May 2021 be the year land is once again refuge for Indigenous people

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson: During the pandemic, Indigenous people reconnected to their land, embracing bush life and learning to live in community with each other in times of trouble
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
Dechinta students on the land during the Fall 2020 Semester on MacKenzie Island, outside of Yellowknife, Chief Drygeese Territory, NWT (Courtesy of Morgan Tsetta)
Dechinta students on the land during the Fall 2020 Semester on MacKenzie Island, outside of Yellowknife, Chief Drygeese Territory, NWT (Courtesy of Morgan Tsetta)

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson is a Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer, scholar and musician and is a member of Alderville First Nation.

At the beginning of the pandemic, and at a time when Canadian government officials were locking down daily life and telling Canadians to stay home, Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya echoed the words of his Elders and told his people, “go to the land.” Many did. Those that had the means went to cabins and canvas tents in the bush where good ventilation and physical distancing was normal. They went to places where fish, game, plant medicines and clean water were readily available. They set up camps where the basic necessities of life required the physical and emotional labour of everyone in camp.

They went to places where there were no screens. Where there was no continual streaming of Netflix, dinner delivered by Uber Eats, and endless scrolling for meaning. They went to the land, where time was punctuated by the rising and the setting of the sun.

I teach at the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning, an Indigenous-led, land-based education program in the North. We responded to the pandemic and the advice of the Elders we work with by providing bush kits to Dene youth. The kits were full of gear like flint and steel, fishing poles and thermoses. They were distributed in Yellowknives Dene First Nation and the Dena community of Ross River in the Yukon to give youth the tools and inspiration they would need to learn the ethics and practices of their Elders and ancestors, so they too might be able to tell their grandchildren to “go to the land” in times of trouble.

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In September, following several conversations with our partners regarding COVID-19 protocols for land-based education, we were able to take a small group of primarily Dene students and their children onto an island in Tı̨ndeè (Great Slave Lake) in Yellowknives Dene territory, to learn Dene land-based practices from a group of Elders alongside regular university studies. Our community learned how to tan moose and muskox hides and make dry fish and dry meat. We learned about the importance of Dene music from Leela Gilday, we learned to speak some words and phrases in Wıı̀lıı̀deh Yatıı̀ from Maro Sundberg, and we heard Dene stories and history from Fred Sangris.

Most importantly, we learned how to live in community with each other.

This is not easy—bush life is a tremendous amount of work. We were isolated from many of the ways we cope with life in the city. Sharing an intimate, embodied and communal experience with the same group of people over several weeks required tremendous patience and the navigation of tricky group dynamics. The land has a way of pulling out and revealing one’s insecurities and hurts, and if you stick with it, it also has a way of sewing these holes up.

I feel profoundly grateful to be able to do this work. This kind of learning is rare and always a gift, but during the pandemic—a time where embodied communal experience has largely been replaced with disembodied virtual experiences—it was even more special. It created memories. It created memories in a year for which I have very few. I don’t remember most virtual events I’ve attended or participated in, other than an ache in my mid-back and a tightness around my eyes. I don’t remember with whom I connected or what I learned. I don’t remember where these events took place, other than on my laptop.

I do remember every time I did something on the land.

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It is much more difficult for Indigenous peoples in the southern parts of Canada to return to the land as refuge and in times of trouble. In order to have a relationship to our territory we have to navigate ignored treaty rights, highways, provincial parks, farms, cottages and cottagers, cities, subdivisions and now parking lots and trails full of pandemic hikers. For many of us, going to the land is more than just difficult to organize—it is met with white violence. We don’t have to look very far to find evidence of this even in the past few months: the experience of Haudenosaunee Land Defenders at 1492 Land Back Lane in Ontario, the lobster fishers of Sipekne’katik First Nation, the multiple Indigenous mobilizations to stop pipelines in the West, and the tensions around wild rice harvesting in my own territory, in the lakes north of Peterborough, Ont.

Back in the summer, when the second wave of the pandemic was still theoretical, Dionne Brand wrote an incisive article in the Toronto Star, entitled “On narrative, reckoning and the calculus of living and dying.” She wrote, “I have been living a pandemic all my life; it is structural rather than viral; it is the global state of emergency of anti-Blackness.” She unravelled the pernicious narrative of “getting back to normal” and exposed the calculations of who gets to live and whose life is expendable, calculations Indigenous land protectors and those organizing for Black life so thoroughly refuse to make. We know that under the structure of colonialism and anti-Blackness, whether the crisis is COVID-19, police violence or climate change, the calculus does not work out in our favour.

And so, may the year of 2021 be a year where we refuse the exploitive and extractivist relationship to land we have inherited from colonialism. A year where we commit to building new worlds with no use for policing; worlds where, as the abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, “life is precious”; worlds where all life is precious. A year where the system of anti-Blackness comes undone and struggles for Black freedom flourish. A year where land is once again refuge for Indigenous peoples and “land back” isn’t a hashtag or a reconciliation, but a reckoning.

This column appears in print in the January 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “To reckon and not reconcile.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.