Are Aboriginal women and women of colour benchwarmers?

“They’re going to use Lee Maracle as a backup if Shawn Brant can’t make it,” said the insider of a coalition that aims to educate people on what they believe is an apartheid state in West Asia the Middle East.

This is one example of a larger problem within activist circles: Aboriginal women and women of colour given the backseat to men.

Years ago Mohawk woman Kahentinetha Horn was to be a secondary speaker to a keynote named AngryArab. Little did organizers know that Horn does not believe in being second to anyone, she stole the show. Being a “backup” is not in Horn’s interest or nature. A “backup” for Horn is more likely to be an extra clip for a Glock 9mm, not playing second fiddle to a blogger. So, Horn tooted, and AngryArab, well, remained angry.

But not all women are bold and confrontational like Horn, nor should they have to be.

The question is why do many activist circles preach equity while practicing sexism, misogyny, and what believe is racism? If women are given the forefront it is usually a white woman like Naomi Klein (or in terms of the literature world, Margaret Atwood).

In the past decade Indigenous men have dominated some of the big speaking circles here in Toronto. In the early 2000s the flavour of the month was Ward Churchill: Cherokee, controversial, well read and spoken. Problem is, Churchill says the same thing every time he talks! This writer has seen him speak on three separate occasions for different organizers and events. Churchill gets paid ridiculous amounts for a recycled speech.

The next guy gained popularity outside of the Indigenous community via wrongful incarceration—Bob Lovelace. Now we have Shawn Brant, CN Rail’s worst nightmare, and the new Indian tokenized by the left. Both have done great anti-poverty and land rights work and as a result have become celebrities for white and non-Indigenous activists.

So, we have three men who are heterosexual, able bodied, and have light skinned privilege, many say white privilege. And in the last example, to this writer’s knowledge, an Indigenous woman of colour is only good enough to be his “backup”.

What makes these men so special to white and non-Indigenous activists?

One is an outspoken and vilified professor who has written important books and was a member of the famed American Indian Movement. It is the recent news making actions of the second, doing time and being treated unjustly by cops and government (most of my friends and I should be speaking then, as well as the members of the fastest growing prison population worldwide—women of colour), and the third, laying a school bus across train tracks. These acts have led all three to be tokenized in activist circles.

It seems like gangster ideologies have been adopted by today’s activists. Doing time and holding standoffs with cops has earned certain people, usually men, street cred. Much good work by women that does not involve conflict or media attention is overlooked.

Lets look at some of the many things one Indigenous woman of colour, Lee Maracle (feminist, activist, writer, mentor, ally, mother, grandmother, now reduced to being a benchwarmer), has done over the last forty-five years:

  1. is a Life Giver who brought three Aboriginal children to this world, without Aboriginal women there are no Aboriginal people
  2. helped save the Barrie Native Friendship Centre from closing down in the 1990s, this giving Aboriginal folk a place to meet and spend time in a mostly white town
  3. paved the way and opened doors for many Indigenous writers and writers of colour
  4. has counseled countless survivors of violence and trauma
  5. is one of the few brown, female faces in the white dominated worlds of literature and academia (her book “I Am Woman” is taught everywhere)
  6. has taught many people how to read and write, this in turn combating one crucial aspect of the colonial prison pipeline—illiteracy
  7. has helped change laws that were oppressive to Aboriginal people and people of colour
  8. constantly makes links with different peoples and places in terms of colonialism
  9. supports events that effect people other than just Aboriginal folk: International Women’s Day, Yearly March Against Child Abuse, December 6th Vigil etc.
  10. is a vocal supporter of oppressed peoples worldwide, for example:

Song to a Palestinian Child

I hear a voice calling from a place far away

The voice of a child very much like my own

of green grass and rich soil in Palestine.

Bombs crash about her leveling her home

Clutching an olive branch she raises a defiant fist

of deep roots and copper sun in Palestine.

I see a child rising from a place far away

In one hand an olive branch in the other a gun

of much sweat and red blood in Palestine.

I hear your calling me. Raising my banner high

(Victory), victory, to Palestine I answer in kind

of humble tears my salute to Palestine.

The last ‘action’ (the beloved word of the activist left) Maracle did was hold and console a crying female relative of a murdered woman. Tears drenched Maracle’s coat as many names of the over 500 Missing and Murdered Aboriginal women in Canada were read on February 14, 2010 in front of police headquarters in Toronto. To activist groups, this act of solidarity, and the incomplete list above, does not compare to yelling the same thing at every speaking engagement or stopping a train in front of television cameras. Maracle’s actions have not made front page, or the six-o’clock, news and have not seen her arrested as of late; therefore, she is only good enough to be a backup.

Actions deemed relevant by activist communities are macho and usually done by men.

Have activist groups adopted practices they claim to fight? You would think that groups who claim to be anti-oppressive would practice gender equity. And in terms of Indigenous solidarity (something that activists yell every chance they get), does tokenizing one gender and silencing another equate solidarity?

This writer asked Maracle why she accepts last minute requests for talks (recently an MC gig) when she sometimes knows she is being used as a fill in for absent men.

“If I didn’t I’d never get the stage,” said Maracle.

Sad.

Unjust.

Corrupt!

Again, Maracle is one example of many in this problematic and oppressive practice done by activist groups here in Toronto, and elsewhere I am sure.

Is there a shortage of Aboriginal women and women of colour speakers? A few names come to mind:

Jan Longboat

Afua Cooper

Marilyn Dumont

Jacqui Alexander

Ana Castillo

Chrystos

Christine Welsh

Tracey Deer

Deborah McGregor

Rita Wong

Sunera Thobani

Njoki Wane

Sandra Cisneros

Yasmin Jiwani

Dionne Brand

Pauline Shirt

It would be an honour for this writer to one day be a backup for Lee Maracle, even if it meant keeping a seat warm for her on a bus parked across train tracks.

  • Jorge Antonio Vallejos is a mixed race (Indigenous/Spanish/Arab), Toronto based, poet, essayist and journalist. His writing has appeared in COLORLINES, XTRA!, THIS Magazine, Rabble, Anishinabek News, Toronto Star, The Kenyon Review, and is forthcoming in Descant and Ruptures: Anti-colonial Feminist Theorizing. Jorge can be reached at condorsview@yahoo.ca

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