Let’s start with a story, a funny one, but not just a funny story: “How to Steal a Canoe,” a song from Leanne Simpson’s new album f(l)ight in which, under (rather than over) a four-note cello pattern played by Cris Derksen, she whispers the story of two characters, Kwe and Akiwenzie, faced with the difficult question of how to show respect to a canoe, and by extension the land and its people.
When the story opens, Kwe is “singing to a warehouse of stolen canoes: bruised bodies, dry skin, hurt ribs, dehydrated rage.”
Kwe is a recurring character in Leanne’s writing, without a fixed identity. “Sometimes it’s a projection of me and sometimes ‘her,’” she says. “We call each other kwe, as an intimate, nice thing.” The word is usually translated as woman but “the boundaries around kwe are not exactly like woman.”
Akiwenzie, literally ‘someone who has returned to the land,’ means old man or elder. He enters the story explaining how canoes are made (“White skin of a tree is for slicing and peeling and feeling and rolling and cutting and sewing and pitching and floating and travelling”); his explanation presupposes that, as Leanne says, birchbark canoes are alive, and that the warehoused canoes “were bodies, locked in a canoe jail.”
“Oh you’re so proud of your collection of Indians,” Akiwenzie says, adding mockingly: “Good job, Zhaganash”—the word means English speaker or white person, but the connotation is something like ‘twit’—“Good job!”
The story takes place, at least on some level, at the Canadian Canoe Museum, an “amazing place,” Leanne says, but one with a complex significance for Mississauga Nishnaabeg people whose lands and practices it celebrates as part of the mythology of the nation-state that has tried to destroy them.
One day Leanne’s friend and teacher Doug Williams got a call from the Museum. Someone who had been in possession of an old birchbark canoe made and used by Mississauga Nishnaabeg people had died, and his family was donating the canoe to the Museum’s collection. Doug was asked to do a ceremony and, although there was no immediately obvious ceremony for such an occasion, he and Leanne went.*
“My work will usually starts with a literal narrative,” usually something that happened, Leanne says. “In this case ‘What do we do?’” Then other layers, metaphorical, conceptual, emerge and accumulate on top. The canoe, in this story, is a symbol for identity, for land, and for the things the state tries to destroy and settlers who are sympathetic to Indigenous Peoples’ struggles claim as their own.
So, the story continues, “Akiwenzie takes the sage over to the security guard and teaches how to smudge the canoe bodies.” Distracted by his pride in being the exceptional white person, the guard pays no attention as Kwe steals the canoe. She drives it to Chemong Lake and fills it lovingly and carefully with rocks, and it sinks to the bottom of the lake.
The story is funny, and also pretty sad and a little angry. In a few spare lines it makes a powerful and subtle statement about Canadians’ morbid obsession with the canoe, which has a central place in the Mississauga Nishnaabeg’s relationship to the land.
Leanne Simpson is an internationally recognized artist and thinker who has written or edited six books, one of which, Islands of Decolonial Love (2013), is also an album, and she’s releasing f(l)ight this month on the Revolution Per Minute label. She lives in Nogojiwanong (Peterborough), which, as a Mississauga Nishnaabeg and band member of Alderville, is part of her territory.
Her music and her writing and scholarship are part of a wider movement of cultural resurgence among Indigenous intellectuals in Canada that has been linked to the Idle No More protests and aims to strengthen Indigenous culture across the country and protect the land from extractive industries.
Stories are key to Leanne’s work. She has studied and collected Mississauga Nishnaabeg stories, she has re-worked stories, and she has published her own fiction, and her music is built around stories.
She came to Peterborough from Winnipeg after finishing her PhD at the University of Victoria, taking a job at in the Indigenous Studies department at Trent University. She’s since left the university to concentrate full-time on her work in various fields.
The term ‘independent scholar’ is generally a euphemism: academics who lack a permanent research position or institutional affiliation. Generally they’re not independent at all; they’re desperate for a permanent gig that will give them job security and a professional identity.
Leanne is different: an independent scholar in the more positive sense. She is perhaps the most important scholar writing on colonialism in Canada and, in the post-Idle No More context, perhaps the most important political thinker in Canada. And she has no permanent connection to the university—by choice.
“I’ve always been skeptical of institutions,” she says, “I’ve had a tenuous relationship with the academy.” When she was doing her PhD, it was “a different time” for Indigenous knowledge. There were very few programs, there was very little written, and very few professors in the field. “The gift of that,” she says, “was that I developed my practice with elders and on the land.”
That practice means the terms of Leanne’s art are not commercial or even narrowly artistic. The kind of independence that embarrasses academics is a fetish among musicians. Apparent aloofness pays high dividends, so people invest heavily in it. Artists will pay $1,000 for a ripped jean jacket or a messy haircut or hire a full-time publicist whose job is to insist on their clients’ behalf that they ‘don’t give a fuck what people think’ of them or their work.
Leanne is different. She does care deeply how people respond to her work, how she’s heard. But she answers to something else. And that something else is the land and the people, her community and the elders.
As a musician, as a teacher and writer, Leanne often works in collaboration. Working with others to create something new, something important, is “about relationships,” she says. “There’s an intimacy to that; it’s a very generative space for me.”
One key relationship, “the spine of my life,” as Leanne puts it, is the one that serves as the basis for “How to Steal a Canoe:” her friendship with Curve Lake Elder Doug Williams. “We spend a lot of time on the land together,” Leanne says, and he’s been “a huge influence on me and all my work,” even though he’s “not directly involved in my music.” After a pause, she says, “I wouldn’t be writing what I’m writing without his influence.”
Leanne and Doug spend time on the land, ricing and hunting, often with students from Trent, where Doug has a part-time teaching position. “In Nishnaabeg thought,” Leanne says, “practice and theory are not separate. An idea doesn’t exist without the doing.” So being on the land, practicing and doing is “a very rich place” and a source of “theoretical insights.”
This is the philosophy behind the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning, in Denedeh, the territory of the Dene, in the Northwest Territories, where Leanne has taught for a number of years. Land-based education uses the land as a classroom and the people who know the land as a library. Sometimes land-based schools or bush schools are connected to a university, and sometimes they aren’t.
Leanne works at Dechinta with Glen Coulthard, the author of Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Coulthard argues that Indigenous Peoples have little to gain from asking the state, which fundamentally wants to eliminate them from the land to make way for extraction, for recognition.
It’s an argument that Leanne, who doesn’t engage in European-style philosophy, wouldn’t make in the same way, but seems to act out in her work. “We’ve had a lot of influence on each other’s academic work. Our gifts are different; our minds work differently,” she says. “We mirror each other.”
Leanne also works with O’Kaadenigan Wiingashk Collective (known locally as OKW) a loose collective of Indigenous artists in Peterborough, including Tara Williamson, an artist and teacher who plays on f(l)ight, Wanda Nanibush, who was recently appointed curator of Canadian and Indigenous art at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, and Patti Shaugnessy, a dramatist and programmer who organized the annual Ode’min Giizis Festival from 2008 to 2012.
Patti, who Leanne calls “the driving force” in the group, often travels to Greenland to work with the National Theatre of Greenland. Now that she’s back in Peterborough, she is organizing a new festival Beats and Braids, that will run October 12 to 15. Leanne is launching the album as part of that festival.
f(l)ight was produced by Jonas Bonnetta (Evening Hymns) and James Bunton (Ohbijou, Light Fires), and features a small cast of musical friends: Tara Williamson, Cris Derksen, Ansley Simpson, Jonas Bonnetta, and Nick Ferrio. Like much of her work, it was a collaborative process. Leanne wrote the words, the musicians wrote the music, and the producers kept their eye on how the whole thing fit together.
Sequencing the album was a particular challenge, given that the songs were written by different musicians using different instruments, and all fade into one another, making for a variegated but uninterrupted whole. It also makes for interesting overlap effects between the various instrumental textures and sounds and the stories the songs tell.
For example, “Caribou Ghosts” begins with the traditional drum from the previous track that fades out as train sound fades in. The train is, as Leanne says, “a heavy-handed metaphor,” but it’s also a complex one. The deafening sound of the train, gathering in intensity and drowning out the drum, represents destruction—cultural genocide and environmental destruction—but also a symbol of industry and capitalism that came to dominate the territory in the 20th century.
But there’s also something powerful and liberating about the kinetics of the train, as if “it seems hopeless and like the world is against us” but “if you set things in motion, other stuff gets generated.” This is part of the Nishnaabeg aesthetic, she says: “things are fluid, they shift.” The last line of the song, unleashed as the train comes to an almost absurd climax of energy, is “Meet me at the underpass—rebellion is underway.”
Another track, “I Am Graffiti,” starts with the sound of rushing water, and then a soft, echo-y chord, and then a couple more chords, then a bit of distant piano. Then Leanne whispers,
I am writing to tell you
That yes indeed
We have noticed that
You have a new big pink eraser
We are well aware you are trying to use it
The song references a long history of attempts by the Canadian state to eliminate Indigenous Peoples from their land. The most notorious of these is the Indian Act, which outlawed much of the traditional cultural and political practices, and the residential schools, a system of assimilationist institutions designed to brutalize Indigenous children and alienate them from their culture and land.
She wrote the song on the day the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, tasked with assessing the legacy of the residential schools, released its recommendations. Leanne is critical of the Truth and Reconciliation process as it has been constructed by the state, as a process of moving on from past mistakes without addressing ongoing colonization and land theft. “I always feel like I’ve said what I want to say about reconciliation,” she says, “but the media wants to talk about it, so I end up talking about it. I think it’s the wrong conversation.” The song continues:
Erasing Indians is a good idea, of course
The bleeding heart liberals and communists can stop feeling bad
For the stealing, and raping, and murdering
And we can all move on
We can be reconciled
The second verse references an installation curated by Wanda Nanibush at the FreshCo grocery store on Brock Street, in which Rebecca Belmore painted three big white Xs in milk on the wall of the building; every day the milk Xs would be washed off, and she would paint them again. The piece was about “continually asserting Indigenous presence that is continually being erased.”
This assertion of presence in the face of the threat of erasure is key to the album as a whole, but especially on “I Am Graffiti.” A later verse says
We are the singing remnants left over
After the bomb went off in slow motion,
Over a century instead of a fractionated second
It’s too much to process, so we make things instead
It’s an opportune moment, culturally and politically, for Indigenous artists to assert their autonomy and make work that is meaningful, first and foremost, to their communities. Not long ago it was a struggle to find a non-Indigenous audience, and therefore the financial support, for this kind of production.
“With the music landscape opened by A Tribe Called Red and Tanya Tagaq and Idle No More, there’s an opportunity to come onto the music scene on our own terms,” she says, and “defining excellence on our own terms as well.”
In her music as with all her work, she is speaking primarily to Indigenous Peoples (the “we” in her songs and stories) though not necessarily exclusively. “I’m writing for an Indigenous audience,” she says, “but there’s a non-Indigenous audience that’s interested.” In the past, publishers have been reluctant to publish Indigenous writers unless they could reach a white audience, mostly by reproducing “victim narratives.” But “now there’s a window.”
Performing is key to that connection. “If I can connect to my audience outside the media,” she says, “we can have an interesting conversation.”
Leanne performs “How to Steal a Canoe” as part of Constellation/conversation, a collaboration with Cris Derksen, Tanya Lukin Linklater, Layli Long Soldier, and cheyanne turions, at Artspace on September 16 (more info).
The Peterborough release of f(l)ight will be at Beats & Braids (October 12 to 15), a festival of Indigenous arts that will also feature music by Pura Fe, Nick Ferrio, Sean Conway, and comedy by Ryan McMahon (more info).
*This description of the ceremony is paraphrased from Leanne Simpson’s explanation of the background to the song “How to Steal a Canoe.” In October 2017, the author was informed by a reader of the article that it is not a full account of the event, in which other people were involved. The author regrets the inaccurate portrayal that the phrasing supported, and the harm it caused and/or may have caused.
Photos by Karol Orzechowski.