Where You’re From and Where You’re At: Place, Space, and the Assertion of Nationhood in Shibastik’s “Moose River”.
by Susan Blight
Place and space have been key themes in hip-hop culture since its inception. Within the art of emceeing, place refers to locality–specifically, where you’re from–and in contemporary hip-hop the articulation of place has become more and more localized (region or coast becomes city, city becomes hood or borough). A more abstract notion, space is defined by experience within place and is individuated; hip-hop as an artform emphasizes the politicized character of place, linking it to the development of identity and making place a site of significance and meaning-making. Space is more than physical environment as Murray Forman notes, “the spatial character of any environment is often forged through the political alliances or antagonisms that unfold within social relations” (Forman, p. 156). With the affirmation of place and the articulation of space–the where you’re at— the emcee relates their story, making experience into oral knowledge.
Emceeing centers the storyteller. As the emcee navigates and interacts with place, lessons and reflections are formed and turned into raps, connecting lived experience to the dropping of oral knowledge. It is not just the story that matters in emceeing but the presence of the storyteller in verbal delivery, the voice being the physical enactment of story, marking it as authentic.
What does this emphasis on place, space, and voice look like for Indigenous artists and Indigenous cultural production? In Shibastik’s 2012 track Moose River, place and space feature prominently in interesting ways. To reference The God MC Rakim, for an Indigenous artist it does matter where you’re from and where you’re at.
I’m from the Moose River, me, man
shotgun on the side of the Elan
dressed in wild game hide like I’m He Man
a Cree man providing for my Cree clan
Shibastik–who takes his emcee name from the Maškēkowak word for underground flow–does indeed hail from the Moose River, specifically Moose Cree First Nation on the southwest side of James Bay. In the opening to Moose River, Shibastik asserts Indigenous protocol by stating where he is from. Not just mere courtesy, the introduction offers–as taught to me by Lee Maracle–an identifier through which the audience can relate to Shibastik, as where he is from denotes specific histories and nation knowledge. As if to emphasize his own presence in this story, Shibastik states the first person twice: I’m from the Moose River, me. This is important because what we see here is the defiance of colonial erasure, an assertion that the colonial project of genocide is failing as Shibastik, him, man, stands in the way. Janell Navarro writes that “the forces of white supremacy situate Indigenous people in the colonial imaginary as beyond inferior and into the realm of unbeing as expressed by the trope: the only good indian is a dead indian” (Navarro, p. 5). Shibastik begins this track by asserting his voice and situating himself on the ancestral territory of the Maškēkowak Cree people in an intensely localized way. He is alive. He is from Moose River. It is understood by the listener that Moose River is a lived place.
It is important to note that I am looking at Shibastik’s work through an Anishinaabe lens and that I may interpret his work differently because of that. I do, however, understand the significance of, and why it is so vital that, Indigenous people stand–literally and figuratively–in their territories. Our understanding of place is not only resistance to the colonial goal of removing Indigenous people from the land but central to our knowledge systems. Yellowknives Dene scholar Glen Coulthard articulates place as, “a way of knowing, experiencing, and relating with the world – and these ways of knowing often guide forms of resistance to power relations that threaten to erase or destroy our senses of place” (Coulthard, p. 1). While it is characteristic in hip-hop to do so, Shibastik’s assertion of homeland is also a rejection of a pan-Aboriginal, state-mandated identity. He is specific and intentional in his expression of identity.
These days the way we live ain’t like they used to be
but it’s pretty damn close up in Moosonee
we still eat bannock dipped in the môsâkamin
and everything from the gizzards to the goose’s feet
dreamcatcher in the window where I choose to sleep
moccasins on the mirror when I cruise the streets
you’ll be sure to hear that bass rumbling
speakers pumping like my 12 gauge gunning
when I’m duck hunting
Referencing the way things used to be–the “back in the day”–is common in emceeing and it is, as Forman notes, often imbued with a sense of nostalgia (Forman, p. 9). Shibastik rejects this nostalgia, interjecting it with still, meaning “in the future as in the past.” It is a direct refutation to what Navarro calls the colonial imaginary and the perverse fascination with disappeared Indians. We are still here. With “these days the way we live ain’t like they used to be,” the artist acknowledges both the destructive effects of colonialism that altered Indigenous lifeways, but immediately follows up by expressing the resistance and resilience of the Maškēkowak Cree people. A centuries old tradition, the goose hunt is of the utmost importance to the Maškēkowak around the Moose River: for sustenance, for presence on the land, for community and for nationhood. The reference to the hunt in Moose River honors the interconnectedness of place and space; where Shibastik is from is not easily divided or compartmentalized from who he is.
With this verse, Shibastik also challenges normative notions of the so-called “isolated reserve” as a place of deficit. Particularly in the last few years, we have seen northern communities like Attawapiskat and Kashechewan highlighted for their poverty and virtually under attack by mainstream media. These deficit narratives position communities as primary targets for racist settler journalists intent on upholding white supremacy, many who have gone so far as to suggest they should be “shut down” and everyone relocated. Shibastik counters this narrative by focusing solely on what is culturally present; this geography is inhabited and it is creating strong voices. Rejecting the false benefits of assimilation, he positions being close to the way things used to be as a positive. For Shibastik, the nation – and even more specifically, the community – becomes a foundation of personal strength linked to practices on the land and shared lived experience.
reserves are cursed
time and twist my fate
grip this page and pray
I won’t just slip away
I’m here to stay
even when my spirit fades
never hear my lyrics change
I’ll always rep the James Bay
Because we live under settler colonial occupation–a system fuelled by racism, heteropatriarchy, and violence in all of its forms–hatred and dehumanization of Indigenous people is normalized. It is part of our lived experience as Indigenous people today. This is why it is vital that we be unapologetic in our love for our nations and our communities, unapologetic in our love for our place as Indigenous people. When we dismantle the narrative of shame that the colonial system ascribes our homes–as Shibastik has done with Moose River–what emerges is an assertion of nationhood that is powered by radical love.
Often humility is understood as not thinking of yourself as above anyone, but it was Shibastik who reminded me, when I interviewed him, that humility is also about not thinking yourself beneath anyone. White supremacy hates when Indigenous people love themselves. I am championing an unapologetic love for our people that rejects the colonizers’ gaze and the desire to perform for colonial recognition. We rep for our nations out of love for ourselves, love for our communities and love for our lands. Repping your Indigenous nationhood, as Shibastik does the James Bay, is medicine for all of us who have been fed a false narrative about how behind we are and what we are lacking.
That’s a big part of what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to show the beautiful side about what we have and why we need to keep it. We need to see how we’re lucky. This isolation gives us an opportunity to stay connected to the culture.
Miigwech to Shibastik for creating something that emerges from a love–an unabashed, defiant, and bold love–for our homelands.
Susan Blight is Anishinaabe from Couchiching First Nation. A visual artist, filmmaker, and arts educator, Susan is co-founder of The Ogimaa Miikana Project, an artist/activist collective working to reclaim and rename the roads, streets, and landmarks of Toronto with Anishinaabemowin. In 2013, she joined the Indigenous Routes artist collective which works to provide new media training for indigenous youth. Susan Blight received a Masters of Fine Arts from the University of Windsor in Integrated Media, a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography and a Bachelor of Arts in Film Studies from the University of Manitoba. She is the recipient of a 2014 IDERD award for her anti-racism work at the University of Toronto.
 Shibastik refers to himself as a Cree man in Moose River. In this article, I use both Cree and Maškēkowak to refer to his nation.