(Published in the Every, Now. Then. Reframing Nationhood catalogue, Art Gallery of Ontario, 2017)
Indigenous women's love is specific. Indigenous women's love is focused and powerful. It is the kind of love that binds the self, community, nation, homeland, and ancestors seamlessly to one another, and then nestles this entity into the greater web of creation. An Indigenous woman's love is endless, boundless, wildly imaginative. This love is such a strong force that it has been the target of settler colonialism since contact. This love is the core of Indigenous nationhood and is rooted in the specific places we come from. Early settlers knew they had to target this love in order to remove Indigenous bodies from their homelands, to secure the theft of land on which they would then impose their systems of white supremacy, capitalism and heteropatriarchy that necessitate the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples. And yet, the love of Indigenous women- and here the colonial context requires that I must clarify that I innately mean all those who identify as women- is unstoppable.
Throughout settler colonialism on Turtle Island, we have continued to love despite the genocide, the violence, and the dispossession that canada now seeks to celebrate. As an Anishinaabekwe, I refuse to mark anniversaries of attempted genocide. I refuse to participate in the national delusion and colonial amnesia that actively facilitate the contemporary dispossession of Indigenous lands and bodies. As an Anishinaabekwe, I continue to love. I struggle to love in a world that teaches me to hate myself, to forget where my homeland is, to forget who my ancestors are, who so lovingy resisted and created so that I could do the same. This type of love, the kind that overflows the boundaries and hierarchies colonialism has so violently enforced, is horrifyingly threatening to the colonial objectives that define canada.
In the arts-based work that I do with Indigenous youth, love is the driving force that pushes me to bring every part of myself to the table. Within this work, we gather together and embody a relational praxis of art making that seeks to strengthen and reclaim the relationships that settler colonialism has sought to destroy. We gather to explore the relationships we have to the self, each other, our homelands, and our ancestors, and in doing so, we radically love ourselves, our communities, and the lands we come from. Initiating this type of work from within the Art Gallery of Ontario has been challenging- and here I remind you that major art institutions are pillars of capitalism that reproduce colonial myths and craft the comforting nationalist narratives that have allowed canada to turn a blind eye to its bloody roots. My love is the reason why I have, at times, worn myself thin and found myself in places of institutional hostility, spaces in which I had never hoped to be.
It is my willingness to stretch myself thin that makes my love visible to the institution. My love is then read by the institution as palatable, acceptable, and exploitable; as a means to extract my labour. The labour of "decolonizing the institution" can be extracted from me when, out of love, I am frantically trying to create safe space for Indigenous youth within the institution. The labour of building institutional sustainability can be extracted from me when, out of love, I am desperately trying to ensure that the position I have opened up for another Indigenous person is not as unsafe as it has been for me. The labour of translation weighs heavily on my shoulders when, out of love, I need to believe that this place can be transformed, even momentarily, in order for these beautiful young people to feel they are welcome in a place that has historically erased, excluded, and commodified their bodies. I am left an exhausted dichotomy, simultaneously the under qualified, should-be-grateful-for-the-opportunity, and willing-to-go-above-and-beyond decolonization expert.
Love is the core of certain forms of my labour. But make no mistake, even though I am extending, bending and defending, my love remains uncompromising, unfaltering, and absolute. My love creates the boundaries of what I will not tolerate. In all of its ferocity, but, most of all, in its refusal to falter or be altered in any way, my love becomes unsettling, threatening, unreadable. I am no longer the palatable source of extractable labour and I am quickly cast as deviant and rebellious.
Ultimately the institution will never understand the type of love that I have for my community: the type that shatters the hierarchies that define power within the institution; the type that binds my body to the submerged homelands we were forced off of because of government flooding; the type that makes my life so beautifully meaningful, that despite all of the struggles, I always have purpose, I always have laughter, I always have the presence of my ancestors standing behind me. It is this type of love that is incomprehensible to capitalist logics, yet always recognized in its deviance. Our love makes institutions quake, makes the state tremble in fear; it always has. Our love causes a longing ache and deep sadness in those who live immersed within their compliance in upholding structures of oppression. So I am left tired and fugitive, but always immersed in love.
We find ourselves working within institutions for different reasons: some of us want to transform these spaces; some of us simply want to access space and resources; some of us cannot stand by and watch as large institutional/corporate complexes profit from stolen land without giving back a damn thing. I come to this place through an autonomous space model. This means, give us the space and resources you owe us and get out of the way.
At the end of the day, I have carved out the tiniest of spaces for young artists to fill with their own powerful, beautiful and dynamic love. These young ones teach me that I have to love myself even more in these institutional spaces, that I need to remember that love must flow outwards and inwards, that an Indigenous woman loving herself is the deepest threat to colonialism. They teach me that self-love allows us to celebrate ourselves, our work, our bodies. They teach me that self-love in the institution means a refusal to accommodate, a refusal to translate, a refusal to accept paternalism, a refusal to cushion white fragility, and a refusal to cede control. Importantly- and the reason why I write this article- radical self-love in an institutional context means ownership and consent of my love and labour.
Celebrating 150 years of genocide and dispossession means that canada and its institutions hungrily search for Indigenous labour they can claim, consume, distort, and commodify. The optics and narratives of canada 150 are serious business. canada's weak fingers grasp for authenticity and legitimacy amidst a foundation of blatant injustice, genocide, slavery, and violence. I will not let my love and labour be claimed by the institution. As we move further into a national consciousness premised on the state-sanctioned reconciliation industry, I hope we can remember the centrality of Indigenous land and bodies in our explorations of how to exist in this place together. The future must be built with consent and must centre the repatriation of Indigenous land. At the very least, we need to be able to choose to access resources and space without the exhausting labour of creating, defending, and guarding those spaces. We have so much work to do, and canada, its institutions, the Art Gallery of Ontario, will never be privy to this work. Let us gather in these small autonomous spaces we work so hard to carve out. Let us exist within the fleeting moments where we are afforded due resources, and let us love. Let us love our communities, our nations, our homelands, and our ancestors until this love is enough to burn what has never served us to the ground.