I had an experience that is telling in terms of a white woman’s interference in the relationship between Indigenous knowledge holders and Indigenous community members. I offer my story as it is illustrative of what many Indigenous women, Indigenous communities, and Indigenous organizations are contending with. It is worthy of noting here first, though, that this experience of mine happened within a very politically powered and gendered, and thus a very socially stratified, organization.
White Woman Gaze Switching
On this particular occasion I found myself in one of life’s special moments walking with an Indigenous elder and wisdom holder. Building relationships, I have come to know, sometimes take place in fleeting moments such as these. Walking side-by-side in the direction of the building we were heading toward, we exchanged small yet heartfelt pleasantries. As we entered the doorway and began to walk down the ramp deeper into the interior of the building a white woman was situated at the bottom of the ramp. This white woman looked at me and then at the elder and then back at me. My process of observing this woman looking back and forth was disturbingly telling. Through this process of observing her gaze-switching back and forth, I was able to observe how some white women look at Indigenous elders, in comparison to how they look at other Indigenous people such as me.
As this white woman looked at me her face was pretty much neutral and not too expressive. Yet when her gaze shifted to look at the Indigenous elder her entire facial expression turned to one of juvenile happiness and joy. Again, when this white woman looked at me her face shifted to the more neutral expression. Then, as she once again shifted her gaze to look at the Indigenous elder, her facial expression once again shifted – again and again to one of childish adoration. By the time we made it to the bottom of the ramp, I had the opportunity to watch this cycle of her shifting gaze three times.
How Her Gaze Switching Made Me Feel
Although I knew this white woman, and I did have a somewhat friendly relationship with her, when we arrived at the bottom of the ramp, the Indigenous elder stopped to speak with this ever adoring fan. I, though, feeling ill, kept on walking. I was ill with disappointment because it was at that very moment that I realized I could never do for an Indigenous elder what this needful and pitiful white woman was able to do. Oh how I loathed this woman’s pitifulness, a pitifulness that any man would enjoy.
As an Indigenous woman I have a right to, and need of, the Indigenous knowledge I seek. Indigenous communities are very much dependent on the emancipation of Indigenous women. The problem is that sometimes when we encounter elders we are unable to engage in the same pitiful childish adoring way that white women, and for that matter white men, are able to. And when our neutral facial expressions are compared to one such as this white woman’s expression, we are perceived as not deserving of the knowledge that may emerge.
White Gaze of Interference
When I think about my experience further, I recognize this white woman’s behaviour for what it is: an interference. Although there are many other reasons, a huge barrier in the transmission of Indigenous knowledge within Indigenous communities is what I call “white-woman-settler-gaze-of-interference”. This ramp experience with a white woman’s gaze was the moment when I realized how it is that white women are sometimes able to gain greater access to Indigenous knowledge than indigenous people. White women should not be impinging on the relationships that Indigenous knowledge holders have with Indigenous community members in this way. Indigenous people and Indigenous communities are dependent on the re-building of our nations and knowledge structures. Certainly, the white-woman-settler-gaze-of-interference should not be the mortar that solidifies and fortifies yet another inadequate patriarchy.
Indigenous Women Are Vulnerable Enough
In further thinking, I have also come to understand that within any organization where one resides at the lower end of the social stratification hierarchy, one is as vulnerable, if not more vulnerable, than the most vulnerable person. Clearly this white woman was needful and the problem is that through her pitifulness, she makes other people, such as myself, more pitiful as we are not able to compete in terms of offering juvenile adoration to an Indigenous knowledge holder.
The Privilege of a White Woman’s Gaze
Later I came to realize that in fact this white woman comes from a very privileged family and position in society. She has had, and continues to have, the love, support, and guidance of her parents, grew up in a home in a nice area of town, and thus had great access to economic resources. Regardless of her privileged position over Indigenous women this white woman is selfish.
There is the Need to End the Selfishness of the White Woman’s Gaze
White women, and white men, need to critically reflect on, and be cognizant of, their actions and respond in a way that assures they do not hurt Indigenous women and people in their emancipation efforts. In Indigenous women’s goal for emancipation we need genuine allies and collaborators, not women who interfere through their white-woman-settler-gaze-of-interference.
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Lynn Gehl, Ph.D. is an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe from the Ottawa River Valley. She has a section 15 Charter challenge regarding the continued sex discrimination in The Indian Act, and is an outspoken critic of the Ontario Algonquin land claims and self-government process. She has three books: Anishinaabeg Stories: Featuring Petroglyphs, Petrographs, and Wampum Belts, The Truth that Wampum Tells: My Debwewin of the Algonquin Land Claims Process, and Mkadengwe: Sharing Canada's Colonial Process through Black Face Methodology. You can reach her at email@example.com and see more of her work at www.lynngehl.com.