Solidarity as a Settler Move to Innocence

By Miranda Grundy, Jessica Jiang, and May Niiya

We have noticed a growing trend of statements of, and scholarship on, solidarity with Indigenous peoples coming from settler groups: When the Dakota Access Pipeline was protested in 2016 and 2017, many around the world proclaimed “I Stand with Standing Rock.” In a variety of social movements, there exists an urge to identify one’s collective as standing in solidarity with various Indigenous groups and struggles.

Solidarity is broadly understood as the relationship between groups that share common interests, objectives, and responsibilities; in these statements, it comes to signify that the declarer of solidarity is informed about and committed to supporting Indigenous struggles. Though these statements can be powerful means of support, they also demonstrate a paradox – what does it mean to invoke the discourse of solidarity with Indigenous peoples as a settler, when our very existence is predicated on the occupation of Indigenous lands? What common interests, objectives, and responsibilities do settlers proclaiming solidarity actually share with Indigenous communities in struggle?

First, some definitions

We would first like to ground our discussion in existing scholarship by providing some (working) definitions of concepts we will be engaging with. We understand settler colonialism to refer to a distinct form of colonialism that seeks to eliminate Indigenous populations from their land and replace them with settlers. Settlers, upon arrival, impose new social, economic, and political structures, including land and resource control, on pre-existing Indigenous populations. Over time, settler societies develop distinct identities and claim sovereignty to the land, erasing and dominating Indigenous histories and bodies via biological warfare, military domination, forced assimilation, and false narratives of settler belonging, among other tactics.

This Crash Course video discusses settler colonialism in more detail in the United States

Indigeneity is dynamic and often complicated in the context of the settler colonial nation-state, whose object is to erase Native ways of being. Modern Indigenous communities descend from populations that existed prior to the arrival of colonizers, but form a numerical minority due to the historical and ongoing violence of settler colonialism. Despite this, Indigenous communities seek to maintain traditional relationships to land, political systems, and spiritual and cultural practices in the face of the settler logic of elimination.

Within a settler colony, the most important divide is that between the Indigenous and the settler. This means that settlers can hold a range of ethnic and racial identities; a settler may be a person of color but still participate in “a nation of immigrants” built on Indigenous lands. We center this divide in our analysis because we have seen how Indigeneity is often subsumed into the broader category of “oppressed peoples,” “colonized peoples,” or “people of color.” This is one example of what decolonization theorists Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang term a “settler move to innocence,” whereby settlers equate their own oppression with that of Indigenous peoples under settler colonialism.

Tuck and Yang further define “settler moves to innocence” as actions that aim to alleviate settler guilt without doing anything meaningful to undo harm to Indigenous communities. These moves superficially reconcile settler colonial relations but do nothing to repatriate land, power or privilege. Tuck and Yang suggest we exercise strategies to remove involvement in and weaken the capacities of systems of domination, and instead push for further decolonizing projects, which would necessitate the repatriation of Indigenous land and life. They state,

There is a long and bumbled history of non-Indigenous peoples making moves to alleviate the impacts of colonization.The too-easy adoption of decolonizing discourse  (making decolonization a metaphor) is just one part of that history and it taps into pre-existing tropes that get in the way of more meaningful potential alliances. We think of the enactment of these tropes as a series of moves to innocence (Malwhinney, 1998), which problematically attempt to reconcile settler guilt and complicity, and rescue settler futurity.

Tuck and Yang, 3.

Some examples they give of these meaningless moves to innocence include claiming long lost Indigenous ancestry (@Elizabeth Warren), homogenizing and mentally equating various experiences of oppression with Indigeneity, or adopting Indigenous practices and ways of life. All of these moves distance the speaker from their settler identity and the accompanying responsibilities and instead bring them closer to the marginalized status of Indigenous people without actually taking away any of their privilege.

The above infographic gives quick and concise definitions of the terms we refer to and build upon within the rest of this blog page.

Solidarity as a settler move to innocence?

We propose that solidarity can itself be a settler move to innocence. More specifically, solidarity is a settler move to innocence when non-Native people (including people of color) selectively invoke solidarity with Native peoples to distance themselves from the role of colonizer/settler in an attempt to assuage settler guilt. Solidarity as a settler move to innocence rarely comes from a place of malicious intent, and we use this page to unpack the complexities and nuances of solidarity. Solidarity and coalition-building are powerful and should not be thrown aside, but revised so that non-Native people might lean into settler guilt and recognize their historical and ongoing participation in the settler state.

It might be helpful here to ground the theory of solidarity as a settler move to innocence in a real life example. We turn first to a paper written by Japanese American scholar Karen Inouye, which is about the relationship between Nikkei (Japanese American) internees during World War II and the Native people whose land incarceration camps were built upon. Inouye highlights Nikkei feelings of solidarity and sympathy toward Native people during a time when Japanese Americans were more visibly and violently discriminated against than they are today. We question what effect these historical narratives have on our modern understanding of Asian racialization and settler colonialism: Inouye’s work runs the risk of using selective moments of solidarity to detract from broader questions of Japanese American complicity in settler colonialism, both historically and in the present moment. We propose that Inouye look for moments of Nikkei apathy, in addition to solidarity, toward Native people, which might contribute to a more truthful representation of Nikkei-Native relations. Doing so requires Inouye interrogate the intentionality behind her work.

Gila River Concentration Camp: Intersecting Japanese American and Indigenous Histories
Picture of Manzanar concentration camp by Dorothea Lange

With this example of solidarity as a settler move to innocence in mind, we propose the following questions: How can this concept of solidarity/empathetic agency be turned towards unsettling settler complacency and decolonization, rather than assuaging the guilt of particular settler communities? Can these specific instances of solidarity lead to a broader understanding of, and disruption of, processes and systems of colonization in which settlers are complicit? (When) does talking about or even performing solidarity ultimately contest settler colonialism?

Navigating guilt and responsibility

What is the role of settler guilt in all of this? Settler moves to innocence are a direct response to the discomfort of guilt, the denial that one has any responsibility for the continuing existence of settler colonialism. To accept, rather than evade, one’s own settler guilt therefore means accepting responsibility for the violence that settler colonialism has enacted. Our attempts to build solidarity must be focused on responsibility, and not just in the vague sense of “feeling accountable”: Tuck and Yang identify the way that mere declarations of responsibility emerge as a form of currency in activist spaces, when “settler scholars may gain professional kudos or a boost in their reputations for being so sensitive or self-aware… without giving up land or power or privilege, without having to change much at all” (10).

The commodification of allyship or solidarity as social currency points to another dimension of settler guilt. In certain spaces, particularly in the academy and here at Brown, performances of settler guilt serve to reinscribe the wokeness of the speaker, rather than to unsettle settler innocence or motivate anti-colonial action. Alternately, guilt results in pessimism or hopelessness, leading settlers to opt out of coalitional movements or give up access to resources in moments where these might actually benefit decolonial struggles. This is why guilt, white guilt and more recently settler guilt, has increasingly been critiqued as an affect that produces complacency. It becomes more important to have one’s guilt recognized and validated by an audience than to address the structural conditions that produce that guilt in the first place.

At the same time, guilt can be a productive emotion – it is an unsettling force that comes from a visceral conviction of one’s own role in wrongdoing. And guilt will always linger so long as historical violence has happened and continues to happen, as it should. The question then becomes, what does it mean to translate guilt and its attendant sense of responsibility into anti-colonial action? What would it look like to give up land or power or privilege as a settler, when the avenues for doing so are not straightforward or clear?

We thereby propose this list of provocations for settlers who are navigating the concepts of solidarity and coalition building:

  • Let’s be critical about when and how we choose to take up the mantle of settler responsibility, particularly when we address an audience. When we self-identify as settlers or acknowledge the Indigenous lands we are located in, do we only do so in places where this is commonly accepted practice? And if so, does this function to unsettle settler innocence, or rather to reinscribe our own wokeness? Do our actions, and our relationships to power, match the politics we proclaim? Let’s think about solidarity as a relationship that is renewed through trust-building and sustained action, rather than simply the declaration of intentionality.
  • In their article “Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing The Ally Industrial Complex,” Indigenous Action Media writes that being an accomplice means criminalizing support and solidarity. The language of criminalization emphasizes that there is no safe, commensurable reconciliation between being a settler and an “anti-colonial ally.” The destruction of colonialism requires behavior that would be considered criminal for many allies: Redistributing resources, betraying institutions, weaponizing one’s privilege and access, putting one’s body on the line in direct action.

You wouldn’t find an accomplice resigning their agency, or capabilities as an act of “support.” They would find creative ways to weaponize their privilege (or more clearly, their rewards of being part of an oppressor class) as an expression of social war. Otherwise we end up with a bunch of anti-civ/primitivist appropriators or anarcho-hipsters, when saboteurs would be preferred.

Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing The Ally Industrial Complex
  • For scholars working in settler colonial studies, we look again to Indigenous Action Media’s suggestion that “An accomplice as academic would seek ways to leverage resources and material support and/or betray their institution to further liberation struggles. An intellectual accomplice would strategize with, not for and not be afraid to pick up a hammer.” We challenge scholars such as Karen Inouye and ourselves to consider how our scholarship on historical solidarity, as well as our academic access, might be used strategically to unsettle innocence and remind our communities of their present responsibilities towards Indigenous peoples. An example of such work is the collection Asian Settler Colonialism, edited by Candace Fujikane and Jonathan Okamura, which challenges Asian settler moves to innocence in Hawai’i while also engaging ways that Asian settlers can contribute to Kanaka Maoli independence. As scholars, we are responsible for making the stakes of our historical work clear. An analysis of incarcerated or otherwise oppressed Asian laborers as doing the “dirty work” of colonizing Indigenous lands should not exempt their descendants from responsibility for settler colonialism. But perhaps this analysis can lead to the conclusion that undoing the work of our ancestors would mean laboring in service to Indigenous land reclamation, and creatively thinking about how we can use our histories and cultural assets in service to decolonization.
  • Let’s encourage our communities to sit with settler guilt, and to explore the relationships between guilt, responsibility, and action. Indigenous Action Media emphasizes that “tackling guilt, shame, and other trauma [requires] an explicit and consensual focus” that Indigenous struggles should not be expected to provide. Within our communities, it is our responsibility to engage settler guilt so that it does not turn into an excuse for complacency or a move to innocence, so that we can arrive to the front lines clear-eyed about why and how we do the work of accompliceship.
  • Our goal as allies should never be to impose ideals upon another community. Self-determination is still a right of Indigenous peoples and solidarity is not fixating on their internal politics, but rather learning and understanding more about their communities and reflecting upon and changing our own politics to lessen or undo some of the harm caused by settler colonialism.
  • Solidarity needs to be consistent and sustained, not just exercised in times of need. Solidarity is about maintaining meaningful relationships with Indigenous communities and being proactive in offering things like logistical, fundraising, and campaign support when Indigenous communities are mobilizing toward a new goal.

Without critical reflection on how solidarity is built and maintained, and above all situational, the discourse of “historical solidarity” can serve to erase questions of present complicity. Because our communities and our ancestors were anti-colonial, the argument goes, we are – and have always been – inherently aligned with Indigenous interests. We therefore underestimate the huge amount of work that we must still do within settler communities to educate, collectively sit with settler guilt, and build movements that prioritize decolonization. Historical instances of coalition mean nothing at all if we are not also taking lessons from them on the difficult work of building relationships and trust, and the many potential pitfalls to avoid in the process.

The above infographic summarizes the earlier suggested means of enacting more comprehensive and effect solidarity.

Works cited + future reading

Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing The Ally Industrial Complex – Indigenous Action Media

Official Definitions of Indigeneity – Indigeneity, Language, and Authenticity

Moving Beyond a Politics of Solidarity Towards a Practice of Decolonization – Harsha Walia

Elizabeth Warren Has a Native American Ancestor. Does That Make Her Native American? – Carl Zimmer

Unsettling settler colonialism: The discourse and politics of settlers, and solidarity with Indigenous nations – Corey Snelgrove, Rita Dhamoon, and Jeff Corntassel

Not Nowhere: Collaborating on Selfsame Land – Eve Tuck, Allison Guess and Hannah Sultan

Episode #1: Give it Back – The Henceforward Podcast

by Noelani Goodyear-Ka’ōpua, Prentis Hemphill, and David A.M. Goldberg