There is a widely-held perception that veganism and animal rights are only for the white and privileged. This isn’t actually true, either historically or currently, but is instead a consequence of the centering of white voices in vegan and animal activist discourse. Calls from activists of color have insisted that they no longer be silenced and that white activists be willing to look the ways these movements have enacted the forms of oppression embedded in our greater society. If we want to stand for justice and against suffering, it is necessary that we do the work to transform our movement to one that is committed to ending all the ways that beings are harmed and killed for being declared “other.”
Fighting to save animals has been imagined to be particularly at odds with Indigenous people. At times this has seemed particularly true, as when animal rights activists have campaigned against the practices of Indigenous people, such as hunting or fishing. Vegans and Native people are seen as two opposed camps, with understandings of animals that are irreconcilably different. White activists have often failed to see how they are perpetuating harmful dynamics and enacting colonialism, both by attempting to control Indigenous people and assuming that veganism and Indigenous worldviews are incompatible.
What would it mean to decolonize veganism as a way of eating, political commitment, and social movement? In an effort to explore that question, I spoke to Dr. Margaret Robinson. Dr. Robinson is a Mi’kmaw scholar and a member of the Lennox Island First Nation. She is the Coordinator of Indigenous Studies and an Assistant Professor in the Departments of English, Sociology & Social Anthropology at Dalhousie University. Dr. Robinson has written and spoken at length about the relationship between Indigeneity and Veganism, and it was a pleasure to interview her for Animal People Forum.
Dylan Forest: I’ve frequently seen vegans and animal rights activists framed as at odds with Indigenous people. This is most visible over certain issues, like whaling or wildlife trapping and hunting, but there also seems to be this base assumption that these two groups are mutually exclusive and fundamentally ideologically opposed. What are your thoughts on this framing, as a person who is both vegan and Indigenous?
Dr. Margaret Robinson: The belief that animal rights activists and Indigenous people are opposed forces reflects a lack of familiarity with Indigenous cultures and our values. I think most settlers would be surprised to know how many Indigenous issues are related to protecting animals and their ways of life.
I’ve seen you say that your veganism is in line with the philosophy and legends of your own Mi’kmaq culture, despite its strong traditions of meat eating. Can you talk more about how both things can be true?
Traditionally, my ancestors ate what was plentiful, and that was usually animals that lived in or around the water. But our oral traditions, the stories that contain our values and ways of life, don’t glorify animal death. The people in our stories kill to survive, but even then there’s regret at animal death, and ceremonies to show gratitude, respect, and responsibility.
So if I can survive without requiring animal death—which I can—then that relationship to animals—that gratitude, and respect and responsibility—can be expressed without asking them to sacrifice their lives for me. Settlers often believe that Native people are only “authentic” or “traditional” if we mimic how things were done in the past. But Indigenous cultures are alive, and they grow and change over time. I can’t think of a more authentic way to be myself than to live those values in the present.
You’ve written that commercial fisheries are more at odds with Mi’kmaq values than modern-day veganism. Why is this?
Commercial fishing differs from traditional Mi’kmaw fishing in a number of ways. If I personally kill a fish to feed my family the responsibility for that death is on me. Commercial-scale fishing separates consumers from the processes of catching and killing fish. We outsource the killing to fishers, so we never have to feel the weight of the lives we’re ending. That breaks our relationship to the fish. Fishers actually know a lot more about sea life than the average fish-eater. We act as if it’s fishers or hunters that are the problem, but the problem is inside every one of us.
You’ve been a vegan over a decade. Have you witnessed mainstream vegan discourse changing over that time to be less problematic and more aware of other social justice issues? Are there other changes you’d still like to see?
I’m not someone with my finger on the pulse of vegan activism, by any stretch. That said, vegans now do seem more willing to discuss problems within the group, like sexism, and racism and colonialism. The problem comes when leaders are chosen to mirror how power looks in other groups—when organizations elect a board and it’s all cisgender heterosexual white men, for example. Mimicking those considered powerful is a tactic activist groups use, sometimes even without realizing it, to get their message across to people. And if you’re generally powerful in society, except for being vegan, then you’re not as experienced at dealing with white supremacy or other oppressions. The solution is to recognize and support the leadership of vegans like Julia Feliz Brueck or Breeze Harper.
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and I remember the battle between Makah whalers and (mostly white) animal rights activists. This example has always illustrated for me this difficult tension between activism and existing human power structures. On one hand I would prefer that whales are not killed by humans, but it’s also easy for me to see how this sort of activism can be seen as more of the same in a long history of oppression by settlers. Do you think there is any ethical way for white activists to respond to Indigenous folks killing animals (such as whaling or fur trapping) without enacting colonialism?
Settlers tend to make decisions using a truncated timeline. For example, I was once invited to protest deer hunting in the Short Hills Provincial Park. So I looked up the history. In 1701 the Haudenosaunee permitted Europeans to live the territory, but kept hunting rights for the region. Settlers then built Toronto, and Hamilton, Springfield, Green Bay, Cedar Rapids Rochester, Grand Rapids, Buffalo, Toledo, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Detroit, and Chicago on top of that hunting territory, destroying the environment and the animals that lived there.
Since 2013 the Haudenosaunee have hunted in the Short Hills Provincial Park to affirm their Aboriginal and treaty rights. About 35 deer a year are killed and eaten. By comparison, settler hunting in Ontario alone kills three thousand times the deer killed in Short Hills. So settler impact is by far the most negative. Some settler activists don’t accept responsibility for that, which needs to change before conversation is possible. No Indigenous community is going to take criticism seriously when it comes from someone still benefitting from destroying the territory they stole.
If settlers still want to reduce Indigenous hunting, they could change the way hunting is inadvertently mandated when courts make continuous occupation and traditional practice pre-requisites for keeping our treaty rights. We use them or lose them. Lawyers have argued against Indigenous land claims because the plaintiffs ate pizza. So if we want to reduce animal death the solution is to support Indigenous rights and protest settler hunting and industrial expansion.
What does the Mi’kmaq phrase “M`sit No`maq,” translated in English to “all my relations,” mean to you, and why is it important, particularly in relation to veganism and animals?
The phrase “all my relations” summarizes a view rooted in Mi’kmaw culture that humans aren’t a separate, special being, or superior to others. We’re part of a network of related creatures. It’s a focus on the communal rather than the individual. To have integrity we need to honor those relationships. For me, that means not killing other animals, and avoiding practices that make me complicit in their death. It’s not always easy. I don’t always know enough to make a good decision. But the effort is always worth making.
Featured image: Dr. Margaret Robinson. Image via Dr. Robinson.