Trying to understand the “help” phenomenon in Native communities

By Special Correspondent Jessica Yee

It’s no secret that many Native American reservations and Aboriginal territories seem like far off, remote, out of reach places to the general population and society. I suppose that when the mainstream news media does report about our communities it often suggests that these are all immensely impoverished, violence infested, alcohol and drug ravaged places that are surely in need of help and even rescue, at times. And I’m not saying that in some areas, this might actually be somewhat true. (Although I’m definitely not saying that every Native community is like that either – because that’s definitely not the truth and in several cases far from it).

I’m saying all of this because I’m trying to understand the phenomenon that has many non-Native people purposely going North, or going South, essentially going out of their way in general, it appears, to go and live in a Native community to “help” or to “help while working”. That is to say, there seems to be a shift in going to live in an Aboriginal territory, do your thing, and then leave. To clarify, I’m not talking about the cultural exchanges or instances where communities themselves are inviting people to contribute. This is where non-Aboriginal folks are seeking out positions or trying to create stuff that is far away from them, in the hopes of either “helping us” or “learning” , by trying to “show us the way” (and yes this kind of sounds all too familiar to the early days of colonization).

Case in point. I’m listening to CBC radio a few weeks back and there are two stories that really got me thinking about this whole phenomenon now. The first was called “Polar Prom”, about a high school in Igloolik, Nunavut that had their first prom this past summer to reward students for staying in school – headed up by three teachers from the South. It all sounds great, until they get to the part about how they are trying to tell kids to “stay in school” as opposed to going out hunting and fishing with their communities and Elders during the last month of school.

They go on to detail how in order to be pretty and “dress up”, you just have to wear the conventional prom dress and suit deal – aka no traditional Inuit clothing. It’s an oddly reported story – considering how during parts of it they are talking about how important it is to learn about and incorporate culture – while at the same time saying “you will be a role model for younger ones if you don’t leave town and go out on the land with your family”.  And I have to strongly disagree with that approach that off-routes traditional lifestyle because of some new institution’s decision to think it knows best, for example, when school should be held in light of 4000+ years of healthy cultural living.

The other story is one I hear time and time again, about someone who has just moved to a Native community to work, talking about how hard things are there with all the problems, how different it is, and how they have really “opened their eyes” to just how lucky they are with all the comforts they have at home where they’re from. (One exemplary snippet that I remember the woman profiled in that story saying was, “I never even drank Kool-Aid until I got up here!” to which my partner replied sitting next to me, “Yeah, we never even spoke English until you forced us to!”) The story almost always shows just how great of a person they are for “dealing” with how Native people have to live, and borders on positioning them as the expert on current affairs in the community.

Yet many times these people will eventually pack their bags, leave in the hopes that they did something good, and there the community goes back to trying to fix what the cycles of systemic colonialism and intergenerational trauma are still doing.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that having a prom for kids in Igloolik to promote self-esteem is bad, or that someone who is non-Aboriginal from a long distance away doesn’t have anything meaningful to bring to a community who may genuinely need help. It’s great that we are at a point where people are starting to wake up and see that they don’t need to travel miles away outside of their own country to realize how messed up things like power and privilege are where you live. Absolutely we do need allies and support from all peoples.  I’m just trying to understand the fascination people have with doing this in Native communities now, and more importantly what they aren’t checking in with themselves about why it’s happening so much.

Sure it’s a bit of othering, it’s outsider-looking-in, it’s the extra travel and living grants you can get for going somewhere rural or remote, but I think there’s something else to it.  Similar to how students either post high school or post university desire in droves to travel outside of Canada and the United States to Africa or South America in hopes of “saving the people”, I can’t help but feel that the same kind of self-righteous thing is happening here.

So is it really helping? What do you think?