Reflections on Sara Ahmed’s “Closing the Door: Complaint as Diversity Work” Lecture

hUManities Blog, Long Exposures

Author of Living a Feminist Life (2017) and On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012), Sara Ahmed is an Australian scholar who has gained worldwide renown in the field of feminist studies for her work on complaint. Ahmed resigned from her position as a Race and Cultural Studies professor at Goldsmiths, University of London in 2016 in protest of the university’s failure to seriously address the issue of sexual harassment on campus. Since then, Ahmed has been working as an independent scholar, specializing in the field of complaint, about which she has written and continues to write extensively. Her research draws on her own experiences on committees where she worked with or on complaints, and is also based on interviews she has had with people who have suffered from various kinds of injustice or harassment within educational institutions.

On Oct. 2, 2019, Winnipeg’s resident feminist killjoys -sponsored by feminist activists and scholars from the U of W and the U of M (including the University of Manitoba’s department of Women’s and Gender Studies, and Institute for the Humanities), were proud to host Ahmed as she gave a keynote lecture at the West End Cultural Centre, and there was a huge turnout for the event. Her work has resonated with many different marginalized peoples: people who have faced discrimination within institutions because of their race, gender, sexual orientations, or disabilities, to name a few. Her talk, entitled Closing the Door: Complaint as Diversity Work, was no exception, and she left many of us with a lot to ponder. The wide range of topics she discussed would take much more than one simple blog post to elaborate upon, but I hope to share at least a few of her many insights.

Complaint as diversity work, Ahmed explained, refers to “the work we have to do because we are not accommodated; the work we have to do in order to be accommodated.” She began exploring this by first discussing institutional mechanics. An institutional mechanic is “what one has to become in order to get a complaint through the system.”

She emphasized the ways in which institutional procedures for handling complaints are non-performative: they “come into existence without coming into use.” These procedures give the appearance of taking action without ever actually taking action or making meaningful progress. They are even more destructive in their ambiguity, since complaint procedures can actually stop a complaint from going forward or from ever truly being addressed, while they operate under the guise of being addressed. As Ahmed put it, “you can change how you address the problem without actually addressing the problem.”

Another facet of the non-performativity of institutions in addressing issues of discrimination, harassment, etc. is in the “coercive diversity” practised by these institutions, wherein these structures of discrimination, harassment, inequality and intolerance still exist, but are painted over with a façade of inclusivity. Diversity has now become a buzzword in mainstream Western society, and it is used profusely by institutions. People can be employed simply as “diversity hires,” as though to meet a quota or to prove to the world that these institutions are open to and accepting of all people. It is to present and preserve a certain image; to jump onto the diversity bandwagon, so to speak, and thus appear more appealing to the general public. This is nonperformative because the structures of power and the discourses that sustain inequality, hierarchy, discrimination or harassment still exist behind the mask. The oppressed party comes to stand in for a supposed lack of oppression; their body is meant to paint the institution in a positive, inclusive light.

Ahmed also described the confusing, unhelpful and often traumatic experience of going through the complaint procedure. For instance, the messy, tangled web of paperwork or steps one must take seem designed to discourage the complainer from the very outset of the complaint process. One becomes confused; “you don’t know what is happening, though you know this isn’t what is supposed to happen.” Far from providing comfort, certainty or reassurance that some action will be taken to address these serious issues, the complainer comes away feeling even more harassed by the very procedures put in place to address their harassment.

In the process of complaint, walls come up at almost every turn, walls which the complainers must labour hard to fight against. Ahmed described diversity work as scratching the surface of these blockades. The exhaustion felt by those pushing against these walls is soon realized to be the point of the complicated complaint processes, rather than merely an effect.

Confusion also takes the form of responses to these complaints, wherein the “yes” of the institution isn’t actually a “yes,” but more like a “we’ll see.” This gives the feeling that something might happen, and this false, illusory “yes” actually stops the complaint from moving forward. 

Apart from these methods of discouragement, Ahmed also discussed how people can be deterred from “rocking the boat” by warnings about the effects that complaints can have on one’s career. Many, including Ahmed herself, have faced the struggles that come with complaints and can attest to how making complaints can halt one’s career. This only makes it more difficult and discouraging for people to find the courage to speak up or fully go through with the complaint process – the fear of losing a livelihood or career one has already worked hard to attain, and that one might even be passionate about.  Complainers can even be accused of damaging the reputation of others: of the individual being complained about, the department in which either party works, or even the reputation of the institution as a whole.  In finding the courage to speak out about the physical, psychological or emotional trauma inflicted on a person, that person is then made to feel like they are the ones inflicting damage – on themselves or on the institution, and the damaging characters within them. This powerful combination of victim-blaming and accusations of self-sabotage was described by Ahmed as “complaint framed as self-damage…as closing the door on yourself and your career.”

Bringing this idea home to our universities, it is important to remember that complaints in educational institutions can affect the residential, professional and financial standing of either students or faculty who complain. It is not something one enters into lightly. One of the most empathetic parts of Ahmed’s lecture and her writings on complaint is how she always reminds us that there is only so much one person can take, and that one is justified in either choosing or not choosing to complain. She reminds us of the physical and mental toll that complainers have been through in their various situations, and acknowledges that not everyone may feel comfortable or ready to talk about these issues. She points out that “to traumatize is to hold a history in the body. There is only so much we can take in.”

Some go through very traumatic incidents that may take them a long time to deal with. Coupled with this, the added fear of losing one’s job and the effort involved in the complaint process lead many to choose not to complain. Ahmed thoughtfully acknowledges that their feelings and reasons for complaining or not complaining are valid. She also notes that a body can even stop functioning properly as it is beset with worry, anxiety and feelings of self-doubt, disillusionment or futility, as a result of the ordeal they have gone through; the stressful confusion of the complaint process, the probing and questioning; the bravery in the very act of bringing their complaints to the surface, and finally dealing with the fallout after they have complained. Ahmed emphasized that “the personal is institutional,” and that “diversity work is the work we have to do to survive the work we have to do.”

Ahmed also described modes of resistance against these insidious walls. You start to stand out by not playing along, by not laughing at inappropriate, discriminatory jokes, by not being “okay” with behaviour or speech that denigrates or that is offensive, by not seeing it as all “harmless fun.” Just by refusing to partake in laughter, one is set apart, alienated – you are killing their joy. Some bodies kill the joy simply by entering the room, for instance racialized or queer bodies; sometimes the joy is killed when a word is brought up like “race” or “racism,” and by simply using these words, one can be seen as a killjoy. The word itself “carries a complaint.”

Sometimes efforts are made to stop a complaint even as the inciting incident is occurring. Preventive measures are coded into social interactions, and they are designed such as to make you doubt yourself, your own interpretation of the situation as violence being done to you. A woman who is offended by sexist comments is told she is being “too sensitive,” and is dubbed as “being unable to take a joke.” The victim of bullying is prevented from even being able to identify themselves as being bullied; before the complaint has even fully formed itself or before the incident is even over, she is cast as a complainer, a killjoy or as unreasonable for reacting to something unacceptable. The pressure to “be okay” with things that are not okay is implicit, the person is being silenced without having even taken action. This is what Ahmed describes as “harassment in an effort to stop you from identifying harassment as harassment.”

In the process of complaining, one becomes a misfit. Misfits often end up on the same committees, a committee of outcasts, of “others” who are not within the dominant group. Feminist killjoys laugh together, out of a recognition of affinity, a shared struggle, a common bond over the labour involved in breaking down or at least chipping at these walls. Laughter can act as a coping mechanism, laughter can also act as a bond of kinship between oppressed parties who recognize and sympathize with one another’s struggles, who see the walls and laugh ironically at the obvious mechanisms used to prop up these walls.

As Ahmed has said famously, the one who brings up the problem is seen as embodying the problem; they become the problem, simply for speaking up about it. Similarly, reconciliation is pushed by institutions onto individuals as a way of hushing up complaints. A complaint, in this case, starts to represent your failure to resolve a situation more amicably. The complainer is seen as stubborn for refusing to let go of something they shouldn’t have to let go of; they are suddenly painted as the enemy or the one at fault for refusing to forgive and forget. Reconciliation then becomes not a friendly gesture but a hostile one, a forceful and oppressive one, which codes one’s unwillingness to comply as their being unreasonable.

Ahmed also described how the closing of doors can be the turning of backs – the institution turning their backs on your complaint, by having each others’ backs. When complaints are filed away, the ones who complain are also filed away, discarded and forgotten. The closing of doors can also be the refusal/ withholding of valuable references, leading to further closed doors with regards to career or further educational opportunities. The closed door can be the refusal of support. A door can be slammed in your face by the way someone laughs in your face or belittles you – the closed door of people not taking you seriously enough, a closed door of communication. All of these contrast the “open door” policy that is the rhetoric behind diversity hires. 

On Support:

Ahmed stressed the importance of creating collectives, such as the one which was present that evening to hear her lecture. She proudly declared that her fellow complainers are her “guides,” her “feminist philosophers” and her collective. Creating collectives is important because one finds solidarity in the similarity of situations; complainants may be facing similar problems or coming up against the same kinds of walls, even though their individual situations or complaints vary. Ahmed emphasized that one cannot do everything by oneself, which is why it is important to find one’s “people”. In supporting people who complain, one must be willing to stand by them in public, not just behind closed doors. Finally, support can entail giving people information, or not pressuring them to complain or talk about their problems; it can involve standing by them and not letting them face institutions alone or even just listening.

As previously mentioned, there was a huge turnout to Ahmed’s lecture, and it seems her work has been well received by the Winnipeg community of feminists, activists, queer people and people of colour. A reading group was organized a week before the main event by 2SQTBIPOC to discuss some of Ahmed’s works prior to her talk. The small gathering was held in the Revolution Wellness Centre, which is also home of the newly founded 2SQTBIPOC library. Reading Ahmed’s work on complaints against institutions in such a decidedly non-institutional space, a space designed for people who have had trouble fitting into institutions, and people who have themselves complained and carried the labour and consequences of complaint with them was quite significant. Some things that were discussed included:

  • The idea of happiness as a political construct, as described in Ahmed’s article “Feminist killjoys”; happiness as something that is prescribed to us by the society we live in;
  • Queer people as the “other” others; marginalized even further within the already marginalized group that is “people of colour;”
  • People who complain as “killing the joy” of the dominant whiteness of institutions;
  • Shrinking of oneself as a result of constantly having a gaze on you, as a member of a minority; having to make yourself smaller to make others more comfortable, or to make them trust you. How oppressive institutions want you to be passive, to be silent, to not push back, and the politics around being angry;
  • The importance of creating feminist spaces; safe little pockets or alternative spaces, and the difference between a collective and an institution
  • The ways in which institutions “listen” when they have something to lose; how they jump onto the diversity bandwagon, co-opting it to mask institutional whiteness; how diversity has become mainstream, a buzzword
  • How you have to become the institution when you complain;
  • Community capacity involvement based on radical love and action as an alternative to reliance on institutions to solve problems;
  • The equal validity of either opting out of academia or other institutions, creating other kinds of spaces OR taking on the labour of complaint and conflict. Both complaining and not complaining are valid;
  • Tracing the transformation of language regarding social inequality: from “race relations” to “multiculturalism,” to “diversity,” then “equity;” and stated the goals of “liberation” and even “abolition” as the next tiers of progress.

At a workshop held with Ahmed on Oct 2, members of the community further discussed concerns, such as the issue of guilt and inadvertent complicity in processes or institutions that foster an atmosphere of inequality. Ahmed sympathized with community members who found themselves becoming implicated in the institutions they were trying to critique. For instance, one may feel guilt as a feminist about what kind of space you’re making within these institutions A question of complicity arises when racist judgments or stereotypes benefit you, e.g. help you in getting a job, or when people of a certain colour are coded as “hard workers.” What happens when the act of you doing your work makes you identify with the institution you’re trying to work against?

There is a hierarchy present that puts you in a bind, because you need the job. These are routes to having a livable life, that one cannot escape. After all, we are all entitled to a livable life: a stable job, a source of income to support us, but one cannot help but feel guilty when your job reinforces these institutions and helps build and sustain these walls. In these situations, it is vital to have a consciousness of how these dynamics work. Talking about them doesn’t always solve things, but it  gets them out there, in the open.

We talked about how being a feminist means being a feminist at work, political work is intertwined with intellectual or physical work, not separate from it, and how diversity work is the work you have to do to be. Some people always have to fight for existence or recognition. Ahmed herself has had to face questions like “Are you really the prof?” or “Where are you from?” when trying to do her work as a professor. For some people, to be is to be in question.

We also considered some deterrents used by institutions against complaints: warnings, bribery, removal of funding, nondisclosure agreements, the appearance of hearing. Ahmed was even told, upon her resignation, that her work exposing the university’s inaction would undermine the feminists at Goldsmith’s; she described the dismay one feels upon realizing that many of those involved in blocking complaints are themselves self-professed feminists.

In her parting words after the lecture, Ahmed described speaking out as “becoming a leak: drip drip. A leak can be a lead. A leak can be a feminist lead.” She notes that dialogue is possible by connecting stories, tales and trails. She further emphasized that in the process of complaint, even when it yields nothing fruitful or all the back doors and labyrinths of the institution’s complaint procedure lead nowhere, one still passes a complaint on. The scratches on the wall become a testimony: “We are here, we did not disappear.” These complaints and complainers can come back to haunt institutions. Your “no” can be picked up and amplified by others, eventually reverberating into a loud roar of refusal. Scratching on the wall becomes both a sound one makes and a mark one leaves.

To learn more about Ahmed, visit her website: https://www.saranahmed.com/

Adrian McKerracher: How metaphor can change what you make and how you make it

hUManities Blog, Long Exposures

On Oct 10 2019, writer and artist Adrian McKerracher, visiting the University of Manitoba’s School of Art, gave a riveting lecture on the value of using metaphor in creative work. Drawing on his own experiences, McKerracher described the many benefits of metaphors as a construct, and as a way not only to improve upon literary description, but also as a framework within which one cam approach creative work and the world in general.

Metaphor, essentially, is saying that “a” equals “b.” In this sense, it is the most easily accessible way of transforming the world. McKerracher encouraged thinking about metaphor as not just a literary device, but as a cognitive mechanism that could be fundamental to the way that we think. In using metaphor, we take what we know and use it to describe or better understand something we don’t know.

In demonstrating the many ways through which the use of metaphor pervades our everyday lives, McKerracher provided many examples of metaphors to describe creativity. Creativity is illumination, it is an algorithm or formula, it is an incubation process, competition, combination, it is a garden, an organism, a dance, a game, an angel or a demon.

At a time in his life when he had began facing self-doubts and began contemplating the banality and possible failure of his own creativity, McKerracher took a trip to Buenos Aires, on a quest to meet writers and to really investigate what it meant to be a creative person. During this journey of discovery, he started collecting an archive of metaphors to try to describe the creative process. In his lecture, he argued that a writer must not only learn to hear himself, but to write himself. Argentina, associated with writers like Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar, was a huge source of inspiration for McKerracher. He reminisced on how Buenos Aires in particular revealed itself to him as a composite of fantasies, hopes and books, as he chased down every writer he could find, asking questions like “Where do ideas come from?” and “How do you know when your ideas are good?”

Metaphor, he explained, provides access to magic, wherein we can say one thing is something else. It asks, how could the world be otherwise? It is an interesting tool of meaning-making. It is something we do everyday. We employ metaphors when we wish to explore abstract or complex ideas, like love, death or time. However, he pointed out, choosing one particular metaphor closes one off from others. So the question becomes, how does one keep the search for metaphors fresh?

Metaphor can be approached as a non-iterative process, so that rather than being sequential, the metaphor always expands outward, creating endless possibilities. This conscious consideration of metaphor is what he referred to as “metaphor literacy,” which is ongoing and generative.

Metaphor has the potential to revolutionize the ways in which we approach creative work. McKerracher asked us to consider this: “What is the language you use to describe your work?” The language in which we think about our work matters. He emphasized the generative, pre-association moment as the most useful when creating metaphors. For instance, in the sentence, “Juliet is…” the huge moment of potential is encapsulated in the ellipses; there is an endless possibility of words that could be used to describe what Juliet is like. In describing what he called “the implicit, melancholic longing of metaphor,” McKerracher pointed out that metaphor always wants to be something else, it always wants more.

He also had some good advice for attendees to reflect on. In the creative process, we never know exactly what we’re going to make when we set out to make it. The things we create are the end result of “living with a question that matters.” Asking how things could be different than they are is a crucial part of the creative process. To him, creativity is “a way of being in the world.” McKerracher addressed the question all artists and creatives ask at some point in their careers: Why should I work on something when it has been done so much better by others? He answered that it was one’s responsibility to oneself, to find one’s own way of describing things, to relate one’s own experience. He used the metaphor of an apple: even though nearly everyone has eaten an apple, nobody knows what an apple tastes like to you. We owe it to ourselves, in our various forms of creating, to express our unique views on the world around us; these can never be replicated by anyone else, ever.

Adrian McKerracher covers these and other insightful perspectives on the nature, usefulness and power of metaphor in his book What it Means to Write: Creativity and Metaphor.

The Decolonizing Lens: An evening of films by Indigenous Canadian filmmakers

hUManities Blog, Long Exposures
Rosie. Source: Downtown Winnipeg Biz

The Decolonizing Lens is an initiative that celebrates the work of Indigenous filmmakers, incorporating Indigenous actors, directors, producers and narratives. This marks the fourth year of the film and discussion series, which was organized and supported by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) and the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at the University of Manitoba and held at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. The screenings I attended were comprised of 6 short films presented in collaboration with ImagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival.

The films – screened on Oct 3, 2019 and free for the public – all explored some aspect of the lives of Indigenous people in Canada, with the films’ subject matter focusing specifically on the experience of queer Indigenous people.

The first film, Rosie, was written and directed by Gail Maurice, and co-produced with her partner Mélanie Bray. It depicts the beginnings of an unconventional family. Rosie is a young Indigenous girl who has recently been orphaned. She is taken by childcare services to her mother’s sister, who is now her only living relative. Her aunt – played by Mélanie Bray – is named Frédérique (a.k.a. “Fred”) and owns a sex shop that later burns down. Fred has no interest in raising the child; she is reluctant and highly unwilling to play the maternal role. She is persuaded (or guilted) into it eventually, and brings in Rosie to live with her and her two close friends, a pair of drag queens. She is living what queer theorist Judith Halberstam would term a “queer way of life,” one that defies conventionality, eschews job security or “respectability,” as well as rejecting traditional ideas of gender roles or notions of happiness as prescribed by mainstream society.

The film discusses and opposes normative gender roles, for instance in Fred’s initial rejection of the maternal role that has been foisted upon her, and in a scene where Rosie picks up a toy gun to play with and is given a doll instead, which she then throws away. Innocence is subverted when little Rosie is given a lollipop which had been marketed in Fred’s shop as a “cocksucker.”

Co-producer Melanie Bray announced during the post-viewing discussion that Rosie is currently in the process of being made into a feature-length film. This will allow the creators to explore the characters in more depth, delve into a deeper examination of the interactions between these characters and to see how the unconventional family is generated; in sum, it will allow the filmmakers to do more justice to the story.

The next film was titled Emerge: Stone Braids, and featured a documentary-style narration of the processes that went into organizing Toronto’s Indigenous Fashion Week. The voiceover that accompanied behind-the-scenes clips and videos of the runway spoke intimately of the connection between fashion and feeling, and the importance of showcasing Indigenous art and culture. The clips also showed how this particular fashion-scape provided a safe space for queer Indigenous expression.

The third film was a beautiful story about learning to accept and take pride in one’s cultural roots. Mino Bimaadiziwin, written and directed by Shane McSauby, tells the story of a budding friendship between Jim, a transgender English-speaking Indigenous boy, and a mysterious Anishinaabe girl, who speaks in her native tongue. The film traces the interactions between the two, and how they (particularly Jim) are limited in communication due to the language barrier between them. Jim has lost his language, his culture, and his connection to the land, which is symbolized in his sitting outside the round dance – he feels like an outsider among his own people. The mysterious girl, Bangishimogikwe, helps him reclaim these vital aspects of his cultural identity. The story progresses in the form of flashbacks. When he was a child, his grandmother spoke to him in his native tongue and helped him establish a relationship with nature, and with his culture, which he has now forgotten. She advised him to follow the sunset to find Mino Bimaadiziwin, which in Anishinaabe means “the good life.” Toward the end of the film, Jim decides to give his Indigenous culture a chance; he partakes in a smudge ceremony – an Indigenous purification ritual – after which he joins the round dance. Bangishimogikwe then speaks in English to him, and reveals that her name means Sunset Woman.

The feeling of being out of place among one’s own people is one that many can relate to, including people who have been displaced or have migrated to another country and are now stuck in the weird liminality between two cultures. Feeling alienated from one’s native culture can be a very painful, disorienting experience, as though one no longer has nothing concrete to hold on to. The moment when both parties understand each other and converse on equal terms represents the opening up of gates, and opening up of minds to understand one another’s way of life. The film tells a beautiful story, journeying from loss of identity and ambiguity, to openness, reclaiming one’s identity and the joy felt at all the possibilities enabled by making oneself open.

The film can be found here: https://vimeo.com/236230762

You Will Go Home is set in downtown Winnipeg, around Higgins and the Waterfront area. Directed by Rhonda Lucy, the story is more contemplative than narrative, although there is a constant voiceover which speaks of resilience and enduring suffering. The settings shift from a claustrophobic, grungy urban setting to a serene natural environment, on the banks of the Red River. The red scarf that trails behind and goes before the woman seems to symbolize generational pain; not just of this one woman, but the pain carried by her mother before her, and the pain of her mother before her as well. The red scarf symbolizes blood and memory. The film comments on the violence faced by Indigenous women, and in this case, trans women. The words “You will go home, Butterfly Woman,” are an encouraging mantra, signifying the resilience of the transformed being in the face of adversity.

The fifth film, Make Me, was fascinating in its form. It employed a gothic/horror aesthetic as the backdrop against which was set musical poetry. The poem was musical in that apart from its lyrical, flowing, sensuous recitation, the sounds of drumbeats and waves could also be heard in the background. The use of poetry as a medium for expression already grounds the work heavily in emotion. While the poem was being read, a woman clad in black (who was in fact Janet Rogers, the poet and director) performed a sort of ritual: lighting candles, moving liquid (perhaps oil) from one bowl to another, burning herbs, etc. The burning of herbs and taking in of its vapour invokes Indigenous smudge ceremonies, thus the film seems to create an intersection between Indigenous experiences of the world and eroticism.  Her motions seemed almost interpretive, in sync with the musical poetry, and yet not directly correlated to what was being said. The poem was about bodies, about sex and intimacy, and the sensual tone of the poem, combined with the ritual created an unsettling effect, in part because one was unsure what exactly they were looking at. Perhaps without meaning to, the short film seemed to coyly defy our attempts to make sense of it, inadvertently exposing how barriers to understanding can exist and be sustained as one observes aspects of a culture they are unfamiliar with.

You can watch this film here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=63Xa9E9VGDs

The final film, entitled Positions, was directed by Justin Ducharme. It very explicitly explored themes of sex and sexuality, and followed the life of a male sex worker who is hired to sleep with a variety of men in a city. The film covered the themes of secrecy, desperation and power dynamics within homosexual encounters. At one point, the protagonist was hired by a woman to sleep with her husband in an attempt to save her marriage. The racialized queer body, in a sense, was commodified and objectified for the pleasure of others; but interestingly, this was a voluntary service being rendered. The protagonist still had agency over his own body and chose to use it as a means of economic gain, rather than being coerced or forced into it by others.

The Decolonizing Lens provides a space where important stories of, for, about and by Indigenous creators can be told and shared with a wider audience, and appreciated or contemplated for their aesthetic or stylistic qualities as well as for the deeper issues being explored through these modes of storytelling. The value of such spaces for Indigenous, queer and other marginalized communities cannot be overstated. A vital part of the process of decolonization is having opportunities to share the stories which are closest to our hearts, and platforms from which our voices can be heard.

Be sure to keep an eye out for upcoming films by the Decolonizing Lens, or join their Facebook group.

Activism, Justice and Restitution for Survivors of Armed Conflict in Uganda

hUManities Blog, Long Exposures

On Oct. 24, 2019, a panel discussion was held by the University of Manitoba’s Master of Human Rights program in collaboration with the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, and the SSHRC’s Conjugal Slavery in War project. The event, entitled “Advocating For Justice And Reparations In Uganda: A Conversation With Grace Acan And Evelyn Amony,” was chaired by Dr. Kjell Anderson, director of the U of M’s newly-created Master of Human Rights program.

The Conjugal Slavery in War project, funded by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), involves research into issues of conjugal slavery worldwide, particularly as it relates to war-torn places. The initiative is concerned especially with the intersection of transitional justice and the experiences of women and children in armed conflict, and is carried out by researchers who work with community-based organizations which advocate for the rights of survivors of armed conflict, as well as helping their re-integration into society.  One of these organizations is WAN (Women’s Advocacy Network) Uganda, which employs women survivors so they can support themselves financially, for instance creating handcrafted items like beaded jewellery. The initiative involves interviews with children born in war, regarding issues such as their sense of belonging, kinship, and displacement from their homes. Their work has revealed the complexity and diversity in the experiences of women, men and children affected by war.

Evelyn Amony gave her testimony first, translated by Grace Acan. She was one of the children abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a group of rebels who have been fighting against the Ugandan government for years. Amony was kidnapped at the age of 12 – snatched from the arms of her grandmother, who tried in vain to protect her from the rebels – and taken to South Sudan. When the Ugandan government finally mounted a surprise attack against this faction of the LRA, Amony was shot 12 times, but survived. The skirt she wore during the ambush, peppered with bullet holes, is currently on display at the Canadian Human Rights Museum’s Ododo Wa exhibit.

When she was finally returned home, Amony was so traumatized that she was unable to talk about her ordeal; the abuse and injustices that she had both witnessed and had been subjected to. Amony had a daughter while she was still living at the rebels’ compound, whom she lost during the ambush. She is still searching for her, and hopes that in sharing her story, word will spread and she will be able to find her daughter. In her account, Amony renounced war and the abductions of young children, imploring that they be stopped.

After Amony, Grace Acan also gave her own testimony. She was abducted in 1996, when the LRA stormed her Catholic girls’ school, and abducted 139 of the students. Many were eventually let go, but the rebels kept 30 of them, among whom was Acan, who was held captive for 8 years. The camp was eventually liberated, and she returned to her community at the age of 16 with a baby girl.

Among the challenges that these two and many other survivors faced upon returning included rejection of the women and their children by their families, stigmatization and ostracism within their communities, as well as the financial and economic limitations caused by not having completed their studies. Speaking on behalf of survivors like themselves, Amony and Acan declared emphatically that for them, justice means addressing the immediate needs of people affected by war. These include food, education for their children, a means of subsistence and medical care – support essential to their daily living and their reintegration into society, which are more important to them than merely taking their abductors to court or spending years pursuing legal trials.

Regarding legal reparations, however, Amony, Acan and the organizations they represent have petitioned the Ugandan government to address their issues. A new transitional justice policy was released June 2019, though it has not yet been implemented. Transitional justice refers to the measures taken after gross human rights violations. The two women said they were very excited, though it was still a work in progress, and they said they would like to see the policy implemented during their lifetimes.

According to Dr. Anderson, Uganda’s amnesty bill was passed in 2000. There has been a lot of discussion regarding the reconciliation and reintegration of war combatants into society, and how they can make reparations. To go from living in “the bush” to society has proved difficult for both abductees and abductors. Meanwhile, Joseph Kony, one of the main leaders of the LRA, is still at large. You may remember him from the media frenzy around the KONY 2012 movement, just a few years ago. These all bring up the question of what post-conflict justice looks like, and what changes need to be made to effectively support people who are affected by conflict.

Isabelle Masson, a curator at the Canadian Museum of Human rights, was in charge of the Ododo Wa exhibit. In creating the exhibit, she worked closely with Amony and Acan, as well as the researchers on Conjugal Slavery in War. She described the process of creating the exhibit, as well as the careful and conscientious consideration that went into telling the stories. She mentioned that there was an ongoing conversation about the overall message, and this is manifested in how they chose to represent the items in the exhibit. The exhibit is based on the 2 memoirs of Evelyn Amony and Grace Acan, as well as interviews with other survivors and human rights advocates.

The visual design incorporates elements of drawings made by the survivors of the LRA camps. As previously mentioned, the skirt Evelyn wore when she was ambushed and injured 11 years ago is on display (loaned from her grandmother), as is Grace Acan’s blue sweater, a part of the school uniform she was wearing when she was abducted. Acan explained that the sweater was her only source of warmth, and when she gave birth to her daughter, she had to cut a small piece out of the sweater to make clothes for her child. Also on display are the romance novels older girls liked to read in school, juxtaposed with the jerry cans with which they would fetch and carry water from camp to camp, a symbol of their daily labour in captivity. Masson went through what informed their choice of these “artefacts,” explaining that the curators made a conscious decision to move away from the graphic violence and torture, such as is often depicted in the news and other media, and this is evident even in their use of animated videos to recount the women’s stories. Masson and other collaborators made the deliberate decision to focus on the women themselves, to emphasize the women’s agency, rather than solely the violence of their situations. It describes how the survivors chose bravely to become outspoken advocates for justice, reparations, and for the rights of others in similar situations.

Both Amony and Acan are activists, and helped to found advocacy groups; together they co-founded the Women’s Advocacy Network (WAN), which creates a space for dialogue, and to highlight the issues affecting women returnees, such as social stigmatization. They each decided to write a book about their experiences. The goal in writing these accounts was to explain in detail what had happened to them, to counter and correct misconceptions the community had about abductees, and to make a strong case for the destructive effects that war has on women and children, and why it must be stopped. Evelyn Amony in particular wanted to articulate the pain parents feel at losing their children, and hopes that her book will reach someone who knows the whereabouts of her own child. Whereas prior to writing she had been afraid of being judged, Amony revealed that she found so much courage in herself after writing the book. Both women’s books also aim at encouraging returnees such as themselves to move on, to get through their challenges, and to remind them that there is always life after suffering.

The stigma attached to the abductees who have returned cause them to be shunned by society. Children born in captivity were shunned by the families that should have accepted them; in a patriarchal society where the fathers were absent war criminals, the families of the men wanted nothing to do with these unknown and unclaimed children. The word “returnee” became derogatory, as did the notion of being born “in the bush.” The mothers continually encourage their children by telling them that they are not defined by their origins, and reminding them that they are still human beings, and not to be discouraged from their studies by such taunts from their classmates or others.

The stories of these two women is a reality of life shared by many women around the world. It is important that we are aware of these harsh truths even if they are occurring elsewhere in the world. As the KONY 2012 campaign and media frenzy showed, it is very easy to be captivated by these stories while they are all the rage on the media, but equally as easy to forget when they are no longer trending. What is the role of the viewer and the public upon hearing of these atrocities? How can we become better informed viewers, better global citizens?

To learn more about the stories of women and children affected by war, you can visit the Ododo Wa (“our stories”) exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, on now until winter 2020. 

For more information on conjugal slavery and these women’s stories, visit https://humanrights.ca/story/voices-of-women-and-girls-in-war

Or you can learn more about the Women’s Advocacy Network and support their initiatives here: https://blogs.ubc.ca/wanuganda/


Please mind this interruption

hUManities Blog, Long Exposures

A Discussion of Settler City Limits, Decolonizing Lens, and Wet’suwet’en

By Alexa Watson (UMIH student intern)

This piece discusses two recent events within Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba. The book launch of Settler City Limits: Indigenous Resurgence and Colonial Violence in the Urban Prairie West, with a panel lead by Dr. Sarah Cooper (Faculty of Architecture), featured editors Heather Dorries, Robert Henry, David Hugill, and Tyler McCreary. As well, the most recent Decolonizing Lens film series, entitled “Art and Activism” held a viewing of the sort film Invasion followed by a panel including Dr. Bruce McIvor, Hetxw’ms Gyetxw (also known as Brett D. Huson, he/him/his), Victoria Redsun, and Dr. Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair.

This piece is meant to be a meditation and a spring boarding off of these events.

The past few weeks has seen massive peak in dialogues centering around Indigeneity, land, urbanism, and colonialism. The UMIH co-hosted with the University of Manitoba Press for the book launch and discussion of Settler City Limits. The Decolonizing Lens at the Winnipeg Art Gallery showed not one, but two films within a two-week period, all centering around colonial violence perpetuated against Indigenous peoples within Canada. A bit of an impromptu event, the most recent Decolonizing Lens screening of Invasion was put together in less than a week’s notice. It felt like being part of a sudden, almost improvised radical night—though nothing about it was careless. Put together incredibly swiftly, this unexpected night was not only dearly needed, but extremely timely.

As Dr. Sarah Cooper saliently opened with in the Settler City Limits panel, we need to talk about scale. There are many different scales that we can talk about though, the scale of geographies, of effects and ramifications, even the scale of response and attention. Elizabeth Wilson, in her landmark text The Sphinx in the City calls the scale of the urban city “masculine,” its scale is “triumphal” (7). But implicit in her analysis of city scales is that it is the white masculinist aesthetic, the aesthetic of architecture—of being larger than life, overpowering, overbearing—that is the scale of the city. Planning and territorializing are paternalistic. She asks us to look at our cities in a way that is different from “utilitarian plans” (Wilson 11). So, what is it exactly that causes some cities, some places to hold our attention and yet not others? Often, the academic literature and public attention is massively focused on the MTV (Montreal-Toronto-Vancouver), the purported and so-called cultural centers of Canada, the places where everything that is anything is happening. But whose culture is included in these centers? This is one of the major questions driving Settler City Limits; the question of why no one seems to care about these prairie cities, in fact any city outside the MTV, despite the fact that some of the most important decolonization and Indigenous resurgence is happening right here, right in Winnipeg (5-6).

We need to consider the ways in which boredom and disinterest is an extension, and in fact a tool of a capitalist and settler colonialist agenda. In the 2016 Winnipeg Safe City Scoping Study (WSCSS) made by the city of Winnipeg, multiple groups of women identified the public apathy that is endemic to Canadians as the perpetuation of racist and gender-based violence (66-67). Indigenous women say bystanders actively “looked and then looked away” when they’re being harassed and harmed in public (WSCSS 61-62). Settlers don’t care. When Indigenous and gender-based violence comes on the news, no one looks, people change the channel. When the RCMP and the government of Canada entered into unceded Indigenous territory, many members of parliament and news channels deflected and redirected attention to the “economic benefits,” to the things that “really matter” in this crisis.

So, let’s talk about the scale of reaction, and the scale of response: when RCMP raided and unjustly entered unceded territory to break up encampments, they came as a paramilitary unit with snipers, assault rifles, dogs, all pointed at four unarmed Indigenous youth, as Victoria Redsun recounted. The RCMP and the government of Canada is reacting to peaceful protest with violence—is this a proper scaled reaction? And yet, despite the horrors and the brutality that is occurring in B.C., the news outlets are diminutive in terms of the scale of importance of what is happening in Wet’suwet’en. In fact, this battle has been occurring since 2011, though it’s only come to the forefront of news outlets in the past few months. Capitalism thrives on disinterest, it is an aesthetic of boredom, of being unspectacular, un-special, and downright dull. By weaponizing this aesthetic, the capitalist settler-colonial institution may say what is worth our attention and what is not. Rendering the plight of some to something unworthy of our attention, something to pay no mind to. It allows a colonial gaze, one that deems something uninteresting. The settler gaze is directed to “important” things, the things that so-called “really matter.” It is saying that there is nothing to see here. Not caring does not rid us of blame or of the blood being shed in the wake of ongoing colonial violence—despite the fact that the rhetoric of boredom and redirection promises it does. By not caring, we are complicit in the violence being enacted, in fact we are an active part of it. Inaction enables this violence.

A question I keep returning to is one that opened the night at  Decolonizing Lens, it’s the question of what role does art have in decolonizing, in protest. What does art do for us in this struggle against the powers that be?

But first, I’d like to tell you a little story. It’s the story of progress, of teleology. Coming from the Greek word telos, it means goal-oriented, it’s a promise of a happy ending and of a progress that eventually leads somewhere better. If you drew this story, it would be a linear line, depicting the movement of history as starting somewhere regressed and only improving. This line comes back again, not just temporally, but geographically in the rhetoric of settler-colonial capitalism: if we consider the relationship of human-territory purely in terms of economic goods and services, it becomes a question of how we can move A to B, as quickly as possible. Territorializing in this way is simple, utilitarian, it’s math actually; it’s looking at two points—A and B—and attempting to find the swiftest, most efficient and economical way between them. The quickest way between two points will always be a linear line. At the end of this line is a promise. It promises industry and economic growth, it promises we will be happy, content with this boom. This is the telos, the teleology that promises happiness and success if only we can get from point A to B.

Lines don’t just lead, they demark, separate, and vivisect. Lines are used to divide us, to define our country into one half or the other of a binary—it is the slash between two terms in a dyad. It the effort to bifurcate our country into either/or, into here/there, East/West, North/South, rural/urban, us/them. Notice the language Scheer and many other politicians are using currently in opposition to the widespread protesting: it’s not happening here, it’s over there. This language is representative of settler-Indigenous spatial relations wherein cities are “rendered as places that exist outside of the messy negotiation of colonial contestation,” colonial dispossession and violence is something that “happened back then and out there” (Tomiak, et al. 3). But art necessarily fractures these divides, and it fractures the spatiotemporal narrative of settler colonialism.

If settler colonialism is a narrative of progress—a teleology—then these moments of protest are refusals and stoppages in the destructive path of “progress.” Protest is an interruption of the flow of settler time and the promise of progress. By halting, stopping, and pausing, these moments shore up the ugly underbelly of capitalist and colonialist activity, namely those who are harmed and left behind in its activities. A song pierces the quiet of the film Invasion, a voice wailing and cutting through the quiet thrum of the city. Drums beat, disrupting the sound of traffic. In real life, I see people join a round dance and halt the entire flow of traffic at the heart of Winnipeg, at Portage and Main. This is art. It is song, it is story, it is dance, and it is interrupting the flow of settler colonialism. Rather than participating in the status quo and the teleologic narrative, protesting and engaging in art creates a temporal and geographic rupture. The panel talk and movie showing are pauses that re-center the struggle of Indigenous peoples and their claims to land. It reterritorializes in opposition to settler geography, it creates a space and a time where we care, where we look, and where we listen. Interrupting means existing visibly, existing uncooperatively, and inconveniently. It is placing blockades in the flow of trains and highways, necessarily interrupting the flow of goods and services across this country. But as well, it interrupts these binary definitions of the land: by protesting “here we are,” it is creating cross-national, geographic connections. In doing so, we are re-centering the displaced and “uninteresting” rural within the urban centers. Creating a holistic and unified understanding of how we relate to our land, everywhere matters, equally and wholly.

 As Victoria Redsun said during the panel, “[Winnipeg is] the heart of Turtle Island, and if the heart hurts, everything hurts.” By interrupting these geographies, we necessarily interrupt its flow of time and its promise. Dr. Bruce McIvor mentions saliently, if there is no water, no food, then there is no economy. These interruptions call attention to the false promises, the violence, the discontent, the places and people who have historically been dispossessed and told they don’t matter. The Winnipeg Art Gallery as an institution is featuring and centering Indigenous voices, it is constructing an entire Inuit Art Center that interrupts the traditionally white, Eurocentric, elitist art history.

Art creates these interruptions; it is the protest. In interrupting we are starting the dialogue of what we want Canada to be, how do we want to define ourselves—the dialogue of decolonization. It’s too easy to say, “who cares,” or “what can I do?” We can write. Hell, I’m doing it right now. We can speak, we can create, and in fact we need to. Most importantly, we need to interrupt, interrupt Canada, colonialism, and oppression.

Please consider donating to the Unist’ot’en camp: https://unistoten.camp/support-us/donate/.

If you are unable, please share this! Please speak about this, the more we speak, we create, tell stories, it forces us to look and to care. Please carry it forward. Of course, please interrupt.

Works Cited

Tomiak, Julie, et al. Introduction. Settler City Limits: Indigenous Resurgence and Colonial Violence in the Urban Prairie West, edited by Heather Dorries, Robert Henry, David Hugill, Tyler McCreary, and Julie Tomiak, University of Manitoba Press, 2019, pp. 1-24.

Wilson, Elizabeth. “Into the Labyrinth.” The Sphinx in the City: Urban Life, the Control of Disorder, and Women, University of California Press, 1991, pp. 1-11.

Winnipeg Safe City Scoping Study: Addressing Sexual Violence Against Women and Girls in Public Spaces. Winnipeg Safe City Steering Committee, 2016, https://www.winnipeg.ca/clerks/boards/WpgSafeCity/pdfs/WinnipegSafeCityScopingStudy.pdf, Accessed February 28, 2020.

The Local Sky Tonight Review

hUManities Blog, Long Exposures

Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan’s performance piece The Local Sky Tonight or What is Being Refusedwas originally commissioned as one of a series of pieces meant to represent different parts of stories. Their original prompt was on the hero’s call; the significance of the secondary title catalyzes from the moment our rabbit-guide begins their rumination of Campbell’s infamous monomyth of the hero’s journey. The hero is called and thus embarks on their journey, satisfying our expectation of the story’s unfolding. But, as our rabbit-performer mentions, there is a moment, a split second wherein the hero wants to say no. In every fiber of their being, they would rather ignore the call. This space, that microsecond of doubt between choosing to answer or to refuse the call—this threshold is where our rabbit-adventurer wedges themselves and begins to queer our hero story.

From the moment our show begins, this performance refuses expectations; when the spotlight first shines it is not on the stage, but between the seats. Within the audience our rabbit-narrator emerges and languidly makes their way toward the stage. The opening sets the tone for this performance—our rabbit is constantly collapsing boundaries; boundaries between audience and performer, science and art, and even between accepted and neglected stories. Most interestingly about this performance, The Local Sky Tonightis variable, it all changes based on our perspective; the sky we observe changes based on our temporal and geographic position. As a result, this performance changes as well. The fluidity of the piece heightens the very same metamorphic quality of performance-art as a medium. Performativity here suits our rabbit’s ruminations of stories aptly—what our performer shows us is that stories are performed, they require both a speaker and an audience for them to come alive. 

Performances are ephemeral, constantly in flux and ever-adapting; their semiotics are elusive, slipping out of our grasp. From the performance of bards and poets all the way to the Dadaist cabarets, our stories are embodied in performance. Remember that even our epitomic hero’s tale—Homer’s Iliad, was at first a performance. Homer never wrote his poem, we don’t truly know who Homer is. The shadow of the epic bard lives only in our cultural imagination. It wasn’t until hundreds of years after this poem was first uttered, passed through countless generations, that it was finally penned. Even the story of the hero we shackle ourselves to was at one point, ephemeral and ever-changing—who’s to say to how intact that poem is from its original, or how changed it is from its many performances. But don’t mistake me, I’m not so oblivious not to realize how thisHomer—a boundaryless, shifting collective of voices, conflicts with the one that lives in our cultural mind—Homer as a fixed, unchanging figure, the Iliad as a story written in stone.

Whichever story you choose to believe, stories are performed. It is only through this performance—this repetition, that our stories thrive. We embody our stories as we tell them and carry them through the millennia. But though we may think we have agency over the stories we tell, that we are shaping them, our rabbit-storyteller shows us how they in turn shape us. Take for example one of the many stories present in our local sky; we are told Taurus the bull is present but is overlapped by Orion the hunter. This may seem inconsequential, but the bull figure has represented feminine goddesses, fertility, and harmony with harvest cycles in a multitude of cultures. How strange it is that the masculine, violent figure of the hunter comes to overlap and overtake an older feminine story. This story can’t help but prompt me to think other stories, other discourses that shape our understanding of our world; this very-same shift in understanding the environment around us is argued in ecofeminist theory. Ecofeminism offers an alternative to the hyper-masculine way of viewing our relationship to the environment, instead of the abjection of ourselves from our environment, we exist in synch and in harmony with it. This radical and alternative story to how we choose to interact with our world is shown by our rabbit-friend to be written in the sky; how uncanny that we should see the very same story that ecofeminism strives to return to represented in constellations. As our rabbit says, “stories alwayswin”. So which story does win? Does one story eclipse the other, do we always return to Campbell and his theory of the monomyth, that there can be only one? Or, can we accept a multiplicity that allows room for not one, not two, but many existing in tandem.

I would like to propose that our curious rabbit-friend offers a space and time where this multiplicity can exist. In this moment, we are led, not unlike Alice, into a world of alternatives; this momentary space made by the performance allows for a rabbit to speak on quantum physics, astrology, cosmology, and narratology, it is absurd, strange, and profoundly peculiar. This space becomes a queer time, a resistant temporality that allows the radical refusal of dominant stories. Remember that there is no space for women in these hero myths—you could be Andromeda, or you can be Persephone, you can be bait or you can be waiting. Why is Alice not a hero? Why is she considered absurd, our rabbit wonders? Why are there no hero stories for these women? 

Speaking about space and time, time is a peculiar thing for our rabbit, they are constantly “late, I’m late for my entire life! To do lists referencing to do lists, referencing calendars referencing alerts long since ignored”. This rabbit simply cannot keep up, constantly running after the clock. But if this rabbit isalways late, then whenis our performance? A performance cannot be late, from the moment it starts it begins forming a new temporality, its own space and time demarked by the performance itself. This performance is an alternative time, creating an alternate space from wherein the rabbit and we are released from other stories. Here, the rabbit is not late, nor is there only one option for the hero or for the damsel. 

Our rabbit uses the planetary show to further the absurdity and strangeness of our space. She is not happy with the story of Cassiopeia or her constellation, and so changes its name in the middle of our performance to coffee-pot. It does sort of remind me of a coffee-pot (well, more than a seated woman at least), it might even look similar to the Moka pot I used earlier today if I took my glasses off and squinted. But it doesn’t matter, our rabbit suggests that it can be named anything, the signifier is arbitrary—it can change.

Suddenly we find ourselves led down a Derridean rabbit-hole by our guide; if the names we give to these constellations are arbitrary, so too are the stories we inscribe onto them. These arbitrary names and narratives we project onto the world around us dissolve into empty signs—Cassiopeia into coffeepot. Like Alice in her Wonderland, our rabbit-guest takes the meaningful and turns it into the absurd. If this arbitrariness seems bleak to you, robbing our stories of their meaning and substance, don’t fret, there’s a silver lining; our rabbit asks us “are our stories working?” Perhaps a better question would be whothey are working for. If they are not working, we are not shackled to their narrative like Andromeda to the rock, we can easily change one out for another. We don’t have to settle for Taurus being overlapped by Orion, we don’t have to accept Campbell’s monomyth, we can refuse the hero’s call.The performance itself earnestly carves out a space for the wonderfully queer and feminist stories. It was beautifully evocative and was followed by a thoughtful and thought-provoking panel.

The Panel: Serenity Joo, Vesna Milosevic-Zdjelar, Helga Jakobson, Katrina Dunn, Lorri Millan and Shawna Dempsey.

The panel was led by Serenity Joo (UMIH) and included Katrina Dunn (Dept. of English, Theatre, Film & Media, University of Manitoba), Helga Jakobson (transdisciplinary artist), Vesna Milosevic-Zdjelar (Dept. of Physics, University of Winnipeg), and our two artists Shawna Dempsey and Lori Millan. It seems I wasn’t the only one chewing on our performer’s ruminations with a bit of ecofeminist theory in mind. Jakobson eloquently discusses the ecocritical and ecofeminist implications of the show. She sparks a discussion on the umwelt, and how the perspectives given by stories are the semiotics we use to craft our world. This performance is deeply concerned with perspective, with its fixedness and its variability. By discussing the theory of umwelt, Jakobson beautifully puts that by limiting our perspective, we are restricting our worlds. The panel evolved into a discussion of feminist speculative fiction and science fiction, speaking on the late Ursula K. Le Guin whose death was scarcely a year ago. Her carrier-bag theory of fiction is offered as an alternative to Campbell’s; the entirety of the panel continued the interrogation of the stories we proffer as a culture, taking a moment to consider feminist perspectives. Ultimately, this night ended with an open door—a series of questions that destabilize rather than reinforce. We ask where do our stories come from, do they work, when did we silo our bodies of knowledge—excising art from science, when did we lose touch with curiosity, the strange, and where did our rabbit go?  

Alexa Watson is currently an undergraduate student in the English Honours program. Her most recent interests are queer theory, feminist theory, ecocriticism, performance theory, poetics, and theatre. When she is not on campus, she is a cellist who both performs and works as a freelance musician. She is passionate about the local music and arts scene, having volunteered in the past for both the Manitoba Conservatory of Music and Arts, as well as Nuit Blanche.

Trump vs. Native Americans: Exploring a Vendetta

hUManities Blog, Long Exposures

Trump’s decision to directly intervene on behalf of oil companies to allow the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines to move ahead with construction showed a blatant disregard for the rights of Indigenous people. It also wasn’t a surprise. In fact, Trump’s long history of hostility towards Native Americans has been well documented since the ‘90s. In 1993, the same year that he lost a bid to run a casino in Palm Springs, California on behalf of the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians, Trump testified at a congressional subcommittee hearing where he claimed that “the Indians” were in league with the mob, and organized crime was rampant on reservations. He said, “It will be the biggest scandal ever—biggest since Al Capone” and then claimed to have a list of mob-related evidence against Indigenous tribes, which he refused to produce for official evidence, claiming it was all, “common sense.” The entire transcript of Trump’s testimony at this hearing seems to be a kind of prequel to the speeches at his rallies in the 2016 Primaries, full of the repetition of broken clauses, circular logic, and the childish tone accompanying a list of what he considers “unfair.”In the case of this particular congressional hearing, what Trump considered unfair was the money he had to pay in taxes for his casinos. After his many claims of mob activity didn’t seem to be getting him anywhere, Trump brought out the familiar trope of, “The Indians don’t have to pay taxes” and claimed that they were given an unfair advantage in running casinos. He started complaining about all the unfair advantages the Pequot casino was getting while his casinos in Atlantic City had to pay billions of dollars in taxes, and he said, “but my opponent is competing and paying no tax. It is not a fair situation. It is not fair to the States.” It’s telling that Trump chose to speak about these separate casinos as a competition—as a game that he was “unfairly” losing—but even more telling is how he sets up Native Americans as against “the States.” Throughout his testimony, Trump references “the Indians” as if they are just one people; he doesn’t seem to understand that there are over 500 different sovereign nations in the United States. While this would be enough to set off alarm bells for most Natives, as it turns out, there is a great deal more about Native Americans that Trump simply does not understand. Perhaps the most alarming ignorance displayed in this congressional testimony comes when Trump gives his thoughts on the sovereignty of tribal nations in the United States:I listen about sovereign nation, the great sovereign nation, and yet $30 billion to all of the various programs was contributed to the sovereign nation for education, for welfare, for this, for that. I listened as to sovereign nation, and yet the sovereign nation and the people of the sovereign nation have the right to vote in our country. I listen as to sovereign nation, all of the medical, all of the other treaties. I want to know, can Indians sign treaties with foreign nations? Can they go and sign a treaty with Germany? The answer is no. How is it a sovereign nation?It is clear from his own words that not only does Trump not understand tribal sovereignty, he simply does not believe in it. His ignorance is hardly surprising on this front, as most of the general public in the United States has only a fuzzy understanding of tribal sovereignty and Indigenous rights, but to be outright dismissive of treaty rights and Indigenous sovereignty should indeed be alarming.

images.washingtonpost.com.jpgTrump testifying in 1993: “They don’t look like Indians to me.” (Source: Washington Post)

Finally, towards the end of his testimony, referring again to the Pequot, he says to Congressman George Miller, “If you look at some of the reservations that you’ve approved, I will tell you right now, they don’t look like Indians to me.” Congressman Miller’s prompt response was “thank god that’s not the test of whether or not people have rights in this country, whether or not they pass your look test.” Twenty-three years later, Miller’s response simply sounds foreboding. If Trump does not even believe in Native American people who don’t meet his stereotypical standards, how could be he possibly believe in any rights for Native Americans, especially the much-disputed and never-honored rights to treaty lands? This testimony is only a sampling of the vile rhetoric Trump often uses when discussing Native Americans, especially when he sees Native tribal rights or actions of self-determination (including rights to gaming) as threatening to his empire.In 2000, when the St. Regis Mohawks announced a plan to open a new casino, Trump dished out over $1 million for an ad campaign against the Mohawk tribe. These ads included statements like, “Indians are not required to pay any state or federal taxes and are completely unregulated” while suggesting the tribe had mob ties and “the Mohawk Indians have a long and documented history of criminal activity, including drug dealing, cigarette and alcohol smuggling, illegal immigrant trafficking and violence.” Proofs of these racist ads were published by the Los Angeles Times in June 2016, with various notes of approval accompanying Trump’s signature even though the ads were run through a front group called the New York Institute for Law and Society. In an opinion piece from Indian Country Media Network, journalist Simon Moya-Smith responds to one of these ads by referring to Trump as a “demonizing dick” and claiming of the ad, “The thing should stand as an example of American capitalist propaganda and rhetoric, and abhorrent Trump assholery.”

Capture2.PNG“The Donald’s” initial approving ads attacking the St. Regis Mohawk Indian tribe (see the L.A. Times for this and other such ads).

While this racialized rhetoric against Native Americans took a backseat to his many other targets in the 2016 Primaries, he has periodically reminded the public of his disrespect for Native Americans through actions such as repeatedly referring to Elizabeth Warren as Pocahontas and deciding to hang a portrait of “Indian-Killer” Andrew Jackson in the oval office.And now, using the same language from his congressional testimony when he talks about the Dakota Access Pipeline and Standing Rock, he claims he wasn’t aware of any objections to the executive order, that everyone understood how unfair it all was for the oil companies. Now, Trump talks about building a wall while Native tribes like the Tohono O’odham proclaim that they would never allow such a thing to cross Native lands. From the very beginning, one of the most important aspects of what has been happening at Standing Rock has been the way events there have exposed the powerful ignorance of, and indifference to the rights of Indigenous people and Indigenous sovereignty.  And to be frank, it’s terrifying to think of what could happen with a president who doesn’t believe in Indigenous sovereignty, who doesn’t think Indigenous land claims are fair to businesses, and who can so easily tune out the millions of dissenting voices from around the world. With threats of privatizing Indigenous lands hanging in the air, and the effects of the Termination Era still lingering, it isn’t hard to imagine what Trump might do if he sees any Native Nation standing in the way of his empire. For me, it doesn’t matter how many times Trump says he has respect for “the Indians.” All I hear is him saying, “they don’t look like Indians to me.”

Standing-Rock-Rising-Redhawk-1580x399.jpg

References: Moya-Smith, Simon. “Here’s the Ad Trump Used to Demonize Native Americans.” Indian Country Media Network. July 19, 2016.“Trump at 1993 congressional hearing: ‘They don’t look like Indians to me.’” Los Angeles Times. June 17, 2016.“Trump Personally Approved ads Slamming Indian Tribe: ‘This could be good!’” Los Angeles Times. June 29, 2016.