DISENFRANCHISED

I have often thought about the ways colonization, both in the past and in the present, affected my up bringing and continues to affect my daily life. I think about the rights I have been refused, the knowledge I have been denied both, culturally and ancestrally, and the teachings I have not been taught due to European structures and systems brought on by colonial rule.

I have thought quite a bit about how my life would look had my grandmother, Ma, not gone to the St. Bernard Indian Residential School (Grouard, AB)[1]. I think about all the things I would have learned from her. I picture us sitting down at her 70s ochre yellow kitchen table on a warm summer day. The door to the small porch is open, my grandfather just finishing smoking salmon, he always over does it so the outside layer is similar to jerky and the inside is soft and moist. Ma and I just finished in the garden, we had been down in the dirt harvesting raspberries and pulling unwanted plants from the garden bed. We sit down. I cross my legs, as I always do, and wait for instruction. She picks up her kit. A thrifty plastic box filled with different coloured beads and small bits of leather. She pulls out a piece of leather that already has a floral design drawn on it. She runs her hands over it.

Without colonialism I imagine Ma talkative and warm, someone who enjoys sharing and taking her time. We sit down and she shows me the pattern, she gives it to me and starts to tell me about the time her mother showed her how to bead. She describes the farmhouse in Alberta she grew up in; she describes the summer day, and the sound of the river outside.  Her mother told her about the day her mother sat her down to show her how to bead, and that these teachings connected them to this space and the space of their ancestors. Ma tells me about the design of the flower, what flower the design is based on, where it grows, what it can be used for, when to harvest, and why it is important. She would tell me how the design had been part of our family for generations. She would tell me all this in Cree. All the ‘things’ she refers to, plants, beads, the hide she holds, are referred to as living beings[2].

Colonialism moved across the plains before the residential school system, so we must go back further. I wonder if the pass system[3] (1885-1945) effected the generations before me? I wonder if they were denied the right to leave their property to fish, hunt and harvest plants from the surrounding land? What would my life have looked like had my great grandmother not married a ‘half-breed’? Perhaps I would be considered a ‘real Indian’ under the Indian Act? Maybe I would still have connections to my cultural community in High Prairie. Perhaps I would visit yearly for special events: powwows, gatherings, weddings, funerals, and ceremonies. Perhaps I would live there, sharing the land with sisters, brothers, aunties, uncles and cousins. Although this would mean my great-great grandmother would have been considered a ‘real Indian’. For this to happen her land would have been valued, her family would have been accepted as ‘Treaty Indians’ and thus passed on status to future generations.

Colonialism is responsible for the fact that I have no teachings from my relations, that I have no community on the land of my ancestors or language to connect me to land in High Prairie. I have not walked the land my ancestors practiced ceremony, fished, hunted and harvested while being told the stories of the land from my relatives. I did not grow up speaking Cree in my home, dancing jig at family gatherings, or learning to sew, knit, bead, tan hide, or make bannock from my mom or my grandmother; but through scholars, artists, and educators I am finding threads to weave together to form some understanding of who I amd, how I am connected to community, and how to connect with my ancestors teachings. Artists such as Ursula Johnson, Nadia Myre, Rebecca Belmore, Christi Belcourt, Ruth Cuthand, and Lori Blondeau have inspired me to make art that reflects who I am, my experiences so far and how I can connect with my ancestors through making. I remember watching documentation of Lori Blondeau’s performance Sisters during one of my undergraduate class; it was a memorable and moving moment where I felt the power of poetic performance and sense of loss that each Indigenous person feels in some way. In the performance Blondeau performs three tasks; she crushed berries between two stones, guts a fish, then rips cloth. These actions were a way for Blondeau to perform tasks she remembers seeing her mother and aunties perform during her childhood. By performing these actions she is willing her body to physically connect to these actions and embodying that action as memory. When developing Sîpîy I knew I wanted to do something similar, I wanted to make an action, an embodied memory and knowledge that I would one-day pass on to my children and grand children. The work of Christ Belcourt is also very inspiring to me; her work in art and activism celebrates and honours Indigenous communities and epistemologies. Her work is rooted in fighting colonial trauma through projects like Walking With Our Sisters (WWOS), a commemorative art installation honouring the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit folk; and fighting Indigenous cultural appropriation by partnering with high end fashion icon Valentino to bring Indigenous design into mainstream/high end fashion; and her most recent endeavor as one of the founding members of the Onaman Collective which is a community-based social art group meant to help Indigenous youth recover traditional cultural practices by rooting pedagogical practice on the land and through language and art.

I had the chance to work on Walking With Our Sisters here in Mi’kma’ki. The travelling exhibition/memorial holds space within communities to honour the lives of those Indigenous folks missing and murdered. The exhibition/memorial is rooted in ceremony and Indigenous protocol based on the territory WWOS is being hosted and consists of over two thousand decorated and donated vamps (the tops of moccasins). The vamps symbolize the woman, girl, or person, no longer with us. This was an incredible experience that I will keep with me for the rest of my life.

Scholars and writers such as Margaret Kovach, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Lee Maracle, Sherry Farrell Racette, Pamala Palmater, and Winona LaDuke, have shaped how I look at Indigenous knowledges, histories, narratives, and protocols. Kovach’s writings on proper research etiquette inspired me to develop a project that would connect me to Mi’kma’ki and the people who have been the caretakers of the land since time immemorial. She taught me that giving back to the community in which you are researching is ‘best practice’ and that you should always follow this protocol. How is your work benefitting those around you? Kovach’s work was also rooted in Cree epistemologies and language, through that I was able to learn more about my cultural background and how the Cree language forms and informs Cree epistemologies and knowledge. Pamala Palmater’s Beyond Blood helped me understand the many ways in which the Canadian state controls Indigenous identity and how as Indigenous women we are still being disenfranchised from our inherent right to define ourselves and stay connected to our communities and histories. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s Dancing on our Turtles Back and Joane Cardinal-Schubert’s Flying with Louis inspired me to incorporate story and personal experiences into my writing. Simpson’s poetry in Islands of Decolonial Love and The Accident of Being Lost encouraged me to start writing poetry again and to incorporate the poems into my thesis. Jamaias DaCosta states the importance of Simpson’s, and other Indigenous writers and poets, best, “For individuals who do not have access to land, Elders, and/or teachings, literature can be a lifeline for making connections that are otherwise frayed beyond recognition.” Lee Maracle’s My Conversations with Canadians influenced me to write down all my experiences because they could be used for further teachings. And Sherry Farrell Racette’s lectures and writings inspired me to pick up the needle and learn to bead, for that I am forever thankful.

These artists, writers, scholars, and educators have now become part of who I am. Their teachings are embodied within me and their knowledge and advice are ever present in each artwork I make. They have become friends and family through written word and actions. I am forever grateful for their knowledge.

 

 

[1] The only story I heard about Ma’s experience at St.Bernard’s was that a young girl, about twelve or thirteen, became pregnant from one of the priests, the girl gave birth with the help of the nuns. When the girl finished and the baby was crying the priest throw the baby out the window. This story hunts me, as I am sure it hunted Ma. I can’t remember the context of hearing this story, but it has seeped into my being.

[2] “When Cree and Saulteaus Elders talk about the world as being alive, as of spirit, it makes sense because this is reinforced on a daily basis in the language. Animals, tabacco, trees, rocks are animate,  and hence they merit respect.” (Kovach, 66)

[3]http://iportal.usask.ca/docs/Prairie%20Forum/The%20Indian%20Pass%20System%20(v13no1_1988_pg25-42).pdf

carrie allison