Words Are Stories: Reading Indigenous Women’s Writing on Body and Land

Alisha Mascarenhas


   I live on this land, but I am not from here. I grew up on the West Coast, on Coast Salish territory near what is often called Vancouver. My father immigrated there from India, and my mother, whose ancestors were mostly Scottish, was raised in Brandon, Manitoba — on whose land I still don’t know. I now live on Kanien’kehá:ka territory in what many call Montreal, Quebec, and I am struggling to authentically understand the meaning of my body’s presence on this land.

   The point that I can come closest to naming the beginning of this paper and the process it documents is what sparked when I read an essay called “Land Speaking” by Jeannette Armstrong, a N’silxchn (Okanagan) writer, poet, and storyteller. I started to think about what she means when she refers to the land as a teacher, and to herself and the N’silxchn peoples as receivers of language. I started to think about the tensions and contradictions of imposing meaning onto something, rather than initially receiving then allowing the words to emerge. I started asking more insistently what it does when I write words down, when I slam my fingertips into a keyboard, fixing meaning in time. I started to interrogate the stories embedded in the words that I hear, speak, read, write, think, and how Pueblo storyteller Leslie Marmon Silko tells us that language is story. In her piece on “Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective”, she writes that “many individual words have their own stories. So when one is telling a story and one is using words to tell the story, each word that one is speaking has a story of its own, too” (Silko 50).

   I have been finding myself caught in the snares of colonial English, and I want to take responsibility for that. I want to be accountable to the narratives I make true in their re-telling. So I would like to invite you through one strand of this narrative.

   I will begin by establishing the grounds of the story that I, as well as the writers I am drawing on, am writing against. This story is one of colonial domination of men over the land. It understands men to be distinctly separate from and superior to nature, and is told in many forms and under many disguises. The manifestation of this story that I will refer to comes through Anne McClintock’s book, Imperial Leather, and centres on a chapter called “Lay of the Land: Genealogies of Imperialism”.

   In this chapter, McClintock looks at one of Columbus’ letters home during his initial voyage here to Turtle Island. It is said that as Columbus was approaching the mass of land before him, he wrote that the Earth was perhaps not round after all, but “[r]ather … shaped like a woman’s breast, with a protuberance upon its summit in the unmistakable shape of a nipple” (McClintock 21).

   McClintock writes that such feminization and sexualization of the land conveys a terrain that is “spatially spread for male exploration” (McClintock 24). She is referring here to the imperial power implicated in language that describes the land as “virgin territory” and a “veil” to be drawn back. She considers this metaphorical phrasing as “from the outset a strategy of violent containment” (McClintock 26). McClintock refers to this letter for what it signifies for Columbus’ own perception of his relationship to the land he was arrogant enough to assume he was discovering. It is also relevant here to consider the significance of his status as an European explorer, and how and by whom his letter may have been received and thus, whose stories are validated as true.

   The feminization and sexualization of the land is integral to a distinctly patriarchal and imperial project of domination and control, which emerges in countless ways in the colonial present. Having laid out an indication of the political, social, and linguistic context that I am writing against, I would now like to consider how a few Indigenous women writers are using the English language to sustain worldviews diametrically opposed to those. My intention is that learning through these women’s writing can facilitate a process of destabilizing pervasive and insidious colonial worldviews and their emotionally, psychologically, spiritually and materially destructive manifestations.


   Rather than a desire to exploit, dominate, and control, I am suggesting that these women instead write from a relationship of interdependence, reverence, and respect for the land. In Jeannette Armstrong’s work, she brings forth a living sense of reverence, humility, and respect towards all beings.

   She writes that, in the N’silxchn language, “the word for our bodies contains the word for land, so when I say that word, it means that not only is my ability to think and to dream present in that word but the last part of that word also means ‘the land’” (Armstrong 176). She understands that the “land holds all knowledge of life and death and is a constant teacher” (Armstrong 176). It is with this attitude that Armstrong offers her stories, poems and essays, regarding the land as a source of her knowing, and relating her way of moving through the world in light of this relationship.

   Rather than imposing fixed meaning and definition upon the land, she instead experiences language as being received from the living Earth. She explains that she is “being spoken to … and not the one speaking” (Armstrong 183), and describes this as a “sacred act in that the words contain spirit, a power waiting to become activated and become physical” (Armstrong 183). In this way, Armstrong refers not to a passive state, but a receptivity that requires an active and awakened presence, allowing language to emerge from the land, through the body, to be expressed in voice. This role; this task of speaking, is a fully conscious act of invocation. Reading her words offers the reader a way of relating to the land and to language that is radically different from Columbus’s mission of conquest.

   Through her work, Jeannette Armstrong shows what is possible with language. She shows how listening, whether to the wordless sounds and messages of the land or to spoken language, invites the possibility for imagination to widen. Rather than refusing to use the colonizer’s language or throwing up her hands in surrender to its learned meaning and the systems of power it affirms, she adapts the language to express distinctly anti-colonial worldviews. It is through advocating for a practice of listening that her work acts as an invitation into the experiential understanding she relates. It is an encouragement towards a living process and practice.

   This creative act of transforming what appears to be rigid and fixed into something alive, nuanced, and fluid has great potential in language, yet it can also be applied to many other transformational ways of being, thinking and doing. Language is a negotiation that we are constantly making. It is not fixed. It is not immutable.

Experiential Learning

   It should be clear that any authentic process and living practice of unlearning colonial worldviews can not be fully comprehended through book learning. Leanne Simpson writes of an Anishnaabe origin story, within which she inserts herself as a character, to explain how embodied knowledge can be understood. She writes about the knowledge that the Creator, Gzwe Mnidoo, has given us, which is “so immense from creating the world that it takes all of my being to embody it” (Simpson 42). She thus relates to the notion that creative knowledge cannot be contained in our heads, but must be transmitted through our entire self: “our physical being, emotional self, our spiritual energy and our intellect” (Simpson 42).

   It is crucial that we recognize here that Simpson is writing to Anishnaabeg peoples, advocating for a practice and resurgence of her own community’s culture, known to her through Anishnaabe ways of life. The particularity of her teachings is what grounds her knowledge and makes it meaningful, and must not be removed from its historical and present context. Pulling from such teachings and assume them as our own can risk replicating the very colonial violence that Simpson is writing against.

   This considered, the underlying principles behind such an approach are not entirely unique to Anishnaabe peoples. What Leanne Simpson suggests is a way of living and moving through the world that integrates our entire being and rejects the colonial division between mind and body, between body and land. This is what Cherokee writer Linda Hogan refers to as an “integrity of being … that addresses a human wholeness and completeness, and entirety of living, with body, land and the human self in relationship with all the rest” (Hogan 168).

   It must be absolutely clear that I do not advocate for the appropriation of Anishnaabe or any other Indigenous practices, ceremonies or language. I am, rather, seeking shifts in ways of thinking and living in our own particular communities that work towards a sincere, living practice of being in harmony in our relationships to the living world. So this is an invitation to curiosity; to an ongoing dialogue concerning the language that we use, the stories that we continue to tell, and those that we refuse.


Armstrong, Jeannette. “Okanagan Ways of Being.” Original Instructions: Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future. Eds. Nelson, M.K., & Bioneers. 66-74. Rochester, Vt.:Bear & Company, 2008.

Armstrong, Jeannette. “Land Speaking.” Speaking for the Generations: Native Writers on Writing. Ed. Simon Ortiz. Tuscon: University of Arizona Press, 1998. 175-194.

Hogan, Linda. “Department of the Interior”. Minding the Body: Women Writers on Body and Soul. Ed. Patricia Foster. 159-174. New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1994.

McClintock, Anne. “Lay of the Land: Genealogies of Imperialism”. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Conquest. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. “Interior and Exterior Landscapes.” Speaking for the Generations: Native Writers on Writing. Ed. Simon Ortiz. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1998.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. “Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective.” Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Simpson, Leanne. Dancing on our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publications, 2011.