Indigenous, Quaker Mutual Aid

We’re at the intersection of so many things we could once rely on and have no choice but to find different ways to move into the future. We’re bewildered by the collapse of so many things we took for granted. Such as our political, education, healthcare, and economic systems. Our communities, including family, neighborhoods, and faith. Mother Earth herself.

Above I first wrote “find new ways to move into the future”. But part of what follows is about returning to “old ways”. But not as nostalgia.

I’m excited to hear what Quakers will say about work they’re doing at a meeting tonight, which is why I’m praying about this now. This meeting is an invitation to Friends to talk about the history, and current relationships among Quakers and Indigenous peoples.

One part of this will be to research the history of Quaker involvement in the Indian boarding, or residential schools. Quakers were involved in some of these institutions of forced assimilation. We don’t know what individuals did and aren’t judging them. But looking back from here, we are learning of the terrible damage done to native children and their families and nations by these attempts to make children fit into white society. Devastating feelings are triggered as the remains of thousands of children continue to be located on the grounds of those residential schools.

In order for native peoples and Friends to work together, this history must somehow be acknowledged. In my own case, I only raised this with those I was becoming friends with. Then I said, “I know about Quakers’ involvement in the residential schools, and I’m sorry that happened.” And wait for their response. In every case I learned they and their families had been affected by those schools. I’m not sure that was the right way. I’ve since heard such apologies might better be done with more of a ceremony. In my case raising this was important for deepening friendships.

This is also in part the idea behind the title of this article. I’ve become increasingly involved in the work of Des Moines Mutual Aid, a concept I wasn’t aware of. It was a Spirit led meeting that brought my now good friend, Ronnie James, and I together two years ago. Ronnie is an Indigenous organizer and I’m very grateful he has been willing to be my Mutual Aid mentor. Ronnie is also part of the Great Plains Action Society (GPAS) established by another friend of mine, Sikowis Nobiss. Several other Indigenous friends of mine are involved with GPAS.

All that is why I believe the concept of Mutual Aid is the way Friends and Indigenous peoples can work together.

It is a bit confusing when you first learn about Mutual Aid, because it is essentially a framework to return to the ways of life of our grandparents. Communities where the people knew and cared for each other. Communities that were self-sufficient.

The basic concept of Mutual Aid is to remove vertical hierarchies, which by definition removes power structures of dominance and superiority. No matter what you call it, vertical hierarchies cannot exist if Quakers are going to be able to work with Indigenous peoples.

Mutual is the key concept, which is easiest to see in contrast to charity. Charity is not mutual. Resources are given to someone or some organization with no expectation of anything returning to the giver. The recipient never sees the giver.

Mutuality is essential, so there are no separate groups. So there are not, for example, people designated as providers or clients. So there is not a stigma associated with need. Mutual Aid communities teach us we are not in need through our own fault, but because systems have failed us. Those of us distributing food, for example, emphasize we ourselves may need food in the future. This type of political education is part of Mutual Aid.

The other thing that makes Mutual Aid communities so successful is the focus on meeting immediate needs, such as food, shelter or court support. Besides meeting urgent needs, this focus is highly motivating to those involved. This makes for long-term engagement and satisfaction. And attracts people to expand Mutual Aid communities. In the two years I’ve been involved I can’t remember a single instance of conflict among us. When everyone is there, voluntarily, to help, what would there be to complain about?

This is the background for my proposal for Indigenous peoples and Quakers to work together as Mutual Aid communities. Endeavoring to avoid hierarchies and instead facilitate working together on mutual, immediate needs has worked excellently in my experience.

Of course this requires Friends to build friendships with native people. This is happening more often now, as Indigenous peoples are emerging to reassert their authority and leadership on so many issues. How else can Quakers be guided how to contribute to this work? How else will we be welcome by Indigenous peoples?

I talked with an Indigenous friend of mine who indicated his support for these ideas.

Other articles about Mutual Aid can be found here:

First Nation-Farmer Climate Unity March, September 2018

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