On the Question of Allies
by Zig Zag, Warrior Publications, December 22, 2016
Ally: to unite or form a connection or relation between… to form or enter into an alliance (two factions allying with each other). Merriam-Webster Dictionary
There’s been some discussion over the last couple of years about the concept of allies and I thought I would throw my opinion into the mix…
For context, two of the most widely distributed zines about allies are the one produced by Indigenous Action Media (Accomplices not Allies), and the other produced by Ancestral Pride (Everyone Calls Themselves an Ally…).
Back in the ’90s, non-Natives who showed up at Indigenous actions or events to help out were referred to as supporters. The term itself implied a somewhat subordinate role–they were helping to support a struggle or action. Some supporters were very helpful, giving of their time and resources out of a sense of solidarity and a desire to help out. There were Natives who sought to exploit supporters, usually for money, and inevitably the supporter would withdraw after a time, because a relationship based on exploitation can never be healthy.
No one ever talked about allies or alliances with non-Native groups. Some of the more reformist Native groups entered into a kind of alliance with Non-Governmental Groups (NGO’s), such as Greenpeace, to protect an area from logging (for example). But we wouldn’t necessarily consider this an ideal type of alliance because, as it turns out, it’s actually about opportunism and the co-optation of Indigenous struggles. The big NGO’s often made secretive agreements with government and industry, while the Natives were left out in the cold.
Grassroots people, however, never really talked about alliances or allies. In truth, they were most often family groups who carried out some type of campaign or action with little thought to the organizing of a broader Indigenous resistance. They wanted to stop a particular industrial project, for example, and that was their primary goal. They generally welcomed supporters, however, because of the resources and skills that some non-Natives could contribute.
Allies and Supporters
The question of supporters is relatively simple—it is a person or group who chooses to help an Indigenous struggle by contributing time and resources.
The question of alliances is not as simple, however. It requires that a group have the capacity and self-organization to form an alliance with another group that also has this capacity.
Alliances are formed between groups who share some common interest; a military alliance against a common enemy, for example. It is implicit that both groups see some form of practical benefit in making an alliance, otherwise they would not do so. As a practical measure, therefore, alliances are not based on shared experiences (of oppression, for example) but rather on shared interests and mutual benefits.
Historically, Indigenous peoples were constantly in the process of forming and strengthening alliances—between families, clans, village groups and other nations. This was accomplished through various means, including intermarriage, trade, and military operations. Some of the largest Indigenous alliances were formed as part of early anti-colonial resistance, such as those initiated by Pontiac and Tecumseh in the eastern Woodlands. The Haudenosaunee, Mi’kmaq and Huron also formed alliances between groups, referred to as confederacies.
Today, most movements (both Native and non-Native) are so disorganized that actual alliances do not exist and cannot be made. Therefore, it is illogical to talk about alliances in the present context. We have a lot more work to do self-organizing our movement before we can consider making alliances.
Why the term Ally is Incorrect
The way ally is being used in these conversations I think is incorrect, because what is being referred to are supporters on the one hand, and NGO-type groups, on the other. The term “Ally Industrial Complex,” for example, primarily refers to NGO’s who approach Indigenous struggles as an industry from which they profit (both materially and politically).
When we look at Ancestral Pride’s text, Everyone Calls Themselves an Ally…, it’s quite clear that they are primarily addressing what I would term supporters. Most of the text is comprised of a list of useful activities that supporters can engage in to assist Indigenous peoples involved in movements or campaigns (for example, collecting air miles points to help in travel, donating money or equipment, etc) which are proposed as “tools and guidelines to help be more effective in your support of our resistance.”
This is a very useful list, but it is not a list we would necessarily hand over to a group or movement with whom we have made an alliance, because ultimately an alliance is made between groups who share a common goal, not between groups in which one groups main task is to provide resources to the other.
Here’s another example of support work. Back in the late 1980’s I was involved with a group that provided support for revolutionaries in El Salvador. We organized fund-raisers and public education events. We did not form an “alliance” with the revolutionaries, we were a support group. Back in those days it was more commonly referred to as solidarity work.
There have also been examples of support, or solidarity groups, established by non-Natives, such as the Canadian Alliance in Solidarity with Native Peoples (CASNP) or the Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Movement (IPSM).
While Accomplices not Allies addresses a wide range of activities and attitudes seen as problematic among “allies” it is also concerned with what is clearly the problem of NGO’s:
“The ally industrial complex has been established by activists whose careers depend on the “issues” they work to address. These nonprofit capitalists advance their careers off the struggles they ostensibly support… These folks are generally paid huge salaries for their “professional” activism, get over-inflated grants for logistics and “organizational capacity building”…”
The question of NGO’s is an enormous problem which must be dealt with because it leads to the co-optation, exploitation and pacification of Indigenous resistance.
The supporters who come to our actions also bring problems but of a very different nature, mostly on the interpersonal level (being ignorant of Indigenous culture and traditional values, for example, or cooking crappy vegan stews, or pushing their own agenda of militancy or pacifism, etc).
On a strategic level, the question of NGO’s is of far greater importance because the NGO has large amounts of resources at their disposal with which to push through their agenda (for example, by providing funding, material resources such as communications or camp equipment, training and indoctrination of Indigenous peoples in nonviolence, etc).
The grassroots supporter may be annoying but lacks the power to impose their agenda. I would also assert that grassroots supporters, who often use their own money for travel, etc, are more sincere in their efforts than NGO organizers, who at the end of the day are being paid to do a job (a job they intend to keep long after any campaign).
Mixing up the question of supporters, alliances, and NGO’s is not only incorrect, it is also confusing. Our main effort should be directed at confronting the problem of NGO penetration into Indigenous movements and finding ways to deal with this.
* A great resource on the NGO industrial complex is the book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, published by South End Press, 2007.