Read an excerpt from Canada Reads finalist Life In the City of Dirty Water by Clayton Thomas-Müller
Life In the City of Dirty Water will be championed by Suzanne Simard on Canada Reads 2022
Life in the City of Dirty Water is a memoir by Cree activist Clayton Thomas-Müller. It covers his entire life: from playing with toy planes as a way to escape the intergenerational pain of Canada's residential school system to spending time in juvenile detention and later becoming an activist in the fight against colonial racism, environmental degradation and violence. Along this rocky road, Thomas-Müller remains tied to his Cree heritage and spirituality.
You can read an excerpt from Life in the City of Dirty Water below.
In Canada today, and to a lesser degree in the United States, people are comfortable calling out mainstream, corporate media when it imposes non-Indigenous labels on Indigenous people— it's called extractive storytelling, and it's a form of institutional racism. Don't call me a "protester" when I call myself a "water protector"; don't call me an "eco-terrorist" when I call myself a "land defender." The corporate media is not entitled to choose a name for me.
Native pride is such that people are comfortable defending their sacred spaces, especially when they're being documented. But the discourse around decolonization and white supremacy and patriarchy is different around the world. In 2002, I was part of the IEN delegation to the World Summit on Sustainable Development, in Johannesburg, and we were hosted by the Khoisan people. They're sometimes known as the world's first people, as they were the first inhabitants of southern Africa. You might know of the Khoisan people from the film The Gods Must Be Crazy. They have faced wave after wave of colonialism, of African tribal colonialism and then European.
We had negotiated terms with the Khoisan people to organize an Indigenous pre-summit on sustainable development in Kimberley, South Africa, home of the infamous De Beers diamond-mining corporation. This company enslaved South African Black people in the notorious mine in Kimberley. It's a huge hole in the middle of the city that goes one and a half kilometres down. We held our conference right beside that hole and talked about colonialism within the context of sustainable development.
Many young Indigenous leaders—from big fights like Black Mesa and the fight to protect Navajo lands from coal mining, to representatives from Alaska and the Yukon fighting against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—attended the World Summit on Sustainable Development as part of our delegation. I had just gotten married in Oakland a month before, and so my wife came with me to South Africa. Koren says that was no fucking honeymoon but it was definitely an experience.
As part of the World Summit, nicknamed Rio+10, our Khoisan hosts performed an ancient ceremony to honour the full moon. They were doing a dance in the middle of the desert outside Johannesburg and they were naked. We were all in a circle, there was a fire, there was a full moon. It was very sacred. All the media people were up in their faces. One guy, an Afrikaner with what seemed like a floodlight on his rig, went right up in the middle of a circle and was recording up their behinds. I was shocked, but nobody was saying anything. I lost my temper. I was a little more fiery back then. I walked right into the circle of a thousand people. I grabbed that guy by the scruff of his neck and I dragged him out of the circle and yelled, "Get some goddamn respect! They are doing a sacred ceremony. Don't be filming up on them! See any of us going in filming during the sacred ceremony? Turn the goddamn light off on your camera!"
He realized that I was a foreign national and was not going to back down and he said, "Fine, then."
When the ceremony ended, my Khoisan friends came up to me and asked, "What was that all about?"
I said, "Why didn't you call him out?"
They told me, "They always film us like that." They were amazed that I had manhandled the guy.
Later I realized that I was projecting my Western-centric experience with settler colonialism in a place where there is hyper-militarization. Black folks in South Africa were still getting disappeared all the time, among them Indigenous Black folks like the Khoisan, who are an incredibly marginalized group. I should've gone up to my Khoisan brother and said, "I'm going to go up and grab this jerk. Is that OK?" I should have gotten that consent. You can never project your experience on anybody else. It trips you up. I do it to this day. I get agitated with what I see happening in the movement, but everybody is a product of their own environment and everybody's reality is real to them.
Excerpted from Life in the City of Dirty Water by Clayton Thomas-Müller. Copyright © 2021 Clayton Thomas-Müller. Published by Allen Lane. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
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