Is it weird that a non-indigenous person just tried to tell me about indigenous issues?

Well that was a post I wrote while I was in an indigenous conference panel in late 2016.  I was genuinely perplexed… my whole research experience is premised on a few key things… one of those key things comes from the philosophy – ‘By Māori for Māori’ (Māori could be substituted with any other nation)– this is a baseline…. Right?

In the conference panel I felt my stomach swirl with emotion, I was affronted.  I was at an indigenous research conference listening to a non-indigenous person talk to us about the ‘state’ of one aspect of indigenous development.  ‘Sweet, I’ve got this…’ I thought and I carefully composed the question I would pose back to the presenter.  One that would challenge the presenter’s assumption that they had the right to talk to us about this…  It would be a diplomatic question that would not completely confront them, but rather push them to consider their privileged position of ‘telling us’.  I thought about the years of hard work that researchers and other development activists had toiled in order to create space for us, as indigenous peoples, to discuss our own outcomes of colonisation and then to create our own solutions.  I thought about all of the research literature I have read about reaffirming our own ways of knowing and being, of stepping out from under the white microscope.  I thought about the courageous leaders of critical and transformative Māori research whom I have listened to intently since I was an undergraduate student.  I too was in a privileged position, after all I had been exposed to those critical thinkers.  Ok, so maybe this lady just didn’t get the memo about kaupapa Māori research, and the notion that indigenous peoples are not the peripheries of white people’s research… I can deal with that, I can address this person’s lack of knowledge…

And then it happened… you know the one, where the swirling in your stomach leaches into the room, as if you are in the matrix or alice in wonderland, and everything you thought was normative, suddenly appears that it is not.  It is the moment that you are always prepared for out in the rest of the world, but the one you never expect to happen within an indigenous space with your guard down…

So, what happened?  Well the room, filled with indigenous peoples, started to give encouraging prompts to the presenter, signs of endorsement of their research… wait what? Yes, my peers and colleagues encouraged the presentation, they ‘oohed and ahhed’ and engaged fully with what was being said.

At that point the courage that I had previously summoned up to address this person dissolved into oblivion, and my heart became heavy.  Addressing the white person’s lack of knowledge is one thing… but confronting my own people about this whole situation involved more fortitude… and a whole new critical analysis that needed to be conveyed in less than two minutes… and I had about two minutes to come up with it… I was stunned and flabbergasted all the while trying to decipher what I had just experience, I was trying to strategize what to say that would be diplomatic and make any difference at all to what just happened, all the while trying to hold together my breaking heart.

I wish I could tell you that I delivered some amazing sermon that set every person in the panel on a new fortified direction for indigenous research.  That I did something amazing in that moment.  Alas, I cannot.  The truth is, I was so overwhelmed with what just happened that I left the panel to seek counsel from some of my other peers, and mentors.  To be honest with you, I was still trying to figure out what had just happened.

It has been a few weeks not since that experience so I have had more than two minutes to think about what was going on there…  So what can I say now, what did I come to know?

Colonisation is insidious and unrelenting, even when you think you are safe you are not.  Colonisation has penetrated our minds, our bodies, our hearts and our souls and it will take some radical collective action to address the severity of this.

In my example of the conference panel, colonisation penetrated our being in such a way that we were compliant in giving our power and our truth to someone else to talk about.  In that moment in that panel we were drawn, into the colonising lullaby that continues to soothe us while taking away our sovereign rights.  Yes we wanted to be good hosts, and there might be some truth in what this outsider was saying, but people, we can say this for ourselves.

I’m not sure about anyone else but I’m over pākehā or white people telling us about ourselves.  And especially I am over white people making a living off our colonisation – researching and writing about us as if they are the authority on the situation, and then receiving awards, grants, funding to continue to colonise our spaces???  I’m over white people being promoted after writing fancy books about us, as if we couldn’t do it ourselves.  Yes, that work hasn’t been done yet – because in case you didn’t notice, our people have that task written down on a list as long as their arm.  The priority however seems to be addressing all the other colonising actions that are impacting on our people, while fighting for social justice or the protection of ancestral lands, and this is over and above being part of a whānau or extended family and an indigenous citizen of your own nation.  – oh yeah and the day job.

White people – pākehā – you would be most helpful to us if you researched the pākehā colonising impositions on indigenous development, you would be helpful to us as an ally speaking truth to pākehā people.  We don’t need you to tell us about ourselves… we need you to tell your people about your role in colonising & therefore decolonising our countries ie: ‘by pākehā for pākehā’ – not ‘by pākehā for Māori’ or ‘by pākehā about Māori’.

Indigenous peoples we can do it all ourselves, and we do not need to give permission to anyone else to talk about our sovereignty.  We are not required to comply to what they say about us, neither are we required to endorse what they say about us.  I was prepared to do that, but my failure on that day was my ill preparedness to speak to our own people about our endorsement of a non-indigenous person who was talking about indigenous development.  I now see that had my heart not been breaking that I might have addressed the presenter, and then turned to my peers in the room and simply asked them if they thought that it was okay for a non-indigenous person to tell the indigenous story to indigenous people.

It seems so simple now, to think of how I could have addressed what was happening in that room that day.  I will consider that a learning experience.  I hope that I never have to encounter that again – but I fear I will, and I only hope that my heart does not break again so I might find the strength to call some light on the insidious dark colonisation of our people, our hearts, our minds and our souls.


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