It’s been a long time since I’ve been nervous in front of a crowd. I grew up the daughter of storytellers – a Dene man who knows how to make the crowd roar with laughter or cry rivers, depending on his mood. I am the daughter of a Métis woman who sets a scene so perfectly, Michif and English flowing, her descriptions apt and her impersonations too accurate. I have never looked out on a crowd and said, “I can’t do this” as backing down from personal fear – well, that’s not an Indigenous women’s option. But that doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes.
Over the last couple years, I’ve been travelling around Turtle Island, giving talks and reading poetry, meeting Indigenous peeps from coast to coast, and generally having a great time. Falling into like here and there. Getting numbers from trashy men, but loving the fact they are trashy men. Meeting up with beautiful souls who show their cities and towns and share with me their lands, where their people come from. It’s always a beautiful day to be Indigenous while on the road, and I’ve been blessed. Rooms full of people wanting to talk and listen, wanting to engage with my work. It’s like walking into a gossip session with your best friends. All 500 of them.
But every now and then, I’m in a room that is not-safe, even though the people are generally open about my work and welcome me there. This is when the crowd is majority white. It’s no secret that when I walk into a room, I am looking for other brown faces. Because there is safety in numbers. And when I find one, a familiar look will often pass between us. Because we know. And if I enter rooms that are majority white, my presentation changes. The poems I read will change. The stories I tell will change. Because this is not-safe.
I have often said white people are not given the tools, the language and the education to talk about race. They walk into conversations talking about ‘reverse racism’ and how they ‘don’t see colour’ without understanding the constructs in which discussions of racism are placed. How could they know this though? That would mean education systems, governments, and leaders would have to acknowledge their continuing role in the systemic oppression of Indigenous people (and Black people and POC) when they start to critically educate white people. And ain’t no one ready to give back lands they stole.
As a ‘successful’ and ‘good’ Indian, I am well aware that I fit checkmarks. Educated. Articulate. Light-skinned. And while I want to use my platforms and positions of power for change and good and education, too often crowds only reacts to trauma-based narrative (everyone loves the pain we keep) or a triumph tale (if she can do, everyone can). Both these primary narratives I often avoid. I come from a two-parent sober household where both parents worked. This alone gave me a boost in how I approached my world – I was loved, I was fed, I was warm. I could study. I could create. I could explore. And so far, I have managed to avoid talking about trauma on stage, especially my own, and I’m gonna keep it that way in the foreseeable future. Not everything is up for the mainstream to devour.
So all this goes through my head, variations of it, as I speak. I don’t work from notes. I often open a page and pick a poem. I tell stories based off pictures in a slide. I listen and watch the room. Who is laughing. Who is blushing. Who is staring at me, challenging me. Who is staring out the window, rolling their eyes. And in a good room, the stories flow. And in a room where I am building a wall to protect myself, it can be awkward and uncomfortable, and I’ve learned when to speak in comfortable generalities so the room can feel more connected, so I don’t lose my audience.
But every now and then, I catch myself sayings things that, without context, are harmful to Indigenous communities. And I have to backtrack and lay down facts. And it’s good for me – to hear myself, to stop myself, to correct myself. There is no shame in stating the need to correct your words, and the reasons why.
The first time I really noticed the need for this practice was when I was was chatting about tea&bannock itself at the Real Life Conference. This was a photography conference for women, led by women. It took place in Canmore in November of 2018. It was my first experience attending and speaking at any photography conference. But I had heard good things about the conference, and I know the panellists were majority women of colour, black women, and me (sup). And while the attendees were majority white, we were all women. We were all photographers. We all wanted to learn, to be open, to see connections and kinship happen. It was unnerving, as I’m actually not a people-person, but there was an energy running through the conference that was both intriguing to watch and fun to feel from the sidelines.
During my presentation, I said something akin to “I want to see us heal.” Which is fine. This is a truth. I want to see us heal. But I said this when I was the only Indigenous person in the room and I felt that I was implying to a crowd of non-Indigenous people that we needed to heal, that it was time we healed – the we being Indigenous people and not them. I felt as if I had implied that those of us who were not healing and still just trying to survive were somehow to blame for their lot in life. I felt sick. At that moment, it was not a good space to be in. Luckily, as I said, this was a crowd of women who were open and empathetic, and I can only hope that my intent was clear.
I did not take the space while onstage to restate my positionality though, and this mistake of rushing through an uncomfortable personal reflection stays with me.
So the last time I felt myself getting too critical of my people was in a lecture a few weeks ago. I was talking about reading culture through the lens of an Indigenous person, through the lens of a woman. I talked about how all land is Indigenous land, and spoke of how we, as Indigenous people, have to constantly challenge our own perceptions of culture, tradition, and ceremony. How we have to evolve, adapt and bring the good forward in our cultures. How we must negotiate the stereotypes forced upon us, and the ones we hold within about ourselves. I said all this, and looked around, and laughed. It was a mixed class, but still majority-white. So I ended with this:
“If you’re non-Indigenous, your job is to be a good ally and sit down. This is not your problem to solve. This is not your space. You need to sit down, listen, and learn.”
I felt so much better having taken the time to state my position. I need to have the space in my talk to reflect upon problems I see in our cultures and how we can approach them, and I think that non-Indigenous people need to see us critically reflect and progressively move forward with our traditions, cultural practices, languages and kinships. We are healing, no matter what the narratives perpetuated on TV say. We are critical thinkers, we are introspective, and our cultures are strong enough that we can decolonize them, shape them, and thrive within them.
This is just a reminder to myself to breathe, to reflect, and to speak my truth. No matter what stage I end up upon, no matter what crowd I am speaking to. I don’t know much, but I know my truth.
-tenille k campbell