- Shanty Songs and Echoing Rocks: Upsurges of Memory along Fault Lines of Extraction
Upsurge: River Remembering
In 2008, elderly loggers in the Ottawa Valley floated a timber crib down the river. In this reperformance of an old journey downstream, they noticed that the crib did not move as easily as it used to. The river, who carried the heavy vessels swiftly for decades, had been slowed by damming processes in ways the oarsmen hadn’t anticipated (Corbett).1 When the Kiji Sibi/Ottawa River flooded last ziigwaan/spring, Chaudière Falls, a sacred site in unceded and untreatied Algonquin territory, pounded with water that was triple the flow of Niagara Falls (U/Baldphotog). Ottawa River-Keeper describes this upsurge of the river, her fast and destructive movement, as being quite like her state before she was dammed:
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“Since the dams in the lower and central part of the Ottawa River have no reservoir capacity, their gates are adjusted to allow the volume of water to pass through at the same rate it is arriving. This returns the river, in some ways, to a pre-development/pre-dam state.” The Kiji Sibi remembers surging and rapid movement in her body, before the construction of hydroelectric dams.
These two events, the Ottawa flooding and the slow float of the timber crib, point to questions about what the river remembers and how her memories exceed dominant historical narratives of the Kiji Sibi as a site of extraction. Following stories of resource extraction is inevitable as I continually get to know my home territory, decolonizing my relationship to that place through performance research. Saturated by stories of settlement by extractive industries, most histories of the river follow her industrial “development” (Greening). I want to ask, though, what does the Kiji Sibi remember that people do not, at least not easily? How does treating the Kiji Sibi as a relative who remembers— much more than a resource to be put to use—amplify Algonquin presence in the territory and help me to reclaim my own Indigenous relationship to place and to knowledges held by water bodies?
Indigenous scholars have pointed to the importance of the body and the Land in receiving, holding, and transmitting knowledge, describing the ability of Indigenous performances and performers to disrupt dominant settler narratives and to creatively circulate Indigenous paradigms. Julie Nagam (Métis, German/Syrian), for instance, describes Rebecca Belmore’s performing body and personhood as a “living archive that performs cultural memory” (“(Re)mapping” 147). When I understand the Kiji Sibi as a living archive who holds and performs cultural memory, when I apply Peter Morin’s (Métis) assertion that “‘[t]he body is a resonant chamber,’ a place where experiences echo, sinking deep into the bones before reverberating back out into the world” (qtd. in Robinson and Martin 11), to the waters of my home territory, I find a river swelling with Algonquin stories alongside iterative pathways of extraction.
Finding relatives in histories of extraction and performance
The Kiji Sibi is long, spanning from Mattawa, past Ottawa, to Lake of Two Mountains at Montreal. Her watershed is even larger. Her legacy in dominant accounts of Canadian history is marked. She is the site of first contact between the French and Algonquin nations. Samuel de Champlain canoed past my favourite beach, where the one-eyed Algonquin Chief Tessouat also paddled. The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) took advantage of this well-travelled trade route to move furs and clay pipes. Logging, lumber mills, and hydroelectric dams followed. In the forties, the federal government razed Algonquin settlements to build nuclear power infrastructure. The Kiji Sibi is a living archive of generations of extraction and violent encounters between Indigenous people and settlers. As Virginia Hunt-ba writes, “You see, Deep River was not born from a virgin forest. It was built from the ashes of homes and the heartbreak and tears of very dear people” (Hunt 6).2
I grew up collecting medicines in the bush and practising emergency radiation drills in my classroom while Atomic Energy of Canada sirens...