top of page

North Island, Spring 2021

by Dr. Rosa Sierra

"There are so many things we’re born into that surround us like air and that air isn’t always sweet"

Covid-19 has had a devastating toll on Native American communities. Dr Rosa Sierra discusses their attempts to protect themselves from the virus, while exploring her memories as a Chicana American living in Canada.

Walking never clears my mind, but it does shake stuck thoughts loose for me to catch in a basket and sort out into somewhat coherent essays and poetry. I’ll walk as long as my body lets me and then, I suppose, I’ll find another way to engage with the world and loosen my mind. Today, I walk.

A few months ago I moved to this place upstairs from my home. Settling in has been a limpia of body and mind and moving about in this foreign place is a big part of that. When James Baldwin fled the US for France, he wrote:

James Baldwin's 'Notes of a Native Son' (Penguin, 2021)

“I began to realize that I was in a country I knew nothing about, in the hands of a people I did not understand at all. In a similar situation in New York I would have had some idea of what to do because I would have had some idea of what to expect. I am not speaking now of legality which, like most of the poor, I had never for an instant trusted, but of the temperament of the people with whom I had to deal. I had become very accomplished in New York at guessing and, therefore, to a limited extent manipulating to my advantage the reactions of the white world. But this was not New York. None of my old weapons could serve me here.”

(Notes of a Native Son)

Now, I am not in a particularly French region of Canada but this damn sure ain’t New York, where my bright orange license plates reveal I have come from. In any case, I’m a country Tejana and it shows the moment I open my mouth. Thank fuck for introversion and social distancing. I am an undercover American in a country that is currently both curious about and low-key pissed off at those of us from south of the border. I can’t say I blame them. Our self-destructive streak has made us terrible neighbours, and they’ve barricaded the border to keep most of us out. It’s not opening until we get our shit together, and I can’t blame them for that, either.

When talking about my country to curious Canadians (they always ask), I often feel compelled to preface my critiques with a statement about loving my home despite it all; but where’s that compulsion coming from anyway? Is love compulsory? And what is home when you’ve gone from room to room for dozens of years and thousands of miles and still don’t feel safe?

Friends of mine have commented on the little oddities they notice when they come for visits that, from a very young age, instil this deep compulsion to feel what we think is love from what we think is home. There are so many things we’re born into that surround us like air and that air isn’t always sweet. The more noxious the air the more folks like to say it smells like money. And you know what? The longer you hang out with them, the more you start to believe it. After all, nothing smells better than money when poverty reeks of imminent death.

Standing Rock Protest (Image Credit: Michael Nigro)

Water is life. Mní Wičóni” was the rallying cry at Standing Rock. The Water Protectors knew that to those in power water started to smell of money long ago when it was transformed into dumping grounds, an impediment to growth, and a product to be marketed. In 1972, John (Fire) Lame Deer told Richard Erdoes:

“The Sioux have a name for white men. They call them wasicun—fat takers. It is a good name, because you have taken the fat of the land. But it does not seem to have agreed with you. Right now you don’t look so healthy—overweight, yes, but not healthy. Americans are bred like stuffed geese—to be consumers, not human beings.

The moment they stop consuming and buying, this frog-skin [money] world has no more use for them. They have become frogs themselves. Some cruel child has stuffed a cigar into their mouths and they have to keep puffing and puffing until they explode. Fat-taking is a bad thing, even for the taker. It is especially bad for Indians who are forced to live in this frog-skin world which they did not make and for which they have no use.”

Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions

I think of Lame Deer a lot on walks like today’s. He looked around and saw “a streamlined, smog-filled nightmare” and made a point of differentiating the Green Frog Skin World from the real world of visions. John Trudell of the Santee Sioux, and of indigenous Mexican lineage, said, “The Great Lie is that this is civilization…if it does represent civilization, and that is truly what civilization is, then the Great Lie is that civilization is good for us.”