On November 13th, I went to see Tanya Tagaq along with Jean Martin, Jesse Zubot, and Christine Duncan. I was expecting something different than a regular concert or performance. I had no way of anticipating just how different the Event that took place would actually be. It has taken me awhile to be able to try and write about that experience and what was shared and sung and drummed and played and heard and witnessed. Really, the experience was unspeakable… and so some time had to pass before I could pretend to be able to speak or write of it. I have never been hyperbolic about things related to the Arts, in fact I am generally quite skeptical about the transformative power or radical possibilities people like to ascribe to things like music or painting or theatre or literature, but as I have tried to speak of and understand what happened, I would say that it was apolcalyptic in the proper sense of that word. That is to say, it was a rupturous revelation, the in-breaking of a novum into a space that previously could not imagine that newness – and I felt as though I was simultaneously transfixed, transported and transformed. The entire thing felt… holy… prophetic… inspired… (all of which are words I never use, but can’t seem to avoid now) It felt like an encounter with the Unnameable which we often go seeking but which we never find, unless the Unnameable chooses to come and encounter us.
In reflecting on this experience, I hope I am not trying to name the Unnameable. I’m not even convinced that my personal reflections are worth sharing with anybody else – how a Settler reflects upon the activities and voice of an Indigenous woman should be of little importance to anybody and this has been part of the reason why I have been hesitant about writing. So I do want to be clear about that – I am not the voice people should hear – that voice is Tanya’s. Still, I do want to think a little more about these things and I also want to say thank you to Tanya and those who were on stage with her. In what follows, I try to do both. Tanya, Jean, Jesse, and Christine, thank you. I lift my hands to you.
When I was in my early twenties, I spent a few summers working for a small tree planting company. Tree planting companies are all basically subcontractors of the lumber mills and the massive Canadian logging industry. Tree planters do not restore the environment – the land, the rivers, the mountains, the plants, and the animals will not be the same and no effort is made to actually return things to the state they were in before everything got torn up and turned into money. Rather, the intention is to simply pack as much future lumber into the land as can fit according to the latest GPS mapping technology. It’s not so much an investment in the future of the planet as an investment in the future profits of the mills (plus the Government made reforestation a requirement for logging companies, sometime in the ‘70s, I believe, although even when I was planting trees in the early 2000s, we would still sometimes plant clear cuts from the ‘70s – so even though logging companies will tell you that there are more trees in the ground here today than seventy years ago, and that growth exceeds removal this is because more lumber is being packed into the land (which is then bombed with pesticides to prevent other plants from growing in order to ensure that the desired kind of lumber survives –i.e. if you are trying to cultivate spruce or pine seedlings, you don’t want alders taking over everything and choking them out, so you create a pesticide that kills alders and other plants [and animals] but leaves the spruce and pine untouched). So, sure, more trees. More seedlings than old growth forests. And entire ecosystems are being destroyed and turned into private woodlots.
As a planter, I spent some time working on unceded Wet’suwet’en territory, although I didn’t know that at the time. I thought I was in northern British Columbia and, when I got back to Toronto from the summers I spent there, I always used to refer to my time planting as the “quintessential Canadian wilderness experience.”
I am ashamed to think of that now – there is so much of the settler colonial ideology caught up in those few words (the implication of terra nullas, the total lack of awareness that the territory was never ceded to Canada, my ignorance of the caretakers of the land on which I walked…) – but those were the words I spoke and I am responsible for them.
Today, the Unist’ot’en Camp and the land defenders there who are working to prevent the tar sands pipeline from moving through their territories, along with folks like the Wilp Luutkudziiwus of the Gitxsan Nation at the Madii Lii Camp, and the Klabona Keepers, composed of Tahltan elders and families, are some of the people I find the most inspiring in the world. These are people who care deeply about the land and who act to prevent the land and water and air and plants and animals and people from being poisoned and torn apart and plundered and left for dead. The land – composed of all these entities – is calling out and these are the people who have heard that call and responded.
It saddens me that I drank from the streams in these territories and smelled the earth there after the rain, and watched the sunset ever those mountains, and never once thought of these keepers of the land.
As the summer winds down and tree-planting contracts come to an end, there is always the opportunity to make a fair bit of extra money by hopping from company to company as some folks are increasingly desperate to get their trees in the ground before the end of August and a good many planters leave from August first onwards because they want to go and party and spend their money and travel before returning to school in September. I like to stay at late as possible and so I would pack up my tent and my gear, found out where a camp was located and hitchhike down Highway 16 to the next job.
Highway 16 is known as the Highway of Tears. Indigenous groups report that over thirty indigenous women and girls have gone missing or been found dead along that stretch of highway, although official police estimates are much lower and sit at eighteen, with a slightly broader radius (officially and unofficially, the police and the Government of Canada have taken a stand of not wanting to do much about addressing the extraordinarily high rates at which Indigenous women go missing and are murdered in Canada). I didn’t know that I was hitchhiking on the Highway of Tears and, as an able-bodied (in peak physical condition), white, hetero, cis, male settler, I didn’t experience any problems above and beyond the occasional nonsense a fellow like me can experience hitchhiking anywhere else on Turtle Island.
As I have reflected back on this experience over the years, it has come to represent to me a particularly vivid snapshot of the privilege I experience simply by being born as a certain kind of person at a certain time in history (although I also feel odd using the word “privilege” to refer to things I once took for granted and can still exploit because of the monumentally violent structures that shape the world into which we have been thrown – analogy: is it a “privilege” to eat well because one steals all the food that a whole host of others need in order not to starve? Isn’t that kind of a fucked up way of understanding things?).
Of course, this “privilege” isn’t something I only experience when hitchhiking. I spent a number of years living just fine in Vancouver’s downtown eastside where seventy mostly Indigenous women have gone missing. Partial remains of a number of those women were found at the Pickton pig farm, where they had been murdered, butchered and fed to pigs (the police had received a number of tips about investigating the Pickton farm but they never got around to doing much of anything about these missing women until there was finally enough public pressure for them to engage in an actual investigation). This is one particularly striking example of a broader settler colonial phenomenon, where ongoing calls for an inquest into the murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada eventually resulted in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police revealing that approximately twelve hundred Indigenous women are officially known to have gone missing or been murdered in these colonized territories since 1980. Women like Tina Fontaine, a fifteen year old girl, found a bag in the Red River in Winnipeg. Women like Dawn Crey, whose DNA was found in the dirt of the Pickton farm. Women like Loretta Saunders, a University student who was engaged in a research project about murdered and missing Indigenous women, who disappeared and whose body was later found on a median beside a highway in New Brunswick. Despite all these things, Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada (the same man who apologized for residential schools and then went on to declare that Canada has no history of colonialism) has been quick to assert that all of this is a “criminal” matter and not a “sociological phenomenon”. That, of course, is how Prime Ministers and the heads of Settler states – from Canada to Israel to South Africa during Apartheid – are wont to speak.
But there is a call rising up here as well – just like the land is calling – there is a call rising up from and with the Indigenous Peoples of these territories, and it is especially the women who are hearing and responding to (and making) this call.
This is the call I heard when listening to Tanya Tagaq. It was as though the land was singing, as though the blood of the missing and murdered Indigenous women, which has mixed with the earth and water and air was crying out. And the cry was so strong that there were times when I was sitting with my stomach muscles flexed and I couldn’t relax them because I felt like I was being punched in the stomach by the song. I wept and I listened to the voice of the Kuupak (MacKenzie) river delta – one of the largest in the world – singing its death song. I listened to the flocks of birds who died landing in the tailings ponds by Fort McMoney because they thought they were bodies of water. I wept and I listened to the farewell song of the fish and the water and the plants and the animals and all the creeping things who died when Imperial Metals spilled 2.5 billion gallons of contaminated water and 4.5 million cubic metres of metals laden silt into Hazeltine Creek, Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake on the way to the Ltha Koh/Stolo/sat’atqwa7 (Fraser) River Watershed. And I listened to Tina. And I listened to Dawn. And I listened to Loretta. And I listened to the voices of a great cloud of witnesses crying out and bearing witness. I listened to the cry of blood and land and water and women. I listened to the voice of stolen life singing. Mountains have been turned into valleys. Rivers have been dammed. Marshes have been turned into toxic wastelands. Forests have been turned into woodlots.
And Indigenous women have been turned into meat.
But life that has been stolen cries out. I heard it in Tanya’s song.
How can one respond to hearing this cry? How can I? It is my people who have done this. I am implicated with them. I participate in the oil-based economy. I pay taxes. I live on stolen land. This blood and water and air and dirt and death is on my hands, too. Knowing what I know and weeping, weeping, weeping at the knowledge of these things – this does not make me any more innocent or just.
I don’t know how to be just. But, wait, that’s not true. I think all the folks I mentioned earlier – the Wet’suwet’en, the Wilp Luutkudziiwus, the Klabona Keepers, I think they all provide us with an example and a proof that just living is possible. But, me, I don’t know how to pursue justice without losing my children. And me, typical Settler that I am, I want to have my cake and eat it, too. True, innumerable Indigenous folks have had their children stolen from them – in residential schools, in TB hospitals where they were used as lab rats, in the ‘60s scoop and the ongoing use of foster care and children’s services as a tool of colonization, in poverty, disease, and to suicide – but I don’t want to lose my children or hurt my children by leaving them. So I say that I want to be just… but I continue to live a life of “privilege.”
There is an old story about a fellow who heals a blind man by spitting on his eyes and touching him. When this fellow asks the blind man if he can see anything, the blind man says that he sees people, but they look like “trees walking”. So the fellow touches the blind man a second time and his vision clears. I feel like I am in between the first and second touch.
Tanya sang, without stopping to break or talk, for an hour and a half. When everything finally stopped, a collective gasp rose from the audience. I’m gasping still.
Tanya, Jean, Jesse, and Christine, you touched my ears and my eyes and my lips and my heart. Thank you.