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.

Mei Singh An Mcgregor Funambulist 3
“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.