Emergent Lives, Decolonial Futures
When I hit that beat, you hear that beat? It’s the sound of healing. The heartbeat. I can be myself around the drum. Sometimes I just cry out of nowhere. That’s why I hit the drum everyday. When I hear the beat. It relaxes me. It calms me down.
—Jack Linklater Jr, Attawapiskat Nation, October 2016
Drumbeats and the Emergence of Decolonial Futures
Across the road from the Attawapiskat River, whose fresh waters weave through the Cree community before mixing with saltwater along the shores of James Bay, youth leader Jack Linklater Jr. caressed his hand drum, warmed the hide with his hands, felt the beat and began to sing. Quietly sharing his story with us, a team of Indigenous and non-Indigenous academics and artists, he explained the significance of music to himself, his community and culture. Then, from deep within his belly outward, he belted into song, commanding our attention. The theme of healing weighed heavily on everyone’s hearts and minds. Several months prior to our fall 2016 gathering in Attawapiskat, leadership declared a State of Emergency due to an escalation in suicide attempts made by young people in the community. This State of Emergency did not occur by accident, but slowly, over a century of cultural dislocation and the visceral affects of Canada’s persistent colonial assemblage, enacted through laws and policies such as the Indian Act and Residential School system. Amidst this legacy, which continues to grip lives marking a liminal space between life and death, states of emergency are becoming the norm. Many community-members seek ways to heal from generations of trauma. Music presents one avenue to do so. It offers an alternative way of thinking, feeling, seeing and being in relation to the world, one that is not possessively taking from it.
Like a heartbeat, drumbeats stir bodies from deep within. Many Indigenous communities around the world consider the drumbeat to reflect the heart of a nation. It signals that despite the persistence of colonial pain, nations are alive and well, continuing to thrive. As one example, the lyrics to A Tribe Called Red’s song “How I Feel” evokes this fusion of pain and pleasure as they mix together electronic and traditional drumbeats. Through rhythm, vibrations and songs, drumming connects humans with more-than-human life. Drumbeats calls upon ancestral teachings, inform present relations and articulate future possible ways of being. When singing with the drum, a connection with all of creation is evoked. The materiality of the drum is not a static or passive object simply acted upon, but an active force, a vibrant matter (Bennett 2009). It carries meaning and affects both those who sing along and who listen. Listening is an act of witness and a call to ceremony. A drum awakens a corporeal sensation. One feels the beat of the drum and hears the voice of those who sing. This is a call to action. To move. To no longer be idle. The bodies of those who witness become conduits for change. To listen to the drum and to hear the voices of those singing along is a call for those present to commit to honoring relationships.
In a similar vein, the conclusion of this book Life Against a State of Emergency, is not the closing of a conversation. It can be read as an interlude, a narrative that rests between pivotal events, Theresa Spence’s initial hunger strike in 2012 and another one declared at the time of writing in 2019. This interlude is also an honor song, a written response to Theresa Spence’s call for a discussion of what it means to be in a treaty relationship today. It begins with a moment of pause, a break to listen to those voices of those speaking out against Canada’s colonial reality. Jack Linklater Jr.’s song, which opens this chapter, invites the listener to witness pain and reflect deeply on what it means to heal. This act of listening and bearing witness takes us beyond diagnosing the layered problems of colonialism’s persistent reach into the capillaries of community life. This book is one pathway that seeks to create space for the emergence of multiple forms of life. It honours the expression and articulation of these connected human/more-than-human lives, envisions possible treatments to underlying environmental injustice problems in Canada, and interrogates the shapeshifting ways in which the state permits the squeezing out of certain forms of life to occur. Moving from diagnostic to treatment is an iterative, messy, complex and layered process. As Indigenous scholars like Dian Million have documented well, all too often interventionist treatments created from outside Indigenous communities fail (2013). Worse, they can cause even more damage and trauma to the bodies of those affected by outside intervention. Indigenous communities have long stated loudly and clearly that self-determination is central to decolonial futures. The United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) draws attention to the principles of free, prior and informed consent, which must be central to any policy, resource development, law or land decision that pertains to Indigenous territories and is vital for self-determination.
At the same time, non-Indigenous states and citizens are party to agreements with Indigenous peoples, binding them to longstanding relations of reciprocity and care. As former Attawapiskat Chief Spence said to me over breakfast in Timmins, Ontario “you are treaty too” (personal communication February 13, 2016). A treaty is a relationship, not a contract, land sale, secession or surrender. As this book has discussed, it is a commitment to an ongoing, long-term relationship. Like any relationship, it requires care, consent and the possibility to revisit the terms of an initial agreement. This move towards self-determination requires a shift away from outsider expertise as an authoritative voice speaking for or on behalf of community. Working in solidarity with communities who seek self-determination requires profiling community voices at the core while co-creating possible avenues for decolonial futures. This involves listening to community leaders including elders and including youth as key knowledge holders with input to shape and inform governance, policy and decision-making. It also involves appreciating relational connections between human and more-than-human life.
As explained to me on more than one occasion, the drumbeat creates a conversation between humans and Mother Earth. I heard this message from Elders in Aamjiwnaang and from leaders of all ages in Attawapiskat. Often made of deer hide, drums serve as a vessel, giving expression to a relationship between humans and their more-than-human animal environments. Striking the drum creates a reverberation and emanates outwards, stirring multiple voices and bodies into song, building communities. Jack added his voice to the conversation about community healing and wellness when he sang for us. In closing this book with a vignette about the drum specifically and music broadly, I aim to add to a continuous, ongoing, emergent conversation about articulations of what life looks like beyond the colonial status quo. In nêhiyaw/Dene scholar Jarrett Martineau’s compelling words: “Songs, stories, art, music, dance, performance, and ceremonies are communicative forms of Indigenous art and decolonizing media—languages through which to glimpse visions, echoes, and refrains of decolonized realities” (2015: 10). Listening to music, and the lyrics of any song, is an interpretive undertaking. There is no one way to generate meaning from a particular piece of music or to envision a monolithic decolonial future. These are always multiple iterations. These travel. Sometimes they are unpolished, unfinished. This kind of creativity “reflects the flux and becoming of not simply of art, but of all life and matter” (Martineau 2015: 14). As an iterative, fluid, ongoing process, music emerges, connecting old and new forms. Music creation within spaces of indeterminancy can give rise to “an emergent decolonial politics” (Martineau 2015: 11). It does so by creating space for nuanced perspectives from diverse angles of vision, and by dreaming up new worlds.
Music functions as a vignette, a traveling, active narrative that carries with it meaningful messages about decolonial futures. A musical orientation to the problem of colonialism, environmental injustice and the biopolitical conditions of emergency life evokes a lyrical movement beyond boundaries and borders. It pushes back on imposed jurisdictions, interrupting rigid demarcations and dividing lines while blurring these with imagination and curiosity. As I will discuss, music creates affective ties. It generates what Michael Shapiro calls a community of sense, the ensemble of multiple beings coming together in concert for a common cause (2019 in press). Music presents possible pathways for deepening an understanding of self-determination and treaty relationships, and gestures to a deeper respect and appreciation for more-than-human life.
Rich in content, meaning and expression, music bears with it the potential to convey meanings about multiple truths and messages while also creating community, across sites, scales and contexts. Globally renowned artists like A Tribe Called Red, as well as the national Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) platform Reclaimed and Revolutions Per Minute founded by Jarrett Martineau, each exemplify the diversity, depth and breadth of vibrant and flourishing Indigenous music. The composition of beats, sounds, lyrics, and words generate felt sensations, creating affinities and senses of community that emerge from deep within the affective core of one’s being. Music is carefully composed, but also emanates and emerges. Rejecting the colonial policy assemblage of oppression enabled through the legacy of the Indian Act system, we can understand music as an ensemble. It brings together beings in concert, to share, to feel, to connect and to learn. When listeners hear music, they bear witness to it. When they dance, they embody it. When they sing, they participate in it. Music travels, builds bridges, serves as a connective tissue among and across multiple worlds. As Jarrett Martineau has discussed, we can understand Indigenous music, art-making and creativity “as the noise to colonialism’s signal: a force capable of disrupting colonial legibility and the repeated imposition of the normative order” (2015: iv). The force of music gains its power through movement and action. Music creation brings humans into relations, resists an extractive way of relating to one another and instead centres connection and harmony. This creative form of expression carries the power to create and expand “decolonial constellations of love and resistance” (Martineau, 2015: viii). Such loving relations emerge in multiple spaces beyond territorially bounded limits.
Light and Shadows: Midnight Shine
In the heart of Coast Salish territory, on September 9, 2018 from the Port Theatre located on Snuneymuxw lands, Nanaimo B.C., Kw’umut Lelum youth drummed to open the stage for Midnight Shine, a band that mixes roots, classic and modern rock with Cree lyrics and sounds from the far north. The assembled voices of these Indigenous children in foster care set the tone for the interludes that followed between sets. After taking the stage while singing in Cree, Midnight Shine band member, lead singer and Attawapiskat band member Adrian Sutherland shared pieces of his personal life story with the crowd. He offered glimpses into his own experiences growing up as a child in care, healing from pain and how music offered him some catharsis. Between songs he spoke about how writing presented a means for him to reflect on his emotions and give expression to his inner self. The main message of his band Midnight Shine is as he explained to me, about “shining light on an area where we come from which is often depicted as dark, so we want to shine a positive light on our people through our music. The message is that we want to inspire young people and give hope” and to “share who we are with as many people as we can and hopefully gain more fans in all the places we play, to keep growing”, and to “share the north” as a means to illuminate what northern life is about, including the pain, suffering, beauty, growing and healing involved (personal communication September 9, 2018). The songs performed that night spoke about his upbringing along the shores of James Bay, becoming a man on the land, the need for thick or, in their words, “Leather Skin” and what life is like growing up in a remote coastal community. The lyrics of “Leather Skin” highlight the significance of cultural survival. In Adrian’s words: “we know how to survive, we have been doing this for a very long time” (personal communication September 9, 2018). He acknowledged his location in Coast Salish territory within the Pacific Ocean and noted that people depend on the ocean as a way of life, something he could relate to having grown up along James Bay in Northern Canada, Treaty 9 territory.
After a stirring performance, Adrian sat down with me for an interview to talk story about life in the far north, the power of music as a healing force, and treaty relations. In our conversation, we discussed music as a way to alter (mis)perceptions about Indigenous peoples, challenge stereotypes and offer messages of hope for future generations of Indigenous peoples. As a sensory political ethnographer, someone concerned with how power relations creep beyond institutions and discourses to touch peoples’ everyday lives, I came equipped with my pocket-size notebook and cell phone. During the performance I recorded images and sounds with my camera phone and jotted down some notes in my notebook as prompts to lead into our conversation after the show. Once the audience left and I was the last-standing fan, I walked with Adrian and his band mates over to a neighboring restaurant for our interview as previously agreed to over email. He graciously answered my questions and took some time to draw out what he referred to as natural law in my notebook. In this fluid and relational process, the political ethnographer is more than a participant observer, but an observing participant, someone who becomes stirred by stories that touch us. Listening to life experiences within the site of field relations, geographically bounded or beyond, engages the researcher affectively in situated narratives and involves treating research participants not as subjects of study but as human beings. In this way, the sensory political ethnographer traces a vignette, rather than conducts a case study investigation or focuses on a geographically bounded site-specific location. The touring band presents a way to reconceive how the researcher approaches field work, not as territorially bounded, but fluid, relational and moving.
Our interview touched on topics about decolonial futures that connect past, present and future. I opened with my personal journey as a non-Indigenous female academic originally raised in Coast Salish territory and how my studies and scholarship took me away from this coast to communities like Aamjiwnaang and Attawapiskat in an attempt to try to understand the composition and enactment of Canada’s colonial body politic, environmental in/justice issues and raise awareness about the significance of treaty relationships today. I reminded Adrian about the first time we met in Attawapiskat, at night, during a pipe ceremony. Seated in a circle, community members and invited guests shared their intentions for being there and what they were seeking guidance for. Reflecting on the importance of ceremony and culture in his own life, Adrian mentioned that he has “one foot in the past and one foot in the here and now”, where he feels fortunate to “have the best of both worlds” to be able to draw from his ceremonies and practices which guide him when he needs them to (personal communication September 9, 2018). To more deeply understand the fluidity of narratives that travel beyond colonial-defined geographical boundaries, and to gain a sense of the feelings evoked through music about healing, the far north, cree culture and treaty relations on a much more profound corporeal level, it was significant to meet again in a completely different context, far from the geographic bounds of the small northern reserve, somewhere much closer to the lands and waters that raised me.
At the time I initially met Adrian in Attawapiskat, I was there working with young artists on the Reimagining Attawapiskat project, a critical media studies initiative that recalibrates narratives about the community as a wasteland constantly in crisis. Instead, the project aims to simultaneously critique the persistence of colonialism and celebrate culture. The website features visual art, photography, paintings, music, literature, storytelling and mixed digital media arts. It is a multifaceted prism. Such a platform enables the viewer to “reflect, understand, critique and interpret” Indigenous peoples’ layered lived realities (Martineau 2015: 14). Jack Linklater’s “Drumming”, which opens this chapter, is one of the digital story vignettes featured on the Reimagining Attawapiskat website. This video and the other narratives presented aim to interrogate Canada’s colonial grip on everyday life and imagine alternatives by centering the voices, messages and images from Attawapiskat youth themselves.
During our conversation, Adrian discussed intergenerational learning and the importance of holding up young people. He shared that “youth need to understand where they come from and their identity” to understand their sense of purpose and feel like they are on a fulfilling path (personal communication September 9, 2018). Such narratives highlight how while colonialism is an invasive structure affecting Indigenous peoples’ daily lives; however, it does not totally define their daily reality. Much like the messages present in Midnight Shine’s music shared that evening, Adrian and participants of the Reimagining Attawapiskat project alike evoke light and shadows in their creation. This involves naming and identifying some of the structural root causes of pain, while also highlighting community strength, healing, wellness, and visions of possible futures.
Adrian explained to me the role that music played during his upbringing. He grew up in a musical family. His mother played the organ. He named Bryan Adams and Neil Young as strong influences on his musical trajectory as a singer-songwriter. His life is one that travels between worlds and his music mixes genres of folk, rock and Cree chants. One of Midnight Shine’s songs on their third album covers Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”, with a verse in Cree. For Adrian, this was one way to bring in Cree language to the music. He mentioned how “music for me is a way to carry a message, it’s a way for me to heal, hopefully for others to heal and reach as many people” (personal communication September 9, 2018). Our conversation turned to messages about community strength, inspiring youth and upholding treaty relationships in Canada. “I feel like the treaty relationship we have with the Crown is empty. It feels empty. We are constantly reminding people about these treaties,” Adrian explained (personal communication September 9, 2018). This same sentiment about empty, broken treaties also compelled Theresa Spence to commence her hunger strike in an effort to move her body into the public spotlight. When she did so from the capital of Canada during the winter of 2012, her corporeal action served as a biopolitical interruption—a rupture—that intervened on and disrupted Canada’s colonial status quo body politic. The hunger strike made the invisible violence of treaty neglect visible to a much wider audience. Most Canadians are unaware of the living conditions in remote Indigenous communities and the legacies left by the Residential School system.
Treaty Relations: From Biopolitical Diagnostic to Relational Treatment
When then Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence began her fast in 2012, she called upon Canadian citizens and the Crown to uphold their commitments to Indigenous people as treaty partners. Her six-week hunger strike, a ceremonial fast, disrupted the colonial status quo body politic. In doing so, it aimed to rupture an asymmetrical, hierarchical, biopolitical, state system. As such, it partitioned a monolithic sensible order of colonial consciousness and revealed unaccounted for bodies (Bennett 2009: 105; Martineau 2015: 6). Theresa Spence’s act of gentle disruption radically changed what Canadians could see, overthrowing “the regime of the perceptible” (Bennett 2009: 107). Moving her body from Attawapiskat, a northern reserve, to the center of Canada’s colonial institutions, she resisted and refused Canada’s tolerant version of a liberal policy.
Simultaneously, her body struck a chord with nations around the world. Media attention poured over her and the event, and catalyzed the Idle No More movement, igniting artful forms of Indigenous resistance across the country, signaling a return to traditions and presencing of futurity. Indigenous nations gathered together in public spaces around the world, forming flash mob pow wows, round dances, marching, drumming, dancing, singing and holding hands together with each other and other Canadians engaging in solidarity efforts, enacting an emergent relationality and making their bodies visible, and audible (Martineau 2015; Recollet 2015). These creative, shape shifting, interrupting, affective actions prompt us to “consider indigeneity as a mobile concept through which to reclaim the radical alterity of Indigenous being in a fugitive movement of decolonial becoming” (Martineau 2015: 8). This emphasis on emergent life orients our reflection not to limited rigid ways of understanding Indigenous peoples as confined to reserve enclosures, but to witness, appreciate and come in relation with Indigenous forms of presence and ways of being in the world. Such actions regenerate collective power and provoke awareness, affinities and communities of sense-making. They are felt, affective, corporeal and create connections between human and more-than-human lives.
Theresa Spence began a hunger strike because she felt deep within the core of her being how Canada’s treaty relationships were broken. These relationships have been broken since before Canadian Confederation. Treaty 9, which governs Attawapiskat territory, was negotiated by Residential Schools architect Duncan Campbell Scott, who famously declared: “Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic” (Angus 2015: 14; Talaga 2018: 57, 64). Treaty 9 land includes approximately 338,000 km between the Great Lakes and James Bay. What is needed is not a return to the past treaty relationship, but the formation of something new, drawing from traditions that predate the signing of colonial treaty agreements. Spence’s corporeal action begs and continues to pose many political questions that strike the core of Canada’s colonial body politic: What would it take to repair broken treaty relationships? Can these relationships, often signed under conditions of duress, ever be repaired? How might they be conceived of otherwise? Can treaties be more than a divide and conquer strategy by imperial authorities? What does it mean to be in a treaty partnership today?
While many treaties were signed between the Crown and Indigenous nations in the years leading up to and shortly after Canadian Confederation in 1867, treaties continue to be negotiated today in Western Canada. These signal the presence of ongoing relationships and draw attention to the need for greater imagination about how these agreements can be more than an instrumental secession and instead constitutive of an ongoing, relational commitment to enacting different ways of treating human and more-than-human lives. During his campaign to become the Prime Minister of Canada in 2015, Liberal party leader Justin Trudeau promised to renew a nation-to nation relationship while respecting the constitutionally guaranteed rights of Indigenous peoples “not as an inconvenience but rather a sacred obligation” (Talaga 2018). Canadians are treaty partners and have responsibilities to live up to these sacred obligations.
The Indian Act system led to a legislative reality where many Indigenous nations must make proposals and seek program funding from a colonial bureaucratic system. Introduced in 1876, just nine years after Canadian Confederation, the Indian Act is a federal statute that governs every aspect of Indigenous life “from land management to education to cultural ceremony and even status and identity” (Angus 2015; Talaga 2018: 64). Today, the policy assemblage governing Indigenous life involves multiple layers, parties and stakeholders across jurisdictions, including band, province and federal governments. The administration of Indigenous life is ad hoc, discretionary, murky, messy and confusing for many nations across the country. Communities struggling to meet basic needs are often left in limbo, lost in legal space (Borrows 2002). This liminality becomes apparent within the tragedy of suicide.
When treaty commitments are ignored, young people suffer. In Children of the Broken Treaty, musician and Member of Parliament for Timmins-James Bay Charlie Angus documents the legacy of abuse from Treaty 9 based St. Anne’s Residential school, as well as ongoing infrastructure issues including contamination of local buildings that impeded access to education (2015). His work discusses crisis after crisis in Attawapiskat, ranging from housing to water treatment and the underfunding of education with limited public safety standards. These interrelated crises reveal the slow-moving conditions of a state of emergency, how emergency life becomes normalized. His work sheds light on what life is like when lost in legal limbo, amidst this colonial policy assemblage. For instance, a series of fires and floods highlight the latent catastrophe conditions in the community, reminiscent to what Rob Nixon calls “slow violence”, violence that is so invisible it barely registers on a wider scale (Angus 2015; Nixon 2011). As a continuation of this systemic neglect, the April 2016 suicide crisis in Attawapiskat brought global attention to these circumstances and revealed the visceral affects of broken treaties and the fallout of the racist Residential School system (Talaga 2018: 125). Indigenous children and youth continue to bear the weight of history: “the historical injustices of colonization; the forced removal off the land by extermination or segregation; the cultural genocide effected by government policy and religious indoctrination; the intergenerational trauma stemming from years of poverty, abuse and identity oppression” (Talaga 2018: 16). Many young people, as in Attawapiskat, grow up in uninhabitable environments without access to basic services, clean water, safe housing, and well-funded education institutions. Moreover they experience physical and cultural dislocation from their communities. Further upsetting fragile ecosystems in Treaty 9 territory, for over a decade, the Victor DeBeers Diamond Mine pumped wastewater into the 748km long Attawapiskat River (Talaga 2018: 43). While the colonial body politic continuously endeavoured to write Indigenous bodies out, actions such as Spence’s hunger strike, a round dance flash mob and the situated voices from the Reimagining Attawapiskat project interrupt the biopolitical narrative of erasure.
Treaty Relations With/in More-than-Human Environments
When Adrian Sutherland and I spoke about the colonial context and how it affects Attawapiskat, he mentioned that he felt his community’s spirit had been broken. “Can I draw this?” he asked turning to my notebook. Sketching out the “circle of life”, a figure of people holding hands in a circle, with one outlier, he illustrated the problem of individual alienation. Illuminating a Cree worldview, his image visualized how humans are not considered to be autonomous creatures, but relational beings embedded within much larger ecosystems. He articulated the importance of natural law as a way to connect to the territory and restore these broken relationships. In stark contrast to the emptiness of the treaty relations he referred to earlier, when drawing in my notebook, he fleshed out treaty relations premised on the vibrant, colourful four directions of the medicine wheel, blue, white, red and yellow, corresponding with environmental elements including: grass, trees, water, sun—important features that underpin the natural laws of his Cree community. The medicine wheel can be read as a multidimensional, multilayered prism for treaty relations. Adrian broke the treaty down into four sections, noting that “there are layers and layers of the medicine wheel” (personal communication September 9, 2018). The clan system stems from these layers. He explained how his Elders thought this is what they signed, an agreement to share resources of forestry, fishing, gaming, farming and minerals, not a surrender. Citing his ancestors, Adrian vocalized that natural law is an emergent, living force: “as long as the wind blows, the sun rises, the water flows and the grass grows” (personal communication September 9, 2018). Treaties from this perspective do not solidify an extractive relationship where humans take resources from the natural world. Rather, human life is relational and interconnected with more-than-human life, including the animals, winds, fires, waters, plants. Values of strength, kindness, mind, spirit and the body are woven into this medicine wheel treaty. Relationships are at the forefront of this depiction of treaty. In Adrian’s words: “how you treat the land is how you treat the people”, and given these deep-rooted connections, “if you mistreat the people, you’ll be affected by that” (personal communication September 9, 2018). This relational treatment connects mind, body, spirit and emotions, and is central to understanding the natural laws from his Cree perspective.
We discussed the colour palate of the medicine wheel further, focusing on the blue quadrant. I asked him to elaborate more about water and coastlines, following up on his comment that the salty air felt familiar as we walked from the theatre to the restaurant. With reference to his personal connection to the ocean and the dynamic seascapes that surrounded us during our conversation, his words gave life to the spiritual depth he feels in relation to water: “I don’t know what it is, but I can feel something. There is definitely something there. When you look at the belief system that we have, the water is a women spirit. It’s a grandmother. That’s what you feel. You always have to acknowledge that” (personal communication September 9, 2018). Referring to stories passed on from Elders, he mentioned the stirring energy he feels around water and the deep, spiritual connection that makes him feel good being near it. The fluid movement of water and these vibrant seascapes provide comfort as they shift and transform, much like culture.
Midnight Shine’s lyrics animate these political and ecological relationships, offering messages about Cree culture that include respect for more-than-human environments and Indigenous sacred traditions that influence health and wellbeing. For many Indigenous communities, multi species relations are central to wellbeing. Around the world, Indigenous nations are engaging in treaty relations with more-than-human lifeworlds, i.e. deer (Anishinabek/Ontario, Canada), sharks (Kanaka Maoli/Hawai‘i), rivers (Māori/Aotearoa/New Zealand). These include treating animals and bodies of water as kin. In Tanya Talaga’s words: “Being of the Earth, we are connected to the Earth. Being of the Spirit, we are connected to the Spirit—and to each other” (2018: 25). This is not an anthropocentric hierarchical relationship of domination over the natural environment. From this perspective, land is not merely a resource commodity, but kin. Journal entries from Treaty 9 signatories reveal vastly differing interpretations of these relationships. While Indigenous leaders sought lands that would not be interfered upon by colonial authorities to continue to hunt and fish, state officials sought to get treaties signed in order to “cede, release, surrender and yield their land to the Crown” (Talaga 2018: 62). The latter does not reveal a mutual agreement of respect based on reciprocal relations of care and consent.
Access to education was a key driving factor for Indigenous nations who signed treaties around the time of Confederation. The Residential School system provides evidence of how horribly this played out in reality, as a policy that removed over 150,000 Indigenous children from their cultures, families and territories to send them to boarding schools often far away from home (Angus 2015; Talaga 2018; Wiebe 2016). State law and Residential School policies banned Indigenous ceremonies and practices including the Potlach and Sun Dance. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which wrapped up its fact-finding mission in 2015 with 94 Calls to Action, document this reality. As former TRC Commissioner and later Senator Murray Sinclair has discussed, the education system played a dominant role in damaging relationships between Indigenous peoples and Canadians (Talaga 2018: 211). At the same time, assimilation through education did not work. Yet, its visceral legacy lives on. Sometimes latent, other times explosive. Canada continues to fumble its way through envisioning and enacting what relationships based upon reconciliation mean in practice, beyond mere rhetoric.
Self-determination is central to futures oriented treaty relations. Turning our gaze forward also requires understanding the past. Indigenous traditions are ripe with innovations about how to envision good relationships based on respect, reciprocity and care. As Robert A. Williams discusses in Linking Arms Together, the Two Row Wampum is more than a historical artifact, its teachings carry meaning today (1999: 4). The Two Row Wampum is a sacred belt that stems from a large tradition of Iroquois resistance to Western imperialism. The belt is comprised of beads that symbolize the sacredness and purity of treaty agreements between parties. Two parallel rows of purple wampum beads extend down the length of the belt and “represent the separate paths traveled by the two sides on the same river. Each side travels in its own vessel: the Indians in a birch bark canoe, representing their laws, customs and ways, and the whites in a ship, representing their laws, customs and ways” (1999: 4). The belt carries with it visions of law and peace between different peoples as they travel the river together, alongside one another, but on their own boat, where neither steers the other’s vessel. Williams’ work further illuminates how treaties are not simply a contract, sale agreement or surrender document, but sacred texts, imbued with connections, stories and constitutions. They are also vital matters of life and death (Williams 1999: 62). Nations would sign treaties with each other as a means of survival. He shows how treaties envisioned relations premised upon law and peace (1999). Self-determination implies building relationships of trust, solidarity and respect without interference. As Michael Asch discusses, “we are all here to stay” (2014: 3). Treaties imply not only an understanding of rights and legal provisions, but also principles of coexistence, sharing and ongoing commitments.
Williams further reflects on the significance of storytelling to treaty-making. He highlights how stories can be a form of connecting people across differences to the experiences of others and generate new stories. Citing critical legal scholar Mari Matsuda, he notes: “stories can connect us through their legal means” and serve as a means to obtain the knowledge needed to create a just legal structure in a culturally diverse world (Williams 1999: 84). Indigenous visions of law and peace emerge through imaginative storytelling. Another very clear example of this relationality becomes apparent in Corey Newman’s Witness Blanket, an art installation made of artefacts from Residential Schools. It is an object that calls viewers in to witness stories and memories. But at the same time, it is so much more than a material object. Newman was influenced by treaty relations when envisioning his relationship between himself, the artworks, storytellers as well as the galleries and museums exhibiting the work (Smith 2019). His approach is informed by the idea of treaties as living documents, not final agreements. These relations are not premised upon a cessation or surrender of land, but peace, friendship, and ongoing dialogue.
Storytelling and the Relational Arts of Resurgence
Art is a relational force, provoking feelings, stirring up controversies, sparking dialogues. It has the potential to raise awareness and shift perspectives, orienting attention to new and multiple angles of vision. For many who draw from Cree worldviews, life and community wellness are not about individualism, but about creating connections. These worldviews are creative and generative. This includes human and more-than-human connections. Foundational to the Indigenous resurgence movement is the power of storytelling, creating pathways to ancestral teachings as a means to inform the present and influence futurities. Art is a vital communication tool for Indigenous resurgence, with the power to diagnose colonial problems and to treat them with aesthetic innovation and imagination. Art is emergent, creating works that speak across time and space, travels between worlds, mixes media and speaks to diverse audiences. It is not static, but a fluid, shapeshifting vignette that travels through exhibitions, publications and within the digital arena, thus serving as an intervention tool across rigid boundaries.
One specific example of art and treaty-making as an emergent corporeal practice is apparent in Tanya Lukin Linklater’s work The Treaty is in the Body. Her video and performance work was featured at the Winnipeg Art Museum for the September 23, 2017-April 22, 2018 Insurgence/Resurgence exhibition, curated by Jaimie Isaac and Dr. Julie Nagam. The exhibition spoke to the ongoing themes of decolonizing and anticolonial work of the gallery with the aim of expanding an understanding of how arts can be “transformative, relational and inclusionary” (Isaac and Nagam 2018: 7). Insurgence/Resurgence featured the work of 29 artists and 12 new commissions from Canadian territories and nations. They engage with political issues and visual interpretations of “cultural survivance and political awareness” through a vast array of mediums and practices such as: tattooing, fashion, new media, painting, sculpture, sound and light installations, photography, film, stop motion animation, beading and performance (Isaac and Nagam 2017: 15). It was an affirmative and futures-oriented exhibition that emphasized self-determination, renewal, interpretation and radical and relational Indigenous aesthetics. At the nexus of insurgence and resurgence, the exhibition presented an opportunity to radically shift understandings about Canada’s body politic. Issues related to the environment, land, gender, health, language and alternative economies featured prominently. In their curatorial statement, Jaimie Isaac and Julie Nagam articulated the power of Indigenous reverberations “sounding a new era of relationship building” while vibrating, echoing and invigorating life into Canadian consciousness (2017: 13). Emphasizing the importance of lighting the Eighth Fire, their curation signals the value of settler awareness, bearing witness and taking responsibility to act.
At the same time, the exhibition resists settler binaries and colonial narratives. This emergent work requires an ongoing commitment to active decolonization while “working towards respectful coexistence and love” (2017: 14). Refusing rigid imposed boundaries and binaries, the exhibition incites settler responsibility, holds space for newcomers and shared experiences to create and witness resurgent contemporary Indigenous art. Art and storytelling serve as a radical tool for resurgence.
Collaboration is central to this relational art-making. As curators Isaac and Nagam discuss, Indigenous methods deeply informed their curatorial practice, and collaborative relationships with artists were of great importance (2017: 15). They endeavoured to raise their voices alongside the artists through visioning, designing, creating, outreach, planning and community-building—through all stages of the process. In doing so, Insurgence/Resurgence aimed to “create a visual literacy through political action and self-determination” (Isaac and Nagam 2017: 15). These collaborative ethics and aesthetics are also evident in Tanya Lukin Linklater’s The Treaty is in the Body.
As an installation, The Treaty is in the Body demonstrates how treaties are living, breathing engagements, not a document, but an embodied practice. Tanya Lukin Linklater’s work reveals how issues of relationships to treaties and territories are central to the core being of Indigenous engagement with the Canadian state (Isaac and Nagam 2017: 19). Her work weaves together family and gender. The viewer becomes familiar with living practices of hunting, trapping, tanning, sewing and beading. The audience watches as “relationships develop and transform into stronger understandings of body and treaties” (Isaac and Nagam 2017: 19). These multiple practices and sensibilities highlight the active force of treaty relationality, where a treaty is not considered as an archival contact or sale, but a living, breathing, enacted state of being.
In her artist statement, Tanya Lukin Linklater describes how Theresa Spence’s hunger strike sparked this installation. In response to her 44-day fast, Tanya began interviewing her Cree relatives from James Bay “regarding their experiences trapping, hunting, tanning hide, sewing, and beading” (Lukin Linklater 2017: 108). Through these interviews with her relatives, she honoured oral storytelling traditions and translated their experiences into visual poems. These resembled beads on a page. Texts became banners of canvas tarp, used to create a shelter on land. The visual and poetic works serve as a “small form of activism, a series of reflections on Indigenous women’s work that consider treaty, family and place” (Lukin Linklater 2017: 108). Excerpts of the text led to negotiated performances between the artist and dancers in Montreal, Vancouver and Minneapolis.
In brief, The Treaty is in the Body is a video and installation work that arose from Tanya Lukin Linklater’s investigation of treaty since 2012 through text, performance and installation. As she articulates, “within Indigenous knowledges surrounding treaty, the treaty is held within the body”, it speaks to ancestors’ agency and sovereignty in relation to land, sharing and connecting past, present and futures in an “expanded sense of time” (Lukin Linklater 2017: 108). Through her artistic practice, Tanya Lukin Linklater activates space for intergenerational sharing of knowledge among families, youth and children in northern Ontario. By sharing knowledge about treaties in this way, her visual work documents the learning of Cree youth as they activate this physical learning in their bodies. Treaties can be interpreted as vignette narratives that travel, embodied through practices carried forward by youth into future generations. Thinking treaties through the body provides a more relational orientation to understanding them today. Law, embodied in this way, flows, is fluid and emergent, enacted through ongoing practice. This embodied sense of the treaty gives life to the natural law articulated by Cree musician Adrian Sutherland. Such a dynamic way of being in relation to treaty makes these human/more-than-human laws breathe life into a richer more vibrant ecosystem than the extractive, oppressive, hierarchical colonial body politic in Canada.
Vignette as Sensory Method: Storying Political Ethnography
Investigating how Canada’s colonial body politic produces the material and discursive conditions for emergency life requires many different tools. The constellating methods undertaken in this project are prismatic and transdisciplinary (Martineau 2015; Lynes 2012). As this book demonstrates, mapping the struggle for environmental justice in Attawapiskat involves a layered analysis. Martineau fleshes out Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s exposé of empire, highlighting five core dimensions that frame the ongoing struggles, which I build upon here to flesh out how an ethnographic sensibility addresses these: (1) a critical approach, oriented to consciousness shifting; (2) unleashing the creative spirit to imagine other possible worlds; (3) gathering an ensemble or coming together of seemingly disparate ideas, events or moments; (4) movement, through vignettes that disturb and interrupt confined borders and traverse sites of struggle; and (5) rupturing the structural underlying codes of imperial power relations (Martineau 2015: 40; Smith 2012: 201). A prismatic lens provides nuanced and layered vantage points to examine the multi-sited and multisensory operations of colonial power. We can envision decolonial futures through the analytical prism of Indigenous art, music and media in order to both critique and create.
Though the formal end date of this study concludes in May 2019 when the grant funding for the Reimagining Attawapiskat project ends, the narratives and relationships live on. After the launch of the website, lead Community Research Assistant Keisha Rose PaulMartin traveled to share her story and the stories from Attawapiskat with a wider audience. The first opportunity for her to do so was on a panel for the June 2017 Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) conference in Coast Salish territory, Vancouver B.C., and the second was from the archipelago of Haida Gwaii during the summer of 2018, where she elaborated her desire for the reimagining of Attawapiskat to live on, as visitors to the website are prompted to not just hear their stories, but to feel something and to learn. Each visit allowed Keisha to connect with other Indigenous communities, including youth, artists, leaders and academics. As the community lead for the Reimagining Attawapiskat project and in her capacity as a youth leader, Keisha continues to build momentum for this creative practice of reimagining representations of Attawapiskat through the website, social media and zine-making. In these ways, the messages from the Reimagining Attawapiskat project—about identity, culture, music, lands, waters, strength and healing—travel(ed) and circulate(d) beyond the geography of the Attawapiskat reserve. In this sense, we can understand Life Against a State of Emergency not as a case study in slow violence, environmental injustice or colonialism pinned to a site-specific place, but as a vignette about emergent, relational life.
A vignette is a portrait or an illustration without definite, rigid borders. Like a little vine with tendrils that reach across the frame of a particular image, its edges are not confined, but growing, emerging, shifting across space and time. A vignette can be distinguished from the classic and clinical case study or geographically defined territory, such as an Indigenous reserve. These are emergent narratives that present teachings and messages for the audience without one precise meaning. Vignettes are interpretive literary devices that stir emotions, present atmospheres for connection and affect the interpreter in ways that may not be immediately apparent or conscious. It is relational, moving, shifting across boundaries simultaneously blurring the edges of neatly defined jurisdictions. While the stories presented in Life Against a State of Emergency reflect on life in Attawapiskat, they speak more broadly to audiences beyond the remote community across Canada and globally. Vignettes blur edges, complicating how the viewer interprets bounded narratives. One story fades into another. They do not proceed chronologically. There is no clearly delineated beginning, easily identifiable conflict or tidy resolution.
Vignettes in the art of storytelling are short snapshots, brief interludes to much larger images or narratives. They evoke the senses, offering a taste of a broader story, inviting the viewer to seek a deeper understanding about what is presented beyond the frame. A vignette is a call for reframing and an invitation to see, hear, listen, feel, taste, touch, and think differently. Through this corporeal engagement, the audience is provoked to acknowledge that they are part of something larger than what immediately meets the eye. Vignettes offer insight into communities, cultures, characters, ideas and settings. In no way do they present a complete picture. They gesture to what is in a constant state of becoming and flux. As multilayered, multidimensional images, they offer a portal to multiple perspectives and worldviews.
For instance, in Jack Linklater Jr.’s vignette “Water is Life” from the Reimagining Attawapiskat project, he discusses how the trees teach him many things and encourage him and people in his community to stand tall. This relational connection between him and his more-than-human environment is a window into the deeper ecological relations that provide wellness in Attawapiskat, and stands in stark contrast to Western property-centric notion about lands and waters as natural resources for extraction. These vignettes tell us something about a relational way of being in the world that refuses extractive relations.
Relationships are foundational to Indigenous methods. This is particularly apparent in the art of storytelling. A relational, storied approach to research informed my orientation to examine the conditions enabling the persistence of life in a state of emergency in Attawapiskat and beyond. As an interpretive scholar and a sensory political ethnographer, I am interested in investigating how power relations shape shift beyond the parameters of governing institutions. In previous work, I dissected Canada’s colonial “policy assemblage” as it took shape within the toxic atmosphere of Canada’s Chemical Valley (Wiebe 2016). I looked at power relations radiating through institutions, discourses and practices from an immersive and ethnographic approach, as I lived in the heart of this petrochemical industrial complex for nearly two years and interviewed policy makers and members of the Aamjiwnaang Nation, which is situated within the center of this complex (Pasternak 2017, Pachirat 2011, 2018, Schatz 2009; Wiebe 2016). During this immersive field work, I engaged my body in the everyday habits and routines of life in this polluted atmosphere. When approaching Attawapiskat several years later, I again followed the intuitive drive that an interpretive lens allows, and honed this project’s focus and scope based on connections, gut feelings and relationships.
As explained in Chapter 2, my initial point of contact was a young woman from Attawapiskat who published a CBC news article entitled “My Attawapiskat is more than a housing crisis” (Rose 2013). Given my interest in how the community had been framed as constantly in crisis, and my desire to work with community-members on learning more about what’s missing from this frame, I reached out to her on social media. She directed me to a community leader who then invited me to the Attawapiskat pow wow in 2015. It was during this summer pow wow where I met high school art teacher, the new Chief as well as youth, educators and health staff. I introduced myself to the community and began to develop a research proposal. In February 2016 I returned to conduct a critical media studies workshop at the high school and we launched the Reimagining Attawapiskat project, which received federal funding from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) four months later.
During this winter visit, I met Theresa Spence in person, then in her position of Health Director. After this visit I traveled to Timmins, Ontario with some of the educators to attend a Great Moon Gathering conference. Theresa and I spoke over breakfast after the conference about what a sustainable, decolonial future for her community would look like. This interview, as well as my interview with lead singer of Midnight Shine Adrian Sutherland, took place outside the reserve boundaries. While rooted in the places and territories that raised them, their stories travel beyond, connecting with others in many different contexts. Theresa’s hunger strike ignited the Idle No More movement. Adrian’s music reaches the ears of listeners around the world. The youth images from the Reimagining Attawapiskat project speak to audiences beyond the community. In each instance, these vignettes circulate widely within and outside of Attawapiskat. As they do so, they cast light on the dark shadows of Canadian colonialism while also illuminating the vibrant culture and strength of those who call Treaty 9 territory home.
From my lens as a non-Indigenous political ethnographer, I see my role as creating space for the emergence of stories. At once I am committed to investigating and critiquing colonial power while also engaging in a practice of co-creation. In this way, storytelling is a relational art of resurgence, drawing upon ancestral teachings to critique the present and envision alternative futures. Rather than assuming a stance of expert outside researcher, as a community-engaged scholar invested in life beyond the colonial status quo, I took my cues from community at all stages, from project design to dissemination. My learning about Cree culture and treaty stemmed from the knowledge shared with me by carriers of those teachings. As such, I see my responsibility going forward in this decolonial work as one that calls me to continuously critique oppressive structures and commit to creating space for the emergence of community stories.
Vignettes constellate groupings of related things. Many Indigenous scholars speak about constellations of co-resistance, as collaborative ways to intervene on the colonial status quo, which Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples can actively participate in (Martineau 2015, Flowers 2015). As an interpretive, ethnographic and decolonizing methodology, storytelling from this relational, community-engaged and participatory approach examines the phenomena of colonialism from multiple vantage points, while not trying to erase difference. As a “decolonial bricolage”, vignettes assemble multiple perspectives while making space for contradictions and conflicts, within a context where the tensions surrounding colonialism “cannot easily be resolved” (Martineau 2015: 33). The assembling praxis of art-making, apparent in vignettes or decolonial bricolage is mobile and mutable. This creative technique, as a research method “implies and demands the reimagining of possibilities” (Martineau 2015: 35). This method is at once tactical and emergent. In practice, this ethnographic sensibility involves embodied immersion within community, where these emergent relations take shape.
Against a State of Emergency: Emergence as Biopolitical Rupture
Imagining possible futures requires continuous creation. Philosophies of emergence contend with the rigid readings of disciplinary life and emanate constitutive worlds “that are never static” (Martineau 2015: 49). Creativity is central to emergence, with the potential to rupture the colonial conditions that create emergency life. Taking his cue from Jacques Rancière, Jarrett Martineau discusses the power of creativity to reconfigure given distributions of what is sensible, to interrupt and to rupture affective and aesthetic norms of Indigenous representation (2015: 94). The rupture creates a break. This disruptive puncture interrupts colonial images and subjectivities, sparking movement. In Martineau’s words, this rupture or break ignites movement toward “the immanent flux of Indigenous presence” (2014: 94). We can interpret Theresa Spence’s hunger strike as an emergent motion, which, as we witnessed with Idle No More, stirred bodies to move, assembling and (re)assembling, blurring the edges of Canada’s colonial body politic. This sensuous emergence formed through the interruption of public space, as round dances and flash mobs disrupted consumeristic noise with Indigenous polyphony. The sounds of singing, drumming and jingling bells adorning ornamental regalia called Canadians in to take notice, bear witness and remember Indigenous insurgence.
From the reverberations of the drum in shopping centres to the crackle of ceremonial fires accompanying youth leaders fasting in solidarity with Chief Spence, this insurgence animated the resurgence of Indigenous culture through storied presence, shifting public consciousness and rupturing colonial silence to create space for the emergence of Indigenous futures. These deeply stirring, affective expressions, through language, music, performance, stories and song, shape embodied interactions creating communities of sense-making. Those who participate in and witness these experiences interpret them aesthetically and affectively. These felt experiences are bodily and sensory. Theresa Spence’s hunger strike served as a biopolitical rupture, a puncture to Canada’s performative image as an inclusive and welcoming state, thus intervening on the colonial body politic. In doing so, this action gave expression to the vibrancy of Indigenous lives. With her body on the line, laid bare for her community, nation and the world to see, she mirrored Canada’s colonial underpinnings and simultaneously created a sensory rupture, challenging hierarchical relations while gesturing to alternative, immanent Indigenous futures, reframed through the liveliness of emergent treaty relations.
Emergence is a concept that resists and refuses the colonial tentacles of empire reaching into communities. It constitutes radiant, “vital reproductive energies” (Goldberg-Hiller and Silva 2015: 20). While empire strips spirit, emergence enables creativity and connection to flow. Living a meaningful life against a state of emergency is an act of regenerative refusal, restoring relationships with more-than-human lifeworlds, and honoring the emergence of animate environments. Life against emergency refuses an imposed order. It emerges through the process of making multiple worlds. In the words of Kanaka Maoli scholar Noenoe Silva, emergence entails reviving and maintaining “interconnections with divine spirits embodied in trees, herbs, water, fish, animals, clouds, winds, sunlight, rain and so on” (Goldberg-Hiller and Silva 2015: 2). Resurgence coincides with emergence. It signifies rising, breaking free, “expressing new forms of the same living being whose Indigenous history is manifest in the flesh” (Goldberg-Hiller and Silva 2015: 20). This is apparent through relational practices of art-making and treaty-making. Emergence is a budding practice of world-making, a kind of decolonial bricolage, weaving together more-than-human lifeworlds.
Emergence is more than a metaphor. In Kanaka Maoli ontology, it is “the materialization of knowledges and ways of becoming in a world that is, and in some ways is not yet still, one’s own” (Goldberg-Hiller and Silva 2015: 4). This emergent temporal ethics brings forward ideas from past generations, honors stories that enable creative interpretations in the present, and envisions possible futures. Emergence is continuously in motion, evoking a multiplicity of knowledges, beings, practices and ways of life. Emergent life is rooted and rhizomatic, planted yet growing, connective and emanating. It decenters the primacy of anthropocentric agency and situates humans in relation to, not superior over, wider ecologies. As both a rooted and rhizomatic concept, emergent life is “at times subterranean, at times visible” (Goldberg-Hiller and Silva 2015: 5). To rupture the precarious state of emergency life, emergent life is rooted yet extensive, interrupting, refusing, regenerating, reframing, (re)creating. Spence’s hunger strike stands as an affirmative refusal (Coulthard 2014: 169; Martineau 2015: 43). It refuses the rigid binary between Canadians and non-Indigenous peoples and reminds the nation that its edges are blurry. Canadians exist in relation to Indigenous peoples as treaty partners. As an affirmative refusal of Canada’s continuous colonial governmentality, the hunger strike birthed a radical movement for justice, putting the nation on notice, calling upon us all to bear witness to this emergence of Indigenous life. Read in these ways, the hunger strike is not a standalone event, but a relational call for reciprocal action for all treaty partners to transform and reimagine decolonial futures.
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