Jacob Wren on Leanne Simpson: Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back & Islands of Decolonial Love

DOTB-ecoverDancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence, Leanne Simpson (ARP Books, 2011)





Islands of Decolonial Love: Stories and Songs, Leanne Simpson (ARP Books, 2013)





There is a short sentence I keep coming back to, only seven words:

how to live as if it mattered

In a way that’s what I’ve always been looking for in art and literature, while at the same time often suspecting that I’m looking in the wrong place. This sentence is from the book Islands of Decolonial Love (2013) by Leanne Simpson, a book that in many ways has already changed my life. These seven words come near the end of the story “lost in a world where he was always the only one, and a short paragraph later they continue:

remember: to feel joy, you first have to escape (59).

I’ve decided not to describe what happens in these stories and poems. Find the book and read it. It is a book that continually surprised me and I don’t want to ruin a single surprise for anyone. It is certainly not a perfect book, it is much better than that. But if I’m not going to tell what happens then what am I going to do. I don’t know yet. I’m still figuring it out. We’ll have to figure it out together.

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Around the time I was reading Leanne Simpson I was also reading a completely different kind of work, the popular science book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2015) by Elizabeth Kolbert. The sixth extinction is of course the manmade extinction currently underway: frogs are dying, bats are dying, bees are dying, etc.. About all this I’m not sure how much to explain and how much I might take for common knowledge. Everyone knows that when it comes to the planet, things aren’t going well. Is it really so important to know all the ugly details? What difference does it actually make? With more details or less, the course of action is the same: we must use less, re-use as much as possible, stop burning coal and oil. But these changes need to happen on a massive scale seemingly impossible within the current constricts of capitalism, an economic religion that apparently believes in the pure magic of infinite growth on a finite planet, if it can be said to believe in anything at all.

Reading The Sixth Extinction I was especially struck by a passage concerning the extinction of megafauna, a category of very large animals that covered huge swathes of the planet about one hundred thousand years ago, and whether the arrival of humans was the main cause of their demise. How could small bands of technologically primitive people have wiped out so many large, strong, and in some cases fierce animals over areas the size of Australia or North America?

When [American paleobiologist] John Alroy ran the simulations for North America, he found that even a very small initial population of humans – a hundred or so individuals – could, over the course of a millennium or two, multiply sufficiently to account for pretty much all of the [megafauna] extinctions in the record. This was the case even when the people were assumed to be only fair-to-middling hunters. All they had to do was pick off a mammoth or a giant ground sloth every so often, when the opportunity arose, and keep this up for several centuries. This would have been enough to drive the populations of slow-reproducing species first into decline and then, eventually, all the way down to zero. When Chris Johnson ran similar simulations for Australia, he came up with similar results: if every band of ten hunters killed off just one diprotodon a year, within about seven hundred years, every diprotodon within several hundred miles would have been gone. (Since different parts of Australia were probably hunted out at different times, Johnson estimates that continent-wide the extinction took a few thousand years.) From an earth history perspective, several hundred years or even several thousand is practically no time at all. From a human perspective, though, it’s an immensity. For the people involved in it, the decline of the megafauna would have been so slow as to be imperceptible. They would have had no way of knowing that centuries earlier, mammoths and diprotodons had been much more common. Alroy has described the megafauna extinction as a “geologically instantaneous ecological catastrophe too gradual to be perceived by the people who unleashed it.” It demonstrates, he has written, that humans “are capable of driving virtually any large mammal species extinct, even though they are also capable of going to great lengths to guarantee that they do not. (234)

When I read this I immediately thought back to a passage I had recently read in Leanne Simpson’s Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence (2011):

Over a decade ago I was teaching a class with Nishabeg Elder Robin Green-ba and a scientist at the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources in Winnipeg. Our class was discussing what is meant by the term “sustainable development.” The scientist was explaining that it means meeting the needs (and wants) of humans without compromising the needs (and wants) of future generations. In other words, developing only to the point where that development starts to impinge on future generations. I asked Robin if there was a similar concept in Nishnaabeg thought. He thought for a moment and then answered, “No there isn’t.” He told the class that sustainable development thinking is backwards, that we should be doing the opposite. He explained that what makes sense from a Nishnaabeg perspective is that humans should be taking as little as possible, giving up as much as possible to promote sustainability and promote mino bimaadiziwim [good life] in the coming generations. He felt that we should be as gentle as possible with our Mother, and that we should be taking the bare minimum to ensure our survival. He talked about how we need to manage ourselves so that life can promote more life. (141)

Placing these two unrelated quotes side by side, I feel a premonition of how the Nishnaabeg worldview might have come into being, might have evolved over time. (Mississauga Nishnaabeg is an indigenous territory in and around what is now called Peterborough, Ontario.) If it is possible for early humans to eliminate entire species without noticing they are doing so, of course we need to be as careful as possible. Our actions have consequences far beyond anything we might be aware of at the time. And with all the scientific research currently being done, showing us just what we are doing, it is also clear that even awareness is not enough. We need a completely different way of looking at the world.

Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back clearly shows that different ways of looking at the world are possible, of course they existed right here in Canada before first contact, before settlers arrived (I was about to write before “we” arrived but then thought that assumes way too much about who may or may not be reading this.) Time and time again, while I was reading, I had this feeling: yes, this is how people should live:

For Nishnaabeg people, our political and social cultures were profoundly non-hierarchical, non-authoritarian and non-coercive. Our culture places a profound importance on individuals figuring out their own path, or their own theoretical understanding of their life and their life’s work based on individual interpretation of our philosophies, teachings, stories and values. (53)

Or this passage on justice:

Nishnaabeg legal systems are, at their core, restorative. Restorative processes rely upon the abuser taking full responsibility for his/her actions in a collective setting, amongst the person s/he violated, and amongst the people both the perpetrator and the survivor hold responsibilities to – be that their extended family, clan, or community. In the case of the state-perpetuated residential schools, the table would be turned in a Nishnaabeg legal system. The survivors would have agency, decision-making power, and the power to decide restorative measures. In the case of the Community Holistic Circles of Healing in Hollow Water First Nation, the abuser must take responsibility for his or her actions and is required to sit in a circle of community Elders, the extended family of the survivor, and his or her extended family (who are there to support him or her through the process. Everyone participating in the circle has a chance to speak or to share their thoughts, feelings and perspectives. The survivor has the choice to share whatever he or she feels most appropriate.) Imagine government officials, church officials, nuns, priests and teachers from a particular residential school in a circle with the people that had survived their sexual, physical, emotional and spiritual abuse. This is a fundamentally different power relationship between perpetrators of violence and survivors of that violence, where the abusers must face the full impact of their actions. Reconciliation then becomes a process embodied by both the survivor and the perpetrator. And part of that restoration means that the community maintains the authority to make that individual accountable for future wrongs. […]

Restorative models work in Nishnaabeg communities because ethically taking responsibility for ones actions is paramount in the healing or restoration process; as well, the purpose of these models in the long term is the rehabilitation and restoration of all those individuals back into mino bimaadiziwim. These models put the hens in charge of the hen house and the fox under interrogation. If it is truly time to talk “reconciliation,” then how we reconcile is critically important. I can see no evidence whatsoever that there exists a political will on the part of the state to do anything other than neutralize Indigenous resistance, so as to not impinge upon the convenience of the settler-Canadians. The only way to not be co-opted is to use our own legal and political processes to bring about justice. (23)

The end of this passage suggests a problem with the way I’ve been speaking about Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back so far. Because while I definitely feel that all legal systems should “put the hens in charge of the hen house and the fox under interrogation,” that all societies “should be as gentle as possible” with mother nature, this book does not have those particular aims. As the subtitle suggests, it is a book about Nishnaabeg re-creation, resurgence and new emergence. It’s about how the Nishnaabeg, and by extension all indigenous peoples, should be given their lands back in order to renew their connection to their traditions and their language, to bring back and reinvent what is clearly a valuable and political model for human interrelation.

I’m not sure it’s appropriate for me to read this work through my own settler lens, through a hope that these ideas might exist and develop outside of an indigenous framework. As well, it is relatively easy for me to imagine a “collective setting… amongst the people both the perpetrator and the survivor hold responsibilities to” in a community of a few hundred people. It is much more difficult for me to understand how this idea of justice might function in a city of millions, or on a global scale, which certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. In fact, it might be our only hope.

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Islands of Decolonial Love hit me much harder than Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back. Reading the two books together was like a lesson in the power of fiction to embody and evoke things that theory can only state. In an interview with Tanaya Winder, Leanne Simpson describes it like this:

In some ways, I think my creative work is more political than my non-fiction, academic and activist work because in art, you don’t, you can’t really ask  permission. You do. You make. You create. Your responsibility is to smash boxes, not play nicely within their confines. And if you’re not connecting to  your audience in a way that is transformative, I’m not sure I understand the point.

While Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back convinced me of the wisdom and efficacy of traditional Nishnaabeg values and ways of being alive (and then more alive), Islands of Decolonial Love drops us directly into the trauma and paradox of living now, so far away from a pre-colonial time in which these values were in full effect, always struggling to live fully and honestly when the odds are stacked so violently against it.

The title comes from a Boston Globe interview with Junot Diaz in which he speaks of a kind of love that his characters long for, “the only kind of love that could liberate them from that horrible legacy of colonial violence.” This longing for decolonial love dances through these stories, fragments seen from ever-shifting perspectives, told with a swiftness that continuously left me off balance and opened. In the first paragraph of the story “buffalo on Leanne Simpson puts it like this:

right off the bat, let’s just admit we’re both from places that have been fucked up through no fault of our own in a thousand different ways for seven different generations and that takes a toll on how we treat each other. it just does. (85)

There are of course many tales of trauma in literature today, but rarely have I read stories that mix trauma with healing in a manner that is so ambiguously straightforward and satisfying. We move from curling fatalities to the fact that gannets can detach their wings, from hippy-artist-potheads to Profs from the Native Studies Department, from stealing a loved ones body from its coffin to Yeti’s finding each other in unlikely circumstances, from understandable suicide attempts to therapists who don’t get it. But I previously said I didn’t want to tell you what happens in these stories and hopefully I still haven’t. Or have left only a few, possibly false but still enticing, clues.

When I saw Leanne Simpson’s presentation at Concordia University she spoke of the importance of “creating communities of co-resistance,” a phrase I thought about many times as I was writing this. Reading Leanne Simpson makes me want to keep going, to learn more. I ask myself: how can I more effectively be a part of such communities of co-resistance and often don’t get much further than the question. But then my mind drifts back to the ongoing love of literature that has devoured so much of my life so far and I feel that is where I should end, at least for today. With something I am more than certain of: as a work of literature Islands of Decolonial Love speaks to the now, and to the past, in a manner that is both exquisite and heartbreaking. And then one last quote, this one from the story “she told him 10 000 years of everything: “what happened next is the kind of rare that happens only when certainty melts fear into nothingness” (75). A kind of rare I so often experienced reading this book.

Works Cited

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert (Picador, 2015)


Jacob Wren Authors PhotoJacob Wren makes literature, performances and exhibitions. His books include: Families Are Formed Through Copulation (2007), Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed (2010) and Polyamorous Love Song (2014), a finalist for the 2013 Fence Modern Prize in Prose and one of The Globe and Mail’s 100 best books of 2014. As co-artistic director of Montreal-based interdisciplinary group PME-ART he has co-created the performances: En français comme en anglais, it’s easy to criticize, Individualism Was A Mistake, The DJ Who Gave Too Much Information and Every Song I’ve Ever Written. He travels internationally with alarming frequency and frequently writes about contemporary art.