Apocalypse is boring, but we can’t get enough of it. End of the world scenarios allow us to confront our worst, often unspoken or unrealized, anxieties about where the trends of the present are leading us. The causes of apocalypse—climate change, meteor impact, nuclear war, the opening of a dimensional rift that releases rampaging kaiju, epidemics, and, most popularly, zombies—are great open-ended signifiers of everything from the failure of international relations, as was the case with nuclear holocaust in the Cold War, to the effects of rampant consumer capitalism on human life, as seen in the grossly overpopular tales of zombie hordes. But beyond a multiply signifying symptom of our fears about the decay of large-scale social and political structures, stories set during or just after the apocalypse also highlight concerns about how to survive a post-digital world devoid of the infrastructures of everyday life that many in western Europe and North America take for granted.
Yet much of apocalyptic fiction takes us through what happens to white people after the world ends; in fact, in many apocalypse scenarios the very idea of the world ending is tied to the loss of habits, structures, and technologies that make whiteness’s global supremacy possible. The joke, as most savvy film and TV viewers know, is that the black guy always dies first, and if a survey of apocalyptic fictions is any indicator of who has the capacity to survive the apocalypse, indigenous peoples always get the short straw. Moreover, apocalypse narratives ignore the many apocalypses whiteness has already wreaked upon the non-white peoples of the world since the fifteenth century.
Moon of the Crusted Snow, the second novel by Anishinaabe author and CBC journalist Waubgeshig Rice of the Wasauksing First Nation, pulls the camera away from white suburbanites fleeing zombies or escaping meteorological disasters, and instead takes a look at the apocalypse in Indian Country, setting the scene of the end on a northern Canadian reserve. But although the few white characters in the novel confront a definite end, the worst event imaginable as Canadian civil life crumbles into chaos and the supermarkets are emptied out, Rice remakes the end of one world into the beginning of another for the Anishinaabeg inhabitants of the semi-fictional Gaawaandagkoong First Nation.
Moon of the Crusted Snow is the story of a community’s survival and transformation, told through the eyes of Evan, a thirty-something tribal public works employee, a father to two young Anishinaabeg, a devoted partner to Nicole, and a man on the path back to traditional indigenous knowledge. The novel opens with a successful moose hunt, Evan pinching out tobacco to give thanks for the animal who gives its life for his and his family’s sustenance. The opening foreshadows how important traditional ways of living on and with the land will become throughout the novel as the usual infrastructural failures of apocalypse begin to take hold of Evan’s community. Rice moves the plot along at an appropriately steady pace, the rhythm of the end of “civilization” beating at first quietly (cell service goes out, satellite TV fails) and slowly (it’s more than halfway through the book before we get any clear indication that the apocalypse is, in fact, happening), before picking up its pace and coming to a gruesome climax and a hopeful, utopian resolution.
Evan’s position as a public works employee—tasked as he is with plowing the snowy roads, delivering tribal foodstuffs, checking in on elders, and doing basic upkeep on the rez—as well as his close, personal relationships with Chief Walter Meegis, his son Terry, various tribal council members, and the elder Aileen, allow the reader to explore the social landscape of the apocalyptic experience in northern Canadian Indian Country. Evan is also central to the conflict that arises when Justin Scott, a white survivalist who might as well be wearing a “Make Canada Great Again” cap, shows up at the reserve a few weeks after the tribe is disconnected from the rest of the world. Scott’s appearance comes as a shock and threat to Evan’s community, and underscores the tribe’s physical, cultural, racial, and historical separation from white Canada, the extreme version of which is paradigmatically signaled by the untrustworthy, gun-obsessed, murderous white dude with a creepy fetish for indigenous women and a desire to “appreciate” indigenous customs by participating in indigenous ceremonies and misusing Anishinaabemowin words.
The elder Aileen, moreover, reminds Evan that the community’s physical existence is a result of the white settler-colonialism perpetrated on indigenous land by Justin Scotts for centuries, since the Anishinaabeg are not an arctic people, their customs and stories and traditions instead having emerged and developed in the forests further south, near the Great Lakes. Thus, the community’s geophysical separation from the white world is not just a metaphor for the history of white-indigenous relations, but is a literal manifestation of white violence against indigenous peoples. The resulting reliance on a white convenience store chain for tribal foodstuffs, on white-owned and government-supported power companies for electricity, and so on, all represent the centuries-long fallout of an earlier apocalypse. While the effects of settler-colonialism ravage the reserve even after the undescribed fall of white civilization, leaving those who had depended most on the world beyond Gaawaandagkoong, like Evan’s brother Cam, in the lurch, it is the resilience—or, to use Chippewa writer and scholar Gerald Vizenor’s concept, survivance—of indigenous peoples in the face of settler-colonialism’s horrors that helps Evan, his family, and his tribe survive it all once more.
The survivance of indigenous peoples into the always-becoming future is a central element of indigenous futurism. Moon of the Crusted Snow is undoubtedly a speculative fictional, indigenous futurist, apocalyptic novel of the Anthropocene, despite its careful billing as literary fiction, and no hint of speculative fiction in the promotional or cover copy. That this indigenous literary novel is speculative should surprise no one familiar with the canon of Native American, First Nations, and world indigenous fiction, just as it would surprise no one to find such elements in a Latin American novel. As Mexican-Canadian author Silvia Moreno-Garcia recently noted with specific reference to readers from Latin America, Anglo readers see the fantastic very differently; anyone who has read Louise Erdrich, Gerald Vizenor, or Stephen Graham Jones’s early work (before he explicitly embraced genre and genre publishers like Tor) will know that indigenous literatures deal with the fantastic as one of the many dimensions comprising indigenous experiences of the world. Rice’s novel embraces the fantastic in its apocalyptic setting, and in butting this story about Anishinaabeg survival into the overly white genre, the realities of indigenous life and customs become the primary speculative element in a world where such lifeways, and the languages that passed them on, continue to be killed off by colonialism.
It is no surprise that Evan belongs to one of the generations of indigenous people who grew up with white/non-Anishinaabemowin names: Evan, Cameron, Nicole, Dan, Walter, Tyler, Isiah, Kevin, Nick, and so on. But at this moment of white civilization’s collapse, Evan and Nicole are relearning the Anishinaabeg ways, are beginning to speak Anishinaabemowin, have learned to hunt and build traditional shelters, to say the proper prayers, and are raising children with names like Maiingan (“wolf”) and Nangohns (“little star”)—names truly speculative and futurist in a world of whiteness only a few decades removed from boarding schools, when the then-young elders like Aileen had had to “whisper the stories and language in each other’s ears” and “held out hope that one day their beautiful ways would be able to reemerge and flourish once again.” And like other recent works of indigenous literature, e.g., Tanya Tagaq’s Split Tooth or Niviaq Korneliussen’s Last Night in Nuuk, Rice does not shy away from using his and his characters’ language to bring the lifeways of Anishinaabeg to the fore once again. He peppers the text with Anishinaabemowin phrases with no attempt to translate for non-Anishinaabephone readers (not unlike Tagaq’s inclusion of an entire chapter in Innuinaktun).
As Potawatomi philosopher Kyle Whyte has argued, indigenous people have experienced apocalypse again and again for centuries at the hands of the physical, psychological, and ecological ravages wrought by settler-colonialism. In Whyte’s articulation, life as an indigenous person is always partly dystopian. Rice echoes Whyte’s argument in one of Evan’s visits to Aileen’s house to supply her with chopped wood to keep her furnace going. Acting in her capacity as elder, Aileen reminds Evan that the Anishinaabeg have survived much worse time and again, and will continue to do so. Trying to recall what white folks call it, Aileen asks Evan, “... what’s the word again?” “Apocalypse,” he answers. “Yes, apocalypse. We’ve had that over and over. But we always survived. We’re still here. And we’ll still be here, even if the power and the radios don’t come back on and we never see any white people ever again.” The elder’s words prove prophetic and the events of history and the novel, coalescing in the figure of Justin Scott, are enough for Evan and his fellow Anishnaabeg to hope never to see white people indeed.
What began as a loss of satellite communications, the failure of externally sourced electrical power, and the end of shipments to the rez’s one grocery store, is confirmed as an all-out end-times scenario shortly before Aileen’s comments about the apocalypse, when two Anishinaabeg college students flee the fictional “big city” of Gibson (Rice’s version of Edmonton or Saskatoon, perhaps) and return to Gaawaandagkoong. Their return to the community allows Scott’s discovery of it, as he follows their snowmobile tracks. Later, a handful of other white folks show up and are immediately brought under the leadership of Scott, who also ropes the poorest tribal members into his side of a growing conflict with the tribal council, promising his unprepared acolytes a way to get through the winter, using an alternative food source that the council refuses to acknowledge: human flesh from the growing number of dead tribal members. If the supposed end of the world wasn’t enough, Evan and the Gaawaandagkoong First Nation have to fend off a white cannibal who has put himself at the center of the tribe’s affairs.
Scott’s story, his plan, the power he comes to wield so quickly in the community, and the threat he poses to his Anishinaabeg hosts invert the historical and symbolic ways in which white settlers labeled indigenous peoples savage, naming them cannibals and scalpers, and associating their habits with the seemingly senseless violence of non-human animals. Scott becomes a literal monster, a gluttonous cannibal feasting on indigenous flesh just as centuries of white men before him ate up indigenous lands, picked them clean of indigenous bodies, and washed away indigenous cultural remnants as best they could. But one crazy white cannibal is nothing compared to the centuries that came before, and after bloody confrontations draw the conflict between cannibal and community to a close, the Anishinaabeg live on and pass into a new spring.
Rice’s Moon of the Crusted Snow, which takes its title from the Anishinaabemowin word for the period in winter between February and March (onaabenii giizis), is a powerful testament to indigenous survivance and an incredible engrossing indigenous futurist novel. Rice figures apocalypse as decolonial opportunity, a time for the Anishinaabeg to start over when white civilization is essentially erased. Rice thus makes the truth out of the claim made by Marxist critics ranging from Fredric Jameson and Mark Fisher to Slavoj Žižek, that we cannot imagine alternatives to our present under neoliberalism, so we turn to the apocalypse to wipe the slate clean, give ourselves a chance to fictively start over. But Rice’s novel reminds us that the failure of imagination is also a limitation imposed by the overwhelming whiteness of apocalyptic narratives. Indigenous people have long had to imagine alternatives via apocalyptic thinking. And for the small community of Gaawaandagkoong First Nation, for Evan, Nicole, and their children, what is apocalypse for the white world is a chance to embrace Anishinaabe lifeways, to renew tradition, and to return to a closer relationship with the land and with one another.
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