An Ally's Journey


I am a white woman in the United States. I may have some mixed genetic background, but I was raised white and have always identified as white, not matter how uncomfortable that was/is for me. I cannot deny the deeply entrenched colonialist background of my ancestry. I have ancestors who came here in the 1600s. They "founded" the towns of Groton and Avery, Connecticut. I have ancestors who cherished their leadership role in the colonizing of Tennessee, Kentucky and Oklahoma. It is deeply painful to me that I have in my possession an historical document in which they are celebrated for blazing the trail to The West. That would be the Trail of Tears the Cherokees were driven along like so much cattle. Less than cattle, as there was no concern at all for their well being. So many suffered and died at the hands of my ancestors.

For the past 20-plus years, I have been exposing myself and attempting to connect to people and cultures which are not of my privileged white ancestry. I have walked away from the imperialist/capitalist/colonial mindset. It's a not always a straight and narrow path. It is hard to undo the brainwashing of one's upbringing and the predominant culture one is immersed in. Still, I've been on a fairly steady trajectory. Rejecting all the premises of capitalism when I was in business school was the beginning of a sea change in that which surrounds my core.

I didn't know it, in the beginning, but beyond rejecting what I saw as a cruel and destructive culture, I was becoming an ally to those who have been oppressed far moer than I have within it. (As a woman, I have certainly experienced misogyny. However, the privileges I can claim as a white person, do have an offset which other people can never have access to.)

All these years later, it is still very challenging to be an ally. Oppression of a people leaves many deep wounds, which are held and expressed differently by each person subject to it. Within each group, these wounds lead to factions; bitterly, hateful opposed factions.

This leaves allies subject to ensured condemnation. If one stands in solidarity with one faction in a marginalized group, the other faction will condemn you.

As an example, if a white person wants to stand in solidarity with the Indigenous Peoples of this land, one will eventually run into internal factions around topics such as sovereignty, the status of settlers in a decolonized world or Leonard Peltier.

We must remember that there is no one Indigenous view of the these things. Subject to genocide and oppression for hundreds of years, now, the responses are varied. Do you let the US define your sovereignty or not? When you're desperate for resources, or frightened of the power that US is completely willing to wield against you, you may have a different answer to that question than when you are not pressured by these considerations.

Recently, a group I have had some association with ran into one of these issues: Leonard Peltier. If you are being an ally to the Indigenous Peoples, do you support the release of Leonard Peltier from US Federal Prison or not? Depends on who you ask. If you attend the Day of Mourning in Plymouth, the answer may be yes. If you  want to stand in solidarity with Idle No More, the answer may be no.

Before I go on, for those wondering how the question of Leonard Peltier can be controversial, I will give the briefest of explanations. I do not claim to know anything, at all. I will only share what little I have been exposed to. Please do not consider me any kind of expert, or my thoughts on the matter anything of import. I share for the sake of giving you a chance to explore on your own. Please follow links and Google away. There is a lot out there. I defer to those directly involved for their wisdom on the question of Peltier.

Leonard Peltier was convicted of assisting in the killing of two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975. There are many questions about whether this was a wrongful conviction. There is a significant movement pushing for him to be pardoned and/or released. This is, of course, a piece of a larger story of relations between the US and the people we have slaughtered and oppressed for so long. At the same time, there are accusations that Peltier was involved in abusing and/or executing Anna Mae Pictou Aquash. So, some people are of the opinion that he deserves to be in prison and that it is offensive to women to support this man who may have committed violence against at least one woman.

This issue doesn't sit simply as a difference of opinion. There is bitter hatred between being generated over it. As an ally, it is tragically painful to watch and makes for some treacherous territory to navigate.

I have been struggling with how to hold this, as I seek how best to be an ally. Currently, I think that, even if Peltier is guilty of being involved in the abuse or death of Anna Mae - and I do realize they are only accusations, without any evidence - he is not in US prison for that. It is tragic that his most egregious offenses may have been against his own people. However, justice, to my mind, would be for that to be processed by his own people. So, it is not incompatible to believe that he should be freed from US prison and to believe that he may be guilty of these crimes of which he is being accused. Still, this is my perspective as an ally. I cannot presume to know how any of this feels or fits into the life experience of a member of the First Nations People.

Therein lies the rub of being an ally. Sometimes, you simply cannot take a stand on a particular issue. Almost always, you will make a fool of yourself over one thing or another. You will use language in offensive ways. You will misunderstand people. You must be willing to be held in contempt. Your personal discomfort over that is minuscule when held next to the larger concerns at stake. All one can do is build relationships. Be at peace within yourself by holding onto your own principles and maintaining healthy relations with those whom you are working.

Solidarity doesn't mean having all the answers. It doesn't mean aligning oneself with every view of every member of the oppressed group whom you are allying yourself with. Solidarity is building a solid foundation of trusting relations with those who are your strongest connections to that group.

This can be challenging, when you encounter other people who are in a different faction on a particular issue and they feel so strongly about it that they attack you for your way of being in solidarity.

For me, I have learned that if someone is not approaching the people I work with with respect, then they are breaching a basic principle I hold dearly about how to go about generating healing. I am also not inclined to move an inch away from my local solidarity when someone comes along and tries to wield the power of a title to demand deference. That a person is considered a leader, a mentor, a teacher or an elder to people whom I don't know does not mean a lot to me. I don't offer extra respect to them for it. Indeed, if they feel they have to call upon this title they have been given in relation to others as a tool to influence me, I am suspect of their underlying agenda. If you have disrespect me and/or mine, you are not operating in an ethos of respect. If not, there is something wounded and flawed at play. It doesn't mean there is nothing to take into consideration. It does mean that I will not do so from a position of obeisance. And I will not abandon my comrades. If I/we determine there is something to examine, we will do so together.

What then, when you think you have comrades, but they are consistently attacking one another? When it feels like personal power conflicts are at play? When some of your comrades are more consistently responsive to outside voices? When they allow or even draw in outside voices for the sake of pressing their own agenda regarding the dynamic or mission of the group? When internal agreements are tossed aside because one person comes along and challenges them?

For me, that group cannot ever work effectively together. There is too much trust missing. Too little commitment to the covenants we have made with one another. When someone has broken covenants too often, it informs me that I cannot work with them. Perhaps the loss of this relationship will be one piece in an accumulation of experiences which will inform them to consider a different way of being. Perhaps not. I simply know that I can do this most profound and deeply challenging work without an affinity group with whom I feel an unerring trust. As an ally, I am too likely to be tossed around as a pawn in the internal conflicts of the larger oppressed group. When I feel that my affinity group is lacking the needed solidarity, I feel it is time to make a change.

This is one of the challenges of being an ally. May peace and light guide me on this journey.




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Paranoia vs. metanoia

geomoo's picture

This raises challenging fundamental questions.  If I may be allowed to step back even further and generalize, it seems that a fundamental problem is one of categories, of thinking that different categories of people are fundamentally different.  I still remember the day, decades ago now, that it dawned on me that African Americans are not inherently better people in any way by virtue of their being oppressed.  The truth is that virtually every human will behave in similary ways given a similar life history and similar stimuli.  There are heroes and goats among the rich as among the poor, among men as among women, among the white as among the yellow.  It is human nature to visualize evil as existing outside us; the challenge is in finding the courage to recognize our own affinity for the behavior and conditions we so desperately wish to change.  "And let it begin with me," is so often intoned as a statement of self-righteousness rather than as a commitment to self-examination and responsibility.  Who alive today does not think of herself as a good person whose actions are fully justifiable?  How then justify such firm belief that we are right in our own self-assessment while our "enemies" are incorrect in theirs?

I used to have romantic notions of native american culture.  Then I learned that, among most tribes, women were treated as virtual slaves, enjoying little control over their lives and forced to do backbreaking labor.  What a disappointment it was to learn that some tribes indulged mass kill-offs of buffalo, killing many more than they could ever hope to utilize, or that native tribes as well as most early humans would live in a place until the environment had degraded so much that a move was necessary.  There is no perfect category of human as there is no scapegoat category of human.  As we do our own self-examination, as we attempt to take responsibility not only for our personal history but also for the history of our culture, in my opinion, it is crucial to understand that those who have been oppressed precisely the same challenges of human nature as we face ourselves.  Just as attempting to place all evil as existing outside ourselves leads to continuation of evil, so does attempting to assume responsibility for all evil lead to the same result.

These are general comments.  Applying this analysis to specific circumstances is yet another challenge.  The only thing I can say with confidence is that forming wise practical decisions starts with the kind of honest self-evaluation embodied in this reflective essay. Only when we understand in our bones that we are capable of the same behavior which frightens or offends us will we act from the place of true compassion that so many of us seek.

I owe a great debt to Sam Keen for help in formulating this view.  Here he is on metanoia vs. paranoia.  The challenge in reading this is to take it literally to heart as a challenge to see painful truths rather than as an easy opportunity to engage identify management by assuming that, because we have read this and embraced it theoretically, we have automatically assimilated the truths herein.  Also necessary is the empathetic acceptance that, even as we grow in this awareness, we occupy neither higher ground nor lower ground than those who have not yet begun the journey.



What is necessary is not an easy confession, but a political work, a path, a discipline of consciousness that must be undertaken by a community of solitary individuals. There is no way to repent en masse. The burden of corporate guilt can only be borne by individuals sensitive enough to examine their own consciousness and conscience. This is the way of metanoia, changing our minds, reversing our perspectives, making conscious the projections of our shadows onto the enemy. If we desire peace, each of us must begin to demythologize the enemy; cease politicizing psychological events; re-own our shadows; make an intricate study of the myriad ways in which we disown, deny, and project our selfishness, cruelty, greed, and so on onto others; be conscious of how we have unconsciously created a warrior psyche and have perpetuated warfare in its many modes . . .



Courageous inquiry involves the willingness to turn around, change perspectives, be self critical (metanoia). As Socrates demonstrated, self-knowledge is purchased at a high cost. In the beginning, self-knowledge is bad news—an awareness of one’s habitual errors.


As a master idea “courageous inquiry” implies:

1. Heartful thinking ( fr. cuer “the heart as the seat of intelligence or feeling")

2. Willingness to face danger, take risks, and tolerate anxiety.

3. Inquiry involving moral and/or political questions.

4. An existential commitment to the quest.

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Here's a way to say a part of this

geomoo's picture

Just as we cannot purge evil by seeing all bad behavior as external to ourselves, we similarly cannot do so by attempting to take personal responsibility for all bad behavior; the challenge is to see ourselves humbly as a typical human living in the fabric of other humans.  We can only influence positively through internal coherence.

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thank you

UnaSpenser's picture

for the reminder of Keen and metanoia. It is a lifelong journey.

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Leonard Peltier should be pardoned immediately

sartoris's picture

The evidence linking Peltier to the murder of the 2 FBI agents can be generously characterized as flimsy.  Peltier should never have been sent to prison.  He certainly should not still be in prison.  The amount of money and the man hours that the FBI spent taking on AIM is difficult to understand in this era. 

There is absolutely no evidence linking Peltier to the deaths of the FBI agents.  There is NO evidence at all linking Peltier to the death of Anna Mae.  I have been signing petitions and sending letters supporting Peltier's pardon since Clinton was in the White House.

Free Leonard Peltier.  Full Stop.

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for more information on Leonard Peltier and Anna Mae Pictou

sartoris's picture

For anyone interested in learning more about AIM, Peltier and the death of Anna Mae Pictou this is an excellent primer:


Amnesty International and numerous organizations around the globe consider Peltier to be nothing more than a political prisoner.


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Yes, I came back to address the issue at hand

geomoo's picture

It is a fundamental misunderstanding of human rights and the rule of law to suggest that a person be kept in prison because he is a bad person in a general way or because it is presumed that he committed a crime other than the one for which he was imprisoned.  Such an attitude is inexcusable.  The right to a fair trial and to justice under the law exists in completely independence of the particularly person whose rights are being defended.

It occurs to me that a favorite way of stunting criticism of the government is through demonization.  For example, protests of the barbaric conditions of Bradley Manning's detention were defended on the basis of claims of what a bad person he is.  More close to home, we have seen the demonization of most well-known and out-spoken critics of the current administration.  I would take attempts to portray Peltier is a bad person with an enormous grain of salt, this in addition to remembering that Peltier's rights have nothing to do with his character or general behavior.  He doesn't have to be a saint to deserve equal rights under the law.

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A decolonization group I was, until today,

UnaSpenser's picture

involved with just came under attack because one of our members went to the Day of Mourning in Plymouth, where part of the rally was supporting Peltier. The person who attacked us represented himself as an elder from the Aristook MicMaq tribe and very involved in Idle No More.

When we didn't immediately jump to condemn our member, he became very hostile. This led to one of the women, who fancies herself the Grande Dame of our group, to start posting a lot of emails in our listserv where she was virtually yelling at everybody and engaging in a lot of shaming of individuals. Then this guy told he had read every single email in our archive (my gawd, what a waste of time!) and that we should all be ashamed of ourselves.

This has led a couple of our members to override our internal agreements, cancel the agenda of our next meeting and try to change the Ways of Being we operate under in order to kowtow to this pixellated entity who arrived on our list trying to wield some sort of title we were all to bow in obeisance to.

I did a little research and could find no reference to this person on the fairly extensive web site of the tribe he says he's an elder of. Nor can I find any mention of him or his tribe any of the Idle No More sites.

When I could not get our group to see that we were being torpedoed - and, likely by this Grande Dame, who has tried this before (which led to someone threatening my life) - I exited the group.

So, I totally agree that there is no justification for Peltier to be in prison. What I really wanted to process, though, was how a topic like this gets used to break any solidarity the Indigenous Peoples try to build. I'm very convinced that this is a legacy from the days of COINTELPRO. What a successful application of a permanent corrosive material in the girders of the solidarity building.

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That's sad

geomoo's picture

I hate the helpless feeling of watching these things work, to the detriment of all but the possibly intentional saboteurs, when it is intentional.  Terrible.

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my apologies for threadjacking

sartoris's picture

sorry, I am passionate about this issue.  I will see myself out of your blog.  My apologies for threadjacking.

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Where is the threadjacking?

geomoo's picture

Thanks for the information and for the passion.  If there is threadjacking, I don't see it, but I'll leave it to the author to decide.

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I'm not bothered by it

UnaSpenser's picture

I appreciate the passion. And the commitment to the principles.

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Well, I personally do not like it when someone comes in

sartoris's picture

I know that I myself do not like to see someone posting a lot of comments on a completely unrelated topic to what the writer is trying to discuss.  UnaSpenser is attempting to have a discussion on something beyond the specific case of Peltier.  Like a bull seeing red (or a kid seeing candy) I saw Leonard Peltier's name and sort of went off on my own tangent.  I really do sincercely apologize to UnaSpenser for taking the conversation somewhere besides where she intended. 

Nicely written essay.  Look forward to more writing from you.

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It serves no purpose to be ashamed of your ancestors.

Ohio Barbarian's picture

Back in college, many moons ago, a friend of mine came up with an acronym: LGC(Liberal Guilt Complex). Sufferers tend to be white and to outwardly feel really bad about what their horrible ancestors had done. 

I'm a prime candidate. I'm descended from indentured servants who came to Canada from France as indentured servants and intermarried with the Mickimac. Some of their descendants moved down the Mississippi after the French and Indian War and became slaveowners in Arkansas, and whose descendants fought for the Confederacy. I'm also descended from Scots who fought for Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden Moor and fled to the New World for their lives, and others who were German immigrants to England during the English Revolution who thought that fighting for Cromwell was a better bet than staying in the Palatinate during the Thirty Years War. 

One of their descendants was a Redcoat under Cornwallis who surrendered at Yorktown and stayed for 40 acres and a mule and the chance for his kids to be wealthy enough to own slaves, which they were, and also fought for the Confederacy. The descendants of both branches lost everything in the Civil War, emigrated to Texas, and fought the Comanche. One of them was captured by the latter and tortured to death in a really gruesome fashion, and the Yankee General Phil Sheridan became a hero of theirs when he attempted genocide on the Comanche and said "the only good Indian is a dead Indian" and "Nits make lice." 

Should I feel bad for that? Should I feel sorry for the Comanche who cut my great-great uncle's stomach out and filled the cavity with straw and laughed at him as he died, and then in their turn were shot down by the Buffalo Soldiers, some of whom were former slaves themselves? Because my great x2 uncle wanted to take the Comanche land, which they in turn had conquered from the Apache, who had no doubt taken it from someone else? 

What good would that do Leonard Peltier? 

What has happened to Leonard Peltier is a horrible injustice, and if Obama or Bush or Clinton had any decency they would have pardoned him. I wish I could do something about that, but I can't. 

We are here and now. I have far more in common with my black neighbors, and they with me, than any of us do with the ruling oligarchy on Pennsylvania Avenue and Wall Street. It no longer matters that my ancestors might have enslaved theirs. One reason I know this is because they have told me so. I don't know any Comanche, but I'm pretty sure they would feel the same way these days. 

IOW, if we are no longer attacking each other, then there IS hope. We need each other, warts and past crimes of ancestors and all. 






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I don't disagree with much of what you say.

UnaSpenser's picture

I don't walk around feeling guilty about what my ancestors did. I don't like what they did, but they were not my acts.

I do, however, feel that I walk a more privileged path in today's society because of the legacy of the past. I don't see the current systems of inequities, particularly as they pertain to race, as separate from what happened historically. They are intinsically linked. Therefore, I feel the need to stay aware and to keep my consciousness of this active.

When I walk in the drug store with my black neighbor, who is a teacher, while I'm the unemployed, disabled person and the staff at the store are clearly shadowing her and treating her with suspicion, while they leave me alone, I am very aware that I walk through this life with far less of the daily trepidation of someone with darker skin. All because my ancestors were successful at slaughtering, enslaving or somehow domineering over their ancestors. 

The reason it is important to stay aware is that we must learn to empathize with the relentless stress one has to live with when one is not of the privileged class. One must recognize that this impacts worldview, self-assurance, inner peace, everything. 

To be an ally is to navigate how to assist in the end of the oppression whilst not patronizing or domineering over those you are trying to help. It is tricky to leave people with their dignity when they need help in socially equitable relationships. It is far more treacherous when you are a part of the class which has oppressed those you want stand in solidarity with.

And, so, I find my family's history painful. Other than trying to be aware of the privilege I carry as a legacy, I don't feel guilty for what they did. 

How does this help Peltier? The reason he is still in prison; the reason our government was able to unjustly convict him in the first place; is that we still don't have a critical mass of while people who will own how the past has given them privilege and how the oppression has shaped the nature of Peltier's story. Too many are still willing to believe that he just must be a bad person and unwilling to challenge our government. 

Those of us who can see what has happened and is happening must keep speaking out about it. The only way we might see change is if we can keep ripping the veils out from people's eye, one by one, as we come in contact with them. When enough people can see, Peltier will go free.

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