Unlearning Embodied Colonialism -
Listening with the more-than-human world
I strain my ears. I hear the swish and churning of the falls, the swirling foam in the water, and I watch the silent Great Blue Heron across the way standing on the rocky shoreline. She is so still, eyes on the water, watching, waiting. How does the heron listen?
I am visiting Camossung, the lək̓ʷəŋən name for a large rock hidden under the water at what some call the “reversing falls” near the condominium where I live on so-called Vancouver Island. The lək̓ʷəŋən speaking peoples called this place “the ebbing waters”, “the changing waters”, and sometimes “the first net,” a reference to catching herring at this place where the Gorge waterway narrows. They tell the story of Camossung, a young woman who was changed into a rock by the Transformer because she was too fussy. When the settlers arrived they ignored this story, built a succession of bridges over the falls, and in the 1960’s someone blasted the rocks in the hope of making the narrow passageway more accessible to boats. By then the waters of the Gorge had become polluted with run-off from chemical fertilizers and drainage from the settlements on its shores. So the herring, oysters and coho had all but disappeared.
Amitav Ghosh, in his book The Nutmeg’s Curse (2021), speaks about “how the land has stories and how we need to listen to and hear the voice of the more-than-human beings as a morally urgent task in this time of planetary collapse” (p.204). How can we as educators decenter humans so that the land and waters and the spirits that populate the more-than-human world be heard? What will motivate humans to listen? Below, I give examples of how to begin to do this.
My work in the last twenty years in so-called Canada has been education around decolonization. I have a background in popular education but more recently have incorporated my training in somatic education and Indigenous pedagogies. With my Anishinaabe-Cree colleague, Alannah Young, we have named our methodology, “All Our Relations Pedagogy” (Nadeau & Young, 2018, p.55).
Use of language is critical. Rather than the word “nature,” I prefer the term more-than–human world, used by David Abrams (p.1997) in The Spell of the Sensuous. Kim TallBear (SissetonWahpeton Oyate) writes, “Like our methodological choices, language choices are ethical choices and are key in this project of constituting more democratic relations and worlds” (TallBear, 2011).
Following on from Walters above, settler colonialism defines as brutish not only humans of non-European descent but also all the living beings of the land. These are treated as mute. The work of decolonization involves not only unlearning and deconstructing racism and white supremacy but also the mechanistic worldview of European imperialism and capitalism that shapes how many humans experience the more-than-human world and even their own bodies. The Western scientific worldview constructed the body as a distinct object with fixed boundaries. If humans can rediscover the experience of the body as fluid, this will not only support relationships with the more-than-human world, but also shift our understanding of human autonomy (Nadeau, 2020, p.180; Apffel-Marglin, 2011, p.134). The body exists not alone but is a body within a collective of kin that includes and is interdependent with the more-than-human world.
I have been involved in educating about protecting water for over a decade. With my colleague Alannah Young, we have worked to illuminate how the more-than-human world is neither property, resources nor objects, but is composed of kin-relatives with whom we have reciprocal relations and to whom we have responsibilities. I illustrate with some of the activities that we have used.
Paying multi-dimensional attention: Because it is our very relatedness to all beings and the life around us that colonialism denies, we invite (on Zoom) participants to pay attention to all that gives life in their immediate surroundings, we then layer this with adding awareness of the four directions, the sky and earth below, ancestors and those to come.
A sensory examination of the experience of drinking a glass of water: We first ask people how they usually drink a glass of water- their habitual pattern. We then invite them to consider slowing down the process of drinking by first reflecting on where the water in their glass comes from and where it is going over a period of time. Then we slowly drink the water, paying attention to where and how the water touches our internal organs. We then share how water is part of a closed system. The water we drink may have been in the bodies of our ancestors or the dinosaurs. We add a teaching on the habitual psycho-social behaviour of grasping, a movement pattern that involves never yielding or receiving, always grasping for more, part of colonial behaviour. (Nadeau, 2020, p.178).
A movement activity that involves exploring the motion of the fluid systems in the body, to embody just how our bodies are 70% water: Identified in the somatic discipline Body-Mind Centering®, these systems are the venous, arterial, lymph, cellular, cerebral-spinal, interstitial and transitional, and synovial fluids. (https://www.bodymindcentering.com/course/fluid-system/)
A series of visits to a specific place and water body, like my visit above to Camossung. Participants are invited to use all their senses, as well as an awareness of the four directions, the sky above, the ground below, the ancestors and those to come, to listen and watch as they engage with the place. The task is to just be with and listen to and with a more-than-human being. After the visits they return to first draw and then move or dance their water body and then ask what message that being has for them. We follow this with asking them to consider how they can care for and nurture their body of water, and what are the actions or responsibilities that come from their relationship with these kin.
I conclude with a challenge articulated by Heidi Stark (Ojibwe) and Gina Starblanket (Cree). They note there is a growing awareness amongst feminist and Indigenous scholars of interconnectedness between humans and the more-than-human world, but this, in and of itself, is not necessarily transformative (Starblanket & Star, 2018, p.177). They point out that there is "..an important difference between understanding our place in the world as situated within relations of interdependence with all of creation and living in a way that carries out our responsibilities with these relationships" (Starblanket & Star, 2018, p.177).
It is actions, not just beliefs, that will transform the separateness of humans from the more-than-human world. If we do not treat our relatives as kin with whom we have reciprocal relations, and have a felt sense of our accountability to that relationship, awareness alone is futile.
Abrams, D. (1997). The spell of the Sensuous: Perception and language in a more-than-human world. Vintage Books.
Apffel-Marglin, Frédérique. (2011). Subversive spiritualities: How rituals enact the world. Oxford.
Nadeau, D. (2020). Unsettling Spirit: A journey into decolonization. Mc Gill-Queens University Press.
Nadeau, D. & Young, A. (2018). Embodying Indigenous resurgence: All my relations pedagogy. In S. Batacharya & R. Wong (Eds.), Sharing breath: Embodied learning and decolonization (pp. 55-82). Athabaska University Press.
Starblanket, G. & Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark, H. (2018). Towards a relational paradigm – Four points for consideration: Knowledge, gender, land, and modernity. In M. Asch, J. Borows & J. Tully (Eds.), Resurgence and Reconciliation, (pp. 175-208). University of Toronto Press.
TallBear, K. (2011, November 18). Why interspecies thinking needs Indigenous standpoints. Cultural Anthropology Online. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/why-interspecies-thinking-needs-indigenous-standpoints
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Denise Nadeau is an educator, scholar, and activist working at the intersection of somatic therapy, spiritual practice, decolonization, and racial justice. She is the author of Unsettling Spirit: A Journey into Decolonization (MQUP, 2020) and is an Affiliate Assistant Professor at Concordia University, Montreal.