I was at an Anti-Racism conference in the Fall of 2016 when a White professor asked the Métis presenter, Chelsea Vowel, what role she thought “allies” should play in terms of reconciliation. Vowel made a bit of a joke about the term “allies” and then said something to the effect of “shut up and do the dishes”.
She might not have said “shut up”. But that was pretty much her point. Indigenous people do not need nor want White people to speak for them. White People need to be quiet; we need to listen.
And if we do actually want to help, don’t go for the glory, do the dishes.
Vowel has made similar points via Twitter recommending White allies stay “in their lane” (2016, April 18), “stay in their own canoe” (2014, August 12) and generally not centre themselves in the work. “But really you should do some dishes too” (2014, November 4).
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. And it’s harder than you might think to just shut up and do the dishes.
In 1984, the Gitxsan and the Wet’suwet’en First Nations took the province of British Columbia to court to address their claims to land rights. Many chiefs and Knowledge Keepers spent years giving testimony, often in their own language which was then translated. They described their ada’ox or oral history in detail. In many places the case hinged on the ability of the trial judge to sit quietly and listen to these stories. At one point elder Mary Johnson, was telling her ada’ox and part of it included a song.
The judge, Chief Justice Allan McEachern, did not want the song to be sung in court. “To have witnesses singing songs in court is not the proper way to approach this problem… I just say, with respect, I’ve never heard it happen before, I never thought it necessary, and I don’t think it necessary now. It doesn’t seem to me she has to sing it.” (as cited in Pinder, 1991, p. 6).
So much talking… So little listening…
However, the lawyer argued that the song was part of the history, that the song itself invokes the history, that singing the song was crucial to the case. The judge replied: “I have a tin ear, Mr. Grant. It’s not going to do any good to sing to me” (as cited in Pinder, 1991, p. 6). In the end, the judge was right. It did not do any good to sing to him. The Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en lost the case (which they later won in federal court).
Chamberlin (2003) argued that this comment about having a tin ear was stupid of the judge to say, but that it was also correct. The judge did have a tin ear. He could not have heard the song even if he had been interested in it. Chamberlin argued that most of us assume that we know how to listen, that we could understand a song such as Mary’s if we wanted to. But this is not the case. “It is an assumption that understanding sophisticated oral traditions comes naturally to the sympathetic ear. It doesn’t. Just as we learn how to read, so we learn how to listen; and this learning does not come naturally” (p. 21). I’m not sure we do a very good job of learning how to listen. I know that my listening skills are poor. But ask me to speak…
And this is where we White people really get ourselves into trouble. We are so quick to speak and so slow to listen.
On June 19, 2017, Gord Downie, a White musician, was appointed to the Order of Canada during a ceremony at Rideau Hall honouring leadership on Indigenous issues. The irony of one White man, the Governor General, honouring another White man, Gord Downie, at a ceremony for Indigenous leadership was not lost on many.
Thomas-Müller (2017) argued that Downie, in his new self-declared role as spokesman on Indigenous issues, is “drowning out” (par.5) the very communities he is trying to support. “Indigenous people do not need white interpreters for the world to understand our stories, our traditional knowledge or its value…allies must not take up space meant for our own front-line voices” (par.9-10).
Thomas-Müller argued that Indigenous peoples should be allowed to speak for themselves.
But Canadians seem to prefer White “experts” over Indigenous voices.
When the Governor General referred to Indigenous peoples as “immigrants” on June 17, 2017, the incident was analyzed on CBC by a panel of four White men. When members of the Canadian Navy disrupted an Indigenous ceremony in Halifax on July 1, 2017, the incident was debated on CBC by a White supremacist and a White academic. We do the same in movies with plot lines about Indigenous issues centered around White men who “save” and then come to speak for Indigenous communities. Think Avatar (2009) and Dances with Wolves (1990). Indigenous peoples are consistently portrayed as lacking agency and needing others to speak and act for them. However, Thomas-Müller argues that any ally working on the issue of reconciliation “must always be pushing Indigenous voices toward the microphone instead of themselves” (par. 20).
For the past year, I have been volunteering with a local Indigenous organization, helping put on Blanket Exercises and organizing fundraisers. I have had “Shut up and do the dishes” in the back of my mind. But as simple as these instructions appear, they are actually difficult to adhere to. I am haunted by White Saviour paradigms.
The White Saviour is a common character in films, books and popular interpretations of history who rescues People of Colour from their oppression. This narrative consistently racializes morality, making goodness equal Whiteness. It also reinforces the idea that People of Colour lack agency, that they are unable to solve their own problems, requiring a White Saviour to swoop in and solve the problems for them.
As a teacher, the predominance of the White teacher Saviour trope is particularly problematic. Think Dangerous Minds (1995) and Freedom Writers (2007). These narratives portray racialized students as broken and their communities and families as dysfunctional, who only need one “nice white lady” to turn it all around. Mad TV has a spoof on these types of films, “Nice White Lady” (2008). As a nice, White lady myself, it’s hard not to semi-consciously live out these narratives. Who doesn’t want to be a hero?
Having been told all my life that I know what’s best for People of Colour, it is easy for me to talk over my non-White peers and centre myself in the work.
Furthermore, I have an abundance of resources at my disposal. I have over a decade of formal education, access to computers, printers, furniture, vehicles and disposable income, not to mention the extensive network of contacts I have built within the community from years as a teacher. If something needs doing, it is often easy for me to do it. This can be useful for an organization. However, it places me in a position of power and leadership, precisely what I am trying to avoid. I am trying to just do the dishes. But does it really make sense to deny the organization my resources, as I sit in the back and quietly do manual labour? I know this is not an ‘either/or’ scenario but it does make for a tricky dance between helping and hindering, between advocacy and appropriation, between grunt-work and glory.
Last night I attended the final Unsettling Ideas book club in Regina. As I have been thinking about the limits of ally-ship, the words of Sheelah McLean, the only non-Indigenous panelist, were especially interesting to me. She detailed her childhood and ancestry, which happens to be very similar to mine. She spoke about the myths she was told as a child, the myths of meritocracy and Canada as an empty land, how she was told that her grandparents started from nothing. That they built everything from scratch with hard work and perseverance. How, the fact that they had been given free land was never mentioned.
This is my story too. But I wonder about ending the story there. Chelsea Vowel said something else to ‘allies’ at the Anti-Racism conference besides “shut up and do the dishes” she said to give back the land. She said jokingly/not-jokingly to give her the keys to the cottage. On Twitter, she made a similar point. “Cynical me. Repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery but holding on to your cottage, farm, or condo? Pretty meaningless, imo” (2016, December 5).
Without land redistribution, how much of our White settler “solidarity work” becomes a move to innocence, a façade behind which we maintain our own fiscal advantage?
As long as I continue to benefit from the unearned privileges of colonialism, I can never be on an equal footing with Indigenous activists. My activism will always be somewhat of a distraction from the real issues at play. And the real issues are land-based. Reserve lands make up only 0.2% of the Canadian land base. Arthur Manuel (2017) has argued that “you cannot improve child and family welfare and health services on Indian Reserves because you cannot generate any revenue from these depleted and minuscule 0.2% territories” (par. 2). With Indigenous peoples controlling only 0.2% of the land and settlers controlling the other 99.8%, “you don’t have to have a doctorate in economics to understand who will be poor and who will be rich” (Manuel, 2015, p.8). At what point do we as Canadians, and more specifically we White descendants of settler farmers, have to begin thinking about ways to give back the land?
In May 2017, an 86 year-old retired rancher, Kenneth Linde, gave back 130 hectares of farmland to the Esk’etemc First Nation. “When I bought the land… I paid for it. Every year since I bought the land, I’ve paid my taxes so I could continue to use it. But I’ve always, always known it’s your land. I would like to give it back to you” Linde told the B.C. First Nation. Esk’etemc Chief, Charlene Belleau, called Linde’s actions “reconciliation in its best form…He’s not just talking about reconciliation; he’s actually doing something about it” (as cited in ‘Reconciliation in its best form’: B.C. rancher gives land back to his First Nation neighbours).
So perhaps mulling over how best to “shut up and do the dishes” is beside the point. What I should really be thinking about is land.
Chamberlin, J. E. (2004). If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?: Finding Common Ground. Toronto, Canada:Vintage Canada.
MAD tv. [Klaustrophobic]. (2007, July 12). Nice White Lady. [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZVF-nirSq5s
Manuel, A. & Derrickson, R. M. (2015). Unsettling Canada: A National Wake-up Call. Toronto, Canada: Between the Lines.
Manuel, A. (2017, January 20). Art Manuel: What Are You Going to do About it? Red Rising Magazine. Retrieved from: http://redrisingmagazine.ca/what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it/
Pinder, L. H. (1991). The Carriers of No: After the Land Claims Trial. Vancouver, Canada: Lazara Press. Retrieved from: http://lazarapress.ca/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/The-Carriers-of-No-After-the-Lands-Claims-Trial.pdf.pdf
‘Reconciliation in its best form’: B.C. rancher gives land back to his First Nation neighbours (2017, May 12), CBCradio: As It Happens. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-friday-edition-1.4112585/reconciliation-in-its-best-form-b-c-rancher-gives-land-back-to-his-first-nation-neighbours-1.4112589
Thomas-Müller, C. (2017, June 28). Gord Downie, when it comes to collective Indigenous resilience, let us speak for ourselves. CBCNews: Indigenous. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/gord-downie-let-us-speak-for-ourselves-1.4179478
Vowel, Chelsea (@apihtawikosisan). “Hope when things start going down that non-Indigenous allies remember to stay in their own canoe on discussions of community accountability.” 12 August 2014, 3:47 PM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/apihtawikosisan/status/499296036272480257
Vowel, Chelsea (@apihtawikosisan). “But really you should do some dishes too.” 4 November 2014, 8:41 PM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/apihtawikosisan/status/529825809109102592
Vowel, Chelsea (@apihtawikosisan). “White allies staying in their lane do more for Indigenous ppl than ethnic frauds ever will.” 18 April 2016, 5:09 PM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/apihtawikosisan/status/722185316652728320
Vowel, Chelsea (@apihtawikosisan). “Cynical me. Repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery but holding on to your cottage, farm, or condo? Pretty meaningless, imo” 5 December 2016, 8:20 AM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/apihtawikosisan/status/805778989918736385