by Bennett Collins
We are so pleased to share this month's blog written by our dear friend and accomplice Bennett Collins who, along with his friend and research partner, Ali Watson followed the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission through its mandate. We are grateful to Bennett and his colleagues for authoring a chapter which described the Commission’s significance in relation to truth and reconciliation commissions around the world in the 2014 book, Indigenous People’s Access to Justice, Including Truth and Reconciliation Processes. Bennett is currently a PhD student at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and remains close to the heart of the REACH team.
First off, it really is an honor to continue my relationship with REACH with this post. Writing this has allowed me to reflect on how the community that surrounds REACH and the values it has practiced have impacted me and my trajectory as a settler on stolen lands as well as an academic working in an industry that has fueled the colonial machine.
It’s definitely not lost on me, reader, that I am a Queer white cis male settler currently living on unceded Onöndowa'ga:' lands now called Buffalo, New York, and that I am writing for a blog titled ‘Voices of Decolonization’. While I certainly don’t consider my voice inherently one of decolonization, I don’t hesitate to add mine to the chorus calling for an active and unrelenting decolonizing of Turtle Island that is both Indigenous-led and -centered. What decolonization looks like is something not for me to say.
I find myself often at odds with academia, this industry of relentless knowledge extraction and production. From its halls of power, you can see what it claims as decolonization and what it doesn’t. Universities seek various tick boxes and requirements it can cross off in order to be ‘decolonized’ without wanting to engage with the prospects of severe reform and possibly dismantlement.
I read the above paragraph and slightly scoff at myself. Not out of judgment but more disbelief over my views now compared to years ago when I first came into contact with REACH. I was not always this person.
In August 2013, I showed up for a planning meeting on Indian Island for the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission. REACH agreed to let my 23-year old self come and see the planning stages of the TRC. At the time, I was under the guise of a ‘researcher’ coming to do ‘research’ on the process. For anyone who has read Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies or any experience with the problems surrounding the practice research, I’m sure you are cringing at that last line.
Upon walking in the room, I sat along the wall, thinking ‘this is where a researcher is supposed to sit. I’m not involved in this, I’m just here to observe’. This is what I was taught, so that’s what I did without question. It was only within minutes that this group of women, Wabanaki and settler, were playing an icebreaker, a round of ‘ICWA bingo’. I sat there in discomfort. Am I supposed to engage now? Am I just supposed to “observe” this? I don’t know any of these people. I’m supposed to be the ‘professional researcher’ – if I engage, people will see how awkward I really am. My anxiety spiked because I found this persona of researcher clashing with the work of REACH.
Well, Esther Anne interrupted with an answer. “Come on, Bennett. You have to play, too. No sitting on the sidelines”.
To this day, I still have my bingo sheet. It reminds me that before I even arrived and planned my strategy to ‘research’, there was a protocol already set for me. I could join space but I was part of the space to share, not extract as some research project. Whenever I look at that bingo sheet, I’m reminded of what I’m not to do in the work of decolonizing: sitting on sidelines, listening and extracting for self-advancement, and hiding vulnerabilities while observing those of others. In many ways, I think these are useful lessons for any settler beginning the journey of working towards decolonization on Turtle Island. We must be active, we must listen with the intent to learn and challenge ourselves, and we must be vulnerable.
From my experience, decolonization means many things to others all over the world who have experienced the brunt of colonialism in its many forms. In order to understand what we need to do to decolonize where we are, we first all need to realize we can’t sit on the sidelines and just watch with our own agendas. We have to get up and play bingo like everyone else.