This three-part series on settler colonialism is co-authored between two people: one who identifies as a michif (Métis) man from Saskatoon, the other who identifies as a racialized, non-Indigenous female settler. As co-authors, we are speaking from our own perspectives as an Indigenous person (Justin) and as a settler (Kay).
This series is informed through an anti-colonial, anti-racist, and intersectional feminist lens. We have tried to make it more accessible, but fully acknowledge that we were not completely successful. We have embedded links for further learning and hope this can make the piece more accessible and informative. We hope this article can serve as an introduction to some important (and complicated) issues; in our opinion, an understanding of settler-colonialism, and our complicity in it, is essential to building a better future.
Example Two: Tokenization of Indigenous students
In part one of our series, we discussed the erasure of Indigenous students. In this segment, we will explore the instances in which students’ Indigeneity is acknowledged, but done so tokenistically.
Tokenization is a superficial gesture of inclusion; it is “the practice of including one or a few members of a minority in a group, without their having authority or power equal to that of the other group members. It functions to place a burden on an individual to represent all others like [them].”
In the classroom, non-Indigenous professors often ask Indigenous students to speak on behalf of all Indigenous people. Usually this happens without consent or notice. This form of tokenization is problematic because it homogenizes Indigenous people – in other words, it sustains the idea that all Indigenous people share the same beliefs, practices, and viewpoints, and that all Indigenous communities and nations are identical. This is untrue. To start, there are three Indigenous groups in Canada: First Nations, Metis, and Inuit. Within these groups are diverse nations, communities, and bands, each with a distinctive identity based on unique traditions and relationships with land. Homogenizing Indigenous people plays into colonial practices aimed to eliminate Indigenous cultural identity. One example of these practices is the Canadian government’s residential school system.
Tokenization also occurs when Indigenous students are assumed to be experts on Indigenous subject matters. When a non-Indigenous professor addresses an Indigenous student in front of the class and asks, “What do you think about [X Indigenous issue]?,” they are unfairly singling the student out and forcing them to act as an authority. Similar, yet subtler acts of tokenization occur when non-Indigenous professors look directly at Indigenous students when discussing Indigenous issues, as if to seek affirmation or permission. As the folks at What I Learned In Class Today: Aboriginal Issues in the Classroom write,
The “Aboriginal as expert” assumption also falsely presumes that a single person could be knowledgeable of a vast array of material and diversity of peoples, cultures, and histories because he or she is Aboriginal. This assumption can unfairly place the burden of the discussion on one or few students, though the classroom discussion is not their responsibility – it is the instructor’s. That does not, of course, mean that Aboriginal students may not have something of value, or a unique perspective, to bring to the discussion: the question is rather the terms on which they are to be engaged.
As an Indigenous student on a campus that loves to showcase its work with Indigenous communities, it is troubling how frequently I – and countless other Indigenous students – are tokenized. Time and time again, Indigenous students are consulted about university policy or asked to join committees. However, when we find ourselves in those rooms and at those tables, our voices rarely heard. It becomes obvious that we aren’t really wanted there. On other occasions, we are expected to live up to certain definitions and expectations of what it means to be Indigenous, but this is never on our terms.
For example, I recall being encouraged to join a particular committee. It sounded great, and I was excited to bring an Indigenous voice in to the decision-making process. But it didn’t go so well. I could tell my contributions weren’t being heard, and I wasn’t what they expected – not that it mattered anyway. The reality for me, which isn’t often the case for Indigenous students, is that I look white. I carry many of the privileges a heterosexual white man carries, and to be completely honest, it makes a lot of things in my life a whole lot easier. However, it also means that I am also regularly forced to prove my Indigeneity to a mostly non-Indigenous audience. I recognize my experience is not the norm for Indigenous students on campus, but I do think it is worth sharing. I find myself navigating many different spaces; some in which I am tokenized, others in which my authenticity is questioned. This occurs overwhelmingly in non-Indigenous spaces, in which I am rendered an object to be studied and evaluated.
I don’t question that it’s important to provide education and share one’s experience with people who are sincerely interested in learning. However, this is a daunting task that Indigenous students are often expected to shoulder alone. As students, both non-Indigenous and Indigenous, we are already balancing heavy workloads and high expectations. On top of the daily stresses of being a student, Indigenous students are often expected to educate our peers. I can’t count how many times it has become my responsibility – or that of another Indigenous person – to educate an entire class.
I can recall working on a project in a class with a well-intentioned professor. The class was broken into small groups to work on different aspects of a larger project. I was encouraged by the fact that the old, white professor was sincerely interested in understanding how colonialism and the Indigenous experience in Canada was connected to the project. Of course, with the help of others, I was expected to take on this assignment. I was happy to see that these important pieces of information would be included in the project, but also felt like I’d done this work a million times. While other students were encouraged to explore new ideas and develop new skills, I was left to educate the class on the history of colonialism and the Indigenous experience in Canada. The expectation that I enact this labour – again and again – not only tokenizes me and my experiences, but also limits my opportunities to develop new skills and ideas.
I believe that there is an important role for informed settlers to play. In classes and conversations, settlers can support Indigenous students by challenging these types of expectations. The systems of oppression that erase and/or tokenize Indigenous students stem from non-Indigenous understandings of the world, and thus it is essential that non-Indigenous students work to undo them. Paulette Regan, in discussing Jeannette Armstrong’s work, writes that non-Indigenous peoples must
Cast a critical eye on the imperial garden we have cultivated with our colonial tools, on the lands and in the lives of Indigenous peoples. […] To turn over the rocks and face whatever ugly creatures slither out, examining them honestly and unflinchingly. To challenge the romantic myths we believe about ourselves and to focus our energies on questioning our own identity, values, and experiences as colonizers. To share honestly with Native people what we learn about ourselves in the process, and more importantly, how we will change our attitudes and actions.
I can’t speak to Indigenous experiences of tokenization, so instead I’ll be addressing the burden of education. Those of us who are settlers often ask, “Well, why shouldn’t Indigenous people teach us? Who else will?” Implied in these statements is the idea that it is a marginalized group’s duty to educate the rest of society. Essentially, we (settlers) are relieving ourselves of the responsibility of self-education, and placing it on the shoulders of Indigenous people. As Justin alluded to, when Indigenous students are tokenized in the classroom context, no longer are they allowed to be “just students”: they are forced to become objects (and teachers) whose lives are being studied by settlers. This plays into broader practices of objectification that force Indigenous people to be the subjects of cruel research experiments or the cultural decor of Western museums. (However, there are also incredible acts of Indigenous resistance against Eurocentric museum culture. The U’Mista museum, translated as “the return of something important,” is a museum curated by the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw people to repatriate and preserve their cultural heritage. They display their belongings, art, and stories on their own terms.)
So, how do we educate ourselves? Many anti-colonial and decolonial activists have discussed the idea of “critical settler-reflection”. In doing this work, we need to reflect on how we benefit from colonial injustices and how we impose violence on Indigenous communities. For example, in the Sixties Scoop, white female social workers forcibly removed Indigenous children from their communities and placed them into the state’s oppressive welfare system. This is still happening today. The practice of using the child welfare system to remove Indigenous children from their families continues to have devastating impacts on Indigenous communities. Today, non-Indigenous social workers need to be accountable to these violences, and understand that their work is inherently connected to colonial brutality. Another example is how anti-racist activists and people of colour (PoCs) often ignore the oppression of Indigenous communities. This happens when we position Indigenous people as a special interest consideration or an outsider group, equate anti-racism with anti-colonialism, and fail to recognize our complicity in settler colonialism. (For more in-depth reading, click here.) As settlers, we need to start centering Indigenous activisms in our social justice work.
Thinking about our moral responsibilities as settlers can often lead to feelings of guilt, nervousness, unease, and denial. But this place of unsettlement is important. We need to start sitting with our discomfort. As Paulette Regan writes in Unsettling The Settler Within, the ability for us to remain as neutral observers to painful Indigenous experiences is a “colonial form of empathy.”
So basically, we need take a seat, check our privilege, and start educating ourselves and each other. There’s always more work to be done.
To start, here are some resources that I’ve found to be particularly useful!
- Resources for general learning:
- On Indigenous terminology
- A great resource page: Indigenous Foundations at UBC
- Another great resource page: What I Learned In Class Today: Aboriginal Issues In the Classroom (at UBC)
- “Confronting Colonialism in Canada”
- “9 Questions About Idle No More”
- Some incredible work by Indigenous authors, activists, and artists:
- “Not Murdered and Not Missing” by Leanne Simpson
- Photography Project 562 on Native American representation (Matika Wilbur)
- “Why I March” (on the annual Women’s Memorial March) by Marlene George
- “Legs Like Tree Trunks” by UBC student Samantha Marie Nock
- Inuit “Sealfies” (protesting ‘‘Ellen selfies’’)
- “Genocide, racism and Canada Day: An Algonquin-Anishinaabekwe love letter” by Lynn Gehl Gii-Zhigaate-Mnidoo-Kwe
- Resources for settlers:
In our next section, we critically analyze and discuss territory acknowledgements. Thanks for reading!
Paulette Reagan, Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011).
Jeannette Armstrong, “The Disempowerment of First North American Native Peoples and Empowerment Through Their Writings”
Special thanks to Matthew Ward, Arielle Baker, and Alex Mierke-Zatwarnicki for their editing help and overall awesomeness.