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  • Cultivating Common GroundCultural Revitalization in Anishinaabe and Anthropological Discourse
  • Anna J. Willow (bio)

Into each life, it is said, some rain must fall…. But Indians have been cursed above all other people in history. Indians have anthropologists.

Vine Deloria, Jr., Custer Died for Your Sins

Something important is happening beside a small muck-bottomed lake sixty miles of slow winding road to the north of Lake of the Woods. Since December 2002 members of Grassy Narrows First Nation have maintained a blockade to protest industrial clear-cutting taking place without their consent within the 2,500 square miles they claim as their traditional territory. Grassy Narrows First Nation—or Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek, as many residents prefer to call it—is an Anishinaabe community located in northwestern Ontario, Canada, about an hour-and-a-half drive from the small timber- and tourism-dependent city of Kenora. Just over thirteen hundred members belong to the First Nation, with approximately eight hundred of them living on Grassy Narrows' fourteen-square-mile reserve.1

The Grassy Narrows blockade makes use of a long-abandoned truck turn-around situated a few hundred yards from the reedy eastern shore of Slant Lake. Although only a few miles from Grassy's population center, the site is not officially part of the reserve. To the governments of Canada and Ontario this is Crown land owned by the federal government and managed by the province. But to the blockaders it is the Grassy Narrows Traditional Land Use Area—land that their forefathers agreed to share in Treaty Three of 1873 but that, they maintain, was never surrendered. In the blockade's early months protestors remained at Slant [End Page 33] Lake day and night, taking turns standing in the snow-covered logging road in order to physically obstruct the passage of contractors' trucks and equipment. They also took turns tending a ceremonial fire kindled during the blockade's exciting opening hours. The blockade had been standing for only one day when Judy DaSilva—one of Grassy Narrows' most dedicated activists and a prominent anti-clear-cutting spokesperson—noted its emerging symbolic significance. "[It] is like a vigil," she said. "We have what we call a sacred fire at the site that we can't let burn out until we finish."2 This fire burned steadily from December 2002 until the fall of 2003 and is still regularly relit by community members.

A naive, nervous, and hopeful anthropology graduate student, I first arrived at Slant Lake in May 2003 in order to learn about and lend my support to the blockade and the Grassy Narrows community. It has now been over six years since the blockade began. And though today more symbolic than actively confrontational, the Slant Lake blockade still stands. As early as January 2003 logging operators began taking a detour to the east rather than contend with the blockaders at Slant Lake. Yet many Grassy Narrows residents continued to spend considerable amounts of time at the site. Given that their presence was no longer necessary from a strategic standpoint, why did so many people remain dedicated not only to their community's anti-clear-cutting movement but also to Slant Lake as a physical place? What else was going on at Slant Lake that continued to attract so many?

The lasting appeal of the Slant Lake blockade for Grassy Narrows activists as well as outside observers can be compellingly explained in these terms: Slant Lake is not merely a blockade; it is a site of cultural revitalization. But what does this mean? Since the 1950s anthropologists have used this phrase to reference rapid and consciously organized processes of cultural change that aim to "construct a more satisfying culture."3 In recent decades—and increasing in conjunction with the rising global prominence of indigenism—American Indian people have also employed this terminology to underscore their desire to maintain and celebrate cultural identities distinct from those held (and often imposed) by members of surrounding colonial settler societies. But even when we use the same words, we may have something very different in mind.

Within the interdisciplinary framework of American Indian studies anthropology has played a prominent role. But the...


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