The Brilliance of the Beaver: Learning from an Anishnaabe World

Renowned Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar and artist, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson talks about the philosophy and ethics that undergird Anishnaabe worlds in her 2020 Kreisel Lecture entitled, A Short History of the Blockade: Giant Beavers, Diplomacy and Regeneration in Nishnaabewin.

The figure of the Beaver offers a way to understand the philosophy that undergird Anishnaabe worldviews

'In colonial minds, the beaver is nature's engineer, the earliest forester, the first hydrologist, the original industry. No one has had more impact on the environment than the beaver, except for humans,' Leanne Betasamosake Simpson says in her 2020 Kreisel Lecture. (Koca Sulejmanovic/AFP via Getty Images)

*Originally aired on April 16, 2020.

"My people are constant storytellers throughout the day and throughout the seasons. Stories are the fabric of daily life," Leanne Betasamosake Simpson told the audience in her 2020 Kreisel Lecture, entitled A Short History of the Blockade: Giant Beavers, Diplomacy & Regeneration in Nishnaabewin.

Simpson has been widely recognized as one of the most compelling Indigenous voices of her generation. She is a member of Alderville First Nation and teaches at the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning in Denedeh.

In March the renowned Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, writer and artist presented the 2020 Kreisel Lecture at the University of Alberta's Canadian Literature Centre in Edmonton.

"I want to share the brilliance of my relative, the Beaver," Simpson declared.

Her talk focused on four stories about the Beaver — Amik — and its place in Anishnaabe worlds. Simpson demonstrates how the figure of the Beaver offers lessons in how to live connected to the world around us — through knowledge, wisdom and industriousness.

The Beaver also presents a useful metaphor for the ways in which young Indigenous people — perhaps all people — can think about the role they can in sustaining just practices, and honouring relationships with the earth, its creatures, and other people. 

From Leanne Betasamosake Simpson's lecture:

Lessons learned from the land:

This land has taught me that Anishinaabe life is continual, reciprocal and reflective. It is a sometimes critical engagement with my ancestors, those yet to be born, and the nations of beings with whom I share land. It is a living constellation of co-resistance with all of the anti-colonial peoples and the worlds they build.

This land has taught me that Anishnaabe life is a persistent world building process. Despite of, and in spite of, the constant imposition of the colonial machinery of elimination.

My ancestors woke up each morning and created an Anishnaabe world.- Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

This procedure for Indigenous life and Indigenous living is one that Indigenous peoples used long before our existence ever depended upon our ability to resist and survive the violence of capitalism, hetero-patriarchy, and expansive dispossession. 

My ancestors woke up each morning and created an Anishnaabe world. They animated their political system of governance and diplomacy. They built their collective philosophical and ethical understandings. They made processes for solving conflicts and reestablishing balance. And they built their economy with the consent of plant and animal nations.

They built, maintained and nurtured systems for sharing knowledge and taking care of each other. They worked collectively to produce, reproduce, replicate, amplify and share Indigenous life because if they did not, Anishinaabe worlds wouldn't exist.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson has lectured and taught extensively at universities across Canada and the U.S. She has 20 years of experience with Indigenous land based education. (Nadya Kwandibens / Red Works Photography)

They were makers. They got up each morning and they worked hard. Not the white man, wage labour, Monday to Friday, nine-to-five kind of work. Not the kind of work where you outsource the labour of living so you can do something more important. But the kind of work that values above all else, the way one lives. They got up, worked hard all day long, and they brought forth more life.

This algorithm for living, theory and praxis, seemingly intertwined and relationally responsive to each other, is generated through intimate relations with land; land that is constructed and defined by a responsive, intellectual, spiritual, emotional and physical relationality. Living as a creative act. Self-determination, consent, kindness and freedom practiced daily in all our relations. Practices, replicated over and over making as the material basis for experiencing and influencing the world. 

Living with the purpose of generating continual life.

Rethinking the meaning of the Beaver and the blockade:

I want to step away from the usual ways blockades are portrayed in the media and understood by the majority of Canadians. I want to spend some time tonight thinking about this practice of the blockade in a different way. In an Anishnaabe way — in the spirit of Indigenous internationalism. I want to share the brilliance of my relative, the Beaver. 

According to the Edmonton Journal, [there are] 1,300 to 1,600 beavers living in the city, which beats Calgary's 200 and Winnipeg's 100. I think we have the glorious nature of the North Saskatchewan River to thank for that, which means we have the brilliance of the beaver among us tonight. 

In colonial minds, the beaver is nature's engineer, the earliest forester, the first hydrologist, the original industry. No one has had more impact on the environment than the beavers, except for humans.

Amikwag embody the politics and the ethical practices of wisdom.- Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

In 1975, the beaver [the animal, not figure] became an emblem of Canada as a symbol of its sovereignty, because the first Europeans in Indigenous territories saw the Beaver not as a relative, but as a money making attraction to supply the continent with nifty felt hats. 

Two hundred years of making beavers into accessories led to their near extinction. And now beavers are mostly known to us as a nuisance and an inconvenience. But this Indigenous land, this Indigenous water, these Indigenous bodies have centuries of oral literature and an embodied practice that know different… Beavers — Amikwag — represent the practice of wisdom. 

I want to think about that for a moment. Out of all of the beings that make up life on this planet, to my ancestors, Amikwag embody the politics and the ethical practices of wisdom.

'Google, how big is the biggest beaver dam?' Simpson asks in her lecture. The answer: 850 metres with the hull. (Allison Shelley/Getty Images)

Amikwag build dams, dams that create deep pools and channels that don't freeze, creating winter worlds for their fish relatives, deep pools and channels that drought proof the landscape, dams that make wetlands full of moose, deer and elk, food cooling stations, places to hide, and muck to keep the flies away. Dams that open spaces in the canopy so sunlight increases, making warm and shallow aquatic habitat around the edges of ponds for amphibians and insects. Dams that create plunge pools on the downstream side for juvenile fish, gravel for spawning, and homes and food for birds.

And who is the first back after a fire to start the regeneration makework? Amik is a world builder. Amik is the one that brings the water. Amik is the one that brings forth more life. Amik is the one that works continuously with water and land and plant and animal nations and consent and diplomacy to create worlds. To create shared worlds. 

Prior to contact with white people, it is estimated that (North America) was home to between 60 and 400 million beavers. That's three to five beavers for every kilometre of stream, a beaver in nearly every headwater stream in North America. Biologists call the beaver a keystone species.

It is so important to an ecosystem that without it, the ecosystem would collapse. A species that continually creates habitats and food sources for other beings. Families that filter and purify water. Clans that replenish the soil with nutrients. Communities that manage spring floods and water temperature. A nation that continually gives a beaver dam a blockade. Life-giving generative affirmative.

Beavers have been seen round dancing in malls, blockading ports and intersections.- Leanne Betasamoksake Simpson

Justice emulates Beaver wisdom:

One of the markers of aging if you are an Indigenous parent is when your kids hear about the protests before you do. It recently happened to me and my teenagers when there was a solidarity protest in downtown Peterborough. Instead of me taking them, they took me.

Watching my kids step up unprompted and live their responsibilities as Michi Saagiig was a beautiful relief. I watched them as they used their bodies to build a beaver dam. I watched them as they inherited both the breathtaking beauty of Anishnaabewin and the struggle involved in birthing new worlds.

My beautiful relief sat beside another feeling well known to generations of Indigenous parents before me. The feeling of your chest closing in on laboured breath as you watched the beings you most love in the world, your little beings, step off the sidewalk and use their precious bodies — bodies you've spent your life feeding, protecting, stuffing vegetables into — to block the vehicles of white people, many of whom are visibly angry, some of whom make a regular practice of erasing and devaluing Indigenous minds, bodies and spirits. 

I thought of the parents of Colten Boushie, Tina Fontaine, and the family of one of my former brilliant students Misty Potts, who was last seen in March of 2015. This is not the world I wish to pass on to my children, a world where each year hope is diminished.

A young woman holds a sign bearing Tina Fontaine's name during the Women's March in Vancouver, January 2019. The remains of Fontaine, a 15-year-old Indigenous girl, were found in Winnipeg's Red River eight days after she was reported missing in 2014. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

There is currently a Beaver resurgence of sorts happening on Turtle Island. Beavers have been seen round dancing in malls, blockading ports and intersections, holding teach-ins at university, handing out fully gnawed beaver sticks to hikers. Urban Beavers have started to cut down trees in parks and along rivers and build dams over urban creeks, flood the odd trail or basement. They've starred in their own IMAX movie, enticed scientists to study, and rejected the stereotype of felt hat for something truer to their form. 

Blockades are both a refusal and an affirmation. An affirmation of a different political economy, a world built upon a different set of relationships and ethics, an affirmation of life. That's why the words of Freda Huson, spokesperson of the Unist'ot'en camp speaks to the hearts of Indigenous people when she says: "Our peoples' belief is that we are part of the land. The land is not separate from us. The land sustains us. And if we don't take care of her, she won't be able to sustain us. And we as a generation of people will die." 

So we can have the same old arguments we've been having for centuries about inconveniences in the extralegal nature of blockades. We can pit jobs in the economy versus the environment. We can perform superficial dances of reconciliation and dialogue and negotiate for the cheap gifts of economic and political inclusion.

Or we can imagine different worlds. We can remember the principled actions of the Dene Nation in the 1970s opposing the Mackenzie Valley pipeline; where the communities of Kahnawake and Kanesatake had gone to war during the summer of 1990, and find ways to support families, clans, communities and nations that are standing up and saying, no, you do not have our consent to build this golf course, pipeline, mine, hydro dam, clear cut because we are very, very busy building a different world.

Excerpts have been edited for clarity and length.

* This episode is produced by Naheed Mustafa.

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