During the fall of 2020, graduate students in the Ryerson University English Department’s Literatures and Modernity program worked on digital criticism projects that reflected on Indigenous literature in Canada and the US feminist forms of testimony. This post originally appeared on graduate student Samantha Baran’s Medium bog.
Brandi Bird’s poetry collection, I Am Still Too Much, explores the effect of colonial influence on Indigenous space: the geographical space of Indigenous homelands that is a part of Indigenous identity. The identity of the Indigenous individual exists within the geographical space and the embodied space of the Indigenous identity in Bird’s work, each space being a claimed land that encompasses the Indigenous identity. Her poem “Post-Contact” probes how the post-colonial space of Canada affects Indigenous identity. Bird’s attention to geographical space in her poem becomes a symbol for how settler colonialism taints and injures the Indigenous body and identity.
Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Sovereignty in Canada
Canada is a settler-colonialist society. Global Social Theory defines settler colonialism as follows: “… the replacement of indigenous populations with an invasive settler society that, over time, develops a distinctive identity and sovereignty”. There are three ways of identifying settler colonialism within a society:
1) Settler colonizers permanently occupy and remain within Indigenous lands and assert sovereignty.
2) Settler colonialism works as a structure, not an event. Settler colonizers maintain sovereignty through ongoing elimination of Indigenous populations and by exercising juridical control over Indigenous lands.
3) Settler colonialist society has the goal of ending colonial structures and imbalances in power between the coloniser and colonized as a means of ending settler colonialism. The ending of colonial difference and settler colonialism can be falsely achieved via a supreme, unchallenged settler state and people.
Terra nullius — “the perception that lands in long-term use by Indigenous peoples are empty and unused” – describes the ability of colonizers to take and reform Indigenous lands and label these lands as their private property. The investment of identity and materials that settler colonialists continue to impart upon these lands empowers settler colonialists to defend their property from Indigenous peoples who now, after being stripped of their land, are seen as the enemy.
Settler colonialism removes the Indigenous identity from Indigenous geographical space and seeks to make Indigenous peoples the Other who threatens the new geopolitical space created under settler-colonial sovereignty.
Settler Colonialism and Geopolitical Space in “Post-Contact”
Bird alludes to the effects of settler colonialism on Indigenous land in her poem “Post-Contact” that is a part of her poetry collection, I Am Still Too Much. Bird not only recognizes the geopolitical implications of settler colonialism in her poem, but she also addresses the destruction that the claiming of Indigenous land has on the environment. The destruction of the Indigenous environment in turn becomes a destruction of Indigenous peoples’ relationality to their land that is a part of their identity, making the geopolitical actions of settler colonialism a part of the destruction of Indigenous identity.
“Post-Contact” places the reader within the geopolitical environment of “Alberta” (Bird 3). Bird begins her poem:
Delta Athabasca, family of tributaries,
a lineage. Another body of water bridging
the boneblack of royal Alberta, nation
to nation. (Bird 1–4).
Bird’s poem immediately situates the reader within the environment of the Peace-Athabasca Delta area. She describes the flow of tributaries, or rivers and streams, that branch across the land while maintaining their “lineage”, their connection, to the main body of water, “Delta Athabasca”. This opening sentence before the punctuated stop of the period recognizes a body of water in geopolitical conflict. Today, the Peace-Athabasca Delta is advertised by the Canadian government as a camping area where people can enjoy the wetlands and wildlife. There is no mention of Indigenous presence or original ownership of the land. The land is terra nullius: ownership by Indigenous peoples has been replaced by settler-colonial sovereignty.
“Another body of water” after the punctuated stop recalls the colonialization of the land and the current geopolitical conflict. Bird alludes to the Atlantic Ocean that allowed for the “bridging” of Canada and England “nation / to nation”. The images of the Peace-Athabasca Delta and the Atlantic infuse Bird’s poem with colonial overtones. She evokes the image of the historical colonialism a part of the land in order to justify the settler-colonial present: Bird infuses a history into the water. The image of connecting tributaries is an allusion to the land’s connection to a colonial past. The “royal Alberta” that Bird speaks of is key, for the political context of the adjective “royal” connotes the remaining monarchical sovereignty and monarchical past inherent in the land. Bird shows how colonial presence of England is still felt and remains infused in the land in order to justify the land as settler-colonial property and a part of settler-colonial identity.
Bird recognizes the geopolitical implications of this land and also illuminates the destruction of Indigenous identity and sovereignty under settler-colonial sovereignty. She calls the land “boneblack royal Alberta”. Boneblack, also referred to as bone char or bone charcoal, is a form of charcoal produced by heating bone in the presence of a limited amount of air. It is used to remove colour impurities from liquids. Bird describes the ruling of Alberta as tainted and impure by referring to how the colonial and settler-colonial rule of Alberta works to remove what settler-colonials revere to as impure: Indigenous identity and sovereignty. She describes the settler-colonial land of Alberta as being “boneblack” to demonstrate how settler-colonial rule enforces an ethnic cleansing of the land to remove the impurity that is Indigenous people. The fact that boneblack is used to remove colour impurities from liquids attests to the removal of the non-white, or coloured, Other, Indigenous peoples, from the wetlands of Alberta as a way to purify and claim the land as settler-colonial property.
The image of the land shifts at the centre of the poem to reveal how the land as settler-colonial property has been cleansed of the Other to become a tool for settler-colonial capitalist motives. Bird writes:
… Fire of synapses, of industry
pulsing in the necks of caribou, moose, women
who wash their hair by the tar pits. (Bird 5–7)
Bird not only demonstrates the capitalistic motives of “industry” present on Indigenous land, but reveals how settler-colonial sovereignty of the land has destroyed the environment a part of Indigenous identity. The Alberta oil sands are an example of how settler-colonial capitalist enterprise has destroyed Indigenous presence in Alberta and removed the geographical space from Indigenous identity. Indigenous opposition to the oil sands can be felt through the geopolitical conflict that is the Canadian Tar Sands Resistance: an Indigenous force that opposes the expansion of the oil sands and makes public the effects of the oil sands on Indigenous communities. Bird demonstrates this geopolitical conflict and the dichotomy between Indigenous resistance and connection to the land and settler colonialists’ desire to exploit the land for “industry”. She writes how “industry” is “pulsing in the necks” of animals and Indigenous peoples who resist the impacts of industry. The motives of industry closely and persistently pressure the natural environment of which Indigenous peoples are a part.
The dichotomy is shown with the image of the “women / who wash their hair by the tar pits”, revealing that Indigenous people still attempt to connect to and maintain an identity with the wetland environment but are closely pressured by industrial forces. The proximity of the natural and industrial reveals the impeaching settler-colonial forces and how these forces exploit the wetlands of the Peace-Delta Athabasca. According to the Indigenous Environmental Network, the oil sands “… are licensed to divert 652 million cubic meters of fresh water each year, 80% from the Athabasca river”. National Geographic even describes the Alberta oil sands as “the world’s most destructive oil operation”.
Bird’s “Post-Contact” is an epiphany for readers about the effects of settler-colonial industry and sovereignty on Indigenous geographical space and Indigenous identity. Her poem realizes how settler-colonial sovereignty eliminates Indigenous sovereignty of geographical space and eliminates Indigenous identity by placing Indigenous peoples in opposition to geopolitical settler-colonial spaces, effectively making them the Other. “Post-Contact” is a poem about Indigenous resistance to the effects of settler-colonial industry on the environment that is a part of Indigenous identity. The poem captures the settler-colonial moment and refuses to allow settler-colonialism to operate by way of its third method: the elimination of Indigenous resistance to form a state free from political imbalance and conflict. Bird makes this conflict the forefront of her poem and positions Indigenous peoples and settler-colonialists in a dichotic relationship as a form of resistance against this complete elimination of Indigenous identity.