Chapter 4: I am one love-filled Anishinaabekwe: On Indigenous women's love and labour in the institution
Christie-Peters, Quill. (2017). Anishinaabe art-making as falling in love: Reflections on artistic programming for urban Indigenous youth. (MA Thesis), University of Victoria.
Anishinaabekwe floats around in huge, vast, white institution. She is marked through her body and marked through her labour. Kwe feels simultaneously underqualified-should- be-grateful-for-the-opportunity-intern and top-o-the-line-decolonization-expert-who- carries-the-weight-of-institutional-racism-on-her-back. One time kwe gives an hour-long presentation on Indigenous youth barriers to the AGO and afterwards a man comes up to her seeking her praise for having a conversation with another native person. He beams, “I just thought you should know that I talked to Quill for an hour last week and we had a great conversation.” I stare at him blankly and give him time to realize his mistake but he doesn’t. I tell him that in fact, I am Quill. I am the one who just gave you an hour-long interactive presentation, I am the one you uncomfortably share the elevator with every day, I am the one you fake a smile to in the hall. But hey, of course we are read and consumed not as the individuals we are but by the fact that we are Indigenous. Just Indigenous bodies who can serve settler purpose on a whim.
SECURITY CODE 1066: Be on alert for homeless people, deviants and trouble-makers.
I am one love-filled Anishinaabekwe. By love, I am invoking complexities and intricacies inherent to my identity as an Anishinaabekwe. By love, I mean a place- specific, body-specific, relational force that binds self to community, nation and homeland, nestling this bundle into the greater web of creation in accountable ways. Anishinaabekwe love is a force to be reckoned with, one that traverses, scales and obliterates the hierarchies and boundaries settler colonialism works so hard to maintain. Anishinaabekwe love, and actually the love of Indigenous women, two-spirit, trans and non-binary people, is so powerful that it has been an explicit target of settler colonialism since contact. Early settlers knew they had to destroy our love in order to separate Indigenous bodies from their homelands. Early settlers could see the ways our love binds our bodies seamlessly with our homelands, could see how it weaves our communities together in unfaltering intimacies.
Despite the genocide, the violence and the dispossession, we have continued to love. Sometimes, loving is a struggle. Sometimes, I struggle to love myself in a world that teaches me to think I am disposable, that wants me to forget where my homelands are, that wants me to feel like my ancestors aren’t there, watching, waiting and guiding. But yet, I continue to love. In fact, the relationship between my love and labour is a very close one and when I am most content is when my love and labour are synchronous. I have spent the last two chapters of this paper situating my work with urban Native youth as a radically relational, love-filled practice that embodies an Anishinaabekwe approach to art-making. At its core, this work emanates from Anishinaabekwe love for my community, love for my homeland and love for the youth I work with. Embodying this work within the Art Gallery of Ontario was challenging. My love as an Anishinaabekwe does not go unnoticed by the institution.
When I first started my work at the Art Gallery of Ontario, I was optimistic, energetic, hopeful and perhaps naïve. The love I carry as an Anishinaabekwe was made visible to the institution through my willingness to do, my willingness to stretch myself thin. Quite simply, when my love is readable and palatable to the institution, it is seen as a means to exploit labour from me. The labour of decolonizing the institution, the labour of institutional sustainability and the labour of translation can all be extracted from me when, out of love, I am seeking to make this institution a safer space for Indigenous people and in particular, for the Indigenous youth I am responsible for bringing into this space. I find myself in corporate board rooms about to give a 30-minute presentation to the department of Public Programming and Learning only to be squeezed in for the last 10 minutes. I find that not even my presence, but actually the possibility of an interaction with me through a presentation or a meeting, creates misplaced self-congratulatory celebrations within this racist institution. I start to feel less like a person and more like a fleeting Indigenous presence that serves to complicate the deep guilt of institutional racism. No one wants to actually do the work.
Anishinaabekwe is so tired. She goes to a meeting with the department of Public Programming and Learning and tells them she cannot run drop-ins anymore because she is only one person and because she needs the budget to run the Indigenous youth residency. She also tells them she will be paying youth who get accepted into the residency. She is met with hostility, is told to use her own honorarium to support the programs so that she can run both. Would this question ever be uttered to another person? Why do they feel so entitled to her labour? Does she need to remind them that they enforce an hourly workload on her honorarium such that she makes pennies? Does she need to remind them of all of the institutional work they have been putting on her shoulders? Does she need to remind them that ALL of kwe’s budget and honoria money comes from one donor specifically interested in kwe’s work? That the AGO literally doesn’t contribute a single cent to this work but yet feels entitled to it, consumes it, claims it...
Being a loving Anishinaabekwe within a major art institution is exhausting. I cannot help but feel that the entitlement to my labour is rooted in my identity as an Indigenous woman, as someone that settler colonialism perpetuates as less-than-human and as someone whose very specific love has historically been a target of settler colonialism. Anishinaabe scholar Dory Nason reminds us of the contemporary attacks on Indigenous women’s love in the context of the Idle No More movement reminding us that our love, “strike(s) at the core of a settler-colonial misogyny that refuses to acknowledge the ways it targets Indigenous women for destruction” (2013). Our love is oh so powerful. My love may have caused me to extend myself but it also crafts the boundaries of what I will and will not tolerate. My love is not just about giving, it is also about refusal. A point was reached at the AGO where my love became about uncompromising limits. They couldn’t understand why I valued a relational program. They couldn’t fathom why I wanted to pay the youth involved in the program an honorarium. Most importantly, they never stopped to ask why these things mattered to me. My love as an Anishinaabekwe became unreadable and incomprehensible to institutional objectives and I was quickly cast as deviant, rebellious and threatening. The art institution, a limb of colonialism, a pillar of capitalism, a machine of national myth- making, recognizes and knows that the boundless love of an Indigenous woman for her community is deeply unsettling to its very foundation.
After this breaking point, I relied on select individuals at the AGO to clear the institutional space for me to continue my work as it was intended to be done. If not for the presence of Wanda Nanibush and Andrew Hunter, both curators at the AGO, I am certain my work would not have continued. They both used their institutional privilege and positions to allow me to carry on with full autonomy and for this I am grateful. Acknowledging the necessity of Wanda and Andrew for this project is not only an expression of thanks, it also points to the fact that the AGO was not ready to support Indigenous programming, was not ready to accept that Indigenous programming is likely to be different from pre-existing institutional models, and was not even ready to listen from an Anishinaabekwe arts programmer willing to be so generous.
At the end of it all, I am still one love-filled Anishinaabekwe. But, I have learned important lessons both from the AGO and from the brilliant youth who participated in the residency. These youth have reminded me that it is just as important to love yourself as it is to focus on outward forms of love. They tell me that I must love myself more within these institutional spaces and that an Indigenous woman loving herself is the greatest threat to colonialism. In the context of the AGO, loving myself more means engaging in the practice of refusal when my labour is being exploited, a refusal to accommodate, a refusal to cede control, and a refusal to cushion settler feelings at the expense of Anishinaabekwe wellbeing. Most importantly, the youth have reminded me that loving myself within an institutional context means ownership and consent of my love and labour. In this vein, I will continue to defend, claim and celebrate my love and labour as an Anishinaabekwe. I will continue to be one love-filled Anishinaabekwe.
For Anique: Red and Black kwewag seek refuge in each other instantaneously by virtue of institutional racism. They gather in white spaces and create moments of safety and love. They know that if they let go of each other they risk being swallowed whole. They stand in front of each other, both a witness and look into each crevice of a wrinkled smile, every curvature of the limb, memorizing the maps of each other’s bodies, reciting each others’ stories knowing that this knowledge of one another is coveted, that knowing each other’s stories is a gift. Through their laughter they sonically map a future, can glimpse a place where they are safe and warm and free to simply be. Their laughter is so beautifully fugitive and it dances off of the walls of the hollow AGO rising to warm watching ancestors.