Everything You Do Is Political, You’re Anishinaabe. Or, What Idle No More Is To Me
by Ryan McMahon
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“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 http://ryanmcmahoncomedy.com for more info.