91. Naomi Klein, “Dancing the World into Being: A Conversation with Idle No More’s Leanne Simpson”
I have to write a paper on extractivism, and my research has brought me to Naomi Klein’s interview with Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, which took place around the time of the Idle No More protests focused on “Canada’s ongoing colonial policies, a transformative vision of decolonization, and the possibilities for a genuine alliance between natives and non-natives, one capable of re-imagining nationhood” (Klein). Although Idle No More “had no official leaders or spokespeople, it did life up the voices of a few artists and academics whose words and images spoke to the movement’s deep aspirations,” and one of those was writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, whose essay “Aambe! Maajaadaa! (What #IdleNoMore Means to Me)” “became one of the movement’s central texts” (Klein).
Klein’s first question addressed “extractivism”: did the expansion of the tar sands and the development of new pipelines suggest that Canada was “in some kind of final colonial pillage,” or was it simply “a continuation of what Canada has always been about?” (Klein). Simpson’s response addressed Indigenous resistance to “the hyper-extraction of natural resources on Indigenous lands,” and suggested that “every single Canadian government has placed that kind of thinking at its core when it comes to Indigenous peoples”:
Indigenous peoples have lived through environmental collapse on local and regional levels since the beginning of colonialism—the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the extermination of the buffalo in Cree and Blackfoot territories and the extinction of salmon in Lake Ontario—these were unnecessary and devastating. . . . Our elders have been warning us about this for generations now—they saw the unsustainability of settler society immediately. (Klein)
That unsustainability, she continued, has pushed the ecology to a breaking point, and immediate action is necessary, although it’s always been necessary, because “[i]f a river is threatened, it’s the end of the world for those fish. It’s been the end of the world for somebody all along” (Klein).
The Harper government’s focus on resource extraction as its “dominant economic vision,” Klein continued, represents “a mindset”—“an approach to nature, to ideas, to people” (Klein). Simpson agreed, but took Klein’s analysis farther:
Extraction and assimilation go together. Colonialism and capitalism are based on extracting and assimilating. My land is seen as a resource. My relatives in the plant and animal worlds are seen as a resource. My culture and knowledge is a resource. My body is a resource and my children are a resource because they are the potential to grow, maintain, and uphold the extraction-assimilation system. The act of extraction removes all of the relationships that give whatever is being extracted meaning. Extracting is taking. Actually, extracting is stealing—it is taking without consent, without thought, care or even knowledge of the impacts that extraction has on the other living things in that environment. That’s always been a part of colonialism and conquest. (Klein)
Even the environmental movement has attempted to extract traditional Indigenous knowledge and assimilate it:
It’s the idea that traditional knowledge and indigenous peoples have some sort of secret of how to live on the land in an non-exploitive way that broader society needs to appropriate. But the extractivist mindset isn’t about having a conversation and having a dialogue and bringing in indigenous knowledge on the terms of indigenous peoples. It is very much about extracting whatever ideas scientists or environmentalists thought were good and assimilating it. (Klein)
That alternative to extractivism, Simpson continued, is responsibility: “If you’re not developing relationships with the people, you’re not giving back, you’re not sticking around to see the impact of the extraction. You’re moving to somewhere else” (Klein). Responsibility is part of “deep reciprocity,” of respect and relationship: “It’s responsibility, and it’s local. If you’re forced to stay in your 50-mile radius, then you very much are going to experience the impacts of extractivist behavior” (Klein). Globalization is a kind of shield against “the negative impacts of extractivist behavior” (Klein).
Klein asked about Idle No More, both the support it received because of its “vision for the land that is not just digging holes and polluting rivers and laying pipelines,” and the effect of the attempt by some chiefs to cash in on resource development, which is “not questioning the underlying imperative of tearing up the land for wealth” (Klein). Simpson agreed: “that is exactly what our traditional leaders, elders, and many grassroots people are saying as well” (Klein). The problem, she continued, is that Indian Act chiefs and councils “are ultimately accountable to the Canadian government and not to our people. The Indian Act system is an imposed system—it is not our political system based on our values or ways of governing” (Klein). Indigenous communities “face tremendous imposed economic poverty” while billions of dollars of natural resources are extracted from their territories “without their permission and without compensation” (Klein). “That’s the reality,” Simpson told Klein. “We have not had the right to say no to development, because ultimately those communities are not seen as people, they are resources” (Klein). The problem, Simpson stated, is the federal government’s control of First Nations through the Indian Act, rather than the development of a relationship between First Nations and Canada through treaties. That control, she said, exists so that the federal government
can continue to build the Canadian economy on the exploitation of natural resources without regard for indigenous peoples or the environment. This is deliberate. This is also where the real fight will be, because these are the most pristine indigenous homelands. There are communities standing up and saying no to the idea of tearing up the land for wealth. What I think these communities want is our solidarity and a large network of mobilized people willing to stand with them when they say no. (Klein)
Those same communities are also “continually shamed” for being poor: “Shaming the victim is part of that extractivist thinking” (Klein). “We need to understand why these communities are economically poor in the first place—and they are poor so that Canadians can enjoy the standard of living they do,” Simpson told Klein. “I say ‘economically poor’ because while these communities have less material wealth, they are rich in other ways—they have their homelands, their languages, their cultures, and relationships with each other that make their communities strong and resilient” (Klein).
“There is a huge need to clearly articulate alternative visions of how to build healthy, sustainable, local indigenous economies that benefit indigenous communities and respect our fundamental philosophies and values,” Simpson continued. “The hyper-exploitation of natural resources is not the only approach. The first step is to stop seeing indigenous peoples and our homelands as free resources to be used at will however colonial society sees fit” (Klein). If Canada is not going to dismantle the system that forces Indigenous peoples into poverty, she told Klein, then Canadians, “who directly benefit from indigenous poverty,” don’t get to judge the decisions that Indigenous peoples make, especially where few alternatives exist. “Indigenous peoples do not have control over our homelands. We do not have the ability to say no to development on our homelands,” she stated. However, she continued, economic development through resource extraction which leads to “the destruction of our homelands does not bring about the kinds of changes and solutions our people are looking for, and putting people in the position of having to cho[o]se between feeding their kids and destroying their lands is simply wrong” (Klein). What is required, and what people within Idle No More were talking about, was “a massive transformation, a massive decolonization. A resurgence of indigenous political thought that is very, very much land-based and very, very much tied to that intimate and close relationship to the land,” which to Simpson meant “a revitalization of sustainable local indigenous economies that benefit local people” (Klein).
Klein told Simpson that she was interested in the idea that Indigenous resistance, renewal, and resurgence would help “to promote more life,” and suggested that “the idea of life-promoting systems” seemed to be “that they are the antithesis of the extractivist mindset, which is ultimately about exhausting and extinguishing life without renewing or replenishing” (Klein). Simpson responded by referring to the work of Winona LaDuke and the Anishinaabeg concept of mino bimaadiziwin, which is often translated as “the good life,” but which has a “deeper kind of cultural, conceptual meaning” that LaDuke translates as “continuous rebirth” (Klein). “So, the purpose of life then is this continuous rebirth, it’s to promote more life,” Simpson continued. “In Anishinaabeg society, our economic systems, our education systems, our systems of governance, and our political systems were designed with that basic tenet at their core” (Klein). That fundamental teaching shows people how to interact with each other and the land, and it also shows communities and nations how to interact as well. “In terms of the economy, it meant a very, very localized economy where there was a tremendous amount of accountability and reciprocity,” she stated. But it’s also about “the fertility of ideas” and “the fertility of alternatives,” the notion that people have responsibility to share their visions with the community and to make them into reality: “That’s the process of regeneration. That’s the process of bringing forth more live—getting the seed and planting and nurturing it” (Klein).
In Simpson’s own life, that principle of regeneration has been part of her relationship with her children and her family; she has worked to give them “opportunities to develop a meaningful relationship with our land, with the water, with the plants and animals,” and with Elders and others in the community “so that they’re growing up in a very, very strong community with a number of different adults that they can go to when they have problems” (Klein). There’s no concept of “sustainable development” in Anishinaabeg philosophy, she continued. An Elder, Robin Greene, had told Simpson that “the concept is backwards. You don’t develop as much as Mother Earth can handle. For us it’s the opposite. You think about how much you can give up to promote more life. Every decision that you make is based on: Do you really need to be doing that?” (Klein). Simpson noted that 200 years ago her ancestors put their energy “into meaningful and authentic relationships,” and the quality of those relationships “was the basis of their happiness,” which is the opposite of the way colonial and settler society operates. Her ancestors, she continued, weren’t consumers; they were producers. They made everything. “My ancestors tended to look very far into the future in terms of planning, look at that seven generations forward,” she said, and they tried to protect areas of land where Indigenous peoples could continue to pursue their livelihoods and political systems; their hope, she continued, was “that the settler society would sort of modify their way into something that was more parallel or more congruent to indigenous societies” (Klein).
When Simpson gives public presentations, she begins with the premise that an ecological collapse has already happened. A focus on imminent ecological collapse “is so overwhelming and traumatic to think about” that people tend to shut down. Instead, she talks about what the land where she lives used to look like. There were salmon in Lake Ontario, for example, until about 1840, when their population collapsed. The eel population crashed after the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Indigenous peoples, she told Klein, “have seen and lived through this environmental disaster where entire parts of their world collapsed really early on” (Klein).
Klein noted that she has been involved in fighting against tar-sands pipelines in British Columbia because she has fallen in love with the land and doesn’t want it to be desecrated. The anti-pipeline movement in BC is led by Indigenous people, she continued, and she wondered how those struggles might have contributed to the emergence of Idle No More. Simpson pointed out that the resistance Klein was talking about was based on Indigenous law. She would prefer to live somewhere “the land is pristine,” but she chooses to live in her territory and to be a witness. “And I think that’s where, in the politics of indigenous women, and traditional indigenous politics, it is a politics based on love,” she continued:
So when I think of the land as my mother or if I think of it as a familial relationship, I don’t hate my mother because she’s sick, or because she’s been abused. . . . If anything, you need to intensify that relationship because it’s a relationship of nurturing and caring. And so I think in my own territory I try to have that intimate relationship, that relationship of love—even though I can see the damage—to try to see that there is still beauty there. There’s still a lot of beauty in Lake Ontario. It’s one of those threatened lakes and it’s dying and no one wants to eat the fish. But there is still a lot of beauty in that lake. There is a lot of love still in that lake. And I think that Mother Earth [w]as my first mother. Mothers have a tremendous amount of resilience. They have a tremendous amount of healing power. But I think this idea that you abandon it when something has been damaged is something we can’t afford to do in Southern Ontario. (Klein)
The important thing, Simpson stated, is to find a way to connect with the land. “When the lake is too ruined to swim or eat from it, then that’s here the healing ceremonies come in, because you can still do ceremonies with it,” she said. She recalled writing a spoken-word piece about being the first salmon to return to Lake Ontario, and as part of that project, she learned the route the salmon would have taken in her own language. That performance, she continued, connected her community to the river system: “People did get more interested in the salmon. The kids did get more interested because they were part of the dance work” (Klein).
Klein raised the issue of climate change. In order to deal with this crisis, Simpson responded, “in order to make this punctuated transformation,” the middle class and the one percent will have to accept lower standards of living, and “in the absence of having a meaningful life outside of capital and outside of material wealth, that’s really scary” (Klein). The end of consumerism, Klein noted, is often understood as a loss of being, and that leads to panic. “I see the transformation as: Your life isn’t going to be worse, it’s not going to be over. Your life is going to be better,” Simpson responded. “The transition is going to be hard, but from my perspecitve, from our perspective, having a rich community life and deriving happiness out of authentic relationships with the land and people around you is wonderful” (Klein). She takes her children to a sugar bush every March to make maple syrup, and because the climate is changing, the season is shorter every year. “It’s things like the sugar bush that are the stories, the teachings, that’s really our system of governance, where children learn about that,” she told Klein. But the speed at which things are changing makes it hard for culture and oral tradition to keep up.
The environmental movement needs to change, Simpson suggested; it needs to deal with complicated issues like racism and colonialism and inequality, despite the urgency of our situation. “Colonial thought brought us climate change,” she told Klein:
We need a new approach because the environmental movement has been fighting climate change for more than two decades and we’re not seeing the change we need. I think groups like Defenders of the Land and the Indigenous Environmental Network hold a lot of answers for the mainstream environmental movement because they are talking about large-scale transformation. If we are not, as peoples of the earth, willing to counter colonialism, we have no hope of surviving climate change. Individual choices aren’t going to get us out of this mess. We need a systemic change. (Klein)
Here Simpson defined “punctuated transformation,” a term she had used earlier. Punctuated transformation refers to a situation where there’s no time to go through all of the steps necessary to make a change, and so some need to be skipped (I think).
Klein asked how we can balance the dangers of cultural appropriation with the fact that Settler culture needs to learn lessons about reciprocity and interdependence. Simpson responded by saying that the mainstream support of Canadians for Idle No More was an example of “a shift in mindset from seeing indigenous people as a resource to extract to seeing us as intelligent, articulate, relevant, living, breathing peoples and nations. I think that requires individuals and communities to develop fair and meaningful and authentic relationships with us” (Klein). She also suggested that Settlers need “to figure out a way of living more sustainably and extracting themselves from extractivist thinking” by “taking on their own work and own responsibility to figure out how to live responsibly and be accountable to the next seven generations of people” (Klein). That’s the responsibility of mainstream Canadian society. “Our responsibility,” she continues, “is to continue to recover that knowledge, recover those practices, recover the stories and philosophies, and rebuild our nations from the inside out” (Klein).
Klein asked Simpson about the title of her book, Dancing On Our Turtle’s Back. She responded by briefly telling a story about Nanabush and the animals trapped on a log on a flooded world. The animals try diving to the bottom of the water to find earth to make a new world, and only the muskrat is successful. “Turtle volunteers to have the earth placed on her back,” Simpson said. “Nan[a]bush prays and breath[e]s life into that earth. All of the animals sing and dance on the turtle’s back in a circle, and as they do this, the turtle’s back grows. It grows and grows until it becomes the world we know” (Klein). The Elder who told Simpson that story said that
we’re all that muskrat, and that we all have that responsibility to get off the log and dive down no matter how hard it is and search around for that dirt. And that to me was profound and transformative, because we can’t wait for somebody else to come up with the idea. The whole point, the way we’re going to make this better, is by everybody engaging in their own being, in their own gifts, and embody this movement, embody this transformation. (Klein)
That story, she continued, was transformative; it was relevant to climate change and to Indigenous resurgence. “And so when people started round dancing all over the turtle’s back in December and January, it made me insanely happy,” she said, referring to the dances that were part of Idle No More protests. “Watching the transformative nature of those acts, made me realize that it’s the embodiment, we have to embody the transformation” (Klein). She felt love when that was happening, “a grounded love” that was authentic and intimate (Klein).
What I find helpful in this interview is the suggestion that relationship and reciprocity are the antidote to extractivism. I wonder how one might construct walking art that’s based on relationship and reciprocity—both to the land and to people. That is probably the most important question I can ask myself. Part of the answer might involve walking with other people, but there must also be a way to walk alone and still enter into some kind of relationship with the land. At least, I hope there is. I’ll be in a fix if there isn’t. There also needs to be a way for Settlers to learn from Indigenous knowledge and research methods without appropriating them. That’s probably an even tougher nut to crack, but given the reading I’m going to be doing over the next few weeks, how to do that is another question I’m going to have to try to answer.
Klein, Naomi. “Dancing the World into Being: A Conversation with Idle No More’s Leanne Simpson,” Yes Magazine, 5 March 2013, https://www.yesmagazine.org/peace-justice/dancing-the-world-into-being-a-conversation-with-idle-no-more-leanne-simpson.