From Truth Telling to Land Return: 4 Ways White People Can Work for Indigenous Justice

It’s important that when talking about Indigenous justice, we talk in specifics because of how colonization has impacted different Indigenous people in varied ways.

Waziyatawin

Waziyatawin, Ph.D.

This article will focus on the context of colonization in what we now refer to as the United States, and it is informed by the activism and expertise of one Dakota person, Waziyatawin, Ph.D.

Thus, while there are surely ways that this article can inform activism outside of this context, it should be understood to be limited in this way.

In their seminal work linking Critical Race Theory to education entitledToward a Critical Race Theory of Education, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings and Dr. William F. Tate, IV explain how the United States is founded fundamentally on property rights rather than human rights.

If human rights were central to the constitution (rather than property rights), it would have been far more difficult for European colonists to continually legally justify slavery, genocide, and the theft of virtually every acre of land in North America.

Thus, the mark of success in the US constitutional system is ownership of property. Whether we’re talking abstract “assets” like stock, the ownership of people, or ownership of land, the longest-running “smart investment” for those legally and financially able to access it, property, drives wealth and prosperity in the US and most Western, capitalist societies.

As a result, any conversation about Indigenous justice threatens the positionality of all settlers — non-Indigenous people — because, in the words of Dr. Wazayatawin, “[W]ithin Indigenous worldviews, land is life. Colonization, in its fundamental sense, involved disconnecting [Indigenous people] from our homelands (so our homelands could be occupied by settlers instead).”

And in my experience, any time we start talking about land return or reparations, White folks (those settlers like myself for whom this property-based system was built) collectively freak out.

If we’re going to talk about what justice actually can and must look like, we have to start talking about the decentering of settler identities and people and about the recentering of Indigenous people and struggle — no matter how uncomfortable that may make us.

So Who Are Settlers?

If we’re going to have a conversation about what justice can actually look like, though, we need to be precise with our language.

One of the countless things I appreciate about Dr. Waziyatawin in her scholarship and activism is that she reminds us of an important distinction within very language.

Indigenous people are notably different from other oppressed people in the United States in that they are simultaneously colonized andoppressed.

As Dr. Waziyatawin puts it, “Colonization is always a form of oppression, but oppression is not always colonization… a population must have a land-base before it can be colonized.”

And that distinction is vital.

It’s not to take anything away from the distinct oppressions of settlers of Color, and surely those stolen from their lands and sold into slavery come from colonized lands and have lost their land-base in that process. But this distinction makes one thing clear: The system of colonization in which we live was built for White people, and White people are privileged above all and benefit form that system.

To understand positionality, though, is to understand, in Dr. Waziyatawin’s words, that “there are certainly varying degrees of culpability and poor, landless, oppressed people of Color have not benefitted to the same extent that White, wealthy landowners have. And, those who have come as slaves, through sex-trafficking, etc. cannot be held responsible for their presence on Indigenous lands. But free populations, even oppressed ones, are settlers on someone else’s land.”

Thus, if we are ever going to realize true anti-colonial racial and class justice,we have to understand our positionality and collaborate accountably across difference toward Indigenous liberation.

What Can White Settlers Do to Help Realize Indigenous Justice?

Notably, as the author of this piece, I am a White settler. It is not, nor should it be, my position to tell Indigenous people or settlers of Color how to engage in work for justice.

Thus, while that conversation can and should take place in coalitions of people of Color, from here forward, I will be offering suggestions, as informed by Dr. Waziyatawin, for how White settlers can work for justice.

For those of us who consider ourselves progressive, it’s not enough to, as Andrea Smith puts it in Conquest, “bemoan the genocide of Native peoples” while “implicitly [sanctioning] it by refusing to question the legitimacy of the settler nation responsible for this genocide.”

We have to act — and in doing so, we have to risk something.

1. Listen To and Call Other White Settlers to Listen to Indigenous Truth Telling

In her book What Does Justice Look Like? The Struggle for Liberation in Dakota Homeland, Dr. Waziyatawin devotes an entire chapter to the importance of Indigenous truth telling, noting “for those of us who believe in the transformative potential of education, our hope derives from the expectation that once people understand the truth, they will be compelled to act more justly.”

Sadly, though, both research and the lived experience of many marginalized and oppressed people tells us this is not quite the way things work.

In our interview, Dr. Waziyatawin even noted how her views on the role of truth telling have evolved. Particularly when people are vehemently opposed to learning a truth, truth telling can simply leave oppressed people open, vulnerable, and hurting while those of us with privilege can walk away, more resolved in our ignorance.

But that does not mean that truth telling has no place in working for justice.

For those of us striving for an accountable solidarity as settlers,acknowledging, reflecting upon, and then acting from the truths of Indigenous people are vital first steps in working for justice.

As Dr. Waziyatawin puts it, “There is righteousness and strength to be found in truth telling, as well as guidance and direction.”

2. Support and Donate Money or Land to Indigenous Land Return Efforts

Read the rest at Everyday Feminism.

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