What is reconciliation? The myth of the vanishing Indian

“To the extent that the Indian was on his way out, [colonial society] created reserves, they created little wardship statuses, they created situations to manage the problem while it went away. In the meantime, the colonial society arrogantly assumed everything that the Indian had. Her land, his power, all of these things. In Canada in the 1950’s, the people and their rights were assumed to be…fading away, the vanishing Indian. But then, you had this boomerang effect where the Indian comes back, and it was ‘Indian’ at that time. The Indian comes back, physically, culturally, intellectually: that culture, that society, that power begins to re-emerge.”

–Taiaiake Alfred on Canada and its indigenous peoples, Dec 29, 2003

The myth of the vanishing Indian is the story about what’s left over as the people die off, leaving behind a faded imprint. As they fade away, their voices become faint; their cultures dim; a light going out. A light that shone brightly in the distant past. We look down through a narrow space of the present and see only worn-down reserve houses; broken bottles of booze; grey, cold streets with old men hunched on city sidewalks.

In this story, you don’t hear the piercing sound of singing around pow wow drums coming towards you under the earth, through the soles of your feet and up into your guts. Drums you hear all summer long on the pow wow trail, or in night clubs, where the electric pow wow beats of A Tribe Called Red bounce off the walls, and voices like high wailing wind swirl across the dance floor. In that story, you can’t feel the intense heat of sacred fires, burning all over this land. Where you can sit with tobacco and cedar in your hand before tossing the medicine into the fire, sending your prayers to your creator.

Mark how the face and voice of Charlie Wenjack’s sister Pearl rise in stark relief against that faded and tattered story of the Indian. Hear her voice travel to us across CBC’s airwaves as she retells how her little brother died escaping residential school. Ever since she started speaking to us, Pearl’s voice has been whispering in our hearts, whether we hear it or not. She has the voice of my grandmother and your grandmother. She had a brother who could have been my brother or yours. Feel it, a connection growing, deep within your sense of country.

It is time for you to find your roots in this land, to let yourself be changed. To let the spirit into your blood.

“We call upon federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments to repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous peoples and lands, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius, and to reform those laws, government policies, and litigation strategies that continue to rely on such concepts.”

Calls to action, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

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Image from CBC News. Access November 19, 2016.

A bucketful of sweat

Why would artistic endeavours be any different? At times writing can be magical, when you experience what is now called “flow”: everything else falls away and you are in the right place, at the right time, doing the only thing you could be doing. But since it’s magical at times, we forget that writing, playing music or acting is mostly a workaday kind of thing. There are only a few drops of inspiration, mixed in with a bucket of sweat. And maybe a few tears.

Recently, I posted a question on Facebook about doing art, whether it be writing, visual arts, music, theatre–anything creative. My question was, how do people deal with feelings of intimidation, discouragement or even paralysis when it comes to their art?

I was humbled by the thoughtful responses I received from musicians, fellow writers, photographers, actors and other artists. If I didn’t know before, now I am certain that being an artist is the same struggle for everybody, with minor variations. Some folks don’t feel worthy, others find it hard connecting to an audience–but we’re all the same.

I should have known this, since there is struggle mixed into the joys of every other area of life. Why would artistic endeavours be any different? At times writing can be magical, when you experience what is now called “flow”: everything else falls away and you are in the right place, at the right time, doing the only thing you could be doing. But since it’s magical at times, we forget that writing, playing music or acting is mostly a workaday kind of thing. There are only a few drops of inspiration, mixed in with a bucket of sweat. And maybe a few tears.

When I was younger I wrote poetry and put together a chapbook called Gathering Medicine which I launched at the Tree Reading series here in Ottawa, and gave away to many friends. But I stopped writing poetry, because I found it was so much work, done in isolation, and in the end, only a few hundred people (at most) would ever read any of the poems. As Chris Bose, a multi-media artist and writer says, in this country, you’re a hit if you sell a 1000 copies of a poetry book.

My biggest thrill was getting a single poem published in Prairie Fire magazine and one in Arc poetry magazine. I found it depressing.  I thrive on social interaction, and I have political activism in my nature, and poetry didn’t fulfill either.

So, instead I wrote reviews of poetry books, including some by Indigenous poets, for a couple of journals. I enjoyed doing it. I wrote art and book reviews for the Canadian Medical Association Journal. My favourite is a review of Gail Valiskakis’ book Healing Traditions. It’s a collection of essays on Aboriginal mental health, and I was so happy to profile it for medical doctors, since I am sure at least some of them went on to read the book, and perhaps improved their practices as a result.

I have also written a series of profiles of Indigenous artists for Rabble.ca, as well as a review of an exhibit at the National Gallery on Indigenous identity. Then I forayed into online privacy, because I was inspired by Ed Snowden’s actions. I ended up writing two articles for Rabble.ca, while exploring the issue through reading and learning about technologies for encryption and privacy. I asked a question when Glenn Greenwald spoke in Ottawa, and he retweeted the video recording of the question and answer, because he liked it. That was really a thrill! He has over 700,000 followers. That moment, the question and answer, fit perfectly with the sociable activist within me.

Last year, I reviewed The Red Post exhibit, which marked the 25th anniversary of the Oka Crisis. Then a year of relative silence, until I wrote a stream of consciousness essay inspired, among other things, by driving through southern Ontario on the day of the final Tragically Hip concert, swimming in Lake Huron and reading Downie’s lyrics, which are also poetry.

Writing “On the adventure” was special for me, because it was so liberating to write. Words, images and joy poured forth. It was also gratifying to have a close friend and editor make it better by working on it with me.

It hasn’t been published anywhere except my blog, and I don’t really know what to do with it, to be honest. It’s not an essay or a poem, but something in between. I’ve had maybe a hundred viewers for it and a few nice comments. It’s a quiet piece, not a quick read, and not topical. But writing it led me to ask that online question of other artists, and come to the conclusion that like all artists, I need to maintain a quiet, warm corner in my heart; a place welcoming enough that I can write in stillness and feel inspiration when it passes through me; see it surfacing among the words.

I am not prolific, and I am often frustrated by the lack of an audience and feedback. I write mostly for free, and only outside of working full time, having a family and maintaining a martial arts practice, which is another kind of creative endeavour–one that plays a big role in maintaining mental, emotional and physical balance.

But whether I write in obscurity, or have a big audience–I don’t know how much it matters. Nobody does art for others. We need some feedback and community, but it doesn’t have to be a stadium full of people.

I now see that if you cultivate your creativity, and respond to your readers, both will grow. It’s as simple as that.

Steven Loft: A curator with chutzpah

Steven Loft has a lot of chutzpah. This Mohawk-Jewish curator, writer and media artist is the first to hold the two-year position of curator-in-residence, Indigenous art, at the National Gallery of Canada. His overall career goal is impressively ambitious: “I want to change the way mainstream Canada thinks about Aboriginal art.”

During his stint at the Gallery, Steve has created two new and challenging exhibits that exemplify his willingness to push boundaries and help to make his goal a reality: Steeling the Gaze: Portraits by Aboriginal Artists and Rethinking Abstraction from an Indigenous Perspective. These exhibits present highly contemporary First Nations art that incorporates abstraction, photography and multi-media, and break with notions that Aboriginal art must be based on traditional Native art forms.

“With Steeling the Gaze, we want to turn the gaze back to the audience. We want the viewer to say, ‘Wow this is how Aboriginals look at themselves and at the rest of society.’ This exhibit is important aesthetically (it presents beautiful works of art) and culturally, because it explains partially what it is to be an Aboriginal person in this country. Politically it says we are here; we need to be heard and be seen on every level.”

The curator-in-residence position is funded by the Canada Council of the Arts. During the two-year term, the resident curator creates an exhibition for the National Gallery’s On Tour program. Steven Loft’s contribution is Steeling the Gaze, created in collaboration with the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography.

Steve’s career includes many examples of his willingness to break new ground in his field. When he started working in the Aboriginal art field, very little was written on the subject, and there were very few Native curators—exceptions being Tom Hill, director of the Woodland Cultural Centre, and Gerald McMaster, now at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

“I read everything I could, but it was hard to learn about Aboriginal art, because there was not much available at that time. I more or less taught myself. I attended conferences where I got to talk to Aboriginal artists, and then started writing about Aboriginal art.”

In the 1990s, Steve was one of the few people writing on Native art, so he received many requests to write articles. “I was even asked to write the essay for Alanis Obomsawin’s Governor General’s Award. When I got the call, I thought it was some sort of prank. I couldn’t believe it. I had to pinch myself.”

After several years at NIIPA, Steve spent two years at the Art Gallery of Hamilton in the 1990s, as First Nations Curator. He worked closely with Shirley Madill, a curator who has been instrumental in promoting Aboriginal art in Canada. They co-curated Alt.Shift.Control: Musings on Digital Identity, the first exhibit to feature contemporary Aboriginal artists at the Hamilton gallery. Steve then relocated to Winnipeg, where he became director of the Urban Shaman Gallery, Canada’s largest Aboriginal artist-run centre.

Loft is the child of a Jewish mother who escaped Nazi Germany as a young girl, and a Mohawk father from the Iroquois community of Six Nations in Ontario. Steve grew up in Hamilton, Ont., but despite the proximity of Six Nations, he did not meet his Mohawk family until he was an adult.

“My mother met a dashing Mohawk man when she was quite young, and had me when she was 17. My parents split up when I was very young. My father had his demons to deal with—he struggled with serious alcoholism for many years.”

Steve’s chutzpah extends beyond his career in the arts. He has a friendly, open manner that becomes evident as soon as you meet him, but it belies a certain toughness that has allowed him to survive serious health problems.

His arms are intricately decorated with tattoos (including one depicting his Indian status number), and rings draw attention to his fingers, which appear stiff and curled. As a survivor of Progressive Systemic Sclerosis, a rheumatic disease, Loft has lost full use of his hands.

“I had a rare invasive disease that affects the tissue that skin and cartilage is made of. It starts at the extremities and changes their form. It can also go into your vital organs and once that happens, you die. I had a fifty-fifty chance for quite a while. My internal organs were affected.

“But then I went into remission. The doctors say the disease spontaneously burned itself out, because it hit me so hard. I’ve been in remission for over 20 years.  It was nasty, but we all have the things we bear. I have found my joys and they are many more than my sorrows.”

Before becoming ill, Steve had planned on being a chef, but the damage to his hands made it impossible. Instead he studied sociology at McMaster University, learning more about his Mohawk heritage and developing his writing skills. He continued to work as a restaurant manager.

“When my son’s mother was pregnant, I realized I wanted to do something more meaningful with my life. So I made a deal with her: I would spend the months of her pregnancy looking for work as a writer or in the arts. If I couldn’t find a job, I would go back to managing a restaurant.

“I got a few freelance gigs and even wrote for an Aboriginal newspaper out of Manitoba, but I didn’t find anything that paid any real money.  Then I applied to an artist-run centre called the Native Indian/Inuit Photographers Association [NIIPA]. They were hiring artists for a video arts training and mentorship program. I got an interview near the end of the pregnancy. When I got a call for a second interview, my girlfriend went into labour.

“We went to the hospital. I was going to postpone the interview, but the nurse assured us that the labour was progressing slowly and we had lots of time, so I went. I told the director of NIIPA that I might get a call because my partner was in labour. She said ‘What? What are you doing here? The only reason I called you is because I don’t like to tell people they got the job over the phone!’

“Then, as I was leaving the centre to go back to the hospital, she introduced me to another employee, whose name was also Loft. It turned out that he was my uncle from Six Nations.”

Steve got to know his uncle, and learned that his father had stopped drinking and become an addictions counsellor. “My father had taken back his life, so we met. It was very awkward and emotional. When he got his life back together, he tried to find me, but he didn’t know where I was or what I was doing. It is typical of a lot of Aboriginal people who are separated from their heritage – that loss. It was difficult. It was a turning point to meet my Dad. It helped me prove to myself that I am Aboriginal. I never felt I had to prove it to others.”

Steven Loft’s term at the National Gallery wraps up in January 2010. He is still mulling over what he wants to do next.

“Part of me would like to go back to artist-run centres like the Urban Shaman, but part of me wants to be in another big institution. When I started at the National Gallery I didn’t think it could ever be at the forefront when it comes to Aboriginal art. Now I am more hopeful. One day it could become a world leader in Indigenous a