Indigenous and Intellectual: Leanne Simpson Speaks at Pitzer College

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson steps up to the podium, smiles kindly, and begins speaking in one of the languages of the Anishnaabeg. She then pauses, draws her gaze toward the audience, and says in English, “Hi, friends.” She translates her introduction, saying she’d addressed us with a greeting that the Anishnaabeg people have used for hundreds of years. Simpson explains, “We say hello, say our clan, say where we’re coming from, our home, and finally our name. These beginning words are about intention and commitment. They mean ‘I’m not going to steal your land and colonize you’—hint—and ‘I will do you no harm.’”

It was with this warmth and honesty that Simpson began her lecture. She spoke at Pitzer College's George Benson Auditorium on Feb. 29 as one of the presenters for the "Public Intellectuals at Pitzer College" series. According to Pitzer's website, these events are intended to expose students to talented academics who “work at the intersection of social justice and community engagement, many of them based in social movements, community organizations, or academic and artistic institutions.”

Simpson, a multitalented woman with Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg heritage, is a member of the Alderville First Nation. She’s a teacher, an award-winning intellectual and PhD, a songwriter, and a poet. She has also participated in the production of multiple short films and has numerous published works, including Islands of Decolonial Love and Dancing On Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Recreation, Resurgence, and a New Emergence.

In her works, Simpson uses poetry and storytelling to discuss Anishnaabeg values, her own personal experiences, and the obstacles that indigenous people face. Her poems and novels often incorporate political messages that address land dispossession, assimilation, nationhood, colonialism, and resurgence.

For instance, Simpson spoke of Canada’s recently elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. She explained that the Anishnaabeg territory lies on the north shore of Lake Ontario. The city of Ontario was built on top of Nishnaabeg land, and to this day, the Canadian government continues to occupy the Alderville First Nation’s property. Simpson underscored that Trudeau “made a lot of promises to indigenous people to get elected.” However, indigenous groups have responded to his pledges with a mixture of optimism, caution, and various kinds of critical analysis. In all his speeches, the Prime Minister has not fully addressed one thing: land.

Simpson emphasized that the theft of indigenous land is far from over. She said, “Every year indigenous people have less access to land and less access to wilderness. This is the root. This is the elephant in the room.” Simpson also highlighted the importance of the indigenous people's relationship to their homeland.

During her lecture, Simpson shared several of her short stories and two songs—which she helped write—with the audience. These pieces blended Anishnaabeg origin stories, culture, and values with the challenges of the 21st century: technology, ecosystem destruction, stereotypes of indigenous people in media, and more.

One Pitzer student felt especially moved by Simpson’s lecture. 

“I thought her words were extremely powerful. I was so inspired by her ability to see the deep injustices that her people face and still stand in front of us and perform this talk. I wonder how people who have a history of experiencing violence—and in the modern world still experience that violence—keep fighting, Neeka Salmasi PZ '16 said. "I am in awe of how she is still fighting in such an eloquent and beautiful way. I would really, really suggest that everyone listen to her poetry, listen to her stories, and read her work because this is an awesome woman.”