Friday, June 30, 2017

Review: Dancing on our Turtle's Back

[Leanne Simpson. Dancing on Our Turtle's Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence. Winnipeg MB: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2011.]

This is a book from a few years ago by renowned Nishnaabeg author, scholar, and activist Leanne Simpson. It is a book about Indigenous resurgence through learning from, and living lives shaped by, traditional teachings.

Dancing on Our Turtle's Back shares teachings and stories. It shares the author's experiences of learning from those teachings and stories (and from those who shared them with her). And it shares her own analyis of the teachings, the stories, and the overall learning process. It is deeply reflective and it exemplifies a way of engaging with learning, with scholarship, and with writing that is based in the author as a whole person, in contrast with most Western scholarship. And all of this is done in the context of a vision in which Nishaabeg and broader Indigenous resurgence is the most important focus for reaching a decolonized future on Turtle Island -- where resurgence means taking what has, through the relentless persistence of ancestors, survived in the face of the predatory beast that is colonialism; learning from it; adapting it to today as every generation must; and expanding the weave of its logics through lives and communities in ways that will strengthen them and strengthen the nations which they comprise.

I am, of course, not Nishnaabeg, nor Indigenous in any way. These are not my traditions, not my teachings, and the resurgence which they guide is not mine either. How, then, should those of us who are settlers read this book?

There are at least two different answers to that, I think. One is a very direct sort of learning across difference. In this case, it is learning about a people and a polity I am not part of but whose land I live on -- most of my life has been spent on land that is Nishnaabeg or shared Nishnaabeg and Haudenosaunee. The ubiquity of the rhtetoric of reconciliation and the increasing mainstream presence of things like land acknowledgements nothwithstanding, there is still next to no institutional integration into settler-majority contexts of the kind of learning that would be necessary for even basic respect let alone the kinds of transformations that will be necessary within settler society to make true reconciliation conceivable. You could make a case that reading books is not necessarily the best way to engage in this kind of learning, but it can't hurt and it fits with my own approaches to engaging with the world. So one way of reading this book is as a very basic kind of self education about ways of living that are not mine but that I have an obligation to know about and learn from because of where I live.

Along those lines, I particularly appreciated the way this book, short as it is, was able to convey not just specific information and stories but a felt sense of the broader logic of resurgence. It didn't just tell me that there was this exsiting, complex, sophisticated, diverse body of knowledge that could in theory inform a resurgent Nishnaabeg nation, and then give examples -- I could feel it. I could feel the way those logics have never ceased to exist -- in the stories, in the language, in the lives of elders and knowledge-holders -- and how those logics are the basis upon which more Nishnaabeg people and families and communities are already shaping their lives. And how this logic for collectively living otherwise is the basis for strength in reaching towards...well, towards a future that the settler state and many settler individuals do not want to see.

The other way to derive knowledge from this book as a settler, I think, is to see what can be learned from Nishnaabeg processes of resurgence that is relevant to our own struggles. Obviously this must not be a matter of stealing a story here, a word there, a misunderstood concept somewhere else, and putting them to our own uses. Rather, I think it is a matter of looking at the whole and seeing what questions it prompts us to ask about our own circumstances that we must then answer using the resources (political, cultural, tactical, spiritual, or whatever else) that are ours to use.

One question that books of this sort always raise for me is what work those of us on the settler side of the relationship must do in order to get settler society (and all of its powerful, violent, dominating institutions) back into our own lane. There is no single answer to this, and of course, what exactly the answer looks like must also derive from our own desires for and imaginings of justice and liberation. But I do not feel any less suspicion on the eve of Canada 150 than I have over the last decade or two that the degree and kind of change that will be necessary to truly respect and decolonize our relationship with Indigenous peoples is far beyond what most of us have thus far been capable of imagining.

Another question -- not a new-to-me one either, though I think phrased a bit differently than the last time I asked it in print -- is where we will find the new social logics that can replace the logic of patriarchal colonial capitalism that shapes our lives and communities today. John Holloway makes a pretty convincing case that it is only through our constant acts of resistance, from the small and everyday to the massive and collective, that we will discover those logics and weave the social world anew. Which I think is true as far as it goes. But, still, I look to the experiences of Indigenous nations, where such logics of collectively living otherwise persist and can provide a basis for a transformed future, and I worry about where an attitude of "Oh, we'll make it up as we go along" might lead us. We do not have, among those of us who trace our ancestry to Europe at any rate, the same kind of reservoir to draw on, as capitalism destroyed its traces amongst our ancestor long ago. And yet...should we perhaps be doing more to extract the bits that point to justice and liberation from our own past and from our own present, fragmentary and impure as they might be, as a way to ground possible futures, rather than taking the stance that we'll (metaphorically) burn it all down and figure out what to do next at some future moment? I'm not sure, but it is worth further reflection.

I could probably come up with more examples of questions inspired within me by this book, but I think those two exemplify two important broad categories of questions we settlers can ask about our own situations as we learn from Indigenous resurgence: What are our responsibilites in the current messed up colonial situation? And what lessons can we (respectfully, carefully) derive for how our settler-majority movements and communities-in-struggle might move forward, from the many areas where those who are engaged in Indigenous resurgence have things more together and figured out than we do?

[Check out the somewhat out-of-date but still extensive list of book reviews on this site.]

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