When Textbooks are Held Within Forest Floors
Of Homelands & Revolution (1/4)

When Textbooks are Held Within Forest Floors

An essay about the personal experience of debwewin, the Anishanaabe way of engaging or not engaging with the world.

Clink. Clank. Whisk. Stones kick up off the dirt road, hitting the wheel wells and bouncing back out. The smell of dust mixed with old leather seats blows through the open windows. It’s a late summer morning as my Grandfather’s old truck pulls to a stop at the side of the road. Grabbing the old green Coleman jug, my Grandfather looks at me. “Let’s go Neekole.” He rarely called me by my first name; I still don’t know why. Trudging further and further into the woods, we’d pick wintergreen to chew. My Grandfather would stop every now and then to point things out to me, like sumac and the type of lichen you can boil for tea. How to find food hidden in and beneath the trees, or how you could tell that a rabbit had recently passed by (spoiler alert: it’s not hard to spot). Some of these things I had heard before, some perhaps not, but I never let him know. We finally reached our destination: a cropping of moss and rock where water bubbled out of the ground from deep places below. I’ll never forget the wonderful taste of the cold, cold water as I drank from my grandfather’s cupped hands. In my mind, I don’t believe I’ve ever tasted anything so pure since, nor do I think I ever will again. But this is what we came for… this fresh and pure spring that gurgled softly in the middle of the woods. This water, nibi, collected and stored in that scuffed Coleman jug, used for good tea and for drinking, until it was time to collect more. 

Debwewin. This is an Anishinaabe word that I’ve seen described in different ways, but the one I like most is the way in which Anishinaabekwe curator and word warrior, Wanda Nanibush, explains it: “heart-truth.” For me, debwewin encompasses the way in which I choose to engage—or not engage—with the world. I try to keep in mind that I can only speak about the world as I experience it. While this is true for many writers and artists, for me, it also centers my accountability back to my own family, including those who have passed on, as well as back to my community. Earlier this year, I attended the Creative Time Summit in Toronto, where I had the opportunity to hear Wanda Nanibush speak about our connection to the land stating, “community, culture, language, all these things arise from our relationship with that land.” [1] Land was a prevalent topic for many of the 2017 Creative Time Summit speakers, as was the topic of food and food sovereignty. So, keeping my own heart-truth in mind, I started to think about my own understanding of the land, and how my connection to it is so closely linked to time spent gathering food with my Anishinaabe grandfather. I began to think about how so many issues surrounding anti-Indigenous protests directly involve our cultural foods and how this continued behaviour—past and present—affects us. Teachings passed on through harvesting have played their part in resisting suppression of culture; Indigenous peoples must continue to push forward against settler Canadians who continually work to oppress Indigenous rights to food.

I try to keep in mind that I can only speak about the world as I experience it.

In “Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back,” Leanne Betasamosake Simpson speaks of Biskaabiiyang (looking back) as a way to work through our own processes of decolonization. As quoted from her book, “Conceptually, [Anishinabek researchers and scholars] are using Biskaabiiyang in the same way Indigenous scholars have been using the term ‘decolonizing’ – to pick up the things we were forced to leave behind, whether they are songs, dances, values or philosophies, and bring them into existence in the future.”[2] There is much being written in Canada about what “decolonizing” means, and for myself, I’ve come to subscribe to the idea that I need to work on decolonizing myself before I can consider anything else. With that in mind, I want to preface by recognizing that some of what is contained within this essay will not and has not been accessible to Indigenous peoples across Canada. I recognize those who have been removed from their communities through the Sixties Scoop, residential schools, and legislation enacted as part of the Indian Act, as well as those who are disproportionately overrepresented in Canada’s correctional systems and those still being unjustly and disproportionately apprehended by Canada’s child welfare systems. I know that there are barriers that are too often unacknowledged for those who live with an intersectional identity, whether that be by skin colour, gender (and non-binary), Two Spirit, LGBT2QQIA, or through a disability. I also recognize that there are many who are financially insecure and/or isolated by other means. In much of the writing surrounding decolonization and Indigenous sovereignty, this lack of acknowledgement to accessibility/inaccessibility presents a problem that I’m unsure how to address. It is my hope that readers of this essay will keep this in mind, as will I, while writing this essay from my own position as a white-coded, Two Spirit Anishinaabe/mixed-race woman.

Everything, from the trees to the sky to the forest floor, became an unwritten textbook.

I’m now 42, and it’s been interesting for me to look back and reflect on the times I spent with my Grandfather and to come to the realization that no matter what we did, everything was a teaching moment. As a kid who eschewed staying clean or indoors, I spent many years traipsing along at my Grandfather’s side. When we were in his shop, I’d learn how to work with tools and wood or watch him weld – all practical things that I’ve come to be thankful for as an artist working in sculpture. When we’d prepare dinner, I’d learn how to fillet fish and while doing so, I was taught how they reproduce and learned of cool secrets, like the “pearls” that exist in the heads of freshwater drum. But I have come to understand that it was when we were out catching fish on the lake or taking long walks to get water or berries, it was in those moments that my Grandfather was passing on his knowledge of the land, which was once passed onto him in the same way. Everything, from the trees to the sky to the forest floor, became an unwritten textbook.

But the ways in which my Grandfather shaped my understanding of the world weren’t always so direct. There were often Nanabozho stories, which were by far my favorite. When I was young, I always thought that my Grandfather was the creator of these oral histories, that he was making them up. It wasn’t until I was older and started seeing these same stories in written form that I realized they weren’t my Grandfather’s fictions, that they possessed a “shelf-life” that outlasted any books or writings. When I’d go fishing with my Grandfather, I’d often ask him to retell the story about how the red lichen came to be on the side of the cliff rocks we’d pass on the lake. While I can’t remember the exact telling of the story today, I recall that it ended with Nanabozho, in human form, having to outrun a fire he created and as he slid down the rock into the water, the skin from his back tore off and remained on the cliff. When I’d visit other lakes with the same rock-side red lichen, I was always curious and wondered how Nanabozho had started so many fires.

Appropriation is a heavily-weighted word from an Indigenous perspective. Appropriated land, appropriated art, appropriated stories, the taking-without-acknowledgement by settlers in this country is continual and crosses many mediums and geographies.

In “Indigenous Knowledge Recovery Is Indigenous Empowerment,” Waziyatawin Angela Wilson writes, “The revaluing of our traditional knowledge has to begin in our own communities and among our own people, not only because we are the major holders of the knowledge and the major impetus for decolonization begins there, but also so that we can prevent that knowledge from being appropriated by the colonial system.”[3]Appropriation is a heavily-weighted word from an Indigenous perspective. Appropriated land, appropriated art, appropriated stories, the taking-without-acknowledgement by settlers in this country is continual and crosses many mediums and geographies. Even Canada’s obsession with its own national identity consistently takes from and relies upon Indigenous visual culture, but it also depends on marketing Indigenous food for its own branding. For example, let’s think about maple syrup and how it’s more closely linked to Canada’s national identity, than to the people who have been harvesting it on these lands for thousands of years.

When Nanabozho, the Anishinaabe Original Man, our teacher, part man, part manido, walked through the world, he took note of who was flourishing and who was not, of who was mindful of the Original Instructions and who was not. He was dismayed when he came upon villages where the gardens were not being tended, where the fishnets were not repaired and the children were not being taught the way to live. Instead of seeing piles of firewood and caches of corn, he found the people lying beneath maple trees with their mouths wide open, catching the thick, sweet syrup of the generous trees. They had become lazy and took for granted the gifts of the Creator. They did not do their ceremonies or care for one another. He knew his responsibility, so he went to the river and dipped up many buckets of water. He poured the water straight into the maple trees to dilute the syrup. Today, maple sap flows like a stream of water with only a trace of sweetness to remind the people both of possibility and of responsibility. And so it is that it takes forty gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup.[4]

An excellent book about Indigenous ecological knowledge and the teachings of plants is Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. In the chapter titled “Maple Sugar Moon,” also known as Zizibaskwet Giizis, she writes about the dependence upon maple trees at the end of long winters, to provide sustenance to the Anishnaabeg in order to see them through the last of the season when game is scarce.[5] This relationship between food and survival also meant that those who depended on this resource, also had to pay attention to the cues that came from the land and from the trees to know when the time to harvest was right. Indigenous understanding of time is cyclical and based on seasons. As such, learning from the cues that came from the land and passing this knowledge down from generation to generation, was a vital necessity. Though the tools and technology became updated, the maple sugar harvest remains an important part of Anishinaabe cultural continuance. Some of my favorite memories were of springtimes spent outside with my family, boiling down sap. Even now, when I’m home on the reserve at the right time of year, it’s wonderful to walk outside and take in the smoky scent of maple syrup being made by my neighbours.

Maintaining cultural connections to land, kinship, and oral histories through food is perhaps one of the strongest anti-colonial strategies employed by Indigenous people from generation to generation—even if done unwittingly. But it’s also important to note that my own understanding of food sovereignty goes beyond just thinking about the ways in which food have positively impacted my community. It also takes into account the history of how food was weaponized against it. The factual evidence and subsequent long-term effects stemming from the lack of nutrition in residential schools have been well-documented by food historian Ian Mosby and are a must-read. I also was once given a written collection of survivor accounts taken from those in my community and in almost all, food was either used as a reward or as a punishment. I mention this to preface the ways in which food is still being weaponized against Indigenous communities and cultures.

Maintaining cultural connections to land, kinship, and oral histories through food is perhaps one of the strongest anti-colonial strategies employed by Indigenous people from generation to generation—even if done unwittingly.

“Some of my earliest memories are of seal hunting as a family,” these words were spoken by Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril in her 2016 documentary, Angry Inuk, which documents the drive to defend the seal hunt, an important source of sustenance and income for Inuit.[6] Though the film focused on the fur industry and the harms that organizations such as PETA have inflicted, it also outlined the cultural significance to Inuit food sources. This issue once again became a point of discussion when a Toronto-based Indigenous chef put seal meat on his restaurant’s menu.[7]Shortly after a restaurant review was published, a non-indigenous activist took note of it and launched a petition that triggered a network of animal rights activists from around the world who actively began targeting the restaurant’s Facebook page and online restaurant reviews with 1-star ratings and angry comments. This issue garnered media attention world-wide and saw Indigenous and Inuit alike targeted on social media platforms by people who claimed that Inuit should no longer be sustaining themselves on a food source that these activists deemed “unacceptable.” Central to this conversation was the notion that Inuit and Indigenous people should forgo their way of life and practices and come into the “present,” where “harvesting” from grocery stores is the preferred way to live. Overlooked and ignored by these people was their own complicity in the seemingly never-ending colonial violence and racism directed upon the First Peoples of these lands.

Megan Kyak-Monteith, Whale Hunt, Oil on canvas (6ft X 3ft) https://mkyakmonteith.wordpress.com/

Near St. Catherine’s, Ontario, an annual Haudenosaunee hunt at Short Hills Provincial Park works with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) to help control and cull the deer population which “can damage property and protected areas.”[8] Beyond this partnership, the ongoing right to hunt and fish the area is also covered in an agreed upon Treaty that saw control of the Great Lakes area handed to the British in 1701.[9] This, however, doesn’t deter animal rights activists and protestors from showing up to the entrance of the park with signs in protest. They are also fueled in part by an online Facebook group called the “Shorthills Wildlife Alliance” who provide daily updates of the month-long hunt on their page, often referring to the Haudenosaunee hunters as “killers.” The other side of this important hunt, however, speaks to the ways in which this food culture is being kept alive and passed along from generation to generation. A Toronto Star article covering the 2017 hunt spoke of Art Powless and his 9-year-old son, “Like his own father did, Powless is keeping Indigenous traditions alive for his son.”[10] While another hunter named Landon Curly was quoted as saying “There’s a lot more to it than just a fact that you’re hunting, […] We give thanks and burn tobacco before we go out.”[11] Another Star article notes that “some of the meat is used during mid-winter longhouse ceremonies.”[12]

Three hours north of Short Hills Provincial Park lies Pigeon Lake whose watery ecosystems have sustained both Anishinaabeg and manoomin (wild rice) for thousands of years. However, a group named “Save Pigeon Lake,” consisting of cottagers and waterfront dwellers, has been protesting the fact that the Indigenous harvest of this food source has proliferated.[13] The residents say that the manoomin, grown in the water, creates navigational problems for recreational boating and hamper their access to the waterfront.[14] Anishinaabe artist and educator Susan Blight from Couchiching First Nation is quoted in the Globe and Mail stating, “We have a very special relationship with manoomin […] It’s a central part of our philosophy, our governance, our livelihood. … We have a spiritual relationship with it.”[15] This issue was even tackled within Hayden King (Beausoleil First Nation) and Susan Blight’s collaborative “Ogimaa Mikana” project which works through sign and billboard interventions to recognize and acknowledge Indigenous land, culture, and peoples. Their billboard installation titled Anishinaabe manoomin inaakonigewin gosha translates to “wild rice is Anishinaabe law” and was installed in Peterborough, just outside of Pigeon Lake in August 2016.[16]

Ogimaa Mikana, Anishinaabe manoomin inaakonigewin gosha, Billboard in Peterborough, ON. http://ogimaamikana.tumblr.com/

Along the coastlines of Canada, Alanis Obomsawin’s 2002 documentary Is the Crown at War With Us? highlights Mi’kmaq fishing rights and their fight for access to the east coast fishery—not only as a food source, but also as a source of economic viability for themselves and their families. Centralized in Burnt Church, New Brunswick, the film documents issues surrounding the harvesting of lobster, a species long gathered by Mi’kmaq people without interference until it was no longer considered “poor man’s food.”[17] Not only were the Mi’kmaq people fighting the Canadian government for their right to catch, they were also being violently targeted and confronted on water and land by non-indigenous fishermen who felt the Mi’kmaq would deplete the lobster stocks. This idea of conservationism is a common trope often applied to Indigenous hunting and fishing rights, in spite of the fact that our people have always maintained that our responsibility to the land and animals is of utmost importance.

My own community of Nipissing First Nation (NFN), lies along the shores of Lake Nipissing, an 873 square kilometre lake in Northern Ontario that, over the years, has supported many industries including a commercial sturgeon fishery (caviar) that almost decimated the Lake Sturgeon population. In October 2017, NFN’s Chief Scott McLeod, delivered a keynote address at Nipissing University’s “Challenging Canada 150” Symposium. In this keynote titled “The Impact of Settler Colonialism on Lake Nipissing” he spoke about the use of “Pound Nets,” large lead nets which funnelled the fish into box-like traps. He also mentioned that there were so many sturgeon left over from the commercial fishery, that their carcasses were burned at mills in place of wood.[18] Though these commercial fisheries were eventually shut down due to overexploitation, the sturgeon numbers have not yet returned to the levels they once were.[19]

Aylan Couchie, now is the time to see the truth, Wood, lights, corrugated plastic, fishing net Installation – Ice Follies 2018, Lake Nipissing, ON. http://icefollies.ca

For decades, our community was not permitted to fish the waters that had sustained our people for thousands of years. After finally re-establishing our rights under the Robinson Huron Treaty of 1850, our fishermen returned to the lake to encounter an active industry of recreational fishermen and subsequent commercial businesses and marinas that relied on this income-generating sport.[20] As time went on, the lake saw a decline in the walleye (pickerel) population, and though the reasons behind the decline and subsequent efforts to rehabilitate the fishery are complex, the general blame coming from settlers in the area has been placed upon Anishinaabeg fishing practices, namely gill netting and spearing. This, in spite of the fact that Chief and Council have been working with MNRF and have imposed moratoriums and changes to gill net size which has also caused other complex issues within the community. Tensions between the NFN community and the local area non-indigenous residents are seen online regularly, when comments sections under almost every article pertaining to the lake inevitably turn into an attack on First Nations people and on the need to, once again, remove Treaty rights.

But none of this is new. Sportsmen and conservationists have been fighting to prohibit Indigenous access to food for decades. Even in the late 1800s to early 1900s, sportsmen and conservationists were lobbying against Indigenous hunting methods in the same way they do now. In “Let the Line Be Drawn Now: Wilderness, Conservation, and the Exclusion of Aboriginal People from Banff National Park in Canada,” authors T. Binnema and M. Niemi note that,

Aboriginal hunting methods were also an affront to sportsmen. Sportsmen developed and adhered to a system of rules intended to guard hunting’s respectability. This meant that animals had to be killed “fairly.” Fish were to be hooked, not speared, netted or lured to torchlight; wildfowl were to be shot on the wing; and game was to be stalked, so that it had a reasonable chance of evading and escaping the hunter.[21]

In the case of the hunt at Short Hills, the Haudenosaunee method of bow-hunting comes under fire and is cited as animal cruelty by the protestors,[22]and even in Pigeon Lake, residents take issue with the fact that the wild rice is not harvested using canoes and paddles.[23] Beyond the opposition to the methods in which food was harvested, Binnema and Niemi also state that “Sport hunters began to argue that no one, not even aboriginal people, had the right to hunt for subsistence […] and that ‘an Indian has no more right to kill wild game, or to subsist upon it all the year round, than any white man in the same locality. The Indian has no inherent or God-given ownership of the game of North America, any more than of its mineral resources; and he should be governed by the same game laws as white men.’”[24]

“We Are All Treaty People” is a slogan that I see written on banners, hash-tagged, and almost too-casually thrown about when it comes to thinking through Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples. Though I understand that this is conceptually true, that some of Canada’s lands were acquired through Treaty, I don’t believe it to be wholly and fundamentally true. After all, the only people who seem to have to fall back on Treaty to support their rights are Indigenous peoples and even within that, the ways in which the Canadian government have controlled and legislated Indigenous identity means that not everyone has access to the Treaty rights that were once guaranteed to them. At the 2017 CreativeTime Summit, Idle No More co-founder and lawyer, Sylvia McAdam spoke about her own family’s hunting lands, lands that have been devastated through clear-cutting, a glaring violation of Treaty 6 where “hunting lands are supposed to be protected.”[25] Sylvia states that “treaties are unfinished business,”[26] and challenges Canadians to look to the treaties to understand the violations which have and continue to occur.

There are many sections of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) that can be applied to our rights to continue practices that maintain our connection to the land and cultural continuance through food harvesting; yet we are still waiting for Canada’s government to implement it. I’m reminded of Anishinaabe Elder Garry Sault’s Three Sisters teaching, and specifically his use of Indian Corn as a metaphor for Canada. On each cob there are kernels, all speckled in different colors, but growing together. In his words, “we have to take a lesson from that Indian Corn, because it grows together just as humanity must grow together.”[27] We are all waiting for this teaching to be heeded by Canada and its people.

A recent project titled “2167: Indigenous Storytelling in VR” presented four short films created and shown using Virtual Reality (VR) equipment, fully immersing the viewer in the potential new worlds shown.[28] Scott Beneshiinaabandan’s Blueberry Pie Under the Martian Sky beautifully takes the viewer through a boy’s journey back to his people’s place of origin. Along the way the boy (who is actually you, the viewer) receives instructions and teachings, in both English and Anishinaabemowin, about water and medicines. The Hunt, created by Danis Goulet, imagines a future, post-apocalypse narrative where Mohawk people are still living off the land. The film opens with a Mohawk man, teaching his son how to hunt geese when they are interrupted by an automated orb that challenges his right to hunt.

Past, present, future, these strong colonial attempts to suppress food culture are sure to continue; but our communities have always shown ingenuity and have been inventive in the ways that we take advantage of new technologies to ensure our stories and connection to land are not lost. Our communities, both online and on the ground, strengthen each other with guidance and encouragement in the face of adversity and through everyday kinship. It’s in these supportive ways that we will be able to continue to pass on our knowledge to future generations just as they have survived long enough to be passed on to us.

[1] Wanda Nanibush, Land (Toronto: CreativeTime Summit, 2017), video, October 18, 2017.

[2] Leanne Simpson, Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2011), 49-50.

[3] Waziyatawin Angela Wilson, “Indigenous Knowledge Recovery Is Indigenous Empowerment,” American Indian Quarterly 28, no. 3/4 (2004): 362.

[4] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013), 63.

[5] Ibid, 68.

[6] Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, Angry Inuk (National Film Board of Canada, 2016), film.

[7] Aylan Couchie and Ian Mosby, “Anti-seal hunt rhetoric ignores facts and suppresses Indigenous Culture,” Globe and Mail, October 12, 2017.

[8] Julien Gignac, “Local animal rights advocates protest Indigenous hunt near St. Catherines,” Toronto Star, November 14, 2017.

[9] Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, “A History of Treaty Making in Canada,” April 2010.

[10] Gignac, “Local animal rights advocates.”

[11] Ibid.

[12] Julien Gignac, “Animal rights groups oppose Indigenous deer hunt,” Toronto Star, November 3, 2017.

[13] Save Pigeon Lake, “Wild Rice Concerns on Pigeon Lake,” accessed December 10, 2017.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Oliver Sachgau, “Rice farming in Ontario lake sparks fight over treaty and property rights,” Globe and Mail, last modified March 25, 2017.

[16] Ogimaa Mikana, “Ogimaa Mikana: Reclaiming/Renaming,” accessed December 10, 2017.

[17] Alanis Obomsawin, Is the Crown at war with us? (National Film Board of Canada, 2002), film.

[18] Scott McLeod, “The Impact of Settler Colonialism on Lake Nipissing” (keynote, Challenging Canada 150: Settler Colonialism and Critical Environmental Sciences Symposium, Nipissing University, North Bay, ON, October 10, 2017).

[19] Ministry of Natural Resources, “Lake Sturgeon: Ontario Recovery Strategy Series,” 2011.

[20] McLeod, “The Impact of Settler.”

[21] Theodore Binnema and Melanie Niemi, “‘Let the Line be Drawn Now’: Wilderness, Conservation, and the Exclusion of Aboriginal People from Banff National Park in Canada,” Environmental History 11, no. 4 (2006): 730-1.

[22] Gignac, “Animal rights groups oppose.”

[23] Save Pigeon Lake, “Wild Rice Concerns on.”

[24] Binnema and Niemi, “Let the Line be,” 731.

[25] Sylvia McAdam, Liberty (Toronto: CreativeTime Summit, 2017), video, October 18, 2017.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Garry Sault, Land Acknowledgements (Toronto: CreativeTime Summit, 2017), video, October 18, 2017.

[28] imagineNATIVE, “2167 Indigenous Storytelling in VR,” accessed December 10, 2017.

Filed Under: Articles & Essays


Aylan Couchie is an interdisciplinary Anishinaabe artist and writer from Nipissing First Nation in Northern Ontario. She is a NSCAD University alumna and received her MFA in Interdisciplinary Art, Media and Design at OCAD University where she focused her studies on Indigenous monument and public art.

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