All my relations

In Anishnaabemowin daanis is the stem for daughter, it doesn’t exist as a word independently. You would add a prefix to denote relationship. My daughter. Your daughter. Our daughter. Their daughter. These are not relationships of ownership but reciprocal relationships with mutual responsibilities and care.

Likewise, we don’t exist independently. We live in layers of relationships, existing as a channel between ancestors and descendants. We live in webs that reach out into the world around us. We are related to all things, because these layers and webs touch and connect all things. But how do we live as good relatives? What does it mean to say, all my relations?

Creation stories tell us who we are and how we fit into the world.  What our responsibilities are.

My mother’s family is German/Ukrainian. My grandmother’s German ancestors came to the Ukraine under Catherine the Great who invited them to live there and farm, displacing the Ukrainian people. My maternal grandfather, a son of Ukrainian farmers, deserted from the Red Army, survived an execution, and met my grandmother in American occupied Germany. Together they came to Canada as refugees.

My father’s family is Anishnaabe from northwestern Ontario. They lived in the bush between Lake Superior and James Bay, eventually settling in an area 5 hours north of Thunder Bay. Some lived on the Lac Seul and Cat Lake reserves, others lived off reserve in Sioux Lookout and Umphreville.

My mother left home to teach in Indigenous schools in Northwestern Ontario where she met and married my father. When I was 18 months old she returned home to the Niagara region and it would be over 20 years before I would see him again.  I was raised by my maternal family and had no contact with my Indigenous relatives. I grew up believing that I was the only Indigenous person in my community, completely unaware that within 2 hours there were several reserves and a residential school. Although I was not apprehended by Child Welfare authorities, my experience is similar to those who were taken from their communities and raised in white families. I learned about my Indigenous identity, a strange mix of danger and nobility, the same way that everyone else did, through movies and television.

After finding my father we went home to Sioux Lookout to meet family and see the place where I had been born. Nobody lived in Umphreville anymore, the town itself no longer existed although many wooden buildings remained including the house where he had grown up. The reserve, Lac Seul, where other relatives lived was not accessible by road at that time. Many relatives had gone to live in Winnipeg, another 5 hours west. Encounters with the systems of disruption, residential schools, child welfare, and policing, had scattered my family across Ontario and Manitoba. Our only shared memories were memories of disruption.

I have worked for a Sexual Assault Center doing hospital response work and then for 15 years in Child Welfare. My intention was to help families and mitigate the harm caused by the system, but working within the system has its own costs and consequences. Seeing how the system responded to Indigenous people takes a toll, particularly when I was required to act on behalf of the state. This ultimately resulted in a mental health crisis and I was no longer able to work. Many Black and Indigenous people work within these systems that have done so much harm to our communities. We hope to make change, and are in turn changed.

We often think of history as a story of linear progress, a kind of social evolution from chaos to order. The actual story is less straightforward and we live in a state of constant tension between equity and inequity with different aspects holding space and power for a period of time.  My own story is not a clean trajectory from disruption to relationship, I found my father and paternal relatives and then I distanced myself from them before reconnecting again. I found an Indigenous community in Toronto that started to feel like home, and then I lost them when we moved to St. Catharines. The movement, Idle No More, which moved across Canada in 2012 drew me and so many others together, politicizing our identity into collective action.  These back and forth periods contain lessons in how we can become better relatives.

The Anishnaabe flood story finds Nanabush and some animals floating on a piece of wood. He asks them to bring him a handful of mud. One by one the animals try, and fail. Eventually muskrat says he will try.  He is small and unremarkable so the other animals scoff, but he tries anyway and he is underwater for a very long time. Eventually he returns to the surface with a small handful of mud. Nanabush takes this mud and puts it on the log.  He begins to sing and the animals dance in a circle.  As they dance the mud expands until it becomes Turtle Island. These periods of resistance are moments of reaching backwards to pick up old truths and ways of knowing so we can bring them forward again and again to dance a new world into being.

Like many Friendship Centers, the Fort Erie Friendship Center hosts a women’s hand drum group. Within the circle we leave our outside roles behind. We remain mothers and daughters, Black, White, and Indigenous, gay and straight. We don’t stop being these things, but the social value, the place in the hierarchy attributed to them by the world outside our doors stops being relevant for two hours. The gifts, values, and perspectives of each of these identities intertwine in our relationships and create new ways of knowing and relating to each other. We share songs, ceremony, our lives, and through these relationships and the impact of ever so briefly dismantled hierarchies ripples out into our lives beyond this circle. There are a core group of us who have been together since the group started 4 years ago. Many come and go, some come back after time away, and new members join. Children play while their mothers sing, and the heartbeat of this group is that the children will see their mothers as strong and capable people and that in turn, we will see ourselves as strong and capable people. Our voices becoming strong within the circle, find strength in other places too. Circles like this exist across the colonized west, places where we are picking up our bundles, our handful of mud, and dancing something new into being.

In the middle ages people would gather in pubs to share information about what was happening throughout Europe. Depending on what you wanted to know, you went to different pubs. If you were interested in science you went to one pub, if you were interested in political machinations you went to another. The printing press revolutionized what was already happening; ideas could travel intact between communities, between countries. You could print a pamphlet and distribute it widely. People would write comments, distribute those. Ideas spread across Europe like a wildfire and the state, briefly, lost control over information. This allowed for organizing and restructuring of society. Actions like Martin Luther’s 99 Theses transformed a continent.

For decades Black and Indigenous people’s movement and ability to communicate with each other was tightly controlled. Leaving the plantation or reservation without a piece of paper authorizing even limited travel resulted in arrest.  Vagrancy laws continue to impact Black and Indigenous people disproportionately; it is our gatherings in public spaces that attract police attention. Practices like carding are demonstrably linked to racial profiling.  Nevertheless, Black and Indigenous people continue to gather and resistance efforts like the American Indian Movement and the Black Panthers rose up in the 60s and 70s. Today we see Idle No More and Black Lives Matter, Justice for Migrant Workers, and many others. Depending on what you want to know, what you are interested in, you go to different meetings.

The media has been controlled by a handful of outlets and news and information flow through these “trusted sources” to everyone. As a child I grew up hearing about how the Soviet state controlled what news reached the citizens, but western media has also been controlled.  While white America laments the vapid nature of selfie culture and influencers on the internet, Black and Indigenous people have developed a range of independent media through online news outlets, podcasts, and blogging. Social media has allowed us to develop connections and platforms to share information and strategies and coordinate actions far beyond our existing connections. We are thinking differently about educating our children, about the ways that we work and shop. The circles that we create are rippling outwards to create communities that are different.

In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall-Kimmerer writes about lessons from plants and in one chapter she writes about what we can learn about becoming Indigenous. Her choice of words is deliberate. She does not say become naturalized or be a good relative. She says, becoming Indigenous.  We emerged as a people in this place, just as the French, Spanish, Mongolian, and others emerged as peoples in those places. Our histories contain stories of migration and movement, but our creation stories are our stories of emergence; how we came to be people. And right now a new people is emerging.

The Metis and the Lumbee are examples of emergent people. They did not exist before contact and geographic and political realities created new people with their own language, beliefs, and social norms. They have distinct cultural artifacts and relationships to place and people that sets them apart as a people in their own right.

Kimmerer reflects on the different nature of two plants that are not native to North America. Purple loosestrife and plantain both came over with newcomers. Both are, in different ways, invasive but only one is harmful. Purple loosestrife is pretty, but it crowds out cattails which have a number of important qualities. Cattails are a foodsource, finches use the fluff for their nests, the leaves can be woven into mats, the gel between the leaves has medicinal properties, and the plants themselves clean and filter water. Purple loosestrife is pretty.  On the other hand, plantain can live anywhere and while it’s a nuisance in gardens and lawns, it doesn’t push out other plants. It has a deep taproot that breaks up clay soil, allowing nutrients to get to the roots of other plants.  The leaves have medicinal properties. Plantain is not only a good relative, as it evolves in our current environment it is becoming Indigenous.

Many of the Indigenous people in North America talk about a time in which a new people will emerge, a choice which will need to be made in order to ensure our survival.  Early in the colonial project Indigenous groups met the newcomers and did what they have a long history of doing.  They made agreements about how the land would be used and shared. The colonists initially agreed with these arrangements, but over time the political landscape changed and the agreements were no longer respected and the colonists exploited Indigenous people. In the same way, we also stopped respecting the agreements we had made with plant and animal nations and we too exploited our relatives. This set in motion a pattern of policies, laws, and social practices that continue today in various ways.

But throughout this period, Indigenous people did not wholly forget their responsibilities and continued to live in close relationship with their other relatives.  Many who forgot have begun to pick up their bundles, begun to reach back for that handful of mud. And in this, we are forging new relationships with those who have settled on our lands. Because not all of the newcomers exist like purple loosestrife, many are seeking to be plantain. They are bringing their own handfuls of mud, their own bundles, and they are learning from the original peoples how to be good relatives in and to this place. 

We are thinking together about what it means to be good relatives, to consider all of our relations.

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