The Murmuration of Birds: An Anishinaabe Ontology of Mnidoo-Worlding

September 30, 2020

Turtle Island (Canada)


Dr. Dolleen Tisawii'ashii Manning


Sebastian De Line

What does a bird actually see when it is part of a large flock? During these times of radical uncertainty, continuing threats of colonialism, capitalism and climate genocide, Dr. Dolleen Manning discussed what we can learn from wading into subtle mnidoo regions to collaboratively imagine new futures and formations.

Talk Description:

In a murmuration, a flock of starlings interweave intricate, cascading flight patterns around land, wind, and other flock formations, without ever colliding. In her chapter The Murmuration of Birds: An Anishinaabe Ontology of Mnidoo-Worlding (in Feminist Phenomenology Futures, ed. Helen A. Fielding and Dorothea E. Olkowski), Dr. Manning defines this murmuration - that is, this concurrent gathering of fluctuating and divergent inflections - as mnidoo-worlding. Manning’s mother and formative teacher, Rose Manning Mshkode-bzhikiikwe baa, a first-language Ojibwe speaker, describes this as a kind of attentiveness towards what approaches from a distance or what is apprehended from the corner of one's eye.

In our talk, Dr. Manning elaborated on Ojibwe Anishinaabe ontology through what she terms mnidoo-worlding, which takes as its starting point the presumption of a life-world populated by human and other-than-human persons, "entities/bodies'' or, rather, potencies. By identifying consciousness as external to a bounded human subject, and at the same time as internal in terms of immanence (radiating from within as well as from "without"), Dr. Manning carries Merleau-Ponty into the ahuman mnidoo structure that he seems to strive for but cannot reach. In her chapter, she writes, “I am part of this tumultuous unified body. As such, I am both finite and infinite: singular, discontinuous, mortal. I am also continuous, immortal, and infinitely divisible. I transpire along two ways of being - finitude and infinitude”. One's ownmost (mnidoo-self) likewise stands out as a flickering glint against the backdrop of the other. We discussed this fusion that is always already there, and the ways in which this infinite mnidoo consciousness conditions finitude, not merely as a "life-sustaining" interpenetration. Dr. Manning contends that Anishinaabe philosophies and ontologies strive for interrelational accord amid brutal contemporary forces that compose the complex lived Indigenous realities.


Dolleen Tisawii’ashii Manning (PhD) is a member of Kettle and Stoney Point First Nation and is an interdisciplinary artist and scholar. She is a Queen's National Scholar in Anishinaabe Language, Knowledge and Culture (ALKC), Department of Philosophy and Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Cultural Studies at Queen's University. Manning has wide-ranging interests in Anishinaabe ontology, critical theory, phenomenology, and art, investigating questions of imaging practices, epistemological sovereignty, and the debilitating impact of settler colonial logics. Manning points to her early childhood grounding in her mother’s Anishinaabe cultural lessons as her primary philosophical influence and source of creativity.

Sebastian De Line is a doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University, with an MA in Art Praxis from the Dutch Art Institute in Arnhem, The Netherlands. His/their dissertation, “Postmortem Economies in Art: The Necropolitics of Value in Indigenized & Racialized Production”, investigates the manufacturing of economies which instill Ancestors (in Eurocentric terms called artifacts or objects) into museum collections produced by systems of colonial property production, which in turn generate value through necropolitical capitalization upon states of unliving. Sebastian has published in Open! Platform for Art, Culture & the Public Domain, Junctures: The Journal for Thematic Dialogue, and bauhaus imaginista journal.

Additional Credits:

- Podcast production: Rajat Nayyar, Rana El Kadi

- Podcast sound design: Debashis Sinha

- Visual design: Kaustubh Khare

- Insight synthesis: Rana El Kadi, Rajat Nayyar

- Live Twitter engagement: Lachlan Summers

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Insights from the Talk

Mnidoo-worlding, being finite and infinite

What is mnidoo-worlding? Mnidoo-worlding is a dynamic and slippery concept. In western thought, there is a logic that things must always add up (for example: 1 + 1 = 2). In contrast, for the Anishnaabe, there is always an account of things not adding up - things are not exactly as they appear to us. There’s always a knowledge of a paradox or a mystery – that there are other ways of being, knowing and communicating that exist, and we cannot ever fully track them down. And that is the other aspect of all existence and consciousness, which is infinite: mnidoo infinity. Consider the example of Anishnaabe shallow water spearfishing: when you place a spear in the water, the image breaks as the water refracts. Spearfishing brings two ways of thinking into dialogue: the finite, human, embodied, subject-oriented, rational consciousness (above the water) and the mnidoo, infinite, spirit, other-than-human, intuition, mystery, potency (below the water). The water is an interface – what is below and above it does not constitute a dualism or division – they are enmeshed in each other. This other reality is constantly with the Anishnaabe.

Anticipating seven generations ahead

How is the concept of mnidoo related to the Seven Generation Principle, which states that we must consider the impact of every action we take on the next seven generations? Western Enlightenment-inspired ontology (way of being and knowing the world) has established - and continues to advance - the logic and common sense of enslavement, colonial extraction of wealth, dispossession, genocide of indigenous peoples, subjugation of women, attempted eradication of disabled people, etc. In contrast, a mnidoo-infused world is one where we conceive of everything (including humans and beyond-humans) as alive, interconnected, and mattering. Although not a methodology in itself, mnidoo relationality can inform other methodologies. Living according to the mnidoo worldview would have a great impact on our world, such as our ethical considerations about property ownership, the distribution of wealth, care for children, the status of and care for the elderly, and the way disability is understood.

Becoming (not acquiring) knowledge

How do we practice and teach mnidoo-knowing in the face of dominant western ideologies? While western phenomenologists have considered knowledge as a material wealth that you acquire on your own, Anishnaabe people view knowledge as something you become with others. For Merleau Ponty, the rational self is disembodied - it floats above the world and surveys it as if it is not immersed in it. In this philosophy, he is extracting himself and trying to exist in the absolute present as the world emerges for him through his perception. As such, he is trying to stay in a knowing subject position that assumes that knowledge is detached from the body. In fact, mnidoo-knowing happens through a dialogue: between two or more individuals or between the corporeal (finitude) and the mnidoo (infinitude) self. As such, we all have access to this knowledge of mnidoo worlding. Yet, the dominant, rational western thought always undermines it and tells us that we should negate it and not pursue it. Attending to this layer of being (mnidoo) requires everyday resistance to western thought systems that deny the validity and existence of these other ways of communicating.

Attending the call for the future

Dolleen Manning describes mnidoo as “the call for the future.” Similarly, in Hindu culture, one is always being toward Moksha (the ultimate union with the universal spirit) as one’s potential. How can we be attentive to - and care for - this call from the mnidoo self, while being in the (material) world? In the Anishnaabe value system, the individual is not afraid of death or of releasing their last breath. At the same time, there is a hierarchy, where infants and terminally ill people have greater access to mnidoo-knowing. As humans, are constantly aging, and this corporeal temporality seems rational and unquestionably correct. Yet when we look "below the water," there’s a refraction, and things are not exactly as they appear to us. This is the other aspect of the self and of all existence, which is infinite, and which happens "below the water." Mnidoo infinity, in this way, emerges as ambiguity, in fragments and shimmers. We are both finite and infinite; on the one hand, we are singular, discontinuous, and mortal, and on the other hand, we are continuous, immortal, and infinitely divisible. We can't always be in the mnidoo infinity because of the relationship between corporeal temporality and mnidoo consciousness. Although mnidoo is impossible to fully grasp, we can steer around it in our discussions, and that has tangible effects in our daily life.

Embodied knowledge v/s Archive

What does it mean to privilege textuality and the logic of the archive over embodied knowledge systems and oral repertoires? How do we sustain oral knowledge systems that are made to disappear? The western way of being and knowing is usually so deeply ingrained in people, that indigenous voices and knowledges cannot be attended to or heard. In contrast to a physical archive, Anishnaabe embodied knowledge can engage more powerfully with others through relational, dialogic ways and can slowly start to resist the dominant rational ideologies, thus eroding the normalized western logic. Although this might not change the world in a dramatic, instantaneous way, it does lead to small, radical shifts in every small moment and every interaction that takes place.

Difference as ability

In "Stolen Bodies, Reclaimed Bodies: Disability and Queerness," Eli Claire discusses their tremoring hands and the stigmatization they experienced as a queer, disabled person with cerebral palsy, and how they and their lover reframe tremoring as desirous and pleasureful. In relation, how does mnidoo-worlding articulate an Anishinaabe "refiguring of the world" that does not create a division between disabled and abled-bodied individuals? Whereas in western culture, difference is often perceived as a deficit that is stigmatized and not desired, Anishnaabe culture looks upon difference as ability. Disabled people are revered and believed to understand the world in ways that others cannot possibly know.