Violence against Indigenous women and girls is pervasive in Canada. The National Inquiry Interim Report, (Our Women and Girls are Sacred) cites an estimate that Indigenous women are “12 times more likely to be murdered or missing than any other women in Canada, and 16 times more likely than Caucasian women” (at pp. 7-8). And the Native Women’s Association of Canada points out that numbers alone communicate little about the lives of Indigenous women and girls, or the calamitous losses experienced by their families and communities. As NWAC point out in their discussion of the Faceless Dolls Project, “each statistic tells a story.”
In a new chamber opera that debuted in 2017 in British Columbia, librettist Marie Clements and composer Brian Current portray ongoing colonial violence against Indigenous women and girls and emphasize the need for difficult learning.
Missing, performed in English and the Gitxsan language, immerses audience members in a discomfiting comparison of the divergent life chances of two young women with similar aspirations. Ava, a white law student, passes by a hitchhiker on the notorious Highway 16, the “Highway of Tears” where so many women have gone missing. After a car accident, she glimpses the body of a high school student, a character Clements names only “Native Girl,” who stands in for the multitude of lost girls and women.
Ava returns to her studies after recovering and encounters Dr. Wilson, a guest lecturer, whose discussion of missing and murdered Indigenous women challenges students to move beyond fleeting sympathy to grapple with their own complicity. “What is missing,” Dr. Wilson asks the students, in a society that “can’t recognize another human being as another human being?” One of Ava’s classmates disavows shared responsibility for the structures and histories that make Indigenous women vulnerable to violence; she angrily insists that they are to blame for their own “bad choices.”
The student’s defensive reaction in the opera, and her reliance on problematic stereotypes, will be familiar to many instructors. Maxine Matilpi explains that “when we dispel lies and deal with the omissions from their prior education, non-Indigenous students tell me that they would rather we didn’t spend so much class time on colonization or racism; they find it uncomfortable and frustrating, even irritating” (See her article “Personal Political Pedagogy with Respect to #MMIW” in D. Memee Lovell-Harvard and Jennifer Brant, eds, Forever Loved: Exposing the Hidden Crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada (2016), p. 264).
But in the opera, Ava, is not defensive. She has been transformed by her near-fatal accident, and is receptive to Dr. Wilson, who instructs her in the Gitxsan language and then mentors her when she becomes a new mother. The care and cultural teachings that Ava receives are further reminders of what the other young woman was deprived of by her assailant, while scenes of her mother’s limitless grief portray how badly she is missed. As Ava encounters Native Girl in uncanny ways, she learns to reach out to her, offering care and witnessing.
Marie Clements, an acclaimed Métis playwright (she is also the writer and director of the new film The Road Forward), when interviewed about Missing, said that her desire was to create a work in this Opera that would engage the empathy of Indigenous and non-Indigenous audience members by portraying “a Canadian story . . . one that we’re all responsible to.”
The disappearances and tragic deaths continue, and at the first hearings of the National Inquiry, families have described losses that extend across generations. Marilyn Dumont, a Métis poet and professor, commemorates Helen Betty Osborne, a high school student who had to move away from home to attend high school. “Betty,” Dumont writes, “if I set out to write this poem about you / it might turn out instead / to be about me / or any one of /my female relatives.”
Clements’ opera is a great resource for those looking for ways to engage with the difficult realities of our shared colonial histories in ways that make this story one that we are all responsible to.
As non-Indigenous faculty and graduate student teaching in the disciplines of Sociology and Women & Gender Studies, we regularly include discussions of settler colonialism in our course material. And, as teachers in disciplines that encourage critical thinking about societal power arrangements, we wish to develop learning resources in ways that build accountability to the TRC’s calls for reconciliation and Indigenous scholars’ calls for decolonization.To this end, we were awarded a small grant from our university in which we proposed to develop pedagogical tools that would more tangibly speak to the colonial politics of knowledge production, trouble the idea that settler colonialism is of the past, and ‘unsettle’ the racial and heteronormative colonial logics of identity and belonging.
Situated as we are at a post-secondary institution built into Blackfoot territories and in close proximity to the largest land-based reserve in the nation, we have a student body that seems to experience settler colonialism in a variety of ways, directly and/or recognizing its importance, or as completely disconnected from their everyday life. It is this full range of student experiences that we attempt to invite into an ‘unsettling’ pedagogy.
We offer here a discussion of one assignment we designed called “Pulling the Weeds.” The assignment was designed to foreground land as crucial to decolonization and to provoke student thinking on the relations between themselves, land, property, and nationhood in a local context (Tuck & Yang, 2012). Students were to (1) read the Wikipedia entry for spotted knapweed and submit a hard copy, marked with notes and/or highlighted excerpts; (2) go out on to the prairie and find the knapweed; (3) document the experience of picking it; and (4) write short responses to versions of the following questions:
Describe the experiences of seeking out the knapweed.
Describe the sensory elements of picking the knapweed (how did the soil smell, what was the texture of the weed, etc.).
Where did you pick the weeds? Whose land were you on?
What is your relationship to the patch of land that you picked the weed on?
Write on your (dis)identifications with the knapweed or the plants that you left in the ground.
Why do you think I asked you to pull an invasive plant species in this course?
What connections can you make to this week’s readings?
The activity was assigned in a second year feminist theory course, a third year sociology of race and ethnicity course, and in a graduate level methods and theory course. The readings that students were required to complete varied from course to course, and ranged from Leanne Simpson’s (2014) Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg Intelligence and Rebellious Transformation, Adrienne Rich’s (1994) Notes Toward a Politics of Location, and chapters from Audra Simpson’s (2014) Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States.
Students were encouraged not to worry about having the correct answer. They were encouraged to be creative and thoughtful, and to respond even if they were unsure of a question’s meaning. In spite of the bewildered looks when we asked them to go weed-picking, the very physical nature of the assignment expressed in their papers (the heat of the sun, the toughness of the weed’s roots, the itchiness of the weed, the pleasure of being outside), and the anxiety expressed about not being able to ‘find’ knapweed and hence complete the assignment, students wrote rich, varied, complicated, and thoughtful reflection papers. In their course evaluations, some students articulated the transformative learning that occurred from this assignment, suggesting that we delivered in fulfilling our institutional motto, “Fiat Lux” (Let there be Light).
However, we also wish to reflect here on two inter-related sets of limitations to the assignment.
The first set of limitations is related to the mechanics of the assignment and the strictures placed around it by virtue of being developed and carried out in the context of a post-secondary institution. We asked students to pick knapweed only once, but now wonder about requiring multiple knapweed pulls over the early fall months of the semester as part of an ongoing reflexivity-praxis assignment. Leanne Simpson (2014) writes in “Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg Intelligence and Rebellious Transformation” that theory is not just an intellectual pursuit – “it is woven within kinetics, spiritual presence and emotion, it is contextual and relational. It is intimate and personal, with individuals themselves holding the responsibilities for finding and generating meaning within their own lives” (p. 7). This beautifully captures our aspirational desires for this assignment.
We wonder, then, what effect(s) several knapweed pulls might have on students, on their intimate engagements with the prairie, on their meaning-making of social locations, on fostering the process of an ‘unsettling’ pedagogy? Moreover, how would a focus on the restoration or identification of native plant species (rather than only on the eradication of invasive ones) shift the performative and meaning-making axis of this assignment? Yet, as Simpson also reminds us, neither the practice of picking knapweed nor the restoration of native plant species can be performative of land as pedagogy when the necessary conditions are not in place. For Simpson, such conditions include the requirement that our post-secondary institutions ensure “the full, valued recognition of [Indigenous] freedom, sovereignty and self- determination over bodies, minds and land” (p. 17).
The second set of limitations has to do with some of the oversimplifications of the assignment. We required students to identify knapweed with the help of a Wikipedia page that, among other things, describes the weed’s ‘systematics and taxonomy.’ We chose this website because it is highly likely that it would be among the first sites a student might otherwise visit to find out more about knapweed, and because the literary practices constituting the webpage’s knowledge production remind us of those employed in the classificatory work at the heart of scientific racism and the colonial project. What we did not foresee, however, was the extent to which students would rely on the language of the Wikipedia entry to explain their processes of weed identification thereby unwittingly reproducing and reifying colonial systems of classification. This constitutes more than a limitation for us; it is also a failure of the assignment.
Complicating this, students’ papers drew parallels between the tenacious ability of knapweed to stunt the growth of other plants and the white settlers who worked to invade and take over Indigenous bodies, lands, and lifeways. This raises a number of concerns for us. First, despite our attempt to heed Tuck and Yang’s (2012) warning, the assignment provokes primarily metaphorical understandings of knapweed as settler colonialism and its eradication as decolonization. Second, this metaphor relies upon and reproduces a settler/Indigenous dyad as ahistorical and naturally existing. Third, it naturalizes a hostile relationship between the two, the outcome of which is both anticipated and assumed final. How can this then constitute the assignment as an ‘unsettling’ pedagogy? As problematizing settler colonialism “as a living phenomenon?” (Monture 2007, p. 207). Moreover, we worry that in attempting to address “the settler problem” (Regan 2010, p. 11), we inadvertently re-centered precisely that which we hoped to unsettle. This is a failure for us. One of the unforeseen outcomes in attempting ‘unsettling’ pedagogy is producing communities of individuals who embody and enact another version of settlerhood, that of the enlightened settler. We realize that we must be vigilant about the subtle and less obvious forms that uphold settler colonialism: we worry that success in teaching about colonization that leaves any room for a redeemable enlightened and benevolent settler subject (including ourselves as teachers), whose governments have apologized and who ‘know better’ than earlier generations, is part of the ongoing remaking of settlement.
One of our intimate attachments is to be ‘good’ teachers, that is, to teach anti-colonization and antiracism on the Blackfoot territories occupied by the University of Lethbridge in a way that avoids the pitfalls of pedagogies of inclusion and the fallacy of ‘safe spaces’. We share our experience of this assignment in the conviction that the moments of disorder, failure and uncertainty that arise within our teaching practices are sometimes necessary mis-steps. Though such practices may propel us towards imagining other, perhaps less colonial, ways of being in and of the world, they are also only made because of the colonial foundations on which our presence here as teachers and citizens resides.
Pulling the Weeds was inspired in part by a published conversation between Snelgrove, Dhamoon, and Corntassel (2014) wherein Corntassel describes efforts, largely on the part of Cheryl Bryce of the Songhees First Nation, and a “Community Tool Shed”, to revive Lekwungen “foodscapes and landscapes” (p. 25). The Community Tool Shed, located in what is now commonly called Victoria, B.C., is a site that brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous folks who work to rid Lekwungen homelands of invasive plant species and to foster traditional plant growth.
Monture, P.A. (2007). Racing and erasing: Law and gender in white settler societies. In S. P. Hier and B.S. Bolaria, eds. Race & racism in 21st century Canada: Continuity, complexity, and change (197-216). Peterborough: Broadview Press.
Regan, P. (2010). Unsettling the settler within: Indian residential schools, truth telling, and reconciliation in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Rich, A. (1994). Notes towards a politics of location (1984). In A. Rich (Ed.), Blood, bread and poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985 (210-231). London: Little Brown & Co.
Simpson, A. (2014). Mohawk interruptus: Political life across the borders of settler states. Durham & London: Duke University Press.
Simpson, L. B. (2014). Land as pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 3(3), 1-25.
Snelgrove, C., Dhamoon, R., & Corntassel, J. (2014). Unsettling settler colonialism: The discourse and politics of settlers, and solidarity with Indigenous nations. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 3(2), 1-32.
Tuck, E. & Yang, K.W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1), 1-40.