In Defence of the Wastelands: A Survival Guide

“The responsibility of a writer is to excavate the experience of the people who produced him.”

– James Baldwin

Some nights are softer than others.

Some nights, the good kind of vulnerability comes easier (but never easy) and the writing flows. Some weeks, nothing comes at all, except in disjointed phrases that make no sense to my hands, and words that won’t fit together neatly. I collect the words and put them in my basket anyway, because that’s what I know how to do. Walking down the road, we gather scraps to make bundles that we hope will eventually lead us somewhere gentler, somewhere freer.

Some nights, resistance is sexy, and some nights, the limit of our resistance is survival. If surviving colonization has taught me anything, it is that survival is not the same thing as living.

The Land

Photograph of gravel road by Erica Violet Lee

[askiy: gravel]

Late this summer, I was in Mistahi-Sipiy (Big River), Saskatchewan, for the third annual Idle No More healing walk, organized by Sylvia McAdam Saysewahum. Along with around thirty others, we came here to spend time on this territory and witness the clearcutting of forests.

It was a hot, humid day. After a pipe ceremony led by Sylvia’s mother, Juliette McAdam Saysewahum, we walked for four hours down a gravel logging road, ending, eventually, at a freshwater stream.

Submerging my hands in the cold water, I realized that I finally knew the location of a drinkable water source on my territory, and that this was a basic survival skill that my ancestors certainly learned as small children. The walk to the stream was much longer than four hours; for me, it was twenty-six years.

Sylvia writes in Nationhood Interrupted that all Nēhiyawak (Cree people) are worthy of opportunities to learn our languages, and that we deserve to know our laws, lands, and medicines. This was something I have always known, but to see it marked down on a page was life-changing. We deserve things written for us, and written by us. We deserve to know our medicines and our laws, but this place is not any utopia, so we grow our medicines from the cracks in concrete sidewalks or in between railroad tracks. We have to dig our laws out from underneath gravel logging roads and tend to our worlds in contaminated fields.

Image by Erica Violet Lee

[askiy: inner-city saskatoon]

I end up in discussions with other young women who are trying to be good aunties without having aunties of their own. We express sadness and shame at being made to beg for teachings like we’re mining for gold with our bare hands, only to be told we aren’t trying hard enough. We share rage at being told to sit quietly while brutal boys seize leadership positions, invited to meetings on golf courses to talk about pipelines with industry executives. They believe they are giving consent to the state on our behalf, failing to see that no man can consent to the devastation of fish and streams and trees and women.

But resistance is in our blood. So we shred their illegal contracts with the movement of our hands, digging for the roots our great-grandmothers used to treat cramps, anxiety, patriarchy. We recreate rites-of-passage ceremonies to teach ourselves survival skills for the apocalypse that has never ceased. Here, knowing how to salvage the quills from a roadkill porcupine is more useful than being exiled to sit alone with our sins, like the inabstinent, unconciliatory little witches we areheathen, obstinate, and refusing to convert.

We learn to navigate our territories by mapping our movements through burnt tire blockades left behind like a trail of breadcrumbs. Walk through my neighbourhood with me tonight and I will show you the stories of a thousand revolutions that will never be written.

Always remember where you came from, iskwesis: you are made of poverty and abundance; forged from nothing but a legacy of absolutely everything. In all your ancient, bright and reckless wilderness, you are the best hope of the wastelands.

I have the wisdom of one condemned to die,
I possess nothing so nothing can possess me
and have written my will in my own blood:
“O inhabitants of my song: trust in water”

– Mahmoud Darwish

By tending to her camp on the land, Sylvia preserves her family’s hunting grounds: a forest home that would otherwise have been silently levelled this summer.

It is on these lands I understand that Canadian law is upheld through the devastation of the legal orders in traplines, syrup, and sinew.

The Wastelands

Photograph by Erica Violet Lee

[askiy: treaty 6]

As a kid, I cherished trips outside the city as I learned about the plants of my home territory. I would hoard braids of sweetgrass and fill envelopes with cedar, keep paper bags overflowing with dried leaves and roots for tea. Some time passed before I learned I didn’t have to be stingy with my sage, because there was a patch growing down the street. Until then, I thought that “medicine plants” must only grow outside of the city.

In the inner city, we develop an understanding of borders early, because straying beyond them means an increased risk of facing violence. There is a border that separates the west side of Saskatoon from the east. There are borders constructed between urban spaces built for rich white people and urban spaces meant to contain the rest of us. The rest of us live with police cars parked outside our homes, and a police plane circling over our neighbourhoods all night long. Sometimes the plane is so loud that it wakes us up, disturbing the precious little time we have to rest, and I wonder how this is not named terrorism.

We are deprived of the basic necessities of life: food, clean water, safe housing. We are kept poor and we are kept out of school. We are locked in jails, raped, and stolen. We are monitored in our homes. We are deprived of sleep.

This is what a failing colonial empire does to people whom they are afraid will rise like a full moon if we are given the chance to think about something more than survival.

To provide care in the wastelands is about gathering enough love to turn devastation into mourning and then, maybe, turn that mourning into hope.

It is early summer.

I am in the city, away from home, so I create a home in him. He is a wastelander, too. We stand in the subway. The air is hot, gritty, and it is crowded, but I am immune to every discomfort except the space between our bodies. He laughs at my stubbornness for choosing to study academic philosophy, even though my curriculum is reduced to a daily trial of how much repetitive, boring racism I can endure.

I tell myself I’ve learned to thrive in places where I’m unsafe. I tell him, “In fact, I do my best writing when I’m unstable.” It’s not a joke, but I smile anyway, raising my eyebrow for punctuation.

A train rattles on the tracks across from us, heading in the opposite direction. A reminder that all this warmth is temporary, and my heart catches in my throat. I swallow hard to re-suspend the time.

Folks from the wastelands learn to think in the midst of fire. In the midst of deprivation. Of exhaustion. Of devastation. Of desperation. We become philosophers on our feet, running from cops and social workers. Either that, or we are killed. So it follows that those of us who survive long enough to write anything at all must be invincible.

He pauses and responds, “that may be true, but have you ever known stability?”

Trying not to cry, I crush the wild rose petals he placed in my mouth one by one, between my teeth. I can confront hatred, and deal with lust, and laugh at death, but I do not know how to interact with his gentleness and his carefulness; his softness in a place where we are taught to be hard-shelled and pretend to others that we are bulletproof.

I want to say: the only stability I am interested in is making a lodge of your arms wrapped around me, warmed by the sacred fire of our skin pressed together.

Instead, I shrug and stare at the ground until the next train comes. Standing in the crowded subway car, I still can’t make eye contact, but I run my finger along the zipper of his bag to change the subject, momentarily allowing us to forget he’s not empty territory I can claim as my own. He knows I am vulnerable and does not lay a hand on me. This is how I knew he was beginning to love me. In that moment, at least.

I imagine his walk to the stream has been much longer than mine, perhaps by a thousand years.

Joining the defence of body and the defence of land is to dream of something beyond constant defence: something like falling in love.

Spaces that are considered not simply unworthy of defence, but deserving of devastation, are named “wastelands.” Wastelands are places where no medicines grow, only plants called “weeds.”A wasteland is a place where, we are taught, there is nothing and no one salvageable. A wasteland is a person denied safe haven because she is full of the chemicals that make survival less painful. Wastelands are spaces deemed unworthy of healing because of the scale and amount of devastation that has occurred there.

Wastelands are named wastelands by the ones responsible for their devastation.

Once they have devastated the earthlogged the forest bare, poisoned the water, turned our neighbourhoods into brownfields so that we must grow our vegetables in pots above the groundonce they have consumed all that they believe to be valuable, the rest is discarded.

But the heart of wastelands theory is simple. Here, we understand that there is nothing and no one beyond healing. So we return again and again to the discards, gathering scraps for our bundles, and we tend to the devastation with destabilizing gentleness, carefulness, softness.

Photograph by Erica Violet Lee

[askiy: care for the land and for each other]

For those of us in the wastelandsfor those of us who are the wastelandscaring for each other in this way is refusing a definition of worthiness that will never include us.

To provide care in the wastelands is about gathering enough love to turn devastation into mourning and then, maybe, turn that mourning into hope. It’s hard to distinguish between mourning and hope for me, except that mourning is about knowing there have existed creatures here worth saving who could not be saved.

Hope, then, is knowing there is more to living than surviving; believing that some worlds must exist for us beyond survival. Even when we must piece those worlds together from gathered scraps, slowly building incandescent ceremonies out of nothing but our bodies, our words, and time.


I wonder how our bodies would function if they weren’t tasked with survival in an occupied state. What if our muscles did not have to stay braced for battle even as we sleep? How would we relate to one another if we were able to let down the weight of anti-colonial armour from our skin?

Photograph of Erica Violet Lee

[askiy: ceremony in plaid and my most sacred short-shorts]

All these thoughts and feelings kept leading me to continue exploring. While I was exploring I began to feel a profound connection that I can only describe as falling in love. As a lawyer, it’s difficult to bring this revelation for all to read. Love and law in one sentence is not done.

– Sylvia McAdam, Nationhood Interrupted

Joining the defence of body and the defence of land is to dream of something beyond constant defence: something like falling in love. In the wastelands, our freedom comes from falling in love with the beauty in lands, places, and people where others have been taught to see only weeds and devastation.

When we make a home in lands and bodies considered wastelands, we attest that these places are worthy of healing and that we are worthy of life beyond survival.

It is here I understand that love and law are one and the same.

All images by Erica Violet Lee

[askiy: an offering for the stream]