Although I'm not a prolific blogger, I've enjoyed my occasional forays into the blogosphere. Below are some of the blogs I've written; when possible (and when the source site is still functional), I've included a link to the original. The first is a response to James Cameron's Avatar (and which has since been significantly expanded as an afterword essay in the essay collection Avatar and Nature Spirituality, edited by Bron Taylor and released in 2013 Wilfrid Laurier University Press). The blog is down, but I'm seeking out the original to upload below. The second blog post was written for the blog of a former student, Christine Smith (McFarlane), on the topic "why Indigenous literatures matter"; this is the foundation of a short book project of the same name that I'm currently writing. "Carrying the Fire" was written for NationsRising.org (a site dedicated to "Indigenous nationhood, resurgence, and decolonization"), and is focused on the challenges and rewards of teaching Indigenous Studies in a time of great transformative potential and increasing backlash. (The site is currently down but an archived version of the post is available below.) Most recently I included a short commentary on why, as an Indigenous person and now a Canadian citizen, I choose to vote in Canada's electoral system.
I've also started my own infrequently updated badger blog, The Badger Files, that continues my work on badger life, lore, and literature.
WHY INDIGENOUS LITERATURES MATTER (originally posted on Christine's Blog, 31 March 2012)
Christine's request for some comments on the significance of Indigenous literature came at a good time, as I've been reflecting a lot lately on just that topic. I'm off to a new job at the University of British Columbia this summer, and have been giving a great deal of thought to some of the things I've learned in my ten years at the University of Toronto. My students have taught me at least as much as I've taught them, if not more, and it's their wisdom more than anything I might have brought to the classroom that has helped me understand some of the most significant reasons why Indigenous literatures matter. So, to all the students I've had the honour of working with in ENG 254 (Indigenous Literatures of North America) and ABS 300 (Indigenous Worldview, Knowledge, and Oral Tradition) over the past decade, I want to offer my most sincere thanks, as these ideas have come in part from the conversations we've had and the insights and understandings you've shared with me and each other in that time.
Below I've listed seven broad qualities that now represent to me the significance of Indigenous literary expression. These thoughts are always evolving, but I'm hopeful that they provide a good foundation for guiding our reflection on this topic.
There's a lot of good work by ethical and thoughtful individuals in the archive of writing about Indigenous peoples, but there's also a great deal of bad work by non-Indigenous writers with a vested interest in either Indigenous deficiency or diminishment, often with the assumption (or outright assertion) that all Indigenous peoples are the same in some set of essential values, perspectives, or characteristics. Indigenous writing--by Indigenous peoples, with self-determined concerns, ideas, and priorities at the centre--offers an important corrective to these reductive ideas. There's as much diversity and disagreement in Indigenous communities as in any other group; there's never one single voice or perspective that speaks for all, no single way of being that captures the complexity of experience. So, as with any body of writing, there's always going to be a range of perspectives and personalities in Indigenous texts, too, and that's very much as it should be. The diversity represented in the literature is vitally important to understanding the diversity of experience and perspective in communities, historically as well as today, and it offers a vital challenge to the rampant stereotype of the generic, monolithic (and often monosyllabic) Hollywood Indian in beads and feathers.
Beauty is as much a purpose of Indigenous writing as anything else; beauty is multidimensional, as much about language and structure as content, theme, or form. With the dominant narratives about Indigenous peoples in popular and political discourse being largely stories about Indigenous deficit and dysfunction, we can't underestimate the importance of other stories, the ones that show the full, rich depths of Indigenous humanity and creative spirit, and which offer both Indigenous and non-Indigenous readers, viewers, and listeners the possibility of encountering and perhaps being changed by the diverse aesthetic practices and traditions at work in these texts. And for many of these writers, these invocations of beauty are not simply "art for Art's sake," meant primarily to express the writer's own aesthetic vision, but rather what Cherokee-Appalachian poet Marilou Awiakta has called "art for Life's sake" (qtd. in Rain Crowe 43), intended in some way to explore, to expand, and to sometimes even thoughtfully challenge the experiences and understandings of community. Beauty, then, is something to be experienced and perhaps be changed by, not something simply to observe.
This is an overused and sometimes hackneyed term, but it nevertheless seems entirely appropriate here. At its best, literature can reflect back an image of ourselves that affirms our humanity and dignity, even when it might also articulate the challenges and painful woundings that impact our lives. To see ourselves as complex and richly textured people--individually and collectively--is to see ourselves beyond the narrow and pathologizing limits of the settler imaginary, where Indigenousness is generally a "problem" to be ignored, dealt with, or fixed, until commodifying modernity triumphs and Indigenous peoples vanish. Our family stories speak to our complexity and continuing presence, as do our community stories; literature can be an extension of those relational understandings. While the written word in European languages has certainly been used against Indigenous peoples by colonial powers and settler populations, so too has writing been used by Indigenous peoples to not only their rights and sovereignties, but also to affirm their presence, their strength, and their storied significance, to one another as well as to their neighbours. It's never easy, and it's sometimes messy and complicated, but that doesn't mean that it's not important. And sometimes just seeing our words on the shelf can fill a person with sudden and unexpected pride, as it did for me as a grad student when I first perused my various mentors' bookshelves, and as still happens when students come into my office and start exploring the books there. For many of us, just the mere knowledge of our textual archive is an awakening, and for some it starts or rekindles a love of literature as part of a larger process of personal empowerment and community engagement.
In her 2009 book, Taking Back our Spirits: Indigenous Literature, Public Policy, and Healing, Métis scholar and educator Jo-Ann Episkenew has made an important argument about the capacity for Indigenous literature to not only help Indigenous individuals and communities to heal from the generational assaults of colonialism, but also for its potential in creating empathy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Just as "Indigenous people have learned that the creative process has restorative powers" (68), that same creative process, in Indigenous hands and towards Indigenous purposes, "enables settler readers to relate to Indigenous peoples on an emotional level thereby generating empathy. By reading Indigenous literature, settlers come to understand Indigenous people as fellow human beings. Empathy, in turn, has the potential to create a groundswell of support for social-justice initiatives to improve the lot of Indigenous people" (190-191). While such a system-wide transformation will take many more readers to engage with this work (and many more teachers to share it) to be fully realized, it's nevertheless certain that the engagement of Indigenous texts by non-Indigenous readers can absolutely create a deeper sense of human connection and understanding. I see it every year in my literature classroom, and I know that other Indigenous literature teachers witness these moments of empathetic transformation. This doesn't mean that readers lose their critical capacities and are blind to the human frailties and shadow-sides that are also represented in the texts, but it does mean that they find much more nuanced and human figures in these texts than are generally on display in popular media today.
Indigenous literatures aren't simply a contemporary phenomenon: Indigenous peoples have always been textually expressing their dreams, fears, visions, ceremonial practices, and aesthetic priorities in alphabetic as well as non-alphabetic forms. Literature, then, is an ancient legacy, one that connects us to the past and extends well into the future. It's an inheritance. Two literature scholars offer important insights here. First, I take the guidance of Cherokee scholar Jace Weaver, who defines literature "broadly as the total written output of a people....because to impress form on the relative formlessness of a life or a culture, to express selectivity over what is to be includedand what excluded, is an act of literary creation" (That the People ix). Extending further, J. Edward Chamberlin's words offer important insights into the vexed nature of the "literary":
All so-called oral cultures are rich in forms of writing, albeit non-syllabic and non-alphabetic ones: woven and beaded belts and blankets, knotted and coloured strings, carved and painted trays, poles, doors, verandah posts, canes and sticks, masks, hats and chests play a central role in the cultural and constitutional life of these communities, functioning in all the ways written texts do for European societies.
Further, he reminds us that "the central institutions of our supposedly 'written' cultures--our courts and churches and parliaments and schools--are in fact areas of strictly defined and highly formalized oral traditions, in which certain things must be said and done in the right order by the right people on the right occasions with the right people present" (If this is Your Land 19-20). Our literary traditions are long ones, and not simply limited to the alphabetic texts printed on paper in English, Spanish, or French. Our literary traditions, like our oral traditions, are a legacy bequeathed to us from those who came before. And they're a legacy we're both honoured and obligated to preserve, expand, and understand for those who come after.
Indigenous texts also affirm our textualized presence in the world. The "Vanishing Indian" of stereotype and colonial myth is as fleeting as a breath in the wind; alone and isolated, this figure passes away without leaving a mark on the land or on memory (except, perhaps, settler nightmares of the Poltergeist kind.). Real, dynamic, and fully present Indigenous peoples are fully part of the world, not apart from it in some nebulous space of eternal stasis. As the People continue on in life and in experience, so too do their stories, in various languages, forms, and traditions. Writing, then, offers another way of continuing on, a way that affirms Indigenous peoples' presence--in the present, as well as the past and the future. It's not the only expression of continuity, but it's certainly an important one, and it gives the lie to the spectral Vanishing Indian who exists only a fantasy of settler dominance. This isn't to say that there aren't challenges with the practice or problems; indeed, as fluency in Indigenous mothertongues decreases, in many cases writing in English and other Euro-derived languages far outpaces that of texts in our original languages. But the presence of one needn't negate the presence of the other, as there are many important language revitalization projects going on all over the continent (and elsewhere in the Indigenous world) that are creating (or recovering) amazing archives of Indigenous mothertongue literature for current and future generations. It's therefore perhaps more accurate to speak of our individual literatures as well as our broader, interconnected literary traditions, in multiple languages spreading across vast geographic regions and time periods. To participate in this process, then--to read, to write, to share, to learn--is to participate in the continuity of the People. Jace Weaver notes that Indigenous writers "write that the People might live"; writing "prepares the ground for recovery, and even re-creation, of Indian identity and culture. Native writers speak to that part of us the colonial power and the dominant culture cannot reach, cannot touch. They help Indians imagine themselves as Indians" (44-45). We might add to this the affirmation that it's not just the writing that's important, but the reading, discussing, and considering, thereby actively participating in that process of recovery and re-creation. The People go on, and so do the stories, which help the People go on to continue telling the stories that help the People go on...
The last area of significance I want to offer here (though certainly not the last to consider, as there's much more than I can cover in this piece) is the possibility inherent in Indigenous literature: that of imagining otherwise, of considering different ways of abiding in and with the world that are about Indigenous presence, not absence, Indigenous wholeness, not fragmentation, Indigenous complexity, not one-dimensionality. When Indigenous writers take up pen or keyboard or carving knife or bead and sinew, they bring their talents and visionary capacity to the work, and in so doing help to create a different world for themselves, for their communities, and for their neighbours (friend, foe, and unaffiliated alike). When we read the work of Indigenous writers, we participate in the possibilities inherent in that different world, and we become part of the network of relations that make possible more generous, more thoughtful, and more just relationships with one another.
Literature can be transformative; just as I've experienced it myself, I've also witnessed it among friends and family, and I've seen it in the lives of my students. It can also be deforming: it all depends on what stories we choose to read and be influenced by. Too many of the stories about Indigenous peoples are of the latter kind; quite frankly, we need more stories that affirm Indigenous humanity in all its complicated, contradictory, and wild and wounded wonder. It's not about telling only the happy stories, but it's certainly about telling the wide range of stories that matter to us and offer an important sense of our diversity and depth. Indigenous literature makes a real difference to Indigenous nationhood, as well as to individuals, families, communities, and nations. Not every text will move every reader, but every text will offer something to someone, and some works will open many hearts and minds, Indigenous and non-Indigenous readers alike.
Stories matter; they extend our humanity beyond the self to others, and at their best can make possible better relationships with our own histories and lived present as well as with one another. Ultimately, these seven broad qualities of Indigenous literary expression--perspective, beauty, empowerment, empathy, legacy, continuity, and possibility--speak to me of the extraordinary potential for our literatures to transform these relationships in powerful and enriching ways. We have much to learn from one another, and much to share, on our own terms, and in our own ways. May love, courage, and good sense guide us as we do so. Wado.
Chamberlin, J. Edward. If This is Your Land, Where are Your Stories?: Finding Common Ground. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2004.
Crowe, Thomas Rain. "Marilou Awiakta: Reweaving the Future." Appalachian Journal 18.1 (Fall 1990): 40-54.
Episkenew, Jo-Ann. Taking Back our Spirits: Indigenous Literature, Public Policy, and Healing. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2009.
Weaver, Jace. That the People Might Live: Native American Literatures and Native American Community. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
CARRYING THE FIRE (originally posted on the Indigenous Nations Movement blog, nationsrising.org,14 March 2014; site is currently down, but archive accessible here)
Lately, I've been worrying about my students. Not about their skills (which are impressive), nor their dedication (which is boundless), nor their generosity (which is expansive). I'm not worried about whether they can make it through their academic program, or whether they can make a positive contribution to Indigenous communities beyond the university, as I have every confidence that they can do both. No, I've been worried about them as people, as members of our diverse and multifaceted community, as radiant personalities in a world too full of wounding. And I worry that they push themselves too hard, and that those of us they look to for guidance aren't doing what we could to help them learn the value of gentleness to self and others.
No doubt much of this recent worry comes from the murder of Loretta Saunders, a young Inuk scholar who was passionately committed to understanding and educating others about the hundreds of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. Much has already been written about this horrific crime, and more will no doubt emerge as the motives and actions of the accused are analyzed through the court proceedings. But one of the most powerful and poignant statements in response was from Darryl Leroux, Loretta's honours thesis advisor. His reflection on her murder reflects a kind of grief particular to teachers and mentors.
This is a nightmare scenario for any dedicated teacher, and it's even more so, I think, for those of us from marginalized communities whose lived experiences are so fully embraided with our deepest intellectual, ethical, political, and pedagogical commitments. The classroom is more than just a place of learning for us; it's a site of transformation and (re)discovery. Maybe we start in these strange, often bewildering places as students ourselves, looking for mentors and colleagues who understand something of what we're going through, who inspire us to be smarter, more courageous, and more determined than we ever thought we could be, who work together with us to challenge the many forces of hate and separation in this world. Many of us are first-generation academics, and without the privilege of legacy family members to help us navigate this frequently hostile environment, we end up either creating finding our way into a community of support that can help us feel less alone and less unwanted in academia. But it's not only people we seek out. We also look for the texts and stories that reflect something of our own complicated and often excluded humanity and give us the tools to engage, dismantle, disrupt, and deconstruct systems and narratives of oppression, as well as those that equip us to create, connect, and generate better, more just, and more loving alternatives.
Perhaps we start as students, and if we're lucky, perhaps we always remain open to the transformative humility of being life-long learners on whatever paths we take through life. But many of us also go on to be teachers, to work with the students who so often reflect something of our own long-ago selves: the uncertainty, the resistance, the fear, the hope, the awakening, the despair, the joy. As teachers we work to be worthy of their trust, to be gentle with their dreams, to be respectful of their boundaries, and to be conscious of their own depths of knowledge that so often surpass what we presumed we had to offer. And although we're certainly human and no doubt fall short of our best efforts from time to time, we keep trying to be the greater versions of ourselves we can be for our students. We know that once upon a time we too were looking for guidance from people we could believe in, even if we knew even then that no one could be perfect, and even if we knew that even the best teachers would sometimes disappoint us.
I occasionally see reflections of my deeply lonely undergraduate self walking among the many students on campus, head bowed and shoulders slumped defensively as he tries to walk unseen but hungers for the acceptance he fears. Sometimes these students and others make their way to our classes, where they find sanctuary, as many of us did, and start to find their voices and stronger selves, as many of us did. And we watch as they grow in confidence and courage, as their good ideas challenge their limits and our own, making us work harder and smarter. They build their own connections and commitments to the ideas and issues they encounter in the classroom, and they bring those insights into their lived relationships with communities as well as with friends and families. We celebrate their successes, grieve their losses, and hope, always, that they live long, happy, fulfilling, and meaningful lives.
As teachers we often stumble. We get grumpy, or sarcastic, or too busy. A student in need comes to the door to find it closed, and sometimes she just doesn't come back. Our teaching styles work for some students, but not for others. Part of being a teacher is knowing that there are limits to what we can teach, and that some students will engage more readily with our ideas, our mannerisms, our personalities, and our values than others. Some students are glad to have Indigenous and allied settler scholars in the classroom; some aren't. Some want to reach deeper into the ideas, the texts, the intellectual labour, but some are content with drifting on the surface. Respect, patience, and generosity make it possible to keep those differences from becoming disruptive or debilitating.
It's not only my students' physical safety and the knowledge that violence against women—especially Indigenous women—is epidemic in this colonized country, this continent, this hemisphere that concern me. My worries lately have been these, of course, but also more mundane matters, such as: are they eating well? Are they getting enough sleep? Are they pushing themselves too hard? Are their friendships and relationships under unnecessary stress? Are they losing themselves to the work that we've called upon them to undertake?
I've been blessed to work with amazing students my entire teaching career, from my days as a graduate teaching assistant to my work as a professor for the last twelve years. There have been smart, committed, and energetic students in all of these places, students who are firmly, fiercely dedicated to analyzing our shared and distinctive histories and experiences, to understanding the empowered imagination through our cultural productions, to dismantling oppressive power structures, to challenging and undoing anti-Indigenous policies and practices, to confronting intersectional violence, to developing more enlivening and enriching arts, politics, and relationships. They are writers, performers, activists, teachers, scholars, community workers, caregivers, community leaders. I'm only one of many teachers who have worked with these students, but I'm grateful for the opportunities to participate in those ongoing communities of kindness, knowledge, and support.
Some students end up achieving the goals they had when they were students, while others struggle to hold on to their dreams; some take up different paths than they might have imagined when they were students; some took the courses, got their grades, and moved on. And some are now in my classes and those of colleagues here and around the country. They're committed to the work that must and can be done, and they take it very seriously.
But they also suffer from that commitment, and in ways that don't always make it into our conversations or show up on our syllabi. Many hold multiple jobs in order to stay in school while supporting themselves and sometimes their immediate or even extended families. Some deal with violence in the home, on the street, in their most intimate relationships. Some struggle with chronic or acute health problems, or the inevitable losses that shatter the world to pieces. They work to find that elusive balance between academia and community, between the resources of the university and the material and symbolic needs of the world beyond it. They labour under increasingly burdensome student debt. They commit themselves to action to help change racist institutions, although the ugly truth of institutionalized, systemic discrimination often wears them down when they realize just how entrenched these forces truly are. These students might find our classrooms empowering, but that empowerment sometimes makes the retrograde education on Indigenous topics they get in other departments even more difficult to reconcile.
And what of the modelling we provide? While we warn them not to take too much on, are we saying yes to everything and struggling to keep up? Are we encouraging them to talk about their struggles with elders, family members, and counsellors, while being bowed down in isolation under the weight of our own personal and professional anxieties that we too often can't bring ourselves to share with one another? Are we so busy running from meeting to meeting, obligation to obligation, commitment to commitment, trying hard to prove our mettle that we can't see how this is insane and dehumanizing process is now considered "normal"? This is not resurgence or self-determination—this is extractive institutionalization. And aside from complaining about how busy and overworked we are, we simply don't talk about the deeper meaning of it all, nor do we talk about the debilitating impacts it has on our bodies, minds, hearts, and relationships. We want our students to find balance, while careening out of all balance ourselves.
I think back to my mentors as both an undergraduate and graduate student. Some are still teaching and still loving the opportunity to work with students on issues of significance. Some have retired and keep connected or volunteer; some are busier scholars but more fulfilled with projects that they long wanted to do but never had the time to pursue; some retired from teaching and are enjoying relaxing lives free from the hustle and bustle of administrative busy-work. But some quit academia completely, either because they burned out or because they just got tired of fighting the same battles in unyielding institutions. Some were so deeply wounded by the racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and all the dehumanizing machinery of the industrial academy that they've disappeared completely. I don't blame them, but I mourn their absence, because they were often the greatest visionaries and the brightest flames. But I see similarities in their inability to set personal or professional boundaries. They all had a deep, existential doubt about their worth as human beings as well as their belonging in academia. They all fought hard for the good, but I think they did so not out of any real hope or a greater vision of possibility but fundamentally to keep their despair at bay.
This is not the legacy our students deserve. I want them to know the profound and transformative joys of doing this work, not just its burdens. They have to work hard—nothing can change without fierce commitment and actual labour—and they'll have to face lots of challenges and exhausting battles, but they shouldn't have to wear themselves down to the treads, to push themselves to emotional, physical, and spiritual exhaustion, to drive themselves so relentlessly that the only long-term futures they see are defined by disillusionment or despair.
We need these brave, brilliant, fabulous minds and spirits put to the big challenges of our world. Decolonization and cultural resurgence can only happen when the best of who we are and what we can provide come together in service: for the People, for our families, for the other-than-human world, and even for ourselves. But we need our students to engage those challenges fuelled by love, hope, and transformative commitment. Our students know too well how big the problems are, and in our insistence on engaged, ethical scholarship and righteous action, we sometimes forget to also encourage them to laugh, to love, to be generous with themselves and others. The problems are serious, but so is laughter, so is joy, so are the quieter, gentler pleasures of the world. And many of us are too ruthless with weakness, too quick to condemn someone for their stumbles, too dismissive of those who don't uphold our particular political line, forgetting that everyone in our communities stumbles, that no one is consistent all the time, and that a difference of perspective doesn't mean a difference in our capacity for love and commitment.
It's not the stumble that matters most—what truly matters is what happens afterward. We can too easily confuse a community for a clique. A healthy community holds you up while also holding you accountable; a healthy community doesn't simply accept or ignore bad behaviour, sloppy thinking, or dangerous ideas, but it also doesn't assume that a stumble is the same thing as a base violation. A clique, on the other hand, drops you in your weakness and leaves you where you fall. Too often, people just don't get up again. We can't afford those casualties. We're all needed. We all bring good skills and talents to today's great problems. We can decide whether we want the community or the clique, but if we really want the former, we have to live its truth, to model those values, to be strong enough to screw up and try to do better next time, to be kind enough to encourage ourselves and others to make amends, make connections, make new possibilities in our relationships with the world.
So lately, I've been worrying about my students. And, to be entirely honest, I sometimes worry about my own reserves, my own capacity to keep up with this pace. And although I'm nowhere near cynicism or despair, and although I still very much love my job and find it to be fulfilling, I nevertheless find myself too often absorbed by the minutiae of the institution's demands, the unending emails, the meeting after meeting, etc. I'm fortunate to have a loving and supportive husband who's also good about letting me know when I'm working too hard or spending too little time on the other parts of my life, especially the relationships we so often take for granted. It's not always easy, but sometimes we have to just shut off the computer, turn off the phone, and sit and laugh with our loved ones, focusing on their joys and struggles, giving these precious moments of our attention to the people and things that matter most. We can't forget that these are what we're fighting for, not the paperwork, not the assignments, not the emails. It's the relationships that matter most.
For those of us in the academy who are committed to social justice and anti-colonial activism, there's far more work to be done than bodies to do it. So we take on more and more symbolically significant but often mundane and time- and energy-consuming tasks, always with the hope that they will make a difference, but too often with too little evidence of meaningful results coming out of that busyness. Honestly, I'm tired. Hell, we're all tired. We're all racing to keep up, and the pace just gets faster as the institution becomes more corporatized, more depersonalized, more focused on analytics and metrics and less attentive to awakened minds and expansive spirits.
I work with great people at a great university. I have amazing students and amazing colleagues, as well as supportive administrators. We're working hard to make things even better. I'm truly happy to be here, and I know it's a real privilege and blessing to have this job. But it's important to remember that the never-ending flood of academic administrivia at every university can also co-opt us, seducing us through our busyness into thinking that it's the full measure of what we can and should do in our intellectual activism. Many of these things might need to be done, but they shouldn't be the whole reason we're doing it. But more than that, I worry that in the fierce and necessary fight against settler colonialism, against racism, against misogyny, against all the forces that degrade and divide and dismiss and diminish us, inside the academy and beyond it, we forget or get too busy to tend to the quieter virtues that make a better world worth fighting so hard for.
And for those of us who teach, I worry that we're not always modeling those virtues for the next generation, and that we're not helping them replenish the fire they'll need to burn over the long, hard fight. It's the long campaign that matters most. If our students burn out too soon, if they push themselves past the point of breaking, who then will tend that flame? Who will make sure that our students and then their own students will be strengthened by its warmth and comforted by its light?
If they lose the fire, who will be there to carry the flame and light the way for those who come after?
JAGGED EDGES AND THE INDIGENOUS VOTE (originally posted on rabble.ca, 9 October 2015)
Russell Means, the late Oglala Lakota activist and provocative spokesperson for the American Indian Movement, is reputed to have said: "If voting could change anything, they'd make it illegal." This hard-won wisdom was the result of centuries of brutal education about Eurowestern democracy for Indigenous peoples: for all the claimed benefits of western "civilization" and citizenship, the all-too-common (and continuing) Indigenous reality has been the loss of lands, liberty, languages and lives. And for every Indigenous person who sought the franchise as a way of creating some measure of safety and security within a powerful imposed system, there were others who fought fiercely to maintain the centrality of their own identities and affiliations beyond the U.S. and Canadian nation states.
So I understand why some Indigenous people have decided to not participate in the electoral process, and I respect their principled decision and refuse to shame them for that choice. I also recognize why, given this complicated history and the continuing occupation and assaults on our lands, bodies, relationships, and identities, some of my friends and colleagues have taken a firm stand against explicitly participating in the system.
But I'm going to vote. It was how I was raised, as my parents are now and have always been fierce advocates for exercising the franchise. As a mixed-race, working-class Colorado mining family largely excluded from the processes of social or political power, it's been one way to try to effect change. (I live outside that context now, but it's shaped much of who I am today.)
And now as a triple citizen -- of the Cherokee Nation, of the U.S., and since 2008, of my adopted home of Canada -- I vote every chance I get, from elections for Principal Chief and at-large tribal councillor to U.S. president to municipal, provincial, and federal representatives. Hell, I even vote with my tip money at the local coffee shop, offering my opinion on whether The Addams Family or The Munsters is the better show. (Yes, we take our voting responsibilities very seriously.)
Yet there are many jagged edges. I know too well how the concept of "citizen" has been used both to empower and exclude; it is deeply implicated in the latent and sometimes explicit violence of the settler-state. It also insists on patriotic duty and exploitable economics over familial obligations or commitments to land and lineage.
My status as a citizen is entangled in complex histories, power relationships, and the civic expectations and disunities of these multiple affiliations. In a larger system that's so distanced from accountability, my vote is undoubtedly part of a deeply flawed and deeply traumatizing system.
Yet ancestors on both sides of my family saw the franchise as not simply a problem but as an opportunity, as a hope for representation and an influence that simply wasn't otherwise available. Their good faith and deeply considered decisions deserve respect, too.
Russell Means was both correct and incorrect: it does make a difference, and that's why it's an ongoing matter of legal and political conflict. Why else would voter suppression be such a growing concern in Canada and the U.S.? If it didn't matter that brown and black folks and expatriates and other marginalized people can vote, reactionaries wouldn't be trying so desperately to limit the process.
I treat this as a matter of principled pragmatism, an approach that has deep Indigenous roots alongside active resistance. Like my non-voting friends, I have no faith in the current system, but I'm nevertheless already deeply embedded in that very system -- as are all who share these words through disposable computers and hydro systems built with ravaged resources and exploited human labour. Whether we vote or not, there's no perfect position of righteousness in an inherently compromised system. Every choice comes at a cost.
Given this context, I don't need the system to be perfect to engage it -- indeed, as climate change and poisoned oceans and the plight of environmental refugees demonstrate all too clearly, there's no way to avoid its impacts in this interconnected world. Whether we engage or not is less the issue than is the how of it.
But the sad truth is that much can and will be irrevocably destroyed and made so much worse if the Tories get another mandate; the other parties might still screw things up, but we know that Harper's larger vision for Canada is a nightmare for so many vulnerable peoples, for the land, for the cause of justice.
So I'm going to vote, because I believe that there truly is a lesser of evils... and a chance, just maybe, for some good to come out of this mess.
Even so, I understand very well why others can't do that, and though I choose a different option I'm thankful for them keeping me accountable, for reminding me how much this system has taken from us, and for their insistence that voting can never substitute for the deep and difficult work of social transformation.
Voting, not voting -- on their own, neither are enough to change our world. Together, and with commitment to working toward something even better, they just might tip the scales. And while my own vote might not be much, there's a small but meaningful gap between no difference at all and a possible difference, a possibility that something good might happen if enough of us make that effort.
It's that chance I'm voting for -- the slight glimmer of hope that we might shift the system, even if only slightly, to the good. Perhaps then, with growing momentum, we can push it even further, until we realize something far better, far wiser, and far more generous in its place.