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Alliances: Re/ Envisioning Indigenous non- Indigenous Relationships

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From movement organizing to individual relationships, Lynne Davis’s new anthology, Alliances, explores the tensions and possibilities of coalitions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples today. Exploring the links between Indigenous struggles for self-determination and labour, environmental, and social justice movements, Alliances encompasses a variety of writers and approaches. The collection includes Indigenous and non-Indigenous voices, community organizers and academics.

There is a wealth of information for a reader interested in coalition politics. Organized into four sections. The book begins with traditional Indigenous frameworks for alliance. The second section profiles examples of alliances, ranging from art initiatives to land reclamations. These stories provide important insights into the diversity of coalition practices, although sometimes they were a little too neat. The scholarly third section attempts to develop a theoretical understanding of contemporary alliances, exposing the underlying processes informing relationships between Indigenous and non- Indigenous peoples. The concluding section shifts to the personal, effectively highlighting the importance of personal tranformation in decolonizing relationships.

The book, however, continues to be punctuated by some of the problems within both organizing alliances and the academic work attempting to theorize it. While Alliances outlines some of the tensions that inform coalition work, some fundamental questions about how we understand Indigenous traditions and colonialism remain unresolved.

Alliances begins with a section entitled “Visionaries,” that highlights traditional Indigenous frameworks of alliance. This section is an important reminder that Indigenous peoples have not disappeared and their philosophies remain vital sources of knowledge. However, the separation of these Indigenous “Visionaries” from the academic theory section of the book remains problematic, as it fails to recognize that Indigenous frameworks work not only as “visions” but also form the basis of practicable theories. Fortunately the call for a transformative recognition of our fundamental relatedness that emanates from this section does find resonance in some of the later chapters.

The chapters, however, are inconsistent in what they focus on as the ostensible goal of cross-cultural coalitions.

The long history of colonial paternalism is often an underlying tension in coalitions between Indigenous peoples and non- Indigenous peoples, as is noted in the introduction. However, the book does not provide a consistent definition of what constitutes colonialism. This is significant because how we understand colonialism is vital to understanding whether an alliance is supporting the realization of Indigenous self-determination or insidiously perpetuating colonial oppression.

Is providing Aboriginal people with access to capital for economic development anti-colonial? Are environmental alliances to protect Aboriginal traditional territories for hunting and fishing trying to force Aboriginal people to live in a mythic past? The answers to these questions depend on context, and in part whether the initiative is a product of Indigenous community demands or paternalist,if often well-meaning, non-Indigenous designs.

While some chapters elucidate this point, the instrumental initiatives for change described in some of the case studies clash with the theorization of colonialism as a deeply embedded cultural formation in other chapters.

Ultimately Alliances challenges readers to think about relationships between Indigenous peoples and the organizing of social movements. It asks us to consider what these relationships mean, and what decolonizing relationships looks like. While the book can seem incomplete, it remains an important call to an unfinished re-imagining of our relationships, ourselves and our world.

This article appeared in the November/December 2011 issue of Canadian Dimension (Stepping up for the Planet).

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