THE MEND: Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s Noopiming: The Cure For White Ladies

by Cody Caetano

Cody Caetano is an Anishinaabe and Portuguese writer. His debut memoir, Half-Bads in White Regalia, is due out in spring 2022 with Penguin Canada’s Hamish Hamilton imprint. He lives in Toronto.

Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
House of Anansi
2020, 368 pp., $22.95

On the cover of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies, a kwe’s back bleeds beadwork onto icy sheets. The artist, Rebecca Belmore, whose work also covered Betasamosake Simpson’s This Accident of Being Lost, reads this wound as a “wound that is on the mend.”

If Noopiming is anything, it is a new mend for longstanding wounds. Prefaced on the jacket as a “response” to Susanna Moodie’s vintage bush-crafting mishaps in 19th Century Ontario, Noopiming: The Cure For White Ladies exchanges Moodie’s pioneer visions of the land as a site of extraction and adventure for a striking and fierce celebration of the Nishnaabeg and their pursuit of Mino Bimaadiziwin.

Divided into ten parts, Noopiming opens with “Solidification,” an eerie prologue that seeps forth from narrator Mashkawaji, who lies dormant under a blanket of ice, “visiting” a lake of trout and pickerel after “tragedy happened again.” Having reached a breaking point where “[t]he details don’t matter because the details are hopeless, overwhelmed, shut down,” Mashkawaji’s opaque entrance reveals one of two readers: the patient and the impatient (depending on whether the reader seeks an easy-bake-oven of a book). From below the lake, Mashkawaji acclimates to a “condition of expanse,” hearing song above them. But before readers have time to ask questions, the Nishinaabeg form a chorus of seven: elders Akiwenzii (“my will”) and Mindimooyenh (“my conscience”), maple tree Ninaatig (“my lungs”), caribou Adik (my nervous system”), the giant Sabe (“my marrow”), and not-elders Lucy (“my brain”) and Asin (“my eyes and ears”), not to mention the many Nishnaabeg who appear during Mashkawaji’s narration.

If Noopiming is anything, it is a new mend for longstanding wounds.

The book is set up so the name of a character hangs bolded above sections of concise prose, making sustained pauses that allow readers to reflect on the Nishnaabeg in question. The stories are blended, so while one story might name Adik at its surface, below it is really a story about Ninaatig. And despite references to “Numbnuts,” “the mean post office lady,” a director general of Indian Affairs (“who looks like he’s lived in Ottawa for too long”), and other Zhaganash, they linger only as peripheral outliers within the novel, despite their impact on the land.

There is no foam puff floating in Noopiming’s cup of Joe. Readers get the verisimilitude they pay for: while the humans think Sabe is “off doing something important,” Sabe is really just working on Sabe, staying sober and living as a foundry for human waste, making accidental art shows from derelict toilets and sinks and repurposing plastic water bottles to create what the still-living “Nishnaabeg-that-stayed” call “the Air-Bnb,” (a timely jab at the currently struggling Zhaganash industry); Asin works in radio, lives in the city, keeps a bird feeder on their apartment’s fire escape, and watches Youtube videos of fire to fall asleep; Akiwenzii travels to Kinomagewapkong on National Indigenous People’s Day (as it is “the only place they can sleep more than 2 hours in a row”) to carve “(C2H4)N,” (or Polyethelyne) into the face of the rocks; Lucy “fashioned the ribs” of their lodge off Akiwenzii’s hunting property out of wire frames “from when Sean Conway ran for the NDP” (115), a repurposing detail; Adik reclaims a Fjallraven Kånken backpack and dances at the Jeneen Frei Njootli Artspace; Ninaatig runs a hand-out network and travels around the land with a shopping cart and a jar of soil, existing “in the sky and earth and the present” (111); Mindimooyenh drives to American Wal-mart for abortion pills and Rogaine and code switches to get over the border and into Robarts, dressing up like a white lady to research neuroplasticity, “which the Zhaganash only recently found out about.” The paths taken by those in Noopiming firmly assert present tenseness while never letting one narrative or meaning take precedent over another. This multi-layered approach deepens through textual echoes and repetition.

The repetition not only encourages readers to learn what these words mean, but also allows them to learn them within the context of Mashkawaji’s story …

Noopiming uses these repetitions to counter the problems and challenges that face the incoming generations of Nishnaabeg. As taught by Mindimooyenh, repetition generates neuro-pathways and “ceremony strengthens the prefrontal cortex.” And not to be that guy, but I recorded at least 45 separate uses of Anishinaabemowin within Noopiming, a feat that feels deep-rooted yet fresh, apt yet futurist. Sometimes the Anishinaabemowin is essential: animals, places, or food (Bineshiinyag, Giigoonh, Aanakwad, or Waawaashkeshi). Other places temporal words appear (Ziigwan, Baama Apii). But no matter what, every time Anishinaabemowin is used by Mashkawaji, the reader is made more familiar with the language. The repetition not only encourages readers to learn what these words mean, but also allows them to learn them within the context of Mashkawaji’s story, using new signifiers instead of sticking to the ones they may already know. Doing so allows readers to process differences in meaning (between birds and Bineshiinyag, for instance). Noopiming’s dialectal paradigm will welcome fluent speakers but also will appeal to any Anishinaabemowin newbies. Bougie Kwe googles “Nimaamaa ko ogii-nookizwaan iniw esibanan.” There is no stopping curious readers from doing the same.

As a writer, Simpson is an iceberg: world-changing and hanging above the surface. In Noopiming, Simpson lays out new phrasings that are a great big boozhoo to readers craving inventions in English, too. To Mindimooyenh, the weather rockets to “feels-like-38 degrees celsius” and anachronistic Tumblr-era lingos slot into the thoughts of spirits (“Adik’s favourite sound is ten thousand hooves hitting the ice. Imagine. You can’t even.”). Painful honesty and harsh truths get tossed in the “do-not-say bin,” things get “loved right off,” and don’t forget about “because because.” To Mindimooyenh, canoeing allows one to function, and “over the course of your life you became good at it or became dead at it” (173). Noopiming also reveals how some characters consider the thinking of others, so readers pick up on Akiwenzii’s silent razzing after Mashkawaji’s trite if earnest metaphor. And though the briefest of clichés appear, (a “heart sinks,” the Dr. Ho’s Circulation Promoter is “worth its weight in gold,” the act of paddling seen as “a means to an end” to Mindimooyenh), they present as intentional and genuine expressions from the characters who think and feel them.

All the Nishnaabeg, from the seven first introduced to the reader in the beginning to Esibanag and the Nishnaabeg-that-stayed, share a relational approach to understanding. Mashkawaji dedicates entire pages listing single moments or lists of special things the characters value. For Sabe, it is flat cedar, sweetgrass, and tobacco; for Adik, it is a catalogue to Jeneen Frei Njootli, a tin of spruce gum for their hooves, and voice recorder; for Akiwenzii, it is a claw of eagle wrapped in red cloth, flint and steel, and a hunting knife. Mashkawaji holds reverence for these things not necessarily because they help move the plot along more smoothly, but because Mashkawaji knows these items are precious to the Nishnaabeg. It is also a delight to read that Ninaatig rubs Asin’s back after birdwatching and to see the birds come for tea and catch up with each other. Lucy lives in a lodge at the back of Akiwenzii’s property, and Akiwenzii has a plan “to get Asin out of city” once and for all. Collectively, these moments promote Noopiming as a work of significant caretaking.

While many of the threads are left unsatisfied, there are certain threads that especially do not make any concessions that may feel unsatisfying to some readers, in that they don’t participate in reconciliatory gesturing. But suggesting that Noopiming refutes compromise does not keep one from wondering what exactly happened in Dawson City any less. But that’s okay, because that’s how Mashkawaji tells this story. But more importantly, the lack of exposition makes Noopiming a novel that readers will be keen to revisit as their life passes.

… the Nishinaabeg approach one of the most critical responsibilities of their time: the gap between the older and younger Nishinaabeg …

While sometimes not giving enough detail, Noopiming also gives too much, providing excellent, superfluous details about stuff: details of prices, clauses from Toronto’s fire code, descriptions of a recorder from Best Buy (159 hours and rechargeable), Wikipedia entries, exact measurements of Certified Value tarps, Fabricland sewciety members card, and so on. All this extraneous detail sure does make Raccoon Sensing Spray Blaster 59.60 from Lee Valley Express Shipping line up nicely with Bruce Bagemihl, PhD, author of Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, from which Asin rips pages in response to the truism that “…anthropologists, even bird anthropologists, generally get most things wrong and anthropology is always more about your own bias than the thing you are studying.”

Throughout Noopiming, the Nishinaabeg approach one of the most critical responsibilities of their time: the gap between the older and younger Nishinaabeg (as Lucy notes, “no one on the reserve remembers how to tan hides with brains.”), the transmission of knowledge from the geese to the goslings. Akiwenzii and Mindimooyenh are getting older and unable to move through the bush as before. They have doubts, too: Akiwenzii sees Lucy as “a bad shot” because her eyes are ruined by screens; the elder geese “find it nearly impossible to convince these goslings that it is important to train your neuropathways to cope with crisis, trauma, and danger on their own.” And so seeded throughout Noopiming are teachings: the “sneak lesson,” the “important practice,” what “Mindimooyenh says.” Adik records the gorge, or “the sound of water carving out rock…the language of the past talking to the present…the sound of hope.”

Noopiming is a naming ceremony, a starblanket, a bold rendering of “brain as ecosystem,” new teaching methods and lessons for the next generation, seminal and meaningful language revitalization, and a web of relatives and repetitions that give Anishinaabe across the land uninhibited and self-determining visions of good living. It is a nascent gauge of the world to be and the world that is, proof that despite all the bad, “there are still stars.”



Cody Caetano is an Anishinaabe and Portuguese writer. His debut memoir, Half-Bads in White Regalia, is due out in spring 2022 with Penguin Canada’s Hamish Hamilton imprint. He lives in Toronto.

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