The opposite of truth is not a lie. It is forgetting.

cover of Knowing Otherwise and An Indigenous People's History of the United States with the galaxy brain meme in between them

In a 2009 interview with Upping the Anti magazine, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz cites white South-African anti-apartheid writer Andre-Brink’s book An Act of Terror. She is talking about creation stories, the beginnings that we rest on to shape how we think about ourselves and our relationships and that it isn’t so much that our creation myths are a lie, it’s that we’ve forgotten so much of what actually happened and in doing so we’ve lost context for the things we do remember and that changes how we know ourselves.  Getting history straight, telling the truth about our beginnings and unforgetting, is an act of resistance.

Roxanne is the author of several books, the one I’m thinking about today is An Indigenous People’s History of the United States because it is in this book that she seeks to get history straight, at least some of it. In it she tells history, much of which is familiar, with a larger context that changes how we remember what we had been taught. And she doesn’t begin it with the arrival of the newcomers, nor does it begin with some romanticized history of Noble Indians living in a Pure and Untouched Eden. There are many other history books being written now by settler and Indigenous historians that seek to get history straight, tell it with the larger context and help us to unforget.

This idea, and I don’t even remember how I first encountered it because the article in Upping the Anti came up in a google search when I was trying to figure out what it meant, how it worked. This idea has captured me to the point that it is part of the title of my book, Becoming Kin: An Indigenous Call to Unforgetting Our Past and Reimagining Our Future. But it’s hard to articulate, what does it mean. I’m always concerned with what things mean, how the ideas work, how we understand them, why we think what we do and I probably should have studied philosophy instead of social work but instead of disciplined study I read books and use Twitter to surround myself with historians and philosophers and hope that it rubs off on me. This substack and my commitment to writing weekly essays about the things I am reading is a small attempt at some kind of disciplined process.


As much as the idea captured my imagination, I was struggling to articulate it. Then I picked up Knowing Otherwise by Alexis Shotwell and she gave me the language I needed to explain how unforgetting works. She’s not talking about unforgetting, she’s talking about how we know things. It’s a book about implicit knowledge and it’s been sitting on my bookshelf for a while now. I’m glad I picked it up while the manuscript is still in editing because while I’ve come to accept that I can’t, and perhaps shouldn’t, make all the changes I want to make and just allow the bird to fly, this is one addition that needs to happen if for no other reason than to help my title make sense.

There is Propositional knowledge, the things that we know and can explain how we know, and there is Implicit understanding, the assumptions upon which we base our knowledge. That center we move around that we think is stable and permanent but is actually just created by our movement in relationship to it. That part we can’t articulate so well, we used to be able to but we can’t anymore because you simply can’t keep everything at the surface all the time. There’s just too much of it and storing all of our knowledge in one small place is inefficient. So knowledge gets stored in our bodies and our skills, in our emotions, and unspoken agreements. It gets stored as common sense that we often lament isn’t actually common at all.

Think about that first cup of coffee in the morning, assuming you are a coffee drinker. If not imagine whatever it is that gets you out of bed and into the kitchen. The feelings that it evokes in you. For me it is the most perfect time of my day, sitting on my back deck drinking that steaming coffee in the dawn or pre-dawn depending on the time of year. Sometimes I will go to bed early just to get back there that much faster. Ok. You’ve thought about those feelings associated with that first hot cup of whatever it is you drink in the morning?

Now think about all the steps involved in making it:

1. Get out of bed

2. Go to the kitchen

3. Make the coffee

Oh wait. In order to get out of bed:

1. Open my eyes

2. Sit up

3. Swing my legs over the bed.

Making coffee is even more complicated.

1. Get out the filters

2. Separate one filter.

Oh dammit,

1. Open the cupboard door

2. Reach for the filters

3. Get out the filters.


1. Raise my arm

2. Grasp the handle

2. Open the cupboard door

And on and on that goes. We did this as an exercise when I was studying for my BSW and I think by the time we were done we had “make a cup of coffee” at 122 steps. Our classroom context was imagining that we worked in a group home and had to teach this skill to somebody who needed very basic direction. I’m pretty sure that presenting somebody with a list of 122 steps for making coffee would be overwhelming, but it helped us understand how complicated some very simple things can be.

Then there’s the political and social relationships contained in this process: the growing and processing of coffee, the labour and land involved, the shipping and marketing of it. The displacement of what my Anishinaabe ancestors would have had when they woke up and sat outside their wigwams watching white settlers and their baffling morning rituals. The loss of my maternal grandmother’s samovar and the way that they drank tea or coffee holding a sugar cube in their mouth or sweetening it with a particular kind of jam. This is all implicit knowledge. The things that we know but don’t spend a lot of time or effort thinking about but sometimes erupt in emotions that seem random or out of place. The social relationships may guide my decision about what brands to buy and where to buy them, but I don’t articulate them every time I make coffee or talk about it. Maybe somebody notices the brand when they see me make coffee, but I can’t be sure what assumptions they’re making about whatever they see. I don’t even think about the steps consciously, particularly at 6am. Fortunately for me my hands and feet just seem to know what to do because until I’ve had my coffee I’m not sure I could think very clearly about how to make it.

All of this is implicit knowledge. Now it’s not a great example, because clearly I can articulate it when I need to but only because I’ve been through that exercise. We all know how frustrating teaching somebody something can be because what seems very basic to us isn’t that basic to somebody else and we need to keep backing up and explaining other things and dammit I’ll just do it myself.

Groups are like this too, they have unspoken history and rules that nobody tells you and they probably couldn’t explain it if they tried, and even if they could explain it they aren’t sure why they do it that way. Who sits where in the meetings, what order people speak in, who is the one who corrects people and who is the peacemaker. When you join a new group chances are that you hang back for a while until you notice the patterns and then you ease yourself into them. Carefully though, because if you want to be part of this group you know that you need to fit yourself in and then one day you find yourself side-eyeing the newcomer who doesn’t know that Sarah is the one who baked goods or sits by the door. And countries are like this. Religions are like this. They hold knowledge collectively in their bodies, in the emotions they call forth from people like patriotism or loyalty, or Good Theology. They hold knowledge in the skills that they value and promote, in the unspoken norms that we elevate as “common sense.”

Embodied history is forgotten history: we feel it, enact it, carry it with us, but can can no longer articulate it (p. 14). Unforgetting is the process by which we learn to articulate this knowledge, to draw it forward to where it can be explained and examined.  If the opposite of the truth is forgetting, then drawing out the truth about this implicit knowledge is unforgetting. And unforgetting can take us many places. Unforgetting helps us to imagine something different because it tells us that our history is something different. If we can embody a different history, we can become something different. If nostalgia is just projecting the past onto the present then unforgetting helps us to project possibility. It helps us to see connections that have been hidden and those connections are relationships that connect us to each other horizontally but also backwards and forwards in time.

If we are connected with each other then the state, the central organizing structure of our lives, becomes less important.

We can become kin.

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The opposite of the truth is forgetting.