I have begun seeing refusal as a space of love.
Refusal is often viewed in the negative. We can think of so many examples of being refused and feeling disappointed or hurt. In trying to flip this adverse idea of refusal, I have begun seeing refusal as a space of love, the care in refusing something that is not right for you, and the example you set for others when you clearly and caringly state that you need something else.
Refusal as an act of love is a concept that has become clear to me through my Indigenous community. In the past, when I did not refuse something that I did not have the time or emotional capacity to handle, I could see the way that my struggle to fulfill my commitment affected others. Inviting community care into how decisions are made allows for an understanding that love can mean refusal. Indigenous Refusal is an act of love for our communities.
Indigenous Refusal is not widely spoken about as a philosophy in Indigenous communities or academia. Indigenous Futurism, which is a more commonly recognized body of thought, is important in looking at the ways that society collectively comes together to think, mobilize, and care for one another. By defying Western, white supremacist individualism and encouraging more community-centred approaches to living, philosophies of Indigenous Futurism show us that methods of refusal are necessary for our wellbeing and for abundant futures to manifest where Indigenous people can thrive.
Indigenous Futurism is an umbrella term that describes many Indigenous cultures on Turtle Island and in South America who are working to imagine the futures of our communities. These futures can be imaginings of the hopes we have for our communities but can also include stories that are intended to be fictions about the future. Ultimately, Indigenous Futurism is about acknowledging that Indigenous Peoples will be in the future.
Acts of harm caused to the many distinct Indigenous Peoples living on Turtle Island bring us together to fight for our people and theorize on our lived experiences. Indigenous Peoples do not all live with the same belief systems. We have differing creation stories, ceremonies, and ways of being. Our imagined futures are not about a unified vision of what the future holds for Indigenous Peoples, but the common ground that an imagined future exists and that we are connected on a journey together.
Inviting community care into how decisions are made allows for an understanding that love can mean refusal.
As philosophies and cultural movements pop up, there are intersections where ideas meet and allow for offshoots of new movements. An example of this is the suffrage movement being inspired by the abolition movement in the United States in the 19th century. Settler women and Indigenous women who played roles helping the abolition movement, led by Black women, became driven by their own desire for autonomy in society, leading to the fight for the vote. More recently we can see how the philosophies of Afrofuturism have inspired parallel frames of thought in different communities, including Indigenous communities and our conceptualization of Indigenous Futurism. Shared goals often become the inspiration for those doing similar work in terms of anti-racism, decolonization, gender equity, disability justice, queer justice, and many other movements.
Thinking through the parallels and differences between Indigenous Futurism and Afrofuturism led me to consider if there may be intersections between the ideas of Afro-Refusal and Indigenous Refusal as ideologies. Although there are intersections, Indigenous Refusal more commonly would fall under the ideologies of Indigenous Sovereignty.
Indigenous Sovereignty, which refers to self-determination and the independent authority of an individual, institution, or nation is a blanket term that, in a Canadian context, references over 50 distinct cultures and languages. We as Indigenous Peoples are grouped together as a people because of the Indian Act and Section 35 in the Canadian Constitution, but this amalgamation was not our choice and did not give voice to our own distinct cultures. Indigenous Sovereignty can include our own governance structure, systems of decision-making for ourselves and our lands, while also allowing us to come together and understand the ways we are linked, understand how we have been affected by colonialism, and celebrate our cultures and communities together. This celebration can come from looking inward, caring for our own cultures and knowledges.
Our sovereignty is tied to one another.
As a Métis person, practicing Indigenous Sovereignty means honouring my ancestors, engaging in Métis politics, talking with my dad and hearing his stories, and loving my nieces and sharing knowledge and joy with them. It means remaining engaged with my community and learning about what they are doing, trying to understand the tools I have that can benefit other people in my community, and being a good relative to other people, animals, the earth, waterways and those that live in our waters and air. These seem like simple acts, but it comes back to the ideas of centering community care in decision-making and what I choose to accept and make space for in the ways I choose to move through the world. My decisions have a ripple effect. What this means to me may mean something different to another Métis person, and this will all look different to relatives belonging to other Indigenous nations.
This is a reminder to myself and others who need it that it is easy to discuss Indigenous Peoples and assume there are commonalities to the ways we think and move through the world. Just as with any person we encounter, there are nuances that connect us all through commonality and difference. Celebrating the difference between our cultures as Indigenous Peoples is something that is not often present in the many ways we are referenced in the media, by the Canadian government, or in day-to-day life. Loving these differentiations between us is an act of refusal to a dominant narrative. Coming back to Indigenous Sovereignty through these differences reinforces how our sovereignty is tied to one another, and creates a beautiful community that crosses vast lands that are working for each other.
Let’s take some time to acknowledge and celebrate Indigenous acts of refusal, which bring us closer to sovereignty. This spans from the larger historical moments to small everyday actions. These actions span from historical moments, current events, and everyday lived experiences. These examples are thoughts I come back to when I need reminders of how many community-centred choices affect my community and resisting the easy path allows for these beautiful acts of love for ourselves, cultures, and other Indigenous Peoples.
Let’s take some time to acknowledge and celebrate Indigenous acts of refusal, which bring us closer to sovereignty.
✦ On October 11, 1869 Ottawa-based land surveyor, Adam Clark Webbe came to assess the lands of André Nault, a Red River Métis farmer and bison hunter living in St. Vital, a community which would become part of the province of Manitoba. Nault had asked other members of his community to come support him in refusing the surveyors’ access. Seventeen men, including Louis Riel, who stepped on the surveyor’s chain and told them to stop, caused the surveyors to leave. This was not the end of Indigenous land theft, but the incident is part of the escalation into the Métis Resistance of 1869-70.
✦ More recently, pain and grief of the discovery of children’s remains found on the site of a former Indian residential school in Kamloops, BC led to the call for Canada Day celebrations on July 1, 2021 to be cancelled. There were protests and actions happening across what is currently known as Canada. At a Canada Day protest in Winnipeg that year, a group of people took down the statue of Queen Victoria that sat looking out from the legislative grounds. Later that day, people came to take their picture with the fallen statue and tell stories of how their families were affected by the colonization of these lands, largely led by the British. This is one of the instances of statues of colonial figures being toppled in powerful acts of refusal. Many more were toppled across Canada that summer, including that of Ryerson Egerton, one of the architects of the residential school system. This also led to the changing of street names and schools that were named after harmful figures in the histories of colonization.
✦ On an individual level, a Cree curator I know was offered work that did not cover the costs of what needed to be done, and to be able to take care of the artists she wanted to work with. To be responsible to her community she would have had to spend the income she needed to make from this job. When the organization would not provide an adequate budget for her project, she turned down the job. This type of refusal is powerful because its actions show that we will not accept less than our worth, that Indigenous cultural work is not part of the status quo of how systems run.
✦ In 2016, I watched a colleague of mine on a panel at the Independent Media Arts Alliance conference directly speak to the non-Indigenous arts administrators in the room, calling them into action to share resources with underfunded Indigenous-led arts organizations. My colleague had 15 minutes to speak; she chose to give her entire talk in her community’s language. In the audience, I listened as others whispered, “I don’t know what she is saying, how am I supposed to help if I can’t understand.” This was a powerful act of refusing to accept the discomfort of the majority.
✦ Indigenous arts organizations are taking action to provide guidance on ethical and empowering Indigenous engagement in the industry. The movement, “Nothing about us without us” refuses others telling our stories without our voice being an active part of that storytelling. We can see documents such as Indigenous Pathways and Protocols made by the Indigenous Screen Office and imagineNATIVE Film and Media Art Festival, Move to Action: Activating UNDRIP in Canadian Museums created through the Canadian Museums Association and their Reconciliation Council, and Indigenousprotocols.art tool kit and resource guide for the arts sector. Each of these documents bring together committees of Indigenous Peoples to create guidelines for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people working in these fields. The guidelines allow Indigenous Peoples to negotiate work in spaces that we do not run, while at the same time acting as a starting point for non-Indigenous people who wish to engage with Indigenous cultures through their work. There are detailed guidelines within each of these documents specific to the respective art industries they are speaking to, but each one is framed around the need for Indigenous Peoples to be a part of any use of our stories or knowledge—more commonly stated as, “Nothing about us without us.”
✦ Small acts of refusal have an impact, such as the artist who told me he would no longer accept being called Indigenous and only wanted to be referenced as Anishinaabe.
✦ Another act of refusal is in response to Indigenous children’s names being taken from them through the residential school system, the Sixties Scoop, and wide-spanning assimilation efforts. Today, many parents are choosing to name their children in their Indigenous language. Let’s celebrate every Indigenous baby being given names in their languages. Let’s all learn to say these names properly and shower them with love.
✦ Every Indigenous youth, living their best life, let’s find ways to support them.
✦ Our kinship relationship with the land and waters, let’s find ways to be in relation with them and fight for them.
Jennifer Smith is a Red River Métis curator, writer, and arts administrator from Treaty 1 Territory/Winnipeg. Her research focuses on the ways we care for each other.