White Supremacy in the Bush

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

From As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (University of Minnesota Press, 2017). Copyright 2017 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. Reprinted by permission of the University of Minnesota Press.

Two celebrated white women writers figure prominently in the local settler historical record in Peterborough, Ontario. The two sisters, Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie, moved uninvited into the heart of Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg territory in disregard of and seemingly oblivious to the international agreements my nation had made with theirs in the 1830s. Susanna Moodie subsequently, at the direction of her publisher in Britain, wrote Roughing It in the Bush as a guide for settler life for those British subjects considering moving to occupied Nishnaabeg territory. Moodie’s work remains a canonical work in Canadian literature for both its literary and Canadian cultural contributions, with Margaret Atwood’s 1972 book of poetry The Journals of Susanna Moodie further cementing Moodie into Canadian prominence.

I’ve read Roughing It in the Bush a number of times, and it is never an enjoyable experience. At one point, Moodie writes about the lynching of a Black man in Michi Saagiig territory, with all the anti-Blackness that is Canadian and that Canada would not exist without. Passages such as “[the] Mississauga Indians, perhaps the least attractive of all these wild people, both with regard to their physical and mental endowments” grate on my being, not because of their historic inaccuracies or their reflection of the normalcy of white supremacy at the time but because so much Indigenous effort has gone into disproving her lies, and because this pillar of white supremacy and colonialism—the idea that we are naturally less than our white counterparts—continues to produce generations of Native youth that believe they are, or, perhaps more dangerously, believe that achieving what matters in settler colonial Canadian society— degrees, economic prosperity, home ownership, or whatever—makes them a more valuable Indigenous person. It does, but only through the lens of white supremacy.

Moodie’s detailed descriptions of Mississauga men with their “coarse and repulsive features” and “intellectual faculties scarcely developed,” and of Mississauga women as “a merry, light-hearted set…in strange contrast to the iron taciturnity of their grim lords” set the tone for an overwhelmingly anti-Indigenous and anti-Black characterization of life in occupied Upper Canada. She goes on to repeatedly position Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg as stupid and ugly throughout the chapter titled “The Wilderness and Our Indian Friends,” freely commenting on physical attributes and sexuality of Mississauga men. She writes, “The vanity of these grave men is highly amusing. They seem perfectly unconscious of it themselves; and it is exhibited in the most child-like manner,” and “I’m inclined to think that their ideas of personal beauty differ very widely from ours.” She also freely comments on the bodies and sexuality of Mississauga women: “Tom Nogan, the chief ’s brother had a very large, fat, ugly squaw for his wife. She was a mountain of tawny flesh, and, but for the innocent, good-natured expression which, like a bright sunbeam penetrating a swarthy cloud, spread all around a kindly glow, she might have been termed hideous”; “she appeared very dirty, and appeared quite indifferent to the claims of common decency.”

I could go on, but I won’t. Much of this overt racism is dismissed or absent in the analysis of Roughing It in the Bush, or at least neutralized by placing it in “the context of the historical record,” even in specific analysis of the representations of Native women. The historical record in this context is meant to be the “original literary context” in which they were writing and the prevailing and normalized attitudes and beliefs about Indians at the time. It is a prevailing racist Canadian attitude that we cannot judge writers from the past by today’s standards.

Which leads me to ask whose historical context and whose standards?

We know the answer, and it certainly is not the historical context of the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg or Black people in Canada. The Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg nation was under the violent attack of colonialism from every angle. The end of the War of 1812 for the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg was devastating. We witnessed the extirpation of salmon and eels from our territory, and the construction of the Trent-Severn Waterway, which destroyed the water in most of our lakes and our food security as the flooding destroyed the wild rice beds, an unprecedented (at the time) level of environmental destruction. We were in negotiations that resulted in the 1818 treaty, the residential schools system was being set up, with the first school opening in Alderville First Nation in 1828, and we were under the height of the efforts of the Methodist missions designed to carry out cultural genocide and assimilation. All of these processes were designed to clear Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg bodies from the land to the extreme benefit of settlers.

Moodie is writing about my relations while living on stolen land in an enclave of white supremacy. She is both witness to and beneficiary of the violent dispossession of Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg from our homeland. Her entire existence and that of her family are predicated on that crime, and she is willfully oblivious as she constructs Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg people as also willfully oblivious. This trumps any possible shared sisterhood Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg women might have with her as female. Carole Gerson writes, “powerful as white but disempowered as female, Moodie and Traill share with Native women some marginal space on the outskirts of frontier culture.” Genocide sets up a clear dichotomy in which, unless white women are willing to divest themselves of the power of being white, there is no shared marginal space with Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg women. Describing interactions between white women and Mississauga women as “experimental and not oppositional” is a fiction that exists in white women’s theorizing themselves out of responsibility for benefiting from and replication of the gendered violence of colonialism through assumed allied spaces of women-to-women contact zones. Think about how Moodie so completely steals the self-determination of Indigenous women and recasts us as dirty and stupid, a recasting that I still live with nearly two hundred years later. She comprehensively steals and erases the bodies of Indigenous peoples and exerts an absolute power over Indigenous life as if this is her birthright. Think this is just in the past? Think again. Think about how those very same ideas are still the top four in 2015 when Indigenous youth, fresh out of high school, list the stereotypes they have heard in their own lives.

The ways in which Moodie negates Indigenous nationhood, obfuscates colonialism, and replicates the gendered nature of colonial violence that both informs and influences Indian policy cannot be dismissed and excused as the “racism of the times,” because it is these unexamined foundational beliefs about Indigenous peoples that were used and are used as justification for dispossession, residential schools, the Indian Act, and the violence against Indigenous women that is normalized in settler Canadian society, and for the continued paternalism of helping Indigenous peoples and dealing with the “Indian problem.” It seems to me that the point of the words “original literary context” is to provide a broad exoneration that fits seamlessly into the Canadian narrative of the past: Mistakes were made. Land was lost. Children were stolen. Cultures were adapted. Treaties didn’t work out. We meant well. We tried our best. Progress is inevitable, and while it is regretful you didn’t have the intelligence or fortitude to be successful, that’s life. Maybe we’ll try and be nicer and help more.

Very few Canadians will directly proclaim they are in favor of the position of Indigenous peoples in Canada, but a very large number of Canadians will do everything they can to preserve the social, cultural, and economic systems of the country, even though this system is predicated on violence and dispossession of Indigenous lands and bodies. Therefore, we do not need the help of Canadians. We need Canadians to help themselves, to learn to struggle and to understand that their great country of Canada has been and is a death dance for Indigenous peoples. They must learn to stop themselves from plundering the land and the climate and using Indigenous peoples’ bodies to fuel their economy, and to find a way of living in the world that is not based on violence and exploitation.

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