Who is at the table?

Sharon M. Day (Courtesy Photo)

To be humble is a virtue in the Ojibwe Grandfather teachings. We do not place ourselves above anyone else nor are we below anyone else. We strive to learn and seek out those teachers who can teach us how to move forward, to feed ourselves and our families and those most vulnerable, first the orphans and the elders.

When decisions are to be made that affect our community, we might ask ourselves: Who is initiating the conversation? Who stands to benefit from these actions? Who is at the table? Have we included diverse representatives from our communities and others who will be affected? 

As an Ojibwe woman, and as a Two Spirit/Queer woman, I see and experience the world and my relationships both in my Ojibwe Indigenous culture and among other ethnic/cultural groups in a way that is particular to my own culture, sexuality and gender. 

Can I represent my Ojibwe/Anishinabe brothers adequately? As an older person, can I adequately represent our youth? I can be a good teacher and I can ensure that they have a place at the table and that they have the resources to do their work. But totally represent them or their interests? Probably not. Why not? Their experience is different than mine. Perhaps their hopes and aspirations are not the same as mine. 

How does this apply to those of us who work for not-for-profit organizations (such as in art or theater) or the academic institutions or the government and even tribal governments, given the level of forced assimilation and acculturation that permeates the entire fabric of our lives sans our ceremonial practices? 

If colonization is the act of control over a people, then how do we practice decolonization or free ourselves from practices that are so pervasive? 

It is still the norm for me to attend a conference and be the only Indigenous person in the room. Many times, I am asked to attend or to do the opening of a conference where Indigenous people, Latinos, or Asian or Asian-Pacific Islanders are absent or are there in small numbers. Most of the time, I feel a need to “come out” at these conferences to make sure people know a Two Spirit/LGBT person is in the house. 

What happens when this lack of representation occurs at the policy-level gatherings where the very populations we purport to serve are not at the table? This happens more often than not in Minnesota and at many levels. Take, for example, the K-12 public school systems, where 90 percent of the teachers are white. In St. Paul, where 75 percent of the students are students of color, a mere 15 percent of the teachers are of color.

Following our Grandfather teachings of love, kindness, generosity, courage, honesty, wisdom and humility, and practicing these applications in our lives and work, will lead to decolonization. Being able to ask and answer the questions of who do I serve? Who do I represent? Who is at the table and who needs to be at the table? 

In order for democracy to work, we must create justice where there have been decades of injustice, find ways of being in the world that are inclusive and representative of all. In this way, we can create real and lasting change. The time is now. 


Sharon M. Day is the executive director of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force. An artist and activist, she lives in St. Paul.