Who Needs to Be at the Table?

Sharon Day

One of our grandfather teachings is to be humble. Webster’s Dictionary defines humble as: 1. not proud or haughty; 2. not aggressive or assertive; 3. lacking all signs of pride or arrogance, reflecting or acting in a manner of deference or submission.

In the Ojibwe Grandfather teachings, to be humble is a virtue. We do not place ourselves above anyone else nor are we below anyone else. We strive to learn and seek out those teachers who can teach us how to move forward, to feed ourselves and our families and those most vulnerable, first the orphans and the elders.

Who do I serve? Who do I represent? When decisions are to be made that affect our community, we might ask ourselves the following questions. Who is initiating the conversation? Who stands to benefit from these actions? Who is at the table? Have we included diverse representatives from our communities and others who will be affected?

As an Ojibwe woman, I see and experience the world in a particular way that is specific to my Ojibwe/Anishinabe cultural practices. As a Two Spirit/queer woman, I see and experience the world and my relationships to others both in my Ojibwe Indigenous culture and among other/ethnic/cultural groups in a way that is particular to my own, culture, sexuality and gender.

Can I represent my Ojibwe/Anishinabe brothers adequately? I can certainly serve them by ensuring they have a place at the table, and resources to do their work. As an older person, can I adequately represent our youth? I can be a good teacher and I can ensure that they have a place at the table and they have the resources to do their work. But totally represent them or their interests, probably not. Why not? Their experience is different than mine. Perhaps their hopes and aspirations are not the same as mine.

How does this apply to those of us who work for not-for profit organizations, art or theater, or the academic institutions or government and even tribal governments given the level of forced assimilation and acculturation that permeates the entire fabric of our lives sans our ceremonial practices?

What is de-colonization in practice? We know the theory. If colonization is the act of control over a people, then how do we practice de-colonization or free ourselves from practices that are so pervasive in the societies we live in? It is still the norm for me to attend a conference and be the only indigenous person in the room. Many times, I am asked to attend or to do the opening of a conference where Indigenous people, Latinos, or Asian or Asian Pacific Islanders are absent or there are a small number. Most of the time, I feel a need to “come out” at these conferences to make sure people know a Two Spirit/lgbt person is in the house.

What happens when this lack of representation occurs at the policy level gatherings where the very populations we purport to serve are not at the table? This happens more often than not in Minnesota and at many levels. Take for example the K-12 public schools systems where 90 percent of the teachers are white. In St. Paul, where 75 percent of the student population are students of color, a mere 15 percent of the teachers are of color.

Perhaps a return to practicing our cultural values is a path to de-colonization among Anishinabe populations. Following our grandfather teachings of love, kindness, generosity, courage, honesty, wisdom, and being humble and practicing these applications in our lives and work will lead to de-colonization. Being able to ask and answer the questions of who do I serve? Who do I represent? Who is at the table and who needs to be at the table?

In order for democracy to work, we must create justice where there has been decades of injustice, find ways of being in the world which are inclusive and representative of all. In this way, we can create real and lasting change. The time is now, not tomorrow, or the next meeting, conference, season, academic school year, or legislative term, but now.

Sharon M. Day is the executive director of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force. Ms. Day is an artist and activist who has been involved in public policy work for several decades.


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