I’m concerned for your academic career if you talk about this publicly

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What truths would be written if academics weren’t afraid of losing their jobs?

What truths would be written if you followed through, in practice, the type of sovereignty and decolonization you theorize in journals?

All the times I’ve heard some version of “I’m concerned about your academic career if you talk about this publicly”: that’s not concern for me.

I knew about the systems, I knew the stories about these men. We all do. We all do, because academic aunties gossip. And academic auntie gossip saves lives.

But still, I irrationally believed I was safe, or somehow exempt.

Even after, in second year, that time I got out of that ethics professor’s car, downtown, at night, in the middle of winter, and walked home rather than sit beside him after he joked that his seats recline all the way, if I was interested.

Even after, in third year, that time your fave scholar put his 50-something-year-old hand on my thigh under the table at that conference.

I’m not talking about “complexities” or “relations” or even sex; I’m talking about a fundamental failure to comprehend power and consent.

Like last week, a friend told me about the question he heard from a colleague:

“So are you sleeping with her?”, he asked, “she’s your student, right?”

because he can’t imagine any other reason why a professor would be friends with me.

“Well be careful, that kind of thing will stick to you” (even after he replied “no”): brotherly advice.

No, it won’t: but your words will stick to me.

That’s how patriarchy works, don’t you get it? The risk will never be theirs. Just get that tenure, bro. Just keep a handle on that funding, bro. Then you’ll be safe. Academics: we look out for each other, bro. The risk will never be theirs.

The risk is mine, for daring to believe I could stand on stages and give keynotes alongside men with PhDs.

So: these men talk. But so do women.

“Don’t take a ride with him. I’ll pick you up at the airport before your talk”:

I’m thankful for academic aunties who have saved my life all those times.

and

I’m angry that academic aunties know to offer rides because they didn’t have anyone to do the same for them, when they were me.

Believe her when she tells you not to take a ride with him. Believe her.

All the times I’ve heard some version of “I’m concerned for your academic career if you talk about this publicly”: that’s not concern for me.

Fuck any academic career that comes at the price of my safety and bodily sovereignty.

Fuck any academic career that requires my silence.

Fuck any academic discipline that shelters abusive men.

Academic aunties save lives.

Believe her.

miwasin

Poetry gives me freedom, sometimes.
Sometimes forces me into shapes, corners, feminities
that are stunning, suffocating
And deliciously dishonest.

Once I said I wanted my writing to taste good
served with misâskwatômina, like sweet berries.
Like the only way Native women are valuable
is when we are consumable.
Pretty.
Sweet.

But the problem is my writing smells more like the iron in blood,
gushing from an enthusiastically miscalculated sinew needle puncture wound.
My writing is the texture of lard and exhaust,
the taste of trying to fill your belly with the inhaled dust of inner city food deserts.
My writing is too many syllables and too much rage.

Did anyone ever tell you:
Your resistance does not need to be sexy to be real.
Sometimes it’s sexy, and you deserve that too,
but your trauma does not need to be poetic to be worthy.

If the purpose of sweetness
is to make me palatable enough to balance on your tongue
jusqua
until you swallow me whole,

I hope my writing never
ever
tastes like berries.

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A desert tortoise named The Old Lady. She grew up in Hollywood, and is now about 90 years old and has retired to the suburbs. Desert tortoises have an extraordinary capacity for enduring harsh environments. Today I found out she isn’t much for blueberries, preferring either the flowers on my dress or the shade cast under my knees.

My Optimism Wears Moccasins and is Loud: On Paris, Heavy Metal, and Chasing Freedom

Content Warning: sexual assault; Indigenous Feminist anger that cuts like the lead riff in “The Trooper

My optimism wears moccasins and is loud.

My optimism sometimes wears moccasins and is always loud.

As a Nehiyaw girl growing up in a small prairie city in Canada, I got into punk, hard rock, and metal music early on. My “rebellious phase” was spent at the local goth club between the ages of 13 – 15. Fortunately, the rebellion never involved drinking or drugs or sex. I didn’t have my first drink until I turned 19; my first kiss (with a boy…) a few months earlier. My vice was loud music. I grew up with other Indigenous kids who loved and lived metal music, and I have yet to outgrow that love.

Paris and COP 21

bridge

On a bridge over the Seine for the #Canoes2Paris action led by Indigenous people

I spent December in Paris for the United Nations COP 21 climate conference. In the context of global climate catastrophe, metal is the only honest soundtrack.

“We’re standing here by the abyss / and the world is in flames”
– Ghost, “He Is

Hey Brown Kid!: You are inheriting a world that the powerful, rich, and greedy are fucking up. You have no money. You are told at every turn that you have no power, no chance: so you might as well have a furious soundtrack.

climate march poster

a half-removed poster for the Paris December 7th climate march in a metro station

Metal isn’t (necessarily) all about nihilism. The alternative to giving up is tending to the anger and learning from it. The alternative is coming to the realization that anger is the only humane reaction to injustice.

The trouble with cultivating anger is that it builds up inside your body, and it can rip you into pieces. Indigenous youth understand better than anyone that the cost of built-up anger with no outlet is drugs, self-harm, and suicide.

There is a stunning Icelandic film called Metalhead (Málmhaus), about a young woman who lives in a small rural community and embraces metal music as a way to confront death and hopelessness. The final scene is iconic, and will turn you into a puddle of melting corpsepaint if you, too, have headbanged in your room to Symphony of Destruction. The film’s themes translate well into the current realities of so many Indigenous communities.

I remember once, an old môniyaw professor asked me to send him an example of “your people’s music” after a conversation where he assumed the only instrument we used was “simple drums”. I sent him Biipiigwan (yes, that’s Anishinaabemowin).

Loud music is a fantastic traditional medicine.


The Show

ghost1

[Ghost at La Cigale]

On December 7th, I went to see a concert by one of my favourite metal bands, Ghost.

I have a history of traveling in the pursuit of loud music. Running away from the incapacitation of depression exacerbated by staying still – running toward loudness, speed, feeling, and life. I kept an eye out for other metal shows in Paris at the same time but was disturbed at the possibility of walking into a white supremacist metal show. Being a Brown or Black metal fan, anywhere (but perhaps amplified in Europe) means the risk of unwittingly walking into a literal neo-Nazi concert.

Ghost’s singer, Papa Emeritus III, adorns himself like a demonic pope draped in velvet (…stay with me, now) while the other musicians wear variations of dark cloaks and masks. The identities of the musicians are hidden.

The lyrics mock religion, wealth, and worship. Something about the ghoulish aesthetic resonates with me, unsurprisingly, given Canada’s legacy of church-run residential schools stealing Indigenous children from their homes. Metalhead has similar themes.

The concert was at La Cigale in the 18th arrondissement, a short walk from metro station Barbès – Rochechouart. The show had sold out months earlier, so I walked around the venue to find a ticket scalper, preparing to struggle through a shady transaction in a second language.

I first saw him standing on the street corner, texting on his phone. One of the guitarists, who I recognized by his distinctive hair and his jeans –  I think most musicians have that same pair of well-worn tour jeans. I walked up to introduce myself. Surprised that I had recognized him, we went into a bar nearby and had drinks.

I asked him how he was doing. He replied, “I’m fucking exhausted. We’ve been on the road for months.”

Explaining that I was in town for the climate conference, we talked about Sami politics and the environment. We talked about the similarities in landscapes and weather in Sweden and Canada; the isolation of small towns, the love of metal. Even in his exhaustion, he was kind and warm.

———

“It’s Paris, so they line up so neatly and always right on time.” No one in line for the concert recognizes him as he walks past; or if they do, they’re too Parisian cool to admit it.

Heading into the venue, I thought of the times I walked through graveyards in the middle of the night, with friends and a flask of red wine, listening to his music. I thought about telling him. I didn’t. I tried to be Parisian cool. (Cree taciturn?)

The After Party

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“In the night / I am real”
Ghost, “If You Have Ghosts

The after party was at a bar called “The Mayflower” – the name of an infamous colonial ship. I cringed and laughed and complained. I drank absinthe and felt light on my feet, even though I had been dancing the whole night. Even though we were in a bar called “The Mayflower”.

That’s the thing about Paris.  No matter how much I wanted to lose myself in the beautiful surroundings, I was unable to fully relax in such a hyper-colonial space.

Paris is a city that once had human zoos – where Black and Indigenous people were taken and displayed for the entertainment of gawking Europeans.

Paris is a city that displays colonial conquest in its museums, refusing to return ceremonial objects and even human remains to the Indigenous nations from which they were stolen.

So, forgive me for the absinthe.

I said au revoir and skipped off into the night, dancing over cobblestones to catch the metro home.

In Transit, 1

I saw this poster in the metro stations: a government advertisement promoting travel to Canada. The photo shows a vast, snowy white landscape with huskies pulling a sled. The caption reads: “Explorez sans fin / Canada / Keep exploring”. An advertisement of terra nullius – the notion of unoccupied, unused land which was invoked at contact to justify colonization of North America.

keep exploring

When I talk about colonialism, extractive industry, and climate change as having direct impacts on the bodies of Indigenous women, I don’t mean any of it as a metaphor.

———

There is something about the intersection of patriarchy and colonialism that gazes upon us in our moments of freedom and decides it will try to steal that, too. Europe’s history of colonizing (the Indigenous lands now known as) Canada is not something of the past that has vanished. Empire requires constant maintenance.

In the metro station, I was sexually assaulted.

When the man chose to randomly attack me he did it while I was in transit – on my way home from a concert by one of my favourite bands.

When he chose to attack me, I had just finished a drink with friends. I wondered if my blood alcohol content would be printed as a headline if I went missing.

When he chose to attack me, he became angry as I repeatedly pushed him away and refused him access to something that wasn’t his.

As I push the unwelcome white hands of this man away from my brown skin in a European capital, I push back on terra nullius.

In my refusal / I am real

All those times I said NO, yet he still doesn’t seem to understand –  his doctrine of discovery is worthless on the surface of my skin. I was here first, and here I remain.

Yelling “no” in his face, the words hit my throat hard, the same way it would feel a few days later to yell “no” at rows of gendarmerie – French riot police – lined up with their rifles and shields to protect oil companies.

I ran up the steps and hit the emergency call button. I was too flustered to work my way through any intelligible French, so the man on the other end did not understand me. My attacker ran away. (Later, when I tried to report it to the police, no one spoke English so I was turned away. The next time I went back with friends who spoke fluent French, but the station was closed.)

I exited the metro station, expecting him to attack me again from behind every corner of the winding tunnel. I gripped my phone with its dead battery and thought about how best to use it as a weapon.

———

In response to the extent of gendered and sexualized violence we faced on the streets and in the conference centre alike, some members of our group suggest we do not roam the streets alone; that we implement a buddy system.

In response, I hop on a train to Belgium the next afternoon, alone, without telling anyone until I am across the border.

In Transit, 2: Antwerp

moontimewarriorintransit

[On the train from Paris to Antwerp]

 

You are cast out from the heavens to the ground
blackened feathers falling down

You will wear your independence like a crown

Ghost, “From the Pinnacle to the Pit

I am happiest when I am moving; something to do with the histories of migrations in my blood.

One of the hardest things to learn as a young Indigenous person is slowing down. How do I force myself to be patient in the face of constant devastation? Why would I slow down when I might not get the chance to grow older? So, the speed of the train hurtling out of France and that loud, fast music in my headphones feels like freedom.

Upon arrival in Antwerp, I realized I had absolutely no knowledge of the Dutch language. The sudden, total immersion was frightening and exhilarating.

antwerp.jpg
[Antwerp]

I navigated my way to the show at Muziekcentrum, where I was on the guest list. 13-year-old me would think I was so cool. I danced unabashedly, learning quickly that Belgian metal crowds are apparently very polite and barely move.

The show was magic; the loudness was medicine.

Ghost 3

[Ghost]

I wanted to stay and say thank you. Thank you for your music. Thank you for helping me find freedom and anger in the face of devastation. But I had to catch a train back to Paris.

Just keep moving.

Travelling Home

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[reclaiming transit: in the République metro station – thanks to Katie for helping me with this photo]

“I can feel the thunder that’s breaking in your heart /
I can see through the scars inside you”
– Ghost, “Cirice

As Indigenous women, how do we talk about sexual violence in a way that allows us to own our vulnerability?  How do we prevent our stories from becoming consumed by colonial voyeurism in nations that thrive on making us vulnerable? I want to confront how violence against Indigenous women is presented as disconnected individual narratives, blaming women who put themselves “at risk”, rather than as a systematic necessity for the maintenance of settler colonial states.

Just as understanding histories and impacts of colonization is relevant to understanding Indigenous people, sexual violence is a devastatingly usual story in the lives of Indigenous women. But it is never our only story. Iskwewak (Indigenous women) are not reducible to narratives of conquest.

I read an interview where Henry Rollins says, “My optimism wears heavy boots and is loud.” My optimism wears heavy boots, sometimes moccasins, sometimes bare feet, sometimes skipping on cobblestones, sometimes on the prairies; my optimism is fucking loud. Raining Blood loud. War Pigs loud. Forever My Queen loud. Am I Evil loud.

I dream of Indigenous women and girls being safe & free in our own bodies and wherever we go in the world. But “safety”, in the context of global climate catastrophe, means cultivating enough anger as motivation to destroy extractive systems that will kill us unless we kill them first.

Surviving as a Native girl, daring to walk down the street alone at night: that’s a revolution. Listening to heavy music and dancing and drinking and being angry and loud, refusing to let violence rob us of wanderlust: that’s my revolution.

One day we’ll get that freedom. Just keep acting it out until it’s real. Just keep moving.

The Queen’s English

Shame is the reaction requested when they look you in the mouth and say,

“lost her language”,

but I know language well enough to pinpoint each time it’s lost instead of stole,
and that
 shame alone cannot build homes or sustain bodies.

So I speak the Queen’s English, every day

and you must admit it’s fun to watch her squirm

as I roll her words on my wild tongue like they’re chokecherries

the way my fingers expand those sentences into shapes she doesn’t recognize/can’t read

Break into her locked cupboards to devour greedily the literatures, philosophies;

get drunk and daring on the poetries
all of those nice, proper words that linger on my lips a bit

too

long. as if they liked it there (imagine the audacity)

Send me to bed early with no supper

I’ll keep playing with colonizer’s languages

bringing pleasure back to written letters weaponized to rip through flesh like mine

see those syllables  m e l t  at the touch of my nehiyawiskwew softness

(imagine the audacity) brown softness

in a world of borders
and sharp corners

strawberries

holding strawberries in Italy

And to think that I saw it on 20th Street

I walked home down 20th street, toward a small brown-skinned Indigenous girl, maybe five years old, standing on the sidewalk. She was wearing a pink raincoat, rubber boots, and carrying a big gold foil balloon in the shape of a star, but overfilled with helium so it puffed up like a marshmallow. I waved at her and she waved back, at the same time letting go of the ribbon wrapped around her little mitten. The balloon escaped into the sky. She didn’t cry or scream, which surprised me, instead we just stood there for a minute and watched it ascend.

Moments of beautiful sparkling life, the significance of which will never be known to people who hit the lock button and speed by the inner city on their daily drive from the suburbs to downtown or the east side and back.

marshmallow star

Illustration by Fatin Chowdhury: “Marshmallow star on 20th street”.
Originally recounted as a social media update, because why not?

Feeding the Heart of the City: A Love Letter at the Closing of Our Grocery Store

One of my earliest memories as a child is of sour fruit juice staining my face at my Y gym class.

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You may think this face was evidence of civil disobedience to come, but I swear, it was the bitter juice.

A lot of my memories of growing up, like most people, I imagine, are about food and eating.

I remember having smoked salmon jerky in White Rock, BC with my Maori grandfather. I swam in the cold ocean with my mom and we laughed as we watched grandpa on the beach, picking clams out of their shell and sliding them into his mouth, raw.

I remember, later that day at dinner, sitting at the immaculately-set table of my grandfather’s new girlfriend. She had privately asked me to call her “grandma” even though I had just met her. I was nervous and tried to sit still and eat properly, but my hands shook and I spilled my juice all over and ran away from the table crying. Being near the starchy, sterile things in her house made me lose my appetite.

She gave me a bag of castoffs; well-worn clothing that her own precious grandchildren had outgrown. I tried to act grateful while she showed off pink shirts covered in glittery silkscreened horses (her grandchildren did equestrian, because of course they did). I remember Grandpa made a joke (???) about how horses were just “good eatin’”, to make me smile.

As we packed up to catch the Greyhound back to Saskatchewan, I heard him quietly ask how Mary (or Nana, as I knew her) was doing these days.

My mom told me on the way home how he had never really gotten over her.

grandpa.jpg

(Nana gave me my first donut behind my mom’s back, because that’s what nanas do.)

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I remember beef soup at elementary school feasts, and learning to serve elders first; but surreptitiously wondering with a rumbly belly, how old I had to be before I was an elder too. I remember KFC boxes containing our special monthly “hot lunch” of choice. We took a class trip to The Hague, SK, where we brought bannock and the Mennonites served us dark red beet borscht.

My mom worked in the kitchen of my school, so I went in with her early every morning to prepare breakfast and bagged lunches for the low-income lunch program. She worked as a cook until I was born, is still a great cook, and likely harbours secret shame from that time I tried to heat a frozen pizza and forgot to take the cardboard off the bottom.

We were relatively stable at times, so I would share the peanut butter and saltine sandwiches my mom would pack, along with containers of olives, which a lot of kids in the lunchroom had never seen before. (A boy I liked then teased me that I stunk like the olives, but I decided I liked the olives more, anyway.)

I remember a teacher telling me, “your mom always packs the nicest lunches for you, she must love you very much”, not understanding how that must’ve felt for the kids beside me. The ability of parents to pack homemade lunches was not about how much they loved their children, but the legacy of governments who have never wanted Indigenous children fed.

I remember our trips to the food bank because the kitchen job wasn’t enough. I remember what the distribution room smelled like, and spending a lot of time watching the floor as we waited in line. I remember waiting at the door and making my mom carry our hamper and the bag of apples or oranges on her own, because I felt ashamed. A few things stick out in my mind from the hampers: sometimes suspect cans, a litre of milk, and these bright yellow packages of ramen noodles with a colourful monster on the front that I’ve never seen for sale outside of this part of town. I know then, just as now, volunteers do the best they can with little funding and few donations.

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“Noodle Snack”: the meal equivalent of malk.

I remember, one year, being “adopted” by a wealthy white family through a Saskatoon holiday program. They came to our house on Christmas day and gave us more groceries than I’d ever seen all at once, and toys for me (a brand name Barbie!). I remember this idyllic family of 4 – a mom, dad, a daughter, and a son – all blond with giant toothy smiles, standing inside our doorway in their snow boots, while we thanked them profusely for their generosity.

I remember growing up and being referred to as “less fortunate” and “at-risk”.

I remember last week in Montreal, finding myself at $75 business dinner I couldn’t afford on my own, but was too afraid to say otherwise. As a consequence, I spent most of the time thinking about the roots of food insecurity on this land.

The Inner City, The North, and Food Insecurity in Kisiskâciwan (Saskatchewan)

Inner city misâskwatôminihk (Saskatoon) is known locally as “The Heart of the City”, or it was, until the gentrification process kicked into full swing and “Riversdale Revitalization” took over. The area of the city where I live, Pleasant Hill, is on the edge of gentrification, and the poorest area of the city. It is predominantly Indigenous, with a particularly high Métis population.

There are some great people in the city who have already critiqued discourses of gentrification disguised as revitalization: from the desire to “introduce culture” to a place where settlers see no culture or history of worth, to the hipster callousness of a cafe on 20th street whose wifi password was/is probably still “ItsAllGoodInTheHood”.

The Good Food Junction

On January 27th, the only grocery store that sold fresh produce within a 10 block radius in either direction of my house was closed after 3 years of operation.

The Good Food Junction was a hard-won co-op project at Station 20 West, the same building where we held the first Idle No More teach-in.

Before the Good Food Junction went in, I remember the pilgrimages of people in our neighbourhood who would walk down the busy, treeless stretch of concrete, 20th street, in the hot sun or the freezing winter. 30 minutes to the Extra Foods and 30 minutes back, this time, carrying groceries to hopefully last for the week.

Opening the doors of the Good Food Junction was a struggle. The NDP government had dedicated 8 million dollars that would’ve funded the store, but Brad Wall’s Sask Party government withdrew the funding as soon as they took office. The community managed to raise it, anyway, but it took much longer.

Yes, this is the same Brad Wall who recently responded to prison hunger strikes in Saskatchewan by saying, “if you really don’t like the prison food, there’s one way to avoid it and that’s don’t go to prison.” This, in a province where 16% of the population is First Nations, but constitute 80-90% of the prison population.

It is not a coincidence that areas with high Indigenous populations are the areas deprived of access to food and health care. At its core, this is an issue of maintaining the dispossession of Indigenous people and the legitimacy of Canadian control; an attempt to destroy the nations and legal orders that we hold in our blood, our muscles, our stomaches, our minds, our mouths.

Driving up to the north in January, I talked with my friend Mylan about how kisiskâciwan is considered terra nullius by so many Canadian settlers who do not understand that these lands feed & house millions of people – from crops, to meat, to the logs taken from clearcutting and shipped around the world – and yet, on these lands of our ancestors, we are starved.

My response to Brad: if you don’t want us to stick our sassy tongues out at you, stop contributing to Canada’s history of starving Indigenous people while you dine on stolen land and resources.

tongue.png

Gloria Anzaldúa wrote, “Wild tongues can’t be tamed, they can only be cut out.”

Media coverage of the Good Food Junction has been ahistorical. Headlines refer to the closure (if they refer to it at all) as a store failing because of its high prices. If the paper was progressive, it might mention that the prices were high only because the small, independent grocery store could not afford to keep up with massive discount retailers in the vicinity like Giant Tiger (owned by The North West Company) and No Frills (owned by Loblaw’s). The North West Company also owns North Mart, notorious for price gouging northern residents, largely Inuit.

price gouge.png

I’m not interested in narratives of “neglect” as the cause of poor health in the North, which are everywhere following the shooting in La Loche; at least not without digging deeper. Negligence, yes. Broken legal obligations, yes. But this was only a problem once poverty, violence, and food insecurity were created not as a consequence of Canadian neglect, but rather, by colonial theft and the willful destruction of ways of life that sustained us for centuries. Being left alone in the first place is one of the best things that could’ve happened for Indigenous people and for this land.

saskatoonbison.png

“Bison skulls awaiting shipment east via train”. Saskatoon, 1886. Source: Saskatoon Public Library History Room. Via Paul Seesequasis.

I remember Conservative MP Leona Aglukkaq’s comments that Indigenous people don’t need food security because we can go out and hunt. (My tastes aren’t as adventurous as my grandpa, so I’m not super into the idea of hunting pigeons on 20th street). She made these comments while Indigenous people around the country spoke about the irreversible pollution of clean water streams that could be scooped from hands to mouths a mere decade ago; the appearance of cancerous sores on once delicious and plentiful fish; the difficulty of trapping and hunting as winters disappear and migration patterns shift.

ka âhkameyihtamihk: persevere

The closing of the Good Food Junction is a loss in misâskwatôminihk, but it is not the end.

There is a community garden a few streets from my house.

There are revival projects to teach about Indigenous foods.

There are people brave enough to refuse to eat in protest of unsuitable food because they know they deserve better.

This is my love letter to all the wild-tongued dreamers in kisiskâciwan; those who built the Good Food Junction, those who are fighting for inner cities, and the North, and on traplines, and in prisons, and on any land where others are growing rich on our hunger.

When it feels impossible, remember: there is nothing more radical and threatening to their greed than the dream of our communities well-fed, healthy, and strong.

see ya soon.jpg

“Indigenizing the Academy” without Indigenous people: who can teach our stories?

“The Indigenous person engages in philosophy by thoughtfully examining the world. The outsider examines Indigenous philosophy by thoughtfully interacting with the Indigenous philosopher.”

— Thurman Lee Hester Jr. and Dennis McPherson, “The Euro-American Philosophical Tradition and its Ability to Examine Indigenous Philosophy”1

With the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report on residential schools in June 2015, “Indigenizing the Academy” is a hot topic in Canadian universities. As institutions explore the introduction of Indigenous content, we have to question what is defined as Indigenous content, who this content serves, and how the pursuit of “indigenizing the academy” can easily become exploitative.

In 2013, I helped put together a new syllabus for an Indigenous Philosophy class at my university. The philosophy department wouldn’t consider allowing someone without a PhD in philosophy teach this course, but pairing an Indigenous undergrad with a white philosophy professor was, apparently, acceptable. (Oh, the power dynamics.) Aware of the limitations of our knowledge, we created a course that was largely guest speakers: a roster of amazing Indigenous scholars and elders. This couldn’t have been done, practically or ethically, without immense support from the Indigenous Studies faculty.

Many canonical European philosophers – Hegel, Kant, Locke, to name a few – saw Indigenous peoples as lacking agency, and incapable of intellectual thought. This is the history that the discipline of philosophy inherits, but far from being a legacy, philosophy is still used as a way to signify whose knowledges are legitimate and whose are invalid.

The portrayal of Indigenous thought as simplistic, primitive, and unarticulated is key in the erasure and justification of genocide.

Photograph of a collage of Rene Descartes, juxtaposed with an image of a black man with a machete, so it appears that Descartes is about to be attacked. Text reads: “modern philosophy is largely a reaction to Descartes”

This picture was taped to the door of a professor in the philosophy department at my university.

(a photograph of a collage of Rene Descartes, juxtaposed with an image of a black man with a machete, so it appears that Descartes is about to be attacked. Text reads: “modern philosophy is largely a reaction to Descartes”)

A Case Study in Classroom Colonialism

Originally, “Indigenous Philosophy 115” was registered as a course by a white professor in the philosophy department. Multiple Indigenous scholars on campus were curious about this class and contacted the philosophy department, but attempts for clarification regarding his experience or qualifications to teach Indigenous content proved unsatisfactory.

This September, I decided to sit in on the class with a few friends, and I took notes on the experience. (A bit of ethnography, if you will.)

Field Notes: Indigenous Fauxlosophy

Day One: September 4, 2015

1. The professor starts the class, “Philosophy is not so much about learning about history, I want to know what you think and feel about the issues”. A statement like this wouldn’t fly in any other philosophy class, of course. While universities may have just “discovered” Indigenous philosophy, these knowledges are vast, complex, unique to nations, and well-understood by community knowledge keepers.

2. “I like going into a class where I can make my own views. Not just memorize this, memorize this. Well, what about ME?” The hard, selfless life of a white guy in philosophy. Never hearing your history, having your knowledges mutilated by outsiders. Wait, what?

3. “In philosophy we study pros & cons, different views. In my ethics class I taught about homosexuality from both pro & con perspectives.” Some students shift uncomfortably in their desks. In philosophy, so often, the lives of marginalized people are reduced to thought experiments. (I wrote about this here.)

4. “The United States didn’t give any title to Natives. They have reservations, that’s it.” A fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of Indigenous sovereignty.

5. We begin the reading. He reduces the story to how the Penobscot author is lacking self-esteem as a Native in a “new place”. All the vast, beautiful, endless worlds of Indigenous knowledge to choose from & he starts the entire class with how Native women apparently “lack self-esteem”.

6. “Eunice was from Maine, Penobscot, an group that has been there – well, since contact […] which is impressive because not many Natives were there. How many Natives are in Manhattan now? Washington D.C.? None!” False.

7. The professor’s explanation of Indigenous governance: “It was like university, faculty get together with Robert’s Rules of Order, everyone had input.” False. Bonus points: I know a lot of faculty who would disagree with that assessment of democratic university governance.

8. The last note I wrote down: while discussing the benefits of an authoritarian model of government: “People feel valued when someone takes charge […] there’s less bumbling around, things get done, houses get built”. (If you’re interested in substantial discussions of how First Nations are confronting lack of safe housing as a real problem rooted in systematic underfunding, check out the One House, Many Nations project.)

Day Two: September 9, 2015

We discuss capitalism. A back-and-forth interaction:

A student raises the issue of the Oka Crisis. The professor’s response: “Well the issue there was a golf course. That was local.”

Student replies: “The issue was colonization.”

The professor replies: “Colonization and a golf course. […] those are very particular disputes. Like New Calendonia. That’s a little area of land that the people of Six Nations want, but the people in that area don’t want to give up.”

“I don’t think the author is thinking just of Indigenous people as suffering. There’s all sorts of people who are suffering.”

Student replies: “Isn’t this an issue of white supremacy?”

The professor says: “Why would you say white supremacy? […] Global capitalism now is racially neutral. […] Capitalism goes beyond issues of colonialism or race.”

Day Three: September 11, 2015

We spend the entire class studying the new-agey, super questionable course text and the words of a woman who claims to be Seneca. A quick Google search finds little content other than discussion of plastic shamans. I raise this issue at the end of the class; the professor’s response is “well, she says she’s Seneca!” I wish I had Kim TallBear or Joanne Barker here beside me, right now. 

[[Update, Nov 10: A woman who is part of the author’s community contacted me to vouch for her. Unfortunately, it appears that some facilitators are carrying out “Native American” teachings in her name (in workshops that cost hundreds of euros) now that she is passed. As a non-Seneca, it’s not my role to name the author here.]]

Day Four:

Research discontinued for the sake of my wellbeing and the value of my time.


The Histories of Erasing & Co-Opting Indigenous Knowledge

There is nothing new about white academics being paid to teach about Indigenous people. As Choctaw historian Devon Mihesuah writes, “The greatest body of acceptable telling of the Indian story is still in the hands of non-natives”.2  While some departments may develop Indigenous content courses based on genuine desire for social justice, there are many benefits and rewards for white settlers who decide they want to teach “Indigenous content”. Suddenly, these settlers become the resident “Indigenous experts”, consultants for all things Indigenous. They are asked to sit on committees. The departments receive funding increases and accolades for their efforts. All of this, done, conveniently, without the need for actual Indigenous perspectives.

Moreover, I wonder how the pursuit to integrate “Indigenous content” into all classrooms is rooted in a desire to undercut the growing strength of Indigenous Studies programs, still the home of most Indigenous faculty on campuses. For me, Indigenous Studies is a space where like-minded people can come together to learn, plan, rest, and build strength. (Which is exactly why our gatherings have always been cause for settler concern.)

Finally, the desire of Canadian universities to play a role in “reconciliation” by incorporating Indigenous content and appealing to Indigenous students is driven by corporatization and investments in extractive industry. If they give us some programming, the logic goes, perhaps we will stop complaining about their storage of nuclear waste in our communities

Indigenous Philosophers are accountable to their communities

Indigenous faculty and students are challenging the way this course is presently taught, but little has been done. The justification that forms a fortress around ignorance is “academic freedom”.

In the case of perpetuating incorrect history about Indigenous peoples, understand that your academic freedom has a body count.

We heard comments that this professor’s class was helpful to the cause of Indigenous Philosophy; that we should be grateful anyone was showing interest. This was followed by a suggestion that the way forward was for Indigenous professors to “work” with philosophy professors. A Nehiyaw professor objected, “Why would we spend our time teaching other people how to teach our subjects? And for free?”

As Vine Deloria, Jr. writes,

The researcher has the luxury of studying the community as an object of science, whereas the young Indian, who knows the nuances of tribal life, receives nothing in the way of compensation or recognition for his knowledge, and instead must continue to do jobs, often manual labor, that have considerably less prestige. If knowledge of the Indian community is so valuable, how can non-Indians receive so much compensation for their small knowledge and Indians receive so little for their extensive knowledge?

— Vine Deloria, Jr., “Research, Redskins, and Reality”3


To paraphrase another Indigenous faculty member, “If I walked in and decided I wanted to teach physics, they would laugh me out of the office. So why is it that this university is allowing someone to teach Indigenous content without the proper qualification?”

The Maintenance of White Supremacy

To quote philosopher Dr. Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman, “the effect of #whitecurriculum = we have imbued white male writers with the power & authority to speak for everyone.”

It is white supremacy to believe that non-Indigenous people are automatically more capable and qualified to articulate Indigenous histories, worldviews, and stories.

White supremacy is a white professor deciding, one day, that he’d like to teach Indigenous Philosophy. He is allowed to teach the class and given multiple platforms, including an upcoming departmental colloquium (colloquiums are mandatory for grad students).

Now, wouldn’t it be something to invite one of the many brilliant, accomplished, world-renowned Indigenous scholars on our campus to speak to this mandatory-attendance event? (Obviously, compensation would need to be provided. It is never the responsibility of invited Indigenous scholars to share knowledge to outsiders for free.)

Here’s the thing: even if Indigenous people were to spend our entire lives trying to explain our philosophies to settlers (this would be a great plot line for a horror movie set in Nehiyaw hell, by the way), they still might not get it.

Not only was the classroom content I described above inaccurate, but silly, as well, demonstrating a basic lack of understanding regarding the ways our communities operate. As Thurman Lee Hester Jr. and Dennis McPherson write in “The Euro-American Philosophical Tradition and its Ability to Examine Indigenous Philosophy”, “…to operate within the paradigm of Euro-American philosophy would mean that you are necessarily cut off from any real understanding of Indigenous thought.”4

This is the worst accusation of all for a white male philosopher: the suggestion that he cannot know something, and further, to point out that others have knowledge he might never be able to have. Not as a result of biology (!!!), but as the result of a redefinition of knowledge, giving weight to embodied experience; a recognition of Indigenous epistemic privilege.

Fundamentally, an unwillingness to acknowledge the expertise of Indigenous intellectuals is an unwillingness to concede space, privilege, and authority.

We are our own best wisdomkeepers

ayaangwaamizin

I want to give credit to Thurman Lee Hester Jr. and Dennis McPherson, whose work in Ayaangwaamizin: the International Journal for Indigenous Philosophy perfectly articulates why we are right to be uncomfortable if the “best person for the job” always happens to be a white man:

Even if workable research methodologies can be developed, there are still serious problems that make Euro-American examination of Indigenous traditions harmful.

The most serious is the potential for a scholastic “conquest” of Indigenous philosophy. Any academic book or university class carries with it the imprimatur of authority.

To the extent that these books are authored by Euro-Americans and these classes are taught by Euro-Americans, there is the potential for them to be perceived as the authorities on Indigenous philosophy. This tragic irony is already well underway. Many Indigenous people are reading these books and attending these classes, seeking to understand themselves and their histories. Though some do so quite critically, many assume that these books and classes would not be offered if they were not authoritative.

The damage done to people who believe this is difficult to describe, but can be devastating.

To believe that your own people are not their own wisdom keepers is horrific.5

My aim in writing this isn’t to provide lessons for white educators and administrators to become better at teaching Indigenous content, or to defend the total erasure of Indigenous content by excuse of ignorance. The centering of Indigenous knowledges in universities is important, and it must be done right. If the foundations of the settler colonial state are not challenged, the incorporation of so-called “Indigenous content” into classrooms is a method of continuous recolonization; furthering claims of ownership and authority over Indigenous knowledges and Indigenous lands.

As Jeff Corntassel writes, “Being a warrior of the truth is not […] about mediating between worldviews as much as challenging the dominant colonial discourse.  It is about raising awareness of Indigenous histories and place-based existences as part of a continuing struggle against shape-shifting colonial powers.”

At the same time, respect that Indigenous students are regularly burdened with the task of “being a warrior” as we navigate through colonial institutions that force our disappearance through racist curriculum, only to hear “but we gave you Indigenous content, what more could you want from us?”

It’s important to remember that colonial educational institutions have never been the main method of preserving our knowledge (though we deserve to be safe in these spaces if we choose to be in them, nonetheless).

Our ancestors were imprisoned and even killed for practicing our knowledges, and yet, they persist.

This summer, I heard stories of how the land overlooking kisiskâciwani-sîpiy, where the University of Saskatchewan currently stands, was a gathering place for centuries.

Strange, then, how much it upsets folks when we burn sage and sweetgrass in offices and classrooms.

I heard stories from elders of how Métis and Nehiyaw mothers would construct improvised sweat lodge ceremonies using rocks heated in a frying pan, with blankets thrown over tables. The trick was that it needed to be swiftly dismantled if the Indian Agent were to come to the door.

Kinisitohten?

Now, do you understand?


1. Thurman Lee Hester Jr. and Dennis McPherson, “The Euro-American Philosophical Tradition and its Ability to Examine Indigenous Philosophy” in Ayaangwaamizin, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1997. p 6.

2. Natives and Academics: Researching and Writing about American Indians. Ed. Devon A. Mihesuah. University of Nebraska Press (1998). p. 13

3. Mihesuah, p. 9.

4. Hester and McPherson, p. 6

5. Ibid.

Thanks to Dr. Rob Innes for helping with last-minute edits (and keeping me accountable)