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Claiming Anishinaabe: Decolonizing the Human Spirit

by Lynn Gehl

In the Anishinaabe culture, “Mino-pimadiziwin” means “the good life.” In context, Mino-pimadiziwin can be understood as a wholistic life, one that includes fostering a relationship to land and community, and sharing knowledge with others. Lynn Gehl, an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe from the Ottawa River Valley, has devoted her life to this pursuit. For Gehl, this journey has included work in environmental sciences and the study of Algonquin land and identity rights – which she classifies as “head learning.” But this is only part of the process; a lifetime of “heart learning” has taken Gehl through an experience of connection with Anishinaabe spiritual traditions – song, storytelling, and respect for the land. The synthesis of head and heart learning inspires and informs Claiming Anishinaabe: Decolonizing the Human Spirit, a deeply analytical, yet accessible book about Indigenous resurgence.

Both a story of healing and a scathing indictment of the colonial nation-state, Claiming Anishinaabe unpacks Gehl’s “debwewin journey,” a process she describes as “decolonizing the human spirit through a personal journey of coming to Indigenous knowledge.” She believes that an individual’s relationship to knowledge is their own responsibility, a view that is reflected in Anishinaabe teachings.

Gehl’s debwewin journey encourages learning that is rooted both in the mind and the heart, and stresses individual experience rather than a search for universal truth. Pushing back against rationalism, which divorces learning from emotion and spirituality, the author uses lived experience to show why head learning is insufficient for understanding and relating to the world. Following a stint as a chemical technologist with a waste-water analysis unit, Gehl comes to understand that both laboratory science methodology and Indigenous knowledge are necessary to effect lasting environmental change: “While Anishinaabe ways may not hold the ability to detect toxic organic pollution in our water supply, it does hold the ability to shape human behaviour through ritualizing and thus embodying a value system that incorporates the much-needed respect for water.”

Gehl establishes a language of discourse for the process she has developed, with the goal of sharing this wisdom and helping others. Although fluent in academese, she keeps the conversation accessible and straightforward, with graphs and images designed to take her debwewin journey out of the conceptual realm and into the hearts and minds of readers from all backgrounds.

Claiming Anishinaabe covers an exhaustive range of topics, from sovereignty and self-determination to the gendered politics of the Indian Act to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (Readers may find themselves wanting to know more, and Gehl provides a lengthy bibliography for this purpose.) However, throughout Claiming Anishinaabe, the conversation remains rooted in the destructive effects of oppressive power on the human spirit, and an insistence that both knowledge and spirituality are key in reclaiming one’s sense of self.