Focal spaces

Originator No. 2, Carl Beam
Originator No. 2, Carl Beam

I like to write because it helps me to connect with focal spaces where I feel most alive and closest to God, in whatever form God takes. Writing about Aboriginal art deepens this experience, because I am writing about art, which is usually the product of connections with God and living things.

Writing about Aboriginal people and their art is a small way to heal the world; picking up the shards of broken things and putting them back together; fixing the splintered, warped perspective of mainstream interpretations of Native art. And how could it be otherwise, if a person writes about NDN art, but sees it from across the chasm of ignorance that separates that writer from their subject?

Focal spaces may envelope us in many times and places. Over food you made and shared, when riding your bike early in the morning before the city sounds have taken over; walking, dancing or standing in place, on a path where people have gone before over hundreds of years, and knowing it deep in your bones. Writing opens these spaces within me, and perhaps in you.

What is reconciliation? In the country

I got lost in Indian country. Don’t know when exactly. Maybe a few weeks after the Oka Crisis ended and traditional people walked out of the treatment centre in Kanehsatake, holding up sacred masks. It could have been on a trip up north in the middle of winter, riding in a cold van, sipping my Haisla friend’s twist shandy, listening to him strum guitar. We got out along the way and looked up at the stars. They were so bright, as if they had been plugged into a socket on overload. I could feel the shock. Somebody picked me up out of the snow where I was lying, gazing skyward. Brushed off the ice. We got back in the van and drove north.

Once I went out to Kanehsatake and sat among the Pines by myself, a lone figure in a grove of trees planted by the ancestors of the Mohawk people. I buried a silver bracelet under a pine tree and said a prayer for the little forest. That was years ago. Surely an animal has made off with it by now. Then I walked a road for a long time, looking for my friend’s place. Somebody stopped, gave me a lift to Joe’s tiny house perched on a hill above hayfields. I was definitely in Indian country then, among fields shimmering in the sun, lush with summer. Since that day, Joe has passed on, his ashes scattered over Blue Mountain near his home. He was behind the barricades until the last day of the siege of Kanehsatake (the Oka Crisis). He walked out to the army’s perimeter, climbed into a waiting bus and was driven to prison.

Joe and other Mohawks who stayed behind the razor wire until the end were eventually released pending trial. We used to talk on the phone sometimes about how to raise funds for their defense. He warned me that his line was tapped by the RCMP, but we talked anyway, about fund-raising, the Lord of the Rings (a favourite book for us both), and how anxious he was—he didn’t want to come out of the house some days. On that blue-sky day when I visited, I sat with him on his front steps, drinking grape juice, and then watched the sun shimmer over the fields as he raked grass. Had dinner with him and his girlfriend in the yard, back of his place. As I sat in Joe’s yard, behind his little house, I didn’t know where that country came from. I can’t enter Indian country at will. Maybe it’s an illusion as deep as hayfields in summer. There might be only one country, growing through me, filled with electric shock and pine roots and the dust of old friends.

Photo of Joe David, taken in Kanehsatake, courtesy of Elizabeth Sacca

A way to temper isolation

I thought I would start this blog as a way to talk about the process of researching and writing my articles on Aboriginal art and artists. Right now I’m working on a really ambitious piece – I’m researching a piece on the late Mohawk artist Joe David, from Kanehsatake.

Joe David - Eastern Door web site

It’s been slow going. I got the idea from Diane Pugen, a prof at the Ontario College of Art and Design. We met at the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective’s annual conference, which took place in Ottawa last fall.

I thought it would be a good idea to write about Joe’s art, because this year marks 20 years since the Oka Crisis, and Joe, who was behind the barricades, was written about a lot, but mostly because of his “warrior” role, and not because of his art.

At first, I got just about nowhere, emailing and calling people who might have something to say about Joe David as an artist, or images of Joe’s art that I could look at. But during those six months I managed to locate six images of art, several books and articles written by, or about Joe.

Now I’m finally making progress, thanks in part to another conversation with Diane.  She suggested a number of people who will be very helpful to talk to. My first interview is tomorrow night with my friend Arthur Renwick, a Toronto-based Haisla artist and musician who used to hang out with Joe in Montreal back in the nineties.

I am relatively new to writing about art, and just getting to know the First Nations art community, so I feel pretty isolated most of the time as I work on these articles. I am not really sure of their value, and don’t have a master plan in terms of what I want to do, or where I want to go with them.

It just seems that my personality drives me to make things happen, either by creating something in writing, or by organizing events – as a student I was an activist and organized countless panel discussions and demonstrations. Now, I sometimes help put on house concerts with my husband and friends! Great fun.

When I first decided to write a series of articles I had planned to write profiles of successful Native people who are doing interesting things, and offer the pieces to a non-Native audience, in the hopes of making a small chink in the armour of ignorance that characterizes the mainstream attitude to Aboriginal peoples in Canada. Instead, I seem to be beginning to take part in the conversation about First Nations art from within that community, which is a very unexpected outcome.

I didn’t now I had anything to contribute in that way. But I guess when you love something, you usually have a unique perspective to bring to it.  Let me know what you think – how you feel when it comes to writing about something that requires a lot of time spent alone.