Thomas-Müller chronicles turmoil and triumphs in brave new memoir
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/10/2021 (303 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
According to Free Press columnist Niigaan Sinclair, there is a stark difference between settler and First Nation understandings of what it means to be a warrior. For white settlers, we tend to associate the notion with power, violence and fame; for the Anishinaabe, specifically, warrior is associated with terms like honour, protection, love, gift and heart.
Hearing and seeing Clayton Thomas-Müller for the first time in 2015, I was astounded by his courage, audacity and intellect. At a rally in Winnipeg, he took then-NDP leader Tom Mulcair to task, pulling the rug out from under his inability to take a stand on climate change. Mulcair was on the verge of potentially winning the first ever federal election for the NDP, but at the packed rally, Thomas-Müller stopped him in his tracks, revealing the leader’s superficiality and lack of social democratic roots. Mulcair was unable to articulate in any real way a plan for ensuring environmental justice for Canadians.
Standing up for Indigenous rights, the biosphere and justice has been the heart of Thomas-Müller’s work for decades. In his latest memoir, Life in the City of Dirty Water, he painfully and bravely reveals his journey through catastrophic pain, unbelievable odds and a reconnection to land, language and culture through his work defending Mother Earth.
Written in almost two parts — one consisting of childhood recollections, written in the voice of a child, and the other as he begins to engage in resistance to colonial and neoliberal forces — the memoir begins with his account of how his family was systematically ripped from the land. (Thomas-Müller grew up a member of the Treaty #6 based Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, also known as Pukatawagan, located in Northern Manitoba, and now lives in Winnipeg.)
Every step of his journey seemed to be coated with a certain degree of violence, isolation and anger. The genocidal policies of the Canadian state fundamentally changed his life forever and, as Thomas-Müller states, “My culture was slipping through my fingers.”
But after bouncing from home to home, prairie city to prairie city, and escaping a life within the Manitoba Warriors, Thomas-Müller begins connecting with various social justice organizations, including the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg, where he begins to learn to be an activist and an organizer, is mentored by elders and where his eyes begin to open up to a larger world. For Thomas-Müller, “You can’t be an Indian and not be political.”
And so following his escape from the streets of Winnipeg and youth correction centers, Thomas-Müller begins to work for Indigenous and youth organizations throughout Turtle Island and beyond, learning to support community action while fiercely engaging with the hegemonic and corporate forces which collude to govern and extract jointly. Not deterred by the constant struggle of being outgunned, Thomas-Müller develops a keen and focused path: “…a warrior is defined by the struggle… It is his purpose.”
As he recounts his entry into his life as a land and water defender, Thomas-Müller connects more and more with the land, his Cree culture and his own healing. His honesty about his mistakes and the pain he has caused others is a beautiful cautionary tale for all of us — that life is not a binary transition from bad to good, or vice versa. The human condition is complex, in a state of flux.
Throughout the memoir Thomas-Müller admits to and confronts his rage: “I was angry. I was hard.” His anger manifested itself from a tough childhood marshalled from a loss of connection with his land, language and people coupled with generations of trauma.
And the anger was, and is, inevitable. “I saw violence and broken lives when I looked around downtown Winnipeg,” Thomas-Müller writes. “I saw communities systemamtically robbed all over Turtle Island. I saw the land itself raped and plundered. Who wouldn’t be angry?”
But as he grew and has grown, elders, his partner and now his two sons have helped focus his tremendous work with 350.org and communities all over the world. As he explains, “anger is not enough if what you want is justice.”
His memoir is an artefact of transformation — a transformation of a hardened youth who endured more tragedy and danger than most of us can imagine into a defender of people, land and the notion that all species and systems are connected.
For Thomas-Müller, this transformation is still ongoing, one in which, he writes, “I convert my anger into love.”
And it is this love that situates him back on the land, back dancing and connecting back to what it means to be Cree. Despite the anger, violence and isolation, Thomas-Müller continues to embody what it means to be a warrior: “Warriors are not defined by fighting. They are defined by fighting for.”
Matt Henderson is assistant superintendent of Seven Oaks School Division.