To be Done with Allyship: Towards Oceanic Justice in the Pacific


One point of this issue’s editorial agenda consisted in promoting a vision of organizing from which the term “allyship” has become irrelevant. In order to do so, we commissioned a text to Laurel Mei-Singh and Davianna Pōmaika‘i McGregor who make a strong argument against the individualistic and personalized nature of this figure of “the ally” when acting in a fundamentally interconnected world and facing massive threats like nuclearism or global warming.

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“No Nukes in the Pacific,” a poster created in Sydney by Pam Debenham and Tin Sheds in 1984.

Hoa kākoʻo:

Hoa – Companion, friend, associate, colleague, comrade, partner, mate, peer, fellow

Kakoʻo – To uphold, support, favor, assist, prop up; to bind, as with a sash or belt; support, aid, recommendation, girdle.

Indigenous self-determination and national liberation open vital pathways for elevating the kinds of knowledge that can repair our planet amid the twin crises of militarism and environmental devastation. In the Pacific, where we authors are writing from, the public at large is increasingly recognizing the centrality of Indigenous knowledge as the basis of environmental stewardship to forge our collective future. But what is the role of non-Indigenous people in efforts for environmental and climate justice in the Pacific?

In this article we examine allyship in relation to the preservation and stewardship of the Earth through Indigenous self-determination. Rather than outlining how non-Indigenous people can fulfill responsibilities toward Indigenous people, we contend that while the notion of allyship played an important role in earlier movements to foreground the voices and expertise of Indigenous communities, the more contemporary use of the term “ally,” particularly “settler ally,” can potentially reinscribe differences rather than forge natural solidarities around environmental justice in the Pacific. Working within the racial logics of differentiation, reinforcing disconnection between different groups of people, the notion of allyship can also further create the impression that humans and the natural world are severable. We instead draw from Indigenous epistemologies that approach all humans and forms of life as kin, part of an interwoven genealogical web with shared responsibilities to mālama (to tend and care for, in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i) the natural life forces that sustain all of us. As such, it is imperative to foreground Indigenous people and movements as the keepers of the deep knowledge of the Earth’s cycles of life, healing, and regeneration. Oceanic justice encompasses this complex interdependence that is integral to Indigenous island societies working towards planetary wellbeing.

In order to talk about oceanic justice, we will focus on the Pacific anti-nuclear movement of the 1970–80s, which brought together Indigenous peoples from throughout the Pacific, East Asia, and Turtle Island, forging a broad-based coalition to protect planetary life from the ravages of nuclear proliferation. This history grounds our understanding in struggle as the basis of our consideration of the role of non-Indigenous people in movements that unite anticolonialism and environmental justice.

In April 1975, the Against Tests in Moruroa committee (ATOM) organized the Nuclear-Free Pacific conference in Suva, Fiji, and established a grassroots Pacific anti-nuclear network. At the Hawaiʻi meeting in 1980, delegates led by Maoris, Hawaiians, Tongans, Micronesians, and Australian Aboriginal people decided to add “Independent” to the Nuclear Free Pacific name (NFIP). They reasoned, “what good would it be to live in peace without justice, particularly for Indigenous people?” Everyone in the Pacific was threatened by nuclear weapons, from the Aboriginal people whose land was mined for uranium, exposing them to radiation, to the Micronesian archipelagos and Ma‘ohi Nui (so-called “French Polynesia”), where the U.S. and France tested hundreds of bombs that contaminated and radiated ancestral lands and ocean waters.

At the most basic level, nuclear disarmament was in everyone’s best interest.

Yet, when the bombing finally stopped, Pacific Islanders would be left with unjust hierarchical colonial societies with contaminated environments, poor economies, poor health, and stymied self-determination.

They directed their campaign at nuclear colonialism, which then anti-colonial revolutionary and later Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Walter Lini called “nuclearism” to emphasize the tight connection between the independence of Pacific nations and the end of nuclear testing. The NFIP meeting in Hawai‘i adopted a People’s Charter for the Nuclear-Free and Independent Pacific arguing that military invasion of Pacific Islands by Western imperial and colonial powers and environmental despoliation were two sides of the same coin. The Charter described “a strategy of warfare that has no winners, no liberators and imperils the survival of all humankind.” They sought to “wrest control over the destiny of our nations and our environment from foreign powers, including transnational corporations,” and “call for an immediate end to the oppression, exploitation and subordination of the Indigenous people of the Pacific.” Largely due to the organizing of the NFIP, Pacific Islanders achieved the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, also known as the Treaty of Rarotonga, that entered into force in 1986 and banned nuclear weapons from the South Pacific. The area spans the West Coast of Australia to the boundary of Latin America and from the equator to Antarctica.

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Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Aotearoa (New Zealand) in the 1980s. / Museum of New Zealand – Te Papa Tongarewa.

The NFIP movement’s success can be attributed to the brilliant and insistent leadership of Indigenous Pacific Islanders, including Roman Bedor of Belau, Hilda Halkyard Harawira of Aotearoa, Lopeti Senituli of Tonga, Noa Emmett Aluli of Hawai‘i, Hilda Lini of Vanuatu, and Aboriginal leader Shorty O’Neil. The NFIP networked across the Pacific, sharing experiences and successes, bringing the force of grassroots social movements to bear on individual governments to disengage from allyship with the United States and France. Pacific Rim organizations acknowledged, respected, and deferred to Indigenous leaders. For example, Gensuikin (Japan People’s Council against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs, an affiliate of the Japanese Socialist Party) funded the work of the NFIP movement rather than trying to do outreach and organizing in the Pacific Islands themselves. Their solidarity embraced the struggle of Pacific Islands’ peoples as part of their own struggle against nuclear destruction in Japan. This advanced oceanic justice as the antithesis of nuclearism through shared work to preserve life across the Pacific Ocean in the face of militarized devastation.

Enacting oceanic justice, NFIP also worked in concert with groups such as Greenpeace, who sailed the Rainbow Warrior to uplift anti-nuclear campaigns. In 1985 the vessel set off on the Pacific, first stopping at Rongelap to relocate residents suffering from the abuses of U.S. nuclear testing of the Marshall Islands. They then stopped in Vanuatu, where Walter Lini extended an official welcome to demonstrate support for Greenpeace’s stance against nuclear testing in favor of environmental protection. They then moored in Auckland, Aotearoa (New Zealand), planning to soon sail to Moruroa and directly confront the French over nuclear testing at the atoll. But late on the night of July 10, 1985, French Secret Service agents planted two bombs on the ship, killing Portuguese photographer Fernando Pereira. The largely North American and European Greenpeace volunteers, following their distinct form of direct action, risked their lives as they worked in concert with Pacific Islands political leaders to stop nuclear testing and stand in solidarity with Indigenous peoples.

To be an ally is to serve a person or group by providing support in an ongoing effort, activity, or struggle. It involves letting other people take the lead and standing in the background in order to uplift the voices of those on the frontlines. This was integral for the NFIP, as colonial and occupying powers often minimized and erased Indigenous Pacific Islanders as marginal, insignificant, and vanishing. Up until the NFIP, Indigenous Pacific Islanders were expected to subsume anti-colonial struggles under the struggle for world peace as allies of white peace and labor movements.

The 1980 conference in Hawaiʻi overturned that relationship, forcing the peace movement to acknowledge the primacy of decolonial struggles to change the balance of power on the issue of nuclear proliferation.

New and empowered Pacific Island governments, seated at the United Nations and strategically positioned within regional governmental organizations, could reject nuclear alliances. Allyship as a form of solidarity became an important position because it urged non-Indigenous people to take a different position: rather than standing in front of the movement, to take a step back to uplift Indigenous voices and struggles in accordance with Indigenous values and ways of organizing. If Indigenous Pacific Islanders needed to be involved in the anti-nuclear movement, then Indigenous leaders needed to lead. 

Yet, today allyship holds different resonance, particularly the more recent moniker of “settler ally.” We, as authors writing from Hawai‘i, come from different generations of organizers. Davianna McGregor, a Kanaka ʻŌiwi (Native Hawaiian), led demilitarization and anti-nuclear movements of the 1970s and 1980s, and remains active today, while Laurel Mei-Singh, a mixed Asian, was a college undergraduate on September 11, 2001 and the events that ensued spurred her to join antiwar mobilizations. Our conversations and collaborations offer us a panoramic view of organizing over the last fifty plus years from the vantage of different historical and familial genealogies.

We are alarmed by the recent shift in organizing that places an emphasis on the positionality of the individual at the expense of material struggle for lands, oceans, and livelihoods. 

 To be specific, in raising the primacy of Indigenous positionality and struggle, some community organizers, activists, and educators in Hawai‘i earnestly identify as “settlers,” “settler allies,” and “settler aloha ‘āina” (meaning settlers who love the land, that which nourishes). This denotes their commitment to uplifting Kanaka ʻŌiwi leadership in decolonization movements while denouncing their own family’s involvement in projects of assimilation and mobility that fail to acknowledge the history of the land upon which their family established themselves. They aim to illuminate and challenge how some non-Hawaiian Asians participate in and identify with aspirational projects that deny Native Hawaiian governance and lifeways. Implicit here is the class mobility of Asians in Hawai‘i, as many have attained a middle class life through capitalist and military institutions that have dispossessed Hawaiians. This discourse is largely the product of the Democratic Revolution of 1954 that sealed the power of the Democratic Party in Hawai‘i and thereby consolidated the rise of Hawai‘i’s Japanese elites in positions of political and economic power. An elite stratum of Japanese people, along with other Asians, continue to play a role in Hawai‘i today as powerbrokers contributing to the institutions and practices of settler colonialism.

As movements matured, many well-meaning non-Indigenous people, particularly Asians who benefited from the class and political mobility of recent decades, became hyper-conscious of their positionality as they grappled with their role in anticolonial efforts. In this context, the identity label of “Asian settler” and “settler ally” has become a mantra for some non-Indigenous peoples supporting Indigenous struggles.

The paradigm of allyship today rests largely on the assumption that oppression produces certain identity-based experiences, and those who hold privilege can never fully grasp the subjugation of others.

Therefore, the privileged must give up their role as primary actors to become allies who follow the lead of the oppressed. While well-intentioned, we identify the following risks associated with this framework as it plays out in contemporary organizing.

First, there is rarely a singular fixed identity-based group from whom to take guidance. For example, while many Native Hawaiian veterans’ critiques of the military draw from experiences waging war in other occupied territories on behalf of the United States, some others choose instead to partner with the U.S. military to advance military interests. In other instances, Indigenous leaders represent corporations in their advocacy work at the expense of the wellbeing of the poor and working class. The increasing co-optation of Indigenous leaders to work against the overarching interests of the community exemplifies one way that corporate and military interests exercise power both historically and in the present day.

Second, the foregrounding of individual positionality runs the risk of eclipsing the complex work of confronting shared problems. Calling oneself a “settler ally” can become a project in itself that involves identifying how one becomes a settler, the family histories that contributed to this positionality, and how one might undo the logics that one’s family has internalized. The project easily becomes about proclaiming positionality, rehearsing identity, and attempting to change the minds of elders, endeavors that can quickly zap energy from the painstaking work of decolonization and environmental justice.

It becomes a personalized identity project rather than about environmental and material transformations.

The problem isn’t with identifying as an ally, the problem is that this identity takes on a life of its own by setting apart people who are an integral part of an island society and culture. This not only distracts from common efforts for environmental justice, it can excuse non-Indigenous people from taking an actively engaged role side-by-side with Indigenous leaders.

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Greenpeace’s ship Rainbow Warrior in The Hague in May 1979. / Fotocollectie Anefo Reportage.

Third, allyship has in fact internalized the logics of warfare, casting humans as static sovereign nations, to paraphrase Ruth Wilson Gilmore, rather than recognizing the interdependence at the heart of anticolonial endeavors for independence. Nuclear colonialism, military occupation, and the extractive capitalism that both projects facilitate are fundamentally practices of atomisation–the cleaving to even the finest of particles. This ruptures and deforms the environment, splitting humans from the Earth and each other. Amid this landscape, we run the risk of situating ourselves within individualistic paradigms where those who identify as allies might see themselves as holding responsibility to “redeem” their families from the sin of acting as settlers. This overshadows the interconnectedness and interdependence at the heart of our ecological worlds and genealogies. In fact, genealogies of the Pacific have always relied on mixing and intimacy between cultures and people from different places.

In considering alternatives to allyship, we draw inspiration from Kanak independence leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou, who stressed interdependence as essential to independence. This challenging approach embraces our complex, beautiful, and messy webs of connectedness. It also opens pathways for capacious and creative strategies of creativity and experimentation through convergences rooted in our shared origins of the ocean that wraps around our planet. In the case of nuclear proliferation, for a non-Indigenous person to say that one is merely an ally to the cause and not directly affected would be wholly inaccurate because nuclear weapons wield deadly force to all forms of life while impacting the climate, undermining food security, and contributing to global warming and ocean acidification. Polynesian writer Epeli Hauʻofa encourages us to ground our identity not in nations or races, but in “something so vast as the sea” as an unconfined space of home, connection, and exploration.

While the protection of language and culture are distinctly Indigenous efforts, oceanic justice as the coalitional politics and strategies of environmental protection and stewardship based on the wisdom of island societies must be multi-faceted. It is a ripe moment to draw inspiration from the NFIP to scale up our movements from particular locales to internationalist struggle in our fight for shared waters and lands. This worldmaking predicated on the interdependence of all life forces must join disparate struggles, people, and places to crack open possibilities for a planet where all life can survive and thrive. ■