Guest post by Tania Searle

As we face climate crisis, activist groups, NGO’s and governments around the world are increasingly collaborating with Indigenous peoples to protect the Earth’s natural resources and develop sustainable practices. The Indigenous Rangers Program in Australia, Country Needs People, which is funded by the Commonwealth government is a prime example. Another is seen with the transformation of the Canadian Nanticoke coal fired power plant into a solar farm – an idea initiated and funded by Ontario Power Generation (OPG), the Six Nations of the Grand River Development Corporation, and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation.

Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can stand together on common ground for a common cause. However, it is not always a happy union. As Summer May Findlay notes, Indigenous people make up a small percentage of the population and therefore need allies to boost numbers. She lists a few points on how to be a good Indigenous ally. At the same time, non-Indigenous people who step in as allies can sometimes do more damage than good, as Eric Ritskes points out, allies can come at cost. Here are a few things to look out for.

Remember your history. The origin of the conservation movement is tied with colonisation. Alarmed by the speed and extent of environmental degradation in colonised lands, such as Africa, colonial authorities realised natural resources needed to be ‘conserved’ if they were to benefit from the long-term use of nature. Early conservation ideas were bound up with capitalism and the desire to ‘conquer’ or ‘tame’ the wild for the benefit of colonising countries. Similarly, national parks were established for the benefit of colonial settlers. Yellowstone National Park, said to be the first national park established in the world, had been inhabited by a number of Native American Tribes for thousands of years. Their use and occupation of the land conflicted with the idea that wilderness, or ‘wildness’, was a natural area of land where humans don’t intervene. The Congress’ Yellowstone Act of 1872 made occupation or settlement of the area illegal and privileged the use of the park for the recreational enjoyment of colonial settlers. The same is true for the national parks movement that spread across the globe.

Watch out for whiteness. In conservation and environmental activist movements, invisible habits of whiteness play out in non-Indigenous peoples’ relationships with First Nations peoples. Aboriginal activist Gary Foley, in the foreword of Clare Land’s book Decolonising Solidarity, states that in over fifty years of activist work the most difficult conversations he’s had is with people who claim they support Aboriginal rights. When non-Indigenous people put forward what we think is best, when we talk instead of listen, when our passion and enthusiasm dominate collaboration, we unwittingly reassert our place at the top of the racial hierarchy. Reflecting on our history and how we, as the descendants and beneficiaries of colonisation, are situated in current relationships requires ongoing tenacity. Should mistakes be made in activist work with First Nations, accepting critical feedback is vital for maintaining healthy relationships.

Prioritise Indigenous sovereignty. Globally, Indigenous peoples’ efforts to protect their lands is an issue of sovereignty – who gets to have control, make decisions and uphold laws and responsibilities over a specified territory. Environmental activists’ efforts to protect lands is more often about a specific environmental issue, for example, challenging a multinational corporation’s development proposal. While the two are tied, the issue of sovereignty for First Nations can often be pushed aside. In doing so, non-Indigenous activists can easily hijack First Nations goals. Indigenous peoples’ knowledge, time, and political strengths are often taken advantage of for the benefit of non-Indigenous peoples’ agendas. The Idle No More movement in Canada is a great example of following Indigenous leadership to achieve mutual goals.

Value Indigenous knowledge and labour. As well as being an issue of sovereignty, First Nations peoples’ knowledge, time, and physical and intellectual labour must be valued monetarily. We are all currently trapped inside a capitalist system and Indigenous people need money to survive just like everyone else. Assuming that Indigenous people will ‘volunteer’ their time, knowledge and labour without being paid may reflect habits of whiteness that values ‘white’ peoples’ skills financially and relegates Indigenous peoples as a free resource for our consumption.

Recognise Indigenous diversity. As with any group of people, not all Indigenous people are the same. In the environment movement First Nations peoples are often stereotyped as ‘original conservationists’ who did not interfere with the land. First Nations in Australia, Canada and America did not leave the natural world to do its own thing and merely pick the fruits of natures bounty. They managed their lands. Agriculture, aquaculture and other methods such as firestick farming were common. Australian Indigenous writer and activist, Bruce Pascoe, from the Kulin nation, is working steadily on dispelling the myth that First Nations peoples in Australia were hunter gatherers. For many reasons, Indigenous peoples may not present themselves to be the person we imagine, and this can lead non-Indigenous people to question their ‘authenticity’. Indigenous peoples have been homogenised and defined according to non-Indigenous peoples’ judgement for centuries. It remains a persistent habit of whiteness.

All relationships require attention and work. Non-Indigenous Australia’s relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in activist work has a rough history behind it and therefore requires extra care. We have made progress on our journey together, yet obstacles remain on our path, and the journey is not over.

Tania Searle is a PhD Candidate, Sessional Academic in sociology at Flinders University of South Australia, and XRSA member. The working title of her PhD thesis is ‘What makes a good Ally? Indigenous sovereignty, agency and natural resource management’.