Sounding Decolonial Futures: Decentering Ethnomusicology's Colonialist Legacies

Exploring the Music of Indigenous Artist, Dr. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

Dr. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson is a Mississauga Nishnaabeg spoken-word poet, author, artist, and activist. Below are two of her songs from the album f(l)ight, in which she speaks on Indigenous struggles, the epistemic violence Indigenous people face, colonialism, and the beautiful parts of Indigenous life.

"How to Steal a Canoe" by Dr. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

This song is about a younger Nishnaabeg girl and a Nishnaabeg man who visit a museum where old canoes had been stolen from Indigenous people and had been put on display. Simpson recalls the inspiration for this poem. It "started as a trip to the Canadian Canoe Museum with an elder that I work with, Doug Williams. A canoe that had been taken from our territory in the early 1800s to England had been returned. Doug asked me to help when he was asked as a local elder to welcome the canoe back, which is both a strange and wonderful thing to do. We were in this warehouse with the collection of canoes that the community has and I was singing and praying to the canoes—it was a very powerful experience for me." Simpson draws on this experience in "How to Steal a Canoe." Kwe, the girl, takes the youngest canoe and reunites it with the river from which it came. The personification of the canoes refers to the way Indigenous culture reveres nature and sees parts of it as beings with souls. In addition, the “bruised bodies, dry skin” references the complete lack of care given to Indigenous artifacts and people by settlers. Akiwenzii says to Kwe, “it’s canoe,” rather than “it’s a canoe,” once again demonstrating the amount of love and care given to these canoes. With a strong underlying tone of condescension and anger, Akiwenzii says to the “fake-cop,” “you’re so proud of your collection of Indians.” This phrase is extremely powerful, as it uses this instance of colonialism to refer to the entirety of colonialism, where settlers proudly show off “Indians” and their culture as “collection[s]” all the while stepping on Indigenous voices. Simpson could also be referencing moments in history when Indigenous communities were placed on display, or rather as a “collection” in World’s Fairs. The security guard, in this sense, represents white settlers. They both “[look] each canoe in the eye,” continuing with the personification, and Kwe “[prays] to those old ones” by rubbing water on the canoes. One of the canoes whispers “‘take the young one and run,’” a chilling statement that, when applied to the metaphor Simpson has created, has many implications. This canoe, personified as an Indigenous body, is attempting to save Indigenous heritage, but saving the youngest. Akiwenzii teaches the security guard how to properly burn the sage, and while he is “basking in guilt-free importance,” Kwe takes the youngest canoe and returns it to the lake where it belongs, “[sinking] her with seven stones” and reuniting her to the land. “Kwe sings the song and she sings back,” as a closing line, repeated twice, leaves the listener with a lot to think about. This poem effectively represents themes of white colonialism, extraction, and rematriation. Simpson seems to discuss them in a tone that conveys frustration and urgency, perhaps to express the fatigue Indigenous people feel from having to constantly battle this discrimination. This is shown through the music with a simple cello tune under Simpson’s soft whisper. The key is minor, giving the music an eerie  and sad undertone.

"I Am Graffiti" by Dr. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

Simpson compares herself to graffiti in this song, referring to the constant erasure of Indigenous people, but graffiti still persists. The first few lines are really striking, as she points out the “bleeding-heart liberals” who simply don’t know about or think about Indigenous struggles due to their lack of media attention, and they “can stop feeling bad.” However, graffiti still persists. This line emphasizes the use of white guilt to excuse Indigenous erasure. With this, Simpson is telling us that ignorance is not bliss and action needs to be taken. Simpson refers to Indigenous people as “singing remnants/left over after/the bomb went off in slow motion.” The erasure of Indigenous life very much seems like a bomb going off in slow motion, as it is so systematically ingrained and has been continuous since the beginning of American society. Simpson refers to the appropriation of Indigenous culture in the last few lines, mentioning the “costumes” made of Indigenous people, as if that is all they are and the “singing remnants/left over” that, to American society, are no longer necessary, because the culture has been recorded, “collected,” and repurposed to serve white settlers. These costumes are “put in a plastic bag, full of intentions/for another time/another project.” This is especially striking, because so often, Indigenous histories are used in elementary school projects and are appropriated into one generalized mock-up of Indigenous culture, or the parts white settlers want to represent Indigenous culture. This extraction, appropriation, and repurposing is so transparently yet another tactic to keep those in power on top. Once again, Simpson asserts that she is graffiti, a persistent, bold, and dominant reminder of the “mistakes [which] were made” that those with a “big pink eraser” want to forget, so “we can all move on.” Graffiti is loud. It asserts dominance and takes up space, but it’s seen as negative or unwanted, and Simpson positions herself and Indigeneity similarly. The repetition of “except, i am graffiti” with the counter of “mistakes were made” embodies the cyclical nature in which those in power try to write off colonialism with the erasure of Indigenous people and the separation of themselves from the mistakes, but Indigenous people still exist and persist, even if only through “graffiti.” The music accompanying this song almost has an optimistic feel; its light piano notes create an ambient environment. The timbre of the instruments create a calm, almost spiritual tone of serenity, doubled with a major mode, both of which evoke positive feelings in direct contrast to the lyrics. As Simpson says “and we can all move on, we can be reconciled,” the pitches rose, convincing the listener of a happy moment. Simpson then ends it with repetition of the line “except I am graffiti,” bringing us back to the harsh reality behind the soothing instruments.

This page has paths:

This page references: