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Defending the land through culture and dance: Indigenous communities come together as the coronavirus pandemic hits Turtle Island

May 21, 2020

By Jennifer Brant


In the time of COVID-19, Jingle Dress dancers are coming together virtually in the spirit of bringing healing to Indigenous communities. In this photo, Adrienne Smoke is performing a Jingle Dress dance (photo courtesy of Penny J. Bowers). 

Jennifer Brant is an assistant Professor in OISE’s department of curriculum, teaching and learning. Her work positions Indigenous literatures as educational tools to inspire empathy, compassion, healing, and wellness. Jennifer is the co-editor of “Forever Loved: Exposing the Hidden Crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada” and writes to call for an immediate and effective response to racialized and sexualized violence.

The notion of history repeating itself, on what we know as Turtle Island, has been a common thread when it comes to pandemics and the experiences of Indigenous peoples. Following the years referred to as First Contact, my ancestors were faced with infectious diseases and biological warfare in the name of colonial expansion.

In fact, in 1763, the intentional spread of smallpox infested blankets was encouraged by British army officer Jeffery Amherst. The intentional spread of disease is not forgotten as Indigenous communities call upon their own resources to cope with COVID-19.

Amidst the current uncertain times, Indigenous communities understand the need to gather our medicines, go to the land, dance and offer our prayers. This has recently been expressed by moving one of our most powerful healing dances to the virtual arena.   

I have come to know the history of the Jingle Dress as a medicinal and healing dance. This dance originated in Whitefish Bay, Ont. and was first danced by Maggie White. As a child, Maggie had become very ill; an illness that is said to be connected to the Spanish Flu pandemic. The vision of the dance came to Maggie’s father in a dream.

Today, the jingle dress is danced in both traditional and competition powwows and other healing events. The first time I danced the Jingle Dress Dance was in 2004 during a 24-hour drum feast at the Fort Erie Native Friendship Centre to raise awareness and honour the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, Two-Spirit and trans peoples. 

Fast forward 100 years after that first healing dance and we are seeing Jingle Dress dancers from across Turtle Island come together virtually in the spirit of bringing healing to our nation, particularly the Navajo Nation – which has recently reported more than 4,200 positive COVID-19 cases and over 140 deaths.

Indeed, Indigenous peoples have their own unique and necessary responses to COVID-19. Interestingly enough, these responses quickly follow an unsettling time; one that is rooted in lessons of land and survivance.

Two trips to Winnipeg, and an awakening

On Feb. 17 of this year , I took my first research trip to Winnipeg, a city I had lived in only two years ago when I taught at the University of Manitoba. Upon exiting the airport, the bitter cold reminded me not only of a long winter but also of the landscape and refreshing beauty of the sparkling snow.

It was a nostalgic feeling to return to the prairies and immediately recognize the clear sky I had come to love – which features stunning sunrises, the familiar street signs and rooftops that go on forever. The trip was not complete without a visit to the Forks Market; a gathering space for students with a pub fare feel. It was mid-February and I was not at all concerned by the crowded tables, or the shoulder to shoulder seating.

On Mar. 2, two weeks later, I returned to Winnipeg for my second set of data collection. By this time, I was a bit more cautious of the potential risk of this new virus that I knew little about. There were 18 confirmed cases in Ontario but I still had no idea about the severity of COVID-19 or the changes that would come only two weeks after my trip. Although the threat of a virus lingered on the back of my mind, I was not overly concerned and was indeed preoccupied with other events in Canada.   

In the midst of both trips, the support for the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who opposed the Coastal Gaslink project – a $6.6-billion, 670-kilometre pipeline to carry natural gas across northern B.C. – was picking up across the country. Words like “duty to consult,” “consent” and “unceded traditional territory” were being mused upon across the country as communities, like my father’s home community of Tyendinaga, organized solidarity blockades.

We quickly saw solidarity blockades and marches from coast-to-coast as growing momentum was taking place across the country.

Feelings that were evoked during the winter of 2012 (at the height of the Idle No More movement) were reawakened as I felt the sense of Indigenous community and solidarity in my bones once again.

Idle No More was a time when Indigenous peoples staged flash mob round dances at city centres and shopping malls that marked the winter of 2012 as a powerful moment of coming together and defending the land through culture and dance. We know the value of the land and the nourishment and nurturance it provides to keep us physically and spiritually well.

The winter of 2012 was also a disheartening time. During the moments of Indigenous solidarity that shake and unsettle Canada, I tend to refrain from reading social media comments because the ugly head of racism emerges online before it manifests into other spaces that I once thought were safe.

In spite of this, we persist, we come together, we dance, we sing, and we defend our greatest and most invaluable protector: the land.

Calling Canada to account in 2020

The start of 2020 was a stark reminder of the tensions that arise when Indigenous communities call on Canada to be accountable to Indigenous rights to land and environmental justice. Unfortunately, only two weeks after the first Blockade was set, we heard the Prime Minister declare “enough is enough” in the name of economic prosperity with no concern for the simultaneous rallies that drew attention to our current climate crisis.

The narrative quickly became one centered on the harm on the economy and once again we saw the “surface level” reconciliation that Canada has come to pride itself on quickly crumble. Of course, Canada’s economic interests trump Indigenous rights to land and environmental protections – issues that should be a concern of all who call this land home.   

With disheartened feelings, on Feb. 21, I witnessed our Prime Minister declare, “Canadians have been patient, our government has been patient, but it has been two weeks and the barricades need to come down now.”

I wondered about the many Indigenous people who also take time away from work and family to protect the interests of our now shared homelands.

“Canadians who are feeling the very real impact of these blockades are running out of patience,” said Trudeau.

I wondered about the patience of Indigenous peoples who wait for broken promises to be upheld.

Trudeau ended his speech with “The barricades must now come down, the injunctions must be obeyed, and the law must be upheld.”

I wondered of which law Trudeau referred to.

What this supposedly “fair country” forgot was the 1997 landmark Supreme Court ruling regarding Indigenous title to traditional territories. The ruling of the Delgamuukw case confirmed that Indigenous title entails inherent rights to the land itself.

The ruling also confirmed that the provincial government has no authority to extinguish Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en rights on their traditional lands. To be sure, the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en have full jurisdiction over the land. Apparently when it comes to economic prosperity the interests of ongoing settler colonialism prevail and we see history repeat itself on these lands once again.

The notion of Canada as a fair country rests on shaky ground and this is evident in the structural barriers and health disparities associated with COVID-19. The health inequities come in the form of ongoing water boil and do not use advisories, poor sanitation, and the lack of infrastructure. Moreover, the lack of access to health care in remote communities coupled with inequitable and unsafe schools is another ongoing battle that ruptures that foundation of reconciliation.

As I witness the unique responses of Indigenous communities in the height of COVID-19, I am reminded of the notion of survivance and the solidarity of Indigenous peoples within the context of identity, culture and the values that hold us up and keep us well.

As blockades come down new ones are put up

This time the intentions of the blockades have shifted but the lessons remain rooted in land and survival. On Mar. 30, the community of Six Nations put up barricades to prevent access to visitors from outside of the community.

The barricades, inspired by Project Protect Our Elders acknowledge the importance of protecting knowledge keepers, particularly the Elders who hold our linguistic and cultural knowledges. Similar blockades, are now protecting outsiders from entering Indigenous communities across the country. Although this means we will be separated from our friends and family, we have found new ways to come together and unite during this time.

These new connections are creative acts of love that have inspired a virtual movement to ensure Indigenous survivance. On Apr. 11, 2020, Yazzie the Chef posted a #passthechefknife video featuring Indigenous chefs cooking from home in their own territories.

Indigenous youth are creating TikTok to stay connected and reach out to other communities through song and dance, Indigenous authors and podcasters are sharing talks and bringing people together through dialogue. Videos of Jingle Dress dancers continue to be shared to bring healing and wellness. This is the kind of love that sends healing prayers to the Navajo Nation. 

When I returned from my short trips to Winnipeg, my sense of normalcy had literally changed overnight. I taught my last face-to-face class not realizing I’d suddenly transition to emergency online teaching to complete my courses, my research in Winnipeg and Thunder Bay is currently on hold, my children were suddenly given an extra two weeks on their March Break. They haven’t returned to school since, and I found myself struggling to find toilet paper, hand soap and other basic necessities.

Today, I am writing more than two months into the lockdown and it is hitting me hard every day. As the numbers in my own town continue to grow, every trip to the grocery store feels like another risk of bringing the virus home to my children.

At the same time, I am aware of the privilege to be able to work from home, to be able to drive to the grocery stores, to be able to find hand sanitizer and affordable access to clean and safe water. I also have a secure internet connection that allows me to participate in virtual acts of survivance.

Our online Indigenous community is stronger than ever and once again I am recalling those special feelings, I felt the winter we danced in 2012.

Today as I write, I am in awe at the strength that is exuded through virtual Indigenous community as we go to the land, we plant, we dance and we pray.

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