Land and Power

Two books – Is Racism an Environmental Threat by Ghassan Hage and As We Have Always Done by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson – explore the personal in the political

Heather Menzies

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, author of As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance | photo by Nadya Kwandibens

These fine books speak to the deep healing in people’s relations with each other and with the earth that’s needed if we are to meaningfully address the damage being done to both our social and natural environments.

As We Have Always Done by Leanne Simpson; Is Racism an Environmental Threat by Ghassan Hage

Ghassan Hage’s book sheds persuasive light on why action on climate change is stalled at the level of talk, by linking it to racism. To him this signals the (largely white male) elites projecting their fear of loss of power onto the racialized “other” to avoid coming to terms with their need for power through domination, which underlies the environmental crisis in the first place.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s new book isn’t about the environment but Indigenous self-determination, yet its additional relevance emerges in Hage’s conclusion. Hage, a professor of Anthropology and Social Theory at the University of Melbourne, sees hope less in dismantling the systems of domination associated with capitalism and colonialism than in nurturing alternative worlds and world views based on “mutuality” and “reciprocity.” These happen to be central to the Indigenous cosmology that Simpson has been imagining and living her way into through her work as an activist-academic and mother since the Oka crisis of 1990 “changed my life,” as she wrote in This is an Honour Song: Twenty Years Since the Blockades, a book she co-edited that marked 20 years since that turning-point event.

Hage places racism, especially Islamophobia, on the environmental-crisis stage. At a deeply personal level, the powers that be are unsettled. And so, they impute the power to dominate that they feel they’re losing onto “the other.”

In a way, Hage’s book takes on the power that Indigenous activists confronted at Oka, starting at its source. He begins with Aristotle on the importance of hierarchy, and of mastery and control – of the soul over the body and man over nature (and women) – and continues with Descartes’ binaries of mind over matter, culture over nature. With this historical stage set – of separating people from nature and then into hierarchial relations – Hage excavates what he calls a “mode of existence” underpinning capitalist “modes of production.” In one of the most brilliant insights in this important if dense book, he names this as “generalized domestication,” which he defines as “a mode of inhabiting the world” by “occupying it” and “through dominating it for the purpose of making it yield value.” The word “domesticate” casts a benign light on the often brutal violence of domination over land, animals and people, partly because its purpose, Hage argues, is to enable its agents “to feel at home in the world.” But when something happens to challenge that sense of existential well being, watch out! This is where Hage places racism, especially Islamophobia, on the environmental-crisis stage. At a deeply personal level, the powers that be are unsettled. And so, they impute the power to dominate that they feel they’re losing onto “the other.”

Muslims are a special target because they themselves don’t conform to the domestication agenda of the modern Western world, as they quietly (for the most part) insist on being answerable to God, rather than to stock market fluctuations. Meanwhile, Islamophobia is a great diversion from taking necessary action on climate change. Anyone interested in helping to break this impasse by better understanding it will find this book invaluable. For a guide in helping to chart a way beyond it, I recommend Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s work – highly!

Like Hage, Simpson understands the importance of the personal in the political. That’s why, in This is an Honour Song: Twenty Years Since the Blockades, she credits Mohawk Ellen Gabriel’s leadership during the Oka crisis with “waking me up, for sending me on a path that led me to learn my culture…” and “challeng[ing] me to find my voice and use it.” That’s why, too, she often begins her teaching by encouraging students to name racist stereotypes they experience in their daily lives (“squaw,” “stupid”…). In sharing they can in effect “ cast out” the demons of internalized colonialism.

[Simpson] sees it as her generation’s job to resuscitate traditional place-based Indigenous practices so that these once again form the basis of what is normal – she calls it “grounded normativity.”  This way, her children and grandchildren will be able to recognize themselves as Indigenous in ways their ancestors will recognize too.

As We Have Always Done builds on her ground-breaking 2011 book, Dancing on our Turtle’s Back, which documented her return to the land and what the elders still living there had to teach her, and also what this has meant for her as a resurgence of her Indigenous identity. In this equally original tour de force, she uses her grounded Indigenous voice to articulate how to move First Nations in Canada forward on their own terms – as land-centred self-determination. Self-determination starts with the personal, and this includes the uniqueness of one’s sexual identity, she insists. Having researched (and partially lived) the particularly brutal domestication of both women and two-spirited Indigenous people under colonial rule, Simpson is convinced that freely determining the particulars of one’s sexual self is crucial. It is the bedrock of self-determination and of all the right relations that flow from that, based as they are on (mutual) recognition and respect.

Realizing that traditional knowledge is not objectified (or even objectifiable) like Western knowledge, but alive and embedded in the land and all the relations growing out of it, Simpson has shifted her academic work away from established Canadian universities to new land-based ones like the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning in Denedeh, where she is now a faculty member. “Land is pedagogy,” she writes. She sees it as her generation’s job to resuscitate traditional place-based Indigenous practices so that these once again form the basis of what is normal; she calls it “grounded normativity.”  This way, her children and grandchildren will be able to recognize themselves as Indigenous in ways their ancestors will recognize too.

There’s an implicit argument in Simpson’s stress on that foundational attachment to land and “living within Indigenous intelligence.” Having been open to learn from the land and the animals (directly and indirectly through stories, such as how the squirrels taught humans to tap maple trees), people grounded in this reality and cosmology are equipped to be self-determining adults in mutually respectful and responsible ways. These ways will not only help sustain them with food, medicine, clothing and shelter. They will also sustain the land and the co-inhabiting flora and fauna they share it with. This is Simpson’s hopeful vision. While her intended audience is other Indigenous peoples, I think non-Indigenous Canadians will find it inspiring as they take up her challenge of decolonization and “finding a way of living in the world that is not based on violence and exploitation.”



Heather Menzies’ last book, Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good, is about her re-connecting with her ancestors in the Highlands of Scotland, and their place-based practices of living in harmony with the land.

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