Naomi Klein speaks with writer, spoken-word artist, and indigenous academic Leanne Betasamosake Simpson about “extractivism,” why it’s important to talk about memories of the land, and what’s next for Idle No More.
Leanne Simpson collecting wild rice.
In December 2012, the Indigenous protests known as Idle No More exploded onto the Canadian political scene, with huge round dances taking place in shopping malls, busy intersections, and public spaces across North America, as well as solidarity actions as far away as New Zealand and Gaza. Though sparked by a series of legislative attacks on indigenous sovereignty and environmental protections by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, the movement quickly became about much more: 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.
Indigenous Women Take the Lead in Idle No More
Motivated by ancient traditions of female leadership as well as their need for improved legal rights, First Nations women are stepping to the forefront of the Idle No More movement.
Throughout all this, Idle No More had no official leaders or spokespeople. But it did lift up the voices of a few artists and academics whose words and images spoke to the movement’s deep aspirations. One of those voices belonged to Leanne Simpson, a multi-talented Mississauga Nishnaabeg writer of poetry, essays, spoken-word pieces, short stories, academic papers, and anthologies. Simpson’s books, including Lighting the Eighth Fire: The Liberation, Protection and Resurgence of Indigenous Nations and Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence, have influenced a new generation of native activists.
At the height of the protests, her essay, Aambe! Maajaadaa! (What #IdleNoMore Means to Me) spread like wildfire on social media and became one of the movement’s central texts. In it she writes: “I support #idlenomore because I believe that we have to stand up anytime our nation’s land base is threatened—whether it is legislation, deforestation, mining prospecting, condo development, pipelines, tar sands or golf courses. I stand up anytime our nation’s land base in threatened because everything we have of meaning comes from the land—our political systems, our intellectual systems, our health care, food security, language and our spiritual sustenance and our moral fortitude.”
On February 15, 2013, I sat down with Leanne Simpson in Toronto to talk about decolonization, ecocide, climate change, and how to turn an uprising into a “punctuated transformation.”
Naomi Klein: Let’s start with what has brought so much indigenous resistance to a head in recent months. With the tar sands expansion, and all the pipelines, and the Harper government’s race to dig up huge tracts of the north, does it feel like we’re in some kind of final colonial pillage? Or is this more of a continuation of what Canada has always been about?
Leanne Simpson: Over the past 400 years, there has never been a time when indigenous peoples were not resisting colonialism. Idle No More is the latest—visible to the mainstream—resistance and it is part of an ongoing historical and contemporary push to protect our lands, our cultures, our nationhoods, and our languages. To me, it feels like there has been an intensification of colonial pillage, or that’s what the Harper government is preparing for—the hyper-extraction of natural resources on indigenous lands. But really, 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. At the same time, I know there are a lot of people within the indigenous community that are giving the economy, this system, 10 more years, 20 more years, that are saying “Yeah, we’re going to see the collapse of this in our lifetimes.”
Extracting is stealing. It is taking without consent, without thought, care or even knowledge of the impacts on the other living things in that environment.
Our elders have been warning us about this for generations now—they saw the unsustainability of settler society immediately. Societies based on conquest cannot be sustained, so yes, I do think we’re getting closer to that breaking point for sure. We’re running out of time. We’re losing the opportunity to turn this thing around. We don’t have time for this massive slow transformation into something that’s sustainable and alternative. I do feel like I’m getting pushed up against the wall. Maybe my ancestors felt that 200 years ago or 400 years ago. But I don’t think it matters. I think that the impetus to act and to change and to transform, for me, exists whether or not this is the end of the world. If 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. And I think the sadness and the trauma of that is reason enough for me to act.
Naomi: Let’s talk about extraction because it strikes me that if there is one word that encapsulates the dominant economic vision, that is it. The Harper government sees its role as facilitating the extraction of natural wealth from the ground and into the market. They are not interested in added value. They’ve decimated the manufacturing sector because of the high dollar. They don’t care, because they look north and they see lots more pristine territory that they can rip up.
And of course that’s why they’re so frantic about both the environmental movement and First Nations rights because those are the barriers to their economic vision. But extraction isn’t just about mining and drilling, it’s a mindset—it’s an approach to nature, to ideas, to people. What does it mean to you?
Leanne: 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 resources. 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. Colonialism has always extracted the indigenous—extraction of indigenous knowledge, indigenous women, indigenous peoples.
Naomi: Children from parents.
Leanne: Children from parents. Children from families. Children from the land. Children from our political system and our system of governance. Children—our most precious gift. In this kind of thinking, every part of our culture that is seemingly useful to the extractivist mindset gets extracted. The canoe, the kayak, any technology that we had that was useful was extracted and assimilated into the culture of the settlers without regard for the people and the knowledge that created it.
The alternative to extractivism is deep reciprocity. It’s respect, it’s relationship, it’s responsibility, and it’s local.
When there was a push to bring traditional knowledge into environmental thinking after Our Common Future, [a report issued by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development] in the late 1980s, it was a very extractivist approach: “Let’s take whatever teachings you might have that would help us right out of your context, right away from your knowledge holders, right out of your language, and integrate them into this assimilatory mindset.” 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.
Naomi: Like I’ll just take the idea of “the seventh generation” and…
Leanne: …put it onto toilet paper and sell it to people. There’s an intellectual extraction, a cognitive extraction, as well as a physical one. The machine around promoting extractivism is huge in terms of TV, movies, and popular culture.
Naomi: If extractivism is a mindset, a way of looking at the world, what is the alternative?
Leanne: Responsibility. Because I think when people extract things, they’re taking and they’re running and they’re using it for just their own good. What’s missing is the 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 someplace else.
The alternative is deep reciprocity. It’s respect, it’s 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. The only way you can shield yourself from that is when you get your food from around the world or from someplace else. So the more distance and the more globalization then the more shielded I am from the negative impacts of extractivist behavior.
On Idle No More
Naomi: With Idle No More, there was this moment in December and January where there was the beginning of an attempt to articulate an alternative agenda for the country that was rooted in a different relationship with nature. And I think of lot of people were drawn to it because it did seem to provide that possibility of a vision for the land that is not just digging holes and polluting rivers and laying pipelines.
But I think that may have been lost a little when we starting hearing some chiefs casting it all as a fight over resources sharing: “OK, Harper wants to extract $650 billion worth of resources, and how are we going to have a fair share of that?” That’s a fair question given the enormous poverty and the fact that these resources are on indigenous lands. But it’s not questioning the underlying imperative of tearing up the land for wealth.
Leanne: No, it’s not, and that is exactly what our traditional leaders, elders, and many grassroots people are saying as well. Part of the issue is about leadership. Indian Act chiefs and councils—while there are some very good people involved doing some good work—they 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.
Putting people in the position of having to chose between feeding their kids and destroying their land is simply wrong.
Indigenous communities, particularly in places where there is significant pressure to develop natural resources, face tremendous imposed economic poverty. Billions of dollars of natural resources have been extracted from their territories, without their permission and without compensation. That’s the reality. We have not had the right to say no to development, because ultimately those communities are not seen as people, they are seen as resources.
Rather than interacting with indigenous peoples through our treaties, successive federal governments chose to control us through the Indian Act, precisely so they 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.
These same communities are also continually shamed in the mainstream media and by state governments and by Canadian society for being poor. Shaming the victim is part of that extractivist thinking. 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. 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.
I always get asked, “Why do your communities partner with these multinationals to exploit their land?” It is because it is presented as the only way out of crushing economic poverty. Industry and government are very invested in the “jobs versus the environment” discussion. These communities are under tremendous pressure from provincial governments, federal governments, and industry to partner in the destruction of natural resources. Industry and government have no problem with presenting large-scale environmental destruction by corporations as the only way out of poverty because it is in their best interest to do so.
We have not had the right to say no to development, because indigenous communities are not seen as people. They are seen as resources.
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. The hyper-exploitation of natural resources is not the only approach. The first step to that is to stop seeing indigenous peoples and our homelands as free resources to be used at will however colonial society sees fit.
If Canada is not interested in dismantling the system that forces poverty onto indigenous peoples, then I’m not sure Canadians, who directly benefit from indigenous poverty, get to judge the decisions indigenous peoples make, particularly when very few alternatives are present. Indigenous peoples do not have control over our homelands. We do not have the ability to say no to development on our homelands. At the same time, I think that partnering with large resource extraction industries for 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 chose between feeding their kids and destroying their land is simply wrong.
Ultimately we’re not talking about a getting a bigger piece of the pie—as Winona LaDuke says—we’re talking about a different pie. People within the Idle No More movement who are talking about indigenous nationhood are talking about 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 me means a revitalization of sustainable local indigenous economies that benefit local people. So I think there’s a pretty broad agreement around that, but there are a lot of different views around strategy because we have tremendous poverty in our communities.
On promoting life
Naomi: One of the reasons I wanted to speak with you is that in your writing and speaking, I feel like you are articulating a clear alternative. In a speech you gave recently at the University of Victoria, you said: “Our systems are designed to promote more life” and you talked about achieving this through “resisting, renewing, and regeneration”—all themes in Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back.
I want to explore the idea of life-promoting systems with you because it seems to me that they are the antithesis of the extractivist mindset, which is ultimately about exhausting and extinguishing life without renewing or replenishing.
Leanne: I first started to think about that probably 20 years ago, and it was through some of Winona LaDuke’s work and through working with elders out on the land that I started to really think about this. Winona took a concept that’s very fundamental to Anishinaabeg society, called mino bimaadiziwin. It often gets translated as “the good life,” but the deeper kind of cultural, conceptual meaning is something that she really brought into my mind, and she translated it as “continuous rebirth.” So, the purpose of life then is this continuous rebirth, it’s to promote more life. 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.
I think that sort of fundamental teaching gives direction to individuals on how to interact with each other and family, how to interact with your children, how to interact with the land. And then as communities of people form, it gives direction on how those communities and how those nations should also interact. In terms of the economy, it meant a very, very localized economy where there was a tremendous amount of accountability and reciprocity. And so those kinds of things start with individuals and families and communities and then they sort of spiral outwards into how communities and how nations interact with each other.
It was the quality of their relationships—not how much they had, not how much they consumed—that was the basis of my ancestors’ happiness.
I also think it’s about the fertility of ideas and it’s the fertility of alternatives. One of the things birds do in our creation stories is they plant seeds and they bring forth new ideas and they grow those ideas. Seeds are the encapsulation of wisdom and potential and the birds carry those seeds around the earth and grew this earth. And I think we all have that responsibility to find those seeds, to plant those seeds, to give birth to these new ideas. Because people think up an idea but then don’t articulate it, or don’t tell anybody about it, and don’t build a community around it, and don’t do it.
So in Anishinaabeg philosophy, if you have a dream, if you have a vision, you share that with your community, and then you have a responsibility for bringing that dream forth, or that vision forth into a reality. That’s the process of regeneration. That’s the process of bringing forth more life—getting the seed and planting and nurturing it. It can be a physical seed, it can be a child, or it can be an idea. But if you’re not continually engaged in that process then it doesn’t happen.
Naomi: What has the principle of regeneration meant in your own life?
Leanne: In my own life, I try to foster that with my own children and in my own family, because I have a lot of control over what happens in my own family and I don’t have a lot of control over what happens in the broader nation and broader society. But, enabling them, giving them opportunities to develop a meaningful relationship with our land, with the water, with the plants and animals. Giving them opportunities to develop meaningful relationships with elders and with people in our 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.
One of the stories I tell in my book is of working with an elder who’s passed on now, Robin Greene from Shoal Lake in Winnipeg, in an environmental education program with First Nations youth. And we were talking about sustainable development, and I was explaining that term from the Western perspective to the students. And I asked him if there was a similar concept in Anishinaabeg philosophy that would be the same as sustainable development. And he thought for a very long time. And he said no. And I was sort of shocked at the “no” because I was expecting there to be something similar. And he said 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?
The purpose of life is this continuous rebirth, it’s to promote more life.
If I look at how my ancestors even 200 years ago, they didn’t spend a lot of time banking capital, they didn’t rely on material wealth for their well-being and economic stability. They put energy into meaningful and authentic relationships. So their food security and economic security was based on how good and how resilient their relationships were—their relationships with clans that lived nearby, with communities that lived nearby, so that in hard times they would rely on people, not the money they saved in the bank. I think that extended to how they found meaning in life. It was the quality of those relationships—not how much they had, not how much they consumed—that was the basis of their happiness. So I think that that’s very oppositional to colonial society and settler society and how we’re taught to live in that.
Naomi: One system takes things out of their relationships; the other continuously builds relationships.
Leanne: Right. Again, going back to my ancestors, they weren’t consumers. They were producers and they made everything. Everybody had to know how to make everything. Even if I look at my mom’s generation, which is not 200 years ago, she knew how to make and create the basic necessities that we needed. So even that generation, my grandmother’s generation, they knew how to make clothes, they knew how to make shelter, they knew how to make the same food that they would grow in their own gardens or harvest from the land in the summer through the winter to a much greater degree than my generation does. When you have really localized food systems and localized political systems, people have to be engaged in a higher level—not just consuming it, but producing it and making it. Then that self-sufficiency builds itself into the system.
My ancestors tended to look very far into the future in terms of planning, look at that seven generations forward. So I think they foresaw that there were going to be some big problems. I think through those original treaties and our diplomatic traditions, that’s really what they were trying to reconcile. They were trying to protect large tracts of land where indigenous peoples could continue their way of life and continue our own economies and continue our own political systems, I think with the hope that the settler society would sort of modify their way into something that was more parallel or more congruent to indigenous societies.
On loving the wounded
go to: http://www.yesmagazine.org/peace-justice/dancing-the-world-into-being-a-conversation-with-idle-no-more-leanne-simpson
to read the rest of the article.