Buds Open Up and It Blossoms: An Ojibway & Settler of Colour Love (Lost) Story for Early Spring
by waaseyaa'sin christine sy
Back home, come late spring, I was always filled with complicated gratitude for the lilacs the early settler farmers brought to Anishinaabewaki. Where I lived along the Otonabee River, reliable western winds predictably swept their powerful fragrance upwards through bird-filled and newly budding green spaces towards the russet-brown brick buildings that were at once home and community. My favourite springtime evenings were those when the sun was setting and the Thunderers were beginning to roll in with foreboding, moody clouds. I would stand casually against the brick wall of my apartment or awkwardly in the open space between my building and my neighbours’, opening myself up to be graced with epingashmok (western wind, western spirit) and the lilac fragrance it carried.
Imagine the pale yellow, white light of setting sun-rays through dark grey clouds and the brand-new light green of freshly birthed buds, the sound of the river in the background, epingashmok, and the fragrance of dark purple, light purple and light pink lilacs moving across what used to be settler farmland—lands that are now severed into smaller lots with houses, buildings, and public green space but still, remain enduring Anishinaabeg lands; the strong, heady smell of lilacs; the shapes of their petals, like ‘waa’—the sound of round—curled and curly as though trying to keep their fragrance to themselves. Just imagine that.
Here in Lekwungen territory, in early spring, myriad types of Japanese cherry trees are in full bloom. All shades of pink and various kinds of petals everywhere waving on bouncing limbs; floating on balmy wind currents. Very pretty. And, delicate.
I’ve researched why there are so many of these trees here but haven’t been able to find any answer to my question. Vancouver has a relatively accessible popular history about their cherry blossom trees online but nothing similar exists for Victoria that I could find.
A few weeks ago, while discussing the meaning of zaagidewin with fellow Anishinaabemowin learners, the word zaagibagaa came up. A new word for me, it refers to buds opening up. It conjured the image of new green buds; an image impressed upon me by Jim Dumont more than twenty years ago in his elaborations of how Ojibway understand being here in this world: that just as our spirits enter this world through the womb as physical beings and are only able to experience the physical realm of this place in this way, and will never experience this way of being in any other plane of existence, never before has that new spring bud been here in this physical form, and never again will it be here in this form again. In other words, make the most of every moment while here. I thought of how these buds mark spring fasting time; how they softly speckle a particular sugar bush in Mississauga territory where the leeks grow but because the soil is loaded with small round rocks it’s too difficult to dig them up (so best go get some from the private property that isn’t fenced in); how they emanate newness and make everything so pretty and fresh.
Walking through to my car after class, with zaagibagaa on my mind, I stopped to take a look at the new buds of one of the several cherry blossom trees in the area. I wanted to see them close-up and appreciate them. I wanted to begin to embody the word and meaning of zaagibagaa:
I couldn’t wait for them to open up so I could determine if they smelled as fragrant as lilacs. (The winds here carry the heavy perfume of many kinds of flowers. Every once in a while, a scent of beautiful catches me off-guard while bustling through the day. What a gift.) A week or so later they were in full bloom and I was able to smell them.
They don’t smell perfumey like lilacs. Not a whiff of anything fragrant, actually. But still, they sure are pretty.
While learning about budding green leaves and blooming flowers, I learned that the word for bloom is different than buds opening up. Leave it to Anishinaabeg to be so discerning and precise.
The “Ojibway Online Dictionary” says the word for “it blooms; is blooming” is baashkaabi-gwanii. I recognized “baashkaa” as something that erupts or explodes as this is a main part of the word for gun and blueberry pie (I think). The dictionary tells us that igwanii—or wabigwan—is the word for flower.
So, here in Lekwungen and WSÁNEĆ territory it is early spring, and all the life is opening up and blossoming anew—brand spanking, never-to-be-new-like-this-again-kind-of-new. I wonder what a new bud or the inside of a blossom experiences opening up like that.
* * *
Sometime in the midst of learning about opening up and blooming from within Anishinaabe thought, and being overwhelmed by the Japanese cherry blossoms, the very interesting owner of the corner store in my neighbourhood and I continued to get to know each other during our quick exchanges at the till. In my opinion, this corner store, which I believe he and his brother own, could win “Best Corner Store Ever” if there were ever such a competition.
This corner store exists in WSÁNEĆ territory—territory which is very actively WSÁNEĆ territory in terms of the number of reserves in the area, accessible knowledges about the lands and waters, places names, and visibly brown bodies moving about. WSÁNEĆ territory is actively WSÁNEĆ and its actively being colonized by settlers. The fact that this corner store is a part of the active, albeit polite-ish, occupation of the area would of course be a reason for the “Best Corner Store Ever” to have its winning-win revoked immediately. (Because Anishinaabe’ikawe giveth and Anishinaabe’ikawe taketh away, just like that.)
Anyhow, over the past several months, my girl and I have come to this store and over the course of that time, I’ve learned bits about the main person who is there. He and his brother are very interesting on their own and are quite funny when together. I swear the main guy flirts with me. Or rather, it’s actually more like he’s flirting with himself in front of me. It’s nerdy and it’s entertaining.
I’ve learned that he’s Chinese; that he celebrates Chinese New Years (and what he ate this past holiday); that he’s Christian; that he’s writing out his interpretation of the bible; that he drinks a certain kind of lemon tea to make his voice deeper (he actually demonstrated how deep he wanted his voice to be); and, more recently, that he didn’t know I was First Nations, that he thinks First Nations people get a lot of money (like $700,000 per year), and that First Nations people get this money by doing nothing.
Let me explain:
Sometime in the midst of learning about opening up and blooming from within Anishinaabe thought and Japanese cherry blossom trees in Lekwungen territory where I work and learning about the Chinese-Canadian corner-store owner in WSÁNEĆ territory where I live, I signalled my family’s indigeneity to him during a recent exchange.
This was a non-descript, un-strategic signalling of information shared in passing while talking about a unmemorable subject. And, it was shared while I was on my way out of the store.
What’s interesting is that the next time I went to the used-to-be Best Store Ever he was working again and he sparked up a conversation with me right away about our previous exchange:
“So, you’re First Nations, eh?”
“Yes.” And I thought to myself with a sigh, Here we go….
“Not from around here though, right?”
“That’s right. I’m from the Great Lakes area—northern Ontario. Anishinaabe.”
He nods, “So, do you have a casino?”
Oh wow, are you kidding me? I think. Harnessing the moment, I say, “Yes, of course.”
“Yes. Well, kind of. I own shares with Treasure Island in Las Vegas.”
He pauses; looks confused. “Is that a First Nation casino?”
Silence unfolds as I’m walking around the store whose shelf levels are torso high making it super easy to carry a conversation over all the fantastically unique-to-me Asian products he has in stock. An older white woman walks in.
“But do you have a casino on your rez? Your people, do they have a casino?”
Your people…do they have a casino? reverberates in my brain and I remind myself to be kind. “Yes. No. Well, not where I’m from but there are Anishinaabeg who have casinos on their rezzes in Ontario and in the US.”
He smiles a big smile and nods a big nod. Chuckles. I laugh-think, Zhooniyaami n’dodem. Casino-ikawe n’dizhnikaaz. Chi casino-wigwaming megwe dodaa amiinawaa chi casino-wigwaming n’donjibaa.
He prods, “So, they make a lot of money, right?”
“Um, I don’t know. I think it depends. I know some Anishinaabeg who get pretty good cheques every month and some a few times a year. Like a per diem or something like that. Not all of us do though.”
“But some do, right? They get lots of money? Like I heard some get $700, 000 a year.”
“Wow. $700, 000 a year, eh? Hm. Maybe. I’m pretty sure it’s not that much in Anishinaabe country. Maybe along the West Coast in the US. Like California or something. I met an Indigenous man in Oregon a long time ago. He drove a Lamborghini and said the casino on his rez made lots of money. I think it all depends on the casino and how much it makes. I don’t really know how it works though because there’s no casino on my rez and I don’t get into those deets with my friends who get money from casinos on their rezzes.”
I’m curious why he’s so jacked up on this conversation—he’s nodding and smiling. I’m cashing out and the woman is beside me keeping to herself. He shakes his head, and in a low voice, like he’s talking to himself, he says, “That’s a lot of money.” He gives me my change.
“Yep. It is. Or, would be, if it’s even a real thing.” I walk towards the door still looking at him. He is seriously way too interested in this subject. It feels like he’s married to the idea that somewhere out there is the mythical Casino-Indian who is making bank and that he was this close to meeting one.
Seemingly continuing to talk to himself as he begins ringing in the woman’s order, he says, “And they don’t even have to do anything for it.”
I stop just before the door, “Pardon?”
He keeps smiling and cashing the woman out, “They don’t even have to do anything for it.”
I step back to put myself into the energy of the conversation, smile, and notice the woman fiddling with her wallet. Speaking in the same light, friendly tone, I say, “Yep, you’re right. They don’t have to do anything for it except be forced onto small reserves made on crappy land so the settlers could steal the good land.”
The smile comes off his face, he shrugs his shoulders sheepishly, raises his eyebrows really quick as though reckoning with—and just as quickly dismissing—the obvious fucking truth that nobody ever talks about.
“Huh. Yea.” he says, without looking at me.
I walk out the door thanking gizhe manidoo for letting me think quick enough to deliver a truth in a calm way to him with the woman-as-witness.
I think about the green buds and Japanese cherry blossoms, opening up, blooming, and blossoming. I think about the trajectory that the Chinese-Canadian guy took our conversation in based on ideas he had blooming in his head. I wonder how many settlers of colour think we are money-bags. I wonder about the narrow, myopic thoughts that allow them to only see us in terms of dollar signs and I wonder how pervasive these thoughts are.
How do they see us–the humans that grow from the lands that host them and their beloveds with kindness, grace, dignity, and do so under imposition and violence. How many feel entitled to be here to make money on our lands? Or, think less of us because of imposed economic poverty—a poverty that doesn’t even come close to diminishing the riches of our places, our ancestral burial grounds, our ceremonies, narratives, songs, language, philosophies, political structures, economies, ways of being, visions for the future; riches that they can’t even comprehend or maybe don’t want to. How many get their nose out of joint because they think we’re getting something they’re not. How many see our brown bodies or hear our names and think “Casino money”, “Free money”, “Tax free”, “Government subsidies”, “Welfare case”, that they pay for us to live, or that we live off of them.
I think about the Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and Korean students who I teach and who so brilliantly teach me about the realities they navigate, being marginalized in innumerable ways in Canada. Student-teachers who willingly come-to-consciousness about living in the stolen lands Coast Salish women call home. And, who continually grapple theoretically and in praxis with what this means for them, being settlers of colour, on stolen Indigenous lands.
I was blown away by the possibility that as soon as this Chinese-Canadian man learned I was First Nations, all he could think of was casino and money. Ideas of my Indigeneity blossoming in his mind and burning to be checked out as soon as I walked in the store. Ideas he refused to let go of even in the face of my answers. He didn’t care that like him, I too was a writer; that like him, I too practice a spirituality, and celebrate with special foods on special occasions; that I was new to the area; or, that I was continually interested in all the fascinating products in his store. I was reminded of the Black Bell technician back in Nogojiwanong a few years ago who fixed my internet, noticed some things on my walls and asked if I was native; who called me the next day to see if my internet was working and asked if I wanted to go on a date; who made me laugh with this gesture and feel flattered that he would violate an obvious policy to ask me out; who I politely refused by lying to him and telling him I had a partner (because I was not attracted to him); and who, after reflecting on this extraordinary display of interest, I surmised likely only violated that policy because he must have been operating under some idea about “Native” women—some fetishized idea, distorted idea of me as a “Native” woman that made him think violating the policy would be worth it, could be worth it. I thought of the Columbian man—popular vendor at local pow-wows back home—who “made time to see me” on his drive by the city and expected me to drop all my responsibilities, including those of being a single mom, to go have coffee with him; who I never heard from again when I told him I would love to but I needed advance notice so I could take care of things on my end in order to do so.
Money bags; easy lay; in servitude…all possible lenses through which settler men of colour see Indigenous women.
The owner of the used-to-be Best Corner Store Ever cared that I was a First Nations person but for him that equated to lots of money made from a casino. It must have validated some myth he had about us. Is it possible that some folks like having these myths? Like holding on to them? Does it make them feel good? Less inadequate? Righteous thieves of Indigenous lands and lives or righteous benefactors of deeds done by those before them? If we’re making big money from casinos then that balances out several hundred years of on-going genocide, theft, violence, domination, assimilation, occupation? Is this the logic?
So unbelievable. Such an unbelievably disappointing exchange with a fellow human.
And yet, so believable. So believably disappointing.
You get used to it.
I have not been back. And, while I’d like to boycott I’m pretty sure most store-owners operate under some distorted idea about us. Where I spend my money is six of one, half dozen of another. And, admittedly, I’m curious to see how he engages me the next time I go there. Will he apologize? Will he resort to superficial small talk? Regardless, I’m ready to do trickster with him. The way I see it, if you’re going to treat Indigenous people—women—as objects when our humanity is bursting and blooming like a brand-new bud and flower in spring and when you’re living in our lands, we get to bat the bunny for our own shits, giggles, and resistance. I’m pretty sure if I was an Indigenous man, he would not have been querying me about all this or doing so to the degree he was. And, honestly why not ruminate about corporate windigos who literally do nothing and make millions on his back and mine? So, his particular kind of obstinate settler of colour racialized bigotry, sexism, and classism is all the more reason for me to go back to the used-to-be Best Corner Store Ever and have a bit of fun.
I can’t wait to tell him that Canada Revenue just cut me a cheque for $7000 because under Prime Minister Trudeau’s feminist, decolonizing politics, we Indigenous women are getting back some of the taxes we are illegitimately forced to pay.
Note: Dear reader, my smart-ass response about having a casino is fictional—it’s a good fictional though because it adds humour to an otherwise boring, been here-done that exchange with yet another ignorant settler who holds us in disdain. In all honesty, I only wish I had of been on my toes and sassy enough to say such a thing. Rarely am I ever ready for the outrageous questions when they come my way even when they occur frequently. That said, the next time the casino question comes, I’ll be ready (and so will you).
 John Borrows shared this word and translation.