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.

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?