The Misery of Settler Colonialism: Roundtable on Glen Coulthard's Red Skin, White Masks and Audra Simpson's Mohawk Interruptus

American Studies Association Annual Meeting
October 8, 2015

Aaniin Kina Wiya, Segoh

I’m so very honoured to be on this panel in Chi Aangiikeyang, which is the name my people, the Mississauga Nishnaabeg, have for Toronto. I’m also very grateful to be on this panel and for the opportunity to engage in the consideration of RSWM and MI together because they are both groundbreaking interventions in their own right, and there is an interesting synergy between these two minds and therefore between these two works. Both Glen and Audra have very clearly demonstrated Indigenous excellence in not only their chosen fields but within the collective intelligence of their respective Indigenous nations.

So to begin with I say Niawen kowa/Mahsi Cho to Audra and Glen for the sacrifice, the bravery, the worry, the fierceness, the confidence and the sheer intellectual labour of resistance that dances off of each these pages. I come out of your books a better Anishinaabe person, and to me that’s the ultimate test of excellence in Indigenous thought and writing.

Both of these works have been taken up in extensively in the academy particularly in Indigenous Studies and I also want to point out that the front covers of both have images from the Idle No More movement. This makes complete sense to me because I see a tremendous potential for these two works to carry weight and influence both inside and outside the academy. That’s far too rare, but crucial for Indigenous peoples because not all of us have the privilege of thinking through the insidious and ubiquitous nature of settler taken up colonialism and it’s strangulation to use Audra’s word, of our bodies, minds and nations, primarily because we are being strangled by it and basic survival necessarily, comes first.

And so while each of these books yield a tremendous responsibility to academics in the transformation of the fields of Anthropology, Political Science and Theory, & Indigenous Studies, from colonizing entrenchment to decolonial practices, they also make crucial interventions on the ground in terms of Indigenous struggle and how we chose to frame the issues we respond to and mobilization around. Red Skin White Masks does this through its meticulous discussion of recognition, reconciliation, resentment and the example of the Dene nation and Mohawk Interuptus accomplishes this through its discussion of refusal with extensive examples from the Mohawk nation of Kahnawake.

The aftermath of the Idle No More movement clearly demonstrates that the ways we are organizing and mobilizing are simply not working. Those of us involved in the movement learned very acutely that we desperately need different strategies and approaches to movement building because the state’s infrastructure of surveillance, of the policing and the criminalization of dissent, the entrenchment of the mass media in a parroting function rather than a critical or analytical one, and the use of policy and negotiation as a mechanism to neutralize resistance has simple caught up to and I’d argue surpass what we can achieve with our current set of tools whether it’s through the normal strategies of direct action or the normal tools of democratic protest. Yet, it is clear to many of us and evidenced in history, that mass mobilization is the only mechanism through which we can bring about the significant transformation we need to spark in Canada in order to ensure that our children will be able to live on their lands as Indigenous peoples.

As a starting point, both RSWM and MI are crucial interventions into how we account, frame and tell the truths of the political and cultural lives of Indigenous peoples that moves away from a constriction of our intelligence within the confines of western thought and the dumbing down of the issues for the non-Indigenous outside and takes a meticulous, critical, robust and layered approach that accurately contextualizes and reflects the lives and the thinking of Indigenous peoples on our own terms. As an example, Audra re-embeds membership issues into a living Haudenosaune matrix of relatedness and tension over membership and belonging in Kahnawake, by naming the root: fear of disappearance - a basic, terrifying, omnipresent reality of being Indigenous and particularly of being an Indigenous woman or queer person and occupied by Canada. She re-embeds belonging in a productive place of refusal, which I read as a spectacular animation of Mohawk theory as Mohawk life and Mohawk land, a productive place of refusal is one that generates grounded normativity, to use Glen’s term. If we mobilize around “fear of disappearance” rather than encoding that fear into policy in the form of a membership code, what does that mobilization look like? What happens when we build movements that refuse colonial recognition as a starting point and turn inwards building a politics of refusal that isn’t just productive, but that is generative – you get things like the Dene Declaration, you get things like the Iroquois Nationals refusing to participate in the World Lacrosse League Championship tournament in Manchester because the UK refused to recognize their sovereignty.

At this point, one of the biggest out come of the Idle No More movement has been an increased interest in Canadian electoral politics. That’s heartbreaking to me, as someone who dedicated a significant amount of time and energy to that movement during the fall of 2012 and the winter of 2013. At the time, there was a diversity of organizing under the umbrella of Idle No More – everything from resurgent-based organizing focused on sovereignty and nation building to very recognition based organizing focusing on state legislation. There was Chief Theresa Spence’s ultimate act of refusal that was then co-opted by the male Indian Act Chiefs into an ultimate act of seeking recognition, which was by all accounts, how the state brought down the movement. Again. This continual pattern of the gutting of mass mobilization by royal commissions, national inquiries, or this time, the promise of a couple of “high level meetings”, is not a trick we can continually fall for and RSWM clearly outlines why. Here we are two years later, with the components of the movement that were begging for colonial recognition continuing to act out that approach by appealing to the moral compass of Canadians to act on the social ills that plague “the poor Indigenous peoples”, a foster parent’s plan approach to organizing. Attention is now focused on facilitating change through voting or running for office, which seems so ridiculous to me it matters how change is achieved. Movement building is a productive or generative politics of refusal when we are building and reinvigorating and embodying and amplifying our instance of acting as peoples who belong to specific Indigenous nations. We are creating the alternative on the ground and in real time. You can sign a petition and stage a demonstration because you don’t want a Canadian passport or you can make your own passports and travel on them. No one is going to give you tenure or pay your rent or stroke your ego or give you a medal at the World Lacrosse League Championship for creating the alternative on the ground and real time, and that’s why we have to do it.

Building movements that reject the politics of recognition and centre generative refusal inherently create bodies more connected to each other, the land, and that act out, through relationality, Indigenous thought. They inherently amplify grounded normativity, which is the basis of Indigenous political existence. In a sense both books asked the same question to me as a reader: What the best way to ensure we do not disappear as unique distinctive Indigenous peoples and placed-embedded nations? Or asked another way how do I live free in this Indigenous body? Or asked another way, how do I live in a way, as an individual and as part of a collective that ensures I recognize my great great great grandchildren as Indigenous peoples?

My favorite part of Audra’s book, the part I’ve thought the most deeply about is a tiny moment shared between two Mohawk nationals in a bar in Greenwich Village. The researcher, Audra, asks her interviewee “What is the ideal form of membership for us? What do you think makes someone a member of the community?” (p.168) He looks her squarely in the eye, and doesn’t answer. Instead he says, “When you look in the mirror, what do you see?”


When I look into the mirror, what do I see? How do I recognize myself as an Michi Saagiig Nishnaabekwe? Do my ancestors recognize me as one of their own? How does Audra, as a Mohawk woman recognize me as a Mississauga Nishnaabeg woman? How are we related? When I am hunting does the spirit of the moose see me and recognize me in the same way she recognized my Ancestors? Does the moose see me as someone who is seeking their consent through my offerings, prayers and practices to harvest their body so that my family can live? Does that moose see me as someone who is engaging with them in the relational terms set out in our diplomacy? Do they feel respected and that they have sovereignty and agency over the act of harvesting? Or have my actions made them feel like a resource? Do they see me as the enemy? Do they feel exploited? Unseen? Unrecognized? Hunted?

What do I see when I look in the mirror?

What does my nation see when we look in the mirror?

Let’s talk about how relationality plays out in Indigenous contexts. Part of being in a meaningful relationship with another being is recognizing who they are, it is reflecting back to them, their essence and worth as a being, it is a mirroring. Positive mirroring creates positive identities, it creates strong, grounded individuals and families and nations within Indigenous political systems. So at the same time I am looking into the mirror, I am also am the mirror. What do I mirror back to my kin? Dysfunction? Criticism? Cynicism? What do this two books mirror back to Dene and Haudenosaunee peoples? That’s easy – they mirror back strength, pride, connection, beauty, love, fierceness, courage, bravery and the very best parts of being Dene or Haudenosaunee.

I started my talk today by saying the word Aaniin, which is a way of saying hello that is common for Mississauga Nishnaabeg people to use. I spent some time with my Elder Doug Williams from Curve Lake First Nation last week, sitting around a fire talking about Anishinaabeg conceptualizations of recognition. We talked about the word Aaniin. He told me the Ah sound place us in a spiritual context, in the context of the Anishinaabe universe. The Ni is “a taking notice as sound”. When put together, he understands the word to be asking how do you see yourself in all of this? Or put another way, taking in all the thought and feeling of your journey in the universe how do you see or recognize yourself?

This conversation was really sparked by RSWM because Glen made me think a lot about recognition with inside Anishinaabeg thought. My 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 morning, 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 internal 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 relationships of deep reciprocity. Our bodies only exist in relation to Indigenous complex, 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, emergent reciprocity.

In our language, Basil Johnson uses the term Maa maa ya wen du moowin to means the process or the art of recognizing, of understanding of fully comprehending, of being aware, cognizant and enlightened, literally it means the blending of all thoughts and feelings into recognizing another being . When I took this word to Doug, he talked about the wendamoowin part meaning “what is your thought process as you move through life?” He talked about the first maa in maa maa ya meaning “it’s in my heart” He made a distinction between Baamaaya, meaning searching for recognition and maamaaya – have it, finding, fully understanding yourself or another being.

I want to think about that for a minute. Recognition within Anishinaabeg intelligence is a process of seeing another being’s core essence, it is a series of relationships. It is reciprocal, continual and a way of generating society. It amplifies Anishinaabewin- all of the practices and intelligence that makes us Anishinaabeg. It cognitively reverses the violence of dispossession, because what’s the opposite of dispossession in Indigenous thought again? Not possession because we’re not suppose to be capitalists, but connection– a coded layering of intimate interconnection and interdependence that creates a complicated algorithmic network of presence, reciprocity, consent, & freedom.

When another Native person recognizes and reflects back to me my Nishnaabe essence, when we interact with each other in an Nishnaabeg way, my Indigeniety deepens. When my Indigeniety grows I fall more in unconditional love with my homeland, my family, my culture, my language, more in line with the idea that resurgence is my original instruction, more inline 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.

One of the things about Indigenous movements in Canada is that the state actually has to do very little to bring them down and they’ve figured this out. Basically, if you wait long enough, Indigenous movements will bring down themselves through in fighting. Go check twitter from the late winter of 2013. When the Indian Act Chiefs disappeared Theresa Spence’s generative space of refusal, by engaging in recognition politics, they facilitated the collapse of the movement. And because we had no internal process of Maa maa ya waendumoowin, because Idle No More was not a movement that thoroughly embraced the generative politics of refusal, because we were not tightly connected to each other in bonds of trust, the pain of that betrayal was too much for us to survive and we ended up replicating it within our communities in micro and macro ways. Because we weren’t significantly engaged in Indigenous reciprocal recognition that has been such a key component of Indigenous mobilizations in the past. Pontiac walk around for several years visiting, building relationships of trust, recognizing and affirming the bodies and minds that would make up his mobilization, expanding the base, conversing with and acknowledging people in the most acutely difficult positions of colonialism. Nurturing leadership.

What then happens if 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? Why have we not used RSWM and MI to ask these questions?

Let’s go back to this idea of mirroring. Right now, to a great degree in Indigenous life we are looking into the colonizers mirror and that mirror is reflecting back that we are shameful, that we are not good enough, that we are not smart, or successful or rich enough or white enough or Canadian enough or together enough to organize. And much, much worse if we are Indigenous women.

Why is the colonizer the mirror? Because the colonizer will always reflect back to me what the state wants to see: An Aboriginal that shops at the gap, votes in the election, skips happily to Revenue Canada on income tax day, perhaps knows her language and participates in a ceremony instead of church on Sunday, perhaps even attends a vigil for MMIW, because wow, those poor Indigenous peoples just can’t get their shit together. But they certainly do not reflect back anything that has to do with land, sovereignty or my power as an Anishinaabekwe.

Yet, collectively we still keep looking and begging, and educating and appealing to the morality of benevolent Canada. If only they knew better.

Look where that has got us.

Fuck benevolence and fuck misery.

Let’s take the brilliance of RSWM and MI, and the Indigenous excellence of these two scholars and use it the way I believe these two intended, to build a generation of Indigenous nationals from varies Indigenous nations who think and act from within side their own intelligence systems, who generate viable Indigenous political systems, who are so in love with their land, they are the land, who simply refuse to stop being themselves, who refuse to let go of this knowledge and who use that refusal as a site to generate another generation who enact that with every breath, birth, political engagement and in every moment of their daily existence.

Let’s use the intelligence of RSWM and MI to create a future that never has to ask how do I live free, because they’ve never known anything else.


Red Skin White Masks

Mohawk Interruptus