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The Land We Are: Artists and Writers Unsettle the Politics of Reconciliation

By Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill and Sophie McCall, Editors

The Poetics of Land and Identity Among British Columbia Indigenous Peoples

By Christine Elsey

Review By Chris Arnett

January 13, 2016

BC Studies no. 190 Summer 2016  | p. 142-144

The Land We Are: Artists and Writers Unsettle the Politics of Reconciliation and The Poetics of Land and Identity among British Columbia Indigenous Peoples reflect an iconic theme of recent Canadian writing, academia, and art practice, namely the reconciliation of settler and indigenous histories. Both books rely on western epistemologies, one the result of modern art practice and critical theory, the other the result of the application of European philosophies of poetics and phenomenology to historical Interior Salish ethnography. A major theme of both books is the connection between Indigenous people and the land. Both books are fragmented by a reliance on the western lens, but readers will find some gems in them.

The Land We Are is an attractive collaborative compilation of art, poetry, and analysis by nineteen contemporary artists and academics, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, whose main premise is that the “reconciliation” aspect of the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which ran from 2008-2015, was disingenuous because it implied some sense of closure while erasing the main issues of restoration and restitution. A concise introduction by editors Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill and Sophia McCall charts the contested terrain of reconciliation and the role of the contributors, who offer thought-provoking work as a catalyst for discussion. The “settler” contributors struggle with guilt and ignorance after years of socialization, while for Indigenous artists, not surprisingly, “the question of land remains central to Indigenous art and cultural politics,” and both groups assert “that Indigenous land rights are central to reimagining the future between Indigenous and settler people” (12). All royalties from sales of the book go to the Unis’tot’en camp in Wet’suwet’en territory in the central interior of British Columbia, which will balance the irony (and good fortune) of receiving funding in the form of federal grants.

The contributors to The Land We Are acknowledge the challenges faced by activist artists working within the mandate and policy of a well-funded federal initiative; indeed, some of the contributors have been involved in other TRC projects. Despite any TRC connections, they argue, as artists do everywhere, that their work may transfer something tangible to the audience that is intensely personal, such as the text and performance piece “Writing Touch Me” by Skeena Reece and Sandra Semchuk, or something intensely cathartic, such as Ayumi Goto and Peter Morin’s performance piece, “Hair.” Others encourage participation: David Garneau and Clement Yeh’s “Apology Dice” features multisided dice inscribed with words which, when thrown sequentially, form short sentences pertinent to the discourse of reconciliation, including “Apology,” “Denial,” and “Fatigue,” a process that invites the player to agree or disagree. That three performance-based art projects are effective in a book format is a tribute to the designer, Terry Corrigan.

The Land We Are asserts that meaningful questions and answers can emerge through the catharsis of art practice. Whether this always works is a site of debate and contest among the contributors in their quest to heal — to know the past — and to create “productive sites of discomfort, disconnection and disruption” (13). The book is divided into four parts that move from a text and image-based critical analysis and theoretical discussion of public art to commemorative art, poetry, prose and conceptual performance. A few examples from each will demonstrate the mix. In Part One, “Public Memory and the Neo-liberal City,” Dylan Robinson and Keren Zaiontz contribute a photographic essay of Vancouver public art in “a civic infrastructure of redress” (22) which, they argue, in its attempt to indigenize the landscape  effectively, in fact dismisses local Indigenous history. Part Two, “Please Check Against Delivery; The Apology Unlocked,” deconstructs the Residential Schools Apology of 2008. Jordan Abel uses the “cut-up” technique of the American writer William Burroughs, himself influenced by Canadian-Anglo-French painter Brion Gysin, to dismember Harper’s text with interesting results. Part Three, “Collaboration, Creative Practice, and Labour,” celebrates craft and collective labour in commemorative art, including Jonathan Dewar’s photo essay of the stunning “Walking with Our Sisters,” the moccasin memorial to murdered and missing indigenous women. Part Four, “Insurgent Pedagogies, Affective Performances, Unbounded Creations,” contains a reconciliatory essay by self-styled “non-Indigenous scholars” Alison Hargreaves and David Jefferess.

True to participation in a federal project, national sentiment prevails in The Land we Are (particularly in the title, which might have taken on quite a different meaning with We Are the Land). Regional variation is noticeably absent — and incongruous given that there is no national indigenous identity. For example, the treaty rhetoric of Adrian Stimson’s “Drawing Treaty” is interesting but only as a cautionary tale in British Columbia, where there are few treaties. Reconciliation necessitates decolonization of the local. Decolonization, as Hargreaves and Jefferess argue, “requires understanding history not as a linear series of events but as a layered presence; what lies beneath rocks in our gardens may be hidden or ignored but it is not gone” (204) (Tell that to an archaeologist!).

In The Poetics of Land And Identity among British Columbia Indigenous Peoples, anthropologist Christine Elsey gets more local and explores how Indigenous views of the land in British Columbia are different from those of the market-focussed settler state. She uses European concepts of enfoldment, poesis, and poetics to illustrate the “body-world synthesis as argued within European philosophy” (57). While Elsey dismisses European Cartesian dualism she is comfortable “employing such European philosophical concepts as phenomenological perspectives of the body, self, [and] world,” in the hope that her work “will make possible the creation of a non-ethnocentric niche within mainstream philosophical and litigious argumentation for the discussion of First Nations Land claims” (4). If non-natives think this way, she argues, a better understanding and even reconciliation will result.

Drawing on the work of ethnographer James Teit, Elsey examines a wonderful array of stories about transformer rocks and rock art, which are the physical reminders of past events and cultural teachings. However, she all but ignores Indigenous perspectives rooted in language, and when she introduces them, she misunderstands them. For example, she uses the term sptaqulh (origin stories) (99, n.5) to describe the beings of the mythological age as entities (which they certainly were), but she misses the point that they are also stories with teachings of identity and place — the existence of which is the very thing her poetics wish to demonstrate. Their presence in the landscape, which is well documented by Elsey’s collection of published ethnographic data, is indeed phenomenological — the body is there, ours and theirs — but to understand the relationship between teaching and entities requires only knowledge that both are shyAktnmhh (people/relations). Elsey perceives this relationship, but it would be better said by people in the living Indigenous tradition, who are strangely absent from the book. Elsey employs a lot of  “enfolding,” “embodiment,” and “presencing” of “self,” terms that are foreign to indigenous discourse. And where is a discussion of atsama (“to quest for spirit power”), the ultimate indigenous research method to test the validity of the origin stories and the phenomenology of space? The “vision quest” is mentioned here and there but its essential role in identity formation at many scales is missed by Elsey’s reliance on European philosophy.

These two books are a reminder that European methods can obfuscate Indigenous epistemologies when, in fact, both methods have equal philosophical depth. The two ways are not irreconcilable but demand the mutual comprehension of methods specific to and negotiated within each situation. As both these books show, mutual recognition of a shared history is a first unsteady step towards true reconciliation.

The Land We Are: Artists and Writers Unsettle the Politics of Reconciliation
Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill and Sophie McCall, editors
Winnipeg: ARP Books, 2015. 240 pp. $24.95 paper

The Poetics of Land and Identity Among British Columbia Indigenous Peoples
Christine Elsey
Black Point, Nova Scotia: Fernwood: 2013. 156 pp. $19.95 paper