Working on Indigenous issues and working within Indigenous communities can often be an experience that is filled with extreme frustration. Frustration with the way settler societies continue to disrespect and mistreat Indigenous peoples and communities. Yet, through the hard work of Indigenous peoples in the past we have carved out many spaces for ourselves within settler societies. There is also a frustration when organizations that have been set up to provide care and support to people in our communities suffer from infighting. Of course these two sources of frustration are linked together in many ways. Settler colonialism has shaped the ways our institutions operate today. As well, using the spaces we have carved out to lift our communities up grows our collective strength. The same strength needed to push back against settler society.
I am Nehiyaw (Plains Cree) and I grew up on the reserve of my First Nation, Ermineskin Cree Nation. I remember my upbringing was filled with politics. Discussions of the way things were in the past, of the way things are now and of they way things should be. Yet, despite the political nature of the community, and widespread agreement that change is needed, it is never fully clear if we moving together in a good direction. I believe we are moving in the right away, but at the same time I lack conviction in that belief. It is this desire to move in a good direction together that has motivated my studies and led me to where I am today, a PhD candidate in political science at the University of British Columbia where I have lived for the past four years.
I greatly value any opportunities I have to work in the community but this work is often one of the greatest source of stress in my life. Balancing the joys of making positive change in the community with the frustrations caused by conflict, the slow pace of change and difficult interpersonal relationships (i.e. mean people) is a hard thing to do. It is not a balancing act that I have learned to do well. I still find myself often consumed by either good or negative emotions – the exhilaration of the wins, and the frustration of the difficulties. I think a lot about how to walk in the middle of the road, cautiously optimistic of the successes but also patient in the face of difficulties.
Although its important to think about how one can best approach the task of working with communities to improve the lives of Indigenous communities, I also get concerned with the way we talk about making change in communities. To often, I think there is a tendency to only think about change in relation to how it occurs inside a community. On the opposite side, it is also possible to invest an excessive amount of energy into our relationship with the Canadian government and settler society. What I think is lost in focusing on either of these paths is looking at the ways Indigenous communities and nations interact with each other.
The more I work in the community, the more I become convinced that Indigenous peoples need to find ways to create a political order that stretches across various locations. We miss a large piece of the puzzle when we only think about how change occurs within a community or with the Canadian state. The reality is that Indigenous communities are already connected. For one, all First Nations have members that live in different places, namely the people who now reside in urban centres. Of course, urban centres have Indigenous communities of their own that are important to connect with. Indigenous mobility does not only occur between reserves and urban centres. Many First Nation people reside on a reserve where they do not have membership. Many Indigenous peoples have parents from two different nations and feel connected to more than one community. For those of us who do not live on our traditional territories, there is often a desire to find ways to be connected to one’s community at a distance while holding responsibilities to the Indigenous Nations whose territory you live on. As well, on the prairies First Nations communities have much more connections to Metis communities than we like to acknowledge and across the country Inuit people also have many relationships with other Indigenous people.
Ignoring these realities hinders our efforts to create Indigenous political orders that can support people in our communities and forge a different relationship with settler society. How do we invigorate a third path of change that improves the relationship between Indigenous communities? How should Indigenous peoples confront the complex relationality of Indigenous life? I propose that Indigenous peoples must find ways to ‘weave our authority together.’ Weaving our authority together is not a vision of how things will look in some end state. Rather it is an orientation, a way of approaching every day political problems.
The concept of ‘Weaving our Authority together’ refers to three existing practices and one practice we need to strengthen. First, it is a nod to Indigenous political traditions where the predominant mode of thinking about political authority was the idea of maintaining good relationships. Second, it is a description of places within the Indigenous political landscape today where people are already combining their efforts together to work towards shared goals. Third, it is a description of where things are going. My sense is that we are already ‘weaving our authority together’ even if its momentum is limited. Eventually have to return to a mode of political organizing that accounts for interconnectedness between Indigenous communities, we will have no choice. Although these things are already happening we need to do more, we have to open ourselves to the idea and practice of ‘weaving our authority together.’ We have to find ways in our lives, political commitments and actions to promote the practice of weaving our authority together. What the outcome will be is unknowable, but it is not necessary to know the outcome. Rather, what we need is the shared vision that we can create forms of citizenship and nationhood that acknowledge the ways Indigenous peoples are connected with each other.