Nikki’s notes: As an activist, I’m pretty used to speaking on my own behalf. I usually know how to effectively discuss some of the issues affecting the communities I try to represent; I don’t claim that my perspective is entirely representative of the community as a whole – far from it – but at least I’m somewhat in tune with the wider issues, even when I’m not entirely clear on the specifics. But as an ally, I’m aware of the gaps in my own knowledge, and I try to ask others who are more informed than I am to help me fill those gaps – not so I can advocate on their behalf, but simply to help me gain a little bit of understanding.
Please enjoy this guest blog post from the awesome Naomi Sayers – I’ve learned a lot from reading her words and her blog, and hopefully you’ll learn from it too.
How to be an ally to Indigenous activism
With being an Indigenous person, I am not new to the world of activism. I am, however, new to the world of understanding what it means to be an ally. I have participated in activist related events and also developed/coordinated workshops relating to specific groups like Indigenous people, and LGBT2QQIAA groups. When it comes to speaking or writing about privilege, it is a good starting point for the individual to identify his/her own place of privilege (if there is one). For example, I have written/tweeted about many items that place white people in a place of privilege, and sometimes my white followers/readers respond. They usually write things like “how would you feel if I wrote ‘Indigenous people are [insert racist comment here].’” I tend to respond in a way that identifies my own place of privilege in being a bisexual, light-skinned Indigenous woman. So I am acknowledging my place of privilege in being a bisexual, light-skinned Indigenous woman. I am sometimes given privilege in that my sexuality is never questioned and my ability as a person is never questioned because I can navigate my own self in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous worlds. I also use the term “Indigenous peoples/communities” to address various groups. However, I recognize that various groups of Indigenous peoples/communities exist nationally and internationally.
It doesn’t take much to find out what it means to be an ally. It does take a bit of work in how to be an ally to a specific group. There are many articles and blogs online that write on the topic of how to be an ally to LGBT2QQIAA groups, sex workers/sex work organizations, and much other groups. So what is an ally to Indigenous activism? This post will outline what it means to be an ally for those who are interested!
How to be an ally to Indigenous activism:
- Acknowledging first that Indigenous activism has been going on for decades if not since the beginning of colonialism (that’s a pretty long time!) is a good starting point. There are many groups today that speak to this: Native Youth Sexual Health Network, First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network (just to name a few). These organizations have been doing work at both national and international levels. Even though some of these organizations were born out of the 20th century, it is good to remember that the last residential school did not even close until 1996. With that being said, in order to be a good ally, it would be a good starting point to start reading up on Indigenous peoples’ histories.
- Recognize that Indigenous people do not exist homogenously across the globe. That means each Indigenous region or territory has its own way of doing things, whether it is politically, culturally, or spiritually. The Woodlands Cree are not the same as the Plains Cree. Recognize these differences and also respect them.
- Respect Indigenous knowledge. If an Indigenous person shares anything with you, whether it is culturally relevant or a story about their own life experiences, always ask them if it is okay to share that information. Indigenous knowledge is something that has been taken for granted by many researchers and other individuals that come from a place of privilege (ie-policy makers) in the past. Respect the knowledge that is shared with you and always ask for permission to share what is given to you. If it is not okay to share the information given to you, then do not share it even anonymously. If it is okay to share information with others, acknowledge that an Indigenous person gave this information to you and they allowed you to share that information.
- Realize that Indigenous peoples have survived genocide, diseases, residential schools, and that you being an ally will not change the way all white people see Indigenous peoples in a single day, week, month, or a year. I doubt that one ally will make every white person understanding of Indigenous peoples/communities’ needs. Indigenous peoples/communities are the ones who know what they need. Being a good ally recognizes this and uses their privileged position (whether it be race related, or position related like a member of an organization/institution) to publicly or privately aligns him/herself with a particular Indigenous group’s needs.
- Acknowledge that you will make mistakes. Don’t be shy to admit that you made a mistake either. Admitting you made a mistake takes great courage, and an Indigenous person may be even more helpful in fixing or addressing the mistake at hand. A perfect example would be what I gave earlier wherein my white followers/readers respond to my posts/tweets that talk about white privilege with “well, how would you feel if I said [insert racist comment] about Indigenous peoples?” This is a bad way to approach to any ally relationship. As an Indigenous person, I have had almost every racist thing said to me whether it was intentional or not. Approaching ally-work this way is not the best way to go about it. Recognize your mistake and learn to apologize for mistakes made whether it was intentional or not. An Indigenous person would be more than happy to help you correct any mistake you have made if you ask nicely/politely.
- Learn to be inclusive. If you are working on a project and you come from a place of privilege as an ally, learn to put yourself in our shoes. I know that this is never a realistic thing to do because as an ally, you will never be able to understand fully what it is like to be an Indigenous person in any situation. A good practice to any project that attempts to work with Indigenous populations is to seek if it is truly inclusive. Does it include children? women? elders? two-spirited peoples? If there are Indigenous peoples who are working on the project with you, allow space for them to contribute without criticism and with positive reinforcement. Sometimes projects can be intimidating if it is white-washed and only one Indigenous person is on board.
- Acknowledge your prejudices. Let’s be honest here, everyone has prejudged someone at least once in his/her life. So, acknowledge your own prejudices. Do you have any stereotypical viewpoints about Indigenous peoples? Do you believe in mainstream generalizations about Indigenous peoples? Recognize them and acknowledge that this is crucial to Othering1 by privileged people: stereotypes and generalizations.
The above is a very basic way to approach ally-ship when it comes to Indigenous activism. If you are unsure about anything do not be shy to approach an Indigenous person. If they feel comfortable enough to share, they will. If not, respect that boundary. The right time will come when it is for you to be let into the world of Indigenous activism as an ally—white persons or non-white persons.
1. Othering is a colonial practice in that forces a group to exist on the periphery of the mainstream or opposite to the privileged group; they are subordinate and do not fit into society because of dominant ideologies.