I will start with these quick, but unequivocal, statements. I am not Indigenous. I do not claim a mythical ‘cultural heritage.’ I do not seek validation by parading Indigenous family members as ‘proof’ of my connectedness. I do not claim DNA (I actually have no idea what random mixture my DNA consists of). I do not claim to speak for Indigenous Peoples. Although I identify as Scouse, I am, for all intents and purposes, white. I am also, in the most literal sense of the word, a Settler, having migrated to the USA only twelve years ago – in 2005.
I do not make these statements seeking applause for owning my whiteness or settlerism, but to make a point. The point being: It took me less than a minute to type these words. It is THAT easy to acknowledge my whiteness. Why am I making this point? Because of the increasing number of examples of PretIndians in academia, (faculty and support services), literature, politics, and other aspects of public life, who continue to falsely claim Indigeneity for themselves. Or, as with the current furore over Write magazine in Canada, seek to dismiss the very existence of cultural appropriation, or as is more often the case, to deny that settlerism is real.
How is this connected to staying relevant in Indigenous Studies? I believe that answer is twofold. First, because such actions are quite possibly the most invasive and damaging forms of cultural appropriation; are by their very nature unethical; reinforce structural and institutional racism; and create pain, anger, and suspicion, among Indigenous peoples. Second, because those who seek to falsely claim Indigeneity, either through identity or heritage, appear to do so as a means of acquiring instant validation, and therefore relevance in their field, which is usually only at least a couple of degrees away from being connected to indigenous Studies (or it various incarnations – American Indian Studies; Native American Studies, First Nations Studies; etc.), and without any concern for the damage that they are causing.
Such actions mean that spaces often reserved or at least intended for Indigenous voices are now being occupied by imposters. Why this is dangerous and problematic has been articulated much more eloquently than I could ever hope to do so by such Indigenous thinkers as Kim Tallbear, Vince Diaz, Suzan Shown Harjo, Glen Coulthard, Tanya Tagaq, Robert Warrior, Adrienne Keene, and too many others to mention. In most cases, the issues that result from such imposters taking these spaces include silencing actual native voices, stories, and intellectualisms; creating false narratives; of claiming lived experiences that never happened; of exemplifying and strengthening the sense of settler entitlement; and the commodification of Indigenous identities and cultures. Settler entitlement itself ensures that Indigenous realities remain secondary to the false narratives being displayed, or claimed, or validated. And such pursuit of validation and relevance renders, at least in the eyes of willing audiences, actual Native voices as invalid, and irrelevant, especially if the imposter is rehashing the age-old, hyper-romanticized, notions of Indigenous peoples. Hearing these romantic myths ‘validated’ by imposters is the epitome of settler entitlement, and the mirror reflection of the imposter’s own desires. As the imposter seeks validation through perpetuating agreeable stories, so too does the non-Indigenous audience seek validation in hearing such tales of innocence and inferiority, which remove all evidence of settler guilt/responsibility in the process. In such instances, actual Indigenous voices, especially those seeking to dispel such romantic and racist idealism, sound discordant and are unwelcome intrusions to the blissful white noise of settler entitlement.
On a basic, subliminal ego level, the idea of being immediately accepted as an ‘expert’ on Indigenous histories and cultures is appealing, as is the idea of being welcomed without question or mistrust by Indigenous peoples and scholars, but personally, never to the point of pretending I am actually Indigenous. As a scholar I expect my work to be critiqued and peer reviewed anyway, so while it sometimes feels ‘inconvenient’ to have an extra level of scrutiny attached because I choose to work in Indigenous Studies/History, it is also entirely expected. After generations of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and other ‘ists’ writing paternalistic, patronizing, dismissive texts that claim to speak ‘for’ the ‘simple’ and ‘innocent’ yet ‘tragic’, and ‘tragically misunderstood,’ Native peoples; or creating laws, policies, and systems, that sought to suffocate Indigenous peoples; those of us who inherit that legacy must be prepared to prove we do not continue it. We must be prepared to answer any and all questions about our motives and intentions for working in this field. And we must be prepared to show that when we write about, and not for Indigenous Peoples, we are being informed by Indigenous scholars, academics, artists, and storytellers, rather than by the western worldview which we naturally inhabit. We must be prepared to prove that we are not distorting Indigenous voices, claiming these voices and experiences as our own, simplifying these voices, or seeking to translate these voices into our own western framework. And in addition to the growing number of exceptional Indigenous scholars out there, we also have some outstanding non-Indigenous scholars that we can learn from – scholars like Frederick Hoxie and Theda Purdue, who created a new legacy decades ago by writing ethically sourced histories of Indigenous peoples, and always ensured that their works showcased, and were informed by, Indigenous voices.
And for me, this is how to stay relevant as a non-Indigenous scholar in Indigenous Studies. To listen to, and learn carefully from, Indigenous voices, scholars, activists, educators, artists and community members, and to as often as possible, use my position to shine a light on, and hold a torch to these voices and peoples, humbly moving to the side as I do so. To always stand next to, and not in front of, or in place of, Indigenous peoples. To be an ally and advocate in ways that actually help rather than ways that make me feel good. To accept that I will always be learning, and will always, at least to some, be outside of the cultures and communities I work with and write about, no matter how deeply I am welcomed into them. To always ask permission, and accept that I am likely to hear ‘no’ when asking if I can write or speak about certain issues or aspects of cultures. To respect every no that I hear. To learn to engage with Indigenous peoples on their terms and in their spaces – or more bluntly, to show respect. To be willing to accept that I will make mistakes, and to be willing to hear what those mistakes are (I may well have even made a few in this essay, although I sincerely hope not). To accept that I will often be met with caution, if not outright mistrust by Indigenous individuals and communities, and that it is my responsibility to earn a way past that caution and mistrust, rather than an inherent right to be accepted openly without my motives being questioned. To accept that I will be questioned, often, by students, and colleagues, and even family members, and asked to prove myself, often on a daily basis. To accept that for every interview with a ‘source’ that I wish to conduct, I may have to submit to being interviewed by them beforehand. To accept that if I take from a community – whether that be through knowledge, stories, memories, or lessons shared – I must be willing and prepared to give back to that community.
And finally, to accept that even though I am a settler who does not try to seek validation by falsely claiming Indigeneity, I will constantly have to answer and apologize for those of us who do. As I said at the beginning, I did not write this for applause or validation, but to make a point. From my perspective it is far easier, and much more ethical, and intellectually and emotionally rewarding, to acknowledge and own my whiteness and work my way to trust from there. And so, on that note, even though I try always to earn respect and validation through hard work and ethical scholarship, I sincerely apologize for those of us who seek to cheat their way to such respect. And I sincerely wish that they would stop.