I didn’t think I was that poor until I came to grad school: dentalium and dreams beyond the university

I am thinking about wealth. Not necessarily money, but I am thinking of richness, and of the happiness that is supposed to come with it. That’s the whole idea, right? That being wealthy means you don’t have to worry, at least not about basic things like food or shelter. Wealth means you have a chance to live a life beyond survival. It means being comfortable. Cozy. Secure.

Things that make me feel wealthy are: soft touches, dry meat with butter, or any kind of wild meat at all, the smell of smoked hide, sage, or fire, the feel of fur; fat snowflakes, thick rays of sun, big gulps of water, warm mittens, text messages from people I love.

Sure, I need money to survive in a way that my ancestors didn’t. But wealth? When I wear the dentalium earrings with little moon charms on the bottom that my beautiful friend Cholena made for me, I feel wealthy.


The feeling of wealth has to do with the material, yes, but the sense of abundance I encounter as I bear the weight of the dentalium on my ears is much more than material. Abundance: the feeling of the ground holding your feet, holding your whole body. That feeling of being at once held and entirely free. Abundance: the extravagant, unrepentant sexuality of walking into the university financial aid office with a pound of dentalium and beads on my ears, lips greased up with cheekbone beauty, preparing for another afternoon of trying to find a way to pay my tuition in a structure that was built with serious-colonial-money-WEALTH-wealth literally acquired from genocide.

In grad school, I’ve spent a lot of time filling out forms for financial assistance. Not even the big ones (because I have no idea how to fill out a SSHRC or anything like that), these forms are exhausting for various reasons and take hours of my life that I will never get back. Revealing the precarities of one’s living situation to a colonial university is not a task that builds confidence or self-esteem.

In completing the online form for the University of Toronto’s students with disabilities registry, adding my crip self to their management system in hopes to qualify for a small bursary, I realized that the PDF was set up so that I had to click only one box to define my “primary” disability, and all others would be secondary. To thwart that artificially programmed boundary, I printed the page out and checked off each of my disabilites in the “primary” category.

When asked where I am staying, it is difficult to simply say I have spent time moving between friends’ spare rooms because I do not have the capacity or the money to find a room of my own in Toronto. It is difficult to say I am not doing the work I thought that grad school would allow me the time, space, and security to do.

I used to believe that the work I wanted to do couldn’t be done in a place of security and stability, but love taught me otherwise.

I bought a card for myself that has a quote by Doris Lessing: “Whatever you are meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.” This is true. It is also true that the work I want to do cannot be done while I am exhausted and sick from conditions of transiency.

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Once a man promised me he’d take care of me. He promised that I didn’t have to worry about being afraid or being alone ever again. Such impossible promises to make, and still, the way he said those words made me believe it. I do not regret that I believed his words, I only regret that we live in a society that defines a man’s love by his ability to “keep” a woman and therefore keep her under his control. When the instability of our relationship began to interfere with my ability to fight for my own dreams, I told him so. Other than that, we pretty much never talked about money.

I am not ashamed of being an intergenerationally poor person. I am not ashamed that my mom and I were poor after she ran away from a violent man to give us both a chance at life. To have a parent with that much strength and capacity is wealth. In every action that led to the decision to leave and in every step after, she showed me the very definition of abundance. Here is what it means to look at death disguised as love and refuse it. Here is what it means to claim freedom.

We are poor but we have a house. About twenty years ago, we got our house through QUINT, an affordable housing program for families in Saskatoon. Without the house, I do not know where we would be. Without the house, I do not know if I would be in grad school. To own a house is unarguably a wealth. To be admitted into grad school is unarguably a wealth. To be a poor Indigenous woman and survive to the age of 28 is – unarguably – a wealth.

In a recent administrative email, I was referred to as a financially “high need” student. The administrative assistant let me know, as kindly as possible, that they weren’t sure how to handle a student with such a high need.

As I read those words, I thought of every peer I grew up with in west-side Saskatoon who did not have the wealth I did which allowed me to go to elementary school. The wealth that moved me through high school and into university, and finally, into grad school. Even with (what I consider) that relative wealth, I still faced the constant threats of racism and being pushed out of school at every single level. When I read “high need”, I see “at-risk”. When I see “at-risk” I think of manufactured vulnerability, the kind of precarious conditions that certain folks are forced into. I see a classification system that makes me feel like I’m in grade 5 again, sitting in the principal’s office as he asks about my home life while a social worker hovers nearby.

“Whatever you are meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.” This is true. So what is the work I want to do? What are the desires that drive me to work? What do I write upon my page before I set foot inside the university again?

What dreams do I cultivate so that I can survive grad school for what it is – a chance to meet smart, kind people with whom I hope to conspire – and not rest my hopes on the scaffolding of a university that steals land while forcing us to beg for tuition?

I want a 24-hour centre in my community that is always open. A place of harm reduction and dreams where you can come to eat a meal, rest, access programming, or be safe.

I want the folks in my community who engage in sex work to have every protection they need while they remain sex workers, and the option to leave if, when, and how they so choose.

I want disabled folks in my community to live with the freedom to define days not by how well we fit into capitalist modes of productivity, but by the joy and love we experience.

I want all of the police who harm and kill our community members to be held responsible. I want us to live without fear of the saskatoon police and the rcmp.

I want to get better at nehiyawewin and worse at english.

I do not want to spend any more energy, time, or knowledge making my community more legible to the canadian state and its institutions.

I do not want to spend any more energy, time, or knowledge making my intellect more legible to the canadian university.

I want wealth by our definitions, because their definitions will always label us needy, at-risk, poor. I want abundance, in all the ways we define it for ourselves.

For a Dene girl who stole my heart (and maybe my soul* with her camera)

I’m thankful to have Tenille Campbell as a bestie and colleague/co-conspirator.

In the midst of completing her PhD in English with a focus on Indigenous Literature at the University of Saskatchewan, managing a collective blog for Indigenous women photographers and writers (Tea & Bannock), and raising a wonderful daughter, you may also know her as the author of the award-winning poetry anthology #IndianLovePoems.

She’s brilliant with a camera, with words, and just about everything else.

Tenille helped me become more comfortable in my own skin at a time when my self-esteem was fragile. I’ve had a lot of media photos and headshots where the photographers would lighten my skin, airbrush away the features that make me visibly Cree, or simply not understand how to photograph Indigenous women in a consensual, empowering way.

Tenille just makes me feel beautiful in my own damn skin (and a touch of Fenty golden highlight).

Here are some shots we did together in the fall. The whole series is available here: http://www.sweetmoonphotography.ca/erica-violet-lee-headshots/ 

Erica Violet Lee by Sweetmoon Photographyerica violet lee by sweetmoon photographyErica Violet Lee by Sweetmoon Photography

Tenille is available for bookings this year. 

Keep her on your radar. 



* “dene soul-stealer” is a reference to Tenille’s codename in Joi T. Arcand‘s series The Beautiful NDN Supermaidens.

Indigenous women on the Prairies deserve reproductive freedom (CBC Indigenous)

“To believe that life is truly sacred means acknowledging that the bodies of Indigenous women are no one’s territory but our own.” 

This past November, I co-authored a short essay for CBC Indigenous with my mentor and good friend, Nêhiyaw-Trinidadan land-based educator Tasha Spillett.

Tasha Spillett and Erica Violet Lee by Fatin Chowdhuryphoto by Fatin Chowdhury

Our piece for CBC Indigenous focuses on the history, present, and revival of our teachings regarding sexuality and reproductive health – and the ways these teachings and practices are deliberately eroded by colonial governance.

The feedback we received on our writing was supportive. I hope our communities will gain even more ground in addressing our struggles for body sovereignty in the forthcoming year.

“Indigenous women and girls — especially those on reserve and in rural communities — face barriers to accessing basic health care; and yes, access to abortions is a necessary part of the basic health care package that we deserve.”

Read the full piece here: http://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/opinion-indigenous-women-reproductive-freedom-1.4418787

Twelve Thousand Moons

As part of the Graphic History Collective’s Remember, Resist, Redraw: A Radical History Poster ProjectI wrote the following essay on dancing, memory, and resistance to accompany artwork by Gitxsan author, journalist, and artist Angela Sterritt. Together, our work is presented in Poster #5: The Dance of Decolonial Love.


Twelve Thousand Moons

When I am old, I will tell you I remember dancing. I remember morning ceremonies at the Squamish, xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Tsleil-Waututh waterfronts, shutting down malls in amiskwaciwâskahikan, organizing all night in Iqaluit, and the Chief setting up camp by that funny little concrete flame.

I will tell you about the day we danced in front of the old rail station in North Battleford, our drums shaking the spikes from the tracks and eventually shutting down the courtroom inside. When we sang those love songs louder after the cops told us to settle down so the trial could continue, it was mourning and celebration all in one. That’s what most of us did those early days: counting our time in breaths, breathlessness, and how many round dance songs before we hit the ground.

I will tell you I remember every time they said our starvation was natural and our dispossession was progress. Every time they said our freedom was impossible, and how this made us want it even more. I remember how upset they were when we started growing tobacco and vegetables in the plots of wasteland they had reserved for gas stations.

When I am old, I will tell you I remember refusal. I remember walking around what used to be the financial district in Dish with One Spoon and re-imagining it as our own, once more, feet sore from marching but unwilling to give in to sleep. I remember the days our people were locked up for fighting pipelines, for graffiti, for sex, for smudging, for living. I remember the night we broke them out and brought them all home.

When I am old, I will tell you I remember learning to twist copper wire snares from big, rough hands that didn’t need hide mitts in the bush but wore them anyway, just to show off that someone cared enough to keep those hands warm. I remember catching my first fish, taught exactly how to knock a pike on the head so it didn’t suffer long; this is how we cherished kindnesses in a world that afforded few.

I remember the Red River and Red Rising Rebellions. I remember the earrings my sister made me with beads the color of northern lights to wear to that extravagant party with Nēhiyaw philosophers, Dene physicists, and Anishinaabe poets after the first time a Métis went into outer space. We danced then, too, and I remember waking up by the fire after a bit too much strawberry champagne, surrounded by a circle of friends telling their re-creation stories with shadow figures on the wall.

When I am old, I will tell you I remember learning about freedom beyond anthems and passports. And how we never went back once we knew the kind of love bound only by shorelines, prairie skies, and forest floors.

The dream of these twelve moons, just like the twelve thousand before and after, is freedom. And one last thing, before I forget, remember: our memories contain every future, every sunrise, you will ever need.


Originally published here as part of the Graphic History Collective’s Remember Redraw Resist project. Posters are free to download for personal, educational, and activist use. See how you can use and support these posters. If you want to exhibit or publish the posters please see these guidelines.

The Wigwam Conspiracy (CBC Canada 2017)

“There have always been divergent stories of “home” in Canada. Mythic, pluralistic Glowing Hearts, on one hand, oppressive Home on Native land, on the other.

In the former, symbols dominate: empty wigwams and tipis because they don’t speak back to paternalism; sacred stories removed from their keepers to prevent carrying the memories of our worlds into the future; and Indigenous peoples themselves as tokens because tokens offer consent.”

Oceti Sakowin Camp along the Cannonball River – August 2016 (photo by me)

“The soil, the fire and the ashes are much deeper than symbols — they are teachings, attachments, memories and resurgence.

There is a truth about many Indigenous homes, inaccessible to Canadians despite the poking and prodding. The smouldering remains, that broken down car in the front lawn, toys scattered across the road: each are manifestations of our love in disarray. They are symbols of Indigenous resourcefulness, testaments to endurance against the odds and in some cases, pride.”

Read the whole article here: The Wigwam Conspiracy 

Hayden King & I wrote this piece for CBC Canada 2017.

In Defense of the Wastelands (GUTS Magazine)

I wrote a feature for the fabulous GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine‘s issue 7: Love, titled In Defense of the Wastelands: A Survival Guide:

“…for those of us in the wastelands – for those of us who are the wastelands – caring for each other is refusing a definition of worthiness that will never include us.”


“To provide care in the wastelands is about gathering enough love to turn devastation into mourning and then, maybe, turn that mourning into hope…”

Read the whole piece here: gutsmagazine.ca/wastelands

Accompanying illustration by the brilliant artist-writer-photographer and fellow wastelander, Fatin Chowdhury (http://www.fatinchowdhury.ca/). Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @Fatinic.


The bones, too. Eat the bones too.

Eat the leaves of strawberries;

do not bite the fruit off and throw the rest away

as if the plant grew itself with the intention of being easier

for human hands.

Soft salmon vertebrae melting into my jaw like warm chalk,

and taking bitter green with the sweet red

shifts my perception of creation entirely.

This is a lesson in scarcity, abundance, and

reclaiming relational nourishment

from what civilization calls trash.


Artwork: “Common Carp” by Zoe S. Todd.