Fish Broth & Fasting
A year ago, after the community of Attawapiskat had been dragged through the racist lens of the media for more than a month, I began to write about the situation. I wrote two pieces. One that was published in Briarpatch magazine that was political, and one that was a spoken word piece using the music of Cree cellist Cris Derksen. I am not from Attawapiskat and I’ve never been there. I wrote because I felt a strong sense of solidarity with community because like most Indigenous Peoples, I have personal connections and history that links me to all of the same issues. I felt a sense of responsibility to speak out not only in the way the issues where playing out in the media, but in the response of Canadian society. I feel the same way again this year.
I am not going to correct all of the slander designed to discredit Chief Spence and her hunger strike – my friends and colleagues have already done a fantastic job of that. Check out the work of Chelsea Vowel and Alanis Obomsawin’s The People of the Kattawpiskat River if you haven’t.
The past few weeks have been an intense time to be Anishinaabeg. There is a lot to write about and to process. I felt overwhelmingly proud on #J11 with tens of thousands of us in the streets world wide, with the majority of our Indian Act Chiefs standing with us in those streets. I also felt the depths of betrayal on that day. But it was during the local #J11 actions in my community that I started to think a lot about fish broth. Fish broth and Anishinaabeg governance.
Fish broth has been cast by the mainstream media as “the cheat”. Upon learning Chief Spence was drinking tea and fish broth coverage shifted from framing her action as a “hunger strike” to a “liquid diet”, as if 32 days without food is easy. As if a liquid diet doesn’t take a substantial physical, mental and emotional toll or substantial physical, mental and emotional strength to accomplish. Of course this characterization comes from a place of enormous unchecked privilege and a position of wealth. It comes from not having to fight for one’s physical survival because of the weight of crushing poverty. It comes from always having other options.
This is not where Indigenous Peoples come from.
My Ancestors survived many long winters on fish broth because there was nothing else to eat – not because the environment was harsh, but because the land loss and colonial policy were so fierce that they were forced into an imposed poverty that often left fish broth as the only sustenance.
Fish broth. It carries cultural meaning for Anishinaabeg. It symbolizes hardship and sacrifice. It symbolizes the strength of our Ancestors. It means survival. Fish broth sustained us through the hardest of circumstances, with the parallel understanding that it can’t sustain one forever. We exist today because of fish broth. It connects us to the water and to the fish who gave up its life so we could sustain ourselves. Chief Spence is eating fish broth because metaphorically, colonialism has kept Indigenous Peoples on a fish broth diet for generations upon generations. This is utterly lost on mainstream Canada, as media continues to call Ogichidaakwe Spence’s fast a “liquid diet” while the right winged media refers to it as much worse.
Not Chief Spence, but Ogichidaakwe Spence – a holy woman, a woman that would do anything for her family and community, the one that goes over and makes things happen, a warrior, a leader because Ogichidaakwe Spence isn’t just on a hunger strike. She is fasting and this also has cultural meaning for Anishinaabeg. She is in ceremony. We do not “dial back” our ceremonies. We do not undertake this kind of ceremony without much forethought and preparation. We do not ask or demand that people stop the fast before they have accomplished whatever it is they set out to accomplish, which in her case is substantial change in the relationship between the Canadian state and Indigenous nations. We do not critique the faster. We do not band wagon or verbally attack the faster. We do not criticize because we feel she’s become the (unwilling) leader of the movement. We do not assume that she is being ill advised. We do not tell her to “save face.”
We support. We pray. We offer semaa. We take care of the sacred fire. We sing each night at dusk. We take care of all the other things that need to be taken care of, and we live up to our responsibilities in light of the faster. We protect the faster. We do these things because we know that through her physical sacrifice she is closer to the Spiritual world than we are. We do these things because she is sacrificing for us and because it is the kind, compassionate thing to do. We do these things because it is our job to respect her self-determination as an Anishinaabekwe – this is the most basic building block of Anishinaabeg sovereignty and governance.
“We respect her sovereignty over her body and her mind. We do not act like we know better than her.”
Fasting as a ceremony is difficult. It is challenging to willingly weaken one’s body physically, and the mental and emotional strength required for fasting is perhaps more difficult than the physical. So when we fast, we ask our friends and family to support us and to act as our helpers. There is an assumption of reciprocity – the faster is doing without, in this case to make things better for all Indigenous Peoples, and in return, the community around her carries the responsibility of supporting her.
A few days ago I posted these two sentences on twitter “I support @ChiefTheresa in her decision to continue her hunger strike. The only person that can decide otherwise, is Chief Spence.” Within minutes, trolls were commented on my feed with commentary on Chief Spence’s body image, diet jokes, calls for “no more special treatment for Natives” and calls to end her hunger strike. One person called her a “cunt”.
I understand we need to be positive, I do. We also need to continue telling the truth. The racism, sexism and disrespect that has been heaped on Ogitchidaa Spence in the past weeks has been done so in part because it is acceptable to treat Indigenous women this way. These comments take place in a context where we have nearly 1000 missing and murdered Indigenous women. Where we have still have places named “squaw”. Where Indigenous women have been the deliberate target of gendered colonial violence for 400 years. Where the people who have been seriously hurt and injured by the back lash against Idle No More have been women. Where Ogichidaakwe’s Spence voice has not been heard.
Ogichidaakwe Spence challenges me, because I am not on day 32 of a fast. I did not put my life on the line, and that forces me to continually look myself in the mirror and ask if I am doing everything I can. This is her gift to me.
Idle No More as a movement is now much bigger than the hunger strikers and Bill C-45, but it is still important to acknowledge their sacrifice, influence and leadership. I want my grandchildren to be able to live in Mississauga Anishinaabeg territory as Mississauga Anishinaabeg – hunting, fishing, collecting medicines, doing ceremony, telling stories, speaking our language, governing themselves using our political traditions and whatever else that might mean to them, unharassed. That’s not a dream palace – that is what our treaties guaranteed.
We now have hundreds of leaders from different Indigenous nations emerging all over Mikinakong (the Place the Turtle). We now have hundreds of eloquent spokes people, seasoned organizers, writers, thinkers and artists acting on their own ideas in anyway and every way possible. This is the beauty of our movement.
Chi’Miigwech Theresa Spence, Raymond Robinson, Emil Bell, and Jean Sock for your vision, your sacrifice and your commitment to making us better. Chi’Miigwech to everyone who has been up late at night worrying about what to do next, and then who gets up the next morning and acts. I am hopeful and inspired and look forward to our new, collective emergence as a healthy and strong Anishinaabeg nation.