Katalin Doiron-Koller is an Acadian-Hungarian woman, critical political ecologist, and non-profit professional living as a guest in unceded Wolastoqey territory. Her research on allyship is situated at the intersection of relationality, environmental justice, and the politics of reconciliation.
Discomfort, nay, decolonization! Becoming allies in and with Esgenoopetitj
Learning to centre Wabanaki peoples and their knowledges, languages, and lived experiences toward decolonizing education in New Brunswick has been the most rewarding journey of my life. As a non-Indigenous activist-scholar and a Project Manager working with and for Wabanaki communities, I have sometimes been referred to by Wabanaki friends and colleagues as an ally. While I am honoured by this title, I feel a significant duty and responsibility to model the values and behaviours necessary to reciprocate the spirit of the Peace and Friendship Treaties, the original covenants between Wabanaki peoples and European colonists that committed all nations to living together peacefully in Wabanakek. Everyone living and working in this place are beholden to the Treaties, whether descended from settlers, arriving as newcomers from other lands, or carrying the ancestral knowledge of Wabanaki nations. This means we all have a responsibility to one another, our ancestors, future generations, and this land, and to coexist in harmony and mutual respect. This way of being in relationship means living by an ethic of personal and collective relational accountability to each other and the land, in gratitude for the reciprocal friendship and support we enjoy (see Wilson, 2008).
On an individual level, I personally feel accountable to Wolastoqewi Kci-Sakom spasaqsit possesom (Wolastoq Grand Chief Ron Tremblay, morning star burning), who has taught me that as a non-Indigenous ally, it is my job to educate my own (non-Indigenous) people, and to model what it means in contemporary times to be a Peace and Friendship Treaty person. It is an arduous process to understand how best one can live this way, and even more so to model and share with others what is inherently an existential, inwardly reflective, personal process of decolonizing the way one thinks, acts, and interacts in the world. In truth, becoming an ally and living as a Treaty person can be an immensely uncomfortable journey, but it is positively life changing and deeply transformative (McGloin, 2015). As with many things that result in personal growth, if you don’t experience discomfort, you’re probably not doing it right!
In my research on allyship in Wabanakek, many non-Indigenous people have likewise confessed the discomfort they feel when confronting their own colonial ideologies and preconceived notions to allow for an anti-colonial perspective to propagate. Indeed, learning to decolonize one’s mind is a core element of learning to live in allyship with the first peoples of the land you inhabit. ‘White guilt’, a common feeling that non-Indigenous White people experience when learning the truth of the role their ancestors played in supporting the Residential and Day School System or other violently genocidal Canadian policies, such as the Sixties Scoop, malnutrition testing on undernourished Residential School students, and reproductive sterilization of Indigenous women without their consent, among others. Learning the truth of this dark history and ongoing neocolonialism on Turtle Island is a crucial first step toward becoming an ally and a necessary prerequisite to taking actions that decolonize social norms, discourses, and behaviours (Manuel & Derrickson 2015).
Non-Indigenous people can also experience the discomfort of decolonizing the mind when encountering Indigenous temporalities, referred to by Indigenous scholars as “relational time” (Pickering 2004). Relational time is not based on a western clock, nor is it defined by seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, or months. Rather, relational time is centred on building relationships, allowing the life cycles of the natural world to guide human activities, rather than a corporate clock buzzing us through a capitalist work-life balance (or lack thereof) (Pickering 2004). From the perspective of relational time, no minute is wasted on conversation or waiting or rest. All things happen when they are meant to happen, and the time it takes to get there is part of the journey. Yet, even after a decade of working as a Project Manager with Three Nations Education Group Inc. (TNEGI) and being aware of this myself, I am still learning to slow down and appreciate just being in relationship with others and the natural world, for this way of being is critical to becoming in allyship with the first peoples of the land.
As an example of this discomfort and allied becoming in practice, when TNEGI educators began requesting training from a non-Indigenous organization to help them harness their ancestral memory for land-based learning, I knew it was my responsibility to ensure the training was situated in relational accountability with Wabanakek. In other words, a decolonial, land-based education must be led by the first peoples of that land, be founded on their protocols and values, and be situated in the context of relationship to Mother Earth and all human and non-human beings within it. Given this, I approached our non-Indigenous partners and proposed we adopt a generative, relational methodology for the training that would hold space for and encourage an anti-colonial, Indigenous ethic to emerge and guide the learning process (Koller & Rasmussen, 2021).
Even though the goal was to let the training direction be generated by the participants, when the first day began, I found myself obsessed with schedules and timeframes and making sure everything followed a predesigned schedule. TNEGI had spent a lot of money on the initiative and, if successful, it could help decolonize the way training was conducted across Canada. So when the first day’s agenda ran late because we had spent a lot of time getting to know one another and telling stories of the history of Esgenoopetitj, I began to feel an intense anxiety that we would fall behind and the value of the training would be reduced.
I was feeling the weight of the world on my shoulders, and when the day finally ended, I escaped to the ocean. The movement of the water always makes me feel better, reminding me with its immense energy that I am just a small part of a larger, dynamic world. It was a beach of rugged sands and whitecapped waves. I began to feel reinvigorated and walked along, my frustrations about the day spinning in my head.
Scanning the sand, I noticed the presence of smooth rocks with cylindrical holes. Being nearby fishing communities, I rationalized that these must be some element of a fishing apparatus, yet I had never seen anything like them. I sat down, cradling a dozen of these unique formations on my lap. As I stared out over the timeless, constant movement of the water—up and down, in and out—I was overcome by a feeling of finite presence on this planet and, surprisingly, a feeling of coming home that I had never felt in any place else.
I recalled the stories Mi’kmaq knowledge holder Bobby Sylliboy had shared with us that day, about how the Mi’kmaq people of the territory had sheltered Acadians that were being hunted by the British during the expulsion of 1755. Everyone had been in awe of Bobby’s stories; the experience sparked a bond between us as we unpacked his teachings and reflected on how the past had shaped present-day society. I realized I had actually learned a great deal during our day on the land, not only about my Acadian ancestors and their unique relationship with the Mi’kmaq, but also about myself and where I came from, about the subjectivity of truth, and about the strategic alliances that made up our shared past and that could inform our shared future (Davis, O’Donnell & Shpuniarsky 2007).
Recognizing my privilege as an Acadian descendent in Mi’kmaq territory, I was able to reflect on my discomfort from the day’s events and realize how unreasonable and rigid I was being. It became clear to me that the real value of learning on and with the land is the holding of space where teachings can arise by being in relationship with the land itself; moreover, building relationships takes time. In other words, my discomfort had been a reaction to experiencing relational time when I was so used to colonial time. Were I to let go of the expectation for a perfectly timed sequence of events, I might relax enough to experience the value of the day—for creating the space to allow our relationships with one another and the land to grow.
The entire experience left me feeling better prepared to undertake my obligations as a Peace and Friendship Treaty person accountable to my Wabanaki and non-human relations. Decolonizing how we embody concepts of time is part of becoming an ally and living by the principle of relational accountability (Wilson 2008). To live relationally requires a presence of mind, body, and spirit that only exists outside of colonial time. Decolonizing how we embody time means slowing down and focusing on that which is most important for the betterment of the human and natural world—our relationship to one another and the land. It means being grounded in space and time, while allowing our respect and recognition of each other’s agency and our non-human relations to guide our behaviours in this shared place. This is a teaching I will never forget.
The next day, as I combed the shoreline with some teachers, I stumbled across another of the stones with a hole through it. I called Stacy Jones and Fran Dedam over and shared my discovery. They stared wide-eyed. “Pukulatmuj!” they said. They explained that Mi’kmaq stone spirits—known as Pukulatmuj—are tricksters that hide when they see humans. But when they are attracted to a person’s aura, they follow them, hiding behind rocks while peering out through a hole in the stone. Finding these special rocks is a sign Pukulatmuj have been following you because your spirit is shining bright. We had a laugh when I told them how many of these rocks I had encountered the night before! Not only did I feel specially chosen by Pukulatmuj, but in their telling me this story, I felt a genuine welcoming and belonging. As an ally, I knew I must honour this trust in reciprocity, carrying the teachings I had received to bring awareness to others in our mutual vision for a decolonized future.
- The author talks about relational accountability, mutual respect, responsibility, and reciprocity. How would you define these concepts and what do you think they have to do with Indigenous/non-Indigenous allyship?
- What does “being a Treaty person” mean to you, and what would you consider your obligations under the Treaties?
- Have you ever experienced relational time? How did it make you feel?
- How is the idea of “learning about the subjectivity of truth” related to allyship and reconciliation?
Davis, L., O’Donnell, V., & Shpuniarsky, H. (2007). Aboriginal-social justice alliances: Understanding the landscape of relationships through the Coalition for a Public Inquiry into Ipperwash. International Journal of Canadian Studies, 36, 95-119.
Koller, K.D., & Rasmussen, K. (2021). Generative learning and the making of ethical space: Indigenizing forest school teacher training in Wabanakik. Engaged Scholar Journal: Community-Engaged Research, Teaching, and Learning, 7(1), 219-229. doi: https://doi.org/10.15402/esj.v7i1.70065
Manuel, A., & Derrickson, G. M. (2015). Unsettling Canada: A National Wake-up Call. Toronto: Between the Lines.
McGloin, C. (2015). Listening to hear: Critical allies in Indigenous studies. Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 55(2), 267-282.
Pickering, K. (2004). Decolonizing time regimes: Lakota conceptions of work, economy, and society. American Anthropologist, 106(1), 85-97.
Wilson, S. (2008). Research Is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods. Black Point: Fernwood Publishing.
- Wabanakek is the homeland of Wabanaki peoples, including Mi'kmaq, Wolastoq (Maliseet), Peskotomuhkati, Penobscot, and Abenaki. Wabanakek encompasses Atlantic Canada, the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec, and Northern Maine. ↵