Aambe! Maajaadaa! (What #IdleNoMore Means to Me)
A few weeks ago, I went with Wii-Kendimiing Nishnaabemowin Saswaansing, a group of Nishnaabeg families committed to language learning, culture and the arts to do a Feast of the Dead ceremony at the Serpent Mounds, on the north shore of Rice Lake. Hiawatha First Nation acts as the caretaker of this sacred place, and because the area has been closed for renovations for a number of years, I asked my fellow Mississauga Anishinaabeg for permission to hold the ceremony on our lands. They were happy to have us.
On the morning of the ceremony, we drove our cars to the site. I pulled off the highway into a small gravel parking lot outside of the locked gates. I was immediately met by an angry white man who bounded towards my carload of children, banged on the window and aggressively demanded I move my car. I agreed and parked on the side of the road. The man then proceeded to call the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) and report our group of young families for trespassing. An hour later, in the middle of the ceremony, a young white OPP officer burst into the ceremony with her hand on her gun. She greeted me with a loud “so I guess you can’t read”, referring to the signs posted on the front gate indicating the site was closed. Luckily, she had an officer from Hiawatha First Nation with her, whom we knew. Our Elder spoke directly to him and the other officer immediately backed off.
Unfortunately this was not an isolated incident. In the last year alone, I have had settlers approach my family while we are harvesting rice, picking cedar, picking medicines, fishing, and finding rocks for our sweats. These interactions have yet to be friendly. Most of the time they are aggressive and racist. In all the incidences, there is an underlying assumption that I shouldn’t be here in Kina Gchi Nishnaabeg-ogaming, in my territory. Being on the land, living as an Nishnaabekwe and doing things that connect my children to the land is seen as an aggressive act.
For me, living as a Nishnaabekwe is a deliberate act – a direct act of resurgence, a direct act of sovereignty.
On our way home from the Serpent Mounds, my seven year old daughter asked me why the police would want to try and make us feel badly about doing our ceremony. I relished in the fact that she said “try”. We talked about what might have motivated the police officer to make us feel ashamed and then we talked about all the other wonderful things that had happened that day. The friends we were with. The songs we sang. The food we shared. Our responsibilities to our land. I thought of all the Elders I know who have had their lodges burned down. I thought of all the Mississauga stories Elder Doug Williams tells about evading conservation officers back in the day when we didn’t have treaty rights – an 89 year period that tentatively ended this October. I thought of all of our people that have been criminalized, harassed and pushed off our lands to make room for lift locks, cottages, and more. I thought of all the people that stood firm, grounded in our traditions and in our responsibility to be here, in our territory, on our land.
Last Sunday, I left my Mississauga Nishnaabeg territory to travel to Omamíwínini territory to offer my support and solidarity to the Mushkego nation and one of their leaders, as many other fellow Anishinaabeg have done before me. I prayed for her by the Sacred Fire. I sang to her. Those gathered around the shkode – Elders, Chiefs and her supporters reminded me of visiting around the fire before a sweat. There were lots of jokes. There was lots of laughter. But there was also an underlying sense of urgency. When I asked her helper what they needed she said, “more political pressure.”
The day Chief Spence began her fast I felt my chest clench with heaviness. But visiting her camp, I felt calm because I understood this act not so much an act against Harper, but as a selfless act of bravery and sacrifice for our nations and our children. Ogichidaakwe Spence is giving us a very important gift. Her fast is a painful, horrible process for Indigenous Peoples to witness. I can’t imagine the pain of her children, her family, her community and the Mushkego nation. But it is also a deeply spiritual act. Her strength comes from an unconditional love of her land and her people. It comes from our medicines, our Elders, the support of Pipe Carriers, Songs, Jingle Dress Dances, ceremony and she is reminding us to do the same. She is showing us the way forward. She is teaching us about caring for each other. She is living out a fantastic story of resistance that will be recorded in our oral traditions and retold to generations yet to come – one that can also be transformed into nation-based resurgence. To bear witness to this profound ceremonial act, we also have to light and maintain our own spiritual fires.
Our Ogichidaakwe is not telling us about how to be a good leader, she is showing us – as are the two other hunger strikers, Raymond Robinson of Pimicikamik Cree Nation and seventy-two year old Emil Bell of Canoe Lake. As my Nokomis Edna says, “they are wearing their teachings.”
If you go out into a part of the bush you haven’t been before with an Elder, the Elder will often get you to stop on the trail and look back. This is done so that if you get lost or separated, you’ll know the way back home. By “looking back” the hope is that one learns to recognize features of the specific and intricate features of the landscape. The path looks completely different on the way home because there is a different set of visual cues. “Looking back” is something that is done to keep us safe and independent and literally connected to the landscape.
Our Ancestors were very astute at reading landscapes. So let’s recognize the value of this technique and apply this technique to the Canadian political landscape. Let’s stop and take a look around and focus on those visual cues, not what settler governments are saying, but the evidence of what they’ve done. When I do this, I see that Bill C-45 isn’t an isolated incident. Canadian environmental legislation was gutted in the first omnibus bill and barely anyone noticed. We have known this was coming since Harper was elected and Flanagan proved so influential to him in First Nations issues. Bill C-45 is not a blip on the political landscape. It is just one part of a much larger political project that the Conservatives, the NDP and the Liberals are all party to because none of them have ever articulated an alternative model to working with First Nations based on our sovereignty, nationhood and our treaties. None of them have ever seriously considered the recommendations of the Final Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. This conflict between Canada and Indigenous nations started long before the White Paper. It even started before the first Indian Act. It started at the moment the colonizers stopped seeing us as sovereign nations and started seeing us as an obstacle to lands and resources, obstacles they could legislate out of existence.
Yesterday I stood on Mississauga land outside Peterborough’s Member of Parliament’s office with 300 Anishinaabeg, Haudenosaunee and Cree peoples and our allies. This is the first time that’s happened for me, outside of a powwow. That’s significant. I felt so very happy to see so many people finally engaged. My hope is that #idlenomore is the first step in building a mass movement of Indigenous nations that will both re-establish our political cultures and reset the relationship we have with Canada. We need to strengthen and in some cases re-create the political cultures that enabled us to negotiate strong international agreements based on our own traditions of treaty making and our own traditions of diplomacy. There are many, many people in Indigenous nations that have been working very hard their whole lives to plant these seeds and nurture these young seedlings.
I support #idlenomore because I believe that we have to stand up anytime our nation’s land base is threatened – whether it is legislation, deforestation, mining prospecting, condo development, pipelines, tar sands or golf courses. I stand up anytime our nation’s land base in threatened because everything we have of meaning comes from the land – our political systems, our intellectual systems, our health care, food security, language and our spiritual sustenance and our moral fortitude. We all have a responsibility to protect the land and the water. We only have a few generations to turn this around, and we can’t do it without access to land. As a Mississauga Nishinaabeg who has lost virtually all of our territory’s land and waterways and who has been living without the treaty right to hunt and fish for 89 years, with less than 60 speakers left of our dialect, I cannot say this more strongly. We are the land and we need to do everything to protect what is left. We have the land today because our Ancestors did protected whatever they could for us. #idlenomore is standing upon the shoulders of generations of people that were never idle because they couldn’t afford to be idle. Neither can we.
Leanne Simpson is a writer and academic of Mississauga Nishnaabeg ancestry. She is the editor of Lighting the Eighth Fire: The Liberation, Protection and Resurgence of Indigenous Nations (Arbeiter Ring) and This is an Honour Song: Twenty Years Since the Blockades (with Kiera Ladner, Arbeiter Ring). She is the author of Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence (Arbeiter Ring) and The Gift Is in the Making, a re-telling of traditional stories, forthcoming Spring 2013 (Debwe Series, Highwater Press). Her first collection of short stories, Islands of Decolonial Love is forthcoming from Arbeiter Ring Fall 2013. You can find more articles like this one at www.leannesimpson.ca