Christie-Peters, Quill. (2017). Anishinaabe art-making as falling in love: Reflections on artistic programming for urban Indigenous youth. (MA Thesis), University of Victoria.
Omnipresent Anishinaabekwe has never felt the compartmentalization in her body, but she feels it projected at her, attempting to make her readable through the separation of her being. She has always felt the soft hands of ancestors, heard them whisper in the night. They have made her laugh out loud at times at the gifts they give her, the purpose they feed her, the joy in knowing how close they are, watching, waiting. Omnipresent Anishinaabekwe feels her own body, can shrink into a piece of floating dust and visit her homelands in the night, feels them ache with the weight of what they carry. City Anishinaabekwe has always known she carries her homelands in her body and this keeps her oh so warm at night.
The foundational logic of settler colonialism is that of compartmentalization. This compartmentalization creates the binaries, dichotomies and hierarchies that stand in stark contrast to the interconnections, complexities and intricacies that make up Anishinaabe life. Compartmentalization seeks readability, homogenization and categorization as prerequisites to the creation of hierarchies and individualism, the building blocks of settler systems of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy and capitalism. Compartmentalization attempts to contain us but we have always spilled over the boundaries. The veins of our bodies dig roots that traverse settler boundaries, our limbs become rivers that flow to lake and sea, and our minds reach up to the sky exploding past the ageist, ableist, heteropatriarchal, racist and capitalist settler normative ordering of the world. They are always trying to contain, sort and control us but we have always existed in pluralities and interconnections that render us incomprehensible, unreadable and deeply unsettling to colonial logics.
At its core, settler compartmentalism/colonialism seeks to remove Indigenous bodies and minds from Indigenous homelands. This includes the physical removal of Indigenous bodies from their territories, acts of genocide that remove through death and assimilationist tactics that attempt to remove our minds from the belonging embrace of our homelands. Importantly, compartmentalization also seeks to cover settler colonial tracks, to render invisible the ways in which we are complexly dispossessed, to obscure settler colonialism as the culprit of our diverse colonial predicaments. This is the insidious side of compartmentalization where we may find ourselves unable to see past the boundaries that enclose us. When we look at settler colonialism through the lens of compartmentalization we begin to see how it is an obscuring force that seeks to enclose us within the boundaries of shame. Shame emanates from the legacy of colonial violence and lives within our bodies, minds and hearts (Simpson, 2011, p. 13). This context forms much of the basis for my work with urban Indigenous youth in which I seek to use my knowledge and privilege to help them see past the boundaries and separations around them, tracing routes of dispossession and mapping resistance, resiliencies and futurities.
Settler compartmentalization is also multi-scalar. It functions across scales that encompass physical body and land, as well as permeating our intimate, relational and spiritual realms. I am interested in a multi-scalar approach to resisting settler compartmentalization that acknowledges the interconnectedness of material and intimate processes of decolonization and that places value in these intimate forms of decolonization that often stand unacknowledged in comparison to public, large-scale acts of resistance (Hunt and Holmes, 2015, p. 158). In particular, I am interested in what happens to our conceptions of decolonization and resistance when we dismantle the compartmentalization of Indigenous body from Indigenous homeland, illuminating how relational and “immaterial” work is, in fact, frontline defense work of our homelands and our nations. Indeed, there is a legacy within our communities of hierarchically placing public, frontline defense of land as something separate from the defense of certain Indigenous bodies who experience disproportionate levels of settler violence. In the words of Nēhiyaw scholar Erica Violet Lee, “Walk through my neighbourhood with me tonight and I will show you the stories of a thousand revolutions that will never be written” (2016). I see and value the intimate relational work we do in caring and loving for Indigenous bodies as fighting for our homelands and nations.
Interrogating the colonial compartmentalization of Indigenous body/homeland also centers the interrogation of heteropatriarchy as a necessity for Indigenous nationhood. Hunt and Holmes write, “Accounting for Indigenous expressions of gender and sexuality requires acknowledging that the ongoing colonial categorization of Indigenous peoples and their identities is integral to the denial of Indigenous self- determination” (2015, p.159). The colonial distinction of Indigenous body from land teaches me about heteropatriarchy as a key structural component of settler colonialism (Simpson, 2015) because only when bodies are considered separate from the land can we begin to categorize, recognize difference and create hierarchies. Only when bodies are considered separate from the land can we deny each person’s place within the web of creation that necessitates plurality, diversity and interconnection. When we conceive of body separated from homeland, we divorce land-based struggles from the safety of all members of our communities. In my conception of decolonization, I choose to foreground my resistance to the separation of Anishinaabe body/land and in doing so, I choose to ground decolonization in the interrogation of heteropatriarchy. Approaching Indigenous body as homeland in my work with urban Indigenous youth allows me to interrogate heteropatriarchy in an accessible way through the reminder that Indigenous bodies are homelands, too, and that our bodies, our genders and our sexualities are beautiful in all of their complexities.
24-year old Anishinaabekwe gathers with sacred sisters. The design, when it entered her mind, made her burst with laughter. She knew where it came from. They have gathered together to stitch the design onto skin, have called in the ancestors and they wait on the boundary between our world and theirs, they huddle and dance and murmur just below the skin. Sacred sisters have cued the Pallbearer (for the pain), Princess Nokia (for the badassery) and of course have v traditional materials on hand such as smudge, a loaf of bread, sour fruit juice berries from Whole Foods and most importantly, the absence of men. Katzie, Gwich’in, Anishinaabe ancestors join hands for a moment and laugh together at what they have orchestrated. Their wrinkled faces form the creases of our bodies and show us how to laugh in our bellies. The skin is stitched with a story, maps the routes of our homelands together, women’s hearts stitched together through important moment of bodily sovereignty, important moment of everlasting love, important routes of how to return to one another. We rejoice in our technologies that allow us to resist compartmentalization.
Pre-contact Anishinaabe art-making was so woven into our governance systems and ways of being that it never had to be distinguished as such. Settler colonialism and its attendant boundaries, hierarchies and categorizations necessitates that I explicitly return to, recollect and revisit Anishinaabe art as an expansive, diverse and interwoven element of Anishinaabe life that escapes this compartmentalization. My exploration of Anishinaabe artistic practice is focused on how art can overflow the boundaries colonialism has worked so hard to create in order to beautifully weave Anishinaabe art as life and Anishinaabe body as homeland. In a world of theorizations, we find true meaning when we approach concepts from within our web of relations (Simpson, 2011, p.52) and as such, my exploration of Anishinaabe art lives within my own web of relations. This discussion is very much rooted from my heart and my body and in discussing what is valuable or present in my conception of Anishinaabe art should in no way discredit or limit other explorations for indeed, Anishinaabe art cannot be contained or defined.
The dichotomy between art and life has roots in capitalist logics in which art circulates as commodity and artist becomes an occupation within our capitalist context. When we resist the false binary of art/life, we deny the separation of artistic product from artistic maker. Art can no longer be a truncated activity focused on the creation of an aesthetically pleasing final product but rather, art-making inherently becomes about process. This is not to say that Indigenous art cannot aim to circulate in the capitalist market or be aesthetically pleasing, but seeks to place value in the ways Indigenous art can and does center relationship building as artistic process. Nēhiyaw, Saulteaux and Métis artist Lindsay Nixon reminds us that Indigenous artists, particularly women and two-spirit people, are using principles of love and kinship to guide us into decolonial futures telling us, “Like my kin before me, I would argue that a project of Indigenous resurgence is nothing, is inanimate, without an ethics of love and kinship as a guiding principle” (2016). I interpret this as a way of placing decolonial value in Indigenous art practices that are attentive to radical and love-filled relationship building within our kinship systems. And so, when I say Anishinaabe art, I am inherently referencing a decolonial and loving creative practice of kinship and relationality.
This type of process-based and relational art-making has always been at the heart of Anishinaabe art practices. Within my understanding of the Anishinaabe worldview, relationships are at the heart of everything we do for they are the way we interact with and influence the world around us. Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar Leanne Simpson describes our web of relationships as starting from the self, emanating outwards to reach family, nation and the land (2011, p.109). Similarly, Anishinaabe artist and relative Celeste Pedri-Spade describes her artistic practice as a relational process that draws upon her relationships to self, land, ancestors, the creator, her family and the artistic medium (2014, p. 88) in turn allowing us to think, feel, look, listen and act (Pedri-Spade, 2016,
p.48). For Celeste, art-making is something done with the whole body (2014, p. 75) and when we create art we are summoning the complexities of our kinship networks, of our web of relationships, into a process of creation to be shared with our communities. Anishinaabe art breathes life into the teaching all my relations.
Anishinaabe art, as a radically relational practice, has always served as an essential component of Anishinaabe governance. When we create art, we enact governance over the self that also extends outwards to the broader family, community and nation. Embodying Anishinaabe sovereignty on these personal, relational and familial levels is where collective sovereignty truly begins (Pedri-Spade, 2014, p. 93). Indeed, as an Anishinaabekwe, I often use art to enter into a moment of bodily sovereignty where I feel in control over my own representation and body, an often fleeting feeling in the context of gendered settler colonialism. This is where it all begins. We cannot begin to practice sovereignty on the level of the nation if certain members of our communities do not have bodily sovereignty. We must start with the self and then radiate outwards to our families, the microcosms of the nation (Simpson, 2011, p.115). Artistic practice is a realm of autonomy that allows us to explore what sovereignty of the self may look and feel like.
In addition to being an act of personal sovereignty, art-making is also a form of storytelling and knowledge transmission that shapes our collective governance systems. Wanda Nanibush shares an Anishinaabemowin translation of resistance that is akin to being planted in the earth. Our ancestors form our root systems that nurture us and store for the future, the stems of the plant, “process the past here and now” (2012, p.4). I conceptualize Anishinaabe art-making as living within the stem of our plants, as a radically relational process that demands we access our relationships to our ancestors, homelands and spirit kin. The Anishinaabeg have always had ways to dance with our ancestors through ceremony, dream and song, but art-making remains a mode of communication that allows us to translate these ethereal and other-worldly experiences to our broader communities and nations. As art-making does not have to convey literally and didactically, it allows us to gaze upon our ancestors in the present, it allows us to root our governance systems in the knowledges of our ancestors. And so, I conceptualize Anisinaabe art as a practice of expansive kinship accountability that allows us to communicate knowledges from our relationships to each other, the self, our ancestors, our homelands, animal kin and spirit kin. Anishinaabe art is the creation of beautiful Anishinaabe futures and presents premised on accountability to all our relations.