In 1876, the Canadian parliament passed the Indian Act, a sweeping piece of legislation that still dictates how the government interacts with the First Nations bands indigenous to the country and legally defines Indian status and band membership. Though heavily amended over the years, the Indian Act initially included policies that disenfranchised Indigenous women who married outside their band, stripping them and their children of Indian status and restricting their access to native communities and traditional land. In the early 90s, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s grandmother and mother regained their Indian status after the passage of Bill C-31, and Simpson and several other family members followed in 2011 upon the passage of Bill C-3; Simpson’s grandmother had been born in Alderville First Nation, and they all became recognized as off-reserve members of that band. By then, Simpson had become a prominent scholar, poet, and activist of the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg people, also known as the Mississauga Ojibwe people, whose territory includes the north shore of Lake Huron (and two Alderville First Nation reserves). Her work, which includes several books, four records, and many academic papers, addresses contemporary Indigenous life and intellectual practices (such as resistance to cultural appropriation and environmental degradation) and describes her quest to reconnect with traditions from which she’d been largely cut off in her youth.
On her new album, Theory of Ice, Simpson blends spoken word and singing with quiet, unhurried, and sometimes otherworldly folk rock provided by a band that includes her sister, Ansley Simpson. On opening track “Break Up,” Simpson speaks of slowly morphing states of being, trading off hushed poetry and soft singing over twinkling synths and warm keys. Some of the lyrics from Theory of Ice also appear in her poetic 2020 novel Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies, which features a narrator who appears in an iced-over lake. In “OK Indicts,” which combines a driving beat, pensive acoustic guitars, and sun-speckled electronics, that narrator bears witness to the beauty of time slipping by (“the sky is falling up”) and the destruction of nature (“melted by greed”) while frozen in place. On “I Pity the Country,” a cover of the 1973 protest song by musician and filmmaker Willie Dunn, Simpson sets powerful lyrics about the impacts of bigotry and institutional racism against soft, twangy guitar. Though the song reckons with Dunn’s experience as an Indigenous man living in white-dominated Canada, by the time a chorus joins Simpson in its final section, its message feels universal and timeless. Simpson’s own takes on daily life, relationships, and the interconnectedness of people, nature, tradition, and spirituality all reach us through an Indigenous lens, but the fuel for resistance they provide can teach anyone. v