A few years ago, I attended a talk by Mohawk Elder Rarihokwats in Ottawa and received a mighty teaching when he asked us (the non-Indigenous folks attending), “Why are you still settlers?” His question challenged my settler/ally identity, which felt destabilizing and made me angry. Reflecting on this question and my anger in the years since, I came to realize that the outer journey into reconciliation with Indigenous people invites us also into a parallel inner journey. We need to engage at both levels if we want our outer work not to replicate historical harms.
In a broad sense, the term “settler” applies to us humans literally, because we keep searching for places where we can be comfortable, internally and externally. Discomfort is unsettling, and we often move away from it and seek to settle into comfort. This inner impulse is not in itself a problem, and we can’t make it disappear, but we can learn about and find ways to work with it.
So I started the practice of noticing when I felt comfortable, and the ways in which I was moving away from discomfort. In reconciliation work (or any kind of anti-oppressive work), discomfort, internal or external, is an important teacher, because in this work there is no neutral place. Feeling only comfortable would signal to me that in one way or another I had aligned myself too closely with the unjust status quo.
Here are some of the interrelated ways I noticed that I/we settle (“we” here refers to anyone who does not identify as Indigenous to this land):
- We settle by wanting Indigenous people to agree on issues, so we ourselves know where to stand. If they agree and we take the same stand, we can’t be challenged on our stand. More broadly, this is connected with seeing Indigenous people(s) as one homogeneous block, not allowing them the individuality, freedom of choice, and within-group diversity we allow ourselves.
- We settle by using our ignorance as justification for something we said, did, or didn’t do. Our ignorance frequently comes from our privileged ability to avoid learning about history and trauma, because we’re not affected by it in our day to day lives.
- We settle by wanting guarantees that we will be treated “fairly” or “nicely” by the Indigenous people we encounter – that they won’t get angry, preferably that they won’t get emotional at all, even if the emotion is not directed at us. We want to be sure that they won’t talk disparagingly or stereotypically about “white people,” because not all white people are the same (claim of individuality). That they won’t criticize us for saying the wrong thing, because we are just learning, we “didn’t know” (ignorance as justification). Settling in this way focuses the attention on us and our feelings, without considering where the other party’s emotion may be coming from.
- We settle by looking for one-time, one-size-fits-all solutions. We can dismiss any move as too small compared to the magnitude of the problem, and then there’s no need to take action, as so much more would remain broken and wrong. Saying “I don’t know what to do or where to start” sometimes comes out of this. In reality, it almost doesn’t matter what we do, or where we start. It is the starting that matters. We all add our drops to the bucket and leave the rest to God.
- We settle by beating ourselves up and carrying constant, heavy, unresolved guilt. Carrying guilt feels like doing something, and the guilt itself becomes the work. In this way, guilt is a huge barrier to actual engagement in reconciliation with Indigenous people (or any other kind of reconciliation needed in our lives).
- We sometimes settle by seeking public comfort for our discomfort, by taking up space, moving at the centre, and dominating the conversation. This is classic derailing2 – moving the attention away from the issue at hand and onto oneself. We may start to cry, intellectualize, or lecture from the audience. We may move quickly to giving advice, fixing, or helping, in order to avoid our own difficult emotions.
In addition, guilt (which is about an act – “My act was a mistake”) and shame (about the whole person – “I am a mistake”) get mixed up. We tend to think that doing something bad (an act) means we are bad (as people), which in turn makes us defensive, angry, or ashamed when someone points out the act. Guilt is ego-based and all about us, as Thomas Keating explains: “Guilt that doesn’t last beyond the time it takes to recognize, be sorry and want to amend our particular misbehavior is healthy. It becomes unhealthy when it’s protracted, say, beyond 30 seconds, in which case it really manifests our pride, because now what is hurt is that we haven’t measured up to our idealized self-image, which is the fruit of pride.”1
The seeking for comfort, all these settling processes, are all on the level of our insecure ego, the need-full personality. Fixing and helping come from here, too, because they’re about us more than they are about the other person (“I want to ‘help,’ make better, lift the burden, comfort, be the saviour, be the good one”). What is needed is service done out of love, out of a deeper inner place, not out of thinking that something or someone is broken (fixing) or weak (helping).3
Our inner search for a place to settle is never going to stop. These are normal psychological processes that we all engage in, and blaming ourselves for trying to find peace of mind is not helpful. What is helpful is learning to make space for all our emotions and inner processes, and working to integrate all of the parts of ourselves – the guilty, angry, ignorant, and selfish with the loving, generous, compassionate, and selfless. In this way, the reconciliation journey is a journey of reconciliation with our inner self, as well, and one that can lead us to peace of heart.
Manuela Popovici, Ottawa Meeting, serves on CFSC’s Indigenous rights program committee. She is a first generation Romanian-Canadian who lives on the unceded territory of the Algonquin in Ottawa. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is adapted from Manuela’s talk at the 2018 Canadian Yearly Meeting Gathering, as part of the CFSC-organized Quaker Study series on the topic of “Faith, Reconciliation, and Relationships with Indigenous People.”
- Quoted in Mary Nurrie Stearns, “Exploring Pride, Strength, and Humility,” https://www.personaltransformation.com/thomas_keating.html ↵
- See http://DerailingforDummies.com for a comprehensive list of ways we derail challenging conversations. ↵
- Rachel Naomi Remen, “Helping, Fixing or Serving?” reprint from Shambhala Sun, September 1999, https://www.uc.edu/content/dam/uc/honors/docs/communityengagement/HelpingFixingServing.pdf ↵