I often see well-meaning non-Indigenous who are trying to help with Indigenous cause. Before I get into the nitty-gritty of this blog, I want to frame it with this poignant, yet beautifully sad story and a lesson from a butterfly.
A man spent hours watching a butterfly struggling to emerge from its cocoon. The butterfly managed to make a small hole, but its large body struggled to release. After a long struggle, the butterfly appeared to be exhausted and remained absolutely still. The man decided to help the butterfly and, with a pair of scissors, he cut open the cocoon, thus freeing the butterfly. However, the butterfly’s wings were crumpled and stuck to its body. The man continued to watch, hoping at any moment, the butterfly’s wings would open and fly. Nothing happened. What the man – out of kindness and his eagerness to help – had failed to understand was that the tight cocoon provided the effort that the butterfly had to make in order to squeeze out of that tiny hole. Nature’s way of strengthening the butterflies wings. The butterfly spent the rest of its brief life dragging itself around – its shriveled wings, incapable of flight. The butterfly unable to fly off on its destiny.*
The man in this story is ignorant to the butterflies needs. No matter how well intentioned, we are ignorant when we walk into communities that are not our own. That ignorance can be a dangerous to the Indigenous struggle. Some of our Indigenous communities are in such vulnerable states, the idea of any outside assistance, support and leadership can be hypnotic. However, I’ve seen instances of well-meaning non-Indigenous supporters getting it wrong. So I’ve crafted some guidelines as a start to thinking about what the non-Indigenous supporter should try to avoid.
- Speak with, but never for Indigenous people.
Indigenous people can speak for themselves. Full stop. I cringe hearing non-Indigenous people talking about how an Indigenous community lives and thinks. I double cringe when I hear how through their non-Indigenous help and assistance they have ‘saved’ that Indigenous community. I call this the missionary mentality. “If it wasn’t for me, these people would still be poor and helpless”. Every person and community has their own source of power, and only they can be credited for discovering and accessing it for themselves. Please always try to have an Indigenous representative with you, who should speak to their own communities’ existence. Speak with, not for. If you ARE going to talk about your Indigenous project, then talk from your own experiences and leanings as a non-Indigenous.
- Support, but do not create new Indigenous causes of which you are the lead.
I’ve seen a couple of examples of non-Indigenous creating their own organisations, events and initiatives. My question is why? Support one of the multitudes that already exist and Indigenous led. I think a non-Indigenous person must always ask themselves, why am I in this Indigenous space? On occasions I have seen non-Indigenous people using the Indigenous activist scene as a platform to have their own individual selves seen and heard.
- Teach but do not patronise.
Business schools can be particularly guilty of going into communities with patronising teachings. Never for a moment do they think to consider that these Indigenous communities survived economically for thousands of years with entrepreneurial and innovative behaviour. Some research reveals that quality of life was higher in some pre-colonial Indigenous communities. Instead business schools deliver their capitalist teachings and profit-centered curriculum’s informed by Western philosphies. Help Indigenous communities to unleash their own understandings of the world, do not force or push your own on to them. It takes a truly conscientized person to understand the difference. Where possible always try to empower people to learn their own unique Indigenous ways of doing things.
- Learn but do not claim.
Once on my kapahaka travels to Europe, I had to fight against a non-Maori kapahaka group over which haka item we would perform together at an opening event. Are you kidding me?! Learn the culture but never try to own it. Think of yourself as a guest in someone’s house. You are invited in to share the experience. You may know the workings of the house but you do not have any authority in that house. Usually, it takes years of long term sustained and continued small experiences to become fully embedded and accepted as a part of that community, which may then eventually lead to gaining some cultural authority.
I hope these guidelines are helpful to all our non-indigenous supporters out there. Unfortunately, (or perhaps fortunately), at the end of the day our path to empowerment and freedom of choice is our struggle. Our wings can only be strengthened through the course of the struggle. Anything less denies us of our opportunity to thrive and fly to our destiny.