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Episode Transcript

Below the Radar

Theory Of Ice — with Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

Speakers: Paige Smith, Am Johal, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

[music plays: Willie Dunn’s “I Pity the Country” covered by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson]

Paige Smith  0:00
Hello listeners! I’m Paige Smith with Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. On this episode of Below the Radar, Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, writer and artist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson joins host Am Johal to talk about her latest album, Theory of Ice, and other collaborations in the works. I hope you enjoy the episode!

[music fades out]

Am Johal  0:32  
Welcome to Below the Radar. Delighted that you could join us again. We are very excited to have Leanne Simpson with us today. Welcome.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson  0:42  
Hi, it's so amazing to be here. I'm happy to be here and visit with you and your listeners.

Am Johal  0:49  
I wonder if we can begin with you introducing yourself a little bit.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson  0:53  
For sure. My name is Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. I am a musician and a writer and an academic. I am Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg. And our territory is the north shore of Lake Ontario in Ontario, and we're part of the larger Nishnaabeg Nation. I am a band member of Alderville First Nation. And I also work at the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning in Denendeh doing land-based education.

Am Johal  1:24 
Now Leanne, you have a new album that's out right now, Theory Of Ice. I've only had a chance to listen to a couple of songs so far. And I've read a few... It's getting rave reviews out there. I hope you know that people seem to love it. Of course, one part to that, a number the reviews talk about, is your cover of Willie Dunn's song "I Pity the Country." I'm wondering if we can begin there a little bit with your decision to do a new cover of it. But also like, what somebody like Willie Dunn, as a musician, as a filmmaker, as an activist, what he means to you, as well.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson  1:58  
I feel very grateful to Willie Dunn and that generation of Indigenous musicians, because they were working very, very hard doing the work of musicians in Indigenous communities and outside of our communities without platforms, without recognition, without funding. And so I feel like the caliber of their songwriting, and their lyrics and their ability to to reach people and speak to people in a meaningful way is incredible. And I'm a beneficiary of that. There's this generation that has gone before. And so I feel really grateful. I also sort of have a connection to Willie's work in that, I mean, he's just a phenomenal songwriter and musician. He is also a wonderful activist. He was full of fire. And he was so involved in Indigenous politics. And so I think that that really speaks to me. I see sort of a trajectory, going from his work to my work. And so a few years ago, my band was asked to perform in Ottawa at the National Art Centre at the Native North American gathering. And this was a gathering to celebrate that compilation that had been released. And all of the elder musicians were there, Alanis Obomsawin did some stuff from Bush Lady, and Willie Thrasher and Linda Saddleback, Willy Mitchell, Eric Landry. And so we were sort of like the young the young folks which rarely happens anywhere. But I was trying to think of what, you know we had a 10 minute set to play at this thing. And I wanted to really honour those musicians and I wanted to let them know how important they were to all of the generation of musicians that are my age. But I also felt badly because Willie couldn't be there. And I knew his family was going to be there. So I started listening to all of his work, and "I Pity the Country" just stood out to me, lyrically, because it was written, you know, at the end of the 1960s, early 1970s. And I could say, every line with my own voice, coming from my own heart. Every word was true. Nothing had changed. 

[music fades in, playing Leanne’s cover of Willie Dunn’s “I Pity the Country.” Leanne singing:

Silly Civil Servants
They thrive off my body
Their trip is with power
Back bacon and welfare

Police they arrest me
Materialists detest me
Pollution it chokes me
Movies they joke me

Politicians exploit me
City life it jades me
Hudson's Bay fleeces me
Hunting laws freak me

music fades out]

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson  5:00
And so we worked on that. We got to the gig. And all those old timer musicians lined up in the front row during soundcheck and we played their their buddy their comrade's song. There were tears in their eyes. And then that night, the the verdict came down in the Gerald Stanley trial, over the the murder of Colten Boushie. And it came on seconds before my band was supposed to go on the stage. And so Rosanna Deerchild looked at her phone, got the news. And as she was introducing us, she let the audience know. She was... It was an emotional moment. There was fire, there was anger, there is a deep sadness and a sense a credible sense of injustice in the room. And so we, as a performer, not really what you want the audience to go through seconds before you step up to the mic. But that moment was such a pivotal moment in my life. I will never forget it because it just, you know, all the reasons you do the work that you do, sort of, it feels like led to that moment. And there were so many Indigenous people in the audience. Willie Dunn's family's in the audience. People are crushed. And what do you do? And so that song, we perform that song that night, it was it was a perfect moment for that song. Because it I feel like it affirmed that anger it affirmed the sense of injustice, it reminded us that this struggle is is bigger and longer than our lives and this moment. And the energy in the room, I think, we we wanted to capture, when we went to record the song, because it was such a it was such a artistically, it was a moment that was unlike any moment I'd ever experienced before. And so we went into the studio really close after that experience and, and set the bed tracks down and recorded a version and then we remastered it and remixed it for the for the album.

Am Johal  6:50  
There's a new Willie Dunn album out as well. And his other song Ballad of Crowfoot, which is also an NFB film that he made, is just so affecting and really relevant to the moment. And Willie Thrasher who you mentioned, we've he's he's come over and played here in Vancouver a couple of times at the Lido because Kevin Sipreano Howes who was involved with the album used to DJ there. So he's played there and at a number of things. It's just remarkable, both of them playing together. It's just an amazing album. I'm wondering about doing a remake and a cover of such an important song and putting your own kind of stamp on it. Wondering sort of how you thought through the music and the and the song artistically, in terms of how you put it out yourself.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson  7:36  
I made very few changes to the lyrics. I did change one line to "they rape and they beat me" that seemed really relevant to me as an Indigenous woman in my own life. It feels like I've had a target on my back. And the evidence is the 1000s upon 1000s of missing and murdered Indigenous women, Two-Spirit and queer people that we have in this country. So that was really the only line. There were a couple of lines that were really, "hunting laws freak me" like that just gestures towards the 60s. And I just decided that I didn't want to, I didn't want to change those lines because it is a cover. It is Willie's voice and I feel like not changing those lyrics sort of allows me in some ways to have a conversation with Willie Dunn through the making and spending so much time with those lyrics and so much time with that piece of music.

Am Johal  8:24  
Yeah, and the pacing of it and your voice with it, it's definitely uniquely your own as well, which is really fantastic to listen to. Wondering if you can talk about some of the other songs on the album as well.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson  8:36  
A lot of the songs on this album focused on ice, and snow, and cold. And all of the sort of metaphorical layers to those. Underneath that I think is me thinking a lot about water, and how ubiquitous water is, how water is inside my body. It's inside all of our bodies. But it's also this sort of very global, very international, at the same time as being very intimate. I thought a lot about that over the last year with water droplets and breath. So it's a connector. It's a relationship, or it forms relationships between all of life. And it also transforms from a solid to a liquid to a gas. And then in the global water cycle, it's sort of constantly doing that. So that was a very rich sort of metaphorical idea. I spent some time in Denendeh watching. I was doing other things, but what I was really doing, what I was super interested in, was witnessing, over probably six weeks, a lake melt. And then in the fall, freeze again. And watching that sort of magnificent transformation, massive upheaval, massive transformation. And so that sort of comes through in "Break Up." "OK Indicts" is again thinking about glaciers. It's sort of inspired by the OK glacier in Iceland. Because that glacier is no longer with us. It has died. And there was a plaque. And that's written from the perspective of that glacier. So the hook or the sort of course is don't please don't mourn for me, kind of gesturing towards that idea of you can't kill something, and then keep killing things and feel bad. Yeah. And then I Pity is on there. A couple of the other tracks, "Head of the Lake." I was on tour with the New Constellations tour in Thunder Bay and Thunder Bay is a place that's always been very close to my heart. I lived there for a few years, and that song's sort of set in that place. Surface Tension is a duet between John K Samson, of The Weakerthans, formerly of The Weakerthans, and myself. And then there's a couple of them. Sorry. There's a song about this lake. In the Northwest Territories, in the north part of the Northwest Territories that was being held in place by permafrost. The permafrost melted, and then the lake fell off the cliff. So there's sort of a witnessing of that event as well.

Am Johal  11:00  
You've been performing so much as a musician, a writer, but also in the academic sphere. You have a PhD. And I guess I can see this relationship to ice as well because in my research on you, I know you have a background in biology as well. So recently, in my class, we went through your book, As We Have Always Done and the students loved it, of course. And you know, in your academic work, looking at land as pedagogy. Or in Dancing on our Turtle's Back, state, the critique of state reconciliation, politics. You've been writing theoretical work for a really really long time and I'm wondering how you balance your artistic musical endeavors with continuing to produce it into universities in the academic arena from your own point of view. It seems it's an incredible task just to take on one of those, let alone in the multiple ways that you work.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson  11:59
I think one answer is that the spine of my academic practice and my artistic practice is the same. It's a tremendous love of the land. I find being out on the land and engaged in Anishinaabe practices to be something that is a site of knowledge production. It's generative for me. So I think the issues and the theoretical interventions that As We Have Always Done sort of embodies are also the same sort of spine for Noopiming, which is a work of fiction and a novel of sorts. And also for the Theory Of Ice. I think, I think in the academy, you what do you do? You tell people, and you provide evidence, and then in the creative world, in Noopiming, I think I took those ideas, and I built a world and I showed people. And then with performance and music, I'm embodying that. I'm taking the lyrics and bringing them in conversation with musicians and voices and converting that to sound. And then, if we had been able to tour the album, there would have been a durational practice of performing those songs every night, of sort of building a bubble of a certain kind of energy with the audience, of then sharing meaning making with the audience, of everybody standing in the same room, and having a similar but slightly different experience that sort of helps the work that work travel. So for me, none of that seems separate to me at all, it all seems sort of the same, and different different tools for intervening in different communities and connecting with different folks.

Am Johal  13:39  
Leanne, you've been involved with Dechinta for a long time, in terms of this land-based educational project, and wondering if you can just talk a little bit about your relationship to that project and some of the work that you've done there over many, many years.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson  13:55
I've been really interested in, I guess, Anishinaabe ways of knowing, since being a PhD student. Since even before being a PhD student. I've always found being out on the land with Anishinaabe elders, where they're speaking their language and they're they're hunting, or trapping or fishing or making medicines, to be this really theoretically, intellectually rich place where they are physically embodying the knowledge and different perspectives of the knowledge and then taking that diversity and weaving it or braiding it into a collective understanding. And doing that on a macro scale, on a macro scale sort of over and over and over again. So I've loved that. And I would say, my relationship with elder Doug Williams from Curve Lake has been by far the most influential relationship in terms of my thinking. About eight years ago, I got invited to go into Denendeh and continue sort of this land-based work and land-based education in a different nation. And I was very, I was very apprehensive. Because I feel like when you're working on your own land with your own people, there's a certain... You've done it for 20 years, you, there's a certain way that you can stand on the ground, I guess. And so I was really skeptical about what I could offer Dene students because their culture and their knowledge system is so much different, not being Dene. And I eventually made the leap. And it was very interesting because I got to sort of practice Anishinaabe ethics and Anishinaabe politics of being invited into someone's territory. I got to think through things with Dene people. This is how we think about this. In Anishinaabe, this is how that concept is conceptualized in our language. How do you guys think about that? How do you guys practice that? Also doing sort of these land-based activities like moose hide tanning or hunting or setting nets or making dry fish. And, and practicing over and over and over again, and starting to recognize that that's the way that they generate their knowledge. And they generate their theory that way as well. And then just the political differences between our two nations are interesting to me as an intellectual because, of course, Anishinaabe people experienced colonialism much earlier than the Dene. So in some ways, it feels like going back in time a little bit to be like, Oh, my God, you guys have so much land. You have so many language speakers. And, and of course, that's not, that's not true. They've been impacted differently than we have. But the different communities and the nations have different gifts. So it's been a really, it's been a really lovely exchange.

Am Johal  16:47
And you've been involved for what, over 10 years, I guess, I assume at this point with Dechinta?

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson  16:54 
I think eight years. Yeah, you're getting close. 

Am Johal  16:56  
Yeah. What kinds of projects do you have coming up in the future? You've just put out an album, of course, you've been very busy through the pandemic period, but do you have new creative projects that you're currently working on?

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson  17:09  
I just finished a book project with Robyn Maynard, who is a Black feminist. She's Toronto based now, theorist, activist, and the author of Policing Black Lives, of course. And at the beginning of the pandemic, we had been to a solidarity gathering together at Dechinta a couple of years ago and met and became friends. And we sort of had all of these plans that we were going to do in 2020. I was going to invite her to the Sugarbush. We were going to do some stuff in Toronto. We were maybe going to edit a book. And then the pandemic hit, and all of those plans sort of got cancelled. So what we decided to do was engage in that Black feminist sort of letter writing back and forth. And so we wrote letters to each other through the pandemic, and through the kind of global uprising of Black Lives Matter. Really, from March of 2020, to maybe October, November. And it became a very, very rich project. Robyn has an amazing work ethic that I love. And we were really, really well matched. So by the end of November, we had this series of letters and series of conversations. We're both like dorks. So our letters had footnotes. We had engaged in this like, massive amount of material from Black thinkers and Indigenous thinkers. And so we decided to, well, Dionne Brand really encouraged us. She heard about the project, and she really encouraged us to put it together as a book project. So that book project is called Rehearsals for Living. And it's going to be coming out in a year from Knopf Canada. And yeah, so, that was something that was a really beautiful thing that came out of this. The struggle of a pandemic.

Am Johal  19:05 
Yeah, I'm really looking forward to reading it and both of you being in conversation with each other. Leanne, in your own context, just due to state colonialism, other kinds of things, you only regained status with the passage of Bill C-3, back in 2011. I'm wondering if you can just talk a little bit about because some of our listeners may not be aware of the kind of ongoing forms of colonialism that are present and how they affect things to the present day, but in terms of a little bit of that story, in terms of how that impacted you and what that that process looked like with the State.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson  19:44  
So the Indian Act, which is an act that controls a lot of the lives of First Nations people and First Nations communities, has since the late 1800s, decided who is part of our communities and who is not through the granting of Indian status. And for a long period of time, sort of from 1876 to 1960s, there were very gender based rules, where if a white woman married an Indian man, she would gain status into the community because of the racist assumption that the Indian man wouldn't be able to take care of her. So racist and sexist. And then women, Indian women who married white men lost their status, because it was assumed that they wouldn't need that status. The white man would be able to take care of them. And there was a lot of other, sort of more specific rules around that you could lose your status for getting a university degree, could lose your status for all kinds of things. So my grandmother lost her status, and she was able to, through the activism of Indigenous women, Sandra Lovelace was a person that was really important in lobbying for those gender based rules to change. There was legal cases, court cases, she was able to regain her status through Bill C-61. And then my mom and my aunts were able to regain it through them. But sort of every time there's a court case, the government sort of does the least that they have to do. So there's they sort of just put off the gender discrimination one more generation. So that's why it took till 2011 and the passage of C-3 for me and my sisters and all of my cousins to regain status, and then it took until this year for my children to gain status.

Am Johal  21:35  
Wow. Wow, amazing story. I'm wondering, Leanne, with your album coming out. I know a couple of years ago, well probably longer than that. Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers recorded a music video with you. And I'm wondering with the new album, if you're going to be doing any music videos, given that you're not able to tour at this particular moment in time.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson  21:53 
Yeah, we have one music video that's out for "Viscosity." And Sandra Brewster, who's a Black visual artist in Toronto, was the director of that. Amanda Strong and Spotted Fawn Productions is doing a video of "Break Up." So, a stop motion animation. She's Vancouver based. Lisa Jackson and I are cooking up something for later in the year for "I Pity the Country." And Asinnajaq, who is an Inuit filmmaker from Nunavik, is doing a video of "OK Indicts." So, we've got a bunch of plans that will roll out over the next year.

Am Johal  22:32 
And I know that you've collaborated with some artists, around your short stories that have been made either into animation or other type productions. So wondering if you can speak a little bit about collaborations that you've done with other artists. People are sort of, in your short stories and other pieces of writing, finding inspiration to carry out their own projects, which is amazing.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson  22:54  
One of the things about the academy, that you will know, is it's very easy to be successful in the academy and just live in your head. It can be a very, and writing can be, a very solitary sort of experience. So one of the things that I've tried to do in my practice is to collaborate so that I'm not just sitting alone thinking all the time. And so with the novel, Noopiming. It came out last September in Canada, and then in January in the US. And at the beginning of the pandemic, my sister, I was talking to my sister and I was like, I don't know how I've got all this stuff coming out. And it's in a global pandemic. And I don't know how to help any of this travel. And so we made a really short EP called the Noopiming Sessions where she wrote four tracks along with James Bunton, and we she recorded it and then I recorded readings from Noopiming over the top of that and we release that on Bandcamp as the Noopiming Sessions, and then we collaborated with Sammy Chien, who is this amazing new media artist from Vancouver and made a he made it look beautiful video called "Solidification" that people can find on YouTube. And then the middle of Noopiming has the poetry that inspired the lyrics for theory advice. I'm working with Amanda Strong, and her production company around a feature film of Noopiming. She has produced a short film about 20 minutes long called Biidaaban that was based on three of my short stories. So we're sort of building on that artistic relationship in that project. But I really like sort of making work and then having other artists add layers of meaning to it. And working in collaboration with different sort of mediums and different practices, and sort of, I think enhancing the depth of the conversation and the layering of meaning and seeing how it sort of travels through the world.

Am Johal  24:59  
You mentioned Biidaaban. I saw a lecture of yours online, where you talk about that. That concept is really beautiful and interesting to think about. I'm wondering if you could just talk a little bit about the word and the meaning behind it.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson  25:13 
So, Biidaaban, I think, is a concept now that you could find underpinning Theory Of Ice, underpinning Noopiming Sessions, underpinning Noopiming and As We Have Always Done, and A Short History of the Blockade. And Biidaaban is a word in my language, that means dawn. It means that first light, when the sun is coming up, but the sun isn't up yet. It's just you just see the rays on the horizon. And it's composed of three tinier words. And in Anishinaabe, when you split the bigger words into the three tiny words, that's when the poetry and the theory actually spells out. So the 'ba' part means the future is coming at you. The 'da' is the present or home and 'ba' or 'ban' is a suffix that you would put on to the end of someone else's name when they passed on. So it's, um, it denotes the past, so Biidaaban is, is the present, which is the collapsing in of the future and the past. And so that, to me, is a really mind blowing sort of concept in terms of thinking about how important the present is. There's a lot of times right now, a lot of different artists and thinkers are talking a lot about Indigenous futures and within Anishinaabe thought, it's the present that gives birth to the future. This is where you plant the seeds. This is where this is where you can change the trajectory of the future. And so it places that kind of responsibility in the now. And I love that sort of reminder that you get every morning when the sun comes up about the importance of that presence and the importance of being alive and taking on that responsibility.

Am Johal  26:57  
Leanne, thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar. It's been lovely to speak with you. We're big fans of your work out here and we hope that when you are able to tour we're going to be able to see you out here.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson  27:08  
Thank you so much for having me. It was really wonderful to visit with you.

[music plays: Willie Dunn’s “I Pity the Country” covered by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. Singing:

I pity this country

I pity the country
I pity the state
And the mind of a man
Who thrives on hate

music fades]

Paige Smith  27:14
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. Thanks for listening to our conversation with Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. Head to the show notes to find links to the music, films and books she and Am discuss. Thanks as always for tuning in, and we’ll see you next time on Below the Radar.