Late in the Saskatchewan summer, we are out in the bush. I am walking with two people speaking to each other in nēhiyawēwin. It is beautiful to witness this small slice of the way things were before our languages were stripped from so many of us. I can’t understand all the words they are saying, but I can tell they are falling in love with every word they speak.
We are out here to protect this land from the clearcutting of forests, and although the land appears pristine, the unnatural thunder of approaching logging machinery has grown loud enough to spook the animals around us.
But in the language, they create a safe world in the midst of destruction. I listen to their mouths sit longer with certain syllables, and watch the sideways glances that make them burst into belly laughter. There is magic in their mistakes, as is only created by the willingness of clumsy tongues coming together to relearn ancient languages. In order to have a real conversation in nēhiyawēwin, reciprocity is necessary. Ehe. I could listen to them speaking together all day, but when they grasp hands to step across a small creek, my cheeks get hot and I realize I must be intruding. I busy myself by wandering off trail to pick chokecherries that are dark red, ripe, and so heavy that they fall off the branch with the gentlest coaxing from my hand.
After a while, I meet up with the couple again. One of them says to me, “You will come back here one day and you will be able to speak the language to your ancestors.” I would like to believe them, but I know that in order to become fluent, I will have to find my own ways to immerse myself deeper in the language and the land. In order to learn the language, the land must survive.
Our languages and lands were made for love. We have wide skies, northern lights, and thousands of chokecherry bushes to duck behind. I know it’s taboo, but if you tell me you’ve never fallen for someone because of the passionate way they speak in the dark heat of a sweat lodge ceremony, you’re not going to the right lodges.
In 2014, the CBC polled 1,500 non-Indigenous Canadians to ask if they would feel comfortable being in a romantic relationship with an Indigenous person. Nationally, 63% said yes, they would consider dating a Native person. But on the prairies, our “approval rating” dropped to 50%.
It’s not those answers we should care about but the framing of the questions. As recently as two years ago, a national news corporation conducted research that equated the end of racism with the benevolent willingness of white Canadians to find us desirable, dateable and loveable. This is why Indigenous love is radical: because for centuries, colonialism has ruled that Native bodies cannot be beautiful, valuable and loveable.
Let me tell you one thing, now, nicimos (sweetheart), and repeat it back to me so I know you understand: the proof of your worth does not exist only in your ability to be desired or loved by white people. It is not your burden to translate yourself into a colonizer’s language to fit their definition of “loveable.” Your movement through this world is ceremony and your body is medicine.
When I cannot get out of the city, I immerse myself in Indigenous writing. Right now, I’m carrying a book of poetry: Nakamowin’sa (For the Seasons) by Rita Bouvier, a Métis scholar from Île-à-la-Crosse. I keep a stack of books written by Indigenous women on my nightstand as protection. The stack includes Lee Maracle’s I Am Woman, Ma-Nee Chacaby’s A Two-Spirit Journey, Audra Simpson’s Mohawk Interruptus, Sarah Deer’s The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America and Tracey Lindberg’s Birdie, among others. All of these books are about love and the confrontation of colonial worlds that tell us Indigenous bodies are not worthy of it.
Can we write about love as Indigenous women without acknowledging what it means to exist in a place where our sisters are routinely ripped from their families? Can we write about love without setting the context of poverty, racism, police brutality, incarceration and youth suicide? And what of the theft of Indigenous languages and the destruction of waterways and forests? When we love on this land, it is never separate from these things. The nuance often ignored is that we are land defenders and activists at the same time as we are human. In between the moments we talk about land in that poetic way they want to package and use for their white environmentalism, we are messy and fluid and radiant and complex, falling in and out of love.
As Indigenous people in colonial worlds, our vulnerability is non-consensually consumed and it is rarely ours to own. Daring to claim love and desire for Indigenous bodies in the face of ongoing colonialism is a liberatory act of vulnerability. Allowing love to flow beyond the edges of our skin (in the form of touch), our lips (in the form of language), and our eyes (in the form of tears) is necessary and radical in a world where we’re taught to believe those borders are impassable. So when we love each other, it is potent enough to heal the trauma and chase away the violence. So when we love it is wider than the prairies. So when we love, the bellies of our ancestors are filled with laughter and good food. When we love each other, pipelines shut down and borders open and logging machines jam.
During a trip last year, I remember going to see the residential school in Spanish, Ontario and walking around the burned-out remains of the school building for girls.
One of the survivors we met there was a handsome veteran who still styles his salt-and-pepper hair the same way he probably has since he was a soldier. Speaking to a group of young people, he talked about hunger and homesickness, but he also laughed loudly about crushes, and recalled the rare interactions with girls during his time at the residential school where children were separated by gender upon arrival. I noticed confused reactions from the crowd, as if love, sex, and desire are inappropriate subjects to talk about in such a serious setting. As if we are not permitted to talk about sex, love, and trauma all at once.
Astrophysicist Carl Sagan wrote, “For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.” If love can propel us through the universe, it can certainly break through colonial histories of trauma, separation, and isolation.
Desire is a reminder of our humanity in the midst of the most inhumane conditions. It’s desire that pushes us to keep imagining and creating better futures. For Indigenous people, decolonial desire isn’t a dream of some unreachable world beyond our bodies or our circumstances. It’s a reminder that our short time in this world is best spent with those magical people who give us refuge from colonial violence. Desire is living, even and especially during those times when our bellies are empty and growling from hunger and homesickness.
Indigenous love has never left these lands, and Indigenous love has never been absent from these bodies. To paraphrase Nina Simone, you just have to learn to get up from the table when love is not being served.