I’m Rebecca Carroll and this is Come Through: 15 essential conversations about race in a pivotal year for America.
Like probably a lot of other kids who grew up during the 80s, I’m still slightly traumatized by the 1983 TV movie, The Day After. For many folks in my generation, it was our first glimpse at what a nuclear attack might look like, and it was absolutely terrifying.
The film tells the story of a handful of people in small-town Kansas who endure a full-on nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the scene of the missiles hitting is unforgettable. Warning sirens blare. People scramble for basements and underground cover. And then there’s this shot of these giant, fiery mushroom clouds billowing upwards in the sky… and the blast surges through windows and homes and buildings, incinerating every human in its path. In a flash, bodies become skeletons. Somehow a few Kansans manage to survive. But obviously their world is devastated.
It seems like each generation has an apocalypse story. The generation before mine had Francis Ford Coppola’s movie Apocalypse Now — which was, of course, adapted from Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness. That film is about an Army captain’s journey into madness during the Vietnam War. It’s a sort of psychological apocalypse. But for me, the concept of an apocalypse — a cataclysmic disaster, or end of days — has always been tied to something physical, huge, where everything and everyone is just taken out. And that’s it. The end.
But what if we looked at the idea of an apocalypse differently? What if the end of days was actually the culmination of systemic choices and policies, topped off by a deadly virus we weren’t prepared for? Maybe what we’re experiencing right now:
Protests against the murder of George Floyd, fueled by decades of police violence against Black people, the cratering economy and start of a recession — all during a pandemic that is disproportionately killing Black and Brown people —maybe this is the apocalypse.
And if it is, can we survive it?
A lot of folks don’t realize that there is an entire community of people who have already survived an apocalypse… who have seen all this before: Indigenous and First Nations people.
Waubgeshig Rice, who generally goes by Waub, is a Canadian journalist and author from the Wasauksing First Nation, who grew up in an Anishinaabe community. His bestselling 2018 novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow, tells the story of an Anishinaabe community living in a fictionalized part of Canada. They’re forced to navigate an unforeseeable collapse and then adapt to dystopian surroundings.
Originally, I invited Waub to come through for a conversation about climate change. But then I was also eager to hear his thoughts about what we can learn from the experience of Indigenous people. We actually recorded this interview back in mid-April, in the throes of the pandemic and quarantine — and listening back to it now, what he had to say feels all the more poignant, even as we emerge from our homes.
Here’s our conversation.
Rebecca: You know, apocalyptic themes, Waub, are pretty heavy.
Rebecca: When did you first become sort of curious, or interested, in even the concept of apocalypse?
Waubgeshig: It would have had to been in high school, I think in English class, you know, reading books like, um, The Chrysalis or Lord of the Flies, Brave New World Fahrenheit 451. More so, like, the dystopian stories that pick up after a world ended kinda thing. And I, I always thought they were really interesting. Like, it was really intriguing to sort of flip what current life was upside down and figure out what the human response to a new sort of realm would be as a result of a world ending kind of thing. And being into metal, like, if you think of a song like, uh, Run To The Hills by Iron Maiden, that's totally an apocalyptic tune. Right? It's about the world ending for Indigenous people on this land. Right? And that's like an anthem that's been a big part of my life since I was a teenager, I guess you could say. Like, the heavy metal perspective obviously goes to arc in a lot of ways and talks about, you know, despair and, and, you know, re-imagining your sort of situation as a human being all the while, like, with this foundation of really powerful, loud, heavy music, you know, which is just sort of, you know, it gets you, I guess, physically into some of that thinking.
Rebecca: And so how would you actually define the word "apocalyptic" or describe an apocalypse?
Waub: That's interesting because I’ve thought of this a lot since we've been going through the pandemic. And you could even, I guess, I don't want to call it a mild apocalypse, but, like, this is definitely a world-ending event, right? Like the world we knew a month and a half ago isn't going to exist anymore. We are not going back to that at all. We are going to emerge from this, whenever that happens, uh, in a new sort of era, in a new world altogether. So in some senses, yeah, I think that is an apocalypse. Um, and, uh, I think death, destruction, um, really world-ending violence is, I think, a key part of some of that. And that's what Indigenous people have endured basically all over the world. You know, being displaced, having plagues set upon them, having children forcefully removed, you know, uh, having culture made illegal and with violent consequences to practicing culture and that kind of thing. So I guess I can only really speak to it from an Indigenous perspective, in that it is already part of the indigenous experience, the ending of a world.
Rebecca: For sure. You know, the, the initial plan was for me to talk with you about climate change, of course. Um, then the coronavirus hits. Um, how are you thinking about climate change? I mean, we're all pivoting, right? We're all sort of re-prioritizing issues and family and work and how to be within this moment and move forward. And so how are you thinking about climate change right now?
Waub: Yeah, it's interesting. You know, it's really hard to look beyond what we're going through right now and try to imagine what the new normal is going to look like by the time we get there and I think hopefully, you know, it will provide people generally with that perspective of just how tenuous things are, and maybe that will give them a better understanding of climate change and what the threat really is. Because I think what's happening is people from so-called marginalized communities, um, know what it's like to have that sort of tenuous hold on life and just know that the world can end at any time if it hasn't already. Right? If a world ending event hasn't already happened within your community or your culture's history, we know that it's really shaky, that, you know, things could fall apart at basically any minute, right? And the dominant sort of mainstream majority is finally understanding just how close they are to chaos, essentially, and to destruction. And hopefully by having that perspective going through this Covid-19 crisis they will understand just how dire the situation is from a climate perspective.
Rebecca: So we're both parents. And ‘cause I was trying to explain to my kid, who is 14, the difference between a global crisis that is a virus and a global crisis that is of the earth. And I couldn't figure out, really, the best way to explain that because they're both happening, but at different speeds. Right?
Waub: Yeah. Yeah. That's tough. You know, from our perspective, as Indigenous people, we have seen how the climate has changed as a result of capitalism and colonialism. You know, like, within my own family's experience, the number of people that I have descended from, used to travel along the north shore of Georgian Bay since time immemorial. Right? That was just how they lived. They went to certain parts of the shore or the land, depending on the season, depending on the food that was available and so on. But by the time the wheels were in motion to settle this new colony, which would become Canada, certain treaties and certain legislations were interpreted to me, that, you know, my ancestors couldn't do that anymore. They couldn't travel along the north shore of Georgian Bay and where my reserve is, it's on an island. So they interpreted the treaty to say, “Okay, Anishinaabek used to travel here, they have to go to this island now.” It's a big rock on Georgian Bay essentially. And you can't farm on there. There's limited wildlife, unlimited resources. Right? And the idea was sort of out of sight, out of mind. Like, ‘get the Indians out of the way and let them sort themselves out’ kind of thing. Right? So the reason that happened was, uh, the logging industry moved into where the town of Parry Sound, Ontario is. The trees were all cut down, industry became established there and so on. And I talked to my grandmother about this, who has since passed away. She would tell me that that was her grandparents' generation that endured that. Right? That sort of displacement and that exploitation of the land, and that was the end of their world. You know, that was an apocalypse for them. And everything now is essentially a dystopia, right? Like they're trying to live through their world having ended and picking up the pieces to put everything back together and try to create some sort of culture and viable community and so on.
Rebecca: You were saying that when the world's sort of ended, as it was known for your grandmother and her peers and family, and now they're trying to pick up or after that it was trying to pick up the pieces. I mean, I feel like that's what makes the culture what it is. Is there an argument to be made that the culture gets stronger in the face of dystopia?
Waub: In some ways, yes, but there's already been so much lost, right? Like, Indigenous languages by and large are hanging by a thread and up here in Canada they only estimate that three of the sort of five or six dozen that are spoken nowadays are going to survive into the next century. So I think, yeah, to some degree there's resistance there, right? There's going back to the culture and being proud of it and making sure we can make it thrive again. That's a very proud point for sure. But we don't necessarily have the resources to become fluent in our languages again. Um, and there is the potential that that could be lost forever. So the spirit is not as strong, but there is hope there, right, still. And I think that can't be disregarded whatsoever. If you think about the efforts that certain people made while all these things were ongoing, it's hugely impressive and it's really pride-inducing because, you know, the governments of Canada made culture illegal, and made, you know, gatherings illegal. Um, there are all sorts of things that Indigenous people couldn't do under a law that was called the Indian act, right? That still exists today, that still governs Indigenous people in Canada.
Rebecca: Wait, what was the Indian Act?
Waub: Um, so what happened is, there would be an Indian agent, what was called an Indian agent in every community who would uphold the Indian Act, right? Who would enforce those laws. So people would try to hold ceremony or do cultural activities while the Indian agent was either asleep or away for some reason. So you hear about ceremonies, like sweat lodges happening at midnight. Right? When the Indian agent was off shift. So those are really cool moments to think about, and the potential sacrifices people were making. Like they're risking their lives in many ways to do these things. And then you hear about, you know, children who were forced to go to residential school, who would meet up behind the school to whisper their language to each other, just to make sure that they remembered it when they left. If they were heard speaking it, they would be beaten. Right? And just efforts like that. It's really heartwarming to think about what people did to ensure that we have still some connections and some cultural elements that we can incorporate into our lives. But there's still a long way to go, I think, and I think that the language is the most important part for sure.
That's Waub Rice. More with him, in just a minute.
Rebecca: So let's talk a little bit about your 2018 book, um, Moon of the Crusted Snow, which has been described as a view of the climate change apocalypse through an Indigenous lens. It's about a remote Indigenous community in Northern Ontario that's further cut off from the world after a mysterious blackout. And then after this brutal winter, a white visitor arrives on the reservation one day.
Waub: Yeah. And quite honestly, you know, I think the story itself wasn't explicitly about climate change. It was more or less about a community sort of enduring a mysterious catastrophe and having to start over once again, as they had after they'd been colonized and displaced. Right? So the climate itself obviously is a major challenge because it's a community that's set in far Northern Ontario that's, uh, remote access, you know, flying-only with an ice road, um, making it accessible in the wintertime. But what happens is this unusual, brutally early, I guess, winter sets in, which exacerbates sort of the crisis that they're already enduring. And it sort of forces the people in this community to really make some tough choices as they're trying to navigate through not only like a widespread blackout, but these strange visitors coming up from the city to try to, I guess, move in and settle in the community and impose their will upon the people. So I guess climate change is more of a backdrop in the story, but it's inescapable, right? Like, we hear of all kinds of stories about Northern communities dealing with a changing climate, becoming, uh, less accessible because the ice roads, um, are only operational during shorter and shorter windows because of a warming winters and so on, and, um, just migrating wildlife, which you know, would have been relied upon for eating. I guess just putting the spotlight on a Northern community really sort of ensures that readers are aware of some of those issues, including climate change. Right? And including colonialism, including second and third waves of colonialism in some ways too.
Rebecca: For sure. How does that come through the characters that you developed?
Waub: You know, the characters in the story are, each one is not directly based on a person reality. Right? And I think each is an amalgam of some of the elements of humanity that I saw when I was growing up in a community that was trying to find a way to heal and at the end of the day, I keep coming back to hope. Like there are these moments of resilience that are really, I guess, beacons for other people to sort of follow and become really inspirational. And, when I was writing Moon of the Crusted Snow, I wanted to sort of show a post-apocalyptic story through an Indigenous lens. I thought back to a lot of the so-called classic, uh, apocalyptic or dystopian stories that I read growing up. And as much as I love them all, I still do. They're hugely inspirational to me. Not many of them, like, they were all about that death and destruction. Right? And that was sort of the, the final messaging, of these stories was that, you know, this is how bad it could get, just be mindful of that kind of thing, and that's what I sort of always took away from them. Uh, even though I really liked them, as sort of stories. Uh, but I never really saw anything about, you know, building community or looking to your neighbors and trying to find a way to establish some kind of future once everything settles down, once this world-ending event is over and everybody has to start over, kind of thing. Right? And that's what I sort of wanted to reflect in these characters in the Moon of the Crusted Snow, is that they have that perspective of surviving apocalypse already, and they have the tools to rebuild. It's just a matter of how long it's going to take and what the external factors are that may hold them back. And in the case of Moon of the Crusted Snow, it's white people from the city who come up, right, who sort of start to impose their will upon the community.
Rebecca: One of the things that I think about a lot is that, you know, you're, you're talking about the rich culture and resilience of Indigenous communities and I feel that very much about Black folks and the legacy of Black Americans in America. And I just, I know the answer, but I keep thinking, like, white people - Why would you not just defer to us and let us do everything? Like, let us just make sure that everything is fine because we have the tools.
Waub: Yeah. I don't know. Maybe that's part of being that dominant sector of society and being used to it, right? Like, being used to being the sort of, uh, I guess template of humanity in your own eyes and so not really understanding what it's like to be outside of your comfort zone. And being at the center of all discussions and all decisions and all communities and all governments and basically everything else. I guess it's hard to give up that control for some people. I think there's been some widespread gaslighting that's been part of, like, some official governments, uh, manipulation of Indigenous people in that, a lot of Indigenous cultures and nations didn't really understand that that's what they endured for a couple of generations until, you know, it was clear that culture wasn't going to be totally erased and that people were going to be able to reclaim things and make those connections once again and become fully aware of who they are as Indigenous people. That's when a lot of people I think really understood what had happened to them. And I've seen that happen, like, within my own family, you know, with people, you know, refusing to accept that, you know, we are sort of a subordinated, oppressed people. Um, that we are distinct as a culture. Like, I know a lot of people in older generations who were gaslighted into thinking, “Okay, you know, that old way of life was wrong and was evil and we were bad as Indians before. So we should have been like white people all along.” And that's part of the design, right, of these oppressive systems is to make people believe those things after they've been abused. But now people are becoming more aware of what really happened in this country and, and what's happened basically in colonized countries all over the world.
Rebecca: And that, I think, is what's so really super interesting and pointed to me, is that those of us who were not supposed to be here in the plan of America and the America that the current president is trying to return to. You know, there's still this sense of, you know, I use the word “resilience” a lot, probably too much, but it's in us, right? It's in who we are and the way that we breathe. It's in our bone marrow in a way, and it's about kind of accessing that, but not faulting, I guess, folks who aren't able to. I really struggle with that myself. But you, it seems that you exercise a bit more generosity with folks who are like, “Yeah, we were terrible and we should, you know, we should never have been here.” I mean, how does that work?
Waub: Yeah. I don't know. I think it could be, um, you know, having grown up with, you know, that awareness and being fortunate to have had parents and people of that generation, ensuring that, you know, us kids who grew up in our community knew what the true history was. And I would probably, well, I do give a lot of credit to my white family for that perspective as well. And, you know, I know a lot of other, uh, mixed race people who are Indigenous and, and whites. Uh, a lot of my friends, a lot of my colleagues, who have had much different experiences than I did growing up. You know, they dealt with a lot more racism within their family, uh, because if they're the same age as me, you know, I'm 40, uh, and a little bit older, that was, it's very rare back in like the 1960s and 70s, and even in the 80s, to have a Indigenous and non-Indigenous people come together to create families, right? I think what comes with that is a lot of traditional Anishinaabek teachings really drive home that sort of humility and that empathy, right? And I think, ideally, when you're raised with the culture and what it was supposed to be, you're aware that you're not better than anyone just because you know that stuff. Right? And so even though, you know, in our community back in the 1980s, when I was just a little kid and we were learning some of these things, you know, even though we're in the minority, we never believed that we were better or sort of more aware than anybody else because we knew that. Like, the Indigenous experience is a spectrum, right? Like, there's no sort of, uh, set sort of black and white way to be an Indigenous person, you know? And there are all kinds of different paths back to wherever you need to be as an Indigenous person. And you could have endured colonialism to a worse degree than somebody else in your own community, right? Like, nobody from my immediate family went to residential school, but there are still relatives like second, third cousins of mine whose parents did. You know, and their upbringings were much different than mine. It's heartbreaking to know that you have those, I guess, really diverse paths and experiences to healing.
Rebecca: As I was preparing for this conversation, I kept thinking, “Won’t we all just adapt?” I mean, isn't that what all of humanity has always and ever done throughout history, is adapt? I mean, we've suffered and survived all manner of wars and terror and violence. Why is, first of all, climate change, but also this pandemic, which you know is worrisome, very worrisome and scary, but why is that any different? Do you believe that we will adapt or we won't come out the other side?
Waub: Well, the hopeful part of me does, but, you know, there are so many glaring examples of what some of the wider deficiencies are in terms of, you know, that's not only skills to adopt and survive, but I guess just the understanding and the incentive to work together to create something good. You know, that is seriously lacking in a lot of parts of the land. And that is illustrated on a pretty regular basis by what we see on social media and some of the divisions happening there. Right? And you mentioned the leader of, you know, the United States really driving those divides much deeper. You know, I hope that we can, but, like, there are glaring examples of how we can't.
Rebecca: Waub, we're asking people for this podcast about essential conversations. So what would you say is the essential conversation people should be having about climate change at large, but also about Indigenous culture and folk and insight and experience and history?
Waub: I think the essential conversation people should be having is asking themselves and the people around them what their relationship is with the land that they live on and what's really happening at this particular moment is this crisis has really highlighted the disconnect, not only between humans and the land that we live on, but also our abilities, you know, um, with all the panic-buying that's been having happening. Uh, people are slowly starting to understand that they are reliant on food coming from elsewhere, whereas there is food in the land around them if they really worked hard enough and tried to make that connection. Right? So yeah, I think people should be asking themselves, you know, what they're able to do on the land and how they're able to sustain it and how they're able to work with each other to make a good life and a good community on the land. Right? Um, because as an Anishinaabek, we've always believed we were part of the land, and we have a reciprocal relationship. If we take something from the land, we have to give back. But that is really contradicted by, I guess, colonialism and capitalism, you know, which are inherently rooted in exploiting the land and taking from the land and setting up, uh, exploitative sort of measures on the land and pushing people away from the land and so on and so forth. So I just want people to ask themselves what they're doing on the land and how they relate to it and what they can do better as humans, working and living with the land.
Rebecca: Waub, thank you so much.
Waub: Rebecca, this has been a huge pleasure. Thank you very much for having me. This has been really fun.
Rebecca: Me too, a joy. Thank you.
That’s Waubgeshig Rice. He's @waub on Twitter.
Christina Djossa produces the show, with editing by Anna Holmes, Jenny Lawton, and Tracie Hunte. Our technical director is Joe Plourde, and the music is by Isaac Jones. Special thanks to Jennifer Sanchez.
And I want to give a very super special shout-out to Joanna Solotaroff - our senior producer. Joanna’s moving on to a very exciting position at Conan O'Brien’s podcast company. I cannot wait to listen to what she makes. Joanna brought buckets of heart and intellectual rigor and joy to our team, and we could not have made this work without her. Joanna, I will miss working with you so much.
I’m Rebecca Carroll - you can follow me on Twitter @Rebel19 for all things Come Through - and - if you liked the show, please rate and review us. Thanks so much.