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.