April 16, 2019
The Oxford Dictionary’s 2018 word of the year was “toxic.” Masculinity was the second most used word in conjunction with toxic (after “chemical”). Toxic masculinity is a problem, of that there is no doubt. I would go so far as to say that toxic masculinity’s big brother, patriarchy, is the main problem facing our world. However, this reflection is not about toxic masculinity, or patriarchy. It is about a trip my family took last month to the Moose Factory, and of the man we went there to see — a man whose masculinity is the opposite of toxic.
On a blustery February day, my family and I drove north until Ontario’s highway network ends at the edge of the James Bay Lowlands. We then took a winter road, past stunted black spruce and across frozen muskeg, to visit my friend Charlie* at his home in Moose Factory. Charlie and I met in 2018; I was paddling down the North French River, in his traditional territory, and he was returning from a fishing weekend with his wife. We spent the afternoon floating down to Moose Factory, telling each other stories about the land. Charlie is an outgoing Cree man, a born storyteller, a retired postmaster, and, as it turned out, a trapper. When I told him I had always wanted to bring my family on a winter trapline tour in the area, he quickly invited us up. That is how my family and I came to be driving to the edge of the Arctic Ocean in midwinter.
Charlie hosted us at his family trap cabin, across the river from Moose Factory. In the two days we were there, he taught us how to snare rabbits, trap marten, pluck geese, and smoke moose roast. He teaches similar things to the children and youth of Moose Factory and Moosonee by going into the schools to teach traditional skills that are in danger of being lost. While sitting around a campfire in the cooking teepee, Charlie told us stories about his late mother, how she taught him many of his bush skills, and about his sons and grandchildren, how they are living as Cree people in today’s world.
After we returned home, I overheard my wife telling someone about Charlie. “He’s such a good man,” she said. “So patient showing the boys how to set a trap or pluck a goose. I don’t know why that should surprise me so much.” Indeed, why was my wife surprised at this? I think it comes down to his Indigenous masculinity.
Sometimes Indigenous masculinity seems all too similar to (toxic) settler masculinity. “What we call ‘traditional Indigenous masculinity’,” says Brendan Hokowhitu, “is in actuality a particular masculinity that has developed since colonization; in part, at least, mimicked on dominant forms of invader masculinity.” This Indigenous-cum-settler masculinity is part of what the Oxford Dictionary was describing when they identified ‘toxic masculinity’ as a leitmotif of 2018. This is not Charlie’s masculinity.
I will not argue that Charlie’s Indigenous masculinity is pre-colonial, because he is very much a man of the twenty-first century. Charlie’s indigeneity and masculinity intersect in a not uncommon way; the best of both unite to strengthen the whole. There is no shortage of good men like Charlie, men who embody a similar intersection of modern indigeneity and modern masculinity. I have met a number of them in my studies: Elders like John Sawyer, Terry Dokis, and Peter Beaucage; and language revivers like Tory Fisher and Blair Beaucage all exemplify what it means to be a good Indigenous man, or simply a good man. Healthy Indigenous masculinity can be a model for all men, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike. The intersection of healthy masculinity and modern indigeneity is a powerful place. When we consider traditions of research and teaching residing at this intersection, we see powerful traditions with the potential to heal some of the damage done by patriarchy and colonialism.
To begin this healing process, we can spend more time learning from the land. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson calls this “a reclamation of land as pedagogy.” Integral to learning from the land is learning from the Elders, the knowledge keepers. In Nishnaabemwin, a male Elder can be called Akiwenzii. While this is commonly translated as old man, a more literal translation might be from the earth. Land is teacher for men like Charlie, Sawyer, and Beaucage; learning from the land then is an Indigenous tradition of research.
Writing about women’s beading as an academic method of inquiry, Lana Ray says that “Indigenous women have a longstanding tradition of research.” When I read this, I wondered about Indigenous men’s longstanding traditions of research. Could trapping be a legitimate academic method of inquiry? And how much of trapping’s tradition of research is gendered? While there are female trappers, most trappers are men. Therefore, I argue that trapping is a predominantly masculine method of inquiry, a masculine tradition of research. Ray goes on to say that Indigenous women’s tradition of research is unacknowledged by the academy “because Western concepts of research are superimposed as the norm.” In part because Western concepts of research are inherently patriarchal, Indigenous men’s traditions of research, like those of Indigenous women, are under-acknowledged by the academy. A solution, says Ray, is for “beading and other Indigenous women’s modes of knowledge production to become a part of the lives of those within the academy.” A similar call can be made for Indigenous men’s modes of knowledge production; such modes are equally important and valuable within the academy. For instance, if we substitute ‘beading’ with ‘trapping’, and ‘Anishinaabe’ with ‘Cree’, in Ray’s conclusion, we find that:
“Trapping’s intrinsic relationship with storytelling, process, and aesthetic activates the fields of collective consciousness, wholistic knowing, and Cree ethical principles, providing an outlet to collect, understand, and convey knowledges in a way that is meaningful and relevant within a Cree worldview and aligned with concepts of sovereignty and community wellness.”
What would happen if trapping and other Indigenous men’s modes of knowledge production were to become part of the lives of those within the academy? It would contribute to the indigenization and naturalization of the academy.
Settlers, like myself, cannot become Indigenous to place. But we can, as Robin Wall Kimmerer says, “strive to become naturalized to place, to throw off the mind-set of the immigrant.” Becoming naturalized to the land of the Anishinaabeg and Cree is an ongoing process for me, something I work toward with my family. That weekend in Moose Factory, Charlie helped my sons, my wife, and myself along in the process of naturalizing ourselves to this land. For the Cree children and youth of Moose Factory, he models healthy masculinity and indigenization; for my settler family, he guides us toward naturalization. Indigenization and naturalization are two sides of the same coin, the coin of inquiry, research, and knowledge production. Men like Charlie are leading their people, and mine, away from toxic masculinity and toward a healthy, Indigenous-informed masculinity.
* At “Charlie’s” request, his name was changed for this essay.
Hokowhitu, Brendan. “Indigenous Masculinity and Sexuality.” Indigenous Men and Masculinities: Legacies, Identities, Regeneration. Edited by Robert Alexander Innes and Kim Anderson. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2015. Posted February 22, 2016, https://uofmpress.ca/blog/entry/excerpt-from-indigenous-men-and-masculinties-brendan-hokowhitu.
Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013.
Oxford Dictionaries. “Word of the Year 2018 is….” Word of the Year (blog). Accessed March 20, 2019. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2018.
Ray, Lana. “Beading Becomes a Part of Your Life: Transforming the Academy Through the Use of Beading as a Method of Inquiry.” International Review of Qualitative Research 9, no. 3 (2016): 363-378.
Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. “Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg Intelligence and Rebellious Transformation.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, and Society 3, no. 3 (2014): 1-25.