On Tanya Talaga's 'Seven Fallen Feathers' and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson's 'As We Have Always Done'Review January 25, 2019
In 2005, the writer Wendy S. Walters paid an unusual visit to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The quaint seaside town had made news two years earlier when archeologists uncovered the remains of an 18th-century African American graveyard beneath its streets. Although only 13 bodies were exhumed, the archeologists estimated up to 200 people, probably slaves, might be buried there. Walters, a black writer whose essays probe the intersection of race and American identity, wanted to see the burial ground for herself.
When Walters arrived, though, she couldn’t find it. As she later wrote in her essay “Lonely in America,” many residents she spoke to resisted the idea that slavery had existed in Portsmouth in the first place. When she was able to get a location, she was directed to an intersection lined with colonial homes, attorneys’ offices, and beauty salons, no graves or markers in sight. It was only after an extensive search that she noticed a single historical plaque, which stated the block had originally been the site of a Negro Burial Ground. The graveyard, it continued, had been built over and forgotten as the town expanded. “This is when I realized,” Walters writes, “that my car was probably sitting on top of people.”
The visible and the invisible, the stories we tell and those we forget, what we forgive too easily: Walters is haunted by the gaping distance between these points, not least by how susceptible she finds even herself. She confesses in “Lonely in America” that she felt nothing—not grief, not rage—at learning “one of the oldest known gravesites of blacks in New England was neither green nor sacred space.” On the contrary, she liked Portsmouth, was seduced by its picturesque charm, to the point that she felt guilty about her attempts to dig up its sordid past. She eventually grew so perturbed at her ability to “forget what is obvious” that she forced herself to write down how such a place came to be:
People were stripped of their names, spiritual practices, and culture; they worked their entire lives without just compensation; they were beaten into submission and terrorized or killed if they chose not to submit; when they died they were buried in the ground at the far edge of town; and as the town grew, roads and houses were built on top of them as if they had never existed.
The Indigenous scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson puts it this way in her book As We Have Always Done: “Colonialism…whether legal or policy or economic or social, is machinery that was designed to create a perfect crime—a crime where the victims are unable to see or name the crime as a crime.” This is colonialism’s greatest and most insidious trick: in its immutable spread, it buries the evidence, erases its tracks, frames its brutal history of oppression as progress, and hides the fact of its very existence behind a veneer of respectability. Those whose land has been stolen, ancestors murdered, and culture destroyed are silenced by violence or gaslighting. Those of us who benefit, on the other hand, have been so conditioned by the myths of Manifest Destiny and the American Dream that we fail to see how those words are just euphemisms for something else.
The advent of the internet and the proliferation of small presses have since allowed these silenced voices the chance to upend the traditional colonial power structure. This is especially important for First Nations and Native peoples, since our societal understanding of Indigenous culture stems primarily from the very settlers who stole their land. Moreover, such depictions have been filtered through a lens of patriarchy, capitalism, heteronormativity, and white supremacy, values counter to many Indigenous ways of life. The Idle No More and Standing Rock protests, along with the rise of a new generation of writers and politicians, have given Indigenous people across North America the chance to remind people what colonialism has tried very hard to make them forget: that the countries of Canada and the United States sit on stolen land; that the land was stolen through the systematic eradication of the people who lived there; and that there remains, to this day, a concerted effort to silence or disenfranchise the ones who remain. “Native Americans make up less than / one percent of the population of America. / 0.8 percent of 100 percent,” writes the poet Natalie Diaz. “O, mine efficient country.”
The Lingering Effects of Colonialism on Indigenous Communities
Still, Indigenous rights haven’t received the same sustained level of support among white liberals as the #BlackLivesMatter or #MeToo movements. This is a problem, and it’s worth pondering why. Part of the issue, as Walters identifies, is our exceptional ability as humans to ignore the obvious. Another is a general ignorance of the extent that the Indigenous community has been, and continues to be, shaped by the crimes inflicted on their ancestors. Another still is the difficulty many white people face in recognizing ourselves as settlers and accepting our complicity in these crimes. My use of “our” is quite deliberate here; I write these words as someone with much yet to learn.
If we are clearly in need of a corrective, the good news is that we have no shortage of options. Two recent books in particular stand out: Simpson’s As We Have Always Done and Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City. Talaga’s book, which won the prestigious RBC Taylor Prize earlier this year, is an investigation into the unexplained deaths of seven Indigenous high school students in Thunder Bay, Ontario. All seven died under suspicious circumstances. Five were reported missing and later found dead in the frigid waters surrounding the city—a pattern that should make even the greenest of detectives sit up straighter in their chair. And yet, despite mounting evidence that Indigenous youth were being targeted, Thunder Bay police refused to investigate the deaths, dismissing them out of hand as accidents. In some cases, it was left to volunteers from the Indigenous community to search for the missing teenagers and recover their bodies. An official inquest eventually found the department at fault, but the damage was done: given that the deaths stretch back to the year 2000, we will likely never know the truth.
Talaga, who writes for the Toronto Star, doesn’t necessarily bring us any closer to answers. She also doesn’t need to. The main point of Seven Fallen Feathers isn’t just that there’s something evil lurking at the heart of Thunder Bay—that much is obvious—but that none of the seven students should have beenthere in the first place. All seven had moved to Thunder Bay from remote First Nations communities in northern Ontario. Despite a bucolic setting that Talaga describes as rich with “birch trees, sweet-smelling cedars, and the rock of the Canadian Shield”, many of these communities lack basic services like hospitals, clean running water, or grocery stores, let alone high schools. Many are can only be reached by plane. Children who want to complete their education, find a job, or simply escape the cycle of poverty have no choice but to move hundreds of miles south. This set of circumstances almost certainly led to the deaths of Curran Strang, Robyn Harper, Jethro Anderson, Paul Panacheese, Kyle Morrisseau, Reggie Bushie, and Jordan Wabasse, the seven students for whom the book is named.
Thunder Bay is no utopia. The city, which is perched on the northwestern shore of Lake Superior and has a population of 108,000, is a hotbed of racism. Throughout the book, Talaga relates stories of Indigenous people being “beaten up, pelted with eggs and garbage, yelled at by people driving by in cars.” The local Indigenous high school, which six of the seven students attended, often struggles to keep up. The majority of students live with boarding parents in town, who receive $500 in return. But as Talaga notes, these ostensible guardians are “under no obligation to supervise the kids at night, eat meals with them, help them with their homework, or take them to any after-school activities.” In other words, the students are essentially left on their own to navigate an unfamiliar world rife with strange new surroundings, easily obtainable alcohol, and an openly hostile relationship between its white and Indigenous residents.
But Thunder Bay is reflective of Canada as a whole, a country whose long history with its Indigenous population is littered with broken treaties, cultural genocide, and intergenerational trauma. At the heart of this broken relationship is Canada’s infamous residential school system, a series of church-run and state-sponsored boarding schools designed to assimilate Indigenous children into white society. More than 150,000 children were ripped from their families and sent to these schools, where they were subjected to horrific sexual violence, squalid living conditions, and medical experiments. By the time the schools officially closed in 1996, at least 6,000 students had died. More than 37,950 incidents of abuse had occurred. Similar schools, it should be noted, also existed in the United States.
Talaga makes it clear that the violence that unfolded at these schools, and the government’s subsequent failure to provide financial or psychological restitution to the survivors, are directly responsible for the present-day conditions that force students to move from their homes to places like Thunder Bay. “Intergenerational trauma is entrenched,” Talaga writes of these communities. “One hundred years of social exclusion, racism, and colonialism has manifested as addiction, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and lack of knowledge on how to parent a child.” This trauma has left survivors unable to move on with their lives and has echoed sharply down the line, creating a pervasive legacy of poverty and despair.
Pikangikum First Nation (Pik), an isolated community in far northwestern Ontario, has the highest suicide rate in the world, with children as young as ten hanging themselves in their rooms. The community has no clean drinking water, despite being surrounded by freshwater lakes and 75 percent of its homes lack running water or proper sewage. The community isn’t even connected to the power grid. Electricity comes from a diesel generator “that often dies due to overcapacity, most often in the winter, when temperatures plummet to minus forty degrees Celsius.” More than 80 percent of children in treatment centers have been sexually abused, and a full quarter of third- and fourth-graders have snorted gasoline. Mental health programs are practically nonexistent. And the absence of local high schools, the result of a funding disagreement between the federal and provincial governments, has led to a severe education gap between Indigenous students and their peers elsewhere in the country.
It is well within the Canadian government’s ability to improve the quality of life for First Nations like Pik. Talaga notes that, in the wake of the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Ottawa immediately deployed its Disaster Assistance Response Team to Sri Lanka, where 200 Canadian forces provided medical attention to more than 7,000 people, supplied 3.5 million liters of clean drinking water, and helped repair infrastructure. Yet Pik, which is home to about 2,000 people and lies significantly closer to Ottawa than Sri Lanka, has been virtually ignored. Justin Trudeau’s government has promised to ensure all First Nations reserves have drinkable water by March 2021—another year, in other words, without a basic human right. Meanwhile, homes continue to crumble. Suicides continue to spike. And more and more children continue to fall behind—leaving students like those at the heart of Seven Fallen Feathers with no choice but to move far, far away from home, to a city they are ill-prepared to navigate, with the ghosts of their past haunting them at every step.
A Road Map Out of Colonialism
Seven Fallen Feathers doesn’t end so much as it just stops. Talaga offers no last-minute investigative reveal, no answers, no catharsis. Far from it: in the epilogue, we learn that an additional two students died as the book was going to press. Forcing us to sit with this stark non-resolution makes Talaga’s message clear: this is not a story about one racist town forced to reckon with its actions. This is a story about a massive injustice on every level—economic, political, social, historical—continuing to unfold with no end in sight. To call it uncomfortable is exactly the point.
So how do we fight back? Leanne Betasamosake Simpson observes in As We Have Always Done that even this can be a trap, since the most visible forms of resistance—writing new legislation, voting politicians in and out of office, even protesting—give only the illusion of progress. These strategies, which aim to reform the system, miss the point that the system itself is the problem; land theft and social displacement are baked into the very DNA of a capitalist colonial society. So when we talk about reform without addressing the rot at the foundation, we once again overlook the obvious: that colonialism, shifting and nebulous, is happy to let us protest anything so long as it distracts us from the crime beneath our feet, the foundational one from which all others stem.
Simpson, who is a member of the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg, has her own ideas about resistance. Early in As We Have Always Done, she relates a story about a time when all of the deer, moose, and caribou, known collectively as the Hoof Nation, abruptly abandoned the land where they lived alongside the Nishnaabeg people. After a long and hungry winter with no meat, the Nishnaabeg sent a runner to track down the animals. When the runner finally found them and asked why they had left, the Hoof Nation replied that they had felt disrespected. The humans had been hunting and killing them with no regard or reverence: wasting their meat, not honoring their bodies, not sharing with other members of the tribe. As such, “the Hoof Clan had withdrawn from the territory and their relationship with the Nishnaabeg. They had stopped participating.”
This detail is key. “Relationships based on consent, reciprocity, respect, and empathy” are crucial to the functioning of any society, Simpson writes. This includes relationships between individuals, between society and the people who comprise it, and people and the animals they rely on for sustenance. When that relationship is violated repeatedly, as Canada has done with its Indigenous population, it is within the rights of the wronged party to withdraw. The solution for Indigenous people to survive colonialism, in other words, is to reject it entirely.
Simpson is perhaps best known for her two ethereal collections of poems, songs, and stories, Islands of Decolonial Love and This Accident of Being Lost. But she is also a scholar of the first order, and As We Have Always Done is a profound intellectual achievement, a roadmap out of colonialism that should be required reading for everyone. Beautifully written and unapologetically Indigenous, the book is a love letter to the joy and resilience of Native people, and their enduring strength in the face of white settler supremacy.
Simpson’s argument is centered around the concept of grounded normativity, which describes a healthy, reciprocal relationship with the earth and members of one’s community. From grounded normativity, she builds out to advocate a return to Indigenous wisdom, including collective decision making, gender fluidity, queer/two spirit normativity, and a rejection of global capitalism. Through it all, she emphasizes the importance of relationships: between people and their immediate community, their nation, and “all elements of creation, including plants and animals.”
This view, of course, is directly antithetical to Western culture, which fetishizes the individual, views accumulation and gain as markers of success, and sees land as little more than something to be conquered and exploited. Such a system cannot be tweaked to accommodate Indigenous beliefs; the two are incompatible. Simpson instead advocates for radical resurgence—radical in this context meaning a “thorough and comprehensive reform.” This requires a profound and critical engagement with the fact that our very thinking has been shaped by a colonial system and reinforced by centuries of white patriarchy. Similarly, it requires accepting that, as most political solutions to inequality are designed within a colonial framework, they do nothing more than keep Indigenous, and other people of color, trapped in the same cycles of poverty and oppression. Simpson argues that we must stop allowing settler colonialism “to frame the issues facing Indigenous peoples,” because colonialism “will always define the issues with a solution that entrenches its own power.”
Here, Simpson issues a tremendous call to action. Since the state clearly cannot be trusted to operate with good intentions, it falls to collectives of individuals to take on the responsibilities of the state. Rather than trying to fix an unfixable system, Indigenous people should construct their own economic and educational systems, rooted in Indigenous, not Western, values. This would allow Indigenous people to engage more fully with their lands, traditions, and languages, which remain daily under siege—and would remove the necessity for Indigenous parents to send their kids off to far-away boarding schools only to watch them die. Simpson acknowledges that while certain institutions have worked to better include Indigenous voices, such engagement needs to occur among Indigenous people “for decades, not weeks,” if Indigenous ways of life are to survive. “How we live, how we organize, how we engage in the world—the process—not only frames the outcome, it is the transformation,” she writes. “The how changes us.”
This is not to say that Indigenous people should cut themselves completely off from society, Simpson clarifies, or that a settler society, however flawed, is irredeemable. Similarly, radical reform should not be confused with the pull-up-your-bootstraps argument that usually accompanies conversations about inequality, which, among other problems, reinforces the mindset that “global capitalism is permanent, and our survival depends on our ability to work within it.” In many ways, Simpson’s argument is the opposite. It is time, she declares, for Indigenous people to “stop looking for legitimacy in the colonizer’s…system, and return to valuing and recognizing our individual and collective intelligence on its own merits and on our own terms.” Grounded normativity and Indigenous wisdom don't just help us push back against the unchecked capitalist state and its myriad inequalities. By rejecting the idea of the earth as a resource—a bounty that exists solely for our gain—they also move us one step closer to addressing the mounting catastrophe of climate change
Seven Fallen Feathers and As We Have Always Done, then, are two sides of the same coin. If Talaga’s book paints a devastating portrait of the damage that colonialism has inflicted on Indigenous people, Simpson’s book offers an inspiring, intersectional vision of a world in which Indigenous people and their allies reject colonialism altogether. Both books stand on their own, to be sure. But Talaga’s sobering narrative is balanced perfectly by Simpson’s stirring call to resist, just as Simpson’s immense generosity of spirit is only made more affecting by Talaga’s uncompromising reportage. One should not stop there, of course. But as we head into the third year of the Trump presidency, and white supremacy and settler colonialism begin lashing out ever more violently, it is more important than ever for us to remember that intersectionality does not end at the boundaries of our vision, or memory. Read these two exceptional books, and remember the land beneath your feet. Remember the cost.
Remember what is obvious, and how easy it is to forget.
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