Seegwun: Cleansing and Resurgence
First Story Toronto members Sarena Johnson and Megan Davies have teamed up with us to bring Indigenous local history narratives to our Local History & Genealogy blog. Here they return with their seegwun post, along with their guest blogger Morris Prosser! Have a look at their previous posts, Indigenous Toronto: Takwaakin in the City and Biboon, Nanaboozhoo and Carnival: Winter Trickster Stories.
Sarena Johnson is a member of Caldwell First Nation, with Lenni Lenape, Red River Métis, and Celtic ancestry. She grew up in Tkaronto, and is currently working on a Master of Education at York University. She is also a First Story Indigenous Knowledge Keeper, and a freelance writer with published art reviews in Urban Native, Muskrat and WIOT magazines.
In this section, Sarena introduces us to seegwun, a time for new beginnings.
Seegwun, sekwun or ziigwan are variations on the same Anishnaabemowin word for springtime. While Canadian society tends to run on the Gregorian calendar’s new year of January 1, Indigenous cultures view seegwun as the new year. Seegwun opens the eastern doorway of the medicine wheel and begins the new cycle. In relationship to the land and the natural rhythms in this part of the world, it would appear to be a more appropriate time for the ‘new year’. (It’s interesting to notice how many western conventions seem to go against nature.)
In seegwun, Mother Earth awakens from her winter slumber, and with her the water and sun energies come back into their power. Ice and snow melt while rains cleanse the earth of winter residues. With the waters come fish, a highly celebrated and abundant food source for Indigenous peoples.
It’s a time of new beginnings. People start to go outside more, to stretch their legs. Indigenous groups would move from winter to summer camps. Spring is when you plant your garden, both literally and figuratively. The foods and medicines you choose to harvest over the coming year are planted, along with the goals you want to accomplish and strategies you choose to employ.
The thunder beings are welcomed when they return in the first storm of the season because they perform a spiritual spring cleaning of sorts. Hibernating animals like mukwa (bear) wake up from their long sleep, and the medicines they represent begin to stir as well. As people perform spring cleaning on their homes, so too is it a time for cleansing of the body, mind, emotions and spirit. Many people participate in sweat lodges and go fasting.
Maple sap, a natural cleansing medicine, is provided to us from mother earth to assist in the cleansing process. The raw sap detoxifies the body and balances the blood sugars. Yet maple sap more often gets boiled down into syrup, a sugar product. The original medicine represents a healthy, natural relationship with sugar, with the land. It was cleansing, gentle and dilute. Yet the syrup is essentially the same as white sugar; it can be harmful, especially for Indigenous people who have a much higher rate of diabetes.
The difference between the sap as medicine and sap as syrup highlights a dark chapter of North American history. One topic that’s rarely spoken about is the connection between Indigenous rates of diabetes and the policies of assimilation that used forced starvation and reliance on commodities to control First Nations. The eradication of the buffalo and the Pass System are two examples of this. In the first, buffalo were targeted for extinction since they sustained Plains First Nations. When dealing with starvation, these nations were weaker and more likely to surrender tracts of land. The Pass System was an illegal system in which the Indian Agent (government official) was able to control who was allowed off a reserve, for how long and for what purpose. So the agent controlled who was allowed to go hunting or sell their produce at markets. Not coincidentally, this same agent was in charge of doling out rations of commodities. Thus, the agent could effectively starve anyone who they found problematic. The 1876 Indian Act also prevented Indigenous peoples from killing their own livestock for food or using mechanized farm equipment, so they couldn’t compete with neighbouring settler farmers. Residential schools were notorious for malnourishing children and even used students in starvation experiments. So Canada used numerous nutrition related tactics to control, limit or punish Indigenous peoples.
Enforced poverty led to an unhealthy relationship to food, and in particular to commodities such as sugar, flour and lard. This is a major factor in the high rates of diabetes in our communities. Maple sap has essentially been turned from a medicine to a poison. In this way, through its two diverse uses, maple sap represents a lot about Indigenous knowledge and relationship to the land, and how those knowledges and relationships have been corrupted through colonization. This divergence can be seen as a microcosm of colonial exploitation of Indigenous land, medicines and people.
In my own process of decolonizing my body and self, I’ve found myself struggling with intolerances to a western diet. I’ve been seeing a naturopath and the strongest suggestion is that I need to eliminate grains, sugar and processed foods entirely. I did this for about six months last year and felt amazing. But I found eating “traditional” or paleo to be expensive, time consuming and anti-social. Many other people who are working towards the same diet will attest to its difficulty in personal resolve and lifestyle changes. It involves a cleansing of the body, which brings up mental and emotional challenges that make daily life quite unpleasant for the initial cleansing phase. However, there is a strong spiritual aspect to this body work, and some folks might think of it as a form of ceremony. There are political and historical layers involved as well, since you are essentially decolonizing the body. Megan Davies will discuss the topic of decolonization further.
Megan Davies is a cis-female bisexual settler from the Lower Mainland of British Columbia (from Chilliwack, or S’ólh Téméxw, the unceded territory of the Stó:lō). She is also a PhD candidate at York University in Theatre and Performance Studies. She joined First Story Toronto when she first moved to Toronto for graduate school in 2014.
Here, Megan Davies talks about about decolonization, and what allies can do in this time of resurgence.
A lot of people have written, discussed and put into action decolonization. Like, A LOT. And across the world Indigenous, Black and People of Colour have written about what it involves. Some Indigenous people writing about this on Turtle Island include Glen Coulthard, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Dale Turner, Audra Simpson, Kim Tallbear, Deborah McGregor and Joanne Barker, to name just a few. My friend Morris Prosser will also be writing a bit about this topic below, from his perspective on the ground, working with St’át’imc Nation in British Columbia.
As I understand it, decolonization means different things for different Indigenous people, communities and Nations in Canada. One idea that remains central is that Indigenous peoples should have the right to determine what decolonization involves for themselves, without decisions being made illegally by the colonial state as they have in the past (see discussion of the Pass System and Indian Act above). This might consist of, for example, bringing back traditional governance systems, renewing agreements and/or treaties with municipalities (as the Mississaugas of the New Credit have been doing recently, or learning to speak your own language). For white settlers like myself, decolonizing can involve self-reflective processes, or utilizing privilege and power to support (not speak for) Indigenous communities.
Lately, I've been thinking a lot about decolonization and what it means for me and my family, what I have observed from various institutions in Toronto, and what I imagine for the future. While Indigenous peoples do critical work such as land claims, public speaking, education, protector work and advocating for the land and their ability to engage with it, what can I, and other settlers in Toronto, do? There are the basic things we can do, like providing financial and resource support to Colten Boushie's family as they work to repeal the recent court decision, bringing coffee and food to the incredible protestors currently camped out in front of the old City Hall on Queen West, or showing up for marches and rallies for justice for Tina Fontaine.
We can also question the colonial structures that frame our businesses, governments and education systems. We might ask ourselves how they support or hinder Indigenous peoples' ability to, for example, exercise their rights (I'm thinking of the kinds of proof needed to prove Aboriginal title in the Canadian court system, or even the resistance to smudging in the workplace and home because of existing building codes and regulations in Toronto). Having those conversations with ourselves and extending them to our co-workers, employers, families and friends fosters the potential for change. What policies might you ask your organizations about, to set up processes for change? What seeds can you plant during Sekwun to grow this summer?
When I bring up the poison, the processed maple syrup in our systems, I am usually asked by other settlers what do I imagine then? What would I suggest as an alternative to what we have now? Usually I say to 'just give over the power'. But I often feel like this is my way of passing the buck. Because I don't know exactly what decolonization on a grand-scale would look like, and it's also not my place to determine what it should be for Indigenous peoples. That would be another colonization track played on repeat. Morris, Sarena and the other Indigenous authors in the sources below might give you some ideas to cultivate your own decolonizing practices.
But I do have some decolonizing ideas of my own (that can be picked up, dropped or contested). I imagine a lot of things for the beginning of this year and for the years to come. In the spirit of this season, these ideas involve change, cleansing and renewal, and they weave between myself as an individual, my communities and environments. Here they are…
- Indigenous communities should have control over natural resources in Ontario. They should take over the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. As indicated in Johnson’s discussion of the Gregorian calendar year and in the change of lifestyle that came with illegally constraining Indigenous peoples on reserves with the Pass System, there are inherent differences between Indigenous and settler relationships with the land (and seasons). In Coulthard’s discussion of colonialism in Canada in Red Skin, White Masks, he places at the forefront land and relationships to it, when he draws on Karl Marx’s discussion of primitive accumulation in capitalist economies and places it within colonial and imperial contexts. Central to capitalism in Canada, is the mass extraction of resources for wealth, and viewing that land as inanimate. Often this extraction or development of land involves placing Indigenous and peripheral communities at major health and cultural vitality risks, which we can see clearly in Grassy Narrows. Real decolonization involves developing a different relationship to the land than the current neoliberal capitalist state, one that is informed by the people who have been on Turtle Island for thousands of years. I think putting indigenous peoples in power in the Ministry of Natural Resources would begin this change.
- In my ideal future, local Indigenous nations would be governing regions in Canada. Decentralized governance, with a little bit of organized anarchy. In Toronto, the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt would govern it. It’s an agreement that the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe will both share the territory/dish, and no one will take more than their share – everyone has to be able to eat from that dish (see also Ryerson School of Journalism article on Land Acknowledgement). In my envisioning, this means that Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee people would provide local governance models, knowledge keepers and leaders between Lake Huron and Lake Ontario, at least to begin with. I am sure there will be conflicts and difficulty, especially in the transition period. But if real decolonization is to happen, then I think giving up that power is important. And I think it would be a better place if it was governed by the Dish With One Spoon.
- I’m imagining a future in which alternative life experiences and knowledge systems are valuable across public and private sectors in Canada. Full stop. As a graduate student in post-secondary institutions, I've heard so many times that the institution is a miniature replica of colonial structures, and both contains and produces its value systems. These value systems have really damaged the faculty, administration and students and have really limited individuals’ potential and quality of life, not to mention their limiting effects on research and education at large. This extends across corporate, private, public and often even non-profit sectors. For example, there is a pattern of not hiring Indigenous knowledge keepers or elders in full-time faculty or staff positions (only if it is culturally appropriate to do so) in government and educational institutions, but rather using them only at events or for specific programs and paying them small one-off honorariums.
Incorporating different knowledge systems is a personal one for me. Because I’m a PhD candidate and have spent most of my 20s in a western education system that values written sources and data. I tend to see books and articles as the ultimate affirmation of knowledge. Books are amazing (like the ones housed at TPL!), but they are not the only sources of knowledge. I often will hear an Indigenous person share some history or piece of knowledge and I will believe it, but when I read the same thing or a variation of it in a book sometime afterwards, for some reason it feels more “true” to me. It confirms it for me in my mind. Why do I need a book to confirm this? Privileging the written word (and by extension western forms of knowledge) is another form of colonization, and decolonizing that thinking process has considerable weight, especially when oral and embodied knowledge is so vital in Indigenous communities. I mentioned above about the incessant amount of proof needed to determine Aboriginal title. This system is couched in the same kind of colonial thinking that I exercise regularly, just on a larger scale in the Canadian court system. If you trace the citations on my section in the last blog and probably this one, you’ll notice that I’m still boiling down the maple sap into syrup.
Below, Prosser will talk about winter and spring, as they relate to his community and himself. Again, food emerges as a central concern. For Prosser, the term decolonization “does not quite fit”, so he suggests other ways of thinking about sustenance, ways of living and Indigenous communities within the context of colonization.
Morris Prosser is from the St’at’imc Community of Tsal’alh. St’at’imc is an Indigenous Nation whose territory covers 22,000 km of the southern interior of British Columbia. Prosser holds a bachelor of arts in English and sociology from the University of the Fraser Valley. He currently lives in St’at’imc territory and works for the Nation.
Morris Prosser speaks about spring in St’át’imc territory.
Sutik Ti Muta Q’aptsúl (Winter and Spring)
I wish to talk a little about winter and spring in this article. To me, these seasons are not mutually exclusive, they are a part of the larger whole. Perhaps, this thinking comes from wanting to capture the holistic nature of the year or, because recognizing that everything is connected reflects nt’ákmenlhkalha (our way of life). Perhaps it is the case that this writing too, is about our way of life.
I would not say that I am an authority on our ways as St’át’imc, I can only relate what I have learned from the elders.
Our ways were practical, our practices and laws had a meaning that was tied to a practical principle. Sutik (winter) was seen in this way. It was not a hard time for our people, it was a time of rest after a year of work to prepare for the cold times. It was a time for storytelling, of passing down our oral history, and making plans for the year to come. We did not merely survive, we thrived, but only by working to be ready. In a way, our lives revolved around winter, we spent the entire year preparing for it.
Q’aptsúl – “the real spring”, is an important time for the St’át’imc, my people, as it is for many cultures; and for many of the same reasons. Q’aptsúl is the beginning of our year, it is the time when we emerge from our Sistken (underground houses) to walk the Tmicw (land/earth) once again. It is also the time that our plants and medicines begin to grow.
One needs to prepare for Q’aptsúl; although winter was a restful time, it also changed our bodies. The foods that we ate during the winter changed our systems to the point that eating the abundance of spring made us sick. To properly adjust to this change, we had to fast for four days.
I am in constant amazement of how in tune the ancestors were, not only to the Tmicw, but to their bodies as well. They understood their bodies so well that they could actively change it to prepare for seasonal changes.
Some of these teachings I have incorporated in to my own life, mainly teachings around food. I hesitate to label this act. I would not call it “decolonization”, it does not seem to fit, perhaps it is more of a restitution.
Today, it is difficult to eat as our ancestors did. Our primary source of nutrition, salmon, is under serious threat, and for many years have been in decline. I instead focus on a diet that reflects that of my ancestors, that is, low in sugar and starch, and high in dietary fats and moderate protein, with a smattering of leafy greens and plant-based fibre.
Coming to understand nt’ákmenlhkalha is a life-long process. Learning our ways has led me to reflect on my own lifestyle and how I can come in to alignment with the teachings of my ancestors. Learning about Q’aptsúl is an important step in this regard.
Native people love their starch, go to any gathering and there are the usual mounds of rice, potatoes, macaroni salad, potato salad, and as always, bannock. These starchy foods have become our comfort, one sees them served at weddings, funerals and everything in between.
Changing one’s diet takes a lot of discipline, especially when one lives in a Native community. People start looking at you when all you take is meat and salad, and react with shock when you don’t partake in the cake or jello dessert!
I think that this is the crux of the health crisis in Indigenous communities, the over-consumption of starch and sugar. I often wonder how our communities got to this point! I think there are a few contributing factors, a major one being poverty.
My grandma’s family never went hungry, their gardens and the land sustained them, even through the great depression. I think that this highlights a change in our people: except for elders, I do not see people planting gardens any longer. I think this is the root of our health crisis and where our poverty and dependence mentality comes into play.
I once asked my grandmother what she ate growing up, and she told me that her family ate simply, and kept large gardens and had cattle. The family also hunted and fished for deer and salmon, and that added to their simple table. Grandma told me that her diet changed when she went to residential school. Most of the time, they ate stews, and had oatmeal in the mornings. Sunday was a highlight, because the children would receive puffed wheat as a treat. For many years, my grandma couldn’t eat stews because of how often she ate the dish in residential school.
Poverty is a monster, I’ve experienced its effects first hand growing up in my community. Poverty paralyzes, when one experiences it, all thoughts turn to survival, of getting the next meal, of filling up, and to get enough money to last another month. It’s a privilege to grow a garden, and one is privileged when they can plant one. This represents a change from my grandparents’ time, where planting a garden was a necessity. As an elder would poignantly say to me when I visited them, “there was no such thing as welfare in them days”. This is not meant to shame, but to point out that our entire way of living as Indigenous people has changed. We depend very heavily on the grocery store, where highly processed, laden with starch and sugar foods are cheap and ubiquitous. In my grandparents’ time, their supply was local.
A first-hand account of the mentality that this shift creates can be heard in the words of a young man, “that’s not very filling, we should put some rice on”, as he cooks a box of chicken noodle soup mix for his kids. This is part of the poverty mindset imposed on Indigenous people. Well being has become about stretching the dollar further.
Sources and Recommended Reading
McGregor, Deborah. “Traditional Knowledge: Considerations for Protecting Water in Ontario.” The International Indigenous Policy Journal.
We invite Torontonians to join the conversation on colonial poisons, decolonization, restitution and Sekwun/Ziigwan/Q’aptsúl. Post your comments, thoughts, and questions below!
With thanks to Sarena Johnson, Megan Davies and Morris Prosser.