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Allies at What Cost?

January 24, 2013

by Eric Ritskes

Andrea Smith begins her fascinating book Native Americans and the Christian Right: The Gendered Politics of Unlikely Alliances with this assertion:

We might want to take a closer look at whom we have identified as potential allies and whom we have written off as unreachable adversaries.

And with that she goes on to detail both cautionary and promising tales of unlikely alliances which redefine the political spectrum, opening up possibilities and illuminating avenues for potential allies to align with Indigenous movements.

With the rise of Idle No More around Turtle Island and globally, particularly in Canada, the question of allies has come up, as it tends to in all movements that coalesce around a particular shared identity.

Does Idle No More need non-Indigenous allies to ensure an Indigenous movement or revolution is successful? Is is true that together we can all go further? Is the task of broadening alliances worth it? These are some of the broad questions that frame this discussion.

Much has been written about solidarity and ally-ship, including in our most recent issue of Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society. Ally bills of responsibilities and “How to be an ally” lists abound, becoming almost a genre unto themselves. Almost all of these are aimed at growing and educating a larger ally community for the purpose of furthering an Indigenous movement.

At the same time, I feel the need to ask: allies at what cost?

Politics of Distraction

Whiteness dominates. I see little way around this reality. When white allies (and I write from and to this particular location) are unable to set aside their privileges, are unable to see solidarity as a violent and unsettling process for themselves, and unable to take a seat and listen when needed – when does the cost of winning, growing, finding and educating allies become time better spent growing and resurging Indigenous capacity and community?

White allies often argue that the educating of other settlers is their job and, to be certain, there has been far too much learning off of Indigenous bodies so they should  indeed be the ones on the front lines. But for those allies already committed to furthering Indigenous futures, when does the time and effort spent winning friends become time and effort better spent supporting and protecting Indigenous efforts towards sovereignty?

Within alliances, is there the need to recognize a time or a point when allies are disrupting, taking away from, thieving effort, and hijacking Indigenous led movements such as Idle No More?

Hijacking the Message

As Idle No More has progressed, it has garnered comparisons to last year’s Occupy movement, mostly by middle age White men who can’t seem to differentiate malcontent White middle class college kids from Indigenous communities hell bent on sovereignty. One reason for the comparison has been the lack of defined ‘leaders’ and spokespeople, with both Occupy and Idle No More operating with a grassroots mentality that each person involved was a leader. Recently, some debate erupted here over this issue, with some who felt that highlighting the differentiations between Occupy and Idle No More was uncritically divisive, a focus that alienated potential allies.

As Ruben Gaztambide-Fernandez wrote in our first issue, solidarity must be built around the recognition of difference. This is productive and powerful solidarity in the service of decolonization. As Tuck and Yang wrote in our first issue, sometimes we need to be more impatient with settler allies, calling out their moves to innocence (as a note: Tuck and Yang also have a sharp criticism of Occupy). How might solidarity be co-opted as a move to innocence by settlers?

As more and more Canadians and other non-Indigenous peoples add their voices to Idle No More in alliance, how does this affect the message? When does the stark realization – that what Indigenous sovereignty and decolonization mean is, in most cases, in direct opposition to the beliefs of neoliberal social justice that so often bring allies into movements such as Idle No More – hit? Many allies have been drawn into Idle No More through a shared desire to protect the environment from multinational corporations and oil pipelines and for good reason, environmentalism is certainly more palatable to allies than a fight for Indigenous sovereignty… As I’ve written before, protesting the pipelines is not merely a cause or simply about environmentalism for Indigenous peoples – it is about protecting their very lives. There must be a line between Indigenous nationhood and docile environmentalism – where do those within Idle No More see this line?

Treaty Relations

But what about treaty relations? The spirit and even letter of the original treaties signed between the British crown and Indigenous nations is the spirit that has guided much of the allyship within Idle No More – a belief in the two row wampum (as an example) where two rivers are separated in peaceful and respectful coexistence on and with the land. Leanne Simpson has a great article detailing the spirit of these treaties from an Nishnaabeg treaty perspective.

But can you drag a mule to the water and make it drink? Perhaps. Settlers have reneged on treaty responsibilities and treaty relations demand two partners intent on working to meet the treaty demands. Canada, and other settler colonial nations, are structured and built on colonialism and White supremacy, built on the genocide of Indigenous peoples, and at their very roots intent on maintaining that supremacy. What is salvageable in this relationship?

All of this is not to say that there is no room for ‘allies’ (I have a intent distrust of the word, but that’s another piece…); there is for those who are willing to listen and support, those who are willing to step up and put their beliefs into action, those who take up the task of “co-existence through co-resistance“. But is there a point when alliance becomes too costly, where it distracts and thieves from Indigenous resurgence?

I don’t know the answers and I offer these thoughts in the spirit of humility and discussion – as evidenced, I hope, by the many questions littering this article – and as somewhere along the process of my own co-existence and co-resistance with Indigenous peoples and nations around the world.


Eric Ritskes is a PhD student in Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at the University of Toronto and a Managing Editor of the Open Access, online journal Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & SocietyYou can follow him on Twitter @eritskes.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 25, 2013 8:54 am

    You raise questions that indeed need to be asked and discussed. Part of the responsibility of researchers and analysts associated with a movement need to help answer them by examining particular groups and individuals thoroughly before recommending them as allies. As you observed earlier, Occupy and Idle No More are not homogenous; they have internal tension as well as external. I am curious, though, at your use of the phrase neoliberal social justice. While I think I know what you mean in using this oxymoron, I do not see it as representative of Occupy. There were no doubt neoliberals involved in attempting to hijack Occupy, but I did not see them as successful in that effort. As the overarching mission of neoliberalism, the globalization of poverty is Occupy’s arch enemy. While there is more involved with Idle No More, that alone might be common ground worth exploring.

  2. HaifischGeweint permalink
    January 25, 2013 7:39 pm

    Reblogged this on HaifischGeweint and commented:
    A must read for white Settlers aching to be allies or already engaging in resistance alongside indigenous peoples. But especially for those white Settler allies who can’t (or won’t) distinguish between racism and colonialism (smells to me like a form of privilege-avoidance behaviour).

  3. Val permalink
    February 4, 2013 10:38 am

    As an ally and a Native Studies student I think it is time that settlers recognize actively indigenous resurgence.

  4. February 17, 2013 2:06 pm

    Reblogged this on I Am Because We Are and commented:
    A piece on the validity of “allies” and their involvement in the Idle No More indigenous movement. Though the questions address a specific group of “affected people” and the “allies” related to that movement, I think the questions posited are applicable to the relationship of allies to all kinds of movements. The central question of this article (and of any movement) is this:
    “When white allies (and I write from and to this particular location) are unable to set aside their privileges, are unable to see solidarity as a violent and unsettling process for themselves, and unable to take a seat and listen when needed – when does the cost of winning, growing, finding and educating allies become time better spent growing and resurging Indigenous capacity and community?”
    Of course these are age-old questions. But as someone who most often finds myself positioned as an “ally” to the movements that I’m passionate about, these questions become directly personal about the roles I can and can’t play in those movements. As someone wanting to devote my life to the work of social justice, it’s a difficult line to walk; the work that nourishes me is not always the work that nourishes the movement. How does one disengage enough to look “objectively” at the effects of their actions, while still remaining fully, wholly, and naturally present in their work?
    Another question I’d like to put to you guys; Are allies necessary for the success of a movement? If so, when? How?


  1. The Green Ghost over Red River: White Dudes Co-opting Indigenous Resistance Since 1871 | Decolonization

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