theorizing the river

“Rivers generally formed the lifeblood of where I came from, and so I offer rivers as an apt suggestive metaphor for life force and my desire and will to life.”
Dian Million, “There is a River in Me: Theory from Life,” p. 41, n. 1)

I started writing about rivers in August. And now, I’m wondering about theorizing them. What kind of stories can rivers tell, and how will I know what they’re saying? What might a theory of the river look like?


Leaving Suriname. February 2015

The inter-relatedness of human and the natural world is, of course, nothing new to indigenous ways of knowing, which have stressed the larger ecologies of life, situating self within a much larger creation.

Kim Anderson, for example, writes:

“I begin with the notion that Indigenous feminism is linked to a foundational principle in Indigenous societies – that is, the profound reverence for life. Although life-affirming practices and beliefs are still operational to varying degrees in contemporary Native societies, our land-based societies were much more engaged with ways of honouring and nurturing life – all life. Our relatives had ways of giving thanks when life was taken, as is evident in traditional hunting practices. Indigenous nations throughout the Americas had protocols to ensure that they maintained respectful relationships with the animals they hunted …. [Cree Métis elder Maria Campbell] remembers that it was the grandmothers who were the first teachers of hunting and trapping. Children as young as three or four would go out with their grandmoters to set snares because it was the grannies’ job to teach children to be thankful, respectful, and gentle with the animals at this time and in this context. Old ladies were deemed to be the most appropriate first teachers of hunting because of their experience and wisdom as life givers.” (“Affirmations of an Indigenous Feminist,” 81-2.)

Jeannette Armstrong, meanwhile, considers the politics of language in relation to what appears – at first glance – to be a simple word: “tree.”

“To someone from the lumber or paper industry, the word tree has a significantly different meaning than to an orchardist. Likewise, a person from the Arctic circle will have a profoundly different meaning gathered from TV and book illustrations, than a person from the rain forest. A person who has never walked under trees in forest and heard breezes rustling through leaves as birds filled branches filtering sunlight and rain, will never truly know a tree. To the person whose direct survival depends on trees, the tree has a deeper cultural meaning – steeped in an essence of gratitude toward the creation of the tree, and therefore enveloped within a unique cultural expression of reverence toward creation.” (“Racism: Racial Exclusivity and Cultural Supremacy,” 75-6.)

Both of these writers situate themselves within a thought world that is not premised on “man’s dominion over nature,” but rather on a symbiotic space where everything is interwoven; where the idea of “life” includes all living things.

So, too, am I drawn to the work of Karen Barad, and in particular, her conceptualization of entanglement. “To be entangled,” she writes in the Preface of her 2007 book, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning:  

“is not simply to be intertwined with another, is in the joining of separate entities, but to lack an independent, self-contained existence. Existence is not an individual affair. Individuals do not preexist their interactions; rather, individual emerge through and as part of their entangled intra-relating. Which is not to say that emergences happens once and for all, as an event of as a process that takes place according to some external measure of space and time, but rather that time and space, like matter and meanings, come into existence, are iteratively reconfigured through each intra-action, thereby making it impossible to differentiate in any absolute sense between creation and renewal, beginning and returning, continuity and discontinuity, here and there, past and future.” (ix)

At the beginning of Chapter 1, she elaborates on this, writing:

“Matter and meaning are not separate elements. They are inextricably fused together, and no event, no matter how energetic, can tear them asunder. Even atoms, whose very name … means ‘indivisible’ or ‘uncuttable,’ can be broken apart. But matter and meaning cannot be disassociated, not by chemical processing, or centrifuge, or nuclear blast. Mattering is simultaneously a matter of substance and significance, most evidently perhaps when it is the nature of matter that is in question, when the smallest parts of matter are found to be capable of exploding deeply entrenched ideas and large cities.” (3)

I’m still untangling entanglement, but if I’ve understood its foundational premises correctly, then entanglement enables me to move beyond human/natural world to consider the nature of inanimate and ‘non-natural’ objects; to consider the ways that land, water, human, and non-human all produce one another, and to consider what might happen when they are all put into conversation with one another.

In my mind’s eye, I’m back in Suriname, standing at its muddy shores. I listen to the river. I watch water and waves. I hear the motor of the small taxi-boats, and the sounds of voices. I look at the prayer flags flapping in the breeze, telling other stories of waters, and journeys, and histories.


Commewijne River, Suriname. February 2015

At a sluice, I watch a girl fishing for crabs. Those crabs – or others very much like them – will be on full display at the weekend market, their claws fumbling weakly in the equatorial sun, the mud caking and drying against their shells.

In the distance, at the mouth where the Suriname and Commewijne Rivers meet, I watch the dolphins, smiling as I see tourists on a boat playing Titanic at the stern – Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet – a peach-coloured scarf rising up and over, fluttering in the breeze.


Where the rivers meet…

The taxi-boat rocks gently in the waves, a subtle spray washing onto the deck. Above me, a collection of life jackets, orange against a blue roof. Behind me, the murmuring chatter of other passengers.


Along the shores, mud merges imperceptibly into water. I see the mangroves, their roots digging deep into the water, and I wonder what they’ll find.


The view from the taxi-boat. Commewijne River. February 2015.


Last week, along North American Atlantic shores, someone reached deep into the mud in Halifax Harbour and pulled up a full, corked bottle of Alexander Keith beer dating from the late nineteenth century. What would those hands find in these muddy rivers?

“the desire is there

to catch it

knowing that i cannot;

the water flowing

rising up, falling



flying through my fingers

it goes back in

is gone

the moment…”

(Dian Million, “There is a River in Me: Theory from Life,”  31)



Anderson, Kim. “Affirmations of an Indigenous Feminist, in Cheryl Suzack et al., eds. Indigenous Women and Feminism: Politics, Activism, Culture.  81-91. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.

Armstrong, Jeannette, “Racism: Racial Exclusivity and Cultural Supremacy,” in Maria Campbell et al., Give Back: First Nations Perspectives on Cultural Practice. 74-82. Vancouver: gallerie, 1992.

Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.

Million, Dian, “There is a River in Me: Theory from Life,” in Audra Simpson and Andrea Smith, eds. Theorizing Native Studies. 31-42. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

Photos: Sonja Boon, February 2015


© Sonja Boon (,  2015


One thought on “theorizing the river

  1. Pingback: watered – Saltwater Stories

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