The waters of my homelands ripple softly with a passing breeze. In the same moment, the waters of my body stir ever so slightly, a gentle and omnipresent hum. In the darkness of the night, I touch myself and my own waters start to flow. Water trickles at the edge of skin and reminds me that I can feel whole and full. In the far distance, my homelands quiver ever so slightly in pleasure and my ancestors begin to drum.
Settler colonialism, as I have come to know it, is the removal of Indigenous bodies from our homelands in order to secure the ongoing theft and occupation of our territories. On stolen land, they have created the structures of capitalism, white supremacy and cis-heteronormativity that submerge both my body and homeland in the weight of dispossession. Much like the weather, settler colonialism is immersive, generating an environment that I must necessarily interact with. Unlike the beautiful winds and storms that sweep my homelands, this settler colonial weather is unnatural and malevolent, intentional and strategic, producing storms of genocidal violence aimed at the destruction of Indigenous life and thirsty for the occupation of Indigenous land.
Settler colonial weather is both immersive, comprised of rigid structures and systems that ensure Indigenous dispossession, and episodic, unleashing storms of violence that maintain the settler colonial project. Us Anishinaabeg have always resisted these settler colonial storms, have taught ourselves how to cope and live in this new environment despite the violence that we endure. We have created shelters that shield our loved ones from harsh rains, have learnt to live and love in bodies harmed and hated, have softly tended to new worlds in the stillness of the night. We have carefully studied these storms. They are violent, cunning and yet, unable to comprehend the fullness of our universe.
I now sit by the edge of lake superior, young Anishinaabekwe who feels the weight of her body in this place. I have not always lived on my territory and presencing my body on my homelands is important and powerful for me. Indeed, I have spent much of my life working towards this moment, have carefully mapped out my experience of colonialism, have slowly shed off layers of shame, have finally made it home. As someone who grew up away from my territory in Treaty 3 and in the downtown core of Toronto, my analysis of settler colonialism is particularly attentive to its spatiality and the ways in which colonialism seeks to remove our bodies from our homelands and further, our spirits from our bodies—always a project of removal and genocide. I take a deep breath in and look towards the vast frozen lake that spans out into a horizon just beyond my window. It always has to do with water. My experience of settler colonialism is irrevocably intertwined with my relationship to the waters of my homeland.
Self-pleasure is a practice that helps me land in a body that has often felt so far away from me. Quite simply, I need to be in this body and to love this body in order to contribute to land-based resurgence, community wellbeing and nation-building.
Anishinaabe relationships to water are so powerful that they have been the explicit target of the settler state since contact, binding Anishinaabe experiences of colonialism to the waters of our homelands and bodies. Our relationships to water are expansive, un-definable, and deeply threatening to settler objectives that seek to compartmentalize and control. In my territory, settlers constructed hydroelectric dams that would flood not only our traditional territory but also our actual reserve, forcing relatives off of our homelands and into urban centers. In conjunction, they constructed the residential schools that would remove young Anishinaabeg from their homelands and families. Today, they work tirelessly to ensure that our waters remain sites of violence. They make our waters sick so that they can poison our bodies and our young. They make our waters a place of grief and loss, a place where we will find—or not find—our relatives that were taken from us too soon from colonial violence. They do everything in their power to stop us Anishinaabeg from deepening our relationship to the water, from running our hands softly through our cold lakes, from seeing our beautiful faces reflected back at us in the water’s surface, ancestors whispering sweet songs of resistance into our ears. A dull hum. Drumming.
A storm blows in across the lake. This is not one of our storms, the kind that houses the thunderbirds and allows water to dance between earth and sky. This storm is artificial, reeks of hatred, greed and evil. This storm sweeps up all of the tiny Anishinaabe bodies, searches to find the ones that hide in the arms of loving grandparents deep in the bush. The body of my seven-year-old father is broken, again and again, night after night, and in the distance, a soft and steady rumble in the belly of a lake. The land trembles in pain. I am born from within this storm. I look to my mother’s body for solace but cannot find any, violence in her blood that mixes with my father’s and becomes mine to carry. But blood is water. Ancestors drumming.
We have always endured the violent storms of the settler colonial weather. At the end of a particularly awful storm, I find myself a young Anishinaabekwe in the big city, born away from my homelands. Settler colonialism has crafted a world where our bodies are considered separate from our homelands because only when these are considered distinct can we forget where we come from and who our ancestors are. They have introduced toxic identity politics that tell us we are less Indigenous if we live off of our territories, have forced us to abide by the Indian Act, have wrapped us in a dark shame that makes us think it is our fault for the ways we have been dispossessed. I chuckle deeply to myself because they did not realize that body and homeland cannot be separated, that they are not distinct entities, that no matter where our bodies are we can feel our homelands in the night, can hear our ancestors murmuring and humming under our skin, can feel the lakes and rivers that we come from slowly trickle over rock. They can never fully comprehend our universe. Water taught me this. Water from land and body, from outside and inside, has taught me that the knowledge, teachings and ancestors that dance through rock and water, forest and sky, also dance within our own bodies. Water teaches me that we hold internal knowledge, that body is homeland, and that our ancestors are always with us, feeding us teachings and guiding our hands. They will do anything to keep us from entering into this relationship with water.
I imagine that the parts of my homeland that now lie submerged under water feel like I do some days, drowning in the omnipresent fluid of settler colonialism, stuck in an impassable storm that never ends. The land that experiences the ebb and flow of the dam must witness so much violence, tasting the sweet sun and dry earth only to be submerged once again. Repeat. Repeat. This land bears witness to muskrats that try to build their homes on the shoreline only to watch them pass away in vain. This land sings a calming song to ease their passings. I am muskrat on the ever-changing shoreline. Sometimes, my body drowns with the weight of colonialism but then I find myself dry, on hard earth, able to build my world, ready to do it all again and each time, calculating and scheming to build a world that will allow my body and this shoreline to bask in the afternoon sun, full and whole.
Sometimes, the body becomes the greatest teacher. The body knows things before our minds, can carry our experiences for us, can bury our pain deep into our bones until we are ready to witness and to heal. The body, in the settler colonial context, is saturated with stories of violence, is damp and cold from this weather and these relentless storms. Sometimes our minds are so messed up with mechanisms that protect us, that conceal and hide, that wrap us up in shame, that our bodies are the ones that have to shake us. My body once decided that enough was enough. I watched as my world slowly unraveled, watched as my body travelled far away from me. I was triggered from experiencing consent, felt shame from having to learn what consent means to me this late in life, stared bleakly into the consent that I have mostly not been afforded. One of my mind’s coping mechanisms is to completely block out traumatic experiences and, to my horror, memories of my body being violated flood into my consciousness. It hurts but in a weird, dull way. Sometimes I cry but more often, I recede into a place beyond my body that is cold and void. Settler colonialism brings us to this void. Settler colonialism wants us to detach from our bodies, to travel so far away from them, that we do not care when they destroy our bodies. It wants us to forget about the waters of our homelands that are softly swelling inside of us, singing songs that tell us we are loved, that we have all that we need.
This storm is a raging one; it knows that it has to push me over the edge. It has been threatened by the body that has come forward as a teacher, has been threatened by the ancestors that have decided enough is enough, that they will begin their ceremony to bring kwe back to her body. And so, this storm rages. It is pushed out of my body by the songs of strong ancestors whose voices travel through the waters of my body. It finds root in my mind. Shame. Did that really happen though? Why are you so weak that you are only realizing this now? Why didn’t you say anything? Fear. What else have I blacked out? And yet, the body becomes the teacher. During this time I don’t want to be touched (the body must shake me) and yet, I am lovingly guided by the soft hands of my ancestors. I create these paintings of my own body that flow so effortlessly from me and I stare at them in awe. My ancestors give me many gifts, this one a map to my own body, a map of the work I need to do, a route that shows me how to land in my body and love.
A tactic of settler colonialism is to remove the self from the body. This process ultimately facilitates the clearing of Indigenous bodies from our homelands to free up land for settler occupation. While Indigenous scholars have long discussed, theorized, and emphasized the practice of returning to the land or presencing our bodies on our homelands, less is said about the practices that create intimacy between the self and the body. Self-pleasure is a practice that helps me land in a body that has often felt so far away from me. Quite simply, I need to be in this body and to love this body in order to contribute to land-based resurgence, community wellbeing and nation-building. For me, there are two kinds of masturbation. There is the quick, instinctual and almost absent-minded kind that I sometimes do to relieve stress or to remind myself that I have a body. The other kind of self-pleasure is a practice that requires that I feel worthy enough to deserve pleasure in this specific body of mine. For the latter practice, I must say to myself: I want to feel good today; I want to be intentional with my pleasure; and I want to be closer with my body in all of its complexities. Sometimes, I don’t want to get intimate with my body because it means acknowledging my body’s stories and traumas. Sometimes, I don’t want to masturbate lovingly because it means deciding what I want and acknowledging that maybe I don’t know how to answer that question. Sometimes, I don’t want to sit deeply with my own body because it means confronting the shame that surrounds my sexuality as an Indigenous woman. And yet, I catch my reflection in a glass of water, pause when the waters inside of me stir, find myself sitting at the edge of the lake, water calling me back to my body. This self-love is absolutely necessary in order for me to return to the land in the first place. Loving myself brought me home.
Touching myself is visiting those stars that I come from, tracing the routes of my star kin. Touching myself is becoming the sun that shines its rays on the shoreline, allowing the muskrat to once again build its world. Touching myself is making the land feel good, making my homelands quiver and shake, spooking a few cottagers who have settled on our shores, maybe making a tiny crack in the dam.
These struggles with self-love, self-pleasure, and sexual trauma are all contingent on the context of settler colonialism that I am embedded within. While many may see their own experiences reflected in my words, this discussion cannot be truncated from the settler colonial storms that are indeed at the root of these traumas. In other words, this discussion cannot be separated from my identity as an Indigenous woman. I would like to firmly anchor this discussion in the cis-heteropatriarchal, ableist, ageist, capitalist, white supremacist normative ordering of the settler colonial weather. In particular, I would like to acknowledge cis-heteropatriarchy as a central mechanical cog in the settler colonial complex intent on the occupation and theft of Indigenous land. This means that since contact, the settler state has recognized how Indigenous women, Two-spirit, queer, trans, and non-binary relatives are the ones that so beautifully weave our bodies within our homelands, seamlessly connecting our communities to all of creation. The state has watched these people—the ways they tended to the waters, articulated power, and upheld our communities—and has responded by explicitly targeting these community members. I can only speak from my own experiential knowledge as a cisgender, heterosexual Anishinaabekwe. I do not want to homogenize the experiences of Indigenous women, Two-spirit, queer, trans and non-binary people but rather, want to acknowledge the ways in which all of us are so integral to community governance and nationhood that we carry a legacy of settler violence intended to destroy us. Many of our bodies have been, and continue to be, taken from this earth through colonial violence. Many of our bodies have been, and continue to be, found in our waterways. Many of our bodies have been, and continue to be, marked as disposable, dirty, and unworthy. It is hard to love your body when it is systematically, materially, and symbolically hated. They have worked so hard to make us hate our bodies.
The practice of abstaining from eye contact in public, established in twelve-year-old kwe who is frightened by men’s wandering eyes that even a child can recognize as the desire to rape or kill. Being called my little savage by affectionate lips in your teens, you’re beautiful for a native girl from another. Good for you. Look at you go. Body is fetishized, the feeling of being hated yet still desired for all of these dark historic reasons and you’re only 16, just getting used to your new body. Hearing, “I hope you burn in hell with all of the other natives” at the end of an abusive relationship, being held against a wall just under your neck. My body carries the constant fear that one of my sisters will go missing. My body carries daydreams of what I will do if, when, I am attacked. I tell myself I wouldn’t even be scared, just full of rage, would bite out tongue. And yet, the ability to carry each other without hesitation through trauma and loss because it is in our blood. Never getting to cry in public because the white ladies do first. But laughter, deep and guttural laughter. Vulnerability, always. Softness, always. The ability to fall in love so effortlessly and deeply with my kin, even if we’ve just met, my hands always reaching out, making space, holding up, meeting the embrace of another. The love we have for each other is so full it spills over onto the land I walk on. They will never have this.
Painting my own body represents a moment or a map. It is an image of what my ancestors want for me. They know that my body, so many of our bodies, are withered by this settler colonial weather and so they give us gifts that teach us how to fall in love with our bodies again. Touching myself is a process of falling in love with my own body that relies on a pedagogy of body as homeland, as ancestors. This process is not just about physically feeling pleasure nor is it just about resistance against those violent and dehumanizing experiences I have endured. As an Anishinaabekwe, my body is not so easily defined, containerized and compartmentalized. My body is the stars that I come from. My body is the love and labor of all my ancestors before me, singing and drumming under a full sky of moon and stars. My body is the submerged parts of my homeland, waiting to feel the rays of the sun once more. My body is the muskrat that keeps building its worlds so that one day we may live, full and whole. Falling in love with my body is falling in love with all of the elements of creation that I come from. They can never comprehend the fullness of our universe.
The road to falling in love with my body is long and treacherous. Falling in love is so painful because it means acknowledging the totality of my body’s stories and experiences, and it means growing closer to the ways in which my body and the lands that I come from have been dispossessed. And yet, when I touch myself, those sacred waters come and they always teach me something new. Touching myself is all of my ancestors standing around a fire and chuckling deep into their bellies with a good joke. Touching myself is visiting those stars that I come from, tracing the routes of my star kin. Touching myself is becoming the sun that shines its rays on the shoreline, allowing the muskrat to once again build its world. Touching myself is making the land feel good, making my homelands quiver and shake, spooking a few cottagers who have settled on our shores, maybe making a tiny crack in the dam. Touching myself is time travelling to visit my parents as children, giving them a hug and telling them that despite what is going to happen to their bodies, that they are loved and beautiful and perfect, that I will come from their bodies and that I will be full and happy and whole. Touching myself is making most people feel uncomfortable and making other Indigenous kin feel whole and hopeful because deep down they know that an Anishinaabekwe feeling good in her body is powerful enough to silence even the worst of storms.
Kwe touches herself at night and as she does, her ancestors tell her she is beautiful, perfect and worthy. They wrap her in the certainty and warmth of her homelands and remind her of the teachings she carries in her body, whisper sweet visions of the future into her ears. Kwe becomes the moon often now, touches herself so she can feel full again. She is full. She is whole.