On Being An Indigenous Ally

alliesI posted a book list earlier this month, and a surprisingly large number of people have shown interest. So I thought maybe I should explain myself, as best I can.

Most allies of Indigenous peoples seem to be non-Indigenous settlers in Indigenous lands. I am an indigenous British woman – the small ‘i’ denotes that I am a native of a colonising, not a colonised, country. I do not see Indigenous peoples on the streets of my country; I rarely read about them in my national newspapers, and when I do, they are in the international section that reports news from other countries.

So why am I an Indigenous ally?

Good question.

I wasn’t taught about colonisation at school. Our history lessons were all about British and European monarchs, mostly kings, and wars and conquests. People of colour didn’t feature (I wonder, now, how my school-friends of colour felt about our history lessons) and women played bit-parts.

I didn’t like history at school, I think mainly because I didn’t identify with the people it featured (not being royal, or a man). When I was in my 20s, more interesting history books began to be published, including Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking works Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain and Black People in the British Empire (and The Women’s History of the World by Rosalind Miles, but that’s a different blog post). These books taught me some things about the roles people of colour had played in the history of my people, and about how my people had oppressed and exploited others. Then ten years later, when I was doing my masters’ degree in social research methods, the first edition of Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s seminal work Decolonising Methodologies was published. That book taught me about the role of research in colonialism.

It horrifies me that a majority of my fellow Brits think we should be proud of our Imperial legacy, and that over three times as many people think colonised countries are better off as a result than think they are worse off. It seems to me, from all I have read, and heard, and seen online, that the opposite is true. Colonisation is also, usually, spoken of as something that is past. I don’t agree with that either. Professor Bagele Chilisa of Botswana expresses it beautifully:

Colonization can be described as an attempt by the Western world to order the whole world according to Western standards of culture, politics, economic structures, and policies. (2012:81).

This is still happening. For example, several UK honours, given to British people by our Queen for exceptional achievements or service, still reference the British Empire. More broadly, Western peoples are still getting richer from colonisation, e.g. through buying cheap clothes made, or cheap food grown, by people of colour who work in appalling conditions for very little money. There must be many other examples of the Western world dictating how other parts of the world can act. I haven’t been able to find any research quantifying the current benefits accruing to colonisers from colonisation – we need a political economist with skills equivalent to Peter Fryer’s – but I am certain they exist.

This is so wrong and so unjust that it needs bigger words than ‘wrong’ and ‘unjust’. It is evil and I want no part of it, but I am a white person from a colonising country so I have a part in it whether I want one or not. The question that remains for me, then, is how to play that part.

I’m still figuring that out. Some things I know to do, such as shop and bank as ethically as possible, and talk to other white people about our role in colonialism and oppression. I support Indigenous activism where I can. I am reading, citing, and promoting Indigenous literature in my field. I think, too, that I may be able to help with my own writing – particularly my next book, and the second edition of my last book which will follow in due course.

There are probably other things I could do and should do. If you have thoughts or ideas, please pass them on in the comments. There are also things I would like to do. Last year I was able to attend one 90-minute seminar presented by Indigenous researchers, and the year before I was able to help an Indigenous researcher plan a couple of research projects they wanted to do (I learned at least as much as they did). Apart from that, all I have learned has come from books. I would love to spend some time with one or more Indigenous communities, to learn some of the things that can’t be learned from books, such as: how to be a better ally.

Clare Land has written a very good book called Decolonizing Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles (2015). It is really useful, but as Land is an ‘Anglo-identified non-Aboriginal person living and working in south-east Australia’, it is inevitably focused on Australia. I wonder whether I could write something on how to be an ally for coloniser people who are not settlers. It would be different from Clare Land’s book, though I don’t know in what ways. I hope, over time, I may be able to find out.

7 thoughts on “On Being An Indigenous Ally

  1. Helen
    a quote from one of my articles, hopefully relevant for what you are asking:

    “Critical scholar Mark Curtis (1995) analyses the role of Britain and other powerful states in relation to eradicating or promoting poverty, as follows:

    ‘The history of British foreign policy is partly one of complicity in some of the world’s worst horrors. If we were honest, we would see Britain’s role in the world to a large extent as a story of crimes against humanity. Currently, contrary to the extraordinary rhetoric of New Labour leaders and other elites, policies are continuing on this traditional course, systematically making the world more abusive of human rights as well as more unequal and less secure (p. 432). One basic fact [is] that the mass poverty and destitution that exist in much of the Third World are direct products of the structure of the international system. Moreover, an elementary truth is that the world’s powerful states have pursued policies with regard to the Third World which knowingly promote poverty. It is clear that the policies they have encouraged or imposed on the Third World – in the earlier postwar period following military intervention and in the later period through the international financial institutions – have betrayed no institutional interest in eradicating poverty or in promoting a form of economic development meaningful to the poor. Rather, policies have been imposed with the understanding that they will not contribute to these ends’ (p. 236).

    With this analysis in mind, we can ask what Britain’s role was in deleting Kurdistan and minority protection in Turkey from the Lausanne Peace Treaty in 1923? In economic terms, the war against linguistic and other human rights, based on false ideologies, is expensive, both in terms of revenue lost, and in terms of completely failing in the creation of a state where minorities might feel solidarity and identify with the state if they had some autonomy and self-determination. The highly respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI (2011 http://www.sipri.org) writes that without Turkey’s war on Kurds, over 10 billion $ could have been used 2000-2007 for education, health and economic development in Kurdish areas in Turkey.”

    This is from a book on multilingual education in Iran: Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove (2016). Mother-Tongue Based Multilingual Education: Legal Frameworks, Theoretical Legacies and Historical Experiences. A Conversation with Tove Skutnabb-Kangas. In Kalan, Amir (ed). Who is afraid of multilingual education? Four conversations with Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, Jim Cummins, Ajit Mohanty and Stephen Bahry. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 16-61.

    The four of us being interviewed are seen by the Iranian Kurdish editor as “allies” of the kind you describe. None of us is Iranian or Kurdish.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Helen,
    Many Indigenous people also feel the same way about history classes, where we quickly come to realize that our histories are not represented in history lessons. It is a driving force for many to change things in our societies and institutions.

    While reading your post I immediately thought about Coll Thrush’s new book “Indigenous London: Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire.” This article sums it up nicely: http://rabble.ca/news/2016/10/indigenous-london-re-imagines-colonial-telling-londons-past

    Like you mentioned in an earlier post, I also haven’t read as much as I like mostly due to the cost of books, so I haven’t actually read this book yet. However, I think it is a fantastic way to turn “the gaze” on its head and find the Indigenous histories within urban centres. I think it’s one small way that we can be Indigenous allies, by sharing with others and acknowledging the Indigenous histories within larger society.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. kia ora Helen I find the small ‘i’ that you use as indigenous for yourself highly problematic and contradictory to the idea of being an ally to Indigenous Peoples, rather that your framing of ‘Being an Indigenous Ally’ which is an incorrect assertion. To claim indigenous with a small ‘i’ for yourself as a British citizen does not provide support for the political nature of the struggles for Indigenous Peoples colonised by the British, such as our experience in Aotearoa but rather it serves to co-opt the political nature of the term Indigenous. I find that the aliies that are most useful for our struggles are those that do not 1. co-opt our terms or language for themselves, 2. do not assume a knowledge of our literature by posting their own list of what they consider to be the key Indigenous methodologies texts but rather share without the inferenne of being all knowing because you just ‘came across’ it, when those texts have been a part of our literature and movement for near 30 years. 3. Are willing to engage in ways that Indigenous Peoples believe is most helpful for our struggles. I would suggest that you explore more deeply your idea of what it means to be an ally and focus on decolonising your own space before you assume to decolonise others.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kia ora Leonie
      I fully agree on your first point. What many of us use about minorities who are not Indigenous is “autochthonous”. The term is mostly connected to minorities, not demographic majorities. And “minority” can de defined on the basis of demography, or it can be defined on the basis of power, i.e. even demographic majorities can be minoritized (as, for instance, in many parts of Africa). I use the abbreviation ITM (Indigenous/tribal peoples, minorities, and minoritized people). In many countries, e.g. in Asia, what Indigenous peoples call Indigenous, are officially called “tribal”, and they are accepted as Indigenous by the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

      So I suggest that both Indigenous and indigenous are reserved to Indigenous peoples (and the definition of Indigenous peoples is of course also complex, to say the least – this complexity is, for instance, used, by Finnish politicians to legitimate Finland’s non-ratification of ILO 169). The capital I is not used by all Indigenous peoples either – or all outsiders who write about them.


    • Hi Leonie, thanks for taking the time to share your views. Interestingly, a comment that arrived around the same time on my previous post, from Australian Aboriginal Associate Professor Sandy O’Sullivan, suggested almost the opposite, i.e. that I should describe myself as an Indigenous Brit. So clearly the terminology here is contested, but I don’t think it helps to claim ownership of language. I don’t think the English language is yours, or mine, or anyone’s more than anyone else’s. Also, I have not claimed anywhere that I posted a list of the ‘key Indigenous methodologies texts’, nor would I have the audacity to do so. I stated that I was posting a list of books from my personal library, and that it was not an exhaustive list. My aim is indeed to engage in one of the ways that some Indigenous peoples believe will be helpful, i.e. by engaging with their literature from a Euro-Western perspective and including it in Euro-Western scholarship. I am quite sure that not all Indigenous peoples will believe this to be helpful, because I know that “Indigenous peoples” does not denote one homogenous group, but an enormous diversity of peoples with a great range of views and opinions. It amazes me that so many Euro-Western scholars know little or nothing about Indigenous peoples’ scholarship, particularly in my own field of research methods where so much excellent work has been, and is being, done by Indigenous researchers. I agree with the Indigenous scholars who think this needs to change, and I am doing what I can to help.


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