Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
NAISA Paper Presentation, Washington, DC
June 6, 2015.
I’m so honoured to be here at NAISA and on this panel today. I approach Indigenous academic writing first as a Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg person – that is, I try to pay less attention to my critical academic brain, and more attention to the part of my brain that connects to particular concepts as a mechanism of expanding my own thinking. So I want to focus my presentation today on the aspects of Red Skin White Masks that spoke to me as an Nishnaabeg person and that deepening my thinking in the field of resurgence.
One of the observations that has been made about the Red Skin White Masks (RSWM) is that it isn’t the most accessible academic book ever written. I’ve asked Glen about that on a few different occasions, and his responses have ranged from “I have no idea what people are talking about, it is completely accessible to me” to “I wrote it deliberately to speak to a segment of society that uses a particular language to justify policies of domination, exploitation and extermination towards us as Indigenous peoples”. Both of which seem to ring true. In one way or another, especially if our work is rooted in the politic of “dene communist battling white stupid” having the core concepts of our work resonate with our own people, even when our work challenges our collective responses to our circumstance is important to us as Indigenous academics, for many of us, it is part of our responsibilities.
It is too rare that we as a community of Indigenous intellectuals get to spend time with each other in our communities on the land, we’re mostly together in the ivory tower scheming to take down the ivory tower without getting crushed in the fall or we are connecting with each other in hotel conference rooms scheming to survive the institutions we find ourselves in.
I’ve been fortunate to witness Glen sharing this book with his people in his homeland, Chief DryGeese Territory of the Akaicho region of Denendeh. I’ve seen him explain this work in a language and a manner that is fundamentally Dene – gentle and tough, careful and expansive, and riding a current of profound love, to uncles and cousins, Elders, hunters, Dene theorists, political leaders from the 1970s and current Chiefs and Councils, and my favorite – a group of young Dene feminists. I’ve watched his people connect with the concepts of recognition, resentment, and the pitfalls of reconciliation, as the live out as best they can the grounded normativity he articulates in Red Skin White Masks in a deeply meaningful way. At its root, this book is in part reflective of their history, their resistance, their mobilizations, their reality and their way of life. In essence, they recognize themselves and their experiences in this book. Red Skin White Masks is a Dene scholar reflecting and recognizing his community and nation while naming very clearly the processes of domination and extermination that they have so fiercely resisted in the past century. There are parts of this book that are a moving honour song to the strategic political organizing and the beautiful rebellion of the Dene nation. This kind of recognition is far too rare within our own communities, yet it is critical in terms of breaking out of the bonds of negative interpellation. I understand Indigenous collective self-recognition as resurgence because RSWM strengthens us. I see that reflected in the Dene nation when I hear Dene responses to RSWM that range from:
“You’re right. You got it right. That’s what happened.”
“Mahsi Cho for saying that women are equal to men and that feminism is important”
“You’re right! It wasn’t communist white people from Toronto, it was us, and a flip chart”.
Having spent time in Glen’s homeland none of this is surprising, because the impetus for writing this book to me is very clear – the fire in these pages is founded upon and propelled by a tremendous love of land, love of people and love of dene intelligence – whether that is hunting, making dry fish, scrapping moose hides, storytelling or visiting with aunties in Dettah. RSWM holds Dene people up, and to me, watching how this work has been greeted in Denendeh, I’ve learned how important it is that our work as Indigenous scholars leaves our communities and nations in better shape than when we started, and how important it is to hold our peoples up as the brilliant, tough, loving, revolutionaries we are, even when we are telling our most brutal and horrible truths, even when we are using big ten dollar words.
The most critical test of our work is how it validates, clarifies, challenges, inspires and confounds our own communities (and last year we were incredibly lucky to have not just RSWM but also Audra Simpson’s Mohawk Interuptus do this in a wonderful way as well).
This kind of Indigenous collective self-recognition is a core place-based practice, it’s a core living concept of Dene and Nishnaabeg grounded normativity. Nishnaabeg people recognize through song, when spirits enter our lodges and ceremonies. We recognize our family members who have passed on to the Spirit World through particular ceremonies. We recognize and greet the sun every more, and the moon each night through prayer and ceremony. We recognize when particular animals return to our territory in the spring, and when plants and medicines reappear after winter rests. Recognition for us is about presence, about profound listening and about recognizing and affirming the light in each other, as a mechanism for nurturing and strengthening relationships to our Nishnaabeg worlds. It is a core part of our political systems because they are rooted in our bodies and our bodies are not just informed by but created and maintained by complex coded networked relationships of deep reciprocity. Our bodies only exist in relation to non-linear constructions of time, space, and place which are continually rebirthed through the practice and often coded recognition of obligations and responsibilities within a nest of diversity, freedom, consent, non-interference and a generated, proportional, emergence and deep reciprocity.
Indigenous internal self-recognition is a core building block of resurgent struggle because it is the mechanism through which we reproduce and amplify Indigeneity. When another Native person recognizes and reflects back to me my Nishnaabe essence, when we interact with each other in an Nishnaabeg way, my Indigeneity deepens. When my Indigeneity grows I fall more in love with my homeland, my family, my culture, my language, more in line with the idea that resurgence is my original instruction, more in line with the thousands of stories that demonstrate how to live a meaningful life and I have more emotional capital to fight and protect what is meaningful to me. I am a bigger threat to the Canadian state and it’s plans to build pipelines across my body, clear cut my forests, contaminant my lakes with toxic cottages and chemicals and make my body a site of continual sexualized violence.
What if we collectively and fully reject the politics of recognition in politics with the Canadian state? What if we collectively and fully reject the politics of recognition in our mobilizations and organizing? What happens when we fully reject the politics of recognition in education? Where do I beg the colonizer for recognition in my own life? Why?
One of the things I thought a lot about reading RSWM was gender I think many of us would agree that we are still doing a poor job of taking on gender issues in Indigenous Studies and I’d include my own work and myself in that critique. I’d want to acknowledge Glen for addressing gender in this book to the degree that he did and for amplifying the voices of Indigenous feminists because they are only a handful of Indigenous cis male scholars that allow themselves to be challenged and transformed by Indigenous feminisms and 2SQ brilliance. I’d also like to acknowledge, as Glen does in the book, the influence of Indigenous women on his scholarship and this book, and to acknowledge of course that women and 2SQ people have been saying these same things forever.
I agree with Glen that we need to take gender into consideration in all of our decolonizing endeavors right now whether that is research, writing, teaching or movement building, because strategic state instigated gender violence and settler citizen carried out gender violence has been and is a catastrophic, on-going and key force in our dispossession, and we simply cannot build strong Indigenous nations until we can figure out how to cherish all the bodies that belong to and hold our nations. If we chose to continue to replicate this violence on the ground and in our scholarship, we truncate our ability to be self-determining peoples according to our own political traditions.
Collectively we’ve now made a clear and important case for patriarchy as a dispossessing force under colonialism, I worry that analysis regarding patriarchal relations between cis gendered men and women is too narrow a frame because it fails to take into account colonial constructions of gender, sex, sexual orientation and relationship orientation and how this is used as a violent and strategic dispossessing force, removing bodies from the land. I’m grateful for the opportunity this book provided me in terms of thinking this through.
In a previous draft of this paper, Sarah Hunt pointed out that land and dispossession are not the only things that matter in Indigenous politics – the ongoing marginalization and violence towards 2SQ and gender-noncomforming people is enough to make this a key site of transformation, because of our responsibility to care for all our relations, not only because of how this relates to strengthening our struggles for land and self-determination. We cannot continue to afford this gendered hierarchy within our activism and scholarship that places land as more legitimate and important political work (often done by male Indigenous scholars and leaders) and then ignore work of Indigenous women and the 2SQ community around bodies or position it as less important. One of my Indigenous Governance students at the University of Victoria, Geraldine King said to me in class “we have to talk about bodies when we talk about dispossession because dispossession is about breaking the relationship between bodies and land. Dispossession is removing bodies from land”. And as Daniel Heath Justice recently reminded me if we don’t decolonize our bodies, minds and relationships to each other, when we do get our land back, all we will do is destroy ourselves on it.
Heteropatriarchy places cis-gender heterosexual men and their bodies, their politics and their ideas at the top of the social hierarchy. It then normalizes and replicates this hierarchy in all aspects of Indigenous societies, especially in our most intimate spaces – in ceremony, in our relationships, in our families. This is supported and maintained by the state through the Indian Act, Indian policy and the infiltration of Indigenous thoughts systems as a key mechanism to destroy the building blocks of Indigenous political systems and replaces them with the building blocks of state nationalism, capitalism and settler subjectivity.
For me, it is extremely important to look inside Nishnaabeg intelligence systems for alternative interpretations of our philosophies, stories and traditions that move away from dogmatic approaches used to exclude people. We can’t get tricked by dogma, we are more complicated than that.
Mississauga Nishnaabeg political systems embody basic values and tenets that are practiced within individuals and then amplified across orders of magnitude to govern families, communities, nations and international relations. These core values include individual freedom and self-determination, consent, proportionality, reciprocity, non-interference and a profound respect for diversity and self-determination and are rooted in several places within Nishnaabeg intelligence from our creations stories, to our seven ancestor teachings, to our clan teachings and naming ceremonies and to our on the land practices to our basic political tenets and processes. These are practiced in relationships of gentleness, empathy and compassion and generosity. And since Nishnaabeg society is profoundly spiritual in nature with these practices playing out not just in the physical realm but also in the realms of creation both above, below and surrounding the physical earth.
These foundational concepts create an ontological understanding of the world where individuals are not just tolerated, but honoured and celebrated. Different ways of doing things are reflected through embodied ways of living reflecting the diversity of the natural world and an expression of a relationship with the spirit world that was not to be interfered with. These are seen as a strength and asset to the collective.
Difference, not hierarchy, is normalized.
This in turn creates gender variance that fostered a fluidity around the responsibilities and obligations of family and community life based on an individual’s gifts, aspirations, abilities and desires. Similarly, it created variations around sexual orientations and relationship orientations. These practices resulted in a fluidity around gender that was normalized within non nuclear families and provided space for all genders and a variety of expressions of gender, and sexual orientations. It generates a society of individuals who are living as their best selves, creating a society that continually reproduces Indigeneity, bringing forth more of every kind of life, bringing forth continuous rebirth.
Individuals operating at their very best, create societies operating at their very best. Of course there are dogmatic ways of interpreting Nishnaabeg philosophies that are counter to what I’m saying, but I believe there is not just room for everyone in the circle, but that our circle is not complete and functional without everyone present, in fact the circle cannot be in motion if it is not complete. I often find that the duality present in so many Indigenous intelligence systems is misinterpreted as a binary – day versus night. In reality, every second of every day has a different level of light because the entire system is in motion. Complex, networked systems of emergence thrive on diversity. Even scientists know that.
Our political systems cannot operate without all the communities that make up our nations, because excluded bodies means excluded relationships and excluded knowledge and excluded connection. When we adopt and invoke colonial hierarchies in our lives, we fundamentally change the relationships we are in and the people we are. I can’t help but think we become unrecognizable to our ancestors.
Excluded bodies eliminate part of our intelligence – some of our cherished people can no longer fulfill their reciprocal responsibilities to the collective. As academics this should appall us. Heteronormativity and heteropatriarchy encoded in the Indian Act and Indian policy and now infecting our community norms eliminates particular political leaders, families, medicine people, and bodies of knowledge from Indigenous nations. Replicated heteropatriarchy continues to expel some of our best minds and hearts from our communities whether they are reserves or in the city.
In a conversation with Neyonawak Inniwak academic Alex Wilson, the two of us began discussing words in our languages that described relationships outside of heteronormativity. While I could think of lots of words to describe trans-gendered people and queer relationships, I had never come across a word for “queer”. Alex agreed, because she reminded me, we weren’t “queer”, we were normal. Many of our societies normalized gender variance, variance in sexual orientation and all different kinds of relationships as long as they were consistent with our basic values of consent, transparency, respect and reciprocity. We weren’t “queer” until settlers came into our communities and positioned the “queer” parts of our relationships and societies as defiant, abnormal and sinful. This is in part why we’ve never fit seamlessly into Queer Theory or the mainstream LGBT movement. It isn’t just about discrimination for Queer Indigenous peoples. Heteropatriarchy, heteronormativity and cis-normativity (and Billy Ray Belcourt’s work is brilliant and instructive here) attack the fabric of Indigenous political traditions and in asymmetrical ways it impacts all genders in Indigenous nations.
Chris Finley has taught me a lot about how heteropatriarchy also impacts cis-gender men and women by shrinking Indigenous “masculinity” into the confines of white masculinity so that Indigenous men can continue to infect our families with patriarchy and domestic violence . Heteronormativity also restricts Indigenous “femininity” into the confines of white femininity (and our liberation in the context of white feminism) so that we can be more easily controlled through the policing of our bodies and sexuality by settler society. Transgendered people continue to experience the most brutal forms of oppression as a mechanism to disappear them all together. When gender becomes so restrictive that our individual light cannot shine through the rigidity of those binaries, and when we replicate the hierarchy and exploitative power needed to reproduce colonialism we become vessels that reproduce violence instead of Indigeneity. We become assimilated settler subjects that pose little threat to the dispossessing forces of colonialism.
Indigenous masculinities were deliberately targeted in order to make Indigenous men into vessels that would forcefully uphold gender hierarchies and so they could become vehicles through which to deliver the violence of colonial gender violence into our communities without white heterosexual cis-men doing anything at all.
Gender variance and fluidity is seen by the settler state as an extreme threat to the kind of consolidated state control that is required for assimilation and the effective and continual dispossession of Indigenous bodies from Indigenous land. Indigenous families in all forms are the main cite for the modeling, teaching and practice of Indigenous political traditions and governance and they therefore reproduce Indigeneity and Indigenous nationhood in all forms.
The heteronormative nuclear family is too isolated from the larger community to effectively reproduce Indigenous governance, economy, social relationships and to educate children in an attached, self determining manner. Further, the state requires the heteronormative nuclear family as a site to teach, maintain and practice the hierarchical relations that are needed to reproduce settler colonialism and capitalism.
State domination manifests itself most effectively when societies are homogenous and static, and when colonial hierarchy is normalized, and so the assimilation of a diverse and fluid nation-based Indigeneity becomes a critical vehicle for control.
To destroy political systems based on grounded normativity, intense relationality and deep reciprocity, colonizers have to destroy bodies and families and so Indigenous conceptualizations of gender were violently replaced with one gender system for all “Indians” under federal socio-legal norms. Diversity disappeared.
Residential schools separate Indigenous children into boys and girls. They violently reinforced a heteronormative performance of heterosexual boy versus heterosexual girl, while positioning men as more important than women and by disappearing any other gender formations. I just read 94 recommendations in the Truth & Reconciliation report and none of them spoke to this.
The Indian Act did the same – men versus women with women being less than men, and disappearing gender formations outside of the colonial gender binaries, relationship orientations or permitted sexual orientations.
The Jesuits went further. Metis Elder and writer Maria Campbell is doing some incredible research right now that documents public gatherings held by Jesuits for Indigenous men to learn how to beat Indigenous women and children. This was done strategically and deliberately, because the Jesuits were having a difficult time breaking the power and influence Algonquin women held in their communities. They needed to reconstruct the masculinity of Indigenous men to mirror that of white heterosexual men by including an authoritarian power over Indigenous women and children as a mechanism for controlling Indigenous women and eliminating 2SQ Indigenous people. They needed the violence of heteropatriarchy to break Indigenous nations and they needed Indigenous men to work with them in collusion to break women and 2SQ people in their communities for the purpose of destroying the intimate connections that construct and maintain Indigenous nationhood.
This is reproduced all the time in the exclusion of 2SQ people from virtually all areas of Indigenous scholarship other than those focused explicitly on 2SQ issues. In terms of solutions, simply adding 2SQ people to the list of marginalized groups isn’t enough — we need to re-conceptualize colonial power to account for heteropatriarchy as a key structural component of setter colonialism.
The 2SQ community is a site of powerful resistance, decolonization and resurgence. 2SQ people have been building community and reconstructing nationhoods amongst themselves for centuries, revitalizing language around gender and sexual diversity from their Elders and cultures in the face of broad exclusion from what is considered the realm of Indigenous politics. There is great strength and intelligence here. Despite ongoing violence in many forms, Two-Spirit, trans and gender non-conforming people have many insights in to how colonial power operates precisely because of their position outside the realm of possibility in colonial ontologies, and this community, particularly the brilliant youth, have powerful visions for decolonized nationhoods that are Indigenous at their core.
Movements around nationhood without these issues at their core are stunted.
Our bodies are our instruments and our weapons. They are the centre, the hub, the ode/heart of our self determination, freedom and nationhood because every single meaningful relationship and physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual attachment flows through our bodies and joins us to our home and our overlapping algorithmic networked system of intelligence.
It is through our bodies, as relationship bundles, that we reproduce, amplify and celebrate Indigeneity.
Attacking Indigenous bodies, the flesh that houses and reproduces the hubs of Indigenous intelligence networks, is strategic and effective in weakening Indigenous attachments to our homelands, in destroying our capacity to reproduce Indigeneity and therefore makes it much easier physically remove Indigenous bodies form the land. Traumatized in this way, it is impossible to maintain healthy families and muster the emotional capital required to organize and resist.
This is part of a long history of white men working strategically and persistently to make allies out of heterosexual Indigenous men, with clear rewards for those that come into white masculinity imbued with heteropatriarchy and violence, in order to infiltrate our communities and nations with heteropatriarchy and then to replicate it through the generations, with the purpose of destroying our nations and gaining easy access to our land. When Indigenous men engage in gender violence or are silent in the face of ongoing gender violence, they are working in collusion with white men and on behalf of the settler colonial state to further destroy Indigenous nationhood. They are traitors to both Indigenous nationhood and resurgence and it is time to destroy that allyship.