Leanne Simpson and Glen Coulthard on Dechinta Bush University, Indigenous land-based education and embodied resurgence
This is the edited transcript of a conversation that took place in Edmonton, AB on October 18, 2014. You can listen to the full conversation with the MP3 above, or read the transcript below!
Eric Ritskes: This is Eric Ritskes, I’m the editor of Decolonization journal, and I’m sitting down for a chat with Leanne Simpson and Glen Coulthard. Glen is part of the editorial collective putting together a special issue on Indigenous land-based education for the journal and Leanne has a fantastic article in that issue, titled “Land as Pedagogy“. Together, they’re both involved with Dechinta Bush University and just recently came back from the most recent semester in the North. And that’s what we’re here to talk about. Maybe you both can introduce yourselves as we begin.
Leanne Simpson: Miigwech Eric. My name is Leanne Simpson. I’m a Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer, academic and activist and I am member of Alderville First Nation, and for the most part, my practice is based outside of the university system.
Glen Coulthard: Thanks Eric and Leanne. My name is Glen Coulthard, I’m a member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, on whose land Dechinta operates and works with. I’m a prof at UBC in First Nations Studies and the department of Political Science.
Eric: Glen and Leanne, maybe you could begin by telling us a little bit about how Dechinta came to be and what the program does?
Glen: I can speak to, not necessarily on the administrative end of how Dechinta came to be, but when I became involved with it at an experiential level. I’ve been involved with Dechinta for about six years now. What Dechinta does is it works in collaboration with the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and other Indigenous folks in the North to establish a post-secondary program of Indigenous land-based education, aimed at providing a model of education that promotes true self-determination and decolonization for Indigenous peoples in the North. It works with Elders from our community – and other community members and knowledge holders – in order to re-embed students in the social relations that are embodied by land and place, in order to provide that framework for decolonization.
If colonization involved a violent separation of our peoples from those social relations of land, then any education aimed at decolonization must fundamentally correct that violence. And by correcting that violence, one of the best ways to go about doing so, is to reintroduce and re-place Indigenous peoples on their lands, with the knowledge holders that are experts in those practices.
Leanne: About a year and a half ago, Glen approached me and asked if I would be interested in teaching a short course on Indigenous self-determination at Dechinta. I was pretty apprehensive at the time because I didn’t understand what me, as a Nishnaabeg person, would be contributing in a discussion in his territory, in Dene territory, around self-determination. I felt ethically uneasy about the prospect of going into someone else’s territory and having any knowledge to impart whatsoever. I actually had always thought of taking the Dechinta program as a student. He really urged me to go, though. And the program is very welcoming and encourages students and faculty to bring their children, so I decided to give it a try. It ended up being a very transformative experience for myself and also for my family. Now we have been back four times. I guess I’ve started building relationships with that territory and Dene Elders and all the fantastic people involved in the program.
Eric: Both of you either have been or are faculty in ‘traditional’ Western universities – at UBC, Trent, University of Manitoba – how does this experience, having negotiated both university and Dechinta as someone who’s still in a role of instructor for a particular course, how is different for you, from Dechinta versus your experiences in Western academies?
Leanne: I think for me that I operate as an Nishinaabeg person first, in that program. Actually I think that I try to do that in my life in general, but this program cherishes that approach.
The class size is very small. It takes place on the land, so the land really is the pedagogy. Dene Elders are a foundational part of the experience and learning takes place in the context of Dene relationships. The group operates and embodies Dene self-determination and Dene laws. There’s a governance circle every night that people participate in and learn how to make decisions in a collective way. I think all of those aspects of the program create a really strong community. We’re practicing conflict management, agency and transparency and the things that Indigenous political cultures value. We’re asking students to engage in a fairly rigorous process from a Dene perspective, in an intellectual, emotional and a spiritual and a physical way. The context is completely different from a mainstream university program.
Dechinta actively addresses the violence of dispossession by validating student experience, by placing bodies back on the land and by setting up the conditions for the Dechinta community to re-centre learning around these connections.
So, for me as an instructor, I find that the skill sets that I bring are skill sets from my life as an Indigenous person and dealing with four decades of colonialism and resurgence and decolonization. It’s a very challenging environment. It’s a very rigorous environment but it’s also a very transformative and rewarding environment because of those things. To me it’s almost the most decolonizing form of education that I’ve been involved in because I think the vast majority of land-based education right now takes place outside of institutions; it takes place in families and it takes place out on the land and in our communities. But it’s not recognized as education.
Glen: I think for me, the biggest difference between the programming associated with working at UBC, for instance, and Dechinta is that, essentially, you can’t hunt or fish at UBC! And that’s what we do at Dechinta. We’re trying to make these reconnections with students and our traditional territories in order to formulate a critical analysis of our colonial present and its effects in Denendeh and in the North. And it’s through those practices that we come to understand what’s wrong with the forms of colonial economic and political development in the North, insofar as they obliterate those relationships of reciprocity that dictate our understanding of land.
You can get only so far teaching in a primarily cognitive sort of way through ‘traditional’ sources and literatures that you use in university. I found as an instructor – who also learns so much every time I go – that I didn’t really get, for example, the critique offered by the Dene of capitalism in the seventies, until I started that experiential kind of relationship with the land through these land-based practices. I had learned as much as I could in the archive, talking to people, and reading about that history, but it was only when I started to commit myself to re-learning those practices and re-embedding myself in those social relationships with place, that I understood in a more concrete and embodied way, what was wrong with the forms of economic development that have come to be dominant in the North and elsewhere.
Leanne: I teach a land-based course in the PhD program in Indigenous Studies at Trent University, which is located in my own territory. We have to deal with a lot of non-Native encroachment in our homeland. I live in the city and the program is in the city. We still manage to ice-fish, trap, sugar-bush and harvest wild rice with the students – but it’s a once-a-week endeavour and so it almost feels like, for me, that I’m a tour guide and that this is a hobby. I feel like it’s much more difficult for those students to grasp the concepts in Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back, for instance, even though they’ve got the cognitive stuff, they’re in my territory, they’re actually seeing the places that I’m talking about in the book, they’re working with the Elder that I’m talking about in the book. But it’s much more difficult for them to make those connections because the time is so short. The Dechinta program is a very intense amount of time with the semester, and so the students come out with a set of Dene skills that they can actually use. We need programs that create people that are Indigenous at the core, Indigenous people that can not only embody our political cultures and our philosophies but also can thrive on the land and think with inside their own intelligence systems. Which is not happening to any degree at universities.
Eric: What you’re saying reminds me of the quote from Huanani Kay Trask, that “To know my history, I had to put away my books and return to the land”, and it was in the land that you actually realized what you were learning in the books. I think that’s an interesting thing about Dechinta is that you try and balance both of those. You have the classroom and reading aspects, and then you also have the hunting, the fishing, the trapping, the learning from the Elders, food preparation, all these other aspects. Leanne, you were saying, we can have Indigenous people who embody the political and cultural aspects, but what about the other aspects? At Dechinta it seems like you’re able to negotiate a balance between those, but also a balance between what you were mentioning earlier around recognition. Leanne, you mentioned that these types of land-based educational practices are happening, but they’re not being recognized as education. How important is it, then – because I think this speaks to larger issues of Indigenous Studies within education as well – how important is the recognition of Dechinta and being able to give some sort of credential, to have this recognized as education within certain educational systems?
Glen: The issue of recognition is obviously a tricky one because it usually plays out in a way that, in order to be recognized you have to make yourself like the power structure that is recognizing you, or thinking about accommodating your difference – in this case it’s not so much an identity but the structure of a program. So, it’s often a trap. In order to be recognized or accredited in this context by a Western, powerful educational institution, you have to already look like that institution and have its constitutive features built into your programming, in order to be recognized, or even seen at all. Recognition, as it always does, has a kind of assimilative pull to it.
Yet, from students and consultation with students in communities, it’s important in the North – if it’s addressed critically and if you can fight back and maintain autonomy and integrity in the programming, as its being grounded in Indigenous traditions of thought and practice – Dechinta’s been expressed as being important because it provides certain options that are not available in the North right now. Any sort of educational programming in the North tends to be bottlenecked, and bottlenecks students, into the non-renewable resource economy, which is exploitative and is an antithesis to the types of social relations that we learn when we engage in these land-based practices and this form of education.
So, as with all recognition politics, recognition is in a real tension with the decolonizing objectives of programming like this.
But, we’re not renegades that are dropped into territories and determine what the most radical and transformative educational experiences we think would be relevant for them; it’s done in a spirit of reciprocity, with community engagement and input. Elders are professors, even more so I would argue then professors and instructors that come from the south, myself included – I don’t live on my territory. So, when that’s the ethical framework under which the program operates, these decisions are derived from that conversation, that collaboration, and the consensus that emerges from it.
Leanne: When Dechinta was starting they did a survey in the North and found out what the biggest barriers to post-secondary education were for Indigenous women. One of the biggest ones was childcare and having to leave their communities in order to engage in post-secondary education. In responding to that, Dechinta made a program in the North where children are welcomed and celebrated. I think what Glen’s saying is really important.
Also, what’s happening at Dechinta is a sort of internal recognition, where students are recognizing themselves and seeing themselves in a different light. They’re seeing the Dene inside of themselves and feeling proud about that. They’re learning bush skills, they’re talking back to some of the internalized racism and internalized colonialism that they’re carrying. As a group we are collectively creating a community of respect and a kind of internal recognition where we’re seeing and mirroring Dene and Nishinaabeg, for example, back to each other. I think this is a very powerful process in education and something that is very absent when we’re searching for colonial recognition within the Western academy.
Eric: You mentioned something, Leanne, that I think is incredibly important to the Dechinta program and that’s the inclusion of children, overcoming the challenge of child care, and making it so that people can bring their kids. You mentioned that you’ve brought your kids and it was transformative, not only for you but your family as a whole. In your piece that’s coming out in this issue, again you focus on children as teachers – in conjunction with land as pedagogy. So, can you can chat a little bit more about why, beyond the very real, material aspects such as child care, that aspect of children is important for Dechinta? And as each of you engage with the program and also engage with your own families around land-based education, how has being a parent, being a mother or a father, impacted you in regards to putting decolonization into practice, in perhaps changing (or not changing), in making decisions that may (or may not) have been made before, around Indigenous education, land as pedagogy, and what decolonizing education means for you and your family?
Leanne: I think the Western academy is a really misogynistic and racist place towards Indigenous mothers and it’s an extremely unhealthy environment for Indigenous families. So, I think my own reaction to that was to leave upon having children. And I think that’s been a really good decision for me and my family.
My Ancestors took their children everywhere with them and that’s how their children had good role models, that’s how they had positive mirroring, that how they experienced the diversity of experiences in life, that’s how they learned to embody our political culture. So, I think the idea of institutionalized education is something that we have to approach critically and it’s a huge part of life in Canada, a huge part of Indigenous life. But when we’re talking about Indigenous education, we have to come to it with a critical eye, we have to remember the ways that we replicated our nations through education and what were those critical components that produced people who could embody our political cultures and survive in our lands and think within Nishinaabeg or Dene thought and live a life where they were promoting more life in the coming generations.
For me, involving my children and bringing my children to Dechinta creates an environment where people see me as a parent, they see me as a mother. They see Glen and I valuing parenting. They see me getting stressed out about that and how parenting is difficult sometimes and how I need the help of the broader community. I think that kids at Dechinta are co-learners and co-instructors; I always learn a tremendous amount from the kids there!
Becoming a parent for me was very isolating, in a way that it wasn’t for my Ancestors. They had a community or an extended family around them that supported collectively raising that next generation. That doesn’t exist for a lot of Indigenous parents right now and this is a little bubble where, for a couple of weeks, you start to get a glimpse of that.
Glen: The collective nature of parenting and childcare at Dechinta is really special, when it’s working well. It’s a contemporary version, or expression, of what we’ve always done. For me, I think involving children is more of a personal nature. Raising two kids far away from their traditional territory, and knowledge base that’s of that territory, is difficult! And it’s difficult in the same way that it’s difficult to facilitate a critical education just through words and through histories and so on, like in a classroom. Because it needs to be grounded and related to that territory and its associated forms of knowledge.
So, working up North with the community on this programming is crucial because it allows me to go home, and go home with the kids. Leanne lives, more or less, on her territory so that process of embodied, every day education as an ethics, as a way of moving through the world, is a bit easier for her. Or, at least, it would be easier because of that access to that territory. I live thousands of kilometres away, so it’s really, really important to me to include the kids and bring them as much as I can. But, even that is difficult to do. I think they’ve come up probably about fifty percent of the time, with me, over the last six or so years.
Eric: You mentioned, Glen, the distance from your territory. As we’re talking about ‘what does this mean for Indigenous education?’, in our most recent issue of Decolonization, Cliff Atleo mentioned that your book spurred something for him in terms of urban Indigenous governance: he always thought that going back to the land and having land-based practices meant going back to your territory. Your book spurred him to further question: what does it mean to embody Indigenous practices, Indigenous ceremonies, Indigenous governance in urban contexts – as a push back against what you’ve called ‘urbs nullius’. When you go up to your territory you have a very specific connection to that territory, as Indigenous land, and Leanne you’ve mentioned that even though it’s not your territory, there’s something about going to Denendeh and learning land-based practices from the people there. For the majority of Indigenous peoples in Canada, who are living in urban contexts, what does it mean to practice Indigenous land-based pedagogy, as Cliff Atleo said it, in more ‘creative’ ways in urban contexts or in situations where returns to one’s territory might be impossible or difficult?
Leanne: Well, all land in Canada is Indigenous land. It doesn’t matter if there is a national park or a city or a mine or a reserve on top of it, it’s Indigenous land because Indigenous peoples have relationships to it. In my own territory I think it is important to break down this dichotomy between city and rural, because within Nishnaabeg thought our nation is a network and we should be strengthen our relationship to all parts of our territory and our people regardless of where they live. The same processes of dispossession and erasure operate in all parts of our territory. Resurgence happens within Indigenous bodies and through the connections we make to each other and our land. That’s how we strengthen ourselves within Nishnaabeg intelligence.
One of the things I noticed with my kids when they’re in Denendeh, is that they operate as Nishnaabeg people more so then I think they do at home sometimes. They notice different changes in traditions and different cultural changes, and I think they feel really, really proud of who they are at Dechinta. They have an opportunity to practice how to live respectfully in someone else’s territory, according to Nishnaabeg traditions. They recognize Dechinta as a safe place to be who they are and express their opinions and perspectives.
Land is crucial for Indigenous peoples, and so is challenging the assumed permeance of settler colonial dispossession. I live in Peterborough, Ontario – my family moved back to my territory deliberately, with some sacrifice on the part of my partner and myself. We did it because I felt I had to live in my territory and we wanted to raise our children in our territory because of the land and because of that connection to the land. I see a lot of Nishnaabe people in my generation that have moved back into their territory. Maybe they make less money, they may have less meaningful work, in some sense, but they’re embedded in community and they’re embedded on the land. We can’t just say land is important, and that connection to land is important, and then never go. Because, honestly, I don’t see my way of thinking, I don’t see my political traditions surviving in the next generation unless there’s a collective effort to create generations of people that can think within and embody Nishnaabewin. That involves some persevering and it involves some sacrifice.
I want my land back and of course that is possible. Of course it is.
Having said that, Peterborough is Nogojiwanong, the place at the end of the rapids. It is our land and there’s a lot of resistance and resurgence that goes on within the city. There are sacred sites in parking lots, we have ceremony in the city, we have festivals in the city – all involving a lot of red tape and a lot of fighting in order to that. We have a system of maintaining a connection to the land despite settler colonialism, and settler surveillance, and criminalization and all of those components of colonialism that serve to dispossess us of our land. So, I feel like framing cities as this cultural void, where we don’t have a connection to the land, actually really makes me angry because I feel like we’ve worked really, really hard to be Mississauga Nishnaabeg in our territory despite the fact that we have the majority of Ontario’s population screaming down our necks!
I’m processing our wild rice in my back yard because that’s Nishnaabeg land and I have the fire going on all day. And we are going goose hunting, while there’s five hundred cottages on the lake. We are doing it anyway and I think that’s important. I think there’s a lot of interesting projects that are going on in cities in terms of connection to the land, in terms of embodying the land and bringing the teachings of the land into urban areas.
I also think there are some incredible things happening in terms of resurgence and resistance amongst my younger comrades. The Native Youth Sexual Health Network is embodying interventions, generating theory and inacting a rejection of recognition politics on the ground, every day. They aren’t standing around debating cities or reserves because they already know that Indigenous bodies are part of the land, and Indigenous bodies are everywhere. Indigenous bodies carry those teachings and that resistance with them. I learn so much from these leaders.
Glen: Good answer, Leanne. I couldn’t answer it so eloquently myself so I’m going to address two issues: one, you started interestingly this introduction to urban issues with the caveat, that the acquisition or re-acquisition of land might be more difficult or impossible in certain situations. And I think that we can concede that it might be more difficult by virtues of the structures that exist, the densities of populations and how thoroughly colonial discourse and the structure of dispossession has erased us from these spaces, but we can’t concede to it being impossible. That’s how it’s pitched, that’s how the enemy posits Indigenous claims: because Indigenous peoples have been so damaged by colonialism, because colonialism has been so thorough, it becomes such an absurd idea to think that we could correct this. It’s a sort of self-perpetuating prophecy – colonialism has damaged us so much and it’s been so thorough, that we no longer have a claim to justice against it. We have to concede, we have to compromise, all these sort of things, which I think is just a problematic position of ‘we ought not undertake to dream bigger’.
The other thing is this kind of distinction that tends to get made between urban and rural, or land-based, experiences in relation to decolonization and colonization. I think that kind of binary needs to be broken down, not only because Indigenous lands are also cities but because the experience of colonization has been, if you look at it in a larger historical view, very similar. Indigenous peoples were dispossessed from their territories. This was fundamental in the construction of cities and urbanization. Once you are removed from the land, and once you are removed from your reserve land-base, you have to migrate elsewhere and that’s often urban centers. This was a constitutive feature of what Marx termed primitive accumulation, dispossession, proletariatization, market creation – but also the geographical, spatial reorganization of populations through subsequent urbanization. And now that very colonial process (in Marx’s own terms) is consuming, is devouring again, Indigenous spaces within cities through gentrification. So this constant cycle of dispossession and violence and dispossession and displacement has happened to Indigenous peoples as much in cities as it has in land-based contexts. And, indeed, they’re structurally related.
So when we can start seeing that as Indigenous peoples, we can start building a more effective movement that recognizes those similarities, that what we are fighting against is essentially the same thing. We should stop fighting against each other because we see our experiences as being so different; when, if we just take a step back a bit, they aren’t.
Eric: You’ve both spoken to the uniqueness of Dechinta; it’s really true one-of-a-kind here in Canada. You’ve had to go through various negotiations to make it happen and its been going for a number of years now – what’s the next step, for Dechinta in particular, but – in thinking through land as pedagogy, land-based education – for Indigenous education in general? Is it more recognition within these systems, creating programs like Dechinta? Is it more individualized, familial resurgence – the sort of sacrifices you mentioned, Leanne, of people choosing to go back to the land, to learning from elders, making those choices? What are the future possibilities of Indigenous land-based education here in Canada?
Glen: Again, not speaking on behalf of the more administrative arm of Dechinta, but I think that one of the things that needs to happen is that this type of programming needs to be financially sustainable. That’s a very pragmatic and real question that needs to be addressed. But, also, it’s got to be localized and decentralized, to my mind. Place-based education isn’t univeralizable. You can’t just cookie cutter it into communities; it has to be from that land and those knowledge holders. That takes a lot of hard work and it has to be specific. You can’t just disseminate it out, in this very homogenous sort of programming model, and I think that Dechinta recognizes that.
One of the biggest demands that I always hear from students who take the program, every time I’ve taught there, is: “I wish there was something like there where I’m from (if they’re not Yellowknives Dene). I wish there was something like this, how do we go about establishing this on our territory?” And for a truly resurgent, decolonizing, land-based education, I think that needs to happen. We need to establish a network of these types of educational practices, on territories across Canada, on every Indigenous peoples’ territory. Then we’ll have a program for some radical changes.
Leanne: I think there are lots of Elders sitting around in our territories, whether they are on reserves or in cities, all over Ontario and Canada, that have some pretty cool skills. They know how to tan hides, they know how to hunt, they know how to fish, they know how to trap, they know the medicines, birthing traditions, they are fluent language speakers and they know our stories and our artistic traditions. And there’s a whole bunch of youth that are sitting around feeling bad because they don’t know how to embody being Indigenous. I think if we sit around and wait for programs, if we sit around for the government to throw funding at us, then we’re going to lose in a huge way. All you need for land-based education is a tiny bit of land, one person with knowledge, and one learner. That’s the model.
And I think there’s all kinds of ways you can repay an Elder, both culturally and materially, for working with you. It’s not a mystery, it’s not difficult, it’s not costly. It’s effort and it’s placing that kind of individual resurgence as your everyday life. I see a lot of young people taking leadership in this area and creating opportunities to build practices like this and that’s decolonization in action. There’s networks of students and youth that are starting to do that, coming not just from Dechinta but also from Indigenous Studies programs. You start to have two or three people that are doing it and then three or four people who are doing it, and it grows. It’s not easy work and it can be really isolating work, but I also think it’s very rewarding and also very transformative.
I find it really frustrating that, particularly as academics, it gets so problematized and it gets so magnified, into this big problem – because we’re never going to get funding, we’re never going to get institutional recognition, we’re never going to get this – and people spend their whole, entire lives banging their head against walls and then actually not learning how to tan, or actually not learning how to hunt. It’s changing your focus from an external focus to an internal focus, figuring out what your gifts are and what kind of resources you have in your community, and placing that at the center of your life, as something that’s important. Because if it’s important to us, we need to do it,
Eric: On social media, we’ve seen pictures of the two of you hunting while you were up at Dechinta this fall and in the pictures there was the notable absence of any kills… and some friendly bantering was going on about what exactly happened. On Twitter I promised that I would track down the story and find out who was the expert hunter and who had scared off the moose. Which is it?
Leanne: The moose hunting took place in Glen’s territory, so of course he was the better moose hunter! We’ll see what happens when he comes to the sugar bush….
Glen: Yeah, over the last three months I’ve had the opportunity to spend ten full days hunting. First, four nights on the barren lands hunting caribou. It was too early. Again, a problem associated with global warming, with industry and so on… So, we didn’t see any caribou, and that was unsuccessful. And then I spent four days at Dechinta hunting, where we looked at every nook and cranny of the lake we were on and no success. So, although Leanne is very kind, that I am the better hunter… I think, objectively speaking, we’re both equal failures on this one!
But what I’ve learned is that, part of this is what the Elders teach you all the time, that this is a matter of patience and perseverance and doing the right ceremonial type of activities – so, it’ll come.
Eric: Thanks so much to Glen and Leanne for sitting down with Decolonization. This interview and its transcript will be posted at www.decolonization.wordpress.com – and we’ll also be linking to our upcoming special issue on Indigenous land-based education that Glen and a collective from Dechinta have been editing, that is coming out shortly!