately defeating (though, of course, the former is unlikely at the outset). As Leah Whiu asks in her discussion of Maori-Pakeha feminist coalitions, “what affinity can we share with white women if they refuse to acknowledge and take responsibility for their colonialism” (Whiu in Mikaere 1994, 26)? Even if a particular coalition is successful at achieving its goal, if our allies go home without recognizing their responsibilities, the conditions that produce our struggles will remain and recycle.
Lastly, we can recognize that there is potential with those who can acknowledge that responsibility. While Cardinal wrote that non-Native peoples wanting to help often do more harm than good, he did provide an apt mantra: “get Brown or get lost” (Cardinal, 1969, 76). ‘Brown’ a metaphor for the following: listen to what we are saying, strive to understand our perspectives, critically reflect on your own assumptions about Indigenous peoples and let us determine our best interests. The rest should follow. Otherwise, maybe just leave us alone.
Thanks to Jess Bomberry for provoking/inspiring this piece.
Alfred, Taiaiake, “Wasase: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom.” Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2005.
Akwesasne Notes, “Basic Call to Consciousness.”
Cardinal, Harold, “The Unjust Society.” Toronto, ON: Douglas and MacIntyre, 1969.
Deloria, Vine, Jr., “Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto.” New York, NY: Macmillan, 1988.
Globe and Mail, “Earths cleanest water creates thorny issue; In Tiny Township, a precious resource faces threat from a proposed garbage dump.” December 16, 2006.
Heiss, Anita, “Token Koori.” Sydney, AUS: Curringa, 1998.
Silkoe, Leslie Marmon, “Ceremony.” New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1977.
Whiu, Leah, “Women, Law and Policy: Essay 2” (unpublished), 1994, in Mikaere, A., “Colonization and the Destruction of Gender Balance in Aotearoa”, Native Studies Review 12, no. 1 (1999).