Allyship: Youth Activism and Indigenous Issues

By: Chef Rick Powless

It was December 1, 1955, on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama that would forever show the world that one person could make a difference, could change the world for the better.  Rosa Parks, a forty-two-year-old black woman, refused to move from her seat that the bus driver, James F. Blake had designated as a “white” section for passengers. She was removed from the bus and arrested. This sparked the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott.1

But months before Rosa Parks sparked a call for resistance, there was another black woman, a fifteen-year-old teenager named Claudette Colvin who was also from Montgomery, Alabama. As with Rosa Parks, the bus driver demanded Claudette vacate her seat and she refused, saying that she had paid her fare and she wasn’t going to move. She too, was handcuffed and arrested.2

Two individual women, one a middle-aged woman and the other a teenager were fighting a system that kept them down, discriminated against them and clearly did not recognize that ‘the times they were a changing’. When Rosa Parks was arrested, the officer asked her why she didn’t just move. Rosa Parks responded by saying,

“I would have to know for once and for all what rights I had as a human being and a citizen of Montgomery, Alabama. People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”3

Rosa Parks was “tired of giving in.” No one could blame her for this as she would have spent all her adult life being treated as a second-hand citizen. Not a human being, but as something to look down upon. Now for Claudette Colvin, she was asked later about why she was an unknown as compared to Rosa Parks. Her response is astounding, “She was an adult. They didn’t think teenagers would be reliable.”4

This paper will attempt to provide you, the reader with understanding as to how just one person can make a change, and that opportunity for change can create a vast desire for others to become involved in resistance, in a partnership to seek out a future that becomes more inclusive, more equitable for all. Through the generations we will see a decline in adult participation in boycotts and walkouts, leaving room for a more energized population of youth. The outcomes will have great impact for our future, but also for everyone involved at the time. There will be challenges and of course there will be hardships. We will even encroach upon the deceitfulness of those who will try to take advantage of being an ally to our causes. In this paper, we will focus on allyship connected to Indigenous issues. Before we begin, we need to define some terminology that we will build our foundation on. So, what is meant by Indigenous”? According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, Indigenous refers to, “of or relating to the earliest known inhabitants of a place and especially of a place that was colonized by a now-dominant group”5 This will include the many Indigenous peoples of New Zealand, Australia, Norway, Turtle Island and the Asian-Pacific rim and any other first peoples from around the world. Decolonization. For Indigenous people, decolonization is first and foremost about “achieving self-determination over their lands and social, political, cultural, and economic institutions.”6 This is important to understanding the so called, “uprising” of Indigenous protests, boycotts, and rallies seen in many parts of the world today. As with Rosa Parks, Indigenous people from all over the world and especially here in Canada, are tired of giving in. In many cases, non-Indigenous allies play pivotal roles in many of the actions focusing on Indigenous freedom and self-determination. An ally, or allyship is, “someone who supports people who are in a minority group or who are discriminated against, even though they do not belong to that group themselves.”7

Gatherings and rallies always begin with an idea, a cause, a purpose – often conceived of by one or two people. Their ideals and beliefs are shared by others, including those of different races, religions, colour, age, education and so on and so forth. Allies are very important for any cause to have stability and meaning. In August 2018, fifteen-year-old Greta Thunberg began her “Skolstrejk för klimatet” (School strike for climate). Against her parents’ initial wishes, she began to protest for climate change. She has been very outspoken and even chastised various governments for their lack of climate change policies. In a tweet from Greta on November 17, 2021, after the COP26 Climate Conference, she stated,

“Indigenous nations were not part of the negotiations despite the fact that 80% of the planet’s biodiversity survives in our territories. The problem is not only the blah, blah, blah of politicians, but the bang, bang, bang of greenwashing…”8

A non-Indigenous youth who is a true ally for Indigenous people. This is not just about her, but about the future of all people…old, young, the youth of today and of tomorrow. But what is considered for one to become a successful ally to First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people (FNMI) or the first peoples of the various territories now colonized as Canada. You must go beyond being well intentioned and sympathetic towards Indigenous peoples’ issues. Allyship requires hard, painful work: humility, respect, and commitment are some of the qualities necessary to be considered an ally by Indigenous people. This is about partnership, awareness that you, as a non-Indigenous person accept that you are a settler, a colonizer and this moment may create pain, suffering but you must push through that to truly understand how to be an ally. As Indigenous people, we have a responsibility to Mother Earth to protect her, to care for her and to nurture her so that she provides all that we need to provide for our people – the air, the water, the land, and the sky. These are vital for our survival. The Dakota Access Pipeline protests, otherwise known as #NODAPL, runs from the Bakken oil fields in Western North Dakota to Southern Illinois, crossing beneath the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, as well as under part of Lake Oahe near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Many members of the Standing Rock Tribe and surrounding communities consider the pipeline to be a serious threat to the region’s water. The construction also directly threatens ancient burial grounds and cultural sites of historic importance.9 On Tuesday November 22, 2016, a reporter ran an article stating that during the peaceful protest of the Water Protectors, the enforcement officers turned a water canon on them and in turn, the protestors began to return fire with throwing of various types of objects. A 21-year-old woman, Sophia Wilansky (a non-Indigenous ally and supporter) was severely injured and almost lost her arm after being hit by a projectile when North Dakota law enforcement officers turned a water cannon on Dakota Access Pipeline protesters and threw “less-than-lethal” weapons. She was one of thousands of activists who have travelled to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota to attempt to halt the construction of the pipeline.10 Back home, here at Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, land claims have been ongoing for over 200 years. The youth have begun to feel betrayed and arguably not heard by the federal and provincial governments. #1492 Land Back Lane refers to the site of a protest in Caledonia, Ontario, in July 2020, where both Haudenosaunee and non-Indigenous protestors known as land defenders, occupied a housing development they argue stood on unceded Six Nations territory. #1492 Land Back Lane is part of a long-standing issue between the Haudenosaunee, settlers and the government over land rights in Caledonia, dating back to the Haldimand Proclamation of 1784. In July 2021, the housing development was officially cancelled.11  There were many arrests, but most of the allies and other land defenders were released without any further charges. The stories go on and on, with the outcomes always ending in arrests and governments turning a deaf ear. But almost always, our non-Indigenous allies have been there, by our side, protesting peacefully to change the way Indigenous issues are projected in the public eye. As I mentioned previously, we are typically seen as “uprising” and “disobedient”. This is our time, as Indigenous people, and especially as Indigenous youth, to “decolonize this way of life that has been brought upon Mother Earth through Neo-Liberalistic, Neo-Capitalistic settlers. The environment is ours to protect, to save for future generations. But as Indigenous people, we have become weary, suspicious, and somewhat jaded by allyship. We have become very untrusting of non-Indigenous people and their ways. Afterall, pre-colonial times saw all Indigenous people coming together to create community, providing a healthy way of life, a simple way of life. Yes, it was hard, but this was who we were and how we lived – modestly, humbly, kind, and hardworking. We showed the settlers how to survive on this land; where to hunt, fish, trap; and how to protect themselves from the elements. Ironically, one could say this is exactly how they treated others back in their home countries, especially Eastern European territories. But here, they brought religion and a way of life we were forced to adjust to. Taking away our language, our culture, our resources for their own profit. Contemporary examples of this are found in corporations like Nestlé, that is funneling spring water from our natural sources here at Six Nations for their profit of selling spring water in plastic bottles. Nestlé, the world’s biggest water bottler, is extracting up to 3.6m litres of water daily from nearby Six Nations treaty land.12 At a peaceful protest against Nestlé just two years ago, crowds over two hundred, and from all over the region, including the Guelph and Kitchener-Waterloo chapters of the Council of Canadians, Wellington Water Watchers and Save Our Water joined the day’s events to show solidarity.13 But back to the point, we have become very skeptical of those around us offering to participate in our issues. In the backs of some of our minds is the burning question, “What do they want from us?” or, “Do they even understand why we are here at this moment in time?” It’s like cheering for your favourite sports team, and finding out that all of a sudden, there are a lot more people cheering for your team. In sports, we call that a “band wagon fan”: not really a fan, but there because we’re in the spotlight, with film crews and interviews pasted all over social media and media itself.

Allies who use their privilege and advantage to support our message(s) are of great importance to our causes if they remind themselves constantly that they are settlers themselves. Yes, use your voice to get the message out there, to show the injustices that are happening all around us. But never forget you are an ally, not the voice of the people. In the summer of 2021, Lorde who is from New Zealand and is an internationally known pop singer, released her third studio album, “Solar Power”. She then released a 5 song EP of songs from her third release called, Te Ao Mārama (Māori for “world of light”).14 The five songs released are as follows:

1. Hine-i-te-Awatea (Oceanic Feeling)15

2. Hua Pirau (Fallen Fruit)16

3. Te Ara Tika (The Path)17

4. Te Ao Mārama (Solar Power)18

5. Mata Kohore (Stoned at The Nail Salon)19

Lorde is an ally to the Māori, and they have a term for this, “Pākehā” ally which means a white New Zealander as opposed to a Māori person.20 Lorde has directed all revenue from the five song EP to the New Zealand-based charities Forest and Bird and the Te Hua Kawariki Charitable Trust. This is such a wonderful idea, but I am very skeptical because of the timing of all of this. The album was released prior to this EP coming out. As of August 30, 2021., “Solar Power” debuted at No. 5 on Billboard 200.

According to Billboard, the record earned a total of 56,000 equivalent album units including 34,000 in album sales, 22,000 in streaming equivalent album units (28.38 million on-demand streams for the tracks) and under 1,000 in track equivalent album units.21  As I mentioned previously, to be a good ally is to be humble, respectful, committed, and be a partner. Lorde, after releasing this EP, is quoted as saying the following:

“Even if you don’t understand te reo, I think you’ll get a kick out of how elegant my words sound in it.”22

White privilege shines through and through in a statement such as this. There is no possible way to see humility in announcing how elegant you sound, singing songs in a language in which you do not speak or use in your daily life. Lorde went through the proper channels to acquire the best linguists from the Māori community in assisting her with all of the translations. Her intention was not to embarrass or harm the Māori culture or language in any way but being a young ally who is doing her possible best NOT to appropriate the culture, found her youthful voice having a foot inserted. At the same time, her album is making a lot of money through downloads and streaming sites. Did she intentionally release this EP with the possibility of influencing sales of her third album which her critics are calling a flop? Still, her album is riding the coat tails of the EP release. After reading up on this event, I had a conversation with two of my Māori colleagues from Auckland, New Zealand, who are also aunties to my twin babies. Dr. Aroha Harris, who is an Associate Professor at the University of Auckland had this to say in regard to the assistance that Lorde received:

“It’s hard to stomach the idea of her being so well supported when so many of our people struggle to learn our language and are sometimes deeply traumatized by the experience.”

Aroha Harris went on to say,

“I get the argument about her taking the language to the world but how does that help the people who are most hungry for it and to whom it belongs? And how did a white kid from one of the most privileged suburbs here get to centre herself in the reo Māori movement?”

I then spoke to another Māori auntie to my babies, Dr. Te Kawehau Hopkins who is the Pro Vice-Chancellor, Māori, from the department of Education and Social Work. The following was part of a friendly conversation between us,

“The negatives: Lorde has made no obvious prior commitment to the language. Other local non-Māori who have sung in the language have not been criticized, partly because they’re local and connecting with the people and the politics.”

Te Kawehau did concede that she (Lorde) worked with the top highly respected Māori language experts in the country all of whom seem to support any initiative of this kind because they see it has benefits for the revitalization of the language, local and international support, etc.” The big question is, did Lorde step up and be the ally she has voiced herself to be, or did she use her white privilege and resources to benefit financially upon the appropriated shoulders of the Māori community?

Finally, this is all leading to is the new wave of supposed allyship if we can even mention that in the same sentence as allyship…PRETENDIANS. A Pretendian is a person who has falsely claimed Indigenous identity by claiming to be a citizen of a Native American tribal nation, or to be descended from Native ancestors.23 Of the many other types of cultural appropriation, this is absolutely the worst, the extreme if you will. In Canada, the numbers grow steadily as “pretendians” have been found to use Algonquin, Metis and Mi’kmaq ancestry to claim their academic successes. By no means am I suggesting that these Indigenous peoples are condoning this behaviour. For instance, in regard to the Algonquin people, the new revelations have prompted Pikwakanagan First Nation — the only federally recognized Algonquin First Nation in Ontario — to renew efforts to remove people who rely on Lagarde for their Algonquin ancestry from membership in the Ontario Algonquin Land Claim. This statement was mailed to CBC News,

“The Chief and Council of (Pikwakanagan) have no tolerance for fraudulent actions that impact the negotiation process and beneficiary criteria, and directly affects the integrity of the process.”24

It is important to understand there is a definitive difference between culture and identity. There are those allies who have been integral in Indigenous issues to the point that they have been “adopted” in by an Indigenous family. They have adopted the culture to be a part of who they are now, understanding that they are still settlers and acknowledge their place within the Indigenous community. Identity, however, is blood. Lineage of your people, of who you are and where you come from. Culture you can obtain, but identity you are born into. I have found that there are two types of “pretendians” – those who have been allies to the Indigenous community for an extended period of time, then quietly adopt their “Indigenous” identity. Such is the case of Dr. Michelle Coupal, Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Truth, Reconciliation, and Indigenous Literatures at the University of Regina. She holds a PhD from Western University, MA from the University of Waterloo, B.Ed. from Western University, and BA from the University of Waterloo25. She is also the former President of the Indigenous Literary Studies Association. She has long been an ally to Indigenous issues and framed her education around this, as seen in her bio that is listed above. Following the publication of CBC’s investigation last month (September 13, 2021), Coupal removed much of her biography from her university profile, including a reference to her being Algonquin. She stated in this article that,

“If my Algonquin status changes, and I am deemed to not meet federal and provincial standards, I will adjust how I identify accordingly…Even if all of my ancestors are taken off the list in the fall protests (a situation that is highly unlikely), I will remain a member of BAFN because I have community acceptance.”26

Then there are those blatant Pretendians who feel that even as they are being called out, that the invisible shield in front of them will protect them from harm and embarrassment. Such is the case of Dr. Carrie Bourassa BA (hon), MA., PhD., Professor in Community Health, Epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan. Bourassa’s public claims to be of Métis, Anishinaabe and Tlingit ancestry proved to be as made up as fairy dust. In her response to the report, Bourassa changed her story, claiming she was Métis because she was adopted by a Métis friend of her grandfather.27 The most significant selected appointment given her is Scientific Director, Canadian Institutes of Indigenous Peoples’ Health (CIHR-IIPH), University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon 2017-2021.28 The University of Saskatchewan’s original claim that Prof. Bourassa hadn’t benefited from claiming Aboriginal ancestry is pathetic hokum: Bourassa tellingly accused her own sister of “looking for … a way to make some money” by accepting Indigenous scholarship funds during her PhD studies.29 Yes, claiming to be Indigenous can amount to a financial lottery winning. For example, about a year ago, the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation gave Bourassa an award (not her first) and published a capsule summary of her career . If you read it, you will notice how she was, from time to time, offered career advancement out of the blue by Indigenous supporters who had been taken in by her stories. Her only defense was,

“In our Métis ways, in the event of a loss, community members would adopt the individual who had no family, and they would then automatically be seen as family…We see this as custom adoption. Those adoptions were more meaningful and have stronger bonds than colonial adoptions.”30

And, who bears the cost of these “pretendians” infiltrating our academic institutions and clawing away at not only our bursaries, awards, and funding streams such as Canada Research Chairs (CRC), Canadian institute of Health Research (CIHR), Post-docs, etc.? For every “Pretendian” that occupies a position of academia, they have the opportunity to not only take away a career or position from an Indigenous academic, but the monies that flow downward also get swallowed up. The economic gains of ethnic fraud cannot be understated. Ingrained racism has allowed predominantly White institutions to materially benefit from Indigeneity, especially in an era of reconciliation, by preferring to work with “Indigenous” people who look, act, and think like them, because in reality they are them.31

Academic institutions need to be held more accountable in their hiring practices as well as harbouring these so-called academics who have been called out and have been found to be morally and ethically fraudulent. I mentioned in class one day recently that as an educator I have a code of ethics which follows me in my back pocket. When academics are at post secondary institutions, they must also adhere to the code of ethics in whatever program they choose as their career path. Whether it is obtaining a MEd, a PhD, or whatever degree you achieve-that code of ethics is like the invisible permanent tattoo you had etched onto your arm or back un your undergraduate years. It made fade but it is always going to be there. As academics posing as Indigenous scholars you have a duty to uphold those ethical standards because I have yet to find an expiry date on any code of ethics, at any institution. You may not be wearing a headdress, or have a dreamcatcher hanging from your car mirror, but cultural appropriation runs through your veins if you are a Pretendian.

In conclusion, the youth have a very powerful voice and have the ability to make positive change within society. Us adults have got to stop telling them what is right and wrong, as if we truly understand the position that we have placed them in. Their minds have and are continually growing and developed into exciting, critical thinking machines who have something to say, something to share-we just need to shut up and listen to them. Believing in our youth by facilitating, and supporting them as well as being the role models, (that we keep telling ourselves that we are), as they fight to create a future that future generations can benefit from, and to be filled with possibilities and successes. Claudette Colvin took a stand in 1955 in Alabama against a volatile adult world filled with prejudice and anger, being handcuffed and jailed for standing up her rights and Greta Thunberg taking a position of striking from school on Fridays for Climate change in Sweden against the will of not only the government, but the public and even her parents…at first. Both young ladies, both young activists took a stand against insurmountable odds and were a part of a new generation of activists that were not to be denied their place on the public stage. As activism grew amongst the youth, Indigenous activism became more important to all aspects of activism.

Racism, the environment, the land, the water, culture…all bonding to form alliances with one another, creating numbers that could not be ignored any longer. Allyship with Indigenous people has been an ever-growing partnership amongst the youth. Allies have a place within the Indigenous communities because we are all fighting for the same cause which is saving the planet from self-destructive man-made means. Their voices grow louder, clearer. Dr. Carrie Bourassa was one of those youth who saw and felt the energy within the Indigenous fight and became an ally. But being an ally, if handled improperly or deceitfully can lead to misappropriation. Bourassa inhaled an Indigenous identity all the while being an Indigenous ally. Over time, allies can become familiar faces, familiar partners as we stand for our treaty rights. These so-called allies, or “Pretendians” as they are now known publicly, find ways to “shape shift” into an Indigenous identity and use it to better their position financially and academically. Lorde, the New Zealand pop star portrayed herself to be an ally but was found not to use the Māori language in her daily speech, nor in her daily movements, releasing an English-speaking album then a subsequent five song EP using the Māori language. Did this benefit her financially, and in popularity?

Statistics from Billboard Magazine says maybe it did. When these academic and professional frauds use their fake Indigenous identity or allyship to gain fame, financial gain, or academic position, those funds, those grants and privileges that were designed for Indigeneity and Indigenous academia are taken away from Indigenous youth academics who then lose their voice, their standing and their belief in a system that has constantly balked on treaty rights, the right to hunt, fish and trap on sovereign lands and waters, land claims, cultural misappropriation, residential schools, MMIWG and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Yes, allies are appreciated and welcome, but to be a true ally you must always remember that you are a settler, a colonizer and even though you are doing your part to make the world a better place for all, your ancestors created a world full of divide, war, dominance, and genocide. To understand you are with us, but for our causes, not your own personal agenda. When we are minimalized and subsequently dismissed as having a seat at the table then we will rise up and we will use our voices. You will hear us as our numbers grow, as our allies stand beside us. The youth are the megaphone of the present, of the future…and of a past as our ancestors watch over us, smiling down as we fight the good fight, in a good way and with a good mind. Mother Earth will have a chance to flourish if we allow our Indigenous youth activists and their allies to come to the forefront and be heard.






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