Berry Picking Blackfoot: Appropriative Allyship
Illustration by Lauren Crazybull
Content Warning: This piece talks about violence against indigenous peoples, and mentions the murder of family members
I fell out of love with a certain type of activism at a rally I organized in my community that was for indigenous women. The event was clear in its objective: to protest how the “Justice” system treats indigenous women.
I am a Blackfoot and Dene Woman, and I have had my share of trauma and abuse as many of us have, but really started to notice the microaggressions and violence that comes from non-indigenous activists in a space that wasn’t for them. Since activism is framed in a way that highlights taking down oppressive systems, I didn’t expect oppressive systems to exist within activist circles – but it sure does. I’m not trying to dismiss movements or anyone in particular, and I know that missteps are made by everyone, but I want to communicate that so-called “allies” can become more harmful than helpful.
At the rally for indigenous women, I noticed people taking selfies, trying to get on the megaphone, and attempting to get on camera with the media when they had no personal connection – other than empathy for the ongoing issue of violence against indigenous women – to the cause.
In the past, I had organized a few other events on issues that affect indigenous people, and the majority of attendees were white in many instances. I thought that this was great thing, and that I was doing a “good job” educating non-indigenous people on indigenous issues.
When my cousin, Kyle, was murdered over a year ago, I went from organizing activist events, to helping organize a funeral. I did my best to help my family out by alleviating labour and fundraising costs. Kyle’s mother and my great aunt, Jackie Crazybull, was murdered in 2007. Since I was not affected in the way that their immediate families were, I tried my best to be a support as needed. When I talk about violence against indigenous women, I do it in honour of Jackie alongside her sister Sandra Manyfeathers. If Jackie had been alive today, she likely would have been doing the same work.
In that moment, I realized that the activism and organizing I was doing was not helping my own people. Sure, I was continuing important dialogues, but my activism was serving mostly non-indigenous people who made themselves look good by attending these events. I wasn’t doing work for the good of indigenous people, I was making existing movements “accessible” to non-indigenous people. It wasn’t decolonization, it was working within colonial frameworks and paying lip service to movements that didn’t need me to do so.
Although I cringe when I look back, knowing I will always make mistakes, I’ve also learned from it. Fragile communities don’t want to engage in dialogue that will make them look bad, but a critical and decolonial view is imperative.
I also look at the implications of so many indigenous people educating non-indigenous people. It is important work being done, but at a certain point, there needs to be a shift in who is doing that labour.
Indigenous people do not benefit from colonialism, and it still manifests itself in all kinds of awful ways. In addition to ongoing violent colonial frameworks and oppressions, I have considered that it is not our job to educate non-indigenous people on issues of colonialism that they may benefit from. I think that indigenous youth need our knowledge more than non-indigenous people do. I want to put my energy into something that will be fostered in a meaningful way.
There are many approaches to activism and education when it comes to indigenous issues – this is just one.
In my own experience, sharing our realities for a better communal understanding can be powerful – but only if it is mutually beneficial. After seeing the kinds of actions that played out after my “educational” events, I realized that it can also be exploitative and harmful, and not always lead to meaningful action. Settlers have used indigenous issues to propel themselves up. They have used our experiences to make money, gain social power, get a better grade on their paper, and they continue to engage in actions that may further colonial harm.
So my message to settlers who are trying to be an ally to indigenous people: Please don’t appropriate our movements, think twice about how you are taking up space – and please, don’t take selfies at such sensitive events made for indigenous women.
To indigenous youth, those who we aim to make life better for: Keep talking, keep creating, keep existing. Your existence is intentional. The strength of our ancestors is within you.
There are many reasons why I am an activist, and talking, creating, laughing, and engaging youth in a decolonial way is of the greatest importance.