Response to Leroy Little Bear

February 05, 2023

Rita Wong

I would like to thank Professor Leroy Little Bear for his illuminating and eloquent talk, and to start by acknowledging that we are on the unceded lands of the Musqueam, Tsleil Watuth, and Squamish First Nations. The question of how to build respectful, peaceful relations with the indigenous peoples of this land is a keystone that guides me throughout my creative and critical practices as a poet-scholar. As an uninvited or inadvertent guest on these lands, trying to live and work ethically, I am mindful of the need to build better relationships than those that were imposed by colonial governments. Even today, or especially today, “at this late hour, under these imperfect conditions,” as Larissa Lai has phrased it,1 many of us can and do resist what SKY Lee has called imperial delirium.2

I’ve inherited a colonial history I did not choose, but what I can choose is how to respond to that history, by proposing an open space of respect, which is why the acknowledgement of Coast Salish peoples is important. It reminds us that there is so much to learn from the cultural paradigms have already arisen from this land during the thousands of years that the Musqueam, Tsleil Watuth and Squamish have lived in this part of the world—and of course the Blackfoot and so many more Indigenous communities as well, all over the world.

From an imposed settler perspective, land belongs to people. From an older indigenous perspective however, people belong to the land. How one perceives one’s relationship to land changes how one acts. Moving from one culture to the other involves a paradigm shift, and one way to navigate this transition between paradigms is to pay attention to language and to ecology, the relationships between living organisms and their environment. The land and the water are both poisoned and perpetually healing, as are we. What we do to them, we do to ourselves; what stories we tell one another about this matters.

The fact that I am responding in English, rather than Musqueam or Blackfoot or Cantonese, already offers a cultural filter that I need to be aware of. Leroy Little Bear has written that “place acts as a repository of the stories and experiences of both individual and the tribe. In Blackfoot the word for the English word ‘story’ literally translates as ‘involvement’ in an event.”3  In Blackfoot, “It is the place telling the story. It is the place determining who you are.”4

This reminds me of how, in the Musqueam language (hun’q'umin’um’), verbs depend on where the speaker is situated in relationship to the water. As Patricia Shaw, director of the First Nations language program at the University of British Columbia explains, “You can’t just say, ‘She went home’ [...] “You have to [ask yourself], ‘Was she farther away from the water and going home, or was she coming home in the direction away from the water? Was she walking parallel to the flow of the water downstream? Was she walking parallel upstream?’”5

In hun’q'umin’um’, your relationship to the river matters, and it is accounted for in the very structure of the language itself. Place is embedded in and with meaning.

As someone who’s been researching the poetics of water, I’d like to contrast this everyday linguistic consciousness of watershed dynamics with the way I learned the hydrological cycle in school. It’s often taught as though the hydrological cycle is external to and separate from us, a diagram of what happens “out there,” yet we are actually part of it, our watery bodies constituted by more than 50% water in their weight. This bears reiterating: we are part of the global hydrological cycle, or what Jamie Linton calls the hydrosocial cycle, not separate from it.6 Not only do we rely on the water perpetually flowing in and out of our bodies, but we also impact the water substantially through pollution, damming, irrigation, and many other large scale activities, changing the waters to the extent that we are doing ourselves slow, cumulative harm, if we don’t pay attention to how we are affecting the waters that in turn affect us.

As someone born in the traditional lands of the Stoney, Siksika and Tsuu Tina Nations, the Bow River watershed, otherwise known as Calgary, whose parents were born in the Pearl River watershed in southern China, I need to learn how to listen to the world as home, to voice love and respect for both the places where I’ve lived as well as those that are far away.

Today, western science is confirming that we are interdependent and interconnected in ways we have not previously understood, but which have long been embodied in Indigenous perspectives. One simple, noteworthy story is told by best-selling author Alanna Mitchell, who interviewed marine scientists around the world to produce a book called Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis.

She suggests that the ocean, which constitutes 70% of the planet’s surface, is the first, primary life support system of our planet. That is, not only do the ocean’s plankton form a crucial link in the food chain, but they also produce half the oxygen we breathe.7 Every second breath we take is thanks to a multitude of microscopic creatures many of us have never seen. My life depends on a particular equilibrium of the ocean, an equilibrium that is threatened by increased greenhouse gases, acidification, overfishing, plastic trash, and pollution, to list just a few urgent dangers. Literally, those of us who live on the land depend on the chemistry of the ocean.

Another way to tell this story is to look at the Chinese character for the word ocean, which is composed of the water radical and the character for mother: What I see when I look at that character is that the ocean is the mother of waters. The ocean is that which gives us life. Or as Leroy Little Bear might tell the story, the earth is our mother that gives us life. I come to this story brokenly and fragmentedly, marked by familial migration, hesitation, and a quiet tenacity nonetheless.

Many think that we may currently be living through the earth’s sixth mass extinction, and that previous mass extinctions have been marked by ocean acidification, of the kind that we are now in danger of accelerating through massive fossil fuel usage and greenhouse gas emissions.

In such a context, perhaps a world humanities means understanding and rebalancing our relationship with the nonhuman realm. As David Abram puts it, “we are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.”8 Or as the architect Maya Lin phrases it, we could save two birds with one tree—by protecting endangered animal habitat in the natural world, we also reduce the impact of emissions and global warming, something that she points out is a win-win situation.9 This challenges me, as a wandering daughter of this planet, to find ways to love the world as a home, not just the places I know well in my daily life, but the far away places as well.

We are part of the stories that we renew through retelling, and we forget this at our peril. Such a separation from the larger stories that we’re part of can breed denial or disassociation in the face of global climate change. Remembering how we are part of the earth, how the world is a subject-in-the-making that includes us, is a tentative step toward what a world humanities that respects Indigenous humanities may have to grapple with. Given the historic Eurocentric underpinnings of “the humanities,” we will have to walk carefully to ensure that it is not a neo-colonial endeavor.

The world is not only an abstraction, but also a living accumulation of socially constructed locals. An ethical world humanities would depend on the decolonization and indigenization of locally situated humanities. So, what might learning from an Indigenous humanities involve?

It could start with acknowledging the important work that Marie Battiste, James Youngblood Henderson, Isobel Findlay, Len Findlay, Lynne Bell, and others are doing on the Indigenous humanities. They offer a helpful entry point that, “Thinking place together with time and space will go a long way towards animating the Indigenous humanities in and as education.”10 Battiste and her co-authors observe that:

the Indigenous humanities constantly implicate the Eurocentric humanities in understanding and documenting injustice, but they also bring back into effective circulation ways of learning, knowing and teaching whose lessons have grown more needed the more they have been repressed. Thus critique comes to share ‘its’ space with Indigenous place and capacity.11

Ways of knowing that value natural cycles, harmony, balance, humbleness, careful observation, patience, and long term collective well-being resonate for me as a cultural inheritance that potentially connects people across different traditions. These values can be found throughout the world quietly and persistently, though they may be obscured by imperial agendas, speedy modernity and industrialization. And indeed, these values are also transmitted through the Internet, as folks like the Zapatistas remind us. Another kind of “together-doing”12 exists, to borrow Jack Forbes’ term, that is not the imagined monoculture of globalization. This is what the Indigenous humanities makes visible, in Battiste’s and her co-authors’ words:

Instead of exaggerating cultural differences, Indigenous humanities speak to the core of humanity, recognizing the similarities and differences of all peoples who develop from their ecological origins. Indigenous humanities represent ecological teachings and practices concerning what it means to be human. Ecology is the animating force—derived neither from theological nor political ideology—that teaches us how to be human. Ecology privileges no particular people or way of life and requires a respectful outlook to ensure human survival.13

While I agree that ecology is the animating force that teaches us how to be human, I also think it is important to keep a vigilant eye on the forces of political economy and ideology, that exert severe pressure or even deformity upon what a world humanities could offer.

For this reason, I think it is important to acknowledge the work that Indigenous scholars and activists have accomplished, against all odds, successes such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. James Youngblood Henderson has described this declaration as a:

model developed by Indigenous people to create a new vision of a just global and national order. It prevailed over competing political ideology, and has created an innovative movement toward self-determination based on Indigenous traditions. It displays an Indigenous style of thinking and behaving, incorporating values of tenacity, patience, solidarity, creativity, co-operation, tolerance, courage, and deepening democracy. Our claims about human rights and our commitment to the indivisibility of freedom were viewed as impractical and idealistic by the nation- states, but we eventually succeeded in the real politics of the UN General Assembly. We will prevail also against the nation-states, regardless of power imbalances, political ideology, or economic dogma.14

How might the humanities take up the challenge to implement the goals and principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People? This is a big task and a worthy one.

Systems theorist Donella Meadows has pointed out that a system’s traps can also be its points of opportunity, if one is able to transcend paradigms.15 And for those of us who are seriously concerned about the ecological crisis that faces humanity, what Jared Diamond writes about in Collapse,16 building alliances with Indigenous peoples involves both a paradigm shift as well as pragmatic acts.

At a recent conference called the Tragedy of the Market: from Crisis to Commons, Arthur Manuel spoke lucidly and steadily of how efforts to protect lands and water rely first and foremost on Indigenous rights and title as the main legal challenge to stop the exploitation of land and resources that is fuelling and accelerating both climate change and the destruction of forests.17 Within Canadian law, Indigenous peoples are strategically positioned to protect the commons through Aboriginal title and Aboriginal rights, both of which are communal (an individual cannot hold Aboriginal title), and “site, fact and group specific.”18

In approaching what a world humanities might involve, particularly one that begins with the land and the ocean as its centre, a centre on which humans are consciously perched in relationship, I am struck by Masao Miyoshi’s statement that:

…one single commonality involves all those living on the planet: environmental deterioration as a result of the human consumption of natural resources. Whether rich or poor, in the East or West, progressive or conservative, religious or atheist, none of us can escape from the all-involving process of air pollution, ozone layer depletion, ocean contamination, toxic accumulation, and global warming. Of course, the rich will try to stay as far away as possible from the pollution, but even they cannot remain protected for long.19

The cancers in bodies as wide ranging as Steve Jobs, Jack Layton, Bob Marley, Pat Nixon, and Milo the sea otter at the Vancouver Aquarium are examples of the toxic accumulation, the body burden of hundreds of chemicals found in our bodies post-World War II, chemicals that were not in our systems before. In the face of widely dispersed contamination, that we share through winds, watersheds, and food networks, I find it increasingly urgent to respect and attend to the commons, by which I mean shared stewardship, management and use by a community whose “social relations [are] based on interdependence and cooperation.”20 As we inhale and exhale, we are arguably sharing a commons right now, one atmosphere, one planet, on which we all rely as we breathe. Andrea Olson suggests that:

By focusing on our human bodies as the vehicle through which we experience ourselves and the world around us, we learn to value the earth equally to the self. Thus the perspective is both anthropocentric (human-centred) and ecocentric (earth-centred). The body and the earth are complex and profoundly interconnected entities developed through billions of years of evolutionary process. Our task is to develop a dialogue with this inherent intelligence—to learn to attend.21

Another way to tell this story is through Grand Chief Sam Gargan of the Dehcho First Nation’s translation of the word Dene into English, which I heard up north at the 2011 Keepers of the Water gathering. He explained that De means river, and Ne means land, together making the word Dene, which signifies how the Dene people are defined by their reciprocal relationship with land and water.22 In such a language, land and people are inseparable. With this in mind, I occasionally find myself tripping over the noun- focused subject-object divide that is so automatic as to be almost invisible in English. These moments of disorientation and reorientation are part of the process of relationship building that we can cultivate some insight from. It’s good to risk a healthy, humble, honest stumbling.

John Ralston Saul has suggested that most non-Aboriginal people want change and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples but do not know “how to go about it.”23 One of the barriers he identifies is the lack of a plan for change. I would like to respond that one way to move forward together, in peace and with respect, is to cooperatively focus on the lands and waters that sustain our lives. The work, as Kuan-Hsing Chen succinctly articulates it in Asia as Method, is to “overcome unproductive anxieties and develop new paths of engagement.”24

One such path for engagement might be to borrow a Chinese term that Chen uses– minjian, which “roughly describes as folk, people’s, or commoners’ society, but not exactly—because while min means people or populace, jian connotes space and in- betweenness.”25 Terms like “civil society” and “citizenship” don’t quite capture minjian’s whole significance; “minjian forces are organic and constantly adjusting to modern life, while maintaining their own relative autonomy.”26 They are “in flux,” to borrow the title of Roy Miki’s latest book and one of the key concepts in Professor Little Bear’s talk. Change is the constant; the question is what kind of change we want to facilitate with/in this world.

If there can be such a thing as a world humanities, it would arise from the ground up, self-organizing, decentred and recentred around the earth that gives it/us life. In other words, a healthy human ecology begins with the grassroots, from the bottom up, recognizing the value and importance of people connected within communities to places we call home, a home that is not at the expense of Indigenous peoples, but one that values and enacts co-existence and solidarity as a process of learning, being, and doing. Shows like CBC’s Eighth Fire and thinkers like Leroy Little Bear offer leadership and education in this process, and it is my responsibility and calling to listen and learn.

Luckily, there is so much to attend to. Around the Pacific, indigenous communities are reasserting their values, epistemologies and rights to sovereignty, as discussed in anthologies like Militarized Currents, edited by Setsu Shigematsu and Keith Camacho.

A swell of decolonizing efforts are crucial for what Vandana Shiva calls earth democracy, which “reflects the values, worldviews and actions of diverse movements working for peace, justice and sustainability,”27 what Paul Hawken would call a blessed unrest. This forms a necessary ground from which to consider what tools we have at hand, such as cultural studies, which “developed in response to what critics have seen as exclusions and gaps in programs in the traditional humanities.”28

Positioning cultural studies “as an integral part of the global decolonization movement,”29 Kuan-Hsing Chen works toward a critical syncretism that avoids the trap of merely replicating imperialist imaginaries as it contributes to building more resilient and just cultures.

Firmly refusing neoliberal globalization, or the rush to privatize everything, Chen aims to put “the history of colonialism and imperialism back into globalization studies.”30 As he puts it, “Globalization without deimperialization is simply a disguised reproduction of imperialist conquest.”31 In other words, deimperialization is a necessary step toward building ethical relations on a global scale.

Chen refers to a Chinese proverb that “whoever tied the bell to the tiger should be the one to untie it,”32 reminding us that those who are settlers have a responsibility to address the history of colonization and stolen land upon which we live; to not do so is to cheapen and degrade our own humanity. The work of decolonization is that of building honest human relations. What’s at stake is not some altruistic cause, but a deep understanding that one’s own well-being relies on the well-being of one’s relations or kin, both the familiar ones and the strangers, both the seen and the unseen. I have set on this path thanks to the work of writers and thinkers like Dorothy Christian, Lee Maracle, Jeannette Armstrong, Shirley Bear, and many more Indigenous knowledge keepers. I’d also like to acknowledge Brenda Crabtree who is here, the Aboriginal Programs Coordinator at Emily Carr University, who does so much valuable work.

New solidarities may arise from ongoing dialogues and strategy evaluation among scholars, thinkers, and everyday people. I do not think it is an exaggeration to state that our common survival depends on our collective ability to address the environmental devastation that has accelerated in this century, a devastation that will not end unless we learn to live by values that manifest and respect Indigenous relationships to the land and waters. In the face of shared dangers, an ecological attention to and with the planet is, for me, a deeply hopeful and meaningful journey that is carefully travelled together with humble re-storying.
History has given us some horrible stories as well as some very wonderful ones; healing the horror is not always possible for some of the damage has been irreparable, tragic and unbearable, but much remains that is resilient, brilliantly courageous and creative. For this, and for the immense contributions that speakers like Leroy Little Bear so generously share, I am deeply grateful.

Rita Wong, Faculty of Culture & Community, Emily Carr University of Art and Design.

Author of three books of poetry: sybil unrest, co-written with Larissa Lai (Line Books, 2008), forage (Nightwood, 2007, winner of the Dorothy Livesay Prize and CBC’s Canada Reads Poetry), and monkeypuzzle (Press Gang, 1998).  She has developed a humanities course focused on water, with the support of a fellowship from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. She is currently researching the poetics of water, supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.


1 Lai, Larissa. “Radioactive Time: A Politics and Poetics of Asian/Indigenous Relation.” Talk. Peter Wall Institute, University of British Columbia. 1 Feb 2010.
2 Lee, SKY. Keynote speech at “Imagining Asian and Native Women: Deconstructing from Contact to Modern Times” Conference. Western Washington University, Bellingham. March 9, 2002.
3 Little Bear, Leroy. “Land: the Blackfoot Source of Identity.” Beyond Race and Citizenship: Indigeneity in the 21st Century” Conference. University of California, Berkeley. 28-30 Oct. 2004. 6.
4 Little Bear, Leroy. “Land: the Blackfoot Source of Identity.” Beyond Race and Citizenship: Indigeneity in the 21st Century” Conference. University of California, Berkeley. 28-30 Oct. 2004. 7.
5 Qtd in Zandberg, Bryan. “Reviving a Native Tongue.” The Tyee. 23 Mar 2007.
6 Linton, Jamie. What is Water? Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.
7 Mitchell, Alanna. Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2009. 82.
8 Abram, David. Spell of the Sensuous. Toronto: Vintage, 1997. 22.
9 Lin, Maya. Talk. California Academy of Sciences. 17 Sept. 2009. with-one-tree_news
10 Battiste, Marie et al. “Thinking Place: Animating the Indigenous Humanities in Education.” Australian Journal of Indigenous Education 34 (2005): 12.
11 Battiste, Marie et al. “Thinking Place: Animating the Indigenous Humanities in Education.” Australian Journal of Indigenous Education 34 (2005): 12.
12 Forbes, Jack. “Nature and Culture: Problematic Concepts for Native Americans.” International Journal of Indigenous Philosophy. Winter 1977. 3-22. Rpt. in Indigenous Traditions and Ecology: The Interbeing of Cosmology and Community. Ed. John Grim. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000. 103-124. With thanks to Rajdeep Gill for introducing me to Forbes’ work.
13 Battiste, Marie et al. “Thinking Place: Animating the Indigenous Humanities in Education.” Australian Journal of Indigenous Education 34 (2005): 12.
14 Henderson, James (Sa’ke’j) Youngblood. Indigenous Diplomacy and the Rights of Peoples: Achieving UN Recognition. Saskatoon: Purich, 2008. 103.
15 Meadows, Donella. Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Washington, DC: Earthscan, 2009. 111.
16 Diamond, Jared. Collapse. Toronto: Penguin, 2005.
17 Manuel, Arthur. Keynote panel. The Tragedy of the Market: From Crisis to Commons Conference. Vancouver. 6. Jan. 2012.
18 “Backgrounder – Aboriginal title in Canada’s Courts.” Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. Feb. 2010.
19 Miyoshi, Masao. “Turn to the Planet.” Comparative Literature 53.4 (Fall 2001): 295.
20 Shiva, Vandana. Earth Democracy. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2005. 21.
21 Olson, Andrea. Body and Earth. Hanover: UP of New England, 2002. xxii.
22 Gargan, Grand Chief Sam. Presentation. Keepers of the Water Conference. Lac Brochet, Manitoba. 19 Aug. 2011.
23 Saul, John Ralston. “Reconciliation: Four Barriers to Paradigm Shifting.” Response, Responsibility, and Renewal. Ottawa: Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2011. 281.
24 Chen, Kuan-Hsing. Asia as Method. Durham: Duke UP, 2010. 212.
25 Chen, Kuan-Hsing. Asia as Method. Durham: Duke UP, 2010. 237.
26 Chen, Kuan-Hsing. Asia as Method. Durham: Duke UP, 2010. 241.
27 Shiva, Vandana. Earth Democracy. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2005. 7.
28 Media and Cultural Studies. Macalester College. 29 Chen, Kuan-Hsing. Asia as Method. Durham: Duke UP, 2010. 102.
30 Chen, Kuan-Hsing. Asia as Method. Durham: Duke UP, 2010. 2.
31 Chen, Kuan-Hsing. Asia as Method. Durham: Duke UP, 2010. 2.
32 Chen, Kuan-Hsing. Asia as Method. Durham: Duke UP, 2010. 158.