Decolonising Solidarity

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Words || Naomi McLellan

Climate change is not, and never was, just an environmental issue. Climate change is interwoven with every other aspect of our lives and our society – including systemic racial discrimination and colonial mentality.

It is time for a revolution, and one which begins with our own consciousness. We must peel back the layers of our surface identities, to discover the fundamental humanity underneath. We must acknowledge the injustice and trauma colonialism caused and allow the space for healing that is desperately needed. And we need to shift our mentality away from colonialism. That was our past. Now millions of young people want a better, united future.

Last year I attended Powershift, a conference hosted by the largest national youth climate action network, Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC), along with equal (if not more prominent) leadership by the first national Indigenous Youth Climate Network, Seed. Over 850 young people from all over the country came together to tackle the enormous problem we all face: Climate Change.

We heard raw, emotional, thought-provoking stories. Stories such as those told by Erial Tchekwie Deranger, of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) of Northern Alberta, who described the vast extractive operations in Alberta’s tar sands and the devastation to her people’s homelands in the boreal forests downstream – also known as the world’s lungs – which are now at threat of annihilation. I was captivated by stories told by Joseph White Eyes and Kandi Mosset, both members of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), who had been fighting on the frontline against the Dakota Access Pipeline and other invasive fossil fuel projects that have contaminated the water they drink and bath in. Water that is now an unnatural aqua blue. They had stood strong against armed forces pointing guns at their people, with sage and wheatgrass – their medicine – as weapons. I heard the searing passion in Kandi’s voice as she invigorated the crowd into roaring “WATER IS LIFE!”.

These stories mirror the struggles faced here in Australia: Adani’s proposed mega coal mine threatens to catapult our world into further destabilization of Earth systems while shredding apart land rights; exploration licences for dangerous coal seam gas fracking cover 83% or more of Northern Territory, threatening contamination of groundwater that feeds basically the entire northern part of Australia; and our own version of a gas pipeline being forced upon Aboriginal land, including sacred sites.

It was easy to notice the common thread. Underpinning every story was an interwoven theme of sustained racial discrimination, trauma and colonial mentality.

During that weekend I was struck by the realisation of the enormity of the fight First Nations people face. They have to battle socio-economical disadvantages, political oppression, heal centuries of wounds and traumas from genocide and deal with other environmental issues. The fight they face every day involves the deeply ingrained mentality of our entire society.

I wholeheartedly supported the prominent focus on Seed mob during the weekend and the Indigenous rising, considering these critical in our movement to create change. Yet it was not without discomfort and some shame: I belong to that category of our society known as “White Australia” due to the colour of my skin and blood lines   that come from ancestry foreign to these shores. I am ashamed because even in my desire to create change, I have become aware of how colonial mentality has intrinsically infiltrated my own way of thinking. And it will take a lot of conscious work to eradicate that way of thinking – to decolonise my own mind.

I asked Clare Land, author of Decolonizing Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles, to enlighten me some more on the topic. It was Clare’s workshop on being a good ally for first nations people that permeated my mind with these lingering thoughts.

NM: I know this may be difficult to summarise, but can you please explain what “decolonising solidarity” means?

CL: It has two meanings. Solidarity needs to be decolonised: And solidarity needs to be a force for decolonisation.

So firstly, non-Aboriginal supporters of Aboriginal struggles need to avoid colonising those struggles. On the whole, middle class white people are the ones with the greatest tendency to colonize/take over/be bossy within Aboriginal political scenes. Simply through not being aware of the dynamics and of the tendencies which we are socialised into, people like me – white middle class Westerners – are racist, and act racist and patronising completely without meaning to. While it’s not intentional it is not OK to do it, and it’s completely aggravating and ineffectual to try to act without understanding this. That’s why it’s really important for non-Aboriginal people wanting to be supportive of Aboriginal struggles to work out who they are politically and socially, seek out Aboriginal perspectives on what that means, and heed them. Hopefully my book circumvents some of the problems by providing some of the background reading you need to do.

Secondly, decolonisation is about the repatriation of land and power to Aboriginal people. Your activism has got to contribute to that, not to ‘reconciliation’ or other things that do not go to the core issues of land and power.

NM: How do you think decolonisation and climate change issues intersect and what can we learn from this intersection?

In answer, Clare suggests voices like Tony Birch (writer) and Robbie Thorpe (campaigner) who have greater expertise on this subject, referring to a quote by Robbie Thorpe from an interview she conducted for Decolonizing Solidarity:

‘We know: you don’t destroy these sacred places… If you remove the people whose job it is to be the custodians and the caretakers of this sacred garden, and go and rape it and pillage it and plunder it and create a big toxic pool, a toxic waste dump, well, you’re going to have problems, obviously …  That’s what the land rights struggle was all about … People have a right to that land, and the land’s also got its own rights … That’s the real law: the law of the land. You’ve got to respect the ancestor spirits.’’

NM: Your book, Decolonizing Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles, includes material based on your personal learning from your own activist work. Was there a particular light-bulb moment which motivated you to pursue this topic?

In 1998 I was co-editor of the Melbourne Uni student paper, Farrago. I wanted to support Aboriginal students so I suggested to (then) mature age student and renowned activist Gary Foley that we create an orientation magazine for Aboriginal students. He told me, ‘Don’t do anything unless you’ve been asked to do it’. That was the first time I was introduced to the idea that there is an art to being a supporter. Soon after I was introduced to the importance of interrogating whiteness.

Foley gave me multiple lightbulb moments which eventually led to me wanting to understand the politics of solidarity as deeply as possible and my PhD (the basis for the book) was the vehicle for that. The direct impetus for the PhD was me being pulled up for being a jerk at a Black GST meeting (an inner circle meeting in the lead up to the 2006 Stolenwealth Games protests in Melbourne). In that moment I was shown that I had got too comfortable as a white person in a Koori scene. I think that my behaviour arose from a sense that I had ‘arrived’ at knowing how to do this stuff – but unlearning colonialist ways of being is not a project that can be completed.

NM: In the workshop we discussed the topic of interrogating “whiteness” and what it might mean to be “whitely”. Could you explain these terms?

CL: Whitely is a pretty cool term made up by critical whiteness scholars. Notably, all critical knowledge of whiteness originates from black and brown and Indigenous community members and intellectuals whom whiteness has been forced on.

Being ‘whitely’ is a way of being that arises out of 500 years of Western colonial domination. It leads to ways of relating that are dominated by white stereotypes of Indigenous peoples. To be whitely is to embrace ‘habits and dispositions that reproduce racial hierarchy and white privilege’. But crucially this in not about DNA or skin colour, it’s about history and socialisation. Therefore, not all white people are whitely and not all whitely people are white.

NM: What do you think is the most crucial work for someone, like myself, who is a non-Indigenous activist wanting to be a good ally in the struggles faced by first nations people?

CL: Start finding out the history of the mob whose land you live and work on. It is incredibly important and powerful to educate yourself about Aboriginal political history. About Aboriginal struggles from invasion to the present day. Many non-Indigenous people have never met or even seen (or recognised) an Aboriginal person and – speaking as one – our ideas of who Aboriginal people are, what the problem is, and who is best placed to confront those problems, are incredibly problematic. Amazingly deep-seated ideas and assumptions have gotten into our consciousness by a process of osmosis from the media and how our lives are and what we see around us, as well as through totally inadequate and inaccurate educational experiences. Finding out about Aboriginal people as political actors is firstly really humbling and inspiring, but secondly incredibly powerful for cutting through these dominant culture ideas of Aboriginal people as people for whom ‘good white people’ should be ‘doing something’.

If you identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander you can get involved with Seed at seedmob.org.au. Find out about the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) at www.aycc.org.au. To read more about Clare Land’s book and supporting Indigenous struggles visit www.decolonizingsolidarity.org.

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