“I want the land to know me, to claim me. I want to feel at home in it in a way that’s reciprocal.… When we talk about land back, we’re not talking about laying claim to land the way that the U.S. might say, or the way that other countries might say, of claiming ownership, it’s claiming relationship, and it’s claiming a relationship that’s reciprocal,” says Becoming Kin author Patty Krawec. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Krawec and host Kelly Hayes discuss decolonization, and how activists and organizers can redefine their relationships with the land, and with each other.
Music by Son Monarcas & David Celeste
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about organizing, solidarity and the work of making change. I’m your host, writer and organizer Kelly Hayes. Today, we are talking about our relationship to the land, decolonization, and Indigenous conceptions of kinship and belonging. We began this season by discussing longtermism, AI and the new space race, and with our last episode — a conversation with Aaron Goggans, of the WildSeed Society — we began to look at the kind of culture and relationship building our movements need to counter the cult-ish, exploitative, and dehumanizing forces that dominate the tech world. As the ecological consequences of capitalism and imperialism become increasingly dire, while posing an immediate and disproportionate threat to Indigenous communities worldwide, Indigenous practices have been recognized as essential to any sustainable future for humanity. Scientists, and even some policymakers, have belatedly realized that Indigenous lifeways, which were previously dismissed as primitive, actually represent an advanced understanding of how we must relate to the earth, in order to survive together. Today, we are going to talk about how Indigenous understandings of how we relate to the land, and to each other, can help us think and feel our way through some of the crises we presently face. I believe this is a deeply important and timely conversation, because if we are going to wage an effective opposition to the forces that exploit, control and attempt to destroy us, we need to rethink what it means to be in right relationship with the land and other people.
As some of you know, I am a member of the Menominee nation, but my father was removed from his Native family and reservation as an infant in 1950. So I have been on my own journey, during my adult life, in terms of connecting with cultural ideas that have redefined my relationship with the land, water and creatures of this earth. The past few years have been particularly formative for me, in that regard, as I have examined how my own people survived an apocalypse. I am still very much a learner in these matters, as I suppose we all are, so I am grateful to be joined today by Patty Krawec, the author of Becoming Kin. Patty is an Anishinaabe and Ukrainian writer, podcaster, and organizer. She is a member of the Lac Seul First Nation and she describes her work as an effort to “unsettle the settled.” She is also a co-founder of the Nii’kinaaganaa Foundation, an organization that redistributes donations from people who have settled on Indigenous lands to Indigenous people. I was grateful for the opportunity to think alongside Patty as we consider how we can overcome the alienation of individualism under capitalism and form more meaningful relationships with the world around us, and each other.
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Patty Krawec: So my name is Patty Krawec. My pronouns are she, her. I hadn’t set out to write a book. What happened was, I was sitting in church one Sunday — I come from a Christian background, I grew up in the Evangelical church — and until probably about a year ago, I was still going to church fairly regularly, but one Sunday, I heard this sermon about identity politics being out of control. Because at that time, Billie Jean King had just made some remarks about trans athletes not competing in their lived gender, and the “woke mob” had come for her. And there was a joke in there somewhere and people laughed, and I just started to get so angry about the way that trans athletes were being disparaged and kind of used as the punchline of this sermon, which really went on to talk about how we’re all the same in Jesus.
And so I went home that afternoon, and I just spent the afternoon posting really angry stuff on Facebook, where I knew the other church members would see it, about trans athletes and everything that they have to go through in order to compete in their lived gender. And it didn’t even make me feel any better. So then I wrote an article about how this language of identity erases us, how the church found home in a way that displaced Indigenous people, making us homeless on our own land. And then Sojourners Magazine published that article, and an editor from Broadleaf [Books] messaged me on Twitter asking if I’d ever thought of writing a book. And up until that point, I hadn’t actually thought of writing a book. I had thought that this book should exist in the world, that somebody needed to figure out how Christianity is so connected to all of this stuff.
And then when this editor messaged me and I sent it to friends saying like, “Is this real?” And they all assured me that, “No, this was absolutely real,” and I should jump on it. So I did, and I continued tugging on those threads of our current circumstances, the beliefs that drive us, because even though most people wouldn’t think of themselves as Christian, I think, in Canada or the U.S., or a lot of people wouldn’t, we’re still deeply impacted by those ideas and by the laws that are set up that privilege Christianity in a lot of ways. And even if you don’t think of yourself as Christian, you still carry a lot of those assumptions about who people are and what we should be prioritizing. So it turned out that I was the person to write that book and to look at those stories. And as I tugged on those threads, it brought me all the way back to creation stories, and how we understand ourselves to exist in the world.
And then I started looking at, are there other ways that we could look at these same stories? Are there other ways that we could think about our place in a world that didn’t leave people behind or invite laughter at their expense, or in some way demand that our kinship be conditional on accepting the inevitability of a Christian or U.S. democratic worldview, which is where we’re at now.
KH: As Patty has stated, even if we don’t subscribe to particular religions or individualist philosophies, the worldviews that many of us project and inhabit can be shaped by oppressive social forces and ideas. Because those ideas are so pervasive, we breathe them in without realizing it, like impurities in the air, and we exhale them back into the world without noticing the cycle of harm we are participating in. That’s why, in order to establish just relationships with the land, the water, and each other, we often have to question and break with dominant ideas about what it means to be a good person or to do good in the world. Because, far too often, when people believe they are helping others, under capitalism, they are actually reinforcing dynamics that are oppressive and harmful. I think we have all had this experience, to varying degrees. Perhaps we have called 911 during a crisis, only to learn that by doing so, we made the situation worse. Some people, including Native people, like my father, joined the military, believing that they were defending freedom and democracy, before coming to understand the true nature of empire and U.S. militarism. In recognizing these trends, our goal is not to loathe or indict ourselves, but to learn from our experiences, and reshape our relations as we move forward. Patty’s journey of learning and transformation led her to abandon a career as a social worker in the child welfare system — a vocation that she thought would enable her to help families, but that she now believes must be abolished.
PK: So I didn’t go into the field of social work with the intention of going into child welfare. I was actually working for a sexual assault center working with victims of sexual assault. And I realized very quickly that I wasn’t really qualified for my job, that I had good instincts, which was what the organization I worked for recognized, but I didn’t have the training that made me a really good and effective advocate for the victims that I was working with.
And so I wound up going back to school. I studied social work, I went to university, got my degree in social work. And I didn’t intend to work with families, but I intended actually to work with male abusers in domestic violence, feeling that if I could teach them to stop abusing, then we wouldn’t have so many victims to patch up and send back out there. And I entered child welfare thinking that that’s what I would be doing, that I would be keeping children safe and teaching dangerous parents to be more effective parents so that we would have fewer child victims to patch up and send back out there. What I realized was that I was now part of a carceral system, and working in child welfare made me an abolitionist. It made me realize, I saw how we used the language of safety to make people profoundly unsafe.
I entered that profession wanting to work with police, wanting to work in the unit that worked directly with police. And so people will say, “Oh, I just don’t understand how individual police officers can be good,” and all of that stuff. And no, I was a true believer for a long time, but it was my experience in child welfare, and my experience with police, and my experience in listening… really listening to the people I worked with that I realized how harmful and destructive these systems are. Because of course you can be a good person and work in these fields, be a good person and think that you’re helping, but the system itself is bigger than you. And systems resist change. They don’t want to change. They don’t exist for the things that I thought they existed for. And so I wound up actually leaving child welfare.
I developed an exit strategy to get out. And then I actually developed PTSD, because you can’t fight a system while you’re inside the system and not have some emotional trauma as a result. So yes, so working in child welfare made me an abolitionist in the broadest possible sense. And I have taken that training and then used it to analyze the stories and histories of the world around me, but I am still bothered by the harm that I did. And so knowing and understanding the harm that I did, even while I thought I was helping, that also shapes my activism. Because I want to make sure… I can’t undo the harms that I did, but I can do work to prevent those harms from happening in the future. And it also makes me very cautious about the activism I do and the things I get enthusiastic about, because I remember that I was a true believer in something that turned out to be really destructive.
And so I do think, and question, and analyze to make sure that the direction I’m going, that the way I am reading this story, that the things I’m putting together aren’t going to inadvertently cause more harm. I’ve already done enough of that. I want to move forward now into a world of more equity, and more expansiveness, and more acceptance.
KH: I am so grateful for Patty’s reflection on the role she played in the child welfare system, which is a system that many of us believe cannot be reformed or made just. I think many of us can identify with Patty’s journey, on some level, even if reflecting on those parallels is uncomfortable or painful for us. What matters is that we do not have to keep re-enacting cycles of harm that we were led to believe were necessary or inevitable. Understanding that we have all participated in ways of living and relating to one another that have reinforced harm, despite our best intentions, allows us to begin the process of breaking those cycles.
So what does it mean to be in right relation with other people? How can we begin from a place of recognizing our shared humanity without erasing difference? Some of you may be familiar with the Anishinaabe word “Nii’kinaaganaa,” which I was taught means “I am all of my relatives” or “all my relations.” In 2015, shortly before he passed away, Ojibwe author Richard Wagamese reflected on the concept on Facebook, writing:
I’ve been considering the phrase ‘all my relations’ for some time now. It’s hugely important. It’s our saving grace in the end. It points to the truth that we are related, we are all connected, we all belong to each other. The most important word is all. Not just those who look like me, sing like me, dance like me, speak like me, pray like me or behave like me. ALL my relations. It means every person just as it means every blade of grass, rock, mineral and creature. We live because everything else does. If we were to collectively choose to live that teaching the energy of that change of consciousness would heal all of us – and heal the planet. We do it one person, one heart at a time…we are connected, we are the answer.
PK: Nii’kinaaganaa is an Anishinaabe word and it means that we’re all related, or I am my relatives, all of them, or something like that. It comes from the idea that we’re all connected in some way. And there are many other ways of saying it as well. There’s other language speakers that might say that differently, but that was the way it was taught to me, so Nii’kinaaganaa. And that also formed the name of a foundation that I run, the idea that we are all related and that that gives us responsibilities to each other. So it’s true that we’re all related. We’re all one human race. So that sermon that made me so angry wasn’t really wrong about that part, but it’s what we do with that idea that matters.
Because what that pastor was doing with that idea was erasing all those other experiences and ways of being human, he was bringing in a kind of theological colorblindness. That means that you don’t see systematic inequalities either, because if you don’t see my color, then you don’t see me. And if you don’t see how I exist in the world differently from you, then you don’t see how those differences may have consequences in law or in policy.
So I belong to a hand drum group and we are all related, but we aren’t all the same. Some of us are Anishinaabe, some are Haudenosaunee. I live in the Niagara region, which means it’s all Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee people. We have settlers and migrants, we have queer and straight, able-bodied and disabled. But within that circle, those things don’t have the kind of importance or exclusions that society places on them. We don’t stop being those things, we just aren’t worth more or less because of those things. And every time we are confronted with inequity, our internal policies adjust to mitigate it. So we have two-spirited people in our group, which means we don’t require skirts at ceremonies. Some of our members don’t feel comfortable in skirts.
We changed our [hand drum group’s] name so that non-binary members wouldn’t feel excluded. It doesn’t have to be that difficult to include people and to think about who we’re leaving behind. And of course, when somebody has an animist belief system, the belief that the world is filled with sentient spiritual beings, of which humans are one of many, when we say that we are all related, we’re including so many others that would be excluded by that one human race, because that’s just talking about people. So when an Anishinaabe person says, “Nii’kinaaganaa, we are all related,” we’re including our other-than-human relatives. When Indigenous people signed the earliest treaties, they signed with their clan symbols, not just because I’m Caribou clan, so I’m signing with a Caribou, but signing on behalf of the Caribou. The Caribou are now part of that treaty, so we are all related, all of us. And in our belief system, in our belief system, the Anishinaabe belief system, you don’t treat relatives like commodities.
In Anishinaabemowin, the word for medicine actually translates to strengths from the land. And this concept is not unique to the Anishinaabe. Dr. N. Emmett Aluli, a Kanaka Maoli medical doctor who passed away earlier this year, often said that the health of the land is the health of the people, and the health of the people is the health of the land. Dr. Keolu Fox, a Kanaka Maoli geneticist and bioethicist who told me about Dr. Aluli, in the context of defending the Mauna, that mountain in Hawaii where some scientists want to put a massive telescope that will require digging four stories into the earth, Keolu says, “It’s a sacred mountain, ancestors are buried there. There are fresh water aquifers, it’s a place for ceremony.” And then he says, “It is also our ancestor. The land is our ancestor.” And for Keolu Fox, who is trained as a geneticist, he says that is a scientific statement.
So when we talk about our relationship to the land, we’re talking also about how the land shapes our genome, our medicine being strength that comes from the land. We are the land and the land is us. We aren’t disconnected from it. So when we talk about our relationship to land, whether we’re talking about Standing Rock, or the Wetʼsuwetʼen, or others protesting the construction and impacts of pipelines, or if we’re talking about those Midwest farmers who created the Dust Bowl of the ’30s by stripping out prairie grasses and planting thirsty crops, like wheat and cotton, or if we’re talking about fighting the ecological impacts of overfishing for cod, protesting a telescope on the Mauna, Indigenous protection of those places goes way beyond simply taking care of the land, that stewardship that we so often hear about.
It is our ancestor in a very real and material way shaping our genome just like our human ancestors do. Keolu is not simply talking about adaptation, he’s talking about inheritable traits that are a reflection of the geography, where we have existed as people for millennia, the land, the place where our grandparents and great-grandparents and relatives all the way back shaped our genome, and is our ancestor in a very real way. And that makes me think about the longtermism of some of your recent guests, because they’re looking way into the future to decide how to benefit the most people. And Indigenous people, we do that too, we talk about seven generations. And of course, if I’m saying that the land is our ancestor, that’s even more than seven generations. And I’m often curious about the ways that we sometimes say things that sound the same and yet mean something completely different.
Because when Indigenous people, and many tribal groups, have some variation of the seven generations language, that’s a tangible future. When I say that the land is my ancestor, that’s a tangible relative. I’m not imagining some distant misty past, I’m talking about the land beneath my feet, I’m talking about a place I can go to that’s four hours north of Lake Superior, I’m talking about land that’s still here. That’s my ancestor. And when I say seven generations into the future, that’s also tangible. I exist halfway between my great-grandmother and my great-grandchildren. That’s seven generations. My children exist halfway between my grandmother and their great-grandchildren. My grandson exists halfway between my mother and his great-grandchildren. These are tangible relationships, not some distant future that allows me to discard certain people for some imaginary greater good.
The land is my ancestor. I am the land, and the land is me. Medicine, in all its forms, whether it’s something freshly harvested or refined in a lab, is strength from the land. So when we talk about our relationship to land, that’s a profound and reciprocal relationship that we carry forward. And it means that we cannot leave people behind, because when we pass away, we return to the land. And if we have discarded people without care and they return to the land, then what are we pulling forward with us into the future? How will their memory of being discarded impact the strength that the land is able or willing to provide to us?
KH: Talking to Patty about how we are all of the land, and how we will return to the land, reminded me of how we are conditioned, under capitalism and white supremacy, to view ourselves as separate from the natural world. If we think about the ways in which the word “nature” is deployed in our society, even among those who cherish the land and the water, it is often viewed as something we visit, avoid, or admire, rather than something we exist within and are woven through. When I hear people use the word “nature,” they often seem to be referring to trees, rivers, lakes, and animals, as some sort of non-human constellation of existence, and I find it fascinating that we are capable of viewing other animals as inextricably connected to their ecosystems, and yet, see ourselves as existing apart from this thing we call nature. That imagined separation is not a matter of mere semantics. It is a sense of alienation that threatens our survival and the survival of most life on earth. I have found Joanna Macy’s work on this subject deeply insightful and instructive. It was in Macy’s book, World as Lover, World as Self that I first encountered the words of Paul Shepard, who wrote in his book Ecology and Man:
We are hidden from ourselves by patterns of perception. Our thought forms, our language, encourage us to see ourselves or a plant or an animal as an isolated sac, a thing, a contained self, whereas the epidermis of the skin is ecologically like a pond surface or a forest soil, not a shell so much as a delicate interpenetration.
Macy argues that Shepard is calling us to “a faith in our very biology.” Embracing our connection to the rest of the natural world can lead to what Macy characterizes as “a shift of identification [that] can release us not only from the prison cell of ego but also from loneliness as a species.” As John Seed, founder of the Rainforest Information Centre in Australia, writes in his essay “Beyond Anthropocentrism“:
When humans investigate and see through their layers of anthropocentric self-cherishing, a most profound change in consciousness begins to take place. Alienation subsides. The human is no longer an outsider, apart. Your humanness is then recognised as being merely the most recent stage of your existence, and as you stop identifying exclusively with this chapter, you start to get in touch with yourself as mammal, as vertebrate, as a species only recently emerged from the rainforest. As the fog of amnesia disperses, there is a transformation in your relationship to other species, and in your commitment to them … Then follows the realisation that the distinction between “life” and “lifeless” is a human construct. Every atom in this body existed before organic life emerged 4000 million years ago. Remember our childhood as minerals, as lava, as rocks? Rocks contain the potentiality to weave themselves into such stuff as this. We are the rocks dancing.
PK: When I was in high school… I was in grade nine, and I had a teacher, the science teacher, and we were going over the criteria for life. And I just recently remembered this little narrative, I’d forgotten it for a long time, but he asked us if rocks were alive, and we went through the criteria of life, and we all said, “No, rocks are not alive.” I don’t even remember what those criteria are now. And he asked us again, he said, “Are you sure?” And we thought, “Okay, this has got to be a trick question.” So we went through the criteria again and we all said, “No, rocks are definitely not alive.” And then he says, “Maybe we’re wrong. Maybe our criteria are wrong. Maybe rocks just do these things in a way that’s much slower than what we’re capable of measuring. Maybe we just don’t understand how they do these things.” And I don’t really think that he believed that rocks were alive.
But I think what he was doing with this exercise, he was asking us to remember that science is the asking of questions, is the perpetual asking of questions and not being satisfied with the answer and thinking that we have now arrived at the capital T, truth, of a situation, but to be constantly asking and testing. But over time, I have really started to wonder about that, to wonder about whether or not the world around me is alive. Because for somebody who was raised in the Christian church, that’s a really big concept to wrap my head around and to start to think about. And I have always collected rocks and brought them home, I know a lot of people do, or you stack them up on the roadside, and you do those kinds of things. But I started wondering, what if rocks really were alive? And thinking about the amount of time, the amount of time that those lives contain, and the things that they have seen and witnessed.
And then I came across Louise Erdrich, an Ojibwe writer who talks about the creation in the Anishinaabe worldview, beginning with a conversation between stones. And I came across Tyson Yunkaporta’s work and talking about the sentience of stones. And so all of these things came into me as I was starting to think about this idea of the world being alive in ways that I simply don’t understand. And I’ve stopped bringing home rocks from places, because why am I moving them away from their relatives? And how much time did it take that rock to come into that particular form, and now I’m just going to pick it up and transport it because it’s a cool looking stone? I do have rocks. I have brought one home, my husband brought me one, we were staying around Lake Superior, but it felt different. It felt like it wanted to come home with me.
And I don’t know if that’s just mystical woo woo and being silly, but it felt different from other rocks. And I think it’s important to think of the land, and the rocks, and the beings around us as beings in their own right, that the land itself isn’t like this large, enormous being, it’s more of a community of beings, a community of mycelial networks, and seeds, and plants, and animals. The Anishinaabe word for medicine, mishkiki, talks about strength from the land, and medicine is strength from the land that pushes up for us and gives us the things that we need.
So when I think about rocks being alive, the land as a being or a community of beings in its own right, it just seems to be an extraordinary act of hubris to stand in front of beings that old and that immense, and think that I can own it, that I can just do whatever I want to it, that I can just carve it up and draw lines on top of it and say that this is mine and you have to stay on that side of the line, it just makes all of these things that we do seem so ridiculous and so absurd that it has driven me towards abolition work.
It has driven me towards… no one is illegal, and confronting border imperialism, and all of those things, because how ridiculous is it to think that we can draw these lines on top of this being that recognizes the beings that emerged from it. My people emerged from the land north of Lake Superior. The Hopi emerged from holes in the ground in the southwestern deserts. People have emerged in different places, and the land knows them and remembers them. And how dare we draw those lines on top of them and then deny people access to their own homelands? And so thinking about that has driven me towards political decisions and political activism in ways that I can restore other people’s relationship to land, in ways that I can restore their relationship to their own lands, and make sure that they feel welcomed by the land that knows them.
KH: Patty’s reference to Hopi and Anishinaabe creation stories reminded me of a passage from her book that reads:
Creation stories, whether Christian or Hebrew, Anishinaabe or Hopi, aren’t meant to be histories — not in the sense that the Western world has invented the idea of history as an unbiased set of facts. They are meant to explain who we are and create a communal sense of self.
I am not a religious person, and I really appreciated this passage as an opportunity to reflect on creation stories, not as a stand-in for some historical record, but as a meditation on how we interpret our relationship to the world and to the land. Indigenous creation stories often ground us in a sense of place, and of connectedness and responsibility to the land, water and other beings. As a child, I was raised in a Christian tradition that emphasized that our true home was not here on earth, but in heaven, and that upon our deaths, we would return to that place. As Patty discusses in her book, that disconnect from the land — the idea that our true home is not here on earth — has contributed to a disregard for the world we inhabit, as though it is ours to use and ultimately discard, when we ascend to our true home in heaven. As many of you know, I eventually opted out of Christianity, and while I do not subscribe to any literal interpretation of an Indigenous creation story, the principals at work in those stories — that we are of the earth, that we are responsible to the earth and its other inhabitants, and that we return to the earth when we die — do encapsulate my beliefs. Indigenous creation stories are important to me, because, as much as some leftists would like to do away with all religion, or what they might characterize as “superstition,” I am very interested in the ways we interpret our relationship to this world.
I am also interested in the idea of the land and the earth itself as a living being, and in Patty’s discussion of moving and removing rocks. I am reminded of the practice of rock stacking, in which some visitors to creeks and other wilderness areas will pile rocks into formations that they find aesthetically pleasing or interesting. This practice has led some scientists to caution would-be rock stackers that their seemingly innocuous habit can actually destabilize ecosystems. Some fish lay their eggs in the crevices between rocks, to shelter their growing offspring from predators. Some creatures, such as salamanders, make their homes under rocks, and insects often cling to rocks, in creek beds, capturing drifting food particles as they pass, and at times, sheltering themselves from the sun. The simple act of removing and stacking these rocks can not only lead to the displacement or death of such creatures, but it can also release sediments that affect the water quality, and disrupt algae and mosses that play crucial roles in sustaining ecosystems. Reflecting on the protective and sheltering role of rocks also made me think about how the human fingernail is considered both living and nonliving, because fingernails are plates of keratin that are attached to living tissue. We cut and trim parts of those plates away without experiencing pain, but if the entire nail is ripped off, we are injured and at risk of infection. Altering the nail without causing harm requires an understanding of its connectedness to other tissues and our overall well-being.
That kind of understanding, when it comes to the natural world, is not imparted to most of us in this society, as most people have not been given the tools or knowledge that we need to be in right relationship with the land or with the water. So how do we forge those bonds?
PK: Taté Walker has this beautiful poem in their book, The Trickster Riots, and they write, “Speaking with the land is a puzzle. Colonialism scattered across generations. I want the land back, yes, but even more, I want the land to want me back.” I got a copy of their book. We talked with Taté a couple of years ago and they sent me a copy of their book. And this poem was on a piece of paper that was drawn by one of their children. And it’s just this beautiful image of the land and a heart. And yes, I want the land back, but I want the land to want me back too, and I want the land to claim me. Indigenous people always say, “Who claims you? Who claims you?” That’s kind of the central question of Indigenous belonging, is who claims you? And yes, the community at Lac Seul First Nation claims me, and yes, the women of my hand drum group claim me, and my Wesley family claims me. I have all of these different layers of claim that are also responsibilities, what is my responsibility to these relationships?
But I want the land to claim me. I want the land to recognize me and know me. And when I went home for the first time as an adult, my father brought me home, and I went down to the water and I put my hands in the water. And I don’t know what I was expecting, because I often say that I am the least mystical Indian you’ll ever meet, and nobody who’s listened to this interview so far will believe that. But I often say that because I want to demystify the idea of being Indigenous, it doesn’t give me some kind of magical connection to anything. But when I put my hand in that water, I felt something, I felt remembered, I felt known, I felt missed. And I haven’t had that experience very often, it’s something that has happened just very rarely for me.
But that’s what I want. I want the land to know me, to claim me. I want to feel at home in it in a way that’s reciprocal. And so when we say land back, and that’s kind of… the big call for Indigenous peoples is land back. When we talk about land back, we’re not talking about laying claim to land the way that the U.S. might say, or the way that other countries might say, of claiming ownership. It’s claiming relationship, and it’s claiming a relationship that’s reciprocal. So land back, yes, but I want the land to say, “Patty back,” too. I want us to exist in a reciprocal relationship.
KH: In thinking about our reciprocal relationship to the land, I am also thinking about the objects we carry and relate to in our lives. In Becoming Kin, Patty talks about the bundles that Native people keep and carry. She writes:
My bundle is a tangible thing. It is a box topped with a blanket that contains stones and pipes, an eagle feather, and a brass cup. It contains the fundamental medicines of the Ojibwe: tobacco and sage, sweetgrass and cedar. It contains matches and a lighter and a small cast-iron pan. These things hold story and memory, responsibility and care. They remind me of people and places, ceremonies and obligations I am only beginning to understand.
You have a bundle too. Think of what you would gather if you had to flee, the objects that mean the most to you. They aren’t just things; you know that. You look at them and see memory and history, connection and relationship.
PK: So in the book, I talk about everybody picking up their bundle. And it’s a very Native Indigenous concept, we will talk about having bundles, and it’s usually a collection of spiritual items. It could be pipes, eagle feathers, my drum, particular sacred objects that were given that we may use in ceremony. We would feast these items and treat them like relatives, like sentient spiritual beings in their own right. So we have these things. But I also wanted to demystify the idea of a bundle, because if it’s just some magical thing that only super spiritual Indigenous animists have, then that makes us the only ones who have that kind of connectedness to the past or the unseen world, and that just drives that need that westerners seem to have to colonize our beliefs as well as our land. And so then they start talking about being Indian in their heart and wanting to be like us.
And what I wanted to do is to say that you have bundles too, settlers, and migrants, and newcomers, or latecomers to this place. You have bundles too. You have things that are precious to you that have traveled across time and history. If you think about something in your home and somebody else says, “Oh, I really like that basket you have,” you immediately launch into a story about that basket, about how that basket came to be in your possession. Whether it was a weekend of thrifting with close friends, or something that came from the old country, across Europe and across the Atlantic. You have a story about that thing. It has real meaning and spiritual connection. Even if you’re not spiritually minded, it has this kind of connection for you. And so I want people to look at their own history, their own objects, the stories that they tell about themselves.
And so when I talk about “you have a bundle too,” I want you to think about those things. And that’s what that thought exercise is for. Because a lot of what the book is asking us to do is to look at the stories we tell about ourselves. What kind of world is that story inviting us into? What kind of story are we setting ourselves up to replicate in the world? And then one of the things that those stories of our families contain, they contain relatives we may or may not wish to claim, family members we may not want to talk about, incidents we may not want to admit, in terms of maybe they looted it from somewhere, maybe like my grandmother came from Germany, and she fled Stalin and went to Germany, which was run by Hitler at the time. And because she was German fleeing the Ukraine, she found safety in that place.
And so some of the things that I have from her that are precious, they carry that too. So what do I do with that history that I may not want to claim or I may not want to admit? Well, that becomes a place of responsibility for me. Those objects, those things that are precious to me, they are part of my bundle through my grandma, my maternal grandmother, call me to responsibility to those who did not find safety in Hitler’s Germany. And what can I do to ensure their safety now, to ensure that I don’t replicate that pattern of finding safety at somebody else’s expense? And so those are all these stories and these things that our bundles tell us, and they tell us how to connect with other people. And if you believe in other beings in that unseen world, how to connect with those things too.
And so analyzing those stories, and thinking through the things that we assume we know about our histories and about ourselves, that was really important to me. Because if Indigenous people are the only people who hold that knowledge, that just becomes something else that gets extracted from us. And so I wanted people to look into their own history, think about their own bundles and what they can pull forward from that. Some things they may not want to pull forward, but that’s okay. That’s okay. We can look at those histories and we can do something with that.
KH: In thinking about the traditional ways in which Native people relate to sacred objects and to land, I want to acknowledge that, for many of us, that relationality has been disrupted. I think it’s important to talk about how and why that disruption has occurred. To do that in a thorough way, we would have to dig more deeply into the violence of colonization than time allows today. But I think we can offer an important snapshot of some of the damage we’ve experienced by talking about the Dawes Act and allotment, which are subjects that Patty addresses in Becoming Kin.
PK: So a lot of people think that reservations are owned by tribal governments, but they’re not. Reservations in Canada, we call them reserves, are actually owned by the federal government and then held in reserve for the sole use of the tribe. Which means that reservations or tribal land, for the most part, because there are some exceptions to this, but for the most part, that land can’t be bought and sold. It’s held in reserve. And this is consistent with the collective basis of many tribes, that they don’t own the land, they live on it. We certainly understood territory, we understood where we lived, versus where the Lakota lived, versus where the Cree lived. We understood who lived where, but we didn’t have this idea of hard borders and that we owned this particular land. Particularly in the Niagara region, there’s layers of ownership between the Mississaugas, Anishinaabeg, and the Seneca, and the Tuscarora, that we used it at different times and in different ways, and yet we all were able to live together.
And so what the U.S. government, the Canadian government did, was they gave us reserves, and that land can’t be sold. But in the late 1800s, when Senator Dawes came in and he created the Dawes Act, which was the Allotment Act… Because what he saw was that the Cherokee nation was doing everything they were supposed to be doing, they had schools and hospitals, they had a bicameral system of government that they had adopted. So the Cherokee were winning at the colonial game, in that they had adopted these things that were doing them in their own way, but they were still holding the land collectively. And the government was like, “You can’t do that. You have to buy and sell. You have to be civilized,” which takes us back to the idea of being human or civilized as a way of forcing people into a particularly white American or Christian narrative.
And so what Dawes did was they divided up the land. They took it from one large, collectively owned, or collectively administered piece of land and divided it up. I think it was into 100 acre plots. [Editor’s note: The Dawes Act called for allotments ranging from 40 to 160 acres.] If you were 50% Native or more, your land, your allotment, your 100 acres of land, was going to be held in trust for you for 25 years, until you were civilized enough to be able to manage the land for yourself. If you were less than 50%, so if you had a white parent and a half white parent, then you were considered civilized enough to be able to manage the land yourself, and you got it, and then you could sell it.
And what happened then was a lot of scamming, a lot of people pretending to be Indians and saying, “Oh, yeah, I’m half Cherokee, but not quite half,” because you didn’t want to be full Cherokee, or full Creek, or full Seminole, because then of course your land is held in trust. You had to be just a little bit so that you could get that land and then sell it, or you could take control of a native child and get the land on their behalf.
And I really think that’s where a lot of these ideas… like some politicians have, that they’re part Indian because of these fictional stories that got told in order to gain access to Indian land. But a lot of it was devastating for these tribes. Poverty became entrenched, people lost everything, it was so bad that after a few decades, the U.S. government actually stopped the process and they brought in a new piece of legislation. If your community holds the land collectively, even as imperfectly as it is because it’s technically owned by the government, that land will always be there. You can always go home. As lousy as band housing is, it’s a place to go. It’s someplace you can go.
But when you’ve sold the land and then you’ve spent the money, now you’ve got nothing. And this really matters now because in Canada and the U.S., governments are still trying to find ways to convert that reserve land to something that can be sold. And many of our own people have been so impoverished that they see it as the only option that’s available to them, and they think that this is how they can enter Canadian society. And the governments, they know that owning land and holding land collectively is wealth and security or they wouldn’t want it for themselves. And so I think when Senator Dawes says that selfishness, that’s at the root of all civilization, what he’s talking about is the potential to exploit us, and to take the things that had been held apart from them for our use.
Because the U.S. is always about building wealth and access to land, and anytime we get in the way of that, something comes in to take it from us. And we’re seeing that now in Canada and the U.S. government. I think there was a U.S. tribe that just recently lost their federal status because they were deemed civilized enough or something, and they’re no longer legally Indians, and all of that land is now available. In Canada, they’ve got what they’re calling a modern treaty process that’s effectively doing the same thing, turning reserves into municipalities, making land available to the settlers who want it, and we’re the ones that are going to be impoverished as a result. So Senator Dawes’s ideas about civilization and drawing us into that white Christian narrative are still very much alive and very much a part of contemporary policy.
So before all of this happened, and really still today, Native conceptions of wealth are often built on what we can give away. You celebrate something by giving things away. When I got a new drum, the first thing I did was I had a giveaway, I gave away all kinds of things. Now, we don’t practice it today the way it had been practiced in much earlier times, because we don’t live in a society that allows us to do that. But a giveaway used to mean actually giving everything away, like everything, you gave away everything because you knew that when you had need, your neighbors would also give things away. And so it was a much more collective and communal way of living where we did share things and people didn’t do without, we didn’t have that poverty and homelessness that has become such a big part, because wealth was rooted more in what we shared together than what I hoarded in myself.
If we hoarded things in ourselves, that was something that ran counter to all of our philosophies, to all of our beliefs, about how we’re supposed to exist in the world, because these things that we’re hoarding are also relatives. You don’t hoard relatives. You use things… I mean, our way of life requires consumption of other living beings, whether they’re plants or animals. So if you understand everything you have around you to be a sentient spiritual being, you’re going to be much more careful and responsible with that. So even the idea of how did we conceptualize wealth, which is something that a lot of people talk about, I wouldn’t even know that… that’s a very modern way of thinking, because we’re surrounded by wealth. I remember an Ojibwe elder saying that our prayers are just long strings of gratitude, because we have been given every good thing that we need in order to survive.
And so that’s the way that we would conceptualize wealth, is just the wealth of the world that’s around us. And the fact that we get to live in it makes us inherently wealthy. And that’s so contrary to the selfishness that Senator Dawes talked about.
KH: One thing I really appreciate about Patty’s book is her clarity around what decolonization is and is not. My friends know that the popular, generic usage of the word decolonization has been a source of frustration for me for years now, and personally, I think there’s a reason that a lot of people, even justice-minded people, want to dilute what that word refers to and demands of them.
PK: Decolonization has become this almost valueless word that means everything, and then simultaneously nothing. And then I came across Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s essay, Decolonization is not a metaphor. And I read it through several times because decolonization means “give back the land.” That’s the only way that you can decolonize, is you have to give the original inhabitants back the authority over the land. That’s what decolonization means. It is not a metaphor for anti-racism. It is not a metaphor for inclusion. It’s not a metaphor for anything. It means give back the land. Figure it out, find a way to give back the land for Indigenous peoples to resume authority over the land from which they emerged. Because how can we even claim to be anti-racist, or to be disability activist, or to be any of these things, if we don’t reckon with Indigenous displacement? If all we’re doing is creating a more inclusive settler colonialism, then we’re not being anti-racist, we’re not even being good disability activists.
We’re not being good queer and gender diverse activists. We’re not being any of those things. If we don’t reckon with the fact of Indigenous displacement somewhere in our activism, then all we’re doing is replicating a form of settler colonialism. All we’re doing is broadening that line, those boundaries of settler colonialism to include more people. And whiteness and colonialism are nothing if not malleable and porous when they need to be. They will include anyone they need to include that will perpetuate that project. And if that means including Black people, including Indigenous people, including disabled people, including queer people, they will do that as long as they can perpetuate the colonial system. And so that’s why it’s really important for us to confront that idea and to think about decolonizing, not as a synonym for anti-racism, or as a way to recognize Indigenous presence, but as a way of reckoning with Indigenous displacement.
What does that mean to exist as a church, or a business, or an organization, or a nonprofit, or an activist on top of stolen land? What does it mean to do that? I had a friend with a church that I do some work with, and he asked me at one point, “What can we do? What can we do?” And I told him, “At some point, you’re going to have to deal with the fact that you are in possession of stolen property, that your organization exists as the result of Indigenous displacement and you’re going to have to do something with that.” And so that’s something that I always look for when I read books about activism, and about racism, and anti-imperialism. And I look for how are they reckoning with Indigenous displacement? Because if they’re not reckoning with it in some way, then they’re just perpetuating a new form of colonialism. So decolonizing is not a synonym or a metaphor, it means give the land back.
KH: So you may be listening to all of this and wondering, if we are all related, but our relations have been disrupted and, at times, made harmful and oppressive by the violence of settler colonialism, how do we become kin?
PK: I have this exercise that I do in my workshops, developed it alongside Alexis Shotwell, who did a couple of the early workshops with me, and it’s called Roots and Routes. So it’s our roots in the sense of a tree, our family tree, the roots that we come from, as well as the routes, the routes that we took in order to get here. So I ask people to think about how you got here, your family tree, your migrations, your job changes, all of those things that are contained within your personal and family history that brought you here to this room in this moment. And then alongside that history, I ask people to put in what they have learned over the course of this workshop about Black and Indigenous experience.
Because I did this in my own life, as I talked about with my experience in child welfare, I thought about how did I get there, how did I wind up in child welfare, and then what were the experiences of my clients while I thought I was doing good? So I asked people to do the same thing. What are the experiences of Black and Indigenous people while your family was traveling along the routes it was traveling? What are the intersections? What are the regrets? What are the things that you have inherited? Aurora Levins Morales talks about relationships really being the only things that we truly inherit. And then those things form the basis for your activism, because we can easily get paralyzed by that stuff by thinking, “I’m just a settler. I’m white. I’m terrible.” People can get paralyzed into inaction, and that’s not helpful. But if you think about those intersections, those regrets, those things that you benefited from that you can’t do anything about, let those things form the basis for your activism.
Just like a joke at the expense of trans people propelled me into action because I knew that a decade earlier, I probably would’ve laughed, I knew that I had caused harm to that community. And so it became my responsibility to speak up and to speak out, to make sure that groups I belong to don’t laugh or tolerate that kind of laughter. So we take responsibility for the things we inherit, both as caretakers and as activists, and that’s how we move to being good relatives. Because we are relatives. We are one human race. But we exist in these destructive hierarchies that don’t need to exist. And so we can look at those things and then we can start treating them differently, and we can become good relatives and good kin to each other.
KH: Well, I am so grateful for this conversation. It has left me with a lot to think about, and I hope that we all feel enriched and challenged by these ideas, in the best of ways. I want to close today with an excerpt from the poem “Welcoming Home Living Beings” by Suzan Shown Harjo. Harjo has explained that the poem represents decades of her life spent working with other Native people around the United States to build coalitions and write legislation that would force museums, federal agencies and educational institutions to return the remains of Native ancestors and sacred objects. This poem feels important to me because I think that many people who may struggle with some of the ideas in this episode can understand the sacredness of the bones and belongings of lost loved ones and ancestors, and I hope that understanding might serve as a bridge to some of the other ideas we have discussed here. There was definitely a time for me — the majority of my life, in fact — when I did not think about rocks as part of a living structure, or myself as being as bound up in nature as any plant or animal, but I got there, and I think having gotten there has brought me closer to liberation and the insights we will need to do what my people have already done, which is to survive an apocalypse.
In her poem, “Welcoming Home Living Beings,” Harjo writes:
Today, we welcome home beloved Living Beings
We, their many relatives, have known them all our lives
We, their many relatives, have missed them all our lives
We feed their memory with sacred foods
We nourish their memory with sacred waters
We keep them in our circles
We seek them in the darkest places
We sing the songs they sing
We dance the dances they dance
We pray the prayers they pray
We dream the dreams they dream
Tomorrow, after we welcome home our beloved Living Beings
It will be as if they never left home or us, their many relatives
It will be as if they never left home or us
It will be as if they never left
It will be as if they never
It will be as if
It will be
It will be as if there were no yesterday
It will be tomorrow
I want to thank Patty Krawec for joining me to talk about the lessons of her book, Becoming Kin. It’s an important text, and I hope everyone will check it out. I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today. And remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
- Be sure to check out Becoming Kin by Patty Krawec.
- You can learn more about the Nii’kinaaganaa Foundation here.
- You can find more movement updates and other musings from Kelly on Organizing My Thoughts.
- Beyond Anthropocentrism by John Seed
- Welcoming Home Living Beings by Suzan Shown Harjo
- Leaving No Trace: Rock Stacking
- IPCC Special Report 2022
- The Trickster Riots by Taté Walker & Ohíya Walker
- The Dawes Act by John Bickers
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