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Do non-Aboriginal people have the right to lead Aboriginal struggles?

By Rick Harp, on January 15, 2011 Taken from  Media Indegena

This week, developments in the disparate fields of arts and law had something in common according to critics: the undue appropriation of Aboriginal voices by non-Aboriginal people.

In the first case, we find Tony Merchant, a controversial lawyer attempting to sue Canada on behalf of thousands of people who feel they’ve been unfairly denied the recognition and rights that go with Indian Status, a move some would likely argue is just another case of Merchant “exploit[ing] vulnerable clients in his quest for the big cheque.”

In the second case, we have artist Pamela Masik, whose exhibition of 69 paintings entitled ‘the Forgotten’ has been indefinitely cancelled by the UBC Museum of Anthropology after criticisms that her depictions of missing and murdered women (many of them Aboriginal) “exoticizes” and commodifies their subjects to the professional and material benefit of their creator.

Basically, Merchant and Masik both stand accused of ‘stealing’ or misappropriating an unfair share of the benefits that go with advocating on behalf of others. To me, these situations offer a useful opportunity to discuss a larger question: when — if ever — it’s okay for non-Indigenous people to act and/or speak on behalf of Aboriginal people.

In principle, the quick and easy answer is ‘never.’ In practice, it may be more complicated. Typically, when I first come across a story of yet another non-Aboriginal person taking credit or cash for ‘helping’ Aboriginal people, my initial impulse is to presuppose their motivations are less than altruistic. On the face of it, this is patently unfair and journalistically unprofessional.

That said, one only has to examine the socio-economic status of the long-suffering majority of Aboriginal people in Canada to appreciate the source and basis of this presupposition. And, hey, there’s no shortage of examples where Canadian governments and business go back on their word or otherwise ignore/manipulate Indigenous interests (recent half-hearted, heavily qualified ‘support‘ of “free, prior and informed consent” notwithstanding).

Any exception tends to prove the rule. Ideally, however, we must try to approach every situation as unique and with fresh eyes. And while my history-honed instincts tell me to give these two the doubt of the benefit, I would briefly ask your indulgence as I explore the “grey zones” of this issue.

That Merchant is in this at least partially for the money is hardly a newsflash. He’s a lawyer in a litigious society. And what artist doesn’t appreciate notoriety? The first question to ask here is whether a non-Aboriginal lawyer or artist could and/or would do the same things.

Are people saying either of these acts are innately unethical (that is, in and of themselves) — or is it only because a Native lawyer or artist didn’t do them first? Another question: absent these legal and artistic actions, would Aboriginal interests be better or worse off? Are there what might be deemed some “net” positive outcomes to their actions? If so, does that in any way justify the process that produced them? (In the cases of Merchant and Masik, could one perhaps argue that more Canadians now know about the issues involved — the inequities in denying Status and the tragedy of murdered/missing women — because of the greater awareness generated by their respective actions?)

Yet another question: when is it critical that we as Aboriginal people take the lead on our issues, and when can we simply tolerate the ‘trade-off’ that comes with accepting help (from wherever and whomever it comes)? What cost-benefit criteria should we use to assess such trade-offs? I think the debate is important because, like it or not, non-Aboriginal involvement and support in Aboriginal struggles is unavoidable. And, frankly, inter-ethnic solidarity can and does make a difference. The bigger question I suppose is where and when to draw the line. I invite you to pull out your markers.


I am an active young Anishinabe Sovereign and Indigenous Nationalist. I have worked with Non-“Aboriginal” Solidarity Groups and Individuals who sincerely want to help our struggle and advise our people in using caution when working with our “white” allies as history as shown us. In my experiences even the ones who are sincere tend to speak for us. They steal our thunder and profit of off us and take credit.

I respect Freedom of Speech and am not dictating what others can and cannot say and do but this rant reply is just trying to acknowledge the difference between Birds of a feather flock together from the Vultures exploiting our struggles.

The Aboriginal Industry be it the arts, entertainment, legal, social, political or in activist circles seems to be where all the ACTION and Funding is and they realize this.

“I’ve never seen a sincere white man, not when it comes to helping black people. Usually things like this are done by white people to benefit themselves. The white man’s primary interest is not to elevate the thinking of black people, or to waken black people, or white people either. The white man is interested in the black man only to the extent that the black man is of use to him. The white man’s interest is to make money, to exploit.” – Malcolm X

Brother Malcolm suggests that “White” People can be a benefit to our struggle if they organize within their own communities fixing their society which causes our problems. Recently I was approached by a non-native who is teaching aboriginal education in an alternate learning program at a Native Friendship Centre. The teacher knows nothing of our culture and asked me and other resource people to “volunteer” in sharing some knowledge. This Centre is also managed by a Non-Native. If we are to become Sovereign People once again, how long are we going to” share” with non-natives our resources and let them profit from them?

I was involved in a protest in Toronto in regards to the Olympics being held on Stolen Native Lands. There were an estimated 500 solidarity activists but only 20 Indigenous Activists visible. While I support them supporting us, I tend to see a lot of egotistic attitudes within these groups and get a feeling of our struggles are just a “phase” or the “in” thing to do. However I am great full to these peoples more then the lawyers that are out there and the “allies” infiltrating our “Native” Organizations stealing our employment opportunities. (How can you help a starving Aboriginal when you steal his job?)

I worked in Unity with “White” people to stop a Dump that was going to contaminate our Waters. It was a common struggle so We all had equal leadership and voice in struggling against the Common Enemy, The Government and Capitalism.

There is a huge difference of our “White” allies showing solidarity to exploiting our causes for their benefit.

INAC Chiefs and Chief Organizations are co-opting and assimilating into the mainstream society ideology of Capitalism which is the cause of our Colonization and Oppression. While doing this they are preaching and exploiting our Cultural Teachings, Lands, Resources, Culture only to seek funding and to make profit which only contradicts the Cultural Rhetoric that they preach.

Even our own are profiting of our Misery while Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women are still not found, Warriors defending our resources and land are being set to jail, Our people in third world conditions are dying and our people continue to suffer while cheques are cashed to fund Talk, while the “Do it Ourselves Mentality” (Sovereignty) is polluted by the idea that we have to be tolerant when others want to Speak and Profit off of us.

“There can be no black-white unity until there is first some black unity…. We cannot think of uniting with others, until after we have first united among ourselves. We cannot think of being acceptable to others until we have first proven acceptable to ourselves.” -El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz

Unity Shall Prevail,

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