Leanne Simpson – Dancing on our Turtle’s Back

Citation: Simpson, Leanne. Dancing On Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Pub., 2011.
_________________________________________________________________ Argument:                     

Writing from her particular Niishnaabeg perspective, Simpson argues that Indigenous resurgence means engaging with and internalizing Indigenous philosophies, stories and practices, versus the top-down governmental approach that Canadian reconciliation promotes. Celebration and creation, as resurgent acts, figure throughout the book. To elaborate her concept, she turns to traditional stories, philosophies regarding treaty making (especially that which predates colonial treaties), with a particular interest in Vizenor’s concept of transmotion.

Scope/Organization/Main Points:

Cultural Fluidity

Culture and identity is not fixed – an assertion that is political because identity carries with it lessons about how to live. She thinks about lessons from elders, including the importance of feeling good, feeling love: “I thought of the word e’yaa’oyaanh, which means who I am, the way I am living or becoming, my identity. In order to have a positive identity we have to be living in ways that illuminate that identity, and that propel us towards mino bimaadiziwin, the good life” (13).

Emergent Practices of Indigenous Becoming  

Simpson mentions bodies of water and the animal world as a way to conceptualize nationhood. “This recognition of the inherent emergence of nature developed thought systems that were process- and context-oriented rather than content-driven. In this way of thinking, the way in which something is done becomes very important because it carried with it all of the meaning. The meaning is derived from context, including the depth of relationships with the spiritual world, elders, family, clans, and the natural world” (91).

“Storytelling is an emergent practice, and meaning for each individual listener will necessarily be different. The relationships between the storyteller and the listeners become the nest that cradles the meaning. The storyteller creates both the context and the content and collectively a plurality of meanings are generated through the experiences of the audience” (104).

Performance art is a useful medium for Indigenous creation because the “meaning of both performance art and Indigenous thought is obtained through collective truths that are derived from the experience of individuals, relationships and connections (to the non-human world, the land and each other) through action or ‘presencing,’ and through creative process” (96).

In note 57 to Chapter 2, “I am using the word theory here to mean entities, explanations and engagements that bring about meaning to both the individual and collective” (46).

Responsibility in the Personal and the Collective  

Simpson discusses the role of individual responsibility in supporting nationhood. “The performance of our ‘theories’ and thought is how we collectivize meaning. This is important because our collective truths as a nation and as a culture are continuously generated from those individual truths we carry around inside ourselves. Our collective truths exist in a nest of individual diversity” (43).

She goes on, “Theory is collectivized through the telling of our stories and the performance of our ceremonies” (43).  Storytelling also includes a degree of humility and refusal (like with Mohawk Interruptus and Far Off Metal River) as Simpson demonstrates with storytellers who refuse absolute authority over a story, which reveals “that one can only speak about what they know to be true from direct experience,” (104) which is its own type of “presencing” or even a presence through refusal.

Beyond Re-activism 

“Centralized government and political structures are barriers to transmotion; this static state is never experienced in nature” (89).

“Transforming ourselves, our communities and our nations is ultimately the first step in transforming our relationship with the state” (17). “Transformation” is an alternative or difference approach to Indigenous sovereignty, rather than engagement with state systems (19) – a re-investment and privileging of Indigenous “thought” (20).

In note 18 to Chapter 1, Simpson cites Winona LaDuke, who translates mino bimaadiziwin as “continuous rebirth,” which Simpson expands upon: “so it means living life in a way that promotes rebirth, renewal, reciprocity and respect” (27, LaDuke, Our Relations: Struggles for Land and Life. Cambridge, Ma: South End Press, 1994, 4, 132).

Simpson’s book aims to perform the type of transformation that she envisions. “It is my hope that readers will take the concepts and ideas presented in this book, return to their communities, teachings, languages and Elders or Knowledge Holders and to engage in a process where they figure out what ‘resurgence’ means to them, and to their collective communities” (25).

Simpson gives the example of the Community Holistic Circles of Healing in Hollow Water First Nation as an example of a Nishnaabeg concept of restorative justice that might be used to instigate fundamental and lasting change in international relations, of which State-Nishnaabag engagement is just one (23).

And, she recalls a day in 2009 and the work of celebration: “But that day we turned inward to celebrate our presence and to build our resurgence as a community,” on June 21, 2009 (National Aboriginal Day) (12).

Transmotion and celebration can counteract psychic imperialism. “The cycles of shame we are cognitively locked into is in part perpetuated and maintained by western theoretical constructions of ‘resistance,’ ‘mobilization’ and ‘social movements,’ by defining what is and is not considered. Through the lens of colonial thought and cognitive imperialism, we are often unable to see our Ancestors. We are unable to see their philosophies and their strategies of mobilization (15) and their plan for resurgence. When resistance is defined solely as large-scale political mobilization, we miss much of what has kept our languages, cultures, and systems of governance alive. We have those things today because our Ancestors often acted within the family unit to physically survive, to pass on what they could to their children, to occupy and use our lands as we always had. This, in and of itself, tells me a lot about how to build Indigenous renaissance and resurgence” (16). Like with Jace Weaver, creatively engaging with community and identity allows new things to become visible, and this type of vision is linked to survivance.

Indigenous social movements thus go beyond hegemonic concepts of resistance. As Simpson writes, “Social movement theory is, for the most part, inadequate in explaining the forces that generate and propel Indigenous resistance and resurgence because it is rooted in western knowledge and western worldview, ignoring Indigenous political culture and theory. Social movement theory also ignores the historical context of Indigenous resistance – spanning over 400 years for some Indigenous nations – by disregarding differences in political organization, governance and political cultures between Canadian and Indigenous societies” (16).

Like Coulthard and others, liberal recognition and reconciliation are colonial forces that must be contended with: “As reconciliation has become institutionalized, I worry our participation will benefit the state in an asymmetrical fashion, by attempting to neutralize the legitimacy of Indigenous resistance. If reconciliation is focused only on residential schools rather than the broader set of relationships that generated politics, legislation and practices aimed at assimilation and political genocide, then there is a risk that reconciliation will ‘level the playing field’ in the eyes of Canadians” (22).

Simpson distinguishes between a “situation” and a relationship in order to demonstrate the problems of thinking through reconciliation: “In the eyes of liberalism, the historical ‘wrong’ has now been ‘righted’ and further transformation is not needed, since the historic situation has been remedied” (22).


Simpson includes lots of important points about treaties, both in regards to the relationships that they encode and the fact that they have existed since before colonialism, and with more-than-human actors.

“Indigenous Peoples attempted to reconcile our differences in countless treaty negotiations, which categorically have not produced the kinds of relationships Indigenous Peoples intended” (21).

“At the time of contact we had been making treaties with animal nations and with other Indigenous nations for generations” (106).

Thinking through treaties opens up a new perspective on what constitutes one’s rights and responsibilities. For example, “Breastfeeding is the very first treaty” (106). Minowewe (Simpson’s second child) taught me that both the mother and the child have to be taken care of, in order for the relationship to work. So in treaties, the relationship must be one of balance. One nation cannot be dominant over the other. One nation cannot control all of the land and all of the resources” (107).

Likewise, in “Nishnaabeg traditions, our relationship with the moose nation, the deer nation and the caribou nation is a treaty relationship like any other, and all the parties involved have both rights and responsibilies in terms of maintaining the agreement” (111).

She then discusses Gdoo-naaganinaa (“Our Dish”) – the treaty with the Haudenosaunee (who refer to it as “The Dish with One Spoon” to denote peacefulness): “Again, Haudenosaunee people understood the treaty as a relationship with both rights and responsibilities” (113).

This is a treaty that gives Nishnaabeg people “an ancient template for realizing separate jurisdictions within a shared territory. It outlines the ‘rights’ and ‘responsibilities’ of both parties in the on-going relationship, and it clearly demonstrates that our Ancestors did not intend for our nation to be subsumed by the British Crown or the Canadian state when they negotiated those original treaties” (114).  

Points of Importance/Interest:·

  • What does contemporary recognition politics leave out? For starters, other meanings of treaty making; culture as flexible and self-determining; the relationship between individuals and the “whole,” which recognition would have as diametrically opposed manifestations of being.
  • Simpson’s approach is well-attuned to the way that culture is constructed within Canada’s multicultural framework as shorthand for “difference,” which Audra Simpson discusses in Mohawk Interruptus.
  • How do reconciliation politics stand in the way of mino bimaadiziwin (a good life), perhaps through framing culture as fixed?
  • Simpson’s concepts of nationhood and theory are helpful for elaborating what treaty making means, as well as understanding what Indigenous theory is and does (in line with Jodi Byrd’s discussion of Indigenous theory, for example).
  • I’m curious how to level the processural, emergent character of culture, nationhood, and story with concepts of intelligible essences, which perhaps centre the inherent agency of the land more. Perhaps treaty making is actually a way to figure that out, as treaty making is flexible (emergent?) but also embodies and ensures the continuation of certain principles.

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