Rebuilding Community: A Discussion on Lateral Violence
Issue: Indigenous communities are broken because we are colonized communities stuck in a cycle of lateral violence and systemic oppression.
Solution: Understand the lateral violence comes from a culture of oppression, taught to us by oppressors and colonizers, and then use this understanding to break free through decolonization and liberation. It is rooted in colonialism but is our choice to break free.
Oppression is a prolonged cruel or unjust treatment. It was unjust how the Canadian government destroyed our families, broke our healthy communities, and wrecked our understanding and connection to our environment as land and water-based cultures. It was unjust and wrong. It was oppression.
The oppression is part of our history but also happens now. Government rejecting our acts of self-determination continually oppresses us. Our own people through tactics, ideas, and beliefs taught to us by oppressors also continue the damage. One of the ways the damage continues is with lateral violence.
“Lateral violence is defined as happening when people who are both victims of a situation of dominance, in fact turn on each other rather than confront the system that oppresses them both. Lateral violence occurs when oppressed groups/individuals internalize feelings such as anger and rage, and manifest their feelings through behaviors such as gossip, jealousy, put downs and blaming.”
My people are colonized. We have colonized minds. We have colonized ideas. We have colonized ways. We are colonized. Whereas Clarence Louis from Osoyoos Indian Band might tell me to “Get over it” (I think Canadians will say the same thing), I choose to use this as a framework, then move forward to healing and resurgence. But it is my framework that I use.
A reductionist way of thinking about this problem is the “Crabs in the Bucket” complex. The notion explains that as one crab tries to climb out of the bucket, all the other crabs grab them and pull them down. It says that we are all crabs, and whenever we try to achieve success in our community — the other crabs bring us down. But this is mistaken. We are not crabs. We also didn’t create the bucket.
We are colonized.
“Lateral violence among Native people is about our anti-colonial rage working itself out in an expression of hate for one another.”
- Lee Maracle, I Am Woman
Lateral violence comes from mental processes taught to us. Residential School taught children through words and action. Through the nuns and priests examples they were teaching how you deal with children. In turn, these children raised their children through similar (or sometimes worse) means. Those children grew up learning to behave like their oppressed parents. We were in-turn raised by them. The cycle continues.
Except it’s not all doom and gloom. Some had the strength and power to rise above and out. Through healing and discovery our families have reconnected with ancient wisdom and deeper understandings to create healthy relationships, and successful lifestyles that don’t continue the cycle of violence, abuse, and unjust treatment. We are restoring community.
We have done this in spite of the existing colonialism. A colonizer does not teach the colonized how to resist colonialism. It only teachers further colonialism and further oppression. So when we lie, spread rumors, gossip, act jealous, blame, or intentional hurt — it’s because our colonized minds, ways, and beliefs have taught us that is how to deal with our oppression.
I had a conversation with a good friend recently about lateral violence. He gave me a deeper understanding of lateral violence, and taught me on it that further explains the colonial-mentality. I would like to share what she shared with me here.
From what I understand is — as colonized people we mentally create a “rank” of people in our lives. We either rank them below or we rank them above. This is happening at a subconscious level. The deeper the oppression, the more dysfunctional the mind is. And the deeper the oppression on a community, the more dysfunctional the community is.
(This is why non-native communities have lateral violence too — but not in the same way. Non-native communities have left their idea of “community” behind. Some are attempting to restore it. Indigenous communities are one of the last places where the ancient definition of community still exists. Settlers have slowly broken their “community”.)
For example — my friend is a blend of ancestries. He is a hybrid of Indigenous and European ancestry, but he looks Caucasian. Let’s explain how the colonized-mind of ranking would happen with an individual like him:
As he enters a room people make assumptions and judgments about him. They psychologically begin to rank him — either above or below.
If they rank him above they mentally believe White equals superior. They might begin to feel he has more advantage over them. He is of better quality then most. He knows better. He is smarter, stronger, and more attractive. They rank him above. The oppressor is attractive and a role-model.
If they rank him below they mentally believe White equals inferior. He is less then them. He should be treated badly because “all white people are the same.” That “white people are not good.” That they are “crazy” or “stupid.” These are assumptions and judgments.
In this circumstance the judgments are superficial (they are skin-deep). But sometimes in our communities we know more (or believe we know more) about each other — so we make judgments from this place. The “cultural” scene is BIG on this. They use knowledge and teachings to make others feel smaller, or keep people feeling small. Subconsciously they might feel withholding knowledge is useful in keeping my rank and status.
All these rankings are happening instantly. They may know absolutely nothing about you (or believe they know something about you) but they really don’t. They make these judgment rankings, and then create behaviors based on those rankings. They will either do one of two things: behave in a way that tries to bring someone they rank above them lower OR behave in a way that tries to keep someone down that is already lower then them. Between community members, leaders, or people in your First Nation, think about the relationships. How often have people treated you in a way where they either…
· Tried to bring you down because they felt you were “above” them; or
· Tried to keep you down because they felt you were “beneath” them.
This is part of the cycle of lateral violence.
“When a powerful oppressor has directed oppression against a group for a period of time, members of the oppressed group feel powerless to fight back and they eventually turn their anger against each other.” – Jane Middleton-Moz. The Crabs in the Bucket notion fails because it holds the wrong group accountable. It tells us to blame each other instead of identifying the source of the violent ways.
“The oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors” - Paulo Freire. Thus — as colonized and oppressed peoples — we must liberate ourselves. In oppression there is poverty, but in liberation there is power. I would like to present two tools (From Choices Seminar) I use for achieving liberation over oppression:
In oppression there is poverty:
Six Points of Poverty
- Act Shy … don’t speak up
- Break Agreements
In liberation there is power:
Six Points of Power
- Pay Attention!
- Speak the truth.
- Be responsible for your experience (be accountable)
- Ask for what you want.
- Keep your agreements.
- Strive to create value in all things.
Of course it’s not always simple to use these tools in 100% of all situations. But I do feel it is important to carry this understanding of lateral violence. We become our own enemy instead of dealing with the systemic issues in our First Nation communities.
Lateral violence establishes itself through behaviors like malicious gossip, spreading of lies, making judgments, intentionally hurting, putting down, or blaming. It originates from a colonial-mentality where we rank each other to make ourselves feel stronger, or others weaker. As colonized-people we are not taught to liberate ourselves from this mentality, and instead continue to inflict damage, hurt, and brokenness amongst our peoples.
Using this framework to lead our discussion, I would invite you to share your thoughts and feelings about the liberation of our peoples. Knowing that the lateral violence comes from our colonized upbringing, how do we create freedom from it? How do we end the cycles and CHOOSE healthier ways to deal with our oppression and trauma?
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