Peter d'Errico

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson articulates ideas of indigenous nationhood, rather than declaring them

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg) has accomplished an amazing feat in her forthcoming book, As We Have Always Done. She confronts colonialism from the perspective of indigenous nationhood, but goes beyond arguing for changes in politics, writing in a way that enacts changes in our thinking about politics. Simpson articulates indigenous nationhood as “a radical and complete overturning of the nation-state’s political formations.” This reiterates what others have found when they dig to the roots [‘radical’ comes from Latin ‘radix’: root]: indigenous reality in and of itself challenges Western modes of thinking and acting. Simpson deploys the content of this insight in the process of her writing. She writes—rather than writes about—indigenous nationhood.

The content of her critique—fundamental incompatibility between indigenous nationhood and Western nation-state formations—extends what has long been known by thinkers on both sides of that divide. Vine Deloria Jr., for example (in God is Red), discussed the “two concepts of community” that differentiate Indigenous Peoples from Western nation-states. For their part, the colonizers aimed from the start to contain, reduce, and destroy indigenous nationhood, on the premise that the nation-state was the “highest” mode of human society, triumphing over lesser “tribal” modes. As the U.S. Supreme Court put it in Johnson v. McIntosh, Indigenous Peoples were “a people with whom it was impossible to mix, and who could not be governed as a distinct society.”

Simpson allows us to see that contemporary “reconciliation” programs such as in Canada, though supposedly aimed at redressing damages suffered from colonizing attacks like the boarding school system, actually constitute an effort by the state to finalize its “legal right” to indigenous lands: Monetary compensation to individual Native people avoids the question of land restitution to Native Peoples. In Simpson’s phrasing, reconciliation programs function within a “structure of processes” constituting settler colonialism’s ongoing institutional apparatus. She says, “I certainly do not experience [settler colonialism] as a historical incident that has unfortunate consequences for the present.” As an ongoing project, settler colonialism claims for itself “full and unchallenged jurisdiction,” including jurisdiction to regulate the ways Indigenous Peoples may respond to its claims of jurisdiction.

Simpson characterizes her response to colonialism as a “radical resurgence project.” She carefully distinguishes this from resurgence rhetoric that feeds into “reconciliation and neoliberalism”—such as “cultural resurgence,” where indigenous story, song, dance, art, etc., are deployed by “the healing industry [and] other depoliticized recovery-based narratives.” “Radical resurgence,” she says, “means an extensive, rigorous, and profound reorganization of things… bringing forth a new reality.” She does not aim for a “multicultural inclusion” of indigenous people into the state system.

The process of Simpson’s critique enacts the content. Her writing manifests a critical, self-critical, aware, and self-aware stance that constitutes “radical resurgence.” She repeatedly engages the experiences of her life—her own learning and living indigenous ways—with her critique and analysis. She proceeds within her indigenous—specifically, Nishnaabeg—universe. She calls for “less engagement with the state and more presence within indigenous realities,” and illustrates this through accounts of her own grappling with the “grounded normativity [of] Nishnaabeg brilliance.”

Her writing displays a kind of spiraling intellectual exploration, as opposed to a conventional linear presentation. She works with ideas, rather than simply declaring them. I repeatedly found her responding to my margin notes and questions, as if we were in conversation. I take this as evidence of a dialectical methodology, which puts forth ideas as always subject to criticism and further thinking. I found the best description of her writing in her description of Jarrett Martineau’s (Cree and Dene) Ph.D. dissertation, Creative Combat: Art, Resurgence, and Decolonization: “My experience … was not of a linear, logical work that moves from A to B, but of a spiraling into and then out of a core series of arguments, much like the movement of spiritual energy in ceremony.”

Like Steve Newcomb’s (Shawnee) analyses of federal Indian law, Simpson works from and within awareness of the original free and independent existence of Native Peoples. Her analysis includes “Western liberatory theories,” but positions them as elements of an international and global critique “centered within place-based practices and knowledges.” Like Ray Cook (Mohawk), who recently said, Indigenous freedom “is directly tied to the freedom of the Earth,” Simpson insists that Indigenous Peoples sing their own songs.

Glen Coulthard (Dene) wove Western theories into an indigenous critique in his pathbreaking, Red Skin, White Masks. He introduced the work of Karl Marx and Franz Fanon in a way that grounds their insights in place-based understanding. Simpson lauds Coulthard, saying Western theories must be applied within “ethical frameworks generated by place-based practices and knowledges” [i.e., “grounded normativity”]. She says, “Committing the time and energy to indigenous intelligence and theory…is our struggle. It is hard work.” Most importantly, the struggle aims at “invigorating nation-based indigenous intelligence systems,” rather than at “establishing ourselves as a discipline in the Western academy.”

Simpson does not shy from confronting contemporary Nishnaabe practices she sees as accommodations to colonial categories of thought and behavior. She especially examines patriarchal, binary gender concepts that underpin colonial practice and theory, and criticizes supposedly traditional indigenous protocols that replicate Western “heteropatriarchy.” Her critique of the subjugation of woman and “queerness” provides a sustained exploration of diversity, consent, self-determination, and noninterference values embedded in ancient Nishnaabeg teachings. With those insights in mind, Simpson says, “Queer Indigeneity cannot be reduced to…sexual orientation”: All indigenous existence looks “queer.”

Simpson’s centering of gender practices echoes work done decades ago by B.A. Rwezaura and other scholars studying decolonization in Africa. They demonstrated how colonizers supported local male leaders to maintain colonial state machinery, rewarding them for their assistance in suppressing “rebellious” youth and women. This resulted in a hyper-patriarchal scheme in the guise of tradition. Simpson insists, “We have to stop practicing interpretations of Nishnaabewin that cast people out.” She would agree with Jose Barrerio (Taino), “indigenous is nearly synonymous with diversity.”

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As We Have Always Done helps us understand that the Christian “discovery” of Indigenous Peoples whose ways radically differed from the Christian way of life raised a confrontation that has not ended. The deep diversity of indigenous experiences and practices continue to stand opposed to the imposed “unity” of Western state thinking. Indigenous diversity in itself—even prior to political expression—constitutes a challenge to Western thinking and the practices of the Western state system. In the face of this, Simpson urges a “refusal of the …victim narrative” that neoliberal “reconciliation” offers as a consolation to Indigenous Peoples.

Though Simpson questions the “romantic rhetoric…of direct contestation against Empire,” she targets the “dismantling of global capitalism …as inseparable from the struggle for indigenous …self-determination.” She offers a thoughtful exploration of the ways social media facilitates alliances and organizing among indigenous and non-indigenous actors, at the same time it “creates false communities…without presence.” As she sees non-indigenous people rebelling against neoliberalism around the world, she imagines the contributions indigenous people make when they “think and act from within their own intelligence systems…[and] simply refuse to stop being themselves….” Simpson underscores the strength that comes from being “centered in our indigenous presents, rather than …in responding to the neoliberal politics of the state.” Ultimately, she says, “the real Radical Resurgence Project…isn’t radical or even resurgence, it’s just indigenous life as it has always unfolded…. as we have always done.”

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinébe’iiná Náhiiłna be Agha’diit’ahii Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on Indigenous issues.