2 Embodying Indigenous Resurgence
“All Our Relations” Pedagogy
Alannah Young Leon and Denise Nadeau
We have collaborated for more than a decade in developing a pedagogy that is centred on restoring and facilitating relationships. We foreground Indigenous knowledge systems in both our education and advocacy work, as we continue to grapple with systems of knowledge that are both subjugating and privileged. Our intention has been to work from the wisdom of the body to explore educational tools for building Indigenous-settler relationships that support Indigenous resurgence. We work both inside and outside the academy and have developed a range of curricula and programs for Indigenous front-line workers, university and health institutions, and truth and reconciliation initiatives. In much of this work, we focus on Indigenous knowledge systems and, where appropriate, combine these with dance, somatic education, and expressive art practices.
Our purpose is to facilitate group work that supports the building of respectful relationships and Indigenous resurgence. We understand resurgence as the reaffirmation of a conceptual framework that, in the words of Leanne Simpson (2011, 31–32), “not only maps a way out of colonial thinking by confirming Indigenous lifeways or alternative ways of being in the world” but that ultimately “seeks to dismantle colonialism while simultaneously building a renaissance of mino bimaadiziwin”—that is, the living of a good life in accordance with ancestral teachings. We focus on the multiple interrelationships among relatives, or kin, in which human beings are embedded and on the responsibilities that arise from these relationships, or what we call “kinship relational responsibilities,” as well as on the reciprocity implicit in these relationships. In doing so, we are supporting Indigenous lifeways and providing a decolonizing framework that involves the body at multiple levels.
In the opening section below, we describe how we begin our work and how the practice of following protocols sets the stage for embodied knowing that operates from within an Indigenous world view of an interconnected, interdependent universe. We then consider the centrality of ceremonial principles in relationship building and go on to explain how we approach decolonizing the body. In closing, we examine how “all our relations” pedagogy supports resurgence and decolonization.
Protocols: Getting Ready for Knowledge
Alannah. To show respect for the occupied territories of Coast Salish peoples, where I currently live and work, I introduce myself in the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ language (one of the dialects of Halkomelem) when we are in their territories. Language is intimately connected to relationships with lands, waters, and territories, and to our corresponding responsibilities. Local Indigenous protocols remind me that I must acknowledge in whose territory I am situated and to locate where my people are from geographically. I have been a visitor to the unceded and occupied Coast Salish territories since 1990. My Indigenous diaspora and paternal location is as an Anishnabekwe Midewiwin woman. My matrilineal genealogy is Muskeg Inniwak, from the muskeg region located in the heart of Turtle Island, or in the central plain region of North America; I was born for the amisk dodem—the beaver clan. I acknowledge my place in Creation through my clan systems and the lifelong responsibility to live together on the land and to continually engage in reciprocal relationships consistent with the spirit of treaty laws. Radical Indigenism characterizes the scholarship within which I locate myself.1
My declared social locations indicate my responsibility to Indigenous knowledge, resurgence, and kinship relational responsibilities. This pedagogical approach signals my ongoing commitment to live out the spirit of the treaties and to make visible or to embody concepts such as alternative nationhood-building that focus on sustainable relationships to lands—to live as a good relative so that our future generations can live in peace and prosper.
Denise. My name is Denise Marie Nadeau. I am originally from Québec, raised in Montréal, with family origins and ties in Gespe’gewa’gi, known as the Gaspé Coast, which is the territory of the Mi’gmaq peoples. I am a twelfth-generation Quebecer of French heritage, with some recent Scottish on my father’s side and Irish and English on my mother’s. There was some intermarriage with the Mi’gmaq on my maternal grandmother’s side, however, this was soon forgotten or denied. When I researched my paternal ancestry in terms of colonial relations with the Mi’gmaq, I uncovered sawmill owners, a railroad-building contractor, a priest, an Indian Affairs superintendent, and even a cardinal. These men played a significant role in the material and cultural conditions that contributed to the displacement, impoverishment, and invisibilizing of the Mi’gmaq in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries on the Gaspé Coast.
I now live as a visitor in the territory of the K’ómoks Nation, which is on the eastern coast of Vancouver Island, on the Salish Sea. I have lived on unceded Coast Salish territory for about thirty years. Over the years, working at the University of British Columbia (UBC) with Alannah, I have developed relationships with some of the peoples of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam, “where the river grass grows”) Nation.
I acknowledge the spirit and laws of treaty relationships; even as I currently live in these unceded territories. I have recently learned about my treaty relationships and responsibilities, defined by my ancestry, to the waters, lands, and peoples of the Gespe’gewa’gi region. For the Mi’gmaq, the treaties were angugamgew’l, adding to our relations, and gisagnutmaqann, what we agreed to (Mi’gmawei Mawiomi Secretariat 2009, 3). Elder Pnnal, from Gesgapegiag, further clarified the meaning of angugamgew’l as “to add in the process of negotiations,” and gisagnutmaqann as “we have come to an agreement or mutual understanding.” The Covenant Chain of Peace and Friendship Treaties, which were signed in 1725, 1752, 1760–61, 1778, and 1779, were seen as “a way to extend family relations” (15). These covenants were based on the principles of reciprocity and mutuality. I return to Gespe’gewa’gi every year to maintain these relationships. As well, for several years I taught a course in Montréal at Concordia University every second fall called “Indigenous Traditions, Colonialism, and Women.” For me, this is one way of living out my responsibilities that are entailed by my settler history in Québec.
This dialogue is about allowing and holding up our differences. Allowing our voices to be distinct is part of being who we really are. I remember Elder Pnnal reminding me that we need to honour ourselves and be honest with who we are if we are going to continue to coexist and work together for survival on this planet. If we erase our difference, which is a real temptation for settlers, we do not allow for the complexity of Indigenous-settler relationships.
Alannah. My decolonizing process involves accessing body wisdom and engaging blood memory and the multiple interdependent relationships it embeds and sustains. A term used by many Indigenous communities, blood memory refers to the knowledge that flows through our bloodlines, knowledge that we inherit from our ancestors and that connects us not only to all those with whom we share community but also to our ancestral lands (see Holmes 2001, 40, 41–44). By grounding us in a shared and living past, blood memory allows for the perpetuation of communal knowledge and traditions, both spiritual and intellectual. Pam Palmater (2011, 218) refers to it as the “deep connections with our past through our ancestors, with our present thorough our families and communities, and to our future through generations yet to come.”
I came to the University of British Columbia to explore a master’s degree in theatre and got involved with Full Circle First Nations Performance Society. Here, the Spakwus Slumlum Eagle Song Coast Salish Dancers taught us to embody the wisdom of animals. They had us move as animals in packs, and I experienced how the embodiment of animal wisdom reflects a kinship sensibility as well as a collective decolonizing and embodied approach. In effect, I experienced many other possibilities for how I could weave into my life and teaching embodied ways of engaging in the world from the peoples of this territory where I have been living as a guest for over twenty years. I saw the potential for how I could learn more from animals and apply this learning to other contexts, while embodying my responsibility to live my Indigenous clan and kinship teachings. More recently, I have been exploring how to embody relationships with plants, both on unceded and occupied Coast Salish territories and within my homelands. I travel home every year and embody my relationship to the plant medicines and engage in the ceremonial responsibilities for maintaining these relationships.
Since the mid-1980s, I have worked in the academy, developing decolonizing and culturally competent place-based pedagogies. I teach a course called “Cultural Competency and Protocols in Approaching Traditional Healing Modalities in Aboriginal Health” at the University of British Columbia. At the Justice Institute of British Columbia, I teach Aboriginal Focusing-Oriented Therapy. In these courses, I focus on decolonizing our health education practices by using Aboriginal holistic therapeutic modalities that teach people to reconnect to the land through the physical body, to begin to reclaim the senses, and to explore what it means to embody the term all my relations. As well, I have been working with Elder Jeri Sparrow, xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, and with the UBC Faculty of Land and Food Systems, Indigenous Research Partnerships and the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems to develop holistic practices on the UBC farm.
Denise and I met in a dance-therapy training program more than seventeen years ago. We came together so we could continue to deepen an embodied practice that reflected a commitment to our own ongoing decolonization process and our joint and separate teaching. In effect, my intention has been to embody the teachings and to develop a collective leadership of folks who could engage in this kind of work.
Denise. Our writing process around some of our earlier articles (Young and Nadeau 2005; Young and Nadeau 2006) was jagged as we tried to find a common language and meanings. Alannah had knowledge of Indigenous theory and practices; I was less aware of my colonial positioning, but I had more writing and activist experience. So we mentored each other. This dialogue represents the more balanced way we work together now. While my world view has become more Indigenized, the differences in our social locations, ancestry, and history has allowed for creative collaboration and sparking off each other. The dialogue format also illustrates more clearly where Euro-Western and Indigenous knowledge systems converge and construct each other.
My academic background has been in Christian theology and ministry. I identify as a Christian and hold the position that I need to take responsibility for the ongoing role of the Christian churches in the colonial project. For more than a decade, I have engaged with postcolonial feminist theology and worked in the interfaith arena, with a significant part of my focus being the impact of European Christianity on Indigenous traditions. After decades of engagement with Indigenous colleagues and friends, I situate myself with those whose involvement in interfaith relationships is connected to action for interfaith justice and the development of revolutionary spiritualties.
Over the years, I noticed that when I adopted a critical race-feminist analysis, which I viewed through an anticolonial lens, I was still operating out of a Euro-Western dualistic framework, even as I critiqued it. This is my critique of most postcolonial theory: it is still caught in oppositional dynamics with colonialism at its centre; it still isn’t anticolonial or decolonizing. My intention with this work has been to develop a pedagogy that operates within an Indigenous world view and provides an embodied experience, a lived experience, of a cosmology that challenges both the material and social construction of colonialism. An “all our relations” pedagogy articulates, for me, the level of interconnection necessary to challenge imperial relations at all levels—body, mind, emotions, and spirit.
Identifying our social location and genealogy in relation to land is a first step in a decolonizing process. This helps us to know that there are particular knowledges and peoples in relationship within specific places. A second step is knowledge of local protocols. Engaging with Indigenous protocols informs both the process and product of our work. We braid them together here to share our experience in working with local Indigenous nations. Protocols help us to facilitate a respectful relationship with our implicit knowledge of where we are, what we value, and how we engage with other nations in whose territories we are visitors. Protocol principles inform how we engage in our homelands.
Denise. I remember when we were preparing a workshop on Truth and Reconciliation that was hosted by the United Church on the west side of Vancouver in xʷməθkʷəy̓əm territory. Alannah and I were following protocol and meeting with Elder Larry Grant, xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, to ask him to help with the work—to see if he was interested in contributing to the design. After he had agreed to participate and accepted our gift, I suggested that we do an introduction exercise in which we ask each person to identify his or her social location, including race and class background, and in whose territory she or he was living. Larry looked at me, chuckled, and then said, “You mean you want them to say where their granny is from.”
I like to tell this story because it triggered my awareness of how understanding identity is different in European and Indigenous world views. A common trope of the dominant culture is to introduce yourself in terms of your work and, in academic and politically informed circles, in terms of your social location. In Indigenous cultures, what is important is to know the relationship network of which you are part, including your ancestry, genealogical lineage, and the community and land/territory to which you belong. Even the names of your family members are significant, as is that of your clan or house.
I now incorporate this “granny” activity into my university classes. I ask students to form small groups in relation to the four directions and to identify their family ancestry. (If they are adopted or fostered, we ask them to speak of the family to which they feel a connection now.) I ask them to identify the territories in which they grew up and in which they are now living. For students who grew up outside Canada, we ask them to identify the Indigenous territory of their homelands. I provide a map of the Indigenous language groups and nations of Turtle Island before 1492. This allows students to begin the process of seeing themselves as part of a web of relationships and connections and of understanding how the individualism of the dominant culture supports erasure of these connections, especially to land and place. The “granny” activity reveals how the dominant narrative of the land called Canada obscures the occupation of Indigenous homelands. It locates specific nations within specific territories and allows us to use this moment both to challenge pan-Indian notions of Aboriginality and to address the politics of naming—that is, how Indigenous peoples have been called Indians, First Nations, Aboriginal peoples, and so on to undermine and erase how each tradition is connected to a specific language, land, and place.
I remember hearing the late Mohawk scholar Patricia Monture comment that it is in white supremacy’s interest to erase Indigenous history and ancestry. Educator David Greenwood has pointed out that the erasure of Indigenous presence on land and the history of the land is an intentional part of the placelessness of Euro-Western schooling. It is in the interest of the disembodying culture of global capitalism to undermine people’s relationship to land and place so that the “breaking down of ties to home communities” can further the exploitation and extraction of human and natural resources (Greenwood 2009, 4). Greenwood’s focus is on rural education, and though he calls for education about white colonization of Indigenous lands, he fails to mention how the capitalist value of “private property” as sacrosanct ensures that it is Native, not settler, land that is exploited. Part of our agenda is to expose settler complicity in the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous land.
Alannah. When we work with local Indigenous knowledge holders, it is important to follow their protocols and use oral citation as well as written citation to model mutually beneficent collaboration. In introducing an animal relations activity that we use in some workshops, for example, I acknowledge Bob Baker, from the Squamish Nation, and its youth group. I then indicate my clan locations, which inform my roles and responsibilities and are a signal to others that I know how I am related in a collective context.
I see my role as facilitating relationships with local community members and the Elders and the traditional knowledge keepers who are respected by community members and recognized as holders of cultural knowledge. As I learn from the ways in which the knowledge holders conceptualize and embody their roles and responsibilities, I deepen my understandings of my own genealogy, roles, and responsibilities. By locating myself as visitor, I look for ways to be a good relative. At a very basic level, to be ready for knowledge means that I first support local Indigenous initiatives. I learn how to support the ways in which knowledge holders conceptualize, embody, and transfer knowledge. I also learn how their particular pasts inform the present in the specific places where I am a visitor. When it is appropriate, I participate by using my privilege to support local Indigenous community initiatives.
Accordingly, in our work we consult as much as possible with local Elders in developing our programs. We do not believe in the practice of inviting a local knowledge holder only to give a welcome—an Elder is not simply an add-on or an afterthought. We learn from them along the way; our job is to make space for their voices, and we role model giving credit to them in the ways that are accepted and understood by both cultures. The practice of welcoming participants to a territory must always be accompanied by teachings from the Elders on the theme being explored. In our work with the LE,NONET Project (2010) at the University of Victoria, we developed and tested a curriculum with help from a team of Elders who guided us in following Coast and Straits Salish protocols from that region. These included incorporating and making space, as a pedagogical principle, for the Coast Salish witnessing practice; the use of a translator to translate the speaker’s words from Hul’q’umi’num’ into English; and the singing of appropriate public songs from that territory.
Denise. Sometimes when we are new to a territory, it takes time to form relationships with local knowledge keepers. I share my experience at Concordia University, where I taught a course called “Indigenous Traditions, Colonialism, and Women” for several years. Applying some of the local protocols was, at first, more difficult for me in Montréal because I had not yet formed relationships. I was able to bring in speakers through my relationships in Mi’gmaq and Anishinaabe territories, but it was critical that I teach the importance of respecting local protocols. Initially, I began the class by acknowledging the traditional territory of the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) peoples in whose territory Montréal is located. I briefly introduced myself, my ancestry, and the territory from which I come and that in which I presently live as a visitor. I explained how the practice of acknowledging territory affirms the connections among land, spirit, and culture and underlines the fact that the territory is a homeland that is occupied and, in many cases, unceded. As my relationships developed with the folks from the territory, I was able to incorporate Mohawk speakers into the first class and, eventually, the last class. These speakers welcomed the class to their territory; offered in Kanien’kéha and/or English the Ohenton Karihwatehkwen, the welcome address of the Haudenosaunee people; and shared some teachings from their tradition.2
Ceremony: Renewing Relationships
In modelling enactment of local protocols, we demonstrate a form of relational paradigm. We affirm that we are in relationship with the land and people of the local territory and that we have a responsibility to these relationships. Behind this is a larger commitment that frames our work—in acknowledging these relationships, we are affirming that the centre of our pedagogy is the well-being of the land, community, and future generations, within accountability to Indigenous laws. We name the practice of protocol principles and the affirmation of relationships as “getting ready for knowledge,” because it establishes the relational framework in which we will learn. Throughout the work, we continue to focus on the well-being of land, community, and future generations, and this moves us out of a deconstructive agenda into a constructive one where we invite participants into a positive way of being. The role of ceremonial principles, then, becomes critical in our work, as it develops and affirms this relational way of being.
Denise. I learned about the meaning of ceremony through the discipline of attending specific ones over an extended period of time. Attending ceremony is not a drop-in activity but rather a commitment to relationship over time. I have attended the sweat lodge ceremony at First Nation House of Learning at UBC fairly regularly for over twelve years. It is an open teaching lodge that you, Alannah, have taken leadership in, and I felt welcomed there as someone active in interfaith work. But I quickly discovered that to commit to being there meant showing up in snow, rain, sleet, or hail, and often very early in the morning. It was only through repetition and through showing up with my body that I gradually developed a different relationship with the elements and plants—the fire, the water, the rocks, the cedar—and the people who were part of the ceremony. Slowly, I began to experience in an embodied way that humans aren’t the centre of the universe but rather just one part. I began to get a glimmer of what the expression “all our relations,” said at the end of a prayer, song, or ceremony, might mean.
Alannah. For me, going to ceremony was primarily initially a responsibility. Then I realized that the ceremony looks after me. Ceremony helps me to renew my relationships and reminds me of the corresponding responsibilities I have to maintain these ceremonial renewal practices because they help my overall well-being. The ceremonies connect me to the seasons, the moon cycles, and the more-than-human beings. In effect, the ceremonies help me to decolonize my mind and body because I am reclaiming my relationship connections on multiple levels. This is my treaty responsibility—this is how I understand living the teachings or embodying the laws of reciprocal relationships.
Denise. I learned that ceremony involves the work of preparation, the work of setting up and taking down before and after, and the cleaning up after the feast that usually goes with it; all tasks are equally a part of ceremony. I remember my first sweat in 1990, when I was constantly looking at my watch, unhappy about how long it was taking, and leaving even before the feast. Later, I learned to put aside a whole day or series of days. As I began to engage with Indigenous colleagues in other milieus, I slowly shifted to the understanding that all of life is ceremony; all life involves enacting and recommitting to the rights and responsibilities of relationship. That insight affects how I teach. I now see the preparation for a course or workshop as ceremony, and I recognize the importance of bringing prayer and good intentions to all aspects of teaching and learning. I have had to acknowledge my responsibilities to the context in which I grew up in Québec, as well as to the peoples in whose territories I am living now—hence, my returning home to teach, to take seriously my responsibility to restore relationships with family and the land, and to support the Mi’gmaq struggles in Gespe’gewa’gi as part of ceremony.
Another critical turning point was when I was attending a Midewiwin ceremony in Wisconsin with you. You invited me so that I could be a witness and support you, but also so I could start to understand the level of embodiment in these ceremonies. I started asking you all these questions about what was going on. I remember you saying, “I can’t answer you now. This is about group mind.” Of course, I didn’t get it then, but when I returned for the third time, again attending as a witness, and was there with a first timer who started asking me questions, I couldn’t answer because I too had moved into group state of being. For me, these collective embodied states are where the spirit world is being accessed.
One challenge has been to translate some of the principles of ceremony into workshops and classrooms; we acknowledge that many ceremonies are site specific and not transferable to other contexts, so our task has become the exploration of how we can embody ceremonial principles in a workshop or classroom without “doing” a ceremony.
Alannah. One of the foundations of this work was developed when I did some informal research with the UBC student service unit called the First Nation Longhouse Community to develop the Longhouse Teachings information sheet.3 I was asked to explore with students, staff, Elders, and child care workers what makes a healthy house or community. The Longhouse Community held a number of talking circles over two years, and we organized the findings. We developed a longhouse leadership program to reflect the values articulated by founding director Dr. Verna Kirkness, who, with Dr. Ray Barnhardt, wrote the seminal article on what is known as the Four Rs (Respect, Relevance, Reciprocity, Responsibility) of Higher Education (Kirkness and Barnhardt 1991). Respect, relevance, reciprocity, and responsibility are principles that guide our relational work at the First Nations House of Learning. As well, we work with Stó:lō scholar and educator Jo-ann Archibald’s (Q’um Q’um X’iem) “storywork”, research, values, and principles. Archibald (2008, 38) stresses that the “skills, knowledge, understanding and perhaps insight gained over a lengthy period must be shared in a manner that incorporates cultural respect, responsibility, reciprocity and reverence.”
Denise. We always arrange seating in a circle. As Celia Haig-Brown (2010, 940) articulates so well, “the circle interrupts the assumptions of those other heuristics—the line and the box, dualities and binaries.” At different points and with different activities, we ask participants to reflect on their relationship to the seasons, to plant medicines, the cycles of life, the elements, the directions, the animals, and the ancestors, and we explore how they can embody and restore their connections to these relatives.
We state in the first session that racist, sexist, and colonial statements will not be tolerated. In addition to saying what’s not acceptable, we say what is—that we expect them to demonstrate their learning within the framework of respect, relevance, reciprocity, and responsibility. I add reverence as a guideline, since I find that it helps students to know they need to treat all beings with reverence, including the person opposite them with whom they might disagree. I have chosen to respond to racism in the classroom with an I-statement that challenges what has been said or provides another perspective, without shaming or disrespecting the person. As well, I encourage moments of silence in the class and stress “deep observation” and listening. Lorna Williams (2008), a Lil’wat educator, explains how these latter skills support self-generated and self-motivated learning in Indigenous ways of knowing.
Alannah. By intentionally engaging with the values of respect, relevance, reciprocity, and responsibility and demonstrating how we embody these values, we can rearticulate our values in everyday acts of discipline. This is essential in living mino bimaadiziwin—the good lifeway, following our laws; the everyday acts that beckon us to sing the teachings, to embody, to live, to wear the teachings (Simpson and Manitowabe 2013). For me, the ceremonial principles call us to wake up in responsible and mutually beneficial ways to the connections inherent in our Indigenous knowledge lifeways, traditions and laws.
Denise. I’d like to mention here what is called the “spiritual bypass” in some psychotherapeutic circles. This refers to engaging in spiritual practices to avoid dealing with any painful situation (Masters 2010). What is usually bypassed in settler-colonial communities is doing the embodied work of processing the reality of one’s historical and psychological relationship to colonialism. Many non-Indigenous individuals, especially white settlers, seek to experience Indigenous spirituality, specifically ceremony, without taking responsibility for the fact they are benefiting from the dispossession of Indigenous peoples. This is why it is important that we teach and approach daily living as ceremony and speak to living the values and traditions in daily practices of resurgence (Corntassel 2012). We encourage both white settlers and those from racialized groups to look at how they may be complicit in the social, economic, and political structures that dispossess Indigenous peoples. As Andrea Smith (2006, 89) argues, “It is not enough to understand or describe Native religious experience; it is also necessary to advocate for the survival of Native spiritual practices and an end to colonialism.” The challenge for us has been to move people out of an intellectual understanding of colonialism to one that involves the realization that they need to make material changes in their lives. These can range from using one’s privilege to unsettle colonial structures, to financially and physically supporting Indigenous land defenders, to, for those who have this option, giving back land.
Decolonizing the Body: Embodying the Teachings
While we consider all our work to be about decolonization, we intentionally involve the body and body awareness as central to the decolonization process. We have adapted some somatic techniques developed within Euro-Western psychotherapies, and we integrate them, when appropriate, with cultural teachings. At the same time, we draw on the reality that Indigenous cultural practices are embodied. Our intention is to provide participants with an introduction to a lived experience of embodying the teachings.
Denise. In bringing the body into our teaching, we move beyond what some call conscientization, which is the process of developing a critical awareness of oppression. It is easy to “facilitate settler innocence” by falling into the trap of what Tuck and Yang (2012, 9) call “decolonization as a metaphor.” We are aware that changing one’s thinking is not enough. Accordingly, we work at several levels: we include the spirit realm, we operate within the political project of Indigenism, and we prioritize Indigenous laws. For me, Indigenism is about Indigenous nationhood. Scott Lyons (2010, 64) defines it as a global political project that focuses on “promoting indigenous culture in opposition to neoliberalism and ‘settler culture’” and “on ecological sustainability, collective land rights, the primacy of Indigenous ways of knowing and Indigenous values, and the political virtue of respectful co-existence.” This project is contained within the framework of relationship. We believe that we are all in this together, that we have a responsibility to Indigenous law and values, and we strive to create what Willie Ermine (2007) calls the “ethical space of engagement” where two different world views meet.
The body cannot be separated from the whole person, so challenging and transforming the colonial project requires body awareness. Indigenous learning is holistic—body, mind, spirit, emotions—and includes working through all generations, as well as through the individual, family, community, and nation. We intentionally facilitate body awareness of both relationship and disconnection as central to this holistic learning.
Alannah. We start with one of the basic principles of dance therapy—if you move differently, you will think differently: that is, you can transform yourself through movement. This movement principle also applies to ceremonies. Ceremonies like the Sundance and the Midewiwin include embodied movement that has helped to transform and deepen my relationships to family, lands, and communities. My intention for our work has been to explore transformation through movement and to incorporate principles that work in multiple contexts.
Denise. I remember Stl’atl’imx Elder Gerry Oleman saying that the ceremonies that have been recovered from the past were developed in a time before colonialism and that additional tools are sometimes needed to address the terrible fragmenting impacts of colonialism on the body, psyche, and community. In our wellness group work, we incorporate resource development and presence skills drawn from Euro-Western somatic psychotherapy practices. Resource development involves building on the strengths and resilience of participants, as well as creating new approaches, some of which focus on enhancing our relationships with animals and finding an internal anchor or a specific place in nature that is experienced and felt in the body. Presence skills are specific body-based ways of increasing one’s awareness of sensation and circulation of energy in the body in order to help process feelings and increase feelings of interconnection. The main function of these skills is to bring participants into the present moment and to help them become aware of their connection to place and people in the here and now. Guided imagery, music, drawing, and movement are some of the tools we use. These tools help us to express and enhance our connections with animals, stories, memories, or places. Many diverse cultural stories inform both the individual and the collective learning experience.
Alannah. This decolonizing embodied work includes reflecting back, through structured drawing and movement activities, participants’ reconnection to their personal and collective relationships. For example, their dreams may be drawn as symbolic representations or expressed as a series of words strung together. These creative expressions are then grounded in the body through a participant’s movement, with the rest of the group reflecting her physical movements back to her. If someone has drawn and danced an animal figure that has visited her in a dream, we give feedback to acknowledge that person’s own self-determined bodily wisdom and interconnected relationships. We strive for a balance between relationship with self and relationship with others—developing our own self-determination in relationship to the collective is part of our responsibilities.
Denise. Another example is when we invite participants to connect the presence skill of centring by using belly button teachings in their respective traditions. This activity involves exercises that support the embodied exploration of the body’s physical centre, followed by a sharing of navel and belly button teachings. We are careful to be respectful when participants are unable to share specific teachings for protocol reasons. We explore the relationship between the belly button, the umbilical cord, and the land, which, combined with a felt sense of a physical centre, provides a resource in the investigation of relational ways of being. This embodied reclaiming of relationship is decolonizing because the reference point is internally sourced and adds multiple cultural dimensions to our pedagogy of connecting.4
Alannah. Sharing some of my cultural practices reflects this pedagogical process and my ongoing understanding of how the body demonstrates our relationship to creation. The placenta and umbilical cord represent the Earth, which is our mother, and our connection to the moon, our grandmother, Nokomis. In my territory, my mother buried my daughter’s placenta at the base of a tree in the area where I fasted as part of my coming-of-age ceremony. Such an embodied act signifies that we know how we are related to the Earth—and that the Earth is the mother that sustains life. The placenta feeds and nourishes us, so it also shows us our interdependent relationship with the plants, animals, and elements. Elder Norma Rose Point, xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), says that the MuXwuye—the belly button teachings—tell us about relationship and responsibility to Creation. They are very similar to my cultural understanding of the placenta as mapping the universe or stars. Many of our ceremonies are designed to demonstrate our relationship to Creation. In connecting or mapping these relationships, we are performing everyday acts of resurgence. I think one of the strengths of our work is how we make the transition from the individual to the collective.
Denise. This reminds me of Temitope Adefarakan’s Yoruba teachings. In her chapter in this book, she describes how Yoruba “worldsense” challenges the Western understanding of the self by integrating individual and collective identity. She describes how the individual’s body, mind, and spirit or soul is integrated and how one’s integrated being is collectively connected and anchored in one’s community and cosmology; there is a balance and unity among ancestors, the living, and the unborn. Like Temitope, our work is to explore pedagogical approaches that serve to develop embodied awareness that one is part of this web of relations, of the collective.
For me, part of the work of decolonizing the body involves transforming the theoretical bases of individualism that shape relationships in the dominant culture, in which autonomy is valued more than relationship. Underpinning individualism is the concept of the biological body, which is a unique historical construction of the past three hundred years in the West and, as Frédérique Apffel-Marglin (2011, 141) notes, is linked “to the separations among the realms of nature, the semiotic and the sacred.” This conception of the solid body feeds the notion of the autonomous sovereign individual, which “necessarily makes of the individual one who dominates both non-human nature as well as those who do not fit its mold” (139–40). The deconstruction of the biological body is part of the task of decolonization.
Accordingly, we are building people’s felt sense of connection to their relations, and in this way, we are moving out of individualism. We can begin to counter the impacts of the colonial past and present from an “all our relations” framework. Distorted family patterns, cultural violence and alienation, and oppression and dominance in relationships need to be resolved in a framework that is holistic—that includes not only mind, body, spirit, and emotion but also individual, family, community, land, and nation.
We don’t often use the word trauma in our work because it frequently serves to pathologize victims and to individualize collective pain. In much of our work, our intention is to provide skills and resources that give a sense of inner authority, a positive sense of self, and to increase choices for individuals whose experiences of racist, sexist, and colonial violence have created self-destructive patterns. We teach embodiment practices and presence skills or use tools like the Life/Art Process (Halprin 2002) because we are supporting the ability to connect with relations in the present and to avoid getting caught up in the drama of one’s individual story.5 So we use the development of body-based skills to provide a bridge between individual and collective responsibility.
Alannah. We have created a workshop called “Moving with Water,” the goal of which is to deepen participants’ interconnection with and sense of responsibility to water, both to the water within our bodies and the watersheds around us. We begin with a welcome from people from the local territories, demonstrating the pedagogical principle of making their teachings central to the workshop. Then we open with a water song and teachings about water from my Anishinaabeg tradition, followed by teachings from Denise’s tradition.
Denise. We then provide an embodied experience of water’s functions in our bodies. We do this by having participants move and dance with the rhythms of the different fluid systems in the body—the venous and arterial blood systems, the lymph system, the cellular and interstitial fluids, the synovial and cerebral spinal fluids. We describe the Blue Ecology water cycle articulated by Gitxsan artist and geologist Michael Blackstock (2013), which encompasses the movement of water between humans and the nonhuman world and includes five principles to support the protection of water: water as spirit, harmony, respect, unity, and balance. These principles concretize our connection to the waters outside of us and our option of listening to and respecting water. We can also choose to move more fluidly in our lives through accessing the water systems in our bodies.
Using the Life/Art Process, we have participants explore and listen for a message from a water body with which they have a relationship. This is done through drawing it, dancing their drawing, and then bringing to the group a movement phrase and message that represents their water body. In the final phase of the workshop, we bring participants together in a collective water ritual and dance. Here, we are drawing on the performative function of ritual, thus contributing to protecting the water at the level of the spirit realm. Often, we support group members to bring their movement piece, or performance ritual, to a public action to protect water. Inherent in this approach is the belief that, as relatives of water, we have obligations and responsibilities to the spirit of water and that our relationship to water is about more than a human right.
Alannah. What is decolonizing in this process is that we are affirming our interconnection with place and watersheds/water bodies. In this, we are supporting the experience of water as spirit enhancing and as kin. We are also inviting participants to see and listen to water bodies as living beings that need their own harmony and balance. Here, we challenge the colonial pattern of assuming that one knows best about the water. In effect, teaching people to see and to embody the resources available from the nonhuman relations has been, for me, a form of resurgence. For example, I continue to explore how I can remain connected to the waters through local language, ceremony, and song; what it means to live in the places where salt water meets fresh water; and how I can learn about this relationship together with local Indigenous knowledge holders. The daily practice of singing to the water, I believe, will help me, on my own terms, to map the paths that flow out of decolonization toward community regeneration while embodying respect for all the relatives who live in particular places.
Denise. This embodiment work has greatly aided my own decolonization journey. Much of antiracism and anti-oppression theory and practice, as well as critical whiteness theory, is experienced solely at the cognitive level by those with privilege. This is often accompanied by guilt, shame, anger, or a sense that one has “got it” and a belief that one can rise above it, now that one “knows.” But translating that theory into embodied practice is difficult. Not only is the body a cipher or representation of one’s privilege or lack of it, but the psychological processes inherent in colonial and racist attitudes are inscribed in the body.
In the work I have been doing in the past decade, I have been concerned to unmask the white helper—and in particular, the white helper woman (Nadeau 2005). As Daniel Heath Justice (2005, 144) has noted,
The more superficial currents of liberal activism are posited on a model of “uplift”—that is, the idea that the downtrodden must be lifted up to the social status of the privileged but ostensibly sympathetic activist-observer. In such a model, there’s no reflection on whether or not the observer’s status quo standards hold any appeal for anyone else and no thought that those standards and values might be considered dangerous or even corrosive to those being “helped.”
Not only must the notion of helper be dropped, but so must the subtle “one-up” position that is part of the one-up/one-down dynamic of unequal power relations. The “one-up” position of the helper can be expressed bodily in a moving out of inner awareness, losing contact with one’s physical core or centre, and a hardening of muscles when constantly making judgments of the “other.” The “one-down” position, which is often that of feeling like a victim, is lived in the body—in the shallow breath of someone who is always under siege and has to be vigilant.
I appreciate the description of the white helpers’ “quick move to action” that is so well described in Randelle Nixon and Katie MacDonald’s chapter in this book. They call for white settlers to look at the implications of their own affective relationship to the colonial project and to question the impulse to help. We have noted that sometimes white settlers also respond to decolonizing education with guilt and feeling bad about being white. Guilt is a form of disassociation and an indulgence of the privileged. Rather than a feeling of genuine sorrow, which can precede the desire to act to change things, the person mired in guilt experiences an energetic logjam in the body. In medieval Christian times in Europe, an embodied response of deep pain and sorrow in the recognition of one’s complicity in evil was called compunction. Unless we allow ourselves to feel compunction and the pain of our complicity as ongoing beneficiaries of colonialism, we will either feel powerless or continue to be part of the problem. Compunction can lead to action based in compassion rather than the paralysis of guilt. As James Perkinson, a theologian of whiteness, states, “It is ultimately a matter of learning to live creatively out of one’s own diverse genealogy and experiment with one’s sense of embodiment gracefully—against the dominating structures and conforming powers of white supremacy that have already conscripted one’s body for their service” (quoted in Budden 2009, 5).
Denise. I like how Nlaka’pamux lawyer Ardith Walkem (2007, 28), writing on water rights, quoted a Nlaka’pamux Elder who described the newcomers as famished: “newcomers never could stop eating away at the waters, at the trees, at the fish . . . they never feel full or satisfied.” The colonial mindset supports a body caught up in grasping at the world—what we would call a developmental movement that is not completed—instead of allowing itself to receive, digest, and recognize fullness. I associate this with what I see as a gaping hole in the identity of whiteness. Whiteness constructs the autonomous self around hierarchies of comparison as opposed to a relational interconnected self. As Beenash Jafri (2013, 73) has noted, the desire of racialized subjects to be included in the colonial project, always “limited by processes of perpetual social, political and cultural misrecognition,” complicates this understanding, yet alludes to how the embodied category of desire is central to settler colonialism.
Alannah. Disembodiment is reinforced through the colonial social institutions of religion, education, and the mass media. To embody connections is decolonizing only if the process is ongoing and is part of a political challenge to these structures. It takes commitment and practice, and for me, it is not enough to talk or write about it. So we structure our pedagogy in ways that build awareness, teach movement and resource development, and highlight the conscious intention of constructing relations and creative collective expression in the face of unjust structures. This includes supporting local community initiatives and taking the resource skills to the streets in order to support social movements such as Idle No More, Water Walks, and land reclamations.
Solidarity and Decolonization
Alannah. Our intention with this work is always to point a way toward action and building relationships for justice. Let’s go back to the workshop we did for two United Churches—Ryerson and Knox—in the area of Vancouver that is situated in xʷməθkʷəy̓əm territory. This workshop about truth and reconciliation was an example of working together with local Indigenous Elders. We facilitated the building of relationship between the settlers and local nations through inviting Indigenous knowledge keepers Larry Grant, from xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, and Gerry Oleman, from Stl’atl’imx. These Elders each provided information about and told stories of the land around this neighbourhood and Vancouver that challenge the local “authoritative” narratives about those particular places. This allowed the participants to see the local land and relationships in a different way and to understand how the land has been occupied.
Denise. We then introduced an animal relations activity that challenged the non-Aboriginal participants’ understanding of reconciliation. In this activity, each of the four directions in the room contained an image of an animal common to the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm territory in which we were working—an eagle, a deer, a snake, and a whale. We numbered off participants, placing them in four groups, each group with a different animal. First, we asked participants to share a story from their lives about their relationship with that animal. The Indigenous participants were able to share, in their small groups, cultural teachings about their animal. Then we invited people to embody their animal—to get into its skin in order to sense how it lives in the world. We next invited the animals to come together and explore how they related as a group—the whales to form a pod, the snakes to find their lair, the deer to move together as a family, and the eagles to fly in the same space. Each group performed for the other three, who witnessed in silence and then shared what they had observed and experienced. We asked participants to reflect on what they had learned about their animal and what wisdom it might contribute to the process of reconciliation.
In terms of the larger workshop, what was significant for me about this process was that we were focusing on the building of local relationships between settlers and the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm as a crucial piece in a truth and reconciliation process.
Alannah. Later, we were able to build on the relationships made in this workshop by inviting the participants and others we had worked with to support c̓əsnaʔəm. This is an hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ə term that refers to right relationships; it describes the name of a burial site and the call to support the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm xwmuthkwey’um, Musqueam’s aim to protect a sacred burial ground and heritage site from condo development (Boxberger 2007; Roy 2010).6 Supporting resurgence, for me, includes restoring rightful relationships with local Indigenous peoples—just as the place name indicates. The struggle to recover c̓əsnaʔəm went on for several months and involved both a peace camp near the site and pressure on government. The non-Indigenous people who supported the camp were asked for specific forms of solidarity, such as letters of support, food, or presence at actions and at the camp. Our involvement in supporting this struggle was based on the long-term relationships we had developed with some of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm people.
Denise. This raises the issue for me of how we understand “Indigenous solidarity activism,” a term I have trouble with since it takes the focus off the colonizers. The arena of non-Indigenous peoples supporting Indigenous struggles is a complex one to manoeuvre, whether the non-Indigenous are from European settler stock or are migrants of colour with a similar history of racism and colonialism. I agree with Zainab Amadahy (2010) that we need to move to a relationship framework in order to work together to support the sovereignty of all peoples: “Understanding the world through a Relationship Framework . . . we don’t see ourselves, our communities, or our species as inherently superior to any other, but rather see our roles and responsibilities to each other as inherent to enjoying our life experiences.”
If we operate within an Indigenous framework of relations, we have responsibilities and obligations, such as treaty obligations, that are reciprocal. All of us, not just activists, need to engage with Indigenous legal traditions—that is, the Indigenous laws that are unique to each language group and territorial grouping. These traditions guide governance, family life, and relationship with the land and its creatures, as well as trade and relationships with other nations (Borrows 2010). Indigenous legal traditions were what guided the Indigenous leaders who signed peace and friendship treaties with the French and English. To understand our roles and responsibilities, we need to know the values and laws of the Indigenous lands that we occupy as uninvited visitors.
Alannah. This decolonizing embodied practice maps a way out of colonial thinking by affirming Indigenous lifeways while building a collective focus on what it means to live out, or embody, the spirit of the original treaty relationships. As Aimée Craft (2013, 92) notes: “The inaakonigewin, relationships, are strong indicators of normative expectations and obligations that exist between parties . . . and are based in equality and profound respect for all parts of creation.” She goes on to explain that “the core purpose of treaty was to create relationships—not to cede land” (114). Relationships are understood as reciprocal and are based in kinship responsibilities (Justice 2005). Our approach and processes allow us the tools to explore diverse ways to embody both the spirit of treaty relationship with the peoples of these lands and the nonhuman relationships.
We seek to contribute to resurgence projects by striving to reflect what Indigenous terms and concepts mean in present-day contexts. By placing reciprocal relationships, for example, at the centre of political action to protect land and water, both individual and collective movements ensure the continuity of life and the sustenance of the lands (Young 2012). In retraining our senses to remember how we are related to the rest of creation, we provide an intervention that seeks to decolonize the body’s sense of disconnection and provide an entry point to the principle, within Anishinaabeg legal tradition, of nindinawemaganidog—of interpenetration and interdependence. As James Sinclair (2013, 105) explains,
Nindinawemaganidog is the principle that the universe is a multidimensional web with entities that rely on each other to live.
Nindinawemaganidog is not the vague romantic chant of “we are all related” found in new-age books but is a binding, critical philosophy. It is, for most Anishinaabeg, a law devised through interactions between two Anishinaabeg philosophical principles: enawendiwin, the spiritual and material connections Anishinaabeg share with entities throughout Creation, and waawiyeyaag, a law of circularity that gives shape, meaning, and purpose to the universe.
Decolonizing the body requires a physical, social, and spiritual connection to Indigenous legal principles inherent in nindinaweymaganidog. These are lived out in creative, ongoing, everyday acts of relational resurgence—acts that seek to build new relationships, restore our medicine ways, and create and embody new dances.
Denise. This means engaging in personal and community decolonization. Harsha Walia (2012, 241) speaks to moving “beyond a politics of solidarity towards a practice of decolonization”—and this means being “active and integral participants in a decolonization movement for political liberation, social transformation, renewed cultural kinships, and the development of an economic system that serves rather than threatens our collective life on this planet.” For me, it also means taking responsibility for our role in the many relationships we have in both the human and nonhuman world, living out reciprocity in our daily lives.
Alannah. Our focus on Indigenous land-based and embodied pedagogy aims to reconcile relationships. Relationship with lands is the foundation of this pedagogy, and decolonization means placing Indigenous resurgence at the centre of the endeavour. Resurgence, for me, means restoring Indigenous knowledge perspectives and articulating self-determined expression while maintaining responsibilities for the well-being of the collective. To access knowledge from the Anishinaabeg perspective, we have to engage our entire bodies (Simpson 2011). The core purpose of this pedagogy is to transform our ways of being by using our senses to embody an Indigenous resurgence that reflects living in relationships of good standing with all our relations.
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1 In a review of Eva Marie Garroutte’s Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America (2003), Daniel Heath Justice (2005, 202) states that “radical Indigenism is posited on a reassertion of the central place of kinship, reciprocity, responsibility, and spirituality within the intellectual frameworks of American Indian scholarship.” Our pedagogy focuses on providing embodied tools that link this to land relationships and responsibilities.
2 I acknowledge Orenda Boucher Curotte and Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer for their contributions of Kanien’kehá:ka teachings and history to the course.
3 Longhouse Teachings: Respect, Relationships, Responsibility, and Reverence. N.d. Pamphlet. Vancouver, BC: First Nations House of Learning. http://fnsp.arts.ubc.ca/files/2013/04/LonghouseTeachings2007.pdf.
4 We acknowledge Meri Marshall (Māori), Norma Rose Point (xʷməθkʷəy̓əm [Musqueam]), Lorna Williams (Lil’wat), and Evelyn Voyageur (Kwakwaka’wakw) for sharing with us their teachings about this intimate connection between the land and our bodies.
5 The Tamalpa Life/Art Process is a movement-based expressive arts practice that combines dance, visual art, and creative writing to explore and access the wisdom of the mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual body. “Tamalpa Life/Art Process,” Tamalpa Institute, 2011, http://www.tamalpa.org/about/hlap.html.
6 For information on the site and its history, see “c̓əsnaʔəm,” Musqueam: A Living Culture, 2011, http://www.musqueam.bc.ca/c̓əsnaʔəm.