Staying relevant in Indigenous Studies as a non-Indigenous scholar.

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.

Fighting for Our Lives: #NoDAPL in Historical Context

img_0879by Nick Estes

Little has been written about the historical relationship between the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline and the longer histories of Oceti Sakowin (The Great Sioux Nation) resistance against the trespass of settlers, dams, and pipelines across the Mni Sose, the Missouri River. This is a short analysis of the historical and political context of the #NoDAPL movement and the transformative possibilities of the current struggle.

Thousands have camped along the banks of the Missouri River at Cannon Ball in the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which promises to carry half a million barrels of heavy crude oil a day across four states, under the Missouri River twice, and under the Mississippi River toward the Gulf of Mexico for global export. Camp Oceti Sakowin, Red Warrior Camp, and Sacred Stone Camp, the various Native-led groups standing in…

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Standing Together: On the Brink of History

We are currently witnessing the largest collaboration of North American Indigenous nations in a generation, coming together to stand with the Standing Rock Sioux to protect water and land resources against yet more oil pipeline expansions in North Dakota. However, when I say we are witnessing, I mean those of us who follow the relevant social media accounts, Facebook pages, or have friends and family who are there, at the blockade. What is happening in North Dakota is a movement of historic proportions, a display of Indigenous unity not seen since the Red Power era of the 1960’s and 70’s, and yet to the larger public, this event is invisible, unreported, and unnoticed, much like Indigenous people themselves for the past century or so.

I was originally planning to write a blog about national monuments and the erasure of American Indians through commemoration, and I may still do so, but current events have taken over my personal news feed to such an extent that I felt compelled to write about this. In 1964, Herb Blatchford described the fish-in protests of the Pacific Northwest as the “largest intertribal gathering since the Little Big Horn.” Clyde Warrior described it as a “the beginning of a new era in American Indian history” when “American Indians would no longer sit on the sidelines.” That event kick-started a movement that led to Alcatraz in 1969, Wounded Knee in 1973, and the passing of the Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act in 1975. Self-determination was a massive shift in federal Indian policy away from termination and assimilation that is still (mostly, when the Supreme Court is not busy undermining it) in effect today. A new era indeed.

Current events feel that significant, as if a major point in history is happening again, right now. Back then the issue at stake was the right to expect treaty promises to be upheld. Now it is the right to expect access to pure, uncontaminated, and water. It is inspiring to watch video links of tribal coaches bringing people into the campground, to see photographs of people filling up their cars with supplies before travelling to the campground. To read statement after statement from Indigenous nations offering support to the Standing Rock Sioux. To see video of horses in full regalia being ridden at the front-line of the blockade. And so much more. In 1964, Blatchford, Warrior, and other Red Power leaders such as Mel Thom, Hank Adams, Billy Frank Jr. made local news, international news, and even an appearance on the Today Show for a few of them, bolstered as their fight was by public support from Marlon Brando, one of the most famous actors in the world at that time. Even then though, there was no major national news coverage, and even now, that support has been historically erased and replaced by his public support for the American Indian Movement at the Oscars in 1973. Moving back to the present however, and rather ironically, another Little Big Horn reference has been made. I apologize in advance that I cannot remember exactly who said it, or whether I saw it on Facebook or Twitter, but in reaction to the alliance of the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho at this time, in this era, it was noted – to paraphrase – that the last time these three nations came together, they kicked Custer’s ass. Such is the sense that history is being made. Again.

Pipelines leak. A lot. And this has motivated this current collaboration of indigenous peoples. The sheer scale of collaborations between citizens of so many nations, many traditionally enemies, and formal letters of support from tribal governments, is unprecedented in the modern era. On a numbers scale, there are probably as many people – it has been noted that many are not warriors, activists, protestors (protectors is much more apt) but just people. Concerned Indigenous people standing up for clean, unpolluted water – gathered at the pipeline as there were at the 1964 fish-ins.

So, we currently have over 1000 American Indians blockading a pipeline construction site in North Dakota, and almost no major media coverage. Despite the country’s obsession with oil. So far, I have seen only a story on NBC news’ website, but no television coverage beyond Democracy Now. Likewise, no major newspaper coverage beyond Indian Country Today and The Guardian. In a ‘news’ cycle perpetually looping on Hillary Clinton’s emails, Donald Trump’s latest faux par, and Ryan Lochte’s bathroom shenanigans, it seems there is no space to cover an Indigenous movement to protect the land, the water, and the planet. Not that this is especially surprising. In January, when global leaders gathered in Paris to discuss climate change, they, and the media, ignored the thousands of Indigenous people, from all over the planet who were demanding access to the talks and the ability to share their knowledge, and thousands of years’ worth of experience in sustainability. Despite the fact that 80% of world’s biodiversity is found on Indigenous lands, which accounts for 10% (legally recognized) of the global landmass, Indigenous voices and concerns are too often ignored when it comes to solving current climate issue, or trying to prevent future problems such as pipeline leaks. The media were quick enough to congratulate themselves for covering the Flint water crisis after thousands of homes were supplied with contaminated water, but are slow to cover this attempt to stop such future contamination taking place. Maybe human misery makes better headlines, and so the media would rather wait until after the water has been contaminated, which will eventually happen.

Pipelines leak.  A lot. And river cleanups are a lengthy and expensive process. According to reports, the pipeline under discussion was deliberately moved south away from urban areas to avoid potential leakage issues. It was this decision that has brought the pipeline route so close to the Standing Rock Sioux and their reservation. Which to some observers, makes this simply an “Indian issue” which is something that can be conveniently ignored. As it was when the Navajo had their rivers poisoned by the EPA, of all organizations. And that speaks again to erasure, which I will cover more in the other blog.

But this is also the crux of ignoring the current clarion call of America’s Indigenous nations, who are also beginning to receive support from Indigenous peoples from other continents. This water that they are trying to protect, is not just theirs. This water is for all of us. As a popular saying goes, and again I’m paraphrasing, “everybody loves the Indian who talks about the land and the water, but they hate the Indian who talks about the genocide and removal.” It’s about time we started listening to those who do both.  Instead of romanticizing and eulogizing about the indigenous relationship to the land, we should recognize that this romanticized relationship was science then and is science now. Indigenous people are our global conscience. They didn’t ask to be, our incessant desire for land, expansion, subjugation and plunder has created this role for them. And I’m sure they would much prefer it if we were capable of nurturing the world without them having to remind us all the time. But, now that they are, we need to listen.

Pipelines leak. A lot. And the leaked oil gets into our land, and our water. Without land, we cannot grow, or graze, food. Without water we cannot grow, or graze, food. Or plants, for oxygen. And without land, or water, or food, or oxygen, we die. Or become ever more dependent on those who do have land, and water, and food, and oxygen. So we need to take notice, and bear witness to what is hopefully the beginning of a new cycle. Of Indigenous voices being heard. Of Indigenous people being recognized, as people, as experts, as equals.  We need to stand together with the Indigenous peoples of the world. We need to bear witness to history being made, as the black snake of Lakota prophecy is beaten back, and the 7th Generation speaks up for us all.  We need to start listening, before water is like oil – inaccessible for everyday people at the sources, and only accessible from a few corporate monoliths who have complete power over supply, demand, and (inexorably ever-rising) cost.