82. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance

by breavman99

as we have always done

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance which I read last summer as part of the course I took with James Daschuk, isn’t exactly a book about the treaties, historical or contemporary. Rather, Simpson writes about something she calls the Radical Resurgence Project, which involves using Indigenous (in Simpson’s case, Anishinabeg) knowledge, especially about the land, in order to resist colonialism through refusal. Simpson calls that knowledge Nishnaabewin, or grounded normativity, a phrase she borrows from Glen Coulthard’s book Red Skins, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition, which (as I have noted here before) I need to read. Simpson does not give succinct definitions of either Nishnaabewin or grounded normativity—deliberately, I think, since her book itself is an expression of these ideas, both in form and content—so I turned to a short article she co-wrote with Coulthard to find one:

What we are calling “grounded normativity” refers to the ethical frameworks provided by these Indigenous place-based practices and associated forms of knowledge. Grounded normativity houses and reproduces the practices and procedures, based on deep reciprocity, that are inherently formed by an intimate relationship to place. Grounded normativity teaches us how to live our lives in relation to other people and nonhuman life forms in a profoundly nonauthoritarian, nondominating, nonexploitive manner. Grounded normativity teaches us how to be in respectful diplomatic relationships with other Indigenous and non-Indigenous nations with whom we might share territorial responsibilities or common political or economic interests. Our relationship to the land itself generates the processes, practices, and knowledges that inform our political systems, and through which we practice solidarity. To willfully abandon them would amount to a form of auto-genocide. (Coulthard and Simpson 254)

Grounded normativity, then, for Coulthard and Simpson, is at the heart of what it means to be Indigenous (Dene in his case, Anishinabe in hers). It is far more important than mainstream educational success, and Simpson, who holds a PhD from the University of Manitoba, suggests that land-based educational practices would be far more valuable for an Indigenous person than a Western or colonizing academic education (160). But, more pertinent to this course, grounded normativity also informs diplomatic relationships, and therefore might have something to say about treaties between the Canadian state and Indigenous nations.

However, Simpson’s frame of reference regarding treaties is shaped by her experience of the Williams Treaties, which denied First Nations the right to hunt, fish, or gather in their traditional territories. “At the beginning of the colonial period, we signed early treaties as international diplomatic agreements with the crown to protect the land and to ensure our sovereignty, nationhood, and way of life,” she writes. “We fought against the gross and blatant injustice of the 1923 Williams Treaty and its ‘basket clause’ for nearly one hundred years, a treaty that wasn’t a treaty at all within our political practices but another termination plan” (5). That treaty resulted in 89 years without hunting and fishing rights for the Anishinabeg people of central Ontario. “My grandmother grew up eating squirrel and groundhogs because if her parents were caught hunting deer or fishing, they were criminalized,” she recalls (5). A 1994 Supreme Court decision upheld the extinguishment of hunting and fishing rights (see Blair, below). Then, in the fall of 2012, after a civil suit, the province of Ontario decided to recognize the hunting and fishing rights contained in an 1818 treaty over 100,000 acres in southern Ontario. Simpson remains skeptical, however: “We will see,” she writes. “We have been living our understanding of our rights, and nearly every year since the treaty was signed, people are charged by conservation officers for hunting and fishing ‘out of season’” (5). That is not what her ancestors expected when they made treaties with the Crown. The impetus for those treaties, she writes, was “Nishnaabeg freedom, protection for the land and the environment, a space—an intellectual, political, artistic, creative, and physical space where we could live as Nishnaabeg and where our kobade could do the same” (9). She continues, 

This is what my Ancestors wanted for me, for us. They wanted for our generation to practice Nishnaabeg 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 parent 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. (9)

That didn’t happen, as Peggy Blair’s history of the Williams Treaties makes abundantly clear. Instead, Simpson argues, the Anishinabeg experienced “decade after decade of loss” (15). 

Simpson describes a project she participated in as a graduate student, mapping the use of territory of a First Nation in northern Ontario. That was her first experience of grounded normativity as both theory and practice. The Elders she worked with “carried their Ancestors with them. They were in constant communication with them as they went about their daily lives engaged in practices that continually communicated to the spiritual world that they were Nishnaabeg” (18). Simpson didn’t understand this. She would ask them about treaties, and they would take her fishing. She would ask about colonialism, and they would tell stories about living on the land. “I could see only practice,” she writes. “I couldn’t see their theory until decades later. I couldn’t see intelligence until I learned how to see it by engaging in Nishnaabeg practices for the next two decades” (18-19). Grounded normativity, it seems, isn’t something you read about; it’s something you experience by engaging in Anishinabeg practices. “Theory and praxis, story and practice are interdependent, cogenerators of knowledge,” she writes. “Practices are politics. Processes are governance. Doing produces more knowledge” (20). These insights are created by traditional stories, she continues. “The only thing that doesn’t produce knowledge is thinking in and of itself,” she continues, “because it is data created in dislocation and isolation and without movement” (20).

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, Simpson sees treaties with the Canadian federal government as one process of settler colonialism, along with policy making, consultation, impact assessments, and the court system, which give the state the ethical justification to clear-cut a trapline, to remove an Anishinabe family from the land and thereby destroy their “grounded normativity,” economy, plant and animal habitat, medicines, ceremonial grounds, burial grounds, hunting places, libraries of knowledge, and networks of relationships (81). Resistance to this destruction “isn’t futile,” she writes, “it’s the way out” (81). She describes the 1818 treaty, along with residential schools (the first opened at Alderville First Nation in 1828), as “processes designed to clear Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg bodies from the land to the extreme benefit of settlers” (99). She also quotes Nipissing elder Glenna Beaucage, who states that the treaties turned the word “creation” into resources which are to be exploited (76)—clearly a destruction of grounded normativity. Besides, the Ontario government’s 2012 decision to honour the treaties has come too late. “Dispossession in our territory is now so complete that there is almost no place to hunt,” she writes. “The recognition of these rights seemingly poses no economic or political threat to settlers, because hunting and fishing can now really be practiced in this territory only on a microscale, as a hobby. And to keep it that way, the provincial recognition of these rights did not come with a return of land upon which these rights could be exercised” (40). Nevertheless, her people continue to express their relationship to the land through hunting and gathering. “This is in part because within Nishnaabeg thought, the opposite of dispossession is not possession, it is deep, reciprocal, consensual attachment,” she argues (43). Despite surveillance by colonial authorities, however, Anishinabe people refused to abide by the “basket clause,” and Simpson retells stories about the strength and cleverness of Nishnaabeg hunters and fishers who eluded game wardens, stories intended to illustrate her people’s resilience (167-70).

As We Have Always Done is angry, political, and theoretically dense, and it is written in a way that is intended to evoke Nishnaabeg thinking on the level of form and structure as well as in its content. It’s a difficult read, but it was an important one for me, because just as I was starting to believe there was a kind of consensus developing about the treaties and how they should be interpreted, Simpson’s book showed me that such a consensus probably doesn’t exist outside of a small group of historians. Treaties, I think, are just another thing she believes Indigenous people must refuse, must withdraw from, and that raises many questions.

One thing I found difficult about Simpson’s book is that it does not invite settlers into her circle, unlike, for example, Harold Johnson’s equally challenging book. Settlers are not part of Simpson’s intended audience, and her scornful rejection of treaties as artifacts of settler colonialism leaves me wondering what, in her opinion, might give settlers the right to live on Turtle Island. Of course, she’s not interested in that question; she’s interested in the survival of her people. But it’s a question the issue of treaty evokes, and it’s an important one—at least for settlers who reject terra nullius and other theories of Crown sovereignty, who see decolonization as the only way their presence on these lands can be justified. But why shouldn’t Simpson be angry, especially after the way settlers and their governments have behaved in her part of the country (and elsewhere, too) since at least the early nineteenth century?

Looking back at this summary, which I wrote last summer and updated this afternoon, I’m aware that it barely does justice to Simpson’s book, which is clearly something I need to reread. That’s okay; it always takes me several readings to understand difficult texts. But that rereading will have to wait until later; that’s the problem with reading to a deadline. At least I’m aware of the need to reread As We Have Always Done, and I promise I’ll get to it–later.

Works Cited

Blair, Peggy J. Lament For A First Nation: The Williams Treaties of Southern Ontario, University of British Columbia Press, 2008.

Coulthard, Glen, and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. “Grounded Normativity / Place-Based Solidarity.” American Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 2, 2016, pp. 249-55. doi:10.1353/aq.2016.0038. Accessed 4 July 2018.

Johnson, Harold. Two Families: Treaties and Government, Purich, 2007.

Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance, University of Minnesota Press, 2017.