About thesarahhunt

Mixed Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwaguilth), Ukrainian and English ancestry Recently completed my PhD at SFU Thankful to live on Lekwungen homelands Lover of whales, fuzzy dogs, and one particular rooster Learn more about my academic work at http://sfu.academia.edu/SarahHunt

Speaking For, Speaking Beside: thoughts about consensual allyship

This past weekend, I attended the local Pride parade for the first time in about 6 years. I was happily surprised to see that some things had changed at the festivities, namely the heightened visibility and inclusion of two-spirit and local Indigenous communities. At the front of the parade, I found my cousin walking proudly in her button blanket along with a number of other people wearing regalia. And behind them, several Indigenous youth-serving organizations had joined together to create a float for two-spirit youth and their supporters. Babies, youth, adults and elders drummed, walked and sang together, creating a great presence of Indigenous folks in the parade. At the festival site following the parade, a local elder gave a welcome at the beginning of the celebrations, and then a drum group offered some songs.  This was all new to me. One of the reasons I had stayed away for so long was the lack of inclusion of two-spirit people and acknowledgement of Indigenous territories in previous years’ festivities.

It was this historical lack of inclusion that left me unsurprised at what unfolded in the midst of all this. A queer group with a social justice framework that puts on local events brought a banner to Pride saying the event was taking place on unceded Indigenous territories. According to friends who were involved, they were told by a festival organizer to take the banner down because it was political, and ‘Pride isn’t political’. As the group members spread word of this, they decided to hold the banner up anyway, making it visible for people as they entered the festival grounds. Unexpectedly, the festival organizer had a change of heart and said they could put the banner up afterall. Yet the damage had been done. Acknowledging that Victoria is on stolen land was too much for the Pride organizers (or one organizer, at least), despite their increased attempts to recognize Indigenous protocol and history, and to increase two-spirit visibility.

Since then, I’ve had conversations with a few people who are mobilizing to call out the Pride organizers on their action to remove the banner. They want to insist that Pride is not just about being queer but that other intersecting axes of power and identity must be integrated as well, and that it is indeed political. This causes me to wonder how non-Indigenous folks who want to support Indigenous communities and decolonial practices might engage in consensual allyship with Indigenous people who have been working to build relationships with the Pride organizers. And what about Indigenous folks like myself who are not from these territories, but are also visitors? What role might someone like me take in deciding what strategies are best for strengthening relationships between queer organizations and local nations? How do we avoid jeopardizing the work of Indigenous organizations and communities that might have led to the otherwise increased two-spirit presence? At the same time, how do straight members of local Indigenous nations work as allies with queer Indigenous people who are not from here, but who live in Victoria and want to create greater visibility at Pride? There are many complex issues that arise in considering the dynamics of creating allyship with one another across our Indigeneity, as well as with non-Indigenous supporters.

There is a danger in allies speaking over or speaking for those whom they’re trying to support. Representatives from local nations were at the events, and could clearly speak for themselves, though they may not have known any of this was going on because the banner was not theirs to begin with. In my experience, consensual allyship requires that we, as allies, first focus on our own relationships with those with whom we are claiming alliance. So for community groups that want to integrate a decolonial framework into their organizing, it’s important to look first at building relationships with peoples of this land, not only elders and chiefs, but also two-spirit youth and other community members. After all, if we don’t strengthen our own internal relationships, how will we know when and how to act as allies?

As we look to increasing communication and understanding for next years’ Pride festivities, how might local Indigenous communities and two-spirit people continue to form the vision for their inclusion in the parade and festival? How might non-Indigenous organizations and individuals support these efforts, while avoiding speaking for and over others? What forms of visibility are important here? What role do banners have in making the vitality and history of Indigenous peoples known? And when are other forms of visibility and inclusion of Indigenous people, knowledge, culture and histories more appropriate? I hope that by next year, as we walk, sing and celebrate alongside one another, we will have learned much about consensual allyship and be able to walk more strongly together.

Sex Work and Self-Determination: in solidarity with the Bedford case

On Thursday June 13th, the Supreme Court of Canada will begin hearing a case on the constitutionality of Canadian prostitution laws. As sex workers and their allies take to the streets, I feel compelled to reflect on some of my reasons for supporting the decriminalization of sex work. My arguments are framed, in part, in response to the view advocated by some Indigenous women that colonialism is at the heart of Indigenous women’s involvement in sex work, and as such, it should be abolished by arresting johns, pimps and, in some cases, sex workers themselves. In this view, increasing the breadth and force of law is seen as a way to crack down on sex work, as it is seen as inherently violent. This stance is taken by a number of Indigenous activists and organizations across Canada, and unfortunately there seems to be little dialogue between people who hold this view and those of us who see a different solution to the violence faced by Indigenous sex workers. Because I want to be clear here – my work is all about ending violence as well. Addressing intergenerational, widespread, normalized violence in our communities has been at the heart of my life and work for as long as I can remember. This includes the disproportionate rates of violence experienced by our relations working in the sex trade.

And so, here are some of the reasons why I, as an Indigenous woman, support decriminalization of sex work:

1. Canadian law is violent. As Indigenous people, we know this more clearly than anyone. Police, social workers and other state officials have used the law to remove us from our lands, remove our children from our homes, and lock up our loved ones in schools, jails, and hospitals. At the same time, laws against murder, abduction, sexual abuse and other forms of interpersonal violence have failed to stop these crimes from being committed against us at overwhelming rates. Why do we continue to seek answers to violence within a violent system? I fail to see how laws prohibiting various elements of sex work (communicating, benefiting from, or running a bawdy house) do anything but strengthen the hold this violent system has in our lives.

2.  Relatedly, Canadian law is not about healing. It is a punitive system. While a courtroom may be a place where a victim can have their truth heard, it is also a site of power in which the ‘truths’ of some people are valued over others. I have heard this repeatedly from women and girls who have testified as witnesses in cases where they were raped or assaulted. Often the court process itself can be retraumatizing or entail further violence, such as when witnesses are harassed about their credibility (as is often the case for Indigenous youth and certainly for sex workers).

3. Canadian law is carried out by police, lawyers and judges who use their discretion the application of law. The legal system is created within, and used to sustain, a racist colonial society. Indigenous people are disproportionately brought into this system as offenders. Canadian jails are filled with Indigenous people. In 2011, our relations made up a quarter of the youth age 12-17 who were locked up. I have no doubt that laws which prohibit aspects of sex work are being, and will continue to be, enforced in ways that are biased against Indigenous people.

4. It is argued by some that patriarchy and colonialism are at the root of sex work, and therefore sex work should be abolished. Can’t the same be said of marriage? Aren’t Indigenous women violated, raped and murdered by intimate partners, including spouses, at three times the rate of Canadian women? If our streets, workplaces and are homes are all shaped by patriarchal colonialism, I see no reason to support abolishing sex work without arguing for the abolition of every other gendered activity in which we are violated. Instead, it seems more useful to agree that colonialism structures our lives as Indigenous women and then choose to center our agency, choice, mobility and relationships in resistance to this structure in all aspects of our lives. This includes centering Indigenous women’s agency, choice and mobility in sex work.

5. Violence against Indigenous girls and women has been justified by stereotypes about our sexuality since colonialism began. This is not unique to Turtle Island; it is true for Indigenous people all over the world. We know the whore stigma all too well. As Andrea Smith, Lee Maracle, Naomi Sayers (read an interview here) and others have documented, this can be seen in the ways that violence against Indigenous women has been blamed on our own supposed immorality. But in trying to distance ourselves from these stereotypes and the stigma around sexuality and sex work, we have distanced ourselves from sex workers themselves. This is a violent strategy that only leaves sex workers more isolated from our families and communities. I cannot support this strategy. Instead, I put my energy toward mending relations with sex workers as vital members of our communities.

6. Abolitionist rhetoric reeks strongly of the savior complex. Sex workers are constantly portrayed as the most down and out group of people in all of society, in need of being saved from their awful lives. Indigenous people have been similarly portrayed in this light, which was historically used to justify the government’s control over our communities in the Indian Act, including supposedly taking responsibility for educating us in residential schools, replacing our systems of governance with a federally-created band system, and having a dirty hand in every aspect of our families and homes. History has proven that the hand of the government will not ‘save’ us. And as sex workers reiterate over and over again, they do not need to be saved. They need to be heard. They need control over their own lives, work and choices. As an Indigenous woman, this call for self-determination is something that rings true for me as well. You can read more about the needs of Indigenous sex workers here in this joint statement from the Native Youth Sexual Health Network.

7. The violence that Indigenous sex workers face while working cannot be isolated from all the other forms of violence they might experience as Indigenous people. Challenging the normalization of violence against Indigenous people, especially two-spirits, girls, and women, means addressing our humanity. This requires broad social change, education, listening to each other, and creating reciprocal relations of responsibility. The law cannot do this for us.

8. Sex workers are a diverse bunch. There is no one solution to creating safety and autonomy for all sex workers, given the very different social, economic and geographic realities in which they live and work. This means that even if sex work is decriminalized, not all sex workers can call on the police for help (a vast understatement), and indeed many sex workers, especially Indigenous and other racialized people, will continue to feel the unequal oppressive power of the law in their daily lives. Rather than advocating for more legal intervention into Indigenous peoples’ lives and homes, diverse community-specific solutions are needed to increase choices for sex workers. From what I have heard from sex workers, the way to support this is to advocate for less criminalization of their work.

As someone who hasn’t worked in the sex trade I cannot, and would not, speak for sex workers. But as a Kwakwaka’wakw woman who has worked in alliance with sex workers for more than 15 years, I think it’s important to vocalize my support of decriminalization as connected to broader struggles to address violence. On Thursday, and the days that follow, I will continue to conduct anti-violence work in our communities in solidarity with the sex workers and their allies who are taking this case to the Supreme Court. This is an important case that all Indigenous people should be concerned about, as an integral part of our broader struggles for self-determination.

Beyond #

I’ve been thinking lately of the things we have no words for. As a writer and academic, this is a scary thought to linger on. But as a Kwakwaka’wakw person, it makes sense that the English language was not designed to capture and describe my reality. Although the arts provide powerful tools that allow us to open ourselves up to emotional experiences, I am not an artist. And so I continue to wrestle with words that were never intended to describe the landscape of my ancestors’ lives.

Over the years of working on violence, I frequently find myself getting frustrated as I write, talk, read and listen. How many times, in how many ways, can I talk about the prevalence of sexual abuse? How can I bend the English language to capture the enormity of loss and grief that extends across Turtle Island, as we mourn our lost loved ones? Recently, I found myself giving up on writing a particular article. Enough. Who cares if I write these words on this computer screen and submit it to this journal? What difference will it make anyway? Words become meaningless if they don’t move people enough to make embodied, emotional and material change. That’s the only way the normalization of colonial violence will shift. We need to be moved deeply, pushing back against the newsflash sensationalism that ordinarily numbs our reactions to everyday colonialism. Weak emotive reflexes have become a way of life. But as I shut off my computer and go for a walk, I remind myself that there is a cost to giving up. It means colonialism has won, once again, in silencing efforts to change colonial norms. Resistance and survival go hand in hand. And so I must return and struggle once again with putting words to something unimaginable.

As I write, I’ve been reflecting on moments of transformative change in my own life, trying to find words to describe them. How can embodied learning be shared with one another when it necessarily falls beyond the English language? In a society increasingly concerned with hashtags, tweets and sound bites, how do we move one another?

And how do we connect meaningfully with people who aren’t able to be at events or who can’t come together with others who share their interests? I’m thinking here of youth who are living in isolated communities, as well as people whose movement is restricted due to limited access to social spaces, social anxiety or illness. Again, how do we move one another across barriers of time and space, so as to motivate changes in one another’s learning?

I recently had the privilege of speaking about the annual women’s memorial march alongside four other coastal Indigenous women. In turn, we each shared personal stories and historical information with the 100+ people in attendance. In the quiet, dimly lit hall, we stood in front of photos projected on the wall above us, and paid testament to realities of loss, trauma and resistance that are at the heart of what it means to be an Indigenous woman today. As each woman spoke, she would often well up with emotion catching in her throat. Searching for words, or the strength to share those words, she would falter. And as this happened, the rest of us standing behind her reached out and laid a hand, or two hands, on her body. Touching an elbow or a shoulder, or wrapping an arm around her back, we stood together, moving silently, sharing our strength. It was remarkable, the feeling of moving together in support of one another. And slowly, I could feel each of us gather our strength, clear out the blockage of words in our throat, and move on with this communal resilience.

It was powerful.  A lesson beyond words. Something that still swells in my heart many days later. I know that the next time I’m standing alone at a podium speaking about violence to a room full of strangers, I can call on the strength of these hands on my back. My body will remember.

And now, here in my living room, I search the English language for ways to share this lesson that my body so vividly recalls. For me, this is where real change happens. Beyond words. It can’t be captured in a tweet or a hashtag or this blog post.

In a society that increasingly relies on the branding of social movements in order for them to matter at all, I wonder how we can integrate this kind of embodied personal change. How do we get at what we mean by colonialism, love, violence, healing, mourning, loss, renewal? What does the hashtag #INM have to do with changing norms around colonial violence, beyond making something a speck more popular on twitter? When does a tag, a website or a t-shirt become a substitute for deep personal change? And what happens when a social movement, like the issue of violence in our communities, is not affiliated with such media?

We know the answer far too well. And this should haunt us all. It should linger in our most tender places of knowledge, the ones we have no words for.

Two Spirits, One Struggle: honoring Dolan Badger

As I sit down at my kitchen table to write this first blog post for The Becoming Collective, it feels appropriate that my mind is on the recent death of two-spirit community leader Dolan Badger. With the spirit and voice of the Idle No More movement rising up across the land in these last few months, I have felt inspired by the strength of collective mobilization around the rights and self-determination of our diverse Indigenous nations. Yet in the wake of Dolan Badger’s murder, I have wondered if there is a place for people like Dolan–those members of our families who are gifted with two spirits–in the philosophy of Idle No More. Dolan’s death has caused me to question how colonialism lingers in the form of homophobia, transphobia and shame around our sexuality. I wonder how the unfolding resurgence of Indigenous rights, self-determination and cultural strength will address these forms of colonial violence.

Dolan Badger, photo taken from his facebook page

Dolan Badger, photo taken from his facebook page

Dolan was involved in HIV and AIDS outreach in Vancouver and Edmonton, and was a youth worker with the Burnside Gorge Community Centre in Victoria, before recently moving back home to Whitecourt, Alberta. In his own life, Dolan faced racist and homophobic violence, as he shared in a newspaper article “Discovering two spirits”: “Growing up as both gay and aboriginal was difficult. I felt that I had to stay away from the two aspects of my life that defined me because I was constantly bombarded with slurs, racist insults and derogatory remarks.” As he describes, Dolan came to identify as aayahkwew or two-spirit, a gender identity distinct from male or female that wasn’t based in the Western gender binary but in Cree concepts of gender. In this embodied way, Dolan worked to reinvigorate Indigenous worldviews by insisting on his gender identity as distinctly Indigenous, undermining the imposition of colonial gender norms. While colonialism has involved imposing categories such as “Indian”, “woman” and “gay” on us, two-spirit, and the specific expressions of similar concepts in Indigenous languages, is a category that is distinctly Indigenous: in Dolan’s case, a specifically Cree expression of gender and sexuality.

At an embodied level, the Indian Act and residential schools worked to fracture Indigenous cultures and communities by imposing Western concepts of race and gender on the bodies of Indigenous peoples. Suppressing gender roles that fall beyond the gender binary (outside categories of “man” and “woman”) was central to colonial dispossession, yet these categories continue to be reinforced in much Indigenous activism and scholarship. Dolan’s own words speak to the ways that racism and homophobia work together, and his life attests to the vibrant ways two-spirit people actively resist both at the same time by proudly living as two-spirit, aayahkwew and other Indigenous expressions of gender and sexuality.

For me, as an Indigenous activist working on issues of violence in our communities, standing up against the legacy of violence perpetrated by the Canadian state must include taking a stand against the policing of our sexuality and gender roles. This means standing up against homophobic and transphobic violence, and looking at how two-spirit traditions  continue to be sidelined in the gender politics of our communities. While I’m heartened to see Indigenous women at the forefront of many Idle No More actions across the land, I yearn to see two-spirit people positioned in the same way: as the strong leaders they already are.

This collaborative blog is about the relational nature of change, creating new knowledge and reviving old knowledge, honoring connections, and working collaboratively in our learning and community-building. In this spirit, as we head out to Idle No More actions across this land, I believe we need to honor Dolan’s leadership, both as a role model who centralized Indigenous knowledge within his two-spirit identity. In his daily life, he, like many other two-spirit activists, artists, knowledge keepers and community workers, took up responsibilities that lie at the heart of Idle No More. He worked for the betterment of our futures and communities in his work on HIV and AIDS. As we stand up against colonial oppression and claim our rightful place as Indigenous nations and individuals, we and our allies should be concerned with making the kind of violence Dolan faced unacceptable. Just as we stand up for girls and women who have been murdered or abducted, for our stolen children, and for our land, we must stand up for Dolan and all our two-spirit relations.

At the next Idle No More event, I will be raising my hands in his honor, along with all of our relations who left this world too soon. Who will join me?