Returns: As We Have Always Done

  • Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Author)
    As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance.(purchase at

Over the past year, I have witnessed—primarily on Zoom—a surge in the number of universities and institutions around the world offering land acknowledgements. While Canada long ago co-opted this Indigenous practice and made it a feature of liberal Canadian performances of multiculturalism, I have witnessed universities once unfamiliar with the protocol use it most recently to perform an institutional commitment to “diversity, equity and inclusion” in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.1 Though proliferating, the practice of acknowledging Indigenous people and their ancestral homelands remains uncoupled from a commitment to Indigenous resurgence. It is at this political juncture that I review Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s popular 2017 book As We Have Always Done. I assert that the book should to be revisited during different political moments.


I perform this return much like Simpson revisits the theme of resurgence repeatedly over the course of her diverse body of work. Because Simpson has witnessed the Canadian settler state respond and adjust to Indigenous resurgence through forms of political theatre like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls; Simpson has spent time revisiting, deepening, and rearticulating Indigenous resurgence. Struck by Simpson’s reflective tone and enactment of the Nishnaabeg aesthetic of repetition (200), I am compelled to revisit the text from feminist and queer sites within Black studies.


Simpson’s work resonates with me as a Black studies scholar. I have turned to Simpson’s work for a number of reasons: its poetry, its experimentation with form, its theoretical import, its capacity to transform the reader’s desires, and her full-throated commitment to building alliances with Black communities on Turtle Island. Because Simpson has spent time inside Indigenous movements like Idle No More, she has valuable insights about the challenges that twenty-first century movement building faces. Her work speaks forcefully in a political moment shaped by racial reckoning and a pandemic that has disproportionately devastated Indigenous and Black communities.


As We Have Always Done is an expansive and weighty book project with an urgent political message. Simpson begins the book with the present and future of Nishnaabeg resurgence: her children. Simpson sees the promise and hope of resurgence in her children. Simpson’s goal in the book is to establish a “Michi Saagiig Nishinaabeg presence, and Nishaabeg present (6).” The book is a deep meditation on the political, intellectual, spiritual, artistic and transformative project of resurgence. In each chapter, Simpson re-articulates and re-elaborates resurgence to develop an ever-deepening understanding for herself, Nishnaabeg people, and others willing to become co-resistors in the struggle for resurgence.


Throughout the book, Simpson covers a broad territory that includes defining “radical” resurgence, “grounded normativity,” Nishnaabeg intelligence, Indigenous internationalism, kwe as a gendered theory of dispossession and refusal, the meta-relationship of the dispossession of Indigenous lands and bodies upheld by the settler state, two spirit and queer (2SQ) brilliance as resurgence, the role of children’s land based education in resurgence, resistance to state recognition, and Nishnaabeg traditions of anti-capitalism. Making an adamant appeal to refuse state recognition throughout the book, Simpson offers examples of everyday forms of generative refusal that resist Canadian deployments of a politics of grief, rights and treaties based frameworks, and electoral politics.


Simpson begins the first substantive chapter on Nishnaabeg Intelligence by reflecting on and articulating a deeper appreciation for her elders and the two years that she spent with them at Long Lake #58. Nishnaabeg intelligence as a form of embodied thought or Biiskabiyang—a return to self, grounded normativity, and a form of flight—animates the chapter and the book (15-16). Chapter one is a contemplative chapter that gives the sense that Simpson is returning to the ways of knowing that she wants to reground herself in and articulate in a fuller way than she could previously in Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back (2012).2 A concept that Simpson has revised and honed over time with her colleague Glen Coulthard is “grounded normativity.” Glen Coulthard’s (Dene) notion of “grounded normativity” provides both an anchor and a flexible space for Simpson to rearticulate Nishnaabewin intelligence.3


Nishnaabewin like Dene notions of grounded normativity take into consideration “all of the associated practices, knowledges, and ethics, that make us Nishnaabeg and construct the Nishnaabeg world” (22). Simpson’s adaption and expansion of grounded normativity is possible due to grounded normativity’s function as an “ethical framework generated by place-based practices (22).” Like Coulthard, Simpson also brings Indigenous practices of resistance, resurgence and intelligence into proximity with the Black Radical Tradition. Simpson explicitly connects grounded normativity to Black studies scholars’, Neil Roberts and Alexis Pauline Gumbs, notions of fugitivity (18).4 In this eloquent and pensive chapter, Simpson names Nishnaabeg people as both land based and migratory people who like the elders at Long Lake #58 “knew flight” as a form of resistance to settler colonialism (18).


In chapter two, Simpson rearticulates Nishnaabeg intelligence through Kwe or a gendered recounting of the tradition of refusing colonialism, capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and white supremacy.  While different from the colonial conception of woman constructed through a binary, Kwe as woman within the spectrum of genders allows Simpson to claim a collective practice and politics of refusal.  Proclaiming that “my life as a kwe within Nishnaabewin is method,” Simpson outlines how kwe as a process of producing truths with the head and heart (debwewin) are central to her research (29). Of critical importance to scholars working within anti-colonial, decolonial and abolitionist traditions, Simpson’s practice of kwe emphatically claims using “first person writing as a way of taking accountability for her thoughts.” This choice exceeds the stylistic and challenges the very premises of Western knowledge production that continue to claim a neutral, body-less, and universality that evades accountability. Simpson further grounds the tradition and practice within the legacy of Lee Maracle’s I am Woman (1996) and the activism of Ellen Gabriel who acted as the spokesperson for the Mohawk nation during the “Oka Crisis” (33).


Further elaborating kwe as a method in chapter three, Simpson theorizes kwe as opposition to the removal of Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg bodies from the land, from the present, and from all of the relationships meaningful them (45). Within this gendered frame, the body becomes a central preoccupation of kwe as a method of refusal because it excavates the sexual gendered violence at the core of settler colonialism. The settler colonial nation-state as well as masculinist Indigenous political theories tend to marginalize the heteropatriarchal aspects of settler colonial violence. Thinking with Audra Simpson, Leanne Simpson articulates and affirms the Indigenous bodies of women, children and two-spirit (2SQ) people as “political orders” that represent “lived alternatives” to heteronormative constructions of gender and settler colonial political systems. Kwe’s attention to gendered and sexualized (queered) Indigenous bodies as “political orders” that must be destroyed emerge from the specific forms of oppositional knowledge that Indigenous women, children and 2SQ folks have developed. This “expansive notion of dispossession” that centres the Indigenous body resonates with Black feminist, queer and trans traditions that rigorously theorize the black body as a key site of violation for slavery and colonialism (54).


Chapter four’s exploration of Indigenous Internationalism expands notions of nationhood beyond narrow humanist parameters. Indigenous internationalism works to be in good relation with the plant nations, animal nations, bodies of water, air, soil and all beings (58). Indigenous Internationalism also travels ethically. Thinking with Coulthard’s engagement with Frantz Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks (1952) Simpson argues for an Indigenous Internationalism anchored in a grounded normativity that practices a form of ethical “theoretical promiscuity” in order to be a better co-resister with the Black Radical Tradition (63). Indigenous internationalism also affirms collective self-recognition as a practice that privileges Indigenous land-based intelligence systems over Western liberatory theories already well established in the academy (67). Simpson’s critique of the academy and Indigenous scholars’ relationship to it is incisive.  Simpson bemoans the energy invested in establishing Indigenous studies “as a discipline” when energy could be directed toward “Indigenizing nation based, Indigenous intelligence systems on our own terms” (67). Just where to invest intellectual labor is an enduring question for movements and fields committed to decolonial and abolitionist struggles and study.


Simpson’s fifth chapter on Nishnaabeg anti-capitalism is essential reading for scholars committed to anti-capitalist struggle. The chapter is devoted to centering Indigenous people’s “rich anti-capitalist practices” and traditions (72). For centuries, Nishnaabeg and Indigenous people have practiced systems of living outside of capitalism that are instructive. Simpson’s Nishnaabeg ancestors did not accumulate capital but rather accumulated networks of trust. Colonialism undercuts Nishnaabeg practices of harvest distribution, the sharing of hunting grounds, and give away ceremonies that function as alternatives to capitalism (77). Simpson contends that Nishnaabeg practices of caring and sharing in a society of makers is the anti-capitalism of Indigenous intelligence (82). A serious engagement with Nishnaabeg intelligence and political systems would reveal that there were no notions of private property or “the commons (78).” Similar to Coulthard, Simpson argues that the goal of radical resurgent education and mobilization cannot be the proletarianization of our people (82).” Contemporary visions of an anti-capitalist future must be shaped by Indigenous resurgence and anti-capitalism.


In chapter six, Simpson’s tone becomes more tender. Simpson shares her pedagogical approaches when caring for the hearts and minds of her Indigenous students who must contend with the ongoing sexual and gender-based violence of settler colonialism. Educators will be touched by her tenderness, care, and way of affirming her students as she deftly maps the history of gendered colonial violence in Canada. Her lesson plan and care work that unpacks and seeks to take some of the power out of terms “slut” and “squaw,” allows students to confront and replace the degrading stereotypes with affirming descriptions of themselves. This exercise enables the students to put the heteropatriarchy of the colonial state “at the center of” nation building movements (91). Simpson argues that undoing the gender hierarchy could change the lives of women and 2SQ folks which is a measure of success for nation building (91). The chapter ends with a discussion of the necessity of building processes of accountability to address sexual violence within Indigenous communities.


Chapter seven continues to trace the legacy of sexual and gendered violence perpetrated by missions and colonial education system. In this chapter, Simpson provides an astute gendered analysis that unearths the role that white women played in the violent disciplining and gendering of Native bodies at the missions. White women in Canada played a significant role in genocide as agents and enforcers of the Indian Act (97). Simpson implicates white literary figures like Susanna Moodie and Margaret Atwood in sustaining a discursive genocidal project through their literature and its demeaning depictions of Indigenous characters that reproduce the logics of the 1876 Indian Act. This historicization of white women’s, and white feminist complicity, in heteropatriarchal colonial violence leads Simpson to interrogate calls for feminist solidarity.  Simpson makes her position clear that there can be no presumed solidarity as long as white feminist participate in genocide. This chapter ends on a very different affective register than the other chapters. It angrily attends to Simpson’s pain. Simpson resists normative and ableist notions of healing as an inevitable and generative outcome in response to colonial sexual violence. Simpson proclaims “I don’t want to be healed” (103). She wants to tap into some of the pain and rage that remains and use it. It is important for professed feminists to sit with Simpson’s rage in order to interrogate and transform their own feminist politics which often remain aligned with state practices of genocide.


Chapter eight turns inward to speak to and affirm Indigenous people while addressing and holding settler heteropatriarchal and anti-queer violence accountable. The urgency of the issue of anti-queer violence is palpable as Simpson opens the chapter with a sweat lodge ceremony that she and her daughter attended when her daughter was questioning her gender. For Simpson, the stakes are very clear: heteropatriarchy and anti-queerness destroy the worlds of queer youth as well as Nishnaabeg worlds, past, present and to come (144). Simpson attempts to denaturalize the notion that queer people and ways of life are new to Indigenous people. According to Simpson, her “ancestors lived in a society where what I know as ‘queer’ particularly in terms of social organization, was so normal it did not have a name” (129). Simpson like Cree scholar Alex Wilson is arguing for a return to a normalization of queer life within Indigenous life.


Further, Simpson draws on the work of queer Indigenous scholars like, Alex Wilson (Cree), Billy-Ray Belcourt (Cree), and Ma-Nee Chacaby (Ojibwe-Cree) as models for Indigenous intelligence that uncouple gender from constructions of land.  Citing the work of Women’s Earth Alliance and Native Youth Sexual Health Network, Simpson celebrates the work that Indigenous organizations are doing to ungender the land/water and reorient Indigenous communities’ relations to Aki. Further, the land provides endless examples of queerness and diverse sexualities and genders (122).  Simpson argues that since Indigenous thought is “queer,” if Indigenous people are doing resurgence correctly, they should not have to queer resurgence (137). Simpson laments that although 2SQ people have contributed significantly to Idle No More, there is a lack of 2SQ representation in the Idle No More leadership (135).


The story “Binoojinh Makes A Lovely Discovery” organizes chapter nine. Simpson retells the story that her elder Doug Williams told her. The story is an open and revise-able one that features a child, Binoojinh. Over the course of several retellings, the child’s gender changes (girl child, boy child, non-binary child). In this version, Binoojinh is a non-binary child whose self-led learning represents a tradition of land based Nishnaabeg education and intelligence. The story celebrates the intelligence and world making capacity of children and non-human relations like the squirrel and the tree who consent to the production of maple sap and knowledge sharing. As a story of a child’s self-led learning “from and with” the land that is honored by adults, the story functions as a “theoretical anchor” and basis of Nishnaabeg intelligence (150-51). Binoojiinh’s story models how “the land must once again become the pedagogy” (160). However, in order for the land to become pedagogy, the settler colonial forces that violently prevent Nishnaabeg people from accessing the land must be eradicated.


In chapter ten, Simpson elaborates upon the stakes of a radical resurgence project that relinquishes claims to recognition. For Simpson, refusing state recognition is an organizing platform and means of dismantling systems of colonial domination (176). Rather than organizing around the  state’s modes of recognition and redress, Simpson argues for organizing around a “fear of disappearance” which is the root issue (176). An alternative form of recognition that Simpson does affirm is recognition within Nishnaabeg Intelligence as a process of seeing and mirroring another being’s core essence as a path toward and a way of generating Indigenous society (185).


Chapter eleven explores quotidian, mundane and embodied acts as important sites of Indigenous resurgence that offer “flight paths out of colonialism” (193). Examples of everyday acts of resurgence include: language immersion, building canoes, making syrup, peer to peer sexual healthwork, urban land reclamation and renaming, and artistic renaissance (194-5). Simpson draws on Jarrett Martineau’s (Plains Cree and Dene) artistic practice and scholarly writing as an example of the ways that Indigenous art and cultural production model forms of “coded disruption and affirmative refusal” (199). Simpson argues that Martineau’s sophisticated use of Indigenous intelligence in his work while cloaking it at the same time protects it from settler commodification and control by “those that have not done the work within Indigenous intelligence systems to carry the knowledge in the first place” (199). Simpson’s discussion of this dual practice of presenting and cloaking Indigenous knowledge makes me acutely aware of what I cannot, am unable to, and should not want to access in Simpson’s work. This practice of “opacity” is one that I have both practiced and observe in Black studies. This form of resistance poses important challenges to long accepted celebrations of the merits of accessible academic scholarship.


The twelfth chapter of the book begins with the stars as a way of moving into a discussion of place-based relationships. Simpson begins with the relationships that she most values as a way of advancing a discussion of constellations as an organizing principle in resurgence movement building like Idle No More (216). In this chapter, Simpson writes in the wake of her involvement with Idle No More in 2012 and 2013. Simpson offers a diagnosis of problems that, in her opinion, resulted in Idle No More’s inability to sustain its momentum. One of the drawbacks that Simpson identified was the reliance on digital organizing. Simpson emphatically argues that online organizing functioned as a form “of digital dispossession in contemporary movement spaces” and that “grounded normativity does not structurally exist in the cyber world” (221). This sentiment resonates with the reflections and critiques that Black activists have and are currently making about Black Lives Matter. Additionally, Simpson expresses regret about the inability for Idle No More to build the kind of relationships and solidarity that she desired with Black and Brown communities on Turtle Island (228-9). For Simpson, it matters “profoundly how change is achieved and with who we achieve it” (230).


In the book’s conclusion, Simpson offers a few examples of the kind of direct action that could provide models of radical resurgence. Simpson identifies the 1990 “Oka Crisis” as an example of a mobilization that required “placing Indigenous bodies between settlers and their money” (236). Simpson also references the STAÚTW nation’s reclamation of PKOLS at White Head (240). This direct action prioritized building relationships, joy, children, and generative refusal. The nation did not ask the state for permission to reclaim the land. According to Simpson, aspects of these acts of resurgence model a politics without a demand. Simpson argues that, Indigenous people “don’t need a list of demands, because we are the demand. We are the alternative” (237). Simpson’s rejection of a demand has some interesting discursive resonances with recent sentiments in abolitionist literature and rhetoric.5 Simpson’s As We Have Always Done will continue to be essential reading as Indigenous and Black freedom movements chart their presents and futures.



[1] George Floyd, an African American man, was murdered by Derek Chauvin in May of 2020 igniting global protests. In the wake of his murder and reanimated racial justice mobilization, public discourse has referred to the political moment following his death and the protests as a racial reckoning.

[2] See Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s Dancing on our turtle’s back: Stories of Nishnaabeg re-creation, resurgence and a new emergence. Arbeiter Ring Pub., 2011.

[3] See Glen Sean Coulthard’s. “Red skin, white masks: Rejecting the colonial politics of recognition.” Minneapolis: Minnesota (2014).

[4] See Neil Roberts. Freedom as marronage. University of Chicago Press, 2015 and Alexis Pauline Gumbs. Spill: Scenes of Black feminist fugitivity. Duke University Press, 2016

[5] In Jared Sexton’s 2014 article, “The Vel of Slavery,” Sexton argues for an abolitionist politics without claims. I bring this into conversation with Simpson’s rejection of demands. See Jared Sexton’s “The vel of slavery: Tracking the figure of the unsovereign.” Critical Sociology 42, no. 4-5 (2016): 583-597. More recently, in a 2021 press conference, Pam Africa of the Philadelphia based MOVE organization refused to entertain accepting an apology and a possible official inquiry in light of the revelation that the University of Pennsylvania Museum had stolen the bones of two MOVE children, Delisha and Tree Africa, after their brutal murder by the state.


Works Cited

Coulthard, Glen Sean. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis: Minnesota (2014).

Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity. Duke UP, 2016.

Maracle, Lee. I am Woman: A Native Perspective on Sociology and Feminism. Global Professional, 1996.

Roberts, Neil. Freedom as Marronage. U of Chicago P, 2015.

Sexton, Jared. “The Vel of Slavery: Tracking the Figure of the Unsovereign.” Critical Sociology 42, no. 4-5 (2016): 583-597.

Simpson, Audra. Mohawk Interruptus. Duke UP, 2014.

Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. Dancing on our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence. ARP, 2011.

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


This review “Returns: As We Have Always Done” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 16 Jan. 2023. Web.

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