Give and Take

This entry is part 16 of 20 in the Decolonizing Anthropology series.

By Leslie J. Sabiston and Didier M. Sylvain

did i see that right?
my skull is in a cardboard box
in that basement?
my bones are under
an orange tarp from canadian tire,
rattling plastic in the wind.
my grave is desecrated
my skull is in that white lady’s basement
my bones are under that orange tarp from canadian tire
rattling plastic in the wind like a rake on the sidewalk.
my body is tired
from carrying
the weight
of this zhaganashi’s house.
ah nokomis
this shouldn’t have happened.
your relatives took such good care.
the mound so clearly marked.
ah nokomis
how did this happen?
what have you come to tell us?
why are you here?
aahhhhh my zhaganashi
welcome to kina gchi nishnaabe-ogaming
enjoy your visit.
but like my elder says
please don’t stay too long.*

              —Leanne Simpson [1]

Beloved, she my daughter. She mine. See. She come back to me of her own free will and I don’t have to explain a thing.  —Toni Morrison [2]

We knew we would be confronting a constructed division between our communities and profession before we even got here. We already had questions to critique that construction, to deconstruct the idea of the university as a place of enlightenment. And as the years go by, as we return to our ancestral homelands to conduct research, those questions become stronger and also more difficult to parse. Today we feel even more compelled to refuse certain colonial practices of our discipline, but the “why” spirals deeper and deeper. How deep do we want to go? What do we give and take in the descent? What do we lose?

Before going too far, we recognize that the university has given us much – in the way of opportunity; in providing conditions for our own self-interrogation. But we have also lost a piece of ourselves by submitting to epistemic indoctrinations. A piece of us was taken when a beloved colleague dismissed our Indigenous relatives as lacking a practical political approach from across the conference table. A knot was tied when our cousins’ struggles for land, or for control over their own image that has been high jacked by corporate racism, was ignored as facile identity politics. What is that feeling of being reduced to a cultural object? Or the pressures of being individually professionalized? What is the guilt we feel when we desperately want recognition but we also want to ‘turn away’? Or the feeling of ease when we are related to as white in North America or Haiti, either because of phenotype or class assumptions, and the simultaneous disgust precisely because it is so easy to ignore or because we just want to belong? How to deal with these feelings when they should not matter anyway, for many of our cousins would benefit from the privilege that we have mischaracterized as a ‘struggle’? Our bodies are twisted into different kinds of shapes by a complex machinery, all with their own associated pains and kinds of debts. We experience different kinds of winks and nods, are expected to agree with different assumptions, all of which operates beyond anything that might resemble intention or conscious thought. The constant expectations of complicity are absurd. Some days we would rather not be civil at all when another student feels perfectly fine expressing their desire to dig up our cousins’ bones because it’s cool. Because it will advance “our” knowledge… rational debate seems like a deep and dark trap that we are constantly falling into. We knew we were getting ourselves into something deep, but we couldn’t have imagined that it would feel like this.

In all of this pain and anger, however, there is also possibility. Rather than fearing the colonial application of schooling we all share, we have the opportunity to more precisely interrogate it and, hopefully, decolonize it. To do so requires the energy and strength of our ancestors who have fought before us. With intention and gratitude, we search for those ancestors that have been left out, whose stories have been pushed to the bottoms of musty boxes, forgotten, stolen, or buried. “there will always be a little bush; under the cement is the earth.” [3]

In our ancestral excavations, we have come to be suspicious of one of the colonial, epistemic foundations that that has been said to found anthropology: The Gift. An analysis of The Gift has come to stand in for a much larger critique of decolonization for us. By focusing our historical understanding of The Gift through analytics of settler colonialism and a critical understanding of the Black Atlantic, we have come to see the Gift as something quite different altogether.

Most of us could probably paraphrase the main lessons from Mauss’ famous text. The gift must be given, received, and returned; the gift is (a) total (prestation).[4] Undoubtedly, these have been useful mantras for thinking the magical connecting tissues of society. And we love thinking with the gift and teaching (assisting) it in our intro classes. It really is fun! And enlightening! But we also see a more sinister magic at work in the way the Gift itself has traveled through academic discourse. This is the hardest magic of all to understand because it dwells on a different plane; a plane in which we also dwell, where our relentless belief in analytical objectivity from our other(ed) objects is just that, a belief, but one that has wielded enormous power. A moment of pause is necessary to recognize this power that makes things taken, from people who have refused, seem as things given. Just look at the new forms of clear cutting that are wreaking havoc in the Amazon forest, where knowledge and wisdom are extracted as a means to fixing our apocalyptic and anthropocenic times. It bears pointing out that if Mauss was right about one thing, it was that gifts that go unreturned result in chaos and violence. Surely theft dressed up as a gift leads to similar outcomes. Just as nations continue to send their false words of reconciliation and apology through leaky pipelines, the white magic of possession flows deep in the stolen gifts of our disciplinary power. Where will we find our heavy Standing Rocks and what exactly will we smash, and create, with them?

This is where things start falling apart. Our discontents have been misunderstood for too long; we begin to realize that our intellectual theories of linear models of civilization and progress are convenient covers, nay, sublimation, of other desires created and hardened through 500 years worth of genocidal pressure. Desires we have not been able to reach, but whose attempt at retrieval gives new meaning and experience to sublime disintegration. Sun Ra once said that “knowledge is laughable when attributed to a human being.”[5] We don’t disagree.

But we have had teachers on this subject for a long time, those who show humility in the face of creation. And so we return to listen and learn.

I ask, too, that when I am laid in a box
I am not made to look the sufferer
                 —Louis Riel [6]

That was the last sun that shone on Black-hawk. His heart is dead, and no longer beats quick in his bosom.—He is now a prisoner to the white men; they will do with him as they wish. But he can stand torture, and is not afraid of death. He is no coward. Black-hawk is an Indian.

Farewell, my nation! Black-hawk tried to save you, and avenge your wrongs. He drank the blood of some of the whites. He has been taken prisoner, and his plans are stopped. He can do no more. He is near his end. His sun is setting, and he will rise no more. Farewell to Black-hawk. 
—Black-hawk [7]

If the Gift has given us pause, we gratefully accept that its pondering on the magical have also helped us imagine with our Indigenous cousins and ancestral kindred. Within these new formations, The Gift opens itself to new understandings of the enslavement, colonization, and genocidal thievery of life and land that founded it. A grace we wish to emulate.

A Gift: something that is given. The Gift: something that has been taken. A Gift: something that can be taken back.

Those that reject their ancestors will be rejected by their offspring. —African Proverb

The raid was executed exactly to plan. Every team infiltrated the towers unnoticed. They emptied the vaults. They fled below. Not a single trace was left behind. It would be days before the people above even knew what happened.

In the undercommons, the raiders surveyed the recollected.[8] Piles of computer hard drives, photographs, records, books, labeled vials of dried up blood: “Cree,” “Seminole,” “Taino,” “Yoruba”, non-white Others…

The ancestral fire pit was already ablaze, flames thirsty with anticipation…

The raiders surrounded the fire in circular formation, offerings in hand, tongues ready for recitation.

"The Offering" by Paul Lewin, courtesy of the artist,
“The Offering” by Paul Lewin, courtesy of the artist,

We have lived before.
We will live again.
We will be silk,



We will be scattered,



We will live

And we will serve life…
—Octavia Butler [9]

In that moment, as every other, the raiders invoked the beloved that preceded them and they envisioned those to come. They recited the names of the recollected, the names of ancestors past.

Every hard drive, photograph, record, book, and vial was tossed into the swallowing fire. The flames intensified. Hissing and swirling, now raging spells. The fire incinerated every artefact’s abduction and perceived possession by the people above.

In warfare, there is a military strategy called ‘scorched earth.’ It is when you destroy everything that might be useful to the enemy as you move through or pull out of their territory.  —Nnedi Okorafor [10] 

The burning and recitations lasted all night. At dawn, as the fire calmed, the raiders looked at the withering orange embers, the rising smoke and ash, not as remains, but as releasings. The ancestors rejoiced. The raiders humbly bowed. The burning was no victory; just one small act of countertheft. There had been many acts before this, and there would be many more to come.

Countertheft is always unfinished.


Leslie is a PhD student in anthropology at Columbia University.  His work examines the emerging intersections in Canada’s justice and health systems as they pertain to growing capacities for the state to incarcerate, surveil, and circumscribe Native life.
Didier Michel is a sound artist and PhD student in ethnomusicology at Columbia University. His work examines the spiritual dimensions of black engagement with sound technology among Afrofuturist-identified artists and technologists in Haiti.



*nishnaabemowin: Nokomis is grandmother, zhaganashi is a white person, kina gchi nishnaabe-ogaming is a Mississauga nishnaabeg name for homeland.

[1] Leanne Simpson, Islands of Decolonial Love (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2013).

[2] Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Knopf, 1987).

[3] Marvin Francis, City Treaty: A Long Poem, 2nd ed. (Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 2002).

[4] Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, translated by W. D. Halls (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990).

[5] Sun Ra, Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise, 35 mm, directed by Robert Mugge (Pottstown: MVD Visual, 1980), film.

[6] Louis Riel, as conjured by Gregory Scofield, Louis: The Heretic Poems, (Gibsons: Nightwood Editions, 2011).

[7] Black-Hawk’s farewell speech at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, in Samuel G. Drake, Biography and History of the Indians of North America, 11th ed. (Boston, 1841).

[8] Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013).

[9] Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1998).

[10] Nnedi Okorafor, The Book of Phoenix (New York: DAW, 2015).

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Decolonizing Anthropology

Decolonizing Anthropology is a series edited by Carole McGranahan and Uzma Z. Rizvi. To read the introductory essay to the series and see the list of contributors, please follow this link: /2016/04/19/decolonizing-anthropology/