taking something and representing it as your own–it happens in Anishinaabewaki

by waaseyaa'sin christine sy

The matter of Joseph Boyden, “the white kid from Willowdale with native roots“, now being publically questioned for plagiarizing a passage from a story created by an Anishinaabe man, Ron Geyshick, is an Anishinaabe story. There has been, and undoubtedly will continue to be, more gut-wrenching debate and discussion about Boyden and his ways of being well into the future.

There has been, and undoubtedly will be, more experiences of such things occurring within Anishinaabe circles and to Anishinaabe people. In the big scheme of things, so many Anishinaabe have suffered so much more. In this light, I’m not sure if it’s a big deal or if it is, how big a deal it is. When I think about the old people in my life–Anishinaabe, Cree, white Canadian people–from whom I seek perspective, plagiarism is not what concerns their minds. And in fact, when I think about asking them what they would think about this Boyden matter, I might even be embarrassed by bringing it up.  My point is not to diminish this matter or its importance to those it is important to; my point is to say that such matters, and how we consider them, can be greatly influenced by what the old people think about such things.

Still, it is a matter of public interest. Boyden has international repute and influence. What he does, how he writes, and what he writes matters, culturally. Who he is publicly matters, socially. He is political and this impacts Indigenous lives in colonial Canada. He creates worlds through his writing, his public presentations, and his thought; and, if any of this is coming off the backs of Anishinaabe or other Indigenous peoples who are not being credited, that needs to be known about and stopped. My personal preference is that this does not turn into a pissing contest between men-Boyden’s laywer and APTN–and that Geyshick is compensated accordingly; that Boyden gives it up. Let the voices come and let them be voices that tell him to get a new subject–one that doesn’t come from the backs of those who work harder because they have to and have less social and economic power to vet their ideas and creations to those with influence and disseminate them to the public.

The plagiarism-in-Anishinaabe-country fire is a fire that burns very closely to one that I’ve been learning about intimately for the past several years. It matters to me.

I’ve been learning about it; learning to live with it; learning to live through it; and, learning to live, despite its torment and confusion. My fire still burns through the grace of my relations, continual trust, and the work that is before me. I’m sure Geyshick’s fire has been burning just fine, as well.

I say this is a fire that burns “very closely” because while I can say my work has been plagiarized, Western constructs, meanings, and legal orders don’t comprise my hearth. While the imposed violence of Western ways, including legal systems, shape the world we live in and can be laid across any of our lives at any given time, I can still choose, and do choose, to live as best I can according to Anishinaabe ways of being. I strive to think, be, and do according to how I understand Anishinaabe ways. I find Anishinaabe ways–the deeper thinking they invoke–better suited to my spirit and they offer a more medicinal way of being in the world. If asked to describe my experience using a Western legal framework though, I would use “plagiarism” to best describe it. From my Anishinaabe ways of trying to understand the world, I see the experience of having someone use my work, my ideas, my labour, and my methods within the public sphere without crediting me as being a number of things – theft, sickness, and imbalance within the individual. I’ve learned that it’s also a community thing.

I say I have to live with this because despite my questioning of these actions directly to the person, my going to those responsible for doing something about it and with the power to do something about it, and publicly indicating their work has been influenced by my work but for which I am not cited, nothing has been done to correct this matter. In fact, I would say the opposite: that person persists in their misconstructions and is uplifted despite it. I’ve learned that within these dynamics, erasing somebody from the picture, does not seem to matter. I’ve learned that within Indigenous circles there is allowance for people to do this–erase, take. And, they will be celebrated despite it.

This pattern is familiar within both Western and Indigenous spheres where someone in a position of power does wrong and people know about it but they continue to be uplifted or entrenched in their positions of power–free to perpetuate harm in all the ways that occurs.

So, in my case, I’ve learned that it’s not just the individual who is inflicted with some kind of something that allows them to behave this way, it’s the community of people who allow the behaviour to persist. The community of individuals who allows this are also inflicted by some kind of something, as well. What is it?

gawiin nigikendaasii. I don’t know.

Anyhow, I suspect like myself, many of us have to live with such things. Will it always be the case that nothing will be done about such matters? I can’t say. I don’t know what the future holds. It’s not where my energy goes for the most part. Except of course when invoked by the news.

And serendipity. (The day before APTN published their article about Boyden, someone said to me, “Hey, I just read __________. It reminded me so much of your work.”)

Do I feel like a victim? Yes. No. Have I been jaded and traumatized by the individuals’ behaviour and the lack of community-held accountability around it? Yes. I thought We were doing something different–something called anti-colonialism; something called decolonization; something called indigenous thought, knowledge, and practice; something called resurgence. Taking things from fellow Anishinaabe and using them as your own to advance yourself does not fall within the realm of any of these righteous endeavours. Witnessing this and doing nothing, or continuing to support it, falls outside the realm of any of these righteous endeavours, as well.

In my case, I was led to believe there was friendship between myself and the person who used my thinking, work, and labour to advance themselves; in that spirit of friendship, I was open and generous. Because of friendship and trust, I denied and was self-blaming when I first suspected my ideas were being used. I was told by others having the same amount of power as that person that they were likely jealous of the work I was doing. I laughed at such an idea–this person was my friend and this person was accomplished and established. How could they be jealous of me? I constructed myself as being arrogant, ambitious, and misguided in my perception. I essentially denied the truth as seen through my own eyes, and suggested to me by others, and diminished myself in the process. I did this to compensate…cognitive dissonance and all.  Eventually, truth slaps you in the face so often you have to take steps to test its veracity. When I did test the boundaries of collaboration and friendship to determine if what I was seeing was my own twisted view of things, I was immediately cut-off. And, I had my answer. And, punitive steps were taken against me for asserting boundaries. The person was, and continues to be, in a position of power over me. This power-over always mediates this matter. Those in positions to stop the behaviour, mutually known; some of them friends. To have people know your story and deny it, uplift the person who steals from you, is like pouring vinegar on an open wound. All of that is on all of them. Their baggage. Spiritual and otherwise.

Hurtful. Damaging. Traumatizing. Perspective-changing.  I am jaded and in that jadedness I am discontent. In my discontent, I am inspired to work harder to see those doing good work in our communities; shared work; collaborative work; work that looks out for each other and lifts each other up. We are better than a microcosm of windigo-ism within our communities.

Do I have people who support me in living with and through this matter? Yes. People who have my best interests at heart? Yes. People who inspire me to focus on keeping my heart-worked and hard-worked fire burning? Yes.

Do I have a need to name publically and expose in a manner that APTN has done regarding Boyden? No. I see this as a community matter that will unfold as it needs to. My hurt and confusion over being deceived, used, and let down by many is on-going but it’s not debilitating. It’s like a spirit that asks something of me. It’s like a gift in disguise. My work is to figure out what that gift is.

My point in posting about this matter is that despite the need to do the hard and necessary work of liberating Indigenous peoples and nations from the colonial weight and distortions of negative myths, stereotypes, and misconstructions, Indigenous peoples are humans who are neither noble nor savage—we are messy in all the gloriously bright, dark, complicated, and shifting ways that humans as individuals and relations of people can be. There needs to be space that allows for all of our humanity to exist. My point is to say that, where APTN aims to do the work of holding Boyden accountable and maybe even Geyshick aims to now as well, the accounting for the thing may not ever occur. I’ve learned that holding people with certain kinds of power to account does not always work–if ever. It can even be used against you in painful, material ways. And that also, anyways, “holding to account” may not always look the same. I want to say that the methods employed in holding people accountable may not always be limited to the simple realm of human dynamics and for that matter, Western orders of being, including the legal system or the media.

This is a selfish post. A heart post. A medicine post. A post where I can say that as an Anishinaabe woman, I have had my work taken without credit by a fellow Anishinaabe woman. When I see the latest news about Boyden and Geyshick, I feel the need to say, “Hey, I get that.” I get the power and the social dynamics that may inform that kind of situation. I see the tired and knee-jerk reproduction of power dynamics that Boyden is engaged in through his use of Western legal systems. I wonder what Geyshick thinks or how as an Anishinaabe man he’ll deal with this. I wonder if he even cares or if these other men are bringing him into something he doesn’t really want to be a part of. I also get that manidooyag, aanikobijigan, and time have a hand in all such matters. There are some things that are meant to be dealt with and worked through within those orders.

My point is to say that if  you have experienced this–this taking of your work without being given credit for it and this rejection of your truth by those in positions of power to correct it–you are not alone. And, there are options. Honour those who support you. Honour the fires that you have built. Honour the people who have helped you build them and continue to help you. Keep open space. Keep open. Honour your work and relations. Dig deep and look broadly at the possibilities of such painful experiences. Don’t become burdened by simplistic Western thought and ways of being. Consider spirit work; ancestral and descendent work; and, clan work. Consider songs, language, stories. Consider it as a gift that will nurture you in ways unimaginable. Make and leave a trail–if only a tendril of one–of “how to deal with hard things” for those around you.

This is a post to say that windigos, vampires, and yet to be born ghouls live in Anishinaabwaki. And, they have those who willingly feed them — people who either offer themselves  up to be fed upon, offer others up for the feeding, or do nothing about it when they see it happening.

“How do we deal with this?” is not a new or great question yet it is one that we must spend time thinking about and developing praxis around.

This post is to say that also, as humans, we all have the capacity to be, or not be, any kind of way, in any situation, given the right circumstances. I put my tobacco down and ask that whatever happens to people that allows them to take things from others without giving credit in order to advance themselves doesn’t happen to me. I ask for understanding and consideration of my own humanity as well.

A just world would see that such matters are attended to righteously. A spirit world allows for possibilities beyond human control, or interest, for that matter.

My point is to gently lay down a clothe where hard things can be open. It feels right, and resonate with a higher order of things, to do that.

Note: The metaphor of fire that I use comes from spending a long time thinking about James Dumont’s use of it in describing Anishinaabe ways. I first heard this used by him in 1995. Several years ago, and more poignantly, my friend and teacher Mary Jane Metatawabin, used it publicly in reference to keeping her home fires burning in particular ways. I’ve heard another ikawe, Odaemin Whetung, use it in similar ways. I use it in similar ways to all these teachers and as a metaphor in helping my daughter understand her joys and responsibilities, and in describing my parental responsibilities to others.