Artistic research: New pathways to new knowledge? A conversation with Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

photo: Corneliu Ganea

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Part 19: Land-Based Education and Research

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson was the artist in residence at the ATD last month. A Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer, musician, scholar and activist from Canada, Leanne is regarded as one of the most powerful Indigenous voices of her generation. 

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson starts by briefly retracing the route she took to explore her ancestral past and present: ‘After gaining my biology PhD from the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba province, I returned to my own community to continue my research. I wanted to learn from my own Elders, my own culture. So instead of attending conferences and spending hours at the computer, I learned how to make maple syrup and harvest wild rice. Here, research meant canoeing through the territory, drinking tea with Elders, spending time with knowledge holders and learning the language, and then sharing all this with my children and the rest of my family. It’s what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years or more. This research is the backbone of everything I do – my music, my books and my academic work.’

Could you tell me how your land-based research changed you?
At the start I was still very much living in my head. That’s what academia does to you – you need to be be objective, to read and write, to think. But for this phase, my land-based research, I needed my entire body. It demanded that I fully participate, that I got my body in physical motion, that instead of only thinking I really felt what was going on and was spiritually connected. In the Nisnaabeg worldview, your own reflections, learning process and perspectives are all you’ve got. 

I also needed to learn to slow down. You can’t learn it all in a just a couple of weeks, or even years. It’s all about real lifelong learning. Lots of what’s passed on is oral and rooted in practice. The Elders don’t sit down to teach you; you don’t get many instructions. You have to ‘do’ with them and enter a relationship. You have to listen with your heart. My teacher for more than 20 years was elder Doug Williams, who died in July 2022. We had a very deep kind of friendship – both of us were hugely devoted to studying our culture. I learned so, so much for him. 

Can you recall any particular flash of insight?
One moment does stand out for me. I think it must have been 20 years ago now – my children were still small then, and I was working on my book Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back. I was at Doug’s office at Trent University, where I wanted to talk with him about the Teachings of the Seven Grandfathers – these teachings are lessons about the key values of our culture. They’re sometimes taught almost like the Ten Commandments from the Christian Bible, and you often see them written in English on posters in offices. I wanted to use the teachings as a window onto the past by translating them into our language, to work out how my ancestors had interpreted them. I was asking Doug about some particular words, and he suddenly said: ‘The situation is different from what you’re thinking. I know the teachings as Kookom Dibaajimowinan [grandmother stories].’ It was a big surprise to me. Doug explained that it was the grandmothers who passed on the teachings to their grandchildren, associating each teaching – such as the one about love – with a family member who best embodied the quality it described. It was wonderful for me to hear that it would be presented through a person who lived a particular virtue in a genuine way, and connecting the grandchild with that person – or actually seven people, because there are seven teachings. It created a vast web of stories and connections. It really really blew my mind.

You mean instead of imposing seven rules?
Exactly. There’s nothing static about these teachings. Because of course there are lots of ways of putting qualities like courage and respect into practice. Everything shifted for me in that five minutes at Doug’s office. 

Could you tell me more about your work in northern Canada, at the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning in Yellowknife?
It’s in the territory of the Dene, who were colonised much later than our community to the south. That’s why they’ve got a larger area of land and their language has survived intact. The Dechinta Centre was set up ten years ago to reconnect Indigenous students with their own culture. We take the students into the country for a week-long course and live there as a community in canvas tents. (Before the pandemic the courses were six weeks long, and we’re going to return to that original length.) Every morning the students go out with the Elders to catch and dry fish, hunt, and collect medicinal plants. We devote the afternoons to Indigenous studies, looking at what the Elders practised and taught us that morning. We try to live in accordance with Dene laws – decision-making is communal, and we solve conflicts as a group. 

And how do students experience their time at the Dechinta Centre, would you say?
We find that young Indigenous people often have a hard time of it at regular high schools, and many leave without a diploma – and with low self-esteem. They face racism and there are lots of socio-economic problems that can be traced back to colonialism and residential schooling. Our study programme roots the students in their own culture while also teaching them about colonialism, to give them an understanding of their own history. They don’t get that from the Canadian education system. That’s why many young people think they come from a bad or even wicked family or community. But that’s just not true. We’re actually very strong. Our families resisted and did their utmost to get us where we are now. Realising that is really empowering. But there’s a lot of grief, too. 

You see a real impact on these young people when they reconnect with their own knowledge system, their languages and culture, and the land. It’s so powerful. I think the students are so happy here because they’re out on the land, because they’re learning to catch and dry fish, because they’re learning how to do what their grandmothers have always done. They leave the workshop happier, calmer and more grounded, because they know they are of value after all.

One of the things in your book Noopiming that touched and interested me is that everyone in the community counts, that everyone has a place in the whole.
Yes, that’s something that really gets you involved as a teacher. In the regular school system, if a student doesn’t do the work they get a fail and are thought of as a bad and/or lazy student. But in Nishnaabeg and Dene culture, it’s the responsibility of the community as a whole to find out what’s wrong. Does the person concerned need more support? Are they going through something we haven’t understood? Have they got physical or psychological problems? Have they been affected by a trauma in the family? 

An old legend tells of someone who is bone-lazy and doesn’t want to contribute to the community. The community tries everything to find out the cause with unwavering friendliness, support and patience. For a long time it looks like nothing’s going to change, but then the person transforms into peat moss. Peat moss is a very useful resource – it’s antibacterial and used for medicines and as nappies for babies. So the moral of the story is: if you don’t make your contribution in one way, the universe will find another way [laughs]. 

Do you teach Indigenous studies to your students?
I do. One of the areas I’ve been asked to work in is making the students aware of how the Elders live Dene laws. If you don’t do that, it generally passes them by – they’re so used to teachers telling them: ‘These are the rules, now learn them by heart’. One Dene law says you must share everything you have with others. I try to ensure that students come to see how the Elders are doing that, by sharing their food, skills and knowledge. And once the students start living by the rules, like by starting to share what they have, you know they’ve understood. 

Is your role in this situation one that you find elsewhere in your culture? Is it up to the parents to ensure children pick up these lessons from the Elders?
Doug Williams told me it’s the job of middle-aged people. It’s up to them to make sure children encounter the stories and teachings of the Elders. They are the bridge. It’s not the sole responsibility of parents, though, because there’s always a wider circle of uncles and aunts around the children. That means the teachings reach the children in a variety of ways. This diversity or sources is central to our worldview – everything is fluid, and there is no single way in which any particular thing should be done.

Text and interview: Hester van Hasselt

The complete series of interviews Artistic research: New pathways to new knowledge? you can read here

photo: Corneliu Ganea

photo: Corneliu Ganea

photo: Corneliu Ganea