As We Have Always Done: Nishnaabeg Anticapitalism

Leanne Simpson's latest book illuminates an economics based on "meaningful, deep, fluid, intimate collective and individual relationships of trust"

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

Debwewin (Truth) - Pic River, Ontario | Photo (cropped from original) by Viv Lynch

The following is an excerpt from Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s 2017 book As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. It follows from Simpson’s description of an interview Naomi Klein had with her for Klein’s then-upcoming book This Changes Everything.


As I drove home after the interview, and in the editing process that followed, I could see why Naomi was focusing on extractivism as a narrative that could open up a conversation with Canadians and spark mass movement on climate change without bringing up capitalism and the backlash that entails, but the more I thought about extractivism as a concept, it didn’t explain what had happened to my people and to me. Stewardship as an alternative was too simplistic a concept to describe the relationship of Nishnaabeg with land. The more I thought about extractivism, the more important it became to name capitalism, particularly in the context of radical resurgence. I was recently reminded of this by Nipissing elder Glenna Beaucage in Ryan McMahon’s Red Man Laughing podcast season on reconciliation, because she names it, and she remembers an old man, or an elder, naming it. She says:

“When the treaty came, it turned the word creation into resources, and resources are to be exploited. To me creation is to be respected, but when we say resources, now we can exploit them. We got mixed up. I heard an old man tell me we’ve become capitalists. Even with our fishing and hunting we’ve become capitalist. We see money.”

Later on in that same conversation, another Nipissing elder talks about how the education system in Ontario is designed to move our people into the middle class, away from Nishnaabewin. Like these elders, I can’t see or think of a system that is more counter to Nishnaabeg thought than capitalism, and over the past two decades I have heard elders and land users from many different Indigenous nations reiterate this, and it is part of the elder’s analysis and thinking we ignore. We hold a collective apathy around critiquing, organizing, and creating alternatives, despite the fact that Nishnaabeg people and our society are the alternative – we lived without capitalism for centuries. There is an assumption that socialism and communism are white and that Indigenous peoples don’t have this kind of thinking. To me, the opposite is true. Watching hunters and ricers harvest and live is the epitome of not just anticapitalism but societies where consent, empathy, caring, sharing, and individual self-determination are centered.

My Ancestors didn’t accumulate capital, they accumulated networks of meaningful, deep, fluid, intimate collective and individual relationships of trust. In times of hardship, we did not rely to any great degree on accumulated capital or individualism but on the strength of our relationships with others. The Michi Saagiig oral tradition has within it stories of Wendat and Rotinonhseshá:ka /Haudenosaunee coming to us and asking to hunt or farm in our territory during times of famine. Our grounded normativity* compelled us to assist our neighbours if we were able.

Watching hunters and ricers harvest and live is the epitome of not just anticapitalism but societies where consent, empathy, caring, sharing, and individual self-determination are centered.

We also have a series of embedded practices that redistribute wealth within the community. Harvests are distributed in community to our most vulnerable members – those who cannot harvest for themselves. Many of our ceremonial practices include a giveaway component where goods are distributed among participants. Gift giving is part of our diplomacy and designed to reinforce and nurture relationships. In daily life, greed, or the accumulation of capital, was seen as an assault against the collective because it offended the spirits of the plant and animal nations that made up our peopled cosmos, and therefore put Nishnaabeg at risk. “Capital” in our reality isn’t capital. We have no such thing as capital. We have relatives. We have clans. We have treaty partners. We do not have resources or capital. Resources and capital, in fact, are fundamental mistakes within Nishnaabeg thought, as Glenna Beaucage points out, and ones that come with serious consequences – not in a colonial superstitious way but in the way we have already seen: the collapse of local ecosystems, the loss of prairies and wild rice, the loss of salmon, eels, caribou, the loss of our weather.

Another mistake is the idea of excess. There are lots of Nishnaabeg stories about the problems with excess. When the Nishnaabeg killed an excess of deer, the deer left the territory, to the point where today we have an abundance of deer in my territory but very few Deer clan people, and this reminds us of that imbalance. Medicine people often look for excess and imbalance in a person’s life when they look for and treat root causes of illness and disease. Going back, even one generation in my family, I see a way of life that was careful, frugal, full of making and self-sufficiency, and one that frowned upon waste, surplus, and overindulgence. Older members of our communities will often comment on this, particularly with regards to my generation and our children and the sea of things they are growing up in. It concerns them. It worries them. They see it as a problem with the way we are living.

We have relatives. We have clans. We have treaty partners. We do not have resources or capital. Resources and capital, in fact, are fundamental mistakes within Nishnaabeg thought.

On one hand, for Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg living Nishnaabewin, material wealth simply didn’t make sense, because we never settled in one place. We were constantly moving throughout our territory in a deliberate way, carrying and making our belongings as we went. Having a lot of stuff made life more difficult on a practical level. On an ethical level, it was an indication of imbalance within the larger system of life. When Nishnaabeg are historicized by settler colonial thought as “less technologically developed,” there is an assumption that we weren’t capitalists because we couldn’t be – we didn’t have the wisdom or the technology to accumulate capital, until the Europeans arrived and the fur trade happened. This is incorrect. We certainly had the technology and the wisdom to develop this kind of economy, or rather we had the ethics and knowledge within grounded normativity to not develop this system, because to do so would have violated our fundamental values and ethics regarding how we relate to each other and the natural world. We chose not to, repeatedly, over our history.

Similarly, we don’t have this idea of private property or “the commons.” We practice life over a territory with boundaries that were overlapping areas of increased international Indigenous presence, maintained by more intense ceremonial and diplomatic relationship, not necessarily by police, armies, and violence, although under great threat we mobilized to protect what was meaningful to us. Our authority was grounded and confined to our own body and the relationships that make up our body, not as a mechanism for controlling other bodies or mechanisms of production but as structures and practices that are the very practices of Nishnaabeg life. We have stories warning us of the perils of profit – gain achieved not through hard work within grounded normativity but gain, benefit, and advantage achieved in disproportion to effort and skill or exploitation.


Read more: Land and Reconciliation: Having the Right Conversations by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson


Nanabush is the most obvious example of all of this. He experiments with capitalist modes of production when he tries to get various beings – skunks, ducks, geese, for example – to do the hard work of life for his own personal gain and accumulation. He tries in various stories to outsource the work of feeding himself, and disaster ensues. There are stories where he is greedy; he experiments with capital accumulation, and disaster ensues. There are stories of Nanabush manipulating animals to create competetive markets for his goods and services, and again disaster ensues. There are stories where Nanabush engages in a host of exploitive and extractivist practices at the expense of plants, animals, or the Nishnaabeg, and this results in his demise.

His preference in these stories is to employ various beings of creation in service to him, while he lounges around and enjoys the profit of this unequal labor. He is categorically met with his demise every time, and eventually he learns his lesson.

Moss, like pine trees, or maple trees, or geese, is an algorithm, a practice for solving a problem, and all of these Nishnaabeg algorithms are profoundly anticapitalist at their core.

One of his brothers, however, does not. He insists that the community feed him by hunting, fishing, and gathering on his behalf. We do, because we are kind, empathic, and decent people. We give him time to work his shit out. We try to bring him back into the fold by encouraging him to be a self-determining part of the collective by engaging in some practice, any practice really.

Nanabush’s other brother, in a similar circumstance, becomes an artist as a way of contributing and living in our nation and is celebrated for his contribution. But this brother, the lazy one, doesn’t. Eventually, the nation can no longer carry him, and he withers away and dies. His death is a transformation, and he becomes the moss on the rocks that you see in our territory. Moss reminds us. Moss, like pine trees, or maple trees, or geese, is an algorithm, a practice for solving a problem, and all of these Nishnaabeg algorithms are profoundly anticapitalist at their core. To me, Nanabush embodies anticapitalism because the system of grounded normativity within which he exists demands nothing less. Capitalism cannot exist within grounded normativity.


As We Have Always Done: Nishnaabeg Anticapitalism | Watershed SentinelFrom As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (University of Minnesota Press, 2017). Copyright © 2017 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. Used by permission of the University of Minnesota Press.

* Dene political theorist Glen Coulthard introduced the term “grounded normativity” in his 2014 book Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition to describe the ethical frameworks generated by place-based practices and associated knowledges.

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