I Am Not a Nation-State
This past winter, Idle No More organizers in Toronto recognized that although Indigenous peoples have been talking about nationhood for years, the idea of Indigenous nationhood is a concept still very misunderstood by Canadians. In response, the Toronto organizers launched a dialogue called “Nation to Nation Now – The Conversations” which took place at the end of March in Toronto. They invited speakers from both the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the Anishinaabeg nation to come together and share about what nationhood means to us from within our own political traditions. Wanda Nanibush moderated a discussion between myself and Anishinaabe artist Robert Houle.
Robert and I were on first. I got up very early and drove into the city on the 401, following the north shore of Lake Ontario. I remembered our old stories of what the land used to look like and I wondered if my Great, Great Grandmother would even recognize her homeland with the nuclear plant, the condos, and the six lanes of traffic that never stop day or night. I wondered if she were here with me, in the car, driving as the sun came up if she’d feel home. It struck me at that moment that our nationhood, my nationhood by its very nature calls into question this system of settler colonialism; a system that is such an overwhelming, violent, normalized and dishonest reality in Canada and so many other places. It is the force that has removed me from my land, it has erased me from my history and from contemporary life and it is the reason we currently have over 600 plus Missing and Murdered Indigenous women in Canada. I wondered if my Great, Great Grandmother would be proud of me for figuring that out. I decided she wouldn’t, because figuring out doesn’t count for much if you’re not willing to do something about it.
When I arrived at the conference venue several cups of coffee and two traffic jams later, I wasn’t thinking about my Grandmothers anymore. I was thinking about what I wanted for my own great grandchildren. It was very simple. It is very simple.
I want my great grandchildren to be able to fall in love with every piece of our territory. I want their bodies to carry with them, every story, every song, every piece of poetry hidden in our Anishinaabe language. I want them to be able to dance through their lives with joy. I want them to live without fear because they know respect, because they know in their bones what respect feels like. I want them to live without fear because they have a pristine environment with clean waterways that will provide them with the physical and emotional sustenance to uphold their responsibilities to the land, their families, their communities and their nations. I want them to be valued, heard and cherished by our communities and by Canada no matter their skin colour, their physical and mental abilities, their sexual orientation or their gender orientation.
I want my great, great grandchildren and their great, great grandchildren to be able to live as Mississauga Nishnaabeg unharassed and undeterred in our homeland.
The idea of my arms embracing my grandchildren, and their arms embracing their grandchildren is communicated in the Anishinaabe word kobade. According to elder Edna Manitowabi, kobade is a word we use to refer to our great grandparents and our great grandchildren. It means a link in a chain – a link in the chain between generations, between nations, between states of being, between individuals. I am a link in a chain. We are all links in a chain.
Doug Williams, a Missisauga Nishnaabeg elder from Curve Lake First Nation calls our nation, Kina Gchi Nishnaabeg ogamig – the place where we all live and work together. Our nation is a hub of Anishinaabe networks. It is a long kobade, cycling through time. It is a web of connections to each other, to the plant nations, the animal nations, the rivers and lakes, the cosmos and our neighbouring Indigenous nations.
Kina Gchi Nishnaabeg-ogamig is an ecology of intimacy.
It is an ecology of relationships in the absence of coercion, hierarchy or authoritarian power.
Kina Gchi Nishnaabeg-ogamig is connectivity based on the sanctity of the land, the love we have for our families, our language, our way of life. It is relationships based on deep reciprocity, respect, non-interference, self-determination and freedom.
Our nationhood is based on the idea that the earth is our first mother, that “natural resources” are not “natural resources” at all, but gifts from our mother. Our nationhood is based on the foundational concept that we should give up what we can to support the integrity of our homelands for the coming generations. We should give more than we take.
It is nationhood based on a series of radiating responsibilities.
This is what I understand our diplomats were negotiating when settlers first arrived in our territory. This was the impetus for those very first treaties – Anishinaabe freedom, protection for the land and the environment, a space – an intellectual, political, spiritual, artistic, creative and physical space where we could live as Anishinaabe and were our Kobade could do the same.
This is what my Ancestors wanted for me, for us. They wanted for our generation to practice Anishinaabe governance over our homeland, to partner with other governments over shared lands, to have the ability to make decisions about how the gifts of our mother would be used for the benefit of our people and in a manner to promote her sanctity for coming generations. I believe my ancestors expected the settler state to recognize my nation, our lands and the political and cultural norms in our territory.
I am not a nation-state, nor do I strive to be one.
Our politics and our nationalism are not based on enclosures defended with violence, yet we still have homelands. We’ve had them for thousands and thousands of years.
My nationhood doesn’t just radiate outwards, it also radiates inwards. It is my physical body, my mind, and my spirit. It is our families – not the nuclear family that has been normalized in settler society, but big, beautiful, diverse, extended multi-racial families of relatives and friends that care very deeply for each other.
I was at a conference a year ago in Ottawa at the Odawa Friendship Centre called First Women! First Voices! and I was speaking after Lee Maracle. When Lee walks into the room she is grounded, she is strong and she walks into the room and takes her space. She teaches us by the way she address us that she is sovereign. She’s not looking for anyone to recognize that sovereignty. She’s not asking permission to be sovereign. She doesn’t spend any time negotiating, dialoguing or begging. She just acts sovereign.
What I continually learn from that generation of women is to come in from a place of strength. Take your space.
The one thing I can do right this second is to insert and assert my sovereignty as an Anishinaabekwe everywhere I can – my body, my mind, my home, my community. I can connect myself to every piece of my territory no matter what shape it is in, because we cannot abandon our mother because she is sick. I can learn as much as I can about my songs, stories, ceremonies and languages. I can work towards the flourishment of my Anishinaabeg inside and I don’t need permission, recognition, reconciliations, rights or funding to do that. I can build my nation from the inside out – that’s what that generation of women in the 1960s and 1970s were modeling to us. And along with that re-building, we have to also continually interrogate how colonial society constructs race, gender and sexuality. Many of our nations have more than two genders. Many of our nations do not have that rigid gender binary. Many of our nations have traditions of respect for all sexual orientations. Even in places and spaces that do not, we simply cannot afford to replicate the discrimination, violence and exclusion that has exiled too many of us for too long.
There are as many ways to articulate and embody Anishinaabeg nationhood as there are Anishinaabe individuals. Collectively, no matter how we speak it, our nationhood is about land, culture, language, our bodies, minds and spirits and the survivance of our Kobade as Anishinaabeg. For me, our concept of nationhood encompasses everything meaningful to me as an Anishinaabekwe.
It encompasses all of my hopes for the generations of souls, yet unborn.
Leanne Simpson is a writer and academic of Mississauga Nishnaabeg ancestry. She is the editor of Lighting the Eighth Fire: The Liberation, Resurgence & Protection of Indigenous Nations and This is an Honour Song: Twenty Years Since the Blockades (with Kiera Ladner). Leanne is the author of Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence (Arbeiter Ring) and The Gift Is in the Making, a re-telling of traditional stories, forthcoming Spring 2013 (Debwe Series, Highwater Press). Her first collection of short stories, Islands of Decolonial Love has just been published by Arbeiter Ring Fall 2013. www.leannesimpson.ca Follow her on Twitter: betasamosake