Posts from en route - plane, train, café

Posts from en route - plane, train, café

Edmonton, AB and Moncton, NB, Canada; Easton, MA and Cambridge, MA, USA - March and April 2024

Edmonton, Alberta and Moncton, New Brunswick March 13-14, 2024

I felt done with Canada this week, “Canada,” which I do not conflate with the land. I had my first acute moment of understanding what Indigenous critics mean when they say “Canada isn’t a country; it’s a resource extraction company.”

On Wednesday, March 13 at 1 a.m. I was on an Air Canada flight bound for Montreal where I was due to catch a 7 a.m. connection to Moncton, New Brunswick. We were taxiing to the runway at Edmonton International Airport (YEG). I was falling asleep in Business Class when a flight attendant suddenly and alarmingly commanded over the intercom: “Sit down! All passengers must be seated! We are moving.” Or something similar. I looked around. A white-looking guy, muscle bound and tatted up, unshaven, and in jeans, a t-shirt, and work boots staggered to the front of the plane. He fell sideways toward me in my seat. “What the fuck? Get off!” I pushed him back. He continued staggering to the bathroom and opened the door. The flight attendant yelled at him to sit down. He turned around to look at her and promptly passed out on the floor. The flight attendants collectively gasped or screamed and jumped into action. We were going back to the gate, of course. His similarly attired companion—the plane was 3/4 full with these guys—presumably oil workers? The plane, both business class and economy was raucous with them. Many of them had clearly been drinking a lot. A colleague told me that she’s been on many flights with these guys flying out of the north where Canadian companies suck everything out of the ground. They are known to drink their way across the country. I wonder now about the workers in their world who don’t do this harder living. How do they manage in the middle of this? And how long do these guys last in this kind of life?

Two hours we sat in that plane waiting for medics to arrive, and then more waiting while they assessed the guy. The work-boot men continued to animate the situation with their noise. One was complaining in the front row, not about his co-worker’s bad behaviour, but about how long it was taking the ground and airline crew to do the incident paperwork so we could try again to leave. He almost got thrown off by the fed-up flight attendant. I was hoping for some flight attendant kick-butt action. But he shut his mouth when she told him he could get off too, that he was annoying her. Inebriated guy, who stirred after 5-or-so minutes and a lot of nudging by the flight attendants, managed to crawl into a seat. He then tried to argue, head in hands, that he was fine now and could stay on the plane. Of course, he couldn’t stay. There are rules about that. He was finally escorted off by the medical team. The plane was absolutely quiet. I thought “What planet am I on?” Planet Canada. Lots of things bug me about the US, but if that plane were in Chicago or Dallas or Sacramento, drunk guy who delayed us until 3 a.m. and assured our next day’s misfortune would have been booed and then cheered off the plane. Good riddance! Nearly nine years in Canada and a lot of things, I just don’t get.

We finally left Edmonton at 3 a.m. I fell immediately asleep and woke a few hours later during the business class breakfast being eaten with beer by the men all around me. We arrived in Montreal to chaos at the customer service counter. Many of us missed connections. I had to fly into a different city in order to get to my talk destination in New Brunswick. My bag didn’t make it, of course. I had to attire myself out of the Champlain Mall in Moncton, New Brunswick where it would be a lot easier to find an outfit to go to a high school dance (crop top, faux ripped jeans, and sparkly sneakers?) than to outfit a 55 year-old woman who had to give an academic talk. Luckily there was a Sport Chek, where I finally found flared yoga pants, black and white runners, and a long-sleeved plain, but good quality black knit top. I probably looked like a well-pressed coach. I could do worse.

April 21, Easton Massachusetts (Stonehill College) and Cambridge, Massachusetts

I stopped writing at that point in my New Brunswick trip since I had a busy visit to Mt. Allison University, a small liberal arts-type college in rural New Brunswick. I loved spending time with Mi’kmaq staff, students, and faculty and others at the college. I had some fantastic salmon there too. I felt warmly welcomed and my talk was well-attended with many genuine questions, not all easy to answer. There was no academic grandstanding.

These smaller colleges have distinctly different academic cultures than do the big research universities. I have found that while I have always worked in big research universities—being oriented more toward research and program building than to teaching—that I mostly enjoy visiting the smaller colleges. The conversations with both students and faculty are more joyful and curious to best describe it off the top of my head. The bigger and especially more prestigious research university audiences speak very seriously, with less curiosity; they tend to poke and pry more.

I found that also at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, where I gave a keynote a couple of days ago at an undergraduate conference on race and ethnicity. I have two hats on being back in Massachusetts: 1) my nostalgic self who lived here from the ages of 20-26, such formative years; and 2) my anthropological self. I never went to Easton that I recall and certainly not to the small liberal arts college with the red brick buildings and less-cynical-than-usual undergraduate students. But the air felt familiar. The accents of locals were also comfortably familiar, as well as the partly grey spring skies, turnpike traffic, and triple deckers or colonial houses lining the streets depending on the neighborhood. At Stonehill this week, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to more than two dozen undergraduate research presentations over the course of one-and-a-half days. I could tell they were well-mentored; their presentations were tight. The young researchers were also collegial with one another, modeling for other academics how to encourage while asking challenging intellectual questions. I was impressed and touched.   

Perhaps very different things are at stake in these different academic cultures—small college versus big research university—thus the very different styles of relating intellectually? In theory, I prefer a joyful curiosity more than a poking intellectualism. But I am also thinking about a paper I peer reviewed for a journal recently—a paper like no other I’ve ever had to review. It was truly alarming in its insidiously anti-tribal governance propositions while written as if it were chiefly concerned with protecting tribal sovereignty. I was not joyful or curious in my response. The Native Studies intellectual world in which I am centered is not chiefly about joyful curiosity, although I personally feel those things frequently when I think and write. Many of us do, I am sure. And I do hear from many people as I travel around the world that my work has been edifying for them. I’m grateful for their words. But as I’ve written elsewhere, I came to research in order to support and defend Native sovereignty in our territories and societies, and that involves a persistent and often more assertive curiosity.

As I write today, I am sitting in a nice little café next to the MIT Museum on what used to be the backside of campus, which has hugely developed since I was here. There is an older European couple sitting across from me in their affluent-Sunday-casual. They are debating back-and-forth while looking at their phones about which flight to Zurich they need to book for later tonight. I remember being so poor when I lived here. Sometimes, I ran out of money for food a couple of days before payday. I did my Master’s degree at MIT in the early 1990s. I was thinking today as I walked through Kendall Square how thirty years ago today, I was six weeks from graduation, probably stressed out working on my thesis and from my rapidly deteriorating relationship at that time. I felt inadequate in the face of it all. That spring, I started vomiting spontaneously a few times a week. I’ve never let stress go that far again. I recognize what my stomach is telling me.

The thesis felt so daunting then, and so did a love that was probably 50% the comfort of family-learned-bad patterns (from both our sides). Being 25 for me was like swimming in an overgrown swamp. I couldn’t see but right in front of me. Yet I also felt relatively comfortable, even as a stressed-out student, with the no-nonsense vibe at MIT. I’m sure lots of nonsense happens here, but I mean that my impression of the students then and now is that they’re very busy and serious, sometimes too serious to talk and to pose around the place. As opposed to some other institutions around here. (Smile emoji). They’re playing 80s and early 90s music in this café. But I cannot feel like I’m back in the day. It’s much glossier around here than it was then. And my phone wallet with credit cards with plenty of room on them plus my late middle-age joints remind me we are nowhere near 1994.

Kendall Square - MIT MBTA Station - April, 2024 (photo: Kim TallBear)

I am about to get on the Red Line of the subway at Kendall Square and head to north Cambridge to meet a long-time friend for dinner, a poet and novelist. He was part of a big group of writers and performers I hung out with in Cambridge before I started MIT and put my head down into the books and computer keyboard. Some in our group got a little bit famous. Others left for L.A. or other in-between cities for family. A few have moved on to the spirit world. None but me, I think, left the writer-performer life behind. Maybe I didn’t completely; my teaching is more performance than pedagogical innovation. I look forward to hanging out with my passed-on friends someday in a far more glittery venue than we ever knew in the basement bars of Cambridge and Allston. Among the fantastical wormholes, we will gather; there will be a stage and a mic. My mind turns on Ashley McBryde’s “Southern Babylon.”

She said "Hey girl, where you been? Doncha know I been waitin' for ya?
"You got a band up there just dyin' to play a little 'Hotel California'
"And maybe it's not sinkin' in, but you'll learn to play along
"Honey, you been gone since you walked into Southern Babylon"

"I'm not supposed to be here, bartender don't you see?
"I took a gig down in Atlanta and the brakes gave out on me"
She said, "We know all about ya. It's a little bit too late"
She handed me a guitar and pointed to the flames

When I come to the Boston area rarely now, it’s to give a talk at a college or university. The venues we performed in are mostly gone. More respectable establishments stand in their lots. The first place I lived in Cambridge, an apartment up a narrow stairway in an old house near Central Square, is gone. It’s replaced by a shipping-container-inspired dwelling that looks much sleeker and with bigger, sunnier windows. Sheena Easton is on this café sound system. I almost feel like a spirit here from decades gone by. I assume, like me, spirits grow wiser too in this collective ever-present? I am sitting quietly in this café corner. No one looks at me. I like it that way. Thirty years ago, I couldn’t go anywhere in this town without running into a friend or acquaintance. Today, I walk and sit anonymously.

Indigenous affairs, cultural politics, anthropology, and decolonial analyses