Guest Post: Eric Ritskes

This week, Niigaan: In Conversation is pleased to present a series of essays written by our friends and allies who, through their work, are rebuilding relationships and reenvisioning our future.  As part of the planning process behind our upcoming gala, we asked ourselves, what happened to the fire? The community rallied around Chief Spence, there was a desperate feeling, people brought wood, food, soup, medicines, water. We need to get that energy back. The problems are still here, we still have work to do. 

For more information about our Biiskaabiiyang Winter Gala in partnership with Red Man Laughing, visit:

The Chords of Sustained Indigenous Decolonization


For me, the power of Idle No More was bound to the creative resistance it manifested. More than the round dances, more than the national television coverage, and more than the hashtags – people took it on themselves, joined with community members, reached across Canada and across national borders to collectively decide to contribute something to the movement. Pamphlets were written, teach-ins were planned, art was made, sacred spaces were claimed, and highways were blockaded. Whatever it was that motivated them, people decided to put their beliefs and skills into creative contention with the ongoing colonial reality. I was struck by the diversity of actions and how spontaneously people rose up to make them happen. It was the power of Indigenous peoples and Indigenous nations on display for the world to see, the creative contention with current and historical colonial violences that couldn’t, despite best efforts, keep the spirit of Indigenous peoples from resisting and from creating. sacred fire

It was also a reminder of the power of hope. Too often we find ourselves caught up in the daily grind of decolonization – even of survival – of struggling on multiple levels against seemingly endless barriers; but what Idle No More reminded me of was the joy and hope that drives us all to imagine a different future, one where Indigenous nationhood and peoples are honored and valued. Seeing so many people join together, I was reminded of why we hope for something else – it was a small, imperfect taste of what it is to come, but a taste that lingers and can sustain us for the next step.

The challenge then, and now, is how to transform that hope into something sustainable and something lasting. The challenge is to take our dreams and figure out the practical steps needed to make them reality. It’s not a matter of recapturing the fire of Idle No More – because passion and desire are/were not enough. They are the spark, the beginning, and what is needed is collective will and organization for the hard work of decolonization, for the work that happens when the placards are put away. When we enter into long-term commitment to the struggle, we commit to giving our energy, our skills, our being to be the fuel the keeps the sacred fires burning.

This commitment demands that we look for answers beyond the institutions and structures that continually implicate us in the colonial project. We need to envision education as something beyond the colonial schools and government funding plans. We need to believe that governance and politics are more than band councils or municipal/ provincial/federal bodies. We need to understand environmentalism beyond individual cases and causes. While we are all complicit with varying systems of oppression, and we all occupy various positions on the continuum between resistance and oppression, we must all choose to work for and demand change. We need to envision and then collectively build alternatives. Our theories, protests, petitions and powerful words are only as valuable as the sustained actions for decolonization that they provoke. To be able to collectively build, to string together the moments of disruption through the chords of daily, lived out resistance, we must be willing to sustain one another. We must be able to live out the kinds of relationships, on a micro level, before they can ever become reality on a larger scale. This is taking resistance and resurgence back to the kinship level, to a relational level that allows us to hold one another up, to build and collaborate. This requires revolutionary actions like humility, self-love, and setting aside ego. It’s about allowing individual to play a role and showcase their skills within a collective that values them. It’s about building.

As I write this, I feel like what I am saying is a little simplistic, leaning a little too close to vague platitudes; but sometimes what is needed begins with ‘simple’ actions that reverberate into larger movements. We are collaborative journeying towards a tangible future of Indigenous sovereignty and nationhood, towards a collective decolonization and moments of reflection, like these, are necessary to both see what we’ve already learned and what is yet to be learned. Idle No More taught us some valuable lessons that we must learn from and build on, rather than letting them slide into that place of forgetfulness, where lessons learned through hard fought struggle are lost and errors repeated.

Eric Ritskes is a PhD student at the University of Toronto in Sociology and Equity Studied in Education. He is the founder and co-Editor of Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, an un-disciplinary online, peer-reviewed journal.

Niigaan Winter Gala: A Red Man Laughing Live Podcast

Niigaan: In Conversation is honoured and excited to partner with Red Man Laughing for its upcoming Winter Gala and Fundraiser at the National Arts Centre on December 10, 2013 in Ottawa, Ontario. The theme is Biiskaabiiyang (returning to ourselves) particularly regarding how to move forward in the collective work across the land. Please join us for music, laughter, discussion, dancing and delicious food. The Red Man Laughing Podcast will be a discussion to recreate our shared future.  It’s been a year since Chief Spence’s fast and Idle No More. It’s time to regroup, refocus and figure out what we’re doing next. We do this by looking at what we’ve done and what needs to be done and where to go next.

We asked ourselves, what happened to the fire? The community rallied around Chief Spence, there was a desperate feeling, people brought wood, food, soup, medicines, water. We need to get that energy back. The problems are still here, we still have work to do.

We want to hear everyone’s contribution to this discussion;
Please join us to add your voice to this important project.

Our host for the evening is Ryan McMahon, comedian, actor, thinker and Anishinaabe living in Winnipeg. He will be joined by:

  • Grand Chief Derek Nepinak (Pine Creek First Nation, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs)
  • Chief Isadore Day (Serpent River FN)
  • Lee Maracle (author of a number of critically acclaimed, award-winning works)
  • Leanne Simpson (author of a number of critically acclaimed, award-winning works)
  • Geraldine King (academic extraordinaire and community mover and shaker)
  • Celina Matasawagon (astounding inspiration)

Music from:

  • Gerri Trimble (Jazz singer beyond compare)
  • Mosha Folger (a.k.a. M.O. hip hop, spoken word master)

Silent Auction:

  • Christi Belcourt
  • Sonny Assu
  • Jaime Koebel
  • Mo McGreavy
  • Shady Hafez
  • Kelly-Ann Kruger

and more!

Wab Kinew, Director of Indigenous Inclusion at the University of Winnipeg, the host of CBC’s 8th Fire and Al Jazeera host, will be joining us to film the discussion between our host and our guests! In partnership with the University of Winnipeg, Niigaan: In Conversation discussion will be used to create teaching materials around the topic of Idle No More. We are so honoured and excited that the University will be supporting our work.
Eventbrite - Niigaan Winter Gala: A Live Red Man Laughing Podcast

Sometimes there is no translation


First things first:

My earliest ancestors here in the Kichisippi watershed were named MacEwen, British people who farmed 100 acres on Baseline Road, which is now a city park. My name is Tom Fortington. I was born here almost 40 years ago. It is my home only by the forbearance and good will of the Algonquin Anishinaabeg, since we have no treaty.

I attended the inaugural Niigaan event in March 2013. In the event’s program, there were one-word headlines in a language I recognized as Anishinaabemowin. They were set in uppercase, large enough to span the page. These words demanded attention!

Reading and re-reading the document, though, I found no translation for these words that the designer had deemed important enough to display so prominently. My initial reaction wavered between puzzlement and annoyance: was a minimum level of fluency to be assumed? Did I miss an e-mail?

So I sat with this enigma and let it be. In the two months since I encountered those words, some realizations have dawned on me. Intentional or not, the typesetter had issued a challenge: You may have to seek answers using your own resources. You will rely on the knowledge of others. The sharing of knowledge is as much a gift as it is an obligation. Sometimes, there is no translation. There is no guarantee that you will understand it. It is important to try anyway.

Sometimes, fortunately, a message comes in plain language exactly when you need it. In a recent article, Mississauga Nishnaabeg author and teacher Leanne Simpson relates her experience of Indigenous diplomatic traditions as she visits a nation on the western edge of the continent:

Doug Williams from Curve Lake First Nation always makes time to meet with me and answer my questions. He reminded me to acknowledge the territory I was visiting directly after I had shared with the audience my clan affiliation, where I was from, and my name. We talked about how as a visitor in another’s territory, my primary responsibility would be to listen and to take direction from my gracious hosts. We talked about our protocols and processes of engagement that foster and maintain good relationships between our nation and neighbouring nations. We talked about how even though I am not a political leader, I carry those responsibilities no matter where I go.

Had I been moving to Victoria, this kind of diplomacy would have carried even greater responsibilities. According to my own traditions, I would have a responsibility to listen, to learn, and to appreciate the jurisdiction, political culture, and traditions of the nation within which I was residing. I would have a responsibility to understand the issues this nation was facing, and I would have an obligation to support them and to stand with them. I would have a sacred duty to learn about my place and role within their political structure and their culture, and I would expect the same if one of their citizens moved to my territory. (Emphasis mine)

Leanne Simpson’s traditions are not my own, but I am willing to take direction from my hosts. Canadian culture certainly does not encourage its citizens to acknowledge the sovereignty of other nations on territory Canada claims as its own, so if I am to do my part to bridge the gap, I need to step outside my culture and take on that sacred duty to learn about my place and role. Learning the meaning of unfamiliar language moves me toward understanding. Understanding moves me toward action. This process is what the Niigaan series is encouraging.

The first step is to listen. There will be a lot of unfamiliar words and ideas. Many of them are wonderful. There is a lot to learn.

Chi miigwech.

Assimilation? Never!

Algonquin Elder Albert “South Wind” Dumont shared an opening prayer at the first Niigaan forum in March, 2013. Below, reproduced with his permission, is a recent post from his website.

At a time of spiritual meditation
I am sometimes drawn
To point my face towards the sun
My eyes tightly shut
Still, through closed eyes
I see all the colours
Of a magnificent sunrise before me
Like the fire within the fire
The heart and spirit of the day
I see it

My childhood years and my years as a young adult were years when my spirit did not sing and dance when the eagle appeared in the sky. I denied my spirit a chance to sing for I was, at that time, on my way to becoming an assimilated Indian. I was lost. I did not stand proud as a sober Algonquin. I drank excessively and in doing so, brought heartache and tears to all who loved me. Had I continued as I was, I would either have died young in some kind of violent confrontation over foolishness or I would surely have slid into a city gutter as a hopeless and desperate alcoholic. But with the help of my ancestors I slowly regained my identity as an Anishinabe Inini (First Peoples Man). With it I discovered spirituality and with the blessings of Great Spirit by my side, I found my life of sobriety.

If the people who hoped to rob me of my true purpose of life had been successful, then today I would be an assimilated drunkard crawling in the sewer of rotgut, searching in its stench for something impossible to find there. In such a state I would not be regarded as a threat to corporations and governments who seek to rape my ancestral lands of their riches until there is nothing left on them but sand.

This land of the Algonquins was always fertile and great in natural resources. The riches on the land were not installed into it by Europeans or by anyone else who came here from a far away continent. The resources held by the land will remain where they are. If my voice has a say in it, the land will always be healthy. The next generations are counting on us to defend the land.

Whenever the opportunity arises I will dare to speak of my love for my family, my people, my land, and I will do so without fear and without concern for how superior-minded people react to it.

Keep the Circle Strong,

Albert “South Wind” Dumont.