Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Radical Profeminist Alert: Lee Maracle is more than a benchwarmer, and please tell that to the men who need to know it

 [photograph of Indigenist feminist activist and AUTHOR Lee Maracle is from here]

What follows is a cross post from *here*.

Indigenous Politics, Web Exclusive

Are Aboriginal women and women of colour benchwarmers?

“They’re going to use Lee Maracle as a backup if Shawn Brant can’t make it,” said the insider of a coalition that aims to educate people on what they believe is an apartheid state in West Asia the Middle East.

This is one example of a larger problem within activist circles: Aboriginal women and women of colour given the backseat to men.

Years ago Mohawk woman Kahentinetha Horn was to be a secondary speaker to a keynote named AngryArab. Little did organizers know that Horn does not believe in being second to anyone, she stole the show. Being a “backup” is not in Horn’s interest or nature. A “backup” for Horn is more likely to be an extra clip for a Glock 9mm, not playing second fiddle to a blogger. So, Horn tooted, and AngryArab, well, remained angry.

But not all women are bold and confrontational like Horn, nor should they have to be.

The question is why do many activist circles preach equity while practicing sexism, misogyny, and what believe is racism? If women are given the forefront it is usually a white woman like Naomi Klein (or in terms of the literature world, Margaret Atwood).

In the past decade Indigenous men have dominated some of the big speaking circles here in Toronto. In the early 2000s the flavour of the month was Ward Churchill: Cherokee, controversial, well read and spoken. Problem is, Churchill says the same thing every time he talks! This writer has seen him speak on three separate occasions for different organizers and events. Churchill gets paid ridiculous amounts for a recycled speech.

The next guy gained popularity outside of the Indigenous community via wrongful incarceration—Bob Lovelace. Now we have Shawn Brant, CN Rail’s worst nightmare, and the new Indian tokenized by the left. Both have done great anti-poverty and land rights work and as a result have become celebrities for white and non-Indigenous activists.

So, we have three men who are heterosexual, able bodied, and have light skinned privilege, many say white privilege. And in the last example, to this writer’s knowledge, an Indigenous woman of colour is only good enough to be his “backup”.

What makes these men so special to white and non-Indigenous activists?

One is an outspoken and vilified professor who has written important books and was a member of the famed American Indian Movement. It is the recent news making actions of the second, doing time and being treated unjustly by cops and government (most of my friends and I should be speaking then, as well as the members of the fastest growing prison population worldwide—women of colour), and the third, laying a school bus across train tracks. These acts have led all three to be tokenized in activist circles.

It seems like gangster ideologies have been adopted by today’s activists. Doing time and holding standoffs with cops has earned certain people, usually men, street cred. Much good work by women that does not involve conflict or media attention is overlooked.

Lets look at some of the many things one Indigenous woman of colour, Lee Maracle (feminist, activist, writer, mentor, ally, mother, grandmother, now reduced to being a benchwarmer), has done over the last forty-five years:
  1. is a Life Giver who brought three Aboriginal children to this world, without Aboriginal women there are no Aboriginal people
  2. helped save the Barrie Native Friendship Centre from closing down in the 1990s, this giving Aboriginal folk a place to meet and spend time in a mostly white town
  3. paved the way and opened doors for many Indigenous writers and writers of colour
  4. has counseled countless survivors of violence and trauma
  5. is one of the few brown, female faces in the white dominated worlds of literature and academia (her book “I Am Woman” is taught everywhere)
  6. has taught many people how to read and write, this in turn combating one crucial aspect of the colonial prison pipeline—illiteracy
  7. has helped change laws that were oppressive to Aboriginal people and people of colour
  8. constantly makes links with different peoples and places in terms of colonialism
  9. supports events that effect people other than just Aboriginal folk: International Women’s Day, Yearly March Against Child Abuse, December 6th Vigil etc.
  10. is a vocal supporter of oppressed peoples worldwide, for example:
Song to a Palestinian Child
I hear a voice calling from a place far away
The voice of a child very much like my own
of green grass and rich soil in Palestine.
Bombs crash about her leveling her home
Clutching an olive branch she raises a defiant fist
of deep roots and copper sun in Palestine.
I see a child rising from a place far away
In one hand an olive branch in the other a gun
of much sweat and red blood in Palestine.
I hear your calling me. Raising my banner high
(Victory), victory, to Palestine I answer in kind
of humble tears my salute to Palestine.
The last ‘action’ (the beloved word of the activist left) Maracle did was hold and console a crying female relative of a murdered woman. Tears drenched Maracle’s coat as many names of the over 500 Missing and Murdered Aboriginal women in Canada were read on February 14, 2010 in front of police headquarters in Toronto. To activist groups, this act of solidarity, and the incomplete list above, does not compare to yelling the same thing at every speaking engagement or stopping a train in front of television cameras. Maracle’s actions have not made front page, or the six-o’clock, news and have not seen her arrested as of late; therefore, she is only good enough to be a backup.

Actions deemed relevant by activist communities are macho and usually done by men.

Have activist groups adopted practices they claim to fight? You would think that groups who claim to be anti-oppressive would practice gender equity. And in terms of Indigenous solidarity (something that activists yell every chance they get), does tokenizing one gender and silencing another equate solidarity?

This writer asked Maracle why she accepts last minute requests for talks (recently an MC gig) when she sometimes knows she is being used as a fill in for absent men.

“If I didn’t I’d never get the stage,” said Maracle.


Again, Maracle is one example of many in this problematic and oppressive practice done by activist groups here in Toronto, and elsewhere I am sure.

Is there a shortage of Aboriginal women and women of colour speakers? A few names come to mind:
Jan Longboat
Afua Cooper
Marilyn Dumont
Jacqui Alexander
Ana Castillo
Christine Welsh
Tracey Deer
Deborah McGregor
Rita Wong
Sunera Thobani
Njoki Wane
Sandra Cisneros
Yasmin Jiwani
Dionne Brand
Pauline Shirt

It would be an honour for this writer to one day be a backup for Lee Maracle, even if it meant keeping a seat warm for her on a bus parked across train tracks.
  • Jorge Antonio Vallejos is a mixed race (Indigenous/Spanish/Arab), Toronto based, poet, essayist and journalist. His writing has appeared in COLORLINES, XTRA!, THIS Magazine, Rabble, Anishinabek News, Toronto Star, The Kenyon Review, and is forthcoming in Descant and Ruptures: Anti-colonial Feminist Theorizing. Jorge can be reached at


  • yes…and why is it more likely that a non-native professor get tenure for teaching Native studies / postcolonial theory -rather than a Native
    and why is it ok for the artist ORLAN to have /exhibit an Indian identity-and not ok for me?
    and why is it, that most full tenured profs teaching African American studies are in fact not African themselves when-this would be equal to a man, teaching feminist theory
    answer=they continue to benefit off of the oppressed- by teaching /writing/getting grants to “research” about oppression-to the complete exclusion of the oppressed.
    we do need EVERYONE to teach these subjects-agreed-but not to the exclusion of the real represented we need the women to speak, and teach truths of lives lived under oppression so that we can break the cycle and continue in our responsibilities of carrying culture forwards and protecting land and Sovereignty
    #1. Posted by tannis nielsen in toronto on March 16th 2010 at 2:25pm 

  • It’s also about tactics and which ones we think are more important.
    #2. Posted by Rhonda in Toronto on March 16th 2010 at 2:44pm 

  • Thank you for this really important article Jorge.
    As someone who has personally been active in all types of solidarity and activist work, this has been a huge issue for me, that not enough people are thinking about.
    The blatant tokenization of Indigenous women and peoples in general is disgusting, and happens in so many organizations and circles, when it’s convenient for them.
    To further this, the appropriation of Indigenous traditions and practices by lefties and “anarchists” is also something that people aren’t talking about, and we should.
    Again, thanks for the article, hope to see more people engage with it, and more written on this issue.
    #3. Posted by Aruna Boodram on March 16th 2010 at 4:53pm

  • Thanks for the great article, Jorge. I remember asking Lee Maracle for help and advice and she was just incredible. She talked about her struggles and what she wants to see for aborginal women and women of colour like it was something she saw everyday-and that really gave me a lot of perspective about my own experiences. I remember one thing she said that really stood out, that when it comes to feminism, the dominant society follows these “recipes” that stem from privileged academic backgrounds on how to make change and I realize that it’s really problematic not just for women of colour to employ, but also undermines interactions between the two groups because the dominant society is content and coming face to face with their privledge is what could be halting actual change.
    Hopefully there will be more discourses on issues on this very important topic. Thank you Jorge and if you read this, thank you again Lee Maracle.
    #4. Posted by Mariette Lee in toronto on March 16th 2010 at 10:43pm

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