Christie-Peters, Quill. (2017). Anishinaabe art-making as falling in love: Reflections on artistic programming for urban Indigenous youth. (MA Thesis), University of Victoria.
14-year old Anishinaabekwe has brown skin and floats in a sea of small town white assholes. She finds the only other Native girl in Fergus, ON. They are inseparable for a while and they are mischievous. Maybe they find refuge in each other while also wanting to burn things to the ground. Shoplifting make-up at the walmart can get you cuffed, arrested and thrown in a cell for 5 hours even if you’re only 14 years old. Never to be friends again.
17-year old Anishinaabekwe goes to high school in Fergus, ON. The whitest town on earth. She is fetishized in every single intimate relationship she has. She is glaringly different, she is the Other. She is simultaneously WAGON BURNER! and GO BACK TO YOUR OWN COUNTRY! muttered from the same mouth. MY LITTLE SAVAGE muttered affectionately by another.
20-year old Anishinaabekwe is too nervous to study in the UBC longhouse because she feels like an outsider, like people can take one glance at her and tell she grew up in the city with a sporadic native dad. As if people can tell she went to high school in Fergus, ON., that she tried so hard during high school to fill in the gaps she experienced but that hosting an Indigenous gathering in Fergus meant sitting in a classroom with an overly enthusiastic teacher eager to learn. .
As an urban Anishinaabekwe growing up off of my traditional territory, I speak from a position attuned to the complexities of urban Indigenous identities. In the city, authenticity narratives abound that create the dichotomies of on-reserve/off-reserve, city/homeland, assimilated/traditional rendering the city a particularly contentious place to assert one’s Indigenous identity. These authenticity narratives are carried forward by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and can prevent a sense of belonging while also contributing to the conception of urban cities as non-Indigenous, land-less spaces rather than as active Indigenous territories where culture, law and land are generative and living. In my work with urban Native youth, I constantly witness anxieties around a sense of belonging and identity, around feeling unable to contribute to their respective nations and in carrying a sense of shame for lacking cultural knowledge.
The prevalence of these authenticity narratives stem from settler colonialism as a form of governmentality that largely operates to remove Indigenous bodies from their homelands. Indeed, the ordering and organization of space according to the nation-state is foundational to the functioning of settler colonialism (Goeman, 2013, p.38). These colonial orderings of space such as the residential school and foster care systems, the pass system and the reserve system are just a few examples of the ways in which colonialism operates spatially to control, confine, erase or remove Indigenous bodies. These orderings, premised on colonial ideologies, further generate the hierarchies and binaries that support settler colonialism (Goeman, 2013, p.2). In my work with youth, I largely deal with the resulting dichotomies of reserve/city, traditional/assimilated and city/homeland. Importantly, these containerizations of Indigenous identity can prevent us from being able to see past our own boundaries. In the city, youth may find it easier to attribute a loss of culture, language and access to territory to their urbanity rather than making the larger connection to settler colonialism as a force intent on preventing Indigenous peoples from belonging to, and occupying, their homelands.
The act of talking unabashedly about our personal relationships to our territories speaks back to the hyperspatialization Indigenous peoples face and complicates the notion of place as a static site of identity formation (Goeman, 2013, p.10). Our relationships to our territories are diverse and multifaceted and cannot be relegated to the dichotomies settler colonialism creates. In this line of thought, I am drawn to think about my own relationship to the places I exist within and in particular, my father’s relationship to place. He has always been transient and mobile, drifting from Thunder Bay to Toronto to New York, frequenting friendship centers and managing to get around without a dollar in his pocket. This transiency was puzzling to me when I was younger but made perfect sense after he started sharing the stories of how our family travelled cyclically around our territories. In fact, our territory (or rather the routes my family would frequent) extended from Winnipeg, down to Minnesota and upwards towards Superior, overflowing the small reserve boundaries of Nezaadiikaang. Mobility is natural to my father and his mobility never threatens his identity as Anishinaabe.
I am drawn to think of the words of my friend Karyn Recollet who writes, “I am deeply interested in how the decolonial project calls upon Indigeneity to situate itself within traditional territory, and asks for a particular kind of land pedagogy that might not apply to us all, nor reflect all of our experiences” (2016, p.10). She reminds me of the privileges I carry. Even though I did not have the privilege of growing up on my territory, I carry the privilege of being able to visit my homelands, of carrying the stories of our territory through my father and of having the ability to move back to my territory in the coming months. Similarly, when I work with youth I am further humbled by my privilege. They remind me that even knowing where your territory is or what nation you come from is a profound privilege. They remind me that we must gather together and cultivate an Indigenous conception of belonging that takes into consideration realities of Indigenous displacement from territory and family while also making space for agentive Indigenous mobilities.
Combatting colonial geographies and dismantling harmful authenticity narratives around Indigenous identities means cultivating a new sense of Indigenous belonging in the city. Just as approaching identity through a strictly blood quantum approach is problematic and does not account for our multifaceted and contextual webs of kinship, approaching identity from a strictly physical requirement fails to account for the diverse ways Indigenous peoples relate to their territories through spiritual, emotional and mental realms. In her exploration of spatial discourses being (re)mapped by Native women, Seneca scholar Mishuana Goeman “encourages us to move toward spatialities of belonging that do not bind, contain or fix relationship to land and each other in ways that limit our definition of self and community” (2013, p.11). Importantly, she draws our attention to creative practice and in particular, literature as a form that has the ability to profoundly unsettle colonial space in a complexity of ways (Goeman, 2013, p.2). Karyn Recollet similarly forwards creative practice- through hip hop and remixing- as a re- mapping that accesses the spatial cartographies and geographical scales that are denied to us through settler colonialism, allowing us to embody Indigenous scales of space/time that bind us to territories in radically decolonial ways (2016, p.92). In this sense, I see creative practice as having the profound ability to (re)map urban Indigenous futurities and presences and further, that this (re)mapping is an essential component of our nation building projects which must be attentive to our mobilities and displacements.
I am interested in looking towards our own bodies as maps to the decolonial future, as maps that are carefully crafted through the hands of our ancestors and as maps that contain a wealth of internal knowledge. I am interested in what happens when we remind youth of the archives housed within their own bodies. I conceptualize this approach as an extension of what Leanne Simpson forwards when she tells us that, “To survive as Nishnaabeg- we shouldn’t be just striving for land-based pedagogies, the land must once again become the pedagogy” (2014, p.14). My work with urban Indigenous youth reminds me that bodies are lands too and we have work to do in shifting our conceptions of belonging and identity to celebrate the internal knowledge of our ancestors and homelands that are housed within our own bodies. Land is pedagogy and also, body is pedagogy and so, when we use our bodies to create art we are engaging an Anishinaabe pedagogy that treats body and homeland as one in the same and we are, “creat(ing) a generation of land based, community-based intellectuals and cultural producers who are accountable to our nations and whose life work is concerned with the regeneration of these systems” (Simpson, 2014, p.13). We are, in the most profound sense, obliterating the colonial binary of body/homeland.
Accessing Anishinaabe archives in the city means celebrating our own knowledges and the relationships to ancestors and homelands we carry in our bodies. Embodying a body-land pedagogy does not just mean we get to turn completely inwards but rather, that we feel our bodies where they exist in time and space and engage with our internal knowledge as well as accountably relating to the territories we reside on. In this sense, a body-land pedagogy is as much about the body as it is about the land where one’s body resides and as such, demands we practice responsibility to the territories we are visitors on. Further, a body-land pedagogy does not discount the importance of material connections to homelands but rather, illuminates how we can practice accountability to our homelands even when we are away from them. We begin to cultivate an Indigenous conception of belonging that allows Indigenous minds to remain spiritually, mentally and emotionally accountable to homelands in the face of violent colonial displacement or agentive mobilities preventing physical connections. This conception of belonging acts as an empowering force to actually return to homeland, while also still acknowledging that returning to one’s territory can be a privilege many won’t receive.
Musings on Anishinaabe body-homeland-art-life:
When we collapse the containerizations of body from homeland, art from life, we
are left with a conception of art-making as a radical process of falling in love with our kin
rather than as a truncated activity oriented around the creation of an aesthetically pleasing
final product. Art-making is a way for us to access our archives or, in other words, art-
making allows us to dance with our ancestors, to listen to their soft words, to feel the
weight of our homelands in our bodies. This approach to artistic practice cultivates an
Indigenous conception of belonging that pushes back against the authenticity narratives
housed within urban spaces that tell urban Indigenous youth they are somehow less
Indigenous. We come to celebrate our bodies as carrying our homelands and our
ancestors while ethically engaging with the territories we may be residing on. When we
make art, we are falling in love and that is oh so beautiful.