Healing, Truth Telling, and World Making

  • Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
    A Short History of the Blockade: Giant Beavers, Diplomacy, and Regeneration in Nishnaabewin. University of Alberta Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Suzanne Keeptwo
    We All Go Back to the Land: The Who, Why, and How of Land Acknowledgements. Brush Education Inc. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Alicia Fahey

In her introduction to We All Go Back to the Land: The Who, Why, and How of Land Acknowledgements, Métis artist and professional educator Suzanne Keeptwo leads with her thesis: “I firmly state that the belief systems and ethics of the Original peoples were far superior to European belief and value systems because they were based on an inherent understanding and Respect for the Earth and its interconnection to the well-being of the human species” (1). The purpose of Keeptwo’s book, as signalled by the title, is not only to explain how to compose and deliver a Land Acknowledgment, but also to identify why this should be done. The nearly four-hundred-page book draws on both traditional Indigenous knowledge and Keeptwo’s experiences as a consultant, resulting in an encyclopedic tome that is organized into eight chapters that weave together storytelling, written and oral history, current events, personal anecdotes, and conversations with Knowledge Keepers. Each chapter is broken down into smaller sections identified by subheadings that are designed “to help bring readers back on track” should they get lost in the cyclical narrative structure (2). A repeated refrain that unifies the breadth of material is “Ginawaydaganuc: We Are All Connected” (4).


Beginning with a history of “Original Land, Original People,” Keeptwo explains how European contact caused the Great Disruption by violating the Original Agreement between Indigenous peoples and the Land. Chapters 2 and 3 consider “The Land Acknowledgement: An Educational Opportunity” and “as Cultural Opportunity,” while chapter 4 beseeches readers to “Invest in the Land Acknowledgment” through meaningful consultation, which includes researching self-introduction protocols and resisting the pressure to make token hires or extend token invitations to Elders. Chapter 5, “Identity Politics,” explores the complexities of language, lineage, record keeping, missionary influence, and “Mixed-Up Identities.”


I find Chapter 6, “Examples of Problematic Land Acknowledgements,” especially illuminating because it provides specific examples from geographic regions across Canada. Keeptwo rightly refuses to provide a template for a Land Acknowledgement, but rather provides readers with the tools to compose their own Acknowledgment in a meaningful and context-specific way. In the penultimate chapter, Keeptwo proposes that artists hold the key to meaningful Land Acknowledgements because of their penchant for Truth telling. Under the rubric of art, she includes theatre, rap, storytelling, song, dance, music, movement, spoken word, and artistic installation and proposes that these art forms help “to get colonial-influenced peoples out of their heads and into their hearts by way of the body in order to inspire spiritual growth” (356). The book culminates in an invitation to


all Canadians, new or well-settled, all First Nation, Inuit, and Métis peoples within this nation-state of Canada to join the traditionally minded, the traditionally driven, the traditionally governed, alongside the Water Protectors and Land Protectors and environmentalists, advocates, allies, friends, and activists to enter into the Original Agreement. (391-92)


Entering into this agreement, Keeptwo claims, would be the “ultimate act of Reconciliation” (392). We All Go Back to the Land prompted me—as a settler on the traditional, ancestral, and stolen lands of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) peoples in what is presently referred to as North Vancouver—to learn more about the Indigenous peoples’ current relationship to their land. I was particularly inspired by the Tsleil-Waututh nation’s Sacred Trust initiative, which aims to halt the expansion of the Trans Mountain (TMX) pipeline. The Sacred Trust website offers an abundance of educational materials, as well as information on how to donate or get involved.


Pipelines also figure prominently in Leanne Simpson’s A Short History of the Blockade: Giant Beavers, Diplomacy, and Regeneration in Nishnaabewin. Jordan Abel begins his introduction to Simpson’s book, which is part of the Canadian Literature Centre (CLC) Kreisel Lecture Series, with a Territorial Acknowledgment that the University of Alberta is located on Treaty 6 land. He proceeds to describe the  different ways in which he has encountered Leanne Simpson and her work: as a star-struck fan of her academic prowess, as an academic-artistic colleague, and as an out-of-place poet at a music event where Simpson was performing as a “rock star” (xvi). In other words, Abel goes to great lengths to show how his relationship with Simpson has evolved through various contexts. Simpson, like Amik (the protagonist of her book), embodies a diversity of meanings. These ideas of relationality and multiplicity resonate with Simpson’s broader message: to shift the thinking about blockades from a colonial mindset to a Nishnaabeg way. Purposeful repetition resounds throughout the book and mirrors Nishnaabeg epistemology: “Self-determination, consent, kindness, and freedom practiced daily in all our relations. Practices replicated over and over” (5; emphasis added). Recurring notions of “living as a creative act” (4, 10) and that “Nishnaabeg life is a persistent world-building process” (4) ground the many forms and functions of Amikwag (the plural form of beaver in Anishinaabemowin) that emerge from the stories in the book. As Simpson so aptly puts it, “the practice of telling stories is the practice of generating a diversity of meanings. It is a practice of deep relationality, not a looking at, but a looking with or a looking through or a thinking through together” (6).


Building on the work of Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson, which encourages readers to view blockades through the lens of refusal, Leanne Simpson asserts, “[B]lockades are rich sites of Indigenous life, of a radical resurgence” (11). At the heart of understanding the blockade through a Nishnaabeg lens is a closer look at Simpson’s relative, the beaver. Whereas the colonial adoption of the beaver as a national symbol is entrenched in the economic benefits of the fur trade, Simpson situates the beaver in the oral literature passed down intergenerationally through the Seven Ancestor teachings, each of which is “represented by an animal relation who best embodies those practices . . . [T]he animal nations carry a body of stories that deepen our understandings of these concepts and how to live them” (13). After listing the myriad “cool features of the beaver” (including waterproof fur and ever-growing teeth), Simpson brings together her message of relationality and generative storytelling with the following fact: “Amikwag build dams.” These dams contribute to the broader ecological functions of the land and the animals who inhabit the land, whether by providing winter habitats for fish relatives or making wetlands for land animals. Based on the many reciprocal benefits of dams, Simpson concludes, “Amik is a world builder” (15).


The world that Simpson has built in her book is organized into four chapters, which are framed by Abel’s introduction and Simpson’s “Final Words.” Each chapter tells a story about Amik and begins with an epigraph from an activist, scholar, artist, poet, or musician. These epigraphs provide material for Simpson to riff on, but collectively they also form an ecosystem of social justice warriors whose voices reveal the world-building power of generative resistance. The first of the beaver stories is a creation story about the first beaver dam, set in a time when beavers were giants. Chapter 2 recounts the story of “The Woman Who Married a Beaver” and interprets this story for a non-Indigenous audience. Chapter 3’s beaver story is called “AnabLog,” the title of which alludes to the 2006 anaBlog creative digital installation project by Steve Daniels, “an electronic artist and past director of new media . . . at Ryerson University” (35). The fourth and final story, “Amikode, Beaver Heart,” describes a “beaver resurgence of sorts happening on Turtle Island,” in which youth engage in their own acts of creative world making (50). Each of the stories is connected by Amik, who works in conjunction with a community to build a better world. Each of the stories is about the generative potential of intervention and acts of reciprocity. Each of the stories situates blockades as “both a refusal and an affirmation” (56). Each of the stories imagines other worlds—past, present, and future.


As I write this review, the “Freedom Convoy” has recently dispersed in Ottawa. For almost three weeks, the protests ensued with minimal and belated intervention from the state despite community harassment, racial slurs, destruction of property, acts of violence, and the appropriation of Indigenous drumming and pipe ceremony. It’s impossible not to contrast the leniency afforded the Freedom Convoy to the use of state force in response to peaceful blockades and protests set up by the Wet’suwet’en Nation in opposition to the Coastal GasLink project, which spans sovereign Indigenous territory. Where is the public outrage at RCMP punitive action against Wet’suwet’en land defenders? I can’t help but think of one of Simpson’s earlier works, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance, in which she states that issues facing Indigenous peoples cannot be resolved within the framework of settler colonialism because “settler colonialism will always define the issues with a solution that reentrenches its own power” (178). If you don’t already know why an Indigenous politics of refusal is at odds with the colonial system, A Short History of the Blockade will help you better understand.


Works Cited

Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance. U of Minnesota P, 2017.

Tsleil-Waututh Nation. “TWN Stewardship Work in the Territory.” Sacred Trust: Protecting Tsleil-Waututh Territory, twnsacredtrust.ca/tsleil-waututh-nation-stewardship-work-in-the-territory/.

This review “Healing, Truth Telling, and World Making” originally appeared in Poetics and Extraction Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 251 (2022): 186-188.

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