The Winter we Danced – Reading Notes

Citation: Kino-nda-niimi Collective, The. The Winter we Danced. Winnipeg, MB: ARP Books, 2014.

Argument  In the very broadest of terms, this is an extremely powerful and moving collection of works that emerged from the Idle No More movement (Dec 2012 – Jan 2013), which began when four Indigenous women held a teach-in on Bill C-45 (which revoked federal protection of waterways and opened up reserve land to the market), in Saskatchewan. It’s made up of essays, social media posts, poems and art pieces around the theme of Indigenous resurgence in Canada. Its themes include discussions of colonialism and the misconceptions of settler society; water rights; Chief Theresa Spence; personal accounts of oppression and empowerment; the value of stories; the power of tradition; the distinction between Indigenous land and colonial territory; the role of Indigenous culture in ensuring a safe and healthy future from everyone currently living on Turtle Island. Central to this book is the insistence that Indigenous resurgence existed long before INM, and is guaranteed to endure into future.

Main Points: 

Section 1 – First Beats 

This section works as a primer on INM, and immediately focuses on the long history of Indigenous resistance in Canada. Glen Coulthard details some key points in RCAP, including the fact that it was a response to the material inequities faced by Indigenous peoples, and served to quell dissent (36). He notes that INM has been “distributed more evenly” – than other movements – “between the malls and front lawns of legislatures on the one hand, and the logging roads, thoroughfares, and railways that are central to the accumulation of colonial capital on the other” (36), which demonstrates an awareness of the connection between civilian mindsets and practices, and the actions of states and corporations, all of which form the settler-colonial system.

In “Why are we Idle no More?,” Pam Palmater writes, “The creation of Canada was only possible through the negotiation of treaties between the Crown and indigenous nations” (37). Much of the book discusses the importance of treaties, and puts them forward as necessary for realizing the meaning and potential of Indigenous culture in Canada. Discussing treaties also links past with future, which has interesting implications for putting land, place, and responsibility before time. She also delves into the problem of FN peoples not being about to properly benefit from their lands, noting that “economic racism prevents Indigenous peoples from obtaining financial benefits from their traditional territories,” particularly as land claims processes extinguish their title (43). At the same time, Indigenous peoples are a risk for colonial expansion and prosperity because they often reside “on the frontier of vial national and regional boundaries” (43).
In an excerpt from “Decolonizing Together: Moving Beyond a Politics of Solidarity toward a Practice of Decolonization,” Harsha Walia warns against incorporating Indigenous struggles into the compartmentalized interests of the Left: “We have to be cautious not to replicate the Canadian state’s assimilationist model of liberal pluralism, forcing Indigenous identities to fit within our existing groups and narratives. The inherent right to traditional lands and to self-determination is expressed collectively and should not be subsumed within the discourse of individual or human rights” (45). Indigenous struggle “demands solidarity on its own terms” (46); it makes new ground as part of its becoming, not simply as a form of reaction or as a new expression of old concerns. With relevance for a discussion of consumer capitalism, Walia notes that isolating social formations “normaliz[e] a lack of responsibility to one another and the Earth” (51).                     

Russ Diablo writes that Harper’s “modern” legislation reflects the State’s assimilationist desires, enacted through the promise of “individual property ownership on reserves” (53), suggesting that there is a constructed dichotomy between modern and traditional that does particular work in terms of realizing the interests of the colonial State. Diablo ties current initiatives to early ones, such as the 1969 White Paper on Indian Policy and the 1985 so-called “Buffalo Jump Report,” both of which sought to devolve Federal fiduciary responsibility, as well as Indigenous title. Much of this was reversed, at least on paper, with the 1982 Constitution Act (55). In fact, gaps between the enshrinement of Indigenous title in the Constitution and its material effects demonstrates the differential relationship between colonial stories and their responsibility to the material world. Diablo argues that Canada’s interpretation of section 35.1 serves to transform Indigenous nations into “ethnic municipalities” (58). Recognition of Indigenous title thus fits neatly into Canada’s mandate as a multicultural nation. Diablo discusses the problems with modern treaty making and wonders why Indigenous nations remain at the bargaining table when the agreements “ultimately lead to the termination of their peoples’ Inherent and Aboriginal rights, especially since it appears that Modern Treaties are routinely broken after they are signed by the federal government” (59)?

There are laws, commitments, and forms of love that predated INM. One of the movement’s founders, Sylvia McAdam, recalls camping by a logging road at her home of Stoney Lake after coming home from the city, linking her physical return with a cultural and spiritual awareness of place: “Returning to the land didn’t just mean a physical return; it had to be done through the eyes and words of my people’s history and ceremony. […] I felt such grief for the devastation and development I was witnessing; I began to feel a profound and protective love for the lands in which my people were buried and have hunted since time immemorial” (65). There is a law – “nahtamawasewin” – referring to a duty to “defend for the children, all human children; it’s also a duty to defend for the non-human children from the trees, plants, animals, and others” (66). She used this initiative to inform her actions, which served as the impetus for INM. This “duty to defend” is salient through other works, both in terms of stories and actions, such as Alfred’s Wasase.  
 Hayden King interviews Tanya Kappo in “Our People Were Glowing.” I like Kappo’s statement, “The power and energy that was there (at the round dance at the West Edmonton Mall), it was like we were glowing, our people were glowing. For the first time, I saw a genuine sense of love for each other and for ourselves. Even if it was only momentary it was powerful enough to awaken in them what needed to be woken up – a remembering of who we were, who we are” (70). With its material significance – its place at a nexus between story and being – this emphasis on remembering seems like a different take on the relationship between past and present / traditional and modern. Moreover, her description of shoppers who “had no choice but to stop and wonder, and to see us, really see us” evokes a different narrative of recognition – recognition as spontaneous and emergent, not predetermined and instrumental.

Economic sustenance is important, not the least because it’s tied to other forms of sustenance. In “Our People are Frustrated,” an interview by Ryan McMahon and Wab Kinew, Chief Isadore Day stated, the government has long used a form of “proactive disengagement”: they have “operated in such a way and has pulled us in and fed us enough and fed us enough food and water to keep us alive but they have not let us in any substantive way” (75). He also notes that an unknown future is a problem for the political imagination: “No one knows what a post-Indian Act system looks like or feels like. This is one of the big fears on the ground” (77). This is a contentious point, as few advocate for an outright abolishment of the Indian Act. Is reliance on the Act a form of psychic colonization? Likely not, but it’s an argument to be aware of.

Kinew suggests that relationships based on resource development might make Indigenous-State engagement more local and particular: “It seems like for the past few decades the relationships has been defined largely in the political arena, but for the next decade or two decades the relationship between Aboriginal Peoples and Canada ios going to be defined by natural resources and whether or not that relationship occurs in a meaningful way” (78).

Hayden King notes the problem with Indigenous activism as a reactive stance, which accords with discussions about responsibility and commitment – even Alfred’s “creative contention” versus an oppositional approach: “I think the most significant factor, especially in more contemporary efforts, is our reactive posture, leaving us always on the defensive. When Canada introduces policy, legislation, or funding changes, we respond with outrage that the mediocre status quo might upset.” In adopting such a stance, “we inadvertently entrench an inherently flawed system” (81).

Returning to nation-to-nation / Treaty relations is tricky. It can be a way to develop relationships built on respect and equality (91), as Leah Gazan discusses in her interview (“Transforming Unity”) with Grand Chief (Manitoba Chiefs) Derek Nepinak, or it can represent a legitimation of colonial state power (as seen with the Modern Treaties that Diablo discusses).

Sheelah McLean reflects on some of her responsibilities as a settler in “Idle No More: Restorying Canada.” I’m interested in the things that settler colonialism does not recognize when it recognizes Indigenous peoples. “Like other white-settlers, I was socialized into the false logic that my family status was earned through good citizenship and hard work. In reality, state policies secured my family’s status as white-settlers by guaranteeing them access to voting rights, land title rights, public education rights, and mobility rights as well as other practices that Indigenous peoples and people of colour were historically denied” (93). She also acknowledges that she benefits from colonialism even as she works against it. Poignantly, she writes that INM is “restorying-Canada – using public gatherings and mass media, it is actively re-telling stories which have been silenced, minimized, and denied, but also provides multiple forums to share stories that inspire hope and promote social and political change” (93).

In “Idle No More is not just an ‘Indian Thing’,” Wab Kinew provides 5 revelations about INM, including the importance of culture. “The reason culture is so important is that it provides a way to grapple with the big questions in life: ‘Who am I?’ ‘What am I doing here?’ and ‘What happens after I die?’ Some of the answers have been handed down as words of wisdom. Other times, you are told to go out on to the land and discover them for yourself through fasting or prayer. We need these ways” (97). This is definitely a broad definition (perhaps intentionally) and it has implications for thinking about art as a type of cultural transmission.

Ryan McMahon asserts that cultural practices like the round dance are not simply reactive. Instead, they are political insofar as they are “a glimpse into who we are. It is perfect.” He characterizes the flash mob round dances as “Political/Guerilla Theatre” (100).                      From Nina Wilson: “The essence is the movement is not about gender, class, race, belief, etc., it is about healing. Original teachings, actions, speaking, are all tied to Mother Earth, and her beings and children. Healing and reconciliation are two different concepts, and one cannot talk reconciliation when there is no closure on the land issues. There can be no healing when our people are still displaced, removed from the land. The land is directly tied to our languages, which guide who we are” (108).

In a now somewhat famous essay entitled “What if Natives Stop Subsidizing Canada?” Dru Oja Jay discusses the financial windfall that Indigenous nations represent for Canada. He is not only arguing that Indigenous peoples need more money – which they do – but discusses economic disparity as a way to link money with culture and identity. “These industries are mostly taking place on an Indigenous nation’s traditional territory, laying waste to the land in the process, submerging, denuding, polluting, and removing. The human costs are far greater; brutal tactics aimed at erasing native peoples’ identity and connection with the land have created human tragedies several generations deep and a legacy of fierce and principled resistance that continues today” (111). Lori M. Mainville worries that redefining the land in terms of colonial concepts of economy constitutes a dichotomization of natural laws, which will force the people’s “spirits” to “take on a much different meaning” (113). Anti-capitalists often argue that money is not “real”; it is only a social construct. What Jay and Mainville show, however, is money is not as abstract as it sometimes seems. There clearly needs to be a different sort of accounting put into place.

Economics is political. Dale Turner (“The White Paper and the Idle No More Movement”) writes that “by necessity, peaceful coexistence is political, and economic development is central to aboriginal politics. It is also about renewing our relationship to the environment: our survival, of all of us, is inextricably connected to how [we] treat the world. Aboriginal peoples believe that we cannot possibly sustain the relentless exploitation of the earth’s limited natural resources, but they do place the well-being of the earth at the centre of their moral and spiritual university” (123).  

Section 2 – Singers and Dancers

Winona LaDuke writes that Bill C-45 represents a total disregard for land and water with its emphasis on commodification without foresight and responsibility (146).

Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair’s poem, “Dancing in a Mall,” includes the lovely lines, “we spoke we walked we danced / we dreams / and we said no more and / we remade / we remade / we remade / the paper walls. / we remade / we remade / we remade / the world / here, in our repeating / floods,/ our fables / our births / our families / ourselves / in the hole of fluorescent light / we continue…” (150). Sinclair, I think, shows how Indigenous expression can be reactive as well as self-driven.

Hayden King shows that the value of the Band system versus a more sovereign, anti-State approach is continually up for debate: “one of the most noticeable rifts within the Idle No More movement exists between those who see the band council as part of the problem and those who see is as  asolution, a debate stretching back to the late 1800s” (151). Rick Monture, King notes, sees this supposed “factionalism” as democracy (152).                      Tara Williamson (#Idlenomore Provides us with Opportunity to Examine Nationhood”) writes, “While the Canadian government currently plays heavily into our ability to function as self-determining nations, we know that true self-governance has to come from ourselves.[…] The best way to demand self-determination is to be self-determining” (153).

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s “Fish Broth & Fasting” responds beautifully to the mass media casting Spence’s fast as a “liquid diet.” Simpson informs readers that the fast is a ceremony that is not taken lightly; “Spence is eating fish broth because metaphorically, colonialism has kept Indigenous Peoples on a fish broth diet for generations upon generations” (155). In turn, Anishnabee peoples express their responsibility by respecting Spence’s “sovereignty over her body and her mind. We do not act like we know better than her” (156, check citation; she’s quoting someone here). Spence’s actions are in conversation with the actions of others: “There is an assumption of reciprocity – the faster is doing without, in this case to make things better for all Indigenous Peoples, and in return, the community around her carries the responsibility of supporting her” (156). Treaties are important in this regard, as they “guaranteed” access to land and the survivance of culture (157).
Alo White (“The Sucker Punch of January 11) and others are critical of a group of Chiefs who met with Harper on January 11: “20 self-righteous people coasted in on the wave created by the 30-day sacrifice of Chief Spence” (161). This is one example of supposed factionalism within FN; it is part of a process of figuring out whose strategy is for the better future, perhaps. The concern here is that AFN-engaged Chiefs engage the government in ways that accord with and support the settler-colonial system. Part of this system is a reactive antagonism.                     Jana-Rae Yerxa (“The Unravelling of a Colonized Mind”) discusses the many “perverted ways” that “colonialism infect the mind” (173). Indigeneity is often produced as antagonistic or reactive to colonialism: “to be born an Indigenous person, you are born into struggle” (172).
Leslie Belleau (“Silence is not our Mother Tongue”) offers a short story / prose poem about the role and effect of silence. The political implications are explicit, particularly in terms of a discussion about the type of dialectic that recognition establishes: “It is radical to some people when we speak because the silence was so comfortable and easy and quiet, that the soft sounds of our voices creates a humming and drumming along the edges of people’s consciousness and awareness that is unwelcome and troublesome to the colonial comfort zone. But we should never stop because of other people’s anger or discomfort when we have a great work for the land, for the women, for our children’s futures, and for the entire worldscape of Indigenous people…” (181).
Cara Mumford (“My Grandfather, My Role Model”) discusses the films that she creates and their use in changing perspectives and creating dialogue regarding Indigenous women: “I believe the political goals of Idle No More are of primary importance to the health of this country and this planet, but I believe the long-term success of Idle No More will be seen in a resurgence of Indigenous knowledges, cultures, languages, and pride” (186).
The power of creativity, imagination, love and community prevails, like in Dory Nason’s statement: Women’s love “is a love that can inspire a whole world to sing and dance and be in ceremony for the people” (187).
Sarah Hunt (“More than a Poster Campaign”) has this to say about engaging the State, outlining the problems of recognition and cooperation: “We continue to appeal to the Canadian legal system to address physical violence, calling for more policing or better laws, while knowing this system is set up to oppress, rather than help, us. The same colonial mentality that created the Indian Act to privilege the rights of men over women, and instituted residential schools to break down our family systems, serves as the foundation for the Canadian legal system” (191). “As we strategize, we must be careful not to reproduce the systems and ideologies that colonialism has introduced. Sexist, racist, and homophobic ideas have been internalized at many levels, but colonialism’s stealthy ways make them hard to recognize” (191), which shows the risks of working with the State, but also reveals how the State prevents other things from being recognized in the course of deploying recognition. This excerpt closes with an important note about relationships and responsibilities: “Communities cannot be self-governing until members of those communities are well and living in a responsible way.” Conversely, she points out that, perhaps paradoxically, the individual needs the community to be “self-determining” (193).
Environmental destruction is intertwined with community, economy and politics. Sarah Hunt’s interview with Siku Allooloo (“I have waited 40 Years for this. Keep  it going and don’t Stop!”) has an important note: “Massive resource extraction is a huge, long-standing concern in the North, and all of the problems that go with it—destruction of the environment and animal populations, increased violence against women, deterioration of respectful relationships with the land, between people, and with other forms of life due to the culture of exploitation, etc.” (197).
Paul Seesequasis (“Nishiyuu Walkers: In Restlessness, There is Power”) writes about the Nishiyuu Walkers, who walked 1600 Kilometres over a course of 68 days, arriving in Ottawa on March 25 2013. “The act of motion was, in its essence, the balance of tradition and necessity combined in a way of existence that was sustainable and life-affirming” (209). The walk counteracts the “debilitating effects of reserve” (210) and thus opens up the future for other modes of being.

 Section 3 – Friendships / Section 4 – Image Warriors/ Section 5 – Friendships (continued) 

This section is largely about settler solidarity, the acknowledgement that we are all treaty people (to cite the Ipperwash Inquiry) and discussions of what Indigenous sovereignty means to Canada. Eric Ritskes (“The Terms of Engagement with Indigenous Nationhood”) writes, “Culture is such a loaded term and can be mobilized in so many detrimental ways, but Indigenous culture or consciousness is so intimately connected to land that you cannot desire repatriation and sovereignty over Indigenous land without centring and resurging Indigenous culture. […] Thinking and acting as Indigenous peoples is highly political in colonial contexts where assimilation for the purpose of erasure is the colonial goal” (259).

Ryan Duplassie (“As Long as the Water Never Idles”) includes an account of using State funds to do decolonizing work near Grassy Narrows. The program allows for Ryan and Andrew Keewatin to bring small groups of youth to Indian Lake to build a trapper’s cabin. Participants learn about building, hard work, cooperation, the land, etc. “Our work is decolonizing. These young people learn to enjoy working hard in the bush and earning senses of stewardship and responsibility. […] Finally, our earth also teaches the importance of politics. The grant that funds this program is co-administered” by the State. Institutions “sometimes run in opposition to the health and well-being of land and water.” Nevertheless, participants “learn a complex sense of land, sharing, and Treaty” (301).

Section 6 – New Directions

Eugene Boulanger with Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (“Seeing Strength, Beauty & Resilience in Ourselves”) is a discussion of resistance to resource extraction in the north. Boulanger notes that “resistance efforts to non-renewable resource extraction and the ongoing assimilative practices manifest in Aboriginal policy can be seen as a renewed effort to break from a politics of recognition to one of authority and jurisdiction over our own lives” (317). In terms of visual art, is “has always been a way to instill pride in one’s culture, to communicate the diversity of the people of the north, and to create unity despite cultural divisions” (319). She goes on to emphasize the relevance of Treaties in bringing together diverse groups of peoples beyond the “assimilative, multi-cultural paradigm of today” (320).

Wanda Nanibush details the lived quality of Treaties and responsibility. In regards to marching by Lake Ontario in January, 2013, she writes, “We weren’t protesting – we were speaking the spirit of the water” (341). I also like her description of wampus belts: they “hold the history of our treaties with other Nations and speak of these Nation to Nation relationships being based on peace and friendship with the values of trust, integrity, honesty, and truth as the basis for interaction. This is not a  written contract to be analyzed and assessed but a contract of spirit and heart to be lived together” (342).  

Points of Importance/Interest:·

  • Title? “a lapse between the drumsounds” (350) ·
  • How the “radically decentralized character” of the movement (23, 117) (and other movements) represents something other than a reactive stance to colonial hegemony. Indeed, the book itself is (or at least seems) radically decentralized. ·         The emphasis on action in the name of a better future (cf 25)·
  • Mention of Indigenous boycotts around the 1988 Olympics and the Glenbow Museum exhibit, The Spirit Sings (34). ·
  • NDN resistance is not only symbolic, but also often expressed through material forms (like blockades) (35); this emphasis on the relationship between the stories that blockades tell and their material function is really interesting. ·
  • The emphasis on treaties connects story, responsibility, space and practice. I can see the nation-to-nation relationship as a tool for thinking beyond Indigenous resistance as simply a reactive stance (and, perhaps, a way to think about money differently in the context of settler-colonial relations & the problem of capitalism). ·
  • Works like this reveal for me a problem between uplifting and prescriptive musings offered by many Indigenous writers, and what might be an absence of the type of meaty historical tidbits that scholars like to sink their teeth into – perhaps evidence of a latent positivism? Do certain accounts push back against the drive for ‘evidence’?·
  • How is art (a type of) language? ·
  • Anti-capitalists often argue that money is not “real”; it is only a social construct (kind of like race). What Jay shows, however, is money is not as abstract as it sometimes seems. There clearly needs to be a different sort of accounting put into place.
  • Simpson’s interview with Siku Allooloo will be useful for my topic paper: “Massive resource extraction is a huge, long-standing concern in the North, and all of the problems that go with it—destruction of the environment and animal populations, increased violence against women, deterioration of respectful relationships with the land, between people, and with other forms of life due to the culture of exploitation, etc.” (197).
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