This lesson plan is intended as an educational resource to introduce secondary and post-secondary students to the Next Wave Indigenous artist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, a Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg storyteller, poet, musician, and scholar.
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1. LESSON PLAN: LEANNE BETASAMOSAKE SIMPSON
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson is a renowned Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg artist, musician, poet, and writer, who has been widely recognized as one of the most compelling Indigenous voices of her generation. Her work breaks open the boundaries between story and song — bringing audiences into a rich and layered world of sound, light, and sovereign creativity. Her latest album, f(l)ight, was released in 2016 via RPM Records. f(l)ight is a compelling collection of story-songs that effortlessly interweaving Simpson’s complex poetics and multi-layered stories of the land, spirit, and body with lush acoustic and electronic arrangements.
Simpson was one of New Constellations core touring artists, and she performed with her band (singer-songwriters Nick Ferrio and Ansley Simpson, and cellist Cris Derksen) at all thirteen shows. She is the author of many books of both non-fiction and stories and songs, the most recent being As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance (University of Minnesota Press, October 2017) and This Accident of Being Lost (House of Anansi Press, April 2016), which was nominated for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.
2. HIGHLIGHTED WORK
You can listen to Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s album f(l)ight at her bandcamp page here: https://leannesimpson.bandcamp.com/album/f-l-ight
You can read the poem “i am graffiti” (which is set to music on her album, above) at the Poetry In Voice website here: https://www.poetryinvoice.com/poems/i-am-graffiti
3. ARTIST INTERVIEW
What inspired you to write “under your always light”?
I love Nishnaabeg stories, songs, and storytelling and I’m really in love with our language. We have lots of stories of people escaping from things, and historically, our people have escaped a lot of things by moving deeper into the bush. I liked that concept, of escaping into Nishnaabeg worlds and I started to think about how I live that in my own life. I wanted to write something about my experience as an Indigenous woman that was a celebration of my reality and a taking back of my power, while upholding and celebrating the wider community that holds me. I wanted to address the issues of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Two Spirits, and Trans people, but I wanted to come at if from a different framing.
What advice to you have for students who want to write about difficult subjects?
It depends what you mean by “difficult subjects”. I think truth telling is very important in Indigenous writing, and even in 2018, Indigenous people’s talking and writing about our lives is “difficult” to some white people. That’s ok. It’s ok for white people to feel unsettled or upset reading Indigenous writing. For many Indigenous writers, writing our collective truths means discussing issues around violence — because violence has been such a pervasive tool Canada has used to oppress us. I always think of my Indigenous readers when I’m writing about these difficult topics — I want them to feel affirmed and lifted up, rather than triggered. I’m also profoundly not interested in writing victim narratives that place Indigenous peoples in a deficit position right from the initial framing. I’m interested in fully representing the power, the resistant of our people and our communities in my stories.
You started your career as a writer. What inspired you to begin to collaborate with musicians?
I became interested in performance as a site of resistance and as a way of building new, albeit temporary worlds. I like the idea of interacting with the energy of audiences. I became interested in writing for performance — pieces that would engage people hearing them performed only one time. I didn’t want to collaborate with musicians as a poet — I was interested in using story and voice in a way that was interwoven with music and performed live. I think that’s where the magic happens.
What inspired you to write “i am graffiti”?
I was watching the closing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and I felt angry, not reconciled. While some incredible work came out of the TRC and some survivors found solace in it, the Canadian government was not honourable and forthcoming in the TRC process, and it felt manipulative to me. If felt like this was a process to neutralize Indigenous anger without talking about returning land, sharing power, and decolonizing Canada. Canada tried to assimilate Indigenous peoples, mistakes were made, it didn’t work. I am still here. I am graffiti.
Your poem "i am graffiti" became one of the most popular selections the year it was added to the Poetry In Voice recitation contest. How did it feel knowing your work was resonating with so many young people?
It's not something I've really thought about. Memorizing someone else’s poem seems like a weird thing for someone to do. When there isn’t a contest or a teacher — left to our own devices, do people actually memorize things? Other than my own work, I think the only thing I’ve been forced to memorize were bible verses, “oh Canada” and the lord’s prayer. ‘'d be more interested in reading or listening to work that these students have written. Memorizing things isn’t really something we do within my culture.
I do like thinking about the idea of memorizing. I’ve memorized without realizing it — song lyrics, commercials, monologues from movies. What are the things my body is unconsciously memorizing and then replaying in my life over and over?
How do you memorize your own work?
I practice and practice and practice and practice. I listen to recordings of my work. I rehearse alone and with my band. I record myself and listen back.
What advice do you have for young writers who want to perform but don’t yet have a lot of confidence?
Do it anyway. Find small open mic nights or opportunities to read your work. Read it even if you are scared. Practice alone and in front of friends or family. Over time it will get easier.
What do you hope audiences will take away from experiencing your work?
I hope Indigenous peoples will be able to see themselves in my work. I hope they come out laughing, and feeling affirmed. I hope they come out inspired to make their own mark, and I hope collectively we come out closer to each other.
What does “resurgence” mean to you?
Indigenous resurgence is rebuilding our nations, communities, families, and ourselves from the inside out using our intellectual brilliance and our Indigenous ethics and practices on our own terms. It is a practice.
4. WRITING EXERCISES
Simpson’s pieces “under your always light” and “i am graffiti” were inspired by contemporary events. What is a historical event or social issue that makes you angry? How does it connect to your own personal experience? What gives you a sense of hope about this issue? Look at Simpson’s work carefully and then write a story, poem, or essay about what resilience, survival, and/or justice might look or sound like to you.
Think about the lines you’ve unconsciously memorized over your life after hearing them repeated again and again — everything from commercial jingles to song lyrics to national anthems to territorial acknowledgements. Write down everything you can think of. What do these lines tell you about the messages our bodies absorb from the language all around us? Which of these ideas do you agree with? Which ones do you reject? Pick a line that you feel the most strongly about, for or against, and write this at the top of the page. This is your title. Now write a poem arguing for or against the idea expressed in the title, making your poem as long or as short as you need to make your point.
5. NCTR'S IMAGINE A CANADA: AN INVITATION TO SHARE YOUR VISION FOR THE FUTURE
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) is calling on all young people to Imagine a Canada through the lens of Reconciliation! What is your vision of Reconciliation? What does it look like?
Imagine a Canada is an invitation for all young people, from across the country to share their own vision of what Reconciliation can be. It can be a poem, a song, a painting, a sculpture, a rap, a drawing, an essay, anything! This invitation is extended every year to ensure that young people remain a part of visioning Reconciliation in Canada. Imagine a Canada is perfect for students, from kindergarten to post-secondary, to explore both the past and our shared journey into the future. Collectively, we want to be looking into the future of Reconciliation and youth deserve to be a part of this visionary exercise. Imagine a Canada is a great way for young people to see themselves not just as concerned citizens, but as transformative citizens; to empower them to be the change they want to see in the world.
When studying work by contemporary Indigenous artists, it's important to consider Canada’s troubled relationship with First Nations and the truths about Residential School history, a context that the NCTR is dedicated to supporting in the classroom. As students learn more about this history, it is important to provide them with opportunities to contribute to change. Of course, learning truths about Residential School history can be very upsetting, and we want to continue that learning with opportunities to work towards a better future. Imagine a Canada is one such opportunity.
Friends and partners of the NCTR from across the country will help recognize and honour submissions in each region of the country and one entry from each province and territory will be selected each year to attend a national celebration of Imagine a Canada!