10 ways to be a genuine ally to Indigenous communities

Human rights activists stand up for the rights of everyone, everywhere. When we learn that someone’s rights have been abused, we jump into action. But sometimes, despite our best intentions, we may actually do harm without realising it, because we have not taken the time to be a genuine ally.

It is crucial that we understand how our presence impacts the people and communities we support.

What does it mean to be a genuine ally?

Rodney Dillon. © Wayne Quilliam
Rodney Dillon, a Palawa man and Amnesty’s Indigenous Rights Advisor © Wayne Quilliam

Being a genuine ally involves a lot of self-reflection, education and listening. It means knowing we’re often coming into this space from a position of power and privilege. Privilege that we’ve gained through unjust systems that marginalise the groups we seek to ally with. It’s not enough to show up in solidarity and speak out against the unjust system, we have to do what is within our power to dismantle the system and differentiate ourselves from the opponents of these groups. We have to change our own behaviours and be mindful that we are not contributing to keeping that system going.

Amnesty International’s Indigenous Rights Advisor Rodney Dillon explains that these groups are leading the fight against the injustices they face and as allies we are there to follow their lead. “We’ve been flat out campaigning for the last 200 years. We’ve done well in some places but not well in other places. We need supporters like you to campaigning on these things, talking to pollies. It’s important for us as an organisation to be that bridge between two groups. I think that non-Indigenous peoples’ support and influence can be really, really important to make change. The people who put the wall up, I can understand why it’s there, but the people who pull it down – they’re the ones we need.”

When working with Indigenous communities there isn’t one way to be an ally – because every community and individual is different. Every relationship you build needs a different approach. But here are some suggestions that will help you to get started.

1. Listen to and follow the community

Find out who the traditional owners and Elders are of the land you are on. When doing long-term work on Indigenous rights, build strong relationships within the community and make sure everything is Indigenous-led.

2. Centre the stories around community

A big part of your involvement is to amplify the voices of Indigenous communities, don’t make it about yourself. You should directly share these messages with your networks in their words without alteration.

3. Know the historical and cultural context

Knowing the history and being culturally competent is vital. The issues the community face come from hundreds of years of ongoing trauma and discrimination. It is not the responsibility of the community to educate you.

4. Never show up empty-handed

Showing up in support is great but offer to lend a hand as well. Use your labour, resources and skills to help out. What additional value can you bring the community?

5. Always seek consent and permission

Consent is a continuous process, not a one-time request. Seek permission before taking part in community events, particularly around cultural and spiritual events. They’ll usually be labeled something like ‘all community and allies welcome’.

6. Be responsible for yourself

Be aware of what resources you’re taking away from communities through your presence. Ensure you’ve given back to the community more than you’ve taken away.

7. Know when to step back

Be aware of what space you are taking up. Always remember that you are there as a guest in a supportive role. There will be times when the community need to act alone, respect their boundaries.

8. Saviours are not needed, solidarity is

Solidarity is only meaningful if it is substantive and not merely performative. This means showing up to support the community with your presence alone should be the baseline, not the end game.

9. Be mindful of others’ time and energy

Indigenous people often have to be advocates on a wide range of issues that affect them and their community first-hand. They don’t have the choice to switch off from being involved and can be spread thin in many directions.

10. Do no harm to the community

The community should be better off, or the same, because of your presence, not worse. Follow all of these suggestions and keep reflecting on your behaviour and you’re on your way to doing your part in bringing down an unjust system.

This article was inspired by a similar resource created at Amnesty International USA by Kalaya’an Mendoza. Download a full version of 10 ways to be a genuine ally to Indigenous communities.

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