Wiisagendam aki: Indigenous body as a site of environmental violence

by Annie MacKillican

Annie is a graduate student at Trent University and is Algonquin from Mattawa North Bay First Nation with mixed Scottish ancestry. Annie’s current research project involves an examination of sexual violence against Indigenous women in the Albertan tar sands region. Annie is also a beadwork artist and performer.

Edited by Alexandra Simpson.

(Pictured above: “My Body is Not Terra Nullius” by Erin Marie Konsmo.)

otigwaan (the head) 

When colonization began in the late 1400s, a variety of constructed systems were imposed on Indigenous communities by Europeans hoping to Christianize the territory and by extension, those who had occupied it since time immemorial. Hetero-patriarchal systems of governance and relations, white supremacy, and most notably, capitalism, have all been working to sustain settler-colonialism for the past several hundred years, and have incidentally contributed significantly to the destruction of the land, and to serious harm done to Indigenous women, girls and queer or Two-Spirit folks and their bodies.

To see how this desecration of the land has impacted Indigenous women’s bodies, we must begin at the birthplace of the harm; the mind. Capitalism, as it has settled on this land, has convinced us that our relationship to the land must be one of extraction, of greed, and of amassing wealth at all costs. Alongside settler-colonialism and white supremacy, capitalism has convinced us that this is the only way to relate to our more-than-human relatives, and to our land. Capitalism has transformed our lands, relations, and kin into resources to be extracted. As Nishnaabeg scholar Leanne Simpson points out, there is no capitalism in traditional Nishnaabeg ways of living; the accumulation and hoarding of capital is offensive to the greater-than-human relations who also occupy this land.1 Capitalism has also become the primary support for the persistence of settler-colonialism on Turtle Island, and globally. It has made Mother Earth into a resource from which to extract, as opposed to a relative. It has poisoned our minds to make us believe there is no other way to live, but this is not the case.

opan (the lungs)

Lubicon Lake Cree Nation in so-called Alberta has asserted since the arrival of Europeans to their lands that their territory has always been unceded—meaning they have never participated in any historical or modern treaty process, and Canada has no legitimate claim to pillage their lands.2 Despite this, the ancestral lands of the Lubicon Cree has undergone massive oil and gas development without the consent of the community for the last thirty years. More than 1400 square kilometres of the territory are in use for development with over 2600 oil and gas wells sitting in the territory. According to Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a climate activist and member of Lubicon Lake Nation, almost 70% of the remaining land has been leased to extractive agencies for future development.

With further development comes a high risk of pipeline leaks and disasters. In 2011, the Rainbow Pipeline leaked 4.5 million litres of oil onto the territory, causing not only the devastation of the environment, but also several physical symptoms that continue to plague the community.3 Members of Lubicon Lake have seen this disaster manifest in their respiratory systems, with the community developing elevated rates of lung cancer, asthma, and other respiratory illnesses. Children and elders have been especially vulnerable to the poor quality of air which has become commonplace in the region. Lubicon Lake is not an exception, it is the rule. Communities near oil sands projects are facing devastating respiratory problems across all generations. Ultimately, this is because governments and corporations do not manage the tar sands to protect people or to protect the land. Their only priority is to protect profits and to mitigate the culpability of the state

omisad (the stomach)

On February 6th, 2020, the RCMP moved into raid Wet’suwet’en territory at the Unist’ot’en camp, arguing that they were enforcing an injunction which would allow Coastal GasLink to begin construction of a natural gas pipeline which would cut directly through the unceded yintah, or the land. The Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs, land and water defenders, and community members opposed the construction of the pipeline (as well as two other pipelines) on the grounds that it would cause irreparable harm to the area’s watershed, as well as the plants and animals who depend on the health of the water.4

The Coastal GasLink pipeline, Pacific Trails pipeline, and the Northern Gateway pipeline all pose a threat to the traditional hunting, trapping and fishing territories which are necessary to allow the community to sustain their lands in a way that not only considers the longevity of the earth, but also allows them to participate in traditional food patterns.5 In a time when grocery prices in northern or remote areas are often inaccessibly high, access to traditional foods are essential for the survival of a community. Food sovereignty contributes significantly to the political sovereignty of a nation, and this is what the Wet’suwet’en people are trying to protect. However, food sovereignty does not grow profit or capital, and is therefore not in the interest of the state or of extractive companies. The destruction of food sources is an attack on Indigenous nations.

oniijawin (the womb)

Women are the first environment. Their bodies create and sustain life, their future generations experience the world in the same ways that they do. Through pregnancy and during infancy, women nourish the future generations of the nation. Children develop relationships to Mother Earth in the same way that they relate to their own mothers. For these reasons, the struggle for environmental justice cannot be separated from Indigenous women’s reproductive health. Katsi Cook, a Mohawk elder and midwife, urges us to consider environmental toxins as a direct threat to the future of Indigenous nations through the harm they cause to the reproductive system.6

A fetus can carry up to seven million eggs before its birth; this means that we all lived inside our maternal grandmothers for a short time. The generational links between women and their children and grandchildren is innate; this also means that the future of Indigenous nations is very vulnerable to environmental harm. Women in proximity to extractive projects can pass down contaminants and toxins to their children through their bodies. An attack on nature must be seen as an attack on the women, and by extension, an attack on the children.7 However, the mitigation of these attacks is not a priority of the state. Indigenous women, Black women, and women of colour more broadly, are seen as a threat to a capitalist, white supremacist society because they hold the power to produce future generations of non-white children. Indigenous women are a threat to Canadian sovereignty.

omiskwiim (the blood)

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the Reed Paper mill dumped nearly nine thousand kilograms of mercury into the English-Wabigoon River, which flows downstream into Grassy Narrows First Nation. The mercury had a grave effect on the fish population, which made up a large portion of the community’s diet. Once mercury enters a species’ system, it is there forever through a process called “bioaccumulation”.8 Over the past several generations, the mercury poisoning has plagued both the fish population and the community in Grassy Narrows, materializing in the blood of each generation through the placenta during pregnancy.

As the mercury poisoning has continued to plague the community, Grassy Narrows has seen a serious deficit in healthcare options, and a serious increase in health problems arising from the toxic chemicals lurking in the bodies of most of the community members. Children and elders face the most serious health problems, as they have more vulnerable immune systems, but the community’s women bear the burden of empoisoning future generations through childbirth. Why, over fifty years since the pollution began, are the people of Grassy Narrows still fighting for clean water and medical care? Their survival as a community is a threat to Canadian nationalism.

ojichaagwan (the soul)

Settler colonialism and capitalism rely on the connections between Indigenous women’s bodies and the land in order to operate across Turtle Island and elsewhere globally. Women in Indigenous communities are particularly vulnerable to colonial violence at the hands of the resource extraction industry because they are the ones tasked with holding and protecting the land for the next several generations.9 In breaking the spirit of the women, girls and queer or Two-Spirit folks in the community, the core of the Nation is destroyed, and colonial governments or corporations can more easily access the land for exploitation.

In Fort McMurray, as well as near all other extractive projects globally, the presence of man camps, or workers camps, have increased the prevalence of physical and sexual violence against Indigenous women significantly. In Fort McMurray, the ratio of men to women has climbed as high as two to one, creating an intense patriarchal culture which has normalized violence against the land and against Indigenous women’s bodies.10 By working to protect capital instead of human lives, colonialism and capitalism have authorized this assault on the body, the land, and the spirit of Indigenous communities across the globe.

Despite the collective hurt that capitalism and settler-colonialism have caused across Turtle Island, Indigenous women and queer people have demonstrated time and time again how much resilience is to be found in their communities. Indigenous people continuously face environmental and state violence with a deep desire to heal the damage caused to the body and the land, and to protect Mother Earth for the next seven generations to come. Indigenous communities hold fast to the truth that they have been caring for these lands long before capitalism and settler-colonialism, and they will continue to care for them long after settler society has collapsed. In the meantime, Indigenous women put their bodies on the front line of land and water defense movements, risking their own safety for the survival of their communities. They reclaim control over their bodies and as a result, reclaim the ability to nurture and protect their lands.11

[1] Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, “Nishnaabeg Anticapitalism,” in As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 71–82.

[2] Melina Laboucan-Massimo, “Awaiting Justice: The Ceaseless Struggle of the Lubicon Cree,” in A Line in the Tar Sands: Struggles for Environmental Justice, ed. Toban Black et al. (Toronto: Between The Lines, 2014).

[3] Keith Stewart and Greenpeace Canada, “The Rainbow Spill: A Case of Crime and (No) Punishment,” 2018, https://www.greenpeace.org/static/planet4-canada-stateless/2018/06/RainbowPipelineSpill.pdf.

[4] Lee Wilson, “RCMP Move in on Wet’suwet’en Territory in Early Morning Raid,” APTN News, February 7, 2020, https://www.aptnnews.ca/national-news/rcmp-move-in-on-wetsuweten-territory-in-early-morning-raid/.

[5] Unist’ot’en Camp, “NO PIPELINES: Background of the Campaign,” Unist’ot’en: Heal the People, Heal the Land (blog), 2017, https://unistoten.camp/no-pipelines/background-of-the-campaign/.

[6] Katsi Cook, “Powerful Like a River: Reweaving the Web of Our Lives in Defense of Environmental and Reproductive Justice,” in Original Instructions: Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future, ed. Melissa K. Nelson (Rochester: Bear & Company, n.d.).

[7] Andrea Smith, “Rape of the Land,” in Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide (Duke University Press, 2015), 55–78, https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822374817.

[8] Jody Porter, “Children of the Poisoned River,” CBC News, accessed May 25, 2021, https://www.cbc.ca/news2/interactives/children-of-the-poisoned-river-mercury-poisoning-grassy-narrows-first-nation.

[9] Women’s Earth Alliance and Native Youth Sexual Health Network, “Violence on the Land, Violence on Our Bodies: Building an Indigenous Response to Environmental Violence,” 2016, http://landbodydefense.org/uploads/files/VLVBReportToolkit2016.pdf.

[10] Women’s Earth Alliance and Native Youth Sexual Health Network.

[11] This article cites Andrea Smith, a well-known scholar who has long claimed a false identity as a Cherokee woman. Smith’s work, Conquest, which was cited in this article, chronicled the experiences of abuse and violence suffered by many Indigenous women across Turtle Island at the hands of the state which should not be invalidated by Smith’s false claims, despite the harm that Smith has caused herself to Indigenous communities both within and outside of academia. I encourage those who wish to learn more about Smith’s false claims to read the open letter published by Indigenous women scholars following the discussions about Smith. This letter can be found at: https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/open-letter-from-indigenous-women-scholars-regarding-discussions-of-andrea-smith


Cook, Katsi. “Powerful Like a River: Reweaving the Web of Our Lives in Defense of Environmental and Reproductive Justice.” In Original Instructions: Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future, edited by Melissa K. Nelson. Rochester: Bear & Company, n.d.

Laboucan-Massimo, Melina. “Awaiting Justice: The Ceaseless Struggle of the Lubicon Cree.” In A Line in the Tar Sands: Struggles for Environmental Justice, edited by Toban Black, Stephen D’Arcy, Joshua Kahn Russell, and Tony Weis. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2014.

Porter, Jody. “Children of the Poisoned River.” CBC News. Accessed May 25, 2021. https://www.cbc.ca/news2/interactives/children-of-the-poisoned-river-mercury-poisoning-grassy-narrows-first-nation.

Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. “Nishnaabeg Anticapitalism.” In As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance, 71–82. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Smith, Andrea. “Rape of the Land.” In Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, 55–78. Duke University Press, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822374817.

Stewart, Keith and Greenpeace Canada. “The Rainbow Spill: A Case of Crime and (No) Punishment,” 2018. https://www.greenpeace.org/static/planet4-canada-stateless/2018/06/RainbowPipelineSpill.pdf.

Unist’ot’en Camp. “NO PIPELINES: Background of the Campaign.” Unist’ot’en: Heal the People, Heal the Land (blog), 2017. https://unistoten.camp/no-pipelines/background-of-the-campaign/.

Wilson, Lee. “RCMP Move in on Wet’suwet’en Territory in Early Morning Raid.” APTN News, February 7, 2020. https://www.aptnnews.ca/national-news/rcmp-move-in-on-wetsuweten-territory-in-early-morning-raid/.

Women’s Earth Alliance and Native Youth Sexual Health Network. “Violence on the Land, Violence on Our Bodies: Building an Indigenous Response to Environmental Violence,” 2016. http://landbodydefense.org/uploads/files/VLVBReportToolkit2016.pdf.