By: Jordan Abel
PUBLISHED IN LAND BACK | (2021) 1:2 ROOTED
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Jordan Abel is a Nisga’a writer from Vancouver. He is the author of The Place of Scraps (winner of the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize), Un/inhabited, and Injun (winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize). Abel’s latest project, NISHGA (forthcoming from McClelland & Stewart in 2021), is a deeply personal and autobiographical book that attempts to address the complications of contemporary Indigenous existence and the often invisible intergenerational impact of residential schools. Abel recently completed a PhD at Simon Fraser University, and is currently working as an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta, where he teaches Indigenous Literatures and Creative Writing. In this article, he discusses the conceptual framework for his upcoming piece, Empty Spaces, and provides an excerpt of his work.
What does it mean to be Indigenous if your connection to your home community and nation have been severed? What does it mean to be Indigenous if your relationship to the land has been disrupted? How do we (and here I mostly mean urban Indigenous peoples and intergenerational survivors of residential schools) build a relationship with the land when we no longer have access to that land?
Empty Spaces begins as a project that draws conceptually from James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. I initially became interested in Cooper’s novel after I read Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Dunbar-Ortiz argues that The Last of the Mohicans played an important role in reinventing the colonial origins of the United States and created a narrative that was “instrumental in nullifying guilt related to genocide.” My initial attempts to engage with The Last of Mohicans were unsuccessful. However, as I began to think through the project more thoroughly, I ended up on Goodreads to see how the book was circulating today and who was reading it.
To my surprise, the reviews revealed that many people were still reading The Last of the Mohicans and most of them appeared to be American high school students. The reviews also revealed that they really hate this book, but for entirely different reasons than I assumed. They seem to dislike the book because they feel that Cooper’s writing is boring, and they cannot stand his seemingly endless descriptions of nature. Naturally, I began this project by extracting many of Cooper’s descriptions of land, nature, and territory, and I started writing over them, writing through them, writing around them, writing between them, and writing with them. Empty Spaces, at least as it starts out, is thus an impurely conceptual project that both animates and reanimates Cooper’s representation of land as terra nullius. In a sense, this project refuses the projection of colonial emptiness in Cooper’s writing, and likewise it also affirms and rearticulates Indigenous presence.
Empty Spaces, then, is primarily a project about imagining land through fiction. As a Nisga’a person who is both an intergenerational survivor of residential schools and an urban Indigenous person, I would suggest that this project is about what it means to be an urban Indigenous person but to have limited or no access to traditional territory or traditional Indigenous knowledges. As Tuck and Yang famously wrote, “decolonization is not a metaphor.” Land is at the root of the problem of colonization. For me, issues of land (both as they relate to Canada as a colonial nation and as they relate to Indigenous knowledges, teachings, and worldviews) are central to my thinking and being as a Nisga’a writer. However, as a person who has been severed from this connection by way of colonial violence and who has been displaced from my traditional territory, I have no choice but to think through and engage with the land through imagination, through fiction, through writing.
While this project begins by re-writing, re-mixing, and over-writing descriptions of landscape from The Last of the Mohicans, it quickly departs from the initial core. These descriptions of landscape, territory, and nature become subject to their own re-writings. Re-writing itself (and the elliptical nature of the text) makes it so that Cooper’s writing disappears into my own writing and/or is subsumed by my writing somehow. I do think that this is difficult and unfamiliar writing, and I realize that sometimes people feel quite threatened or bewildered by this type of project. I would only ask that as you read, you keep in mind that this work is ultimately about urban Indigenous peoples, intergenerational trauma, and Indigenous relationships with the land (or lack thereof by way of colonial severing). Those subjects can be uncomfortable and difficult, and I think that discomfort and difficulty is reflected in the writing itself. The writing in Empty Spaces (and in all my other projects) seeks to speak back to colonialism and for Indigenous forms of sovereignty in Canada and abroad. Which is to say that this piece is a politically engaged project, and one that is still necessary despite the fact that land and sovereignty are perhaps the oldest Indigenous issues.
Excerpts from Empty Spaces
Today, the sun is rising and lighting up all the piles of bodies by the frozen lake. The snow swirls around those bodies. Today, when the sun sets. Today, when there are just memories of wildfire. Today, when the frozen water is covered over with snow. Today, when there are numberless branches and broken tree limbs and black rocks and mounds of earth and chunks of ice. Today, there is a flame. Today, smoke can be seen through the branches. Today, there are a few moments. Today, all bodies become lost in the smoke. For a few moments, the stars will light up a pathway that winds through the forest and past the frozen lake and between the mountains.
If the west is to be made, then this flesh will make it. There are bodies. There are bodies that have voices. There are bodies that have voices that intersect with each other and cut through the wind. There are bodies that have voices that overlap. There are bodies that make the west. There is flesh that makes the west. If west is right now, it is caught up somewhere in the uproar of voices that come from the bodies in between the trees. If the west is right now, it hangs in the air on this breath. If the west is right now, then the ice water must reflect the light from the moon at midnight and the flesh must witness it.
Today, the sun will set behind the town. Today, there are just memories of fire. Today, the town will be left in sweltering heat. Today, there are numberless bodies and broken limbs and rotting toes. Today, there is another flame. Today, smoke can be seen billowing out of the buildings. Today, there are just a few moments without bodies. Today, all bodies will disappear into the smoke. For a few moments, the stars will light up a pathway that winds through the streets and out past the ditches and into the forest. If the west is to be made, then this flesh will make it.
If the west is to be made, then there will be bodies in the streets. There are bodies in the streets that have voices. There are bodies that have voices that intersect with each other and cut through the thick black smoke billowing out of the buildings. There are bodies that have voices and fists and blood. The west is just flesh. The west is just bodies. If the west is right now, it is somewhere in the lurching bodies that fill out this town. If the west is right now, it is drifting through these soft bodies in the streets. If the west is right now, it hangs in the air above this town. If the west is right now, then the bodies must appear in the streets at midnight and the flesh must break free.
Today, the sun will set. Today, the snow will swirl in the wind. Today, there are just memories of fire. Today, there are just memories of summer. Today, there are numberless bodies and broken limbs and rotting toes. Today, there is another flame. Today, the low-hanging clouds can be seen floating between the buildings. Today, there are bodies drifting through the snow. Today, all bodies will disappear into the concrete towers. For a few moments, the stars will light up a pathway that winds though the snowy streets and out past the ditches and into another city.
If the west is to be made, then this flesh will make it. There are bodies that have voices that intersect with each other and cut through the winter night. There are bodies that have voices and fists and blood. The west is just flesh. The west is just bodies. If the west is right now, it is somewhere in the lurching bodies that fill out this city. If the west is right now, it is drifting through these soft bodies in the streets. If the west is right now, it hangs in the air above this city. If the west is right now, then the bodies must appear in the streets at midnight and the flesh must break free.
 See Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014) at 107.
 Eve Tuck & K Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor” (2012) 1 Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1 at 3.
 Jordan Abel, Empty Spaces [forthcoming].