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Part three: A pluriverse of activities

Book Review

Unsettling Spirit - A Journey into Decolonization

2021, University of McGill

by Denise Nadeau

Reviewed by: Shauna Butterwick

In this autobiographical narrative, Denise Nadeau explores her ongoing process of decolonization, particularly of the spirit, and how reconciliation is about decolonization and the development and sustaining of mutually respectful relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. This requires unlearning dominant settler worldviews and values that obstruct these relations. Denise asks “what does it mean to be a settler on stolen lands?” (p. 5). There are 18 chapters and 5 sections. The endnotes include hundreds of references serving as a reading list on decolonization. With great humility, Denise’s stories tell the reader about being in relation and listening with the heart.


Part One includes stories of Denise’s journey of reconciling Christianity’s complicity in the colonization of Indigenous peoples and her growing unease of her work with Catholic missions and Jesuit organizations and their approaches to working with Indigenous communities. She learns of the radical differences between Indigenous and Western systems of knowledge and notions of spirituality. Part Two continues her exploration of Indigenous knowledge and their understandings of land, health (problems are survival skills rather than symptoms), and trauma (colonization is experienced as an apocalypse). Denise points to the Great White Helper as a deeply problematic concept and how “whiteness constructs a false self by defining what self is in comparison to others” (p. 61). 


In Part Three Denise travels to her birthplace of Port Daniel in Quebec, the land of M’igmaq peoples, exploring her heritage, her own white settler innocence, the problematic history and concept of blood quantum policies. She learns how settler maps erased M’igmaq peoples and their precise laws and travels and the significance of rivers for Indigenous peoples and how privatization of rivers interrupted Indigenous people’s survival and ability to feed their communities. Indigenous activism is now restoring access to rivers. 


In Part Four, Denise describes buying a pair of beautifully crafted and beaded Indigenous moccasins and learning about how the sale of Indigenous crafts and art was the only way for Indigenous communities to survive. Denise’s growing personal relationships to Indigenous women helps her to appreciate how their central roles in Indigenous communities were strategically undermined through the Indian Act. She describes Walking with Our Sisters (WWOS), a campaign which involved the creation of 1800 individual vamps, the beautifully beaded tops of Moccasins, to honour and remember Indigenous Missing and Murdered Women (MMW). Denise learns about Indigenous water laws which are based on interconnection and interdependence between water, humans and the more than human world. In Part Four Denise explores the significance of ceremony and how many ceremonies are sacred and not shared beyond Indigenous communities. We learn about spiritual self-determination as a process of healing the break between self and the world, and how reciprocity is expressed in such practices as the Mohawk Thanksgiving Address, which teaches listeners about the interconnected world and their responsibilities to it. She shares her shifting understanding of treaties and how treaty making was an Indigenous practice which occurred long before European contact (Indigenous treaties were for the purpose of extending relations with allies). 


Part Five  includes stories of the Lejac Residential School, Indigenous Christianity, and a transformative encounter when Denise participated in a drumming ceremony. In her final chapter, Denise shares stories of working with settler participants and how she invites them to bear witness, to listen and feel, and not move into problem solving, a common colonial and settler response which bypasses opportunities to be in relation. Denise describes how body sovereignty and land sovereignty go together. She recounts her humble journey to understanding there are no English words that can do justice to the complexity of Indigenous concepts. Denise concludes her amazing journey noting that decolonization is different for Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples and how it is not about settlers adopting Indigenous frameworks. Rather, settlers must learn to “see, hear, and welcome other ways of being in the world and let go of the expectation of certainty and security” (p. 234). For Denise “body, spirit, mind and emotions, [are all]  necessary to engage in any process of decolonization” (p. 264). 

About the Author

Shauna Butterwick is a Professor Emeritus from the University of British Columbia. She conducts research into and teaches Adult Learning and Education bringing a feminist analysis to explorations of women’s learning in diverse contexts and a commitment to arts and community-based learning and research. She has co-edited with Carole Roy Working the Margins of Community-Based of Adult Learning: The Power of Arts-Making in Finding Voice and Creating Conditions (2016, Sense) and co-authored with Randee Lawrence Stories of hope, imagination, and transformative learning: A dialogue published in New Directions for Adult Continuing Education (2023, volume 177).

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