Sandra LaFleur: A lesson in Indigenous and non-Indigenous ally relations
Why should Indigenous people be the only ones asked to share their trauma? Is it some form of entertainment for non-Indigenous allies?
Editor’s note: The following is an op-ed by Sandra LaFleur, Cree/Métis. She has closely followed and written about the Canadian government’s 2015 release of its Truth and Reconciliation Report involving the country’s residential boarding schools, their impact on First Nation people, and the ensuing implementation — and related problems — of the recommendations in the report.
by Sandra LaFleur
I participated in Zoom reconciliation meeting last night. An Indigenous participant broke down while sharing part of their healing journey.
I've been to countless sharing circles, meetings, and not once have I heard a non-Indigenous person share their trauma. 100% of the time it's the Indigenous participant willingly sharing their experience. Whether it's about 60's scoop, residential school atrocities, illegal child welfare apprehension, or family found in unmarked graves. We share expecting nothing in return but truth. It seems to me, our trauma is entertainment for non-Indigenous participants. Just once I'd like to hear a settler share their trauma. Growing up I'm sure they've heard adults (in their circle) speak derogatory things about Native people, or they've seen an adult hurt an Indigenous person. That's a trauma. Share that. Or maybe the settler has beaten up an Indigenous classmate or kicked an incapacitated homeless person. Share that. Maybe you've bullied, or even stolen property from Indigenous people. Share. We need a reciprocal relationship.
I won't be sharing any trauma this evening. I grew up with my maternal grandma in a loving, disciplined First Nation home. It wasn't peaches and cream, but I have good memories. I grew up on the rez. That's it. I'm done.
Non-Indigenous person A:
“As a child we were taught to care for 'Indian' kids at school. And I always stuck up for them. Our parents taught us to treat each person with respect...there.”
Non-Indigenous person B:
“We were raised to look at everyone the same. To share food with Natives if they didn't have any. We didn't look down on them.”
Non-Indigenous person C:
“I use my voice for Indigenous people. I consider myself an ally. That's why I joined this group. One time I asked a Native person what sort of decorations to put on our office Christmas tree. She yelled at me, “That's not our f---ing holiday.” I said I just want to be involved, maybe start a conversation. She calmed down, and we worked together. And I want to say to Sandra, I don't share my trauma because I think Indigenous people have heard enough trauma. So I don't.”
I stared at my Zoom screen wondering where the heck were these people when I was growing up because they sure weren't in the town I went to school in where White people hardly made eye contact. And where we (Native folks) kept to ourselves. As students, we did a lot of playground fighting. Native girls against the White girls. Both groups gave a little and got a little. That was trauma.
Now looking at these Zoom participants, I imagined their childhood continually filled with sunshine, roses, hugs and food. Ha! Not likely.
My siblings and I were the first generation (in my immediate family), NOT to have attended either residential or day schools. Once I reached school age I was returned to biological family where we were bused to the closest mainstream town for school. I saw bullying on a daily basis. I heard name calling. I heard snide comments. If we didn't hang out with one another, us Native girls would be picked off one by one, by either the White girls or White boys. No student, Native or non-Native dared cross that imaginary “race-line” on the playground. No one.
One Native girl, who was a loner, became the brunt of the White girls jokes and anger. She lived near the outskirts of town in a poor area known as Moccasin Flats (most every Canadian town has a “Moccasin Flats”). She was the eldest of six siblings and all raised by their single mother. I witnessed her fighting and arguing with the White girls (and boys), almost on a daily basis. In my junior high perspective, I secretly considered her to be brave and silently admired her. That young teen girl gave more than she got. Native girls didn't bother her, but, sadly, we didn't stick up for her either.
As I look at the faces on my laptop screen, I can almost guarantee NONE of these Zoom participants (or facsimiles thereof), who were raised to “care for” and “respect” Natives were crossing that race line to give her food or play with her during recess either.
Non-Indigenous participant D:
“I help Indigenous people too. I'm an ally. I like being involved and raising the Indigenous issue. But, if they start yelling or swearing at me why should I help them? I'm not going to subject myself to being demeaned. So they have to be mindful too.”
Non-Indigenous participant E:
“I don't want to be rude or disrespectful but, it's sometimes difficult help Indigenous people because some won't take his help...”
At this point, I stopped listening. I only hoped the facilitators would open up the meeting because the narrative was phony, but could be used as a learning opportunity. Maybe a lesson in Indigenous and non-Indigenous ally relations. However, we were already overtime, and it was our final meeting. Still, I didn't want the opportunity to slip away, so as the last participant was sharing, I quickly typed my observation in the Zoom chatroom (paraphrasing and excerpt below).
Non-Indigenous participants say they won't share their trauma because Native folk have heard enough trauma. Well, I didn't say I heard enough. I specifically said I WANT to hear settlers trauma ... and no one decides for ME, when I've heard enough of anything but ME. I think for myself.
And it's always Indigenous participants who give of themselves in settings like this usually getting nothing in return. Not fair.
Other participants claim to be ally however, in the same breath they place parameters around what they'll do or expect, as an ally.
I'm an ally but — I won't share my trauma.
I'm an ally but — you have to talk nice to me.
I'm an ally but — you can't swear at me.
I'm an ally but — you have to take my help without being difficult.
Ask yourself, are you really an “ally”?
IMO: The first question a non-Indigenous person needs to ask an Indigenous person is, “How can I be of help?” Period. Once a non-Native ally starts putting parameters around their role the focus of advocacy shifts to the ally and their concerns, their feelings, their wants, and their needs until the ally becomes the priority.
IMO: If a person is going to become an ally, you have NO rights or privilege, to request “riders.” We've heard your concerns for the past 500 years. So be an ally, or move on.
There were no comments posted in response to mine, and the meeting soon ended.
Sandra LaFleur is of Cree/Métis descent, raised on Treaty 6 Territory on the Alexander First Nation by maternal Nohkum. She returned to her biological family (Kikino Métis Settlement) at school age. She’s had a variety of pieces published in both Indigenous and mainstream publications. She’s currently editing her — long awaited — first novel.
Indigenous Wire is a Native-owned, reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
If a child grows up in a household listening to racist comments & vitriol by family or guardians, hurled against Indigenous folk the words can't help but become an implicit and/or tacit part of the child’s belief system, however large or small. And that in itself is - trauma. Share that. I thank the writer below for sharing part of his trauma. As an Indigenous person I need to hear settler’s confusion, settler’s inability to 'unhear' racist, bigoted, prejudiced slurs used to describe my relatives. I need to hear it in order, for me, to reconcile historical and current atrocities still being inflicted upon my people. I need to learn how to read the cues, the subtleties, the key words, the expressions, and body language Settlers use when conveying superiority over Indigenous people. I need to know settler beliefs erroneous or otherwise because Indigenous women are still being murdered, Indigenous girls are still going missing, men are still being incarcerated at astronomical rates, Indigenous newborns are being whisked off to child welfare without the mother’s permission or awareness etc. I need to protect myself. The mainstream political, criminal, judicial, educational, and health systems are broken. Systemic racism exists. As an ally, help me to understand what I'm (Indigenous people), up against, what I need to be on guard for. I need to hear your unspoken, traumatic history just as you heard and know ours. Before Reconciliation can happen, Truth needs to be told. After all it's called TRUTH & Reconciliation NOT Reconciliation & Truth. Say your people's deeds out loud. Don't carry trauma that doesn't belong to you any longer. It's not doing the Indigenous Peoples and Settlers any favours by being mute on our common history. Share your trauma. Talk.
There are so many perspectives, based on experience. I thought to be respectful of anyone expressing their traumas, that it is best to listen well and actively. Although I have traumas - I often do not share them because I want to focus on the healing of the person indigenous or non-indigenous, who is 'sharing a very personal experience' with us who listen. I have trauma of being bullied, hearing the racist comments and vitriol of family members toward many groups of 'others'. I just didn't participate in that - but as a kid, I could not escape it. Even as a kid - I knew it was wrong. I just chose to live my life differently when I finally was able to live on my own. Seems I always think other folks traumas are so far more significant than my own. My experiences have made me more of a 'listener' - than a 'talker', and I am a survivor, as well. I do appreciate this person's perspective. I do not see this as entertainment, at all. I see it as healing. Difficult work. I am non-indigenous and only have a glimpse of my ancestry but actually know very little. I have to live in the experience I have in front of me now. It is all I have. I honor you, and doing so - I think I honor myself. It is my hope that all people evolve and heal, to find the way to walk a path of beauty together. This is my living prayer.