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Everything You Do Is Political, You’re Anishinaabe. Or, What Idle No More Is To Me

January 1, 2013

by Ryan McMahon

Want to listen to the audio version instead? Go listen to it here!

“Everything you do, Grandson, is going to be political. You’re Anishinaabe.”

Those are the words of my Grandmother.

My Grandmother wasn’t a politician or a cultural leader in any sort of way. She was a beadworker and a master of the various trades that involved moose hides. She was a good hunter and an excellent fisherman. One of my first memories I have of my Grandma was her pulling up to my parents house in the middle of the afternoon with a dead deer she had shot while hunting in Minnesota. We lived in Ontario. She drove across the US/Canada border with a dead buck on the hood of her car. I imagine the Customs officer had a hard time letting her cross that day. I can hear her stubborn defense for bringing the deer across the border in this way – “I’m Indian…I have to eat something.” In retrospect, maybe she was political. Accidently political. But still, political none the less. Stubborn. But politically so.

I loved my Grandmother. I talk about her a lot because I learned a lot from her. Sure, she could be miserable at times and if you didn’t know her well, her attitude may rub you the wrong way, but she was always “honest.” For better or worse, she let you know what she was thinking.  You know where she stood on issues – you had no choice. In her “honesty” you’d get anger, truth, comedy (mostly of the accidental sort), stories and the pain of a history I couldn’t understand. It’s a pain I knew existed but I had no idea why it existed or how it got there.

My Grandma, she’s a product of the Indian Residential School system here in Canada. She lived with the pain and the memories of being abused for years at the Residential School at Fort Frances, ON (Couchiching).  She lived the common experience by those that survived the school systems. Years of wandering. Painful, broken relationships. A personal mess that was impossible to begin to clean up. The result – a trail of stories about broken people, families, and communities. A broken circle. A beautiful, kind, gentle, but broken circle.

It turns out – I’m a product of the Indian Residential School system too. I didn’t endure what my ancestors did – thankfully. Instead, I experience it in different ways. I wasn’t raised with an understanding of my culture, language or ceremony. I was never told “what being Anishinaabe was.” I knew we were “Indian”, I just didn’t know what that meant. There was a lot of shame. There was a lot of weird “don’t talk about it-ness.”

A major scar that I carry(ied) for a long time was the feeling of “not being enough.” Whether it was looking for a hug from my mother (I don’t remember too many of these) or trying to fit in during visits to the Rez – I never felt “enough.” Through school I was told I wasn’t “Indian” by my cousins or other people on the reserve and without a place to “belong to” there was a large empty spot in my heart. A broken circle, if you will. Colonization. You just about beat me. Just about.

I’ve struggled a lot through my life. I’ve struggled with childhood pain and trauma and I spent years not knowing why I was such a mess. My low point was waking up, drunk on the streets of Toronto and not remembering how I got there. I was a mess. I had been a mess for a long time. I was slowly killing myself with booze.

I was saved by an Elder named Roger Jones, an old man from Shawanaga First Nation. He took me in. Nurtured me. Taught me. Talked to me. Told me about the land and what it gives us. He taught me about medicines. He taught me about spirit. As I listened to Roger tell me about the land and the importance of the connection to it, I realized that I was “enough” and that I had the connection he spoke of. I realized that the years of not feeling “enough” were a waste. I realized I was Anishinaabe. I had the connection he spoke of. I was raised in the bush. I was raised hunting and fishing. I was taught how to subsist off the bounty and beauty of Mother Earth. Finally, I connected with “being Anishinaabe.”I couldn’t dance a crow-hop but I could shoot the moose needed to make the drum to sing one.

My connection and reconnection to the land was what makes me Anishinaabe. It guides me. It teaches me.Today, when in need, I turn to my bundle, my pipe, my drums and my medicines, which all come from the land – it is what makes me Anishinaabe. Without the land and without my bundle, I am nothing. Without the land I am not Anishinaabe. So if you take away the land (literally or figuratively) from my people – what are we left with? Being “Canadian?” Being “like everyone else?” Is that not genocidal? The land is my “God” and we as Anishinaabe Peoples are not ready or willing to give you our “God.”

The understanding I now have about what it means to be Anishinaabe has brought me back into the circle. It has brought me back to community. To walking with values and understanding of what it means to be a man, a father, a husband, a son and a contributing member to the larger conversation. It has helped me repair the circle that was broken in my Grandmother’s life. It’s not fixed. I don’t know that it can be. It’s being repaired though.

The Idle No More movement is an incredible one. We see people standing up and being counted. We see people participating in a resurgence – even if they don’t really know what the resurgence is about (yet).  The Idle No More movement is not only unsettling the larger Canadian population but it’s about unsettling ourselves as Indigenous Peoples. It’s my opinion that the aim of the movement must be to continue unsettling ourselves as Indigenous Peoples – the hard work of decolonization is happening right in front of us in real time, on Twitter, Facebook, and in shopping malls. Crazy, huh?

We must continue to unsettle ourselves. The learning and the growth of our Nations depends on putting our collective histories into context so as to move forward while being led by our inherent world views/teachings/traditional governance structures.

We have a deep and incredibly poisonous relationship with the Indian Act and the long roots of colonization. The Idle No More movement calls for an end to this relationship. The Idle No More movement is beginning to reawaken the spirits of the People.

We have a lot to unlearn.

We have to find our place in the circle and Idle No More is calling people back to the circle. We’re in the process of repairing ourselves as individuals, families, communities & Nations.

Everything we do is political – we are Anishinaabe.


Ryan McMahon is an Ojibway/Metis comedian based out of Winnipeg, MB. This past summer Ryan became the 1st Native comedian to ever tape a one hour comedy special for CBC TV and is currently writing a book called “The Great Indian Paradox – A Seriously Funny Look at the Paradoxical Lives We Live.” Ryan is set to tour the US & Canada in 2013 – visit for more info.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. ~julie~ permalink
    January 1, 2013 12:49 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story, and the story of your elders. As one of the settler folk who is doing her best to be respectful in solidarity, while mindful that I could never come close to understanding what your people have been through, I am appreciative of every opportunity to deepen my understanding of the meaning behind #idlenomore. Please know you have this person’s support, for whatever that is worth.

    • rmcomedy permalink
      January 1, 2013 3:55 pm

      Hi Julie – I appreciate your support. The reason why I share my story(ies) and my comedy is to bring us all closer together. Have a safe and happy 2013!


  2. January 1, 2013 4:55 pm

    Since I learned to walk with my First Nations brothers and sisters, I have heard a lot of stories, so much like your own. And I began to understand the stories from the perspective of someone who is not a settler, like me.
    Thank you for sharing your story. You help me to know things which are important.

  3. Debra Piapot permalink
    January 1, 2013 6:20 pm

    Personalize to decolonize. One story at a time! I can relate my relative.

  4. January 1, 2013 9:42 pm

    Reblogged this on finding development and commented:
    Everything you do is political.

  5. January 2, 2013 12:41 pm

    Miigwech for this story and I want to echo Julie’s words because they are my sentiments exactly. Today I will be at idlenomore Vancouver in Waterfront stadium, and in the silence, I will honour your grandmother, your relatives and the others I know who have shared their stories with me. Today I will play your story for my children, ages 5, 8 and 9, so that they have a different education than us, so that they know why this political movement matters. Chi Miigwech.

  6. January 8, 2013 4:46 pm

    Reblogged this on .

  7. January 12, 2013 2:13 am

    I didn’t understand why people didn’t speak up more until I had to take on the Denver Art Museum. I’m Indian, I don’t look it. My son and I are Cherokee/Crow and we were looking for the interactives in the museum, places where children can learn by doing throughout the exhibits. In the Western art exhibit the interactive was making postcards with stamps that were modeled after various artworks w/in the main exhibit. There were examples for the children to follow. One of them had a stamp of two plains Indians sitting on the ground wrapped in blankets. Each had a speech bubble over their heads. This is what was written, “I got us dinner for tonight!” “Dude, you’ve got to stop killing my hunting dogs.” That was the example for children about who I was and who my son was and who we have been. I marched out and demanded justice and got blank faced people who had no idea why I was upset. I think the highlight was nearly yelling, “We were on a f***ing reservation starving, the other choice was eat our children!” The post card got taken down, supposedly there has been training to avoid further mistakes. But I made 10 different phone calls and never heard from the curator who had ok’d or overlooked the offense. Instead, the museum had the director of Indian education call me back to ask that I not put a picture of what they did on my facebook page. It still makes me want to cry. The impersonal nature of it and how it was so accepted to make that joke. The DAM has one of the largest collections of Native American artifacts and art in the US, and that postcard was up for how long? I got it taken down, but it took so much effort for that one little change. In the end one Indian called another Indian to talk about how the non-Indians had mis-handled the situation. I won’t stop, but I resent the burden of having to be political instead of just be.

    Thank you for your article, it helps.


  1. Everything You Do Is Political, You’re Anishinaabe. Or, What Idle No More Is To Me | Keepers of the Water
  2. The Sustainability of Indigenous Resistance « Decolonization

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