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Stories of the Shapes and Contours of Indigenous Relationships to Land: An Interview with Hayden King

November 6, 2014

Listen to the interview above, or read the transcript of the interview below!

Eric Ritskes: This is Eric Ritskes [Editor of Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society] and I’m here with Hayden King. Hayden is a professor and the Director of the Centre for Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University here in Toronto, and we’re here chatting in his office about a new project that he’s taken on, as the host of the podcast, “Stories from the Land” – which you can find at “Stories from the Land” is part of an ambitious new – independent & Indigenous – Internet media platform, which was launched recently by Ryan McMahon. It’s called Indian and Cowboy Media and already they’re producing a number of exciting Indigenous podcasts. I hope that everyone listening goes and checks that out.

But, this interview is about “Stories from the Land” – Hayden, why don’t tell us a little about yourself and why you decided to host this podcast?


Hayden King: As you said, I’m the Director here at the Centre for Indigenous Governance, I’m an assistant professor of politics at Ryerson University. In my academic life, a lot of my research focuses on land and resource management; at least, one of my ‘research agendas’ is looking at how we manage the land.

But in my personal life, I’ve spent as much time on the land as I can. I was paddling from a very young age. I’m a hunter, I try to be outside – and now especially with my kids – as often as I can. So when Ryan McMahon launched this idea, this “Stories from the Land” podcast, I was really excited about it and approached him and asked how I could be involved, whether it was just submitting stories or maybe taking on a bigger role. We had a little bit of a dialogue and over a couple days he just said, “Why don’t you host this?” And I was happy to do so because I think it’s a really important idea. I think that if we can encourage people to be getting out on the land or telling stories about their experiences on the land, I think that contributes to a dialogue that increasingly needs to happen: about our relationship to the land and how it’s evolving and how we maintain our philosophy of the relationship to the land, which I think often gets lost in the more romantic narratives of Native people being stewards of the land, without a lot of substance behind it.

Anyways, I guess that’s a long way of saying that I’m really interested in furthering the dialogue on the shape and the contours of our relationships to the land – and stories we tell about our relationships to the land can help inform that broader discussion.

Eric: In the intro to the podcast, as part of the larger vision of Indian and Cowboy Media, Ryan McMahon talks about the importance of telling Indigenous stories, and he has the sound byte “it’s about nationhood and sovereignty”. There’s been lots of academic work around Indigenous storytelling, its importance to Indigenous cultures and knowledge forms, and even Indigenous land as ‘storied land’, but for you, Hayden, how is telling these stories from the land about Indigenous nationhood and sovereignty? And, for you in particular, how are they about Anishinaabe nationhood and sovereignty?

Hayden: We have historically told stories, or we use story, to transmit knowledge. We have traditionally used stories to reinforce our legal systems, our values, our norms about how to act and think in the world. And, often, these are embedded in stories that might seem completely unrelated but, nonetheless, these are narratives for how to conduct yourself. And we’ve been telling these stories for thousands of years. So, I think that’s maybe what Ryan means when he says telling stories is an act of sovereignty because, really, what greater act of sovereignty is there than controlling your own philosophy and transmitting that philosophy. So, we’ve been doing that by telling stories.

From my perspective, that’s a difficult question to answer. There’s continuity there certainly; we never stopped telling stories and we never stopped trying to transmit this knowledge and embed those values in our lives. But, certainly things are a little bit different now. A lot of the knowledge that gets transmitted between communities, and between individuals, is through books and texts. And that’s something that we’ve obviously embraced but, thinking about the broader question of how we transmit knowledge, is something that we also struggle with because you can’t convey the same type of understanding in a text that you can in a story. That’s a kind of long answer and probably one that’s getting away from the heart of your question…

I really just think that telling stories about our relationships to the land reinforces those relationships. I think that community and sovereignty for Indigenous peoples, generally, is rooted in the land; so, the more that we continue to reinforce that in stories, the stronger that relationship or that attachment is. Or, at least, I hope that it is. It’s certainly something I would like to see more of, I would like to see my own community, I would like to see my own nation be rooted in those values of how we relate to the land – legal systems that flow from our relationship to the water, and the deer, and the muskrat, and the beaver and so on. So, hopefully, telling stories lets us reinforce that.

Eric: A lot of times when people think of Indigenous stories from the land, perhaps it’s because they’re the only ones they’ve heard before or they’re the ones they know of, but they think of more ‘traditional’ narratives, like the creation stories, or trickster stories, etc – stories that have been around and passed down in various forms for hundreds of years. You’re compiling stories from the land that don’t sound like those, and yet still come from this long tradition of knowledge and stories emanating from relationships with the land. How important is it to have these contemporary accounts and stories from the land? And maybe, can we even trouble the divisions between traditional and contemporary with the stories that are being shared on your podcast?

Hayden: I think one of the really interesting things that has emerged from a lot of the podcasts that we have received, and some of these we haven’t yet published, is that some of those themes, those values embedded in creation narratives are there and they’re reflected in the story, even though they’re not articulated specifically as creation narratives or flood narratives or these broad, well-known stories that we tell. While they’re not explicitly mentioned in the story, they’re certainly there in more nuanced ways. I think we’re talking about these stories but we’re not being explicit about it and I think that’s probably a good thing. I think it’s a reflection that we don’t need to explicitly say, “I’m talking about a creation narrative, I’m talking about a flood narrative, or I’m talking about story ‘x y and z’”; it’s just a part of our lives. So when people tell their story and you pick up on the nuance…it’s just kind of obvious and it makes sense.

So if you’re mentioning the troubling or challenging of the past from the present, some of the stories from the podcast that we’ve released so far are a good example of those more – I don’t know if I want to use the word traditional – but those longstanding narratives. The valued embedded in those more longstanding narratives are certainly present in some of those stories that we tell about our experiences on the land today or yesterday or last week or last month. I think that’s an indication of the health, or the strength, of those original values and instructions and philosophies.

Eric: In one of your most recent “Stories from the Land” podcasts, you talk about the Anishinaabe treaties made with the deer, and how they guided your hunting practices. For me, this resonates with one of the articles in Decolonization journal’s upcoming special issue on land-based education, where Jana-Rae Yerxa talks about the treaty with manoomin, or wild rice, as part of asserting Anishinaabeg sovereignty & resurgence. What does the land, and these treaties that are made with various animal nations, with manoomin, etc, teach us about living out good relationships with the land and, more broadly perhaps, living out good (or even, perhaps we could say, decolonial) relationships with one another?

Hayden: I think that they give us instruction, they’re our policies for how we think and act in the world. We take our cue from these stories.

You know, I don’t have a really clear answer to this question because I’m continually thinking about this and reflecting on this and talking to my friends that hunt and are harvesting manoomin, and people that are on the land. How do we act through these stories, how do we take direction from these stories in contemporary times? When we’re dealing with settler land and resource management regimes, when we’re working with non-Native people, when we’re using tools we may not have used when we told those stories originally – thinking through all of these challenges is something that I think is really exciting – it’s challenging and it’s also invigorating.

So I don’t have an answer to your question, but I think if we are continually reminding ourselves of these stories and telling these stories, then when we’re on the land we’re thinking about them. We’re trying to adapt, to better, more authentically act on our responsibilities that we have to the deer, or the moose, or the beaver. Whatever it is, we’re actively having a relationship with this other creature. We have to think what is owed to that creature, what our responsibilities and what our obligations are, what the shape of reciprocity takes between us. We really have to think critically about that and the stories that we tell help us in that endeavour.

This is something I alluded to in the story that I told about deer hunting [in the podcast]; the stories that we tell help share our legal apparatus. That legal apparatus is well known to some people, maybe not well known to others, or not known as well. So, we really have to think through in a comprehensive way what our legal orders are. These stores exist but… Maybe in the minds of some Elders they’ve got it all sorted out, no doubt that many of them do, but I think we really need to think about how law is enacted and the punishments for breaking the law, and how to resolve conflict when laws overlap.

I think too often you see that happen in blockades, when Indigenous peoples are trying to maintain their form of law, which means protecting their non-human relations. And Canada or the United States – or whatever state it is – is seeking to aid industry in destroying that forest or taking the essence of the land away in trucks or poisoning that watershed. That’s the kind of conflict you see between the two legal orders. How can we think through, based on our stories, based on these legal systems, ways to mitigate that conflict and better inform ourselves and better guide ourselves in our relationships?

Because you know, we break the law too. There’s the story I told about deerhunting; I broke the law but I wasn’t clear about what the consequences are. Is it just personal accountability? Is it just, I have to behave better? Or I recognize I’ve done something wrong and I’ll promise not to do it again? Maybe that’s the case, but maybe we need to be thinking through, a little bit more, the kinds of consequences of violating the law from an Indigenous perspective. Anyways, again I think I’ve gone on a little bit from your question…

Eric: This is just the beginning of “Stories from the Land”, you’ve got just a few podcast episodes under your belt, you’re just getting going, but what do you see as the future of “Stories from the Land”, what are your goals as you move forward?

Hayden: I think it’s on a particular trajectory that I would like to see it continue. I think each podcast is better and better, I think we’re getting better at introducing the stories and drawing out the themes of the stories. The people that are submitting them are submitting really creative and unique – really diverse – stories. I think that what the podcast is starting to reveal is that Native people have a really diverse set of experiences on the land. So I hope that the podcast does this, investigates some of those diverse experiences.

I know that we have two stories coming up, one of them is from a young woman from the city and her experience trying to navigate the North, a place she’s completely unfamiliar with. She’s a Mohawk woman but she’s urban, so what does it mean to be urban today and not on the land? Are you still on the land even if it’s below fifty feet of concrete? I think that’s a really compelling question that I hope we can look more closely at. And then we have another story coming that’s much more traditional, that draws on a very traditional story about the Little People that we share the land with, and her own experiences with those Little People. That’s maybe a less ‘rational’ perspective on our relationship to the land, so I hope that we can investigate that a little bit as well. The collision between the very rational, universalizing tendency of the human/nature separation of the West vs. – generally – our Indigenous peoples’ more immersive, embedded relationship to the land. Again, that’s another question I hope the podcast investigates.

Ryan is the real driver of this podcast, so I know he has a number of hopes as well, but from my own perspective, I would like to see us tackle these complex questions. I like to hear really interesting stories from people that are living their lives on the land, or having a relationship to the land, that’s one component. But I would also like to hear us have a dialogue about these complex issues, which are often lacking in our mainstream discussions about rights and politics. I want to talk about the land in all the complexity that entails. I really hope that the podcast is a venue or a vehicle through which we can do that. So I hope more and more people listen and more people submit and that the podcast has a long life.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 7, 2014 1:49 pm

    Thank you for sharing this important discussion.

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