Beginning June 1, through today, June 21st, I’ve been sharing a recommended read by an indigenous author each day on Twitter. On May 30th, there was also talk here of the most recent Thomas King mystery, on June 1st talk of Daniel Heath Justice’s Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, and on June 7th, talk of Lee Maracle’s writing. Today, one more celebration: a look at some of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s work.
Several years ago, on CBC’s “The Next Chapter”, Shelagh Rogers asked Thomas King what younger indigenous writers were inspiring him to keep writing and he recommended Leanne Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg).
The first of her books I read was Islands of Decolonial Love, which was originally published with a CD containing some of her spoken word performances (now there are sound files on the ‘net). It was beautiful and strange but somehow familiar, offering a sense of both tremendous focus and intensity and everything-all-at-once-ness.
You’ll find poetic prose, as in “leaks”:
“…she’s always going to remember this
you are rebellion, resistance, re-imagination
her body will remember
you are dug up roads, 27-day standoffs, the foil of industry prospectors…”
And great attention paid to land and space, as in “jiibay or aandizooke”:
“all along the north shore of pimaadashkodeyaang
(you might call it rice lake)
all along the north shore of pimaadashkodeyaang
are those burial mounds.”
And sometimes the feeling that you’ve peeked into her personal diary, as in “buffalo on”:
“I always think that old people are different than me, and looking into her land-coloured eyes right now, I know that’s crap, she and I are exactly the same. I’m going to be eighty-four and I’m not going to feel any different than I do right now. I’m not going to be wise or brave or all-knowing. I’m just going to be old inhabiting a body on the precipice of betraying me forever, the suicide of everything.”
Now that The Accident of Being Lost has received so much attention, it’s tempting to plump for the more recent collection, but Islands still resonates with me. There are, however, some overtly scholarly options too.
Consider This Is An Honour Song: Twenty Years since the Blockade (which she edited with Kiera L. Ladner). The introduction explains the significance of marking this act of resistance at Kanehsatà:ke (referred to in colonial language as the Oka Crisis) two decades later:
“The Ancestors not only fought, blockaded, protested and mobilized against these forces on every Indigenous territory in Turtle Island, they also engaged in countless acts of hidden resistance and kitchen table resistance aimed at ensuring their children and grandchildren could live as Indigenous Peoples. The Grandmothers, Mothers and Aunties were particularly adept at keeping us alive, and passing down whatever traditions they could so we would have warmth in our hearts and warmth in our bellies.”
In nearly 400 pages, a variety of styles and voices contribute to this volume: poems like Al Hunter’s “When Hope Can be a Lie”, philosophical and intellectual papers like Robinder Kaur Sehdev’s “Lessons from the Bridge: On the Possibilities of Anti-Racist Feminist Alliances in Indigenous Spaces”, reproduced artwork on glossy pages in the middle of the book (including Rebecca Belmore and Gerald McMaster), and storied narratives like Paula Sherman’s Wísakedják and the Colonizer”.
For the most part, however, Honour Song does feel like deliberate study, whereas a book which falls somewhere in the middle, in Dancing on our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence which has the look of a scholarly text (and the subtitle and endnotes to match that presentation) but a consistently inviting tone.
This volume makes an excellent companion to Islands and Accident, for readers who are serious about learning (or maybe just long for a little more context to understand her other work), but aren’t prepared to wade through academic language or style. Turtle’s Back is wonderful, too, for the attention paid to indigenous languages.
Even if you have a vague understanding of the importance of protecting these languages, which have been directly targeted by the Canadian government’s genocidal practices (e.g. punishing the students of residential schools who communicated in their mother tongues, working to assimilate children into the dominant culture by boarding them with white families), there is much to learn here.
Simpson offers a peek at these languages’ complexities and the great care she takes to be exact and to be correct reveals just how intricate these systems are. (She also illuminates the risk of deterioration as unschooled speakers make errors, which are recorded and perpetuated, even in their attempts to preserve the languages, when individuals believe themselves fluent but are actually still learning and have not specifically consulted with elders who have an expertise in usage.)
None of this is disorienting either, for she begins at the beginning, inviting readers to learn along with her, from the most basic concepts onwards. She explains her usage of Nishnaabemowin words, which she draws specifically from the dialects of Michi Saagigg Nishnaabeg (or eastern Ontario dialect, usage taught to her by Doug Williams) and the Odawa (or central/Manitoulin dialect, usage taught to her by Shirley Williams and Isadore Toulouse). She begins with the basics:
“Nishnaabeg is translated as ‘the people’ and refers to Ojibwe, Odawa (Ottawa), Potawatomi, Michi Saagiig (Mississauga), Salteaux, Chippewa and Omámíwinini (Algonquin) people. Nishnaageb are also known as Nishinaabeg, Anishinaabeg, Anishinaabek, and Anishinabek, reflecting different spelling systems and different dialects.”
These words appear in the text alongside all the other words, organically, and they root the rest of her writing. Never once do you feel like you need a glossary (but, if you want more information, the footnotes and endnotes in Simpson’s work are extensive, and there is a short list of words used in a particular section of narrative in the middle of the book).
It is refreshing to see these concepts and words used naturally, not italicized to separate them as something ‘other’.
Refreshing to read towards greater understanding.