Claiming Anishinaabe

24 August 2018

Claiming Anishinaabe: decolonizing the human spirit
by Lynn Gehl
University of Regina Press
Review by Madonna Hamel
$24.95 ISBN 9780889774919

Claiming Anishinaabe is a treatise on one indigenous woman’s “theory of the human spirit.” I came away from it with a deeper conviction that colonization is a practice that corrals minds, bodies and spirits. And every one of us suffers at its constricting hands. My own internalized shame at this country’s treatment of indigenous people has made it hard for me to face many truths. After reading this book I wrote a Cree friend: “Shame is a regime tool. Whether it’s The Old Regime calling us heathens or The New Regime calling us fat, ugly, old, unsuccessful, off-key etc. When shame enters the picture no one gets to tell their truth. We hunker down and defend our little patch of reality. We cannot afford to open to Other Ways of Knowing. We can’t bear one more finger wave or barb of contempt.”

Gehl refers consistently to her own journey and perspectives. She intricately describes an Indigenous world that reflects her life as academic, scientist, Anishinaabe and a partially blind woman. While resisting blaming individuals, she does“blame Canada”. Often. She blames it for denying her right to register as Anishinaabe, even though her mother, father, and maternal grandmother are all Anishinaabe. She blames it for a cultural genocide, making it impossible for her to see her “inherent meaning system” mirrored in a cultural world view. She blames it for criminalizing cultural practices, thus criminalizing being indigenous.

In a chapter on feasting she relays a conversation between her brother and her nephew. “How do people become rich?”, asks the boy. “You can be born rich or win the lottery”, answers her brother. She adds: “Or work hard and hoard a lot” or “desire little”. Indigenous cultures know that to live“mino-pimadiziwin” -the “good life” – you live simply. You honour the land, animals and water. ”Mino-pimadizwin” comes from the awareness that humans are not the top dog. In fact we are the most reliant of all beings. After all, what need of us has the water, the deer, and the berry bush?

Gehl writes about a culture that honours “feeling”. “Our bodies are intelligent; they remember things.” In order to live “as good human beings” we must embody knowledge through the practices of “ ritual, song and ceremony”. Reading this chapter I recalled a recent evening where a group of friends got together for a singalong. Half the group opted out because, as they put it they “can’t sing, can’t hold a note.” I longed for the childhood days, when we all just burst into song. If we didn’t know the words we lalala-ed. Or made stuff up. It was an essential ritual. National anthems at hockey games may be the only time we sing. But anthems, Gehl warns, form us into “children of nation-states” first and foremost, “not children of the earth”.

If the inner spirit cannot be mirrored by the outer spirit than it cannot be animated. The two spirits need to be struck up against each other, like two milk quartz rocks rubbed together, writes Gehl. Only upon contact do they give off a glow called “triboluminescence”, a wonder-filled word she entitles her theory of the human spirit.


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