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Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence, and a New Emergence
Arbeiter Ring: Winnipeg, 2011
In recent years, the topic of reconciliation between Indigenous nations and the Canadian state has been hotly discussed. But what exactly does the word “reconciliation” mean?
So far, our government's answers have been efforts to supposedly hasten land claims processes for unceded territories, and public apologies such as the one Prime Minister Harper offered to survivors of residential schools in 2008, notably referring to the period as a “sad chapter” in national history. But the devastating inequalities still faced by Indigenous people in Canada's legal system, child welfare bureaucracy and social and economic structure raise many questions as to whether such acts have ushered in a new, reconciled relationship. In an age when government policies are still actively harming Indigenous people, is it believable that federal bureaucrats honestly wish for a mutually beneficial reconciliation? Or is the entire concept little more than a tool for whitewashing Canada's dishonorable treatment of First Nations, both past and present?
In Dancing on Our Turtle's Back, activist and scholar Leanne Simpson answers these questions and many others, proposing a definition of reconciliation that is radically different from any offered by the colonial state. Reconciliation, Simpson writes, must be rooted in the political and cultural resurgence of Indigenous peoples: restoring traditions, revitalizing family ties that have been ravaged by residential schools and neo-colonial child welfare policies, practicing sustainable stewardship of the land and building a future where new generations of Indigenous children can assert their identity and self-determination and live free, healthy and joyful lives.
Far from being dry, Simpson's writing is a vital, vibrant and ultimately life-affirming fusion of personal experience and academic analysis, collective narratives of the past and visions for the future. Many sections are directly transcribed from talks with Elders, whereas others, such as the chapter "Breastfeeding and Treaties," are explorations of what children and infants can teach adults about how to have equitable political relations with other people and be respectful of the natural world.
Using examples from her own Nishnaabeg culture, Simpson explains the diverse ways in which resistance, love, mobilization and equality are and always have been inherent to Indigenous lifestyles and philosophies. Traditional Nishnaabeg society, she writes, was defined by principles of non-authoritarian governance and leadership, respect, mutuality and constant progressive change. Even the Nishnaabeg language contains this essence of fluidity, using verbs in a greater capacity than it does nouns. These principles and government structures are not concepts that are lost, she explains, so much as they are concepts that need to be supported and strengthened.
Often speaking from the reference point of parenthood, Simpson places passionate emphasis on how important healthy family dynamics and traditional child-rearing practices are to the future of Indigenous resistance and well-being. To build a cultural and political resurgence, relationships between parents and children must be a microcosm of the larger social structure: non-hierarchical, non-violent, non-coercive and non-condescending. In this way, parenting can be one of the most politically transformative acts: children raised today with positive models of how to relate to others without dominance and coercion will be naturally responsible leaders of tomorrow's resurgence.
Simpson's narrative style is as much a testament to non-hierarchical philosophies as the actual content she explores. In an expressive style reminiscent of some of the most emblematic writers of feminist and Indigenist thought—from bell hooks to Subcomandante Marcos—Simpson defies constructed divisions between the personal and the political, the past and the present, the spiritual and the empirical. Dancing On Our Turtle's Back opens the door to a world where a woman's role as a mother, aunt or daughter is no less revolutionary and political than her role as a front-line activist; where age-old creation stories are no less relevant or critical than yesterday's parliamentary decisions; and where the opinions and thoughts of children are taken no less seriously than those of learned adults. These are fighting words as much as they are loving words, standing as a direct challenge to the empty consumerism, individualism and disconnection from each other and the environment so widely accepted as normal states of being in neo-colonial culture.
The resurgence of Indigenous nations, Simpson asserts, is something that must move “beyond resistance and survival” to a flourishing state of joy, strength and self-sufficiency—a centuries-old process that is and will continue to be carried out with or without the acknowledgment of non-Indigenous social movement theory, the popular support of Canadians or the respect and permission of the settler government.
Kelly Pflug-Back is a writer, poet and activist in Toronto. Check her out at www.kellypflugback.wordpress.com.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.