Canadian Indigenous Speculations

A blog by Shalon Sims about education, creative writing, literacy and psychology

Canadian Indigenous Speculations

Introduction

Indigenous Speculations

In this essay, I explore various Canadian Indigenous speculations, including the artwork of Sonny Assu, and science fiction of Cherie Dimaline, and Drew Hayden Taylor.

Before I get into it, I’d like to acknowledge that….

I’m very grateful to live and work on the traditional, unceded and ancestral territory of the Musqueam

I’ve learned that part of acknowledging my settler identity means getting to know the Indigenous history of the place where I live. Musqueam, xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, means “people of the grass,” referring to the grass, məθkʷəy̓, that grows along the Stolo, (stal̕əw̓ or Fraser) River. Musqueam Elder, Howard Grant, invites us to watch this beautiful, 2-minute animated video about the formation of the Stolo river delta over 9000 years. (The video pops up and plays right here—only 2 minutes).

Storytelling as science and science as storytelling

These past few months in the B.Ed., I’ve had the honor of learning with Angela Wolfe, the new Director of the Aboriginal Education Department at UBC. Angela is a Cree woman from the Maskwacis Nation, and she’s an avid storyteller.

Throughout the course, Angela continually put a focus on stories as a valid tool for teaching that aligned with First People’s Principles of Learning. Every day at the end of class, and often during the main class period, she told us stories related to what we were learning. These stories were personal, emotional and powerful, and they standout above any other content or activities we covered as a class.

In the insanity of Covid19, when we’ve been locked up and it sometimes feels as if they’ve thrown away the key, the human connection of storytelling is powerful enough to travel through the internet and into our hearts.

Here we are as a class, listening to one of Angela’s stories.

“Storytelling is Rigourously Academic”

– Angela Wolfe, 2020

Although storytelling isn’t viewed as academic because it’s ‘informal,’ Angela argued that storytelling is a valid academic approach to knowledge. Also, science is simply telling stories—when we write history, we’re telling a story; when we describe how an atom works, we’re telling a story. None of it escapes bias. None of it is definitively ‘true.’ 

Making connections to my own story

This view of stories as a valid and academic approach to knowledge is very exciting for me. I am a writer, and the part of me that loves writing, and the part of me that identifies as a scientist have always been in conflict. As a child, I read voraciously, and worked passionately on my own stories. But as I grew up, I became indoctrinated by my teachers, my culture—that stories were secondary to science, that stories were frivolous and that science held all the answers to life’s problems and questions.

Of course I eventually found my way back to stories. A novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, by the feminist science fiction writer, Ursula Le Guin, helped me understand that fiction can also provide valid insights and answers to life’s questions and problems. However, there is still this lingering shame around being a creative writer. My hope is that, perhaps by exploring this concept of stories as a valid way of being in the world, I will come to new found respect for my own identity as a storyteller. 

Ursula Le Guin, one of my heroes

Why speculation?

Speculation is a loaded word. According to the dictionary, speculation sits opposite knowledge—it’s conjecture or imagination. In finance, speculation is the riskiest form of investing—it’s basically gambling today for a possible future profit. In fiction, the word speculation describes concept-based stories that explore a ‘What if?’ or an other-worldly realm.

In all senses of the word, we leap from the known into the unknown, from the seen and witnessed, into the unseen and often ignored.

Speculation

Speculation as Disruption

In this brief essay, I’m exploring the speculations of a few Indigenous Canadian artists as part of my coursework for my Bachelor of Education at UBC. However, this isn’t just about coursework, this is about my own growth as a teacher and as a settler Canadian.

In her essay, “Disrupting Molded Images,” Susan Dion writes that “while the conception of “Indian” as Romantic Mythical Other is alive and well, real Indians are to a large extent invisible.” She goes on to say that in order for Indigenous people “to be seen as real, dominant discourses [about them] that inform our understanding need disrupting.”

What better way to disrupt than speculation? To go from the known, to the unknown? I hope that be exploring these Indigenous speculations that I can disrupt and transform my own internal dominant discourse of what it means to be First Nations in Canada.

So let’s get at it.

Disruption

Speculation #1
Sonny Assu

SPECULATION #1

Sonny Assu’s Interventions

Sonny Assu is renowned artist from the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation on North Vancouver Island and the Northern Gulf islands. His artwork is on permanent display in the National Gallery of Canada and he’s had shows all over the world. 

Sonny is also a longtime friend, who I went to college with back in the day, and we also lived in the same building in Mount Pleasant, Vancouver. I’ve asked his permission to share these images of my favourite project of his—”Interventions on the Imaginary.” Sonny and I bonded over our love of science fiction, and so it’s no coincedence that I love this series of his more than any other.  

This series explores interventions on famous paintings, primarily from Emily Carr. Many of the pieces feature spaceships that hover over the “romanticized’ and ‘imaginary’ landscape. 

Home Coming, Digital Intervention on Paul Kane Painting, 2014. Sonny Assu.

Interventions on the Imaginary

“The title “Interventions On The Imaginary” is a clear reference to Marcia Crosby’s essay, “The Construction of the Imaginary Indian”, and situates itself within the realm of remix culture—as digital interventions onto works that contain the colonial gaze.

These interventions participate in the growing discourse of decolonization, acting as “tags” to challenging the colonial fantasy of terra nullius and confronting the dominant colonial culture’s continued portrayal of Indigenous peoples as a vanishing race.”

– Sonny Assu

See more Interventions
Image to the right: Yeah… shit’s about to go sideways. Intervention on Emily Carr painting. 2016. Sonny Assu.

Sonny shared on social media that he received an angry email from someone who felt he’d defaced Emily Carr’s paintings, but that’s not the way I see it. I can’t know for sure, but I think Emily Carr herself, if she was alive today, might possibly understand that interventions like this are necessary. The way we white people did things back then was wrong. The way I see it, Sonny is disrupting the romanticized images of First Nations people—the beads, the leather fringe, the totem poles, the canoes—that continue to dominate the discourse on what it means to be First Nations.

Of course the artwork goes far beyond that. It seems to speculate about another possible reality. A reality where there are benevolent and powerful allies. A reality where colonization never happened.

Sonny refences a Star Trek episode in his essay on this series, stating that, “In the episode “The Paradise Syndrome” (1968), from Star Trek: The Original Series, the USS Enterprise crew lands on a planet that is seemingly inhabited by Native Americans. Spock is able to decipher the writing on an obelisk that protects the planet, and he discovers that a group of well-meaning aliens—known as the Preservers—removed these Native Americans from Earth, transporting them, along with everything they were familiar with, to a planet halfway across the galaxy. There, these people were able to flourish, never having known the effects of colonization.”

Sonny in Campbell River

In terms of the First People’s Principles of Learning, Sonny’s artwork embodies many. His paintings recognize the consequences of colonization on First Nations People, and especially on his home community and his family. The project reflects the generational roles and responsibilities, memories, history and stories that have an impact on today.

Many of the paintings by Emily Carr feature the Kwakwaka’wakw territory, portraying that stereotypical romanticized notion of Indigenous. Sonny’s interventions take on the gargantuan task of returning the real to the imaginary or romanticised Indigenous image by inserting his own identity into the text.

As a pre-service teacher, I feel that Sonny’s artwork can play a strong role in the classroom to facilitate what it means to be First Nations. In order to effectively bring this dialogue into the class, I would like to learn more about the history of the various Nations of the Kwakwaka’wakw (the Kwakwala speaking people). Of particular importance is the banning of the Potlatch, which these Nations practice. 

PRESERVER ONE: Well, looks like we got them all. See, don’t you feel GREAT knowing that these people will never experience the effects of colonization? PRESERVER TWO: O_o
Intervention on Emily Carr painting, 2016. Sonny Assu

Speculation #2
Cherie Dimaline

SPECULATION #2

Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves

The next Indigenous speculation I’m exploring is The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline,  a member of the Georgian Bay Metis Community in Ontario. Her novel, The Marrow Thieves, has won so many awards they barely fit on the cover of the book.

The Marrow Thieves is a futuristic distopian young adult science fiction novel that follows a group of Indigenous people, mostly children, who are being hunted by ‘Recruiters’ because they (Indigenous people) possess the cure for a fatal disease in their bone marrow. 

The story flips in and out of flashbacks, with each character in the group sharing their life story at various points on their journey. These are like mini-stories within the novel and they were my favourite parts.

I loved every minute of the novel. The opening scene with Frenchie and his brother celebrating the discovery of a bag of Doritoes captured my attention immediately (see excerpt below). Everything seemed normal until the Recruiters showed up and abducted Frenchie’s brother, Mitch.
After that, Frenchie is on his own, on the run, until he meets up with Miig, and the group of Indigenous people Miig is travelling with.

The Marrow Thieves

“Mitch was smiling so big his back teeth shone in the soft light of the solar-powered lamp we’d scavenged from someone’s shed. “Check it out.” He held a bag of Doritos between us—a big bag, too.

“Holy, Mitch! Where’d you get that?” I touched the air-pressurized bag to confirm it was real. My dirty fingers skittered across the shiny surface like skates. It was real. My mouth filled with spit, and a rotten hole in one of my molars yelled its displeasure.”  

                   -Cherie Dimaline

Read more about the book

In a 2017 interview with the CBC’s Unreserved, Cherie made it clear there’s a link between her book and the Indian Residential School system. “Writing fiction is Dimaline’s way of making larger points about the Indigenous experience and the uncomfortable truths of the past wrapped up in a “little bit of a cushion”.
It’s a way of mutually addressing the issues without shoving a message or point in readers’ faces. It also prevents people from naturally becoming defensive, she explained.”

  I agree with her. I didn’t feel she was trying to shove anything in my face. I did make the link between the Recruiters and the IRS, but it was outside of the book where I made the most connections.

I read The Marrow Thieves as part of my work with people in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside community. For the past two years I’ve worked for Hum, a program put on by UBC that offers educational programming to people from the DTES. The students who attend Hum are very diverse, and include many First Nations folk.

As you can imagine, many of the students attended residential schools, so our class discussions about about the book were very emotional and powerful. These conversations made me see the book in a different light. I saw the power of the book to help the students process their own experiences. And to talk about them. 

However, it wasn’t until our last class with Angela in my B.Ed program, when we listened to Arthur Fourstar, a residential school survivor, tell his story, that I truly felt the horror of what The Marrow Thieves is aiming to get at.

Legacy of Hope

Arthur’s experience in the Indian Residential School system is truly heartbreaking, but, I believe also, as the title of the website says, a Legacy of Hope. 

Listen to Arthur’s story

As Arthur related his experience of being abducted at the age of five, I could vividly imagine myself trying to run away as he did. I would have been one to run away. But as a child, where could you hide? Your very stature betrays who you are. That was a horrible realization, and it made me see The Marrow Thieves in a different light. It wasn’t fiction for hundreds of thousands of people who experienced it in real life.

  However, as bleak as it sounds, The Marrow Thieves is actually a very hopeful novel. Although Frenchie, Miig and their group are terrorized by the Recruiters, eventually they find their way to an enclave of many other Indigenous people where they successfully take a stand.  

The novel speculates about a dire future, but also a deep hope and resilience where Indigenous people find strength in their community. Cherie herself says it well, that her message to Indigenous readers is that “That no matter what happens, you always belong to our land, we’re always going to belong to each other and we’ll seek each other out. I wanted to break down some of the isolation that Indigenous youth might feel. To feel like they belong. To know that they belong to a larger community and they’re loved.”

Speculation #3
Drew Hayden Taylor

Drew Hayden Taylor’s Take Us to Your Chief

The final speculation in this essay is that of Drew Hayden Taylor, an Ojibway from Curve Lake First Nation. 

This gorgeous book is full of delightful stories that are sometimes saucy and humourous, and sometimes touching tear-jerkers. 

There are so many speculations in this book, and they’re all worth investigating, but for the purposes of this essay, I’m choosing to discuss the story Lost in Space, as I believe it embodies so many First People’s Principles of Learning. 

The story is about an Anishnabe astroid surveyor named Mitchell from Otter Lake First Nation, who is, as the title says, lost in space. However, as is revealed in the story, he is not lost geographically, but spiritually. 

When the ship’s AI informs him that his grandfather has passed away back on earth, he doesn’t know how to mourn and he begins to question how he can pay tribute to his grandfather’s spirituality in space. 

This story is achingly beautiful. It’s a quest for meaning in a cold, hostile, and lifeless void of space. The only company a machine who Mitchell detests.

This story really touched my heart, not simply because the writing was great, the stories were great, but also because it reinforced so many things I’ve been learning in Angela’s class about Indigenous ways of being and knowing.

The story “Lost in Space” does this in a beautiful way, as the character begins to grieve his his grandfather’s passing, by letting go of his judgements and opening up to the fact that we can find relationship in strange places, like on a spaceship in an asteroid belt, and with an AI.

Dr. Leroy Little Bear puts this eloquently in his Banff Centre Talk on Indigenous knowledge and science. One of the principles common to many First Nations that Angela spoke about often in class is that all matter is living. She told a story about her grandson being told in class that his rocks were inanimate, not alive, and how it had harmed his sense of self and his spirit.

In that sense, an AI is also animate, and by the end of this story, you feel that it is through practicing this principle that Mitchell finds solace.

Indigenous Knowledge & Science

“the foundational basis of Native thought is somewhat similar to what we now refer to as quantum physics. From the Blackfoot point of view, we refer to this starting base as ‘constant flux’ without stating it explicitly… where everything is in constant motion. In quantum physics we talk about waves and particles. In Blackfoot knowledge, everything is waves, and when we examine this, we would refer to and translate this as Spirit. Thirdly, everything is animate. In Blackfoot, there is no such thing as inanimate. In quantum physics, they agree that maybe those subatomic particles do ‘know’ and are ‘aware.’ 

       – Dr. Leroy Little Bear

Throughout the book, Drew speculates on a beautiful world where Indigenous people hold answers to important world-problems, where they represent humanity in positive and humourous ways, where they find ways to practice their spirituality in unique and challenging settings, where the pain and suffering they’ve experienced is treated with the respect it deserves, and where Indigenous ways of knowing are honoured. 

Conclusion

One of the more memorable classes with Angela was when she invited Dr. Dwayne Trevor Donald to our class. Dr. Donald spoke about how, when we discuss Indigenous issues in class, “it often gets boiled down to inclusion, equality and diversity. But these are eurocentric notions. Instead we could think about relationality. We’re not equal and we never can be because we’re not the same. Instead we can ask—how can we relate?” He went on to talk about how, as teachers, we can’t just teach content. Instead of trying to pass on knowledge, we can “try to incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing.”

I love this idea. I think it’s important for students to know historically important points, but wouldn’t it be beautiful if they learned new ways of knowing? I think at the end of the day, this will help all students embrace their own personal ways of knowing the world.

I’m truly grateful for this course and for the opportunity to reflect on what I’ve learned and how I can incorporate this into my classroom. 

I’m also very grateful to Angela—Ninaskomtin (thank you) Angela. I’m also very grateful for the guests you brought to our class, Dr. Donald and Dr. Frank Elliot and Dr. Evelyn Steinhauer. We were really blessed to have you as our instructor for this course. 

Bibliography

Take Us to Your Chief

Taylor, D. H. (2016). Take Us to Your Chief: And Other Stories: Classic Science-Fiction with a Contemporary First Nations Outlook. D & M Publishers.

Disrupting Molded Images

Dion, Susan (2007). Disrupting Molded Images: Identities, responsibilities and relationships—teachers and indigenous subject material, Teaching Education, 18:4, 329-342

Angela Wolfe

Wolfe, Angela (2020). Course conversations. UBC Bachelor of Education, EDUC 440. 

Interventions on the Imaginary

Assu, Sonny (2017). Interventions on the Imaginary. His personal website. Link.

River Delta Animation

Musqueam First Nation & Museum of Anthropology. (2014). Musqueam Teaching Kit. Link.

UnReserved Interview

CBC (2017). Cherie Dimaline reaches young readers with futuristic, dystopian narrative rooted in Canadian history. Link.

Dr. Leroy Little Bear

Little Bear, Leroy (2015). Indigenous Knowledge and Western Science. Banff Centre Talk. Link

Dr. Dwayne Trevor Donald

Donald, Dwayne T. (2020). Class lecture. UBC, EDUC 440. 

The Left Hand of Darkness

Le Guin, Ursula (1969). The Left Hand of Darkness. Ace. 

First People’s Principles of Learning

First Nations Education Steering Committee ((2018). First People’s Principles of Learning. 

The Marrow Thieves

Dimaline, Cherie. (2017). The Marrow Thieves. Toronto : Dancing Cat Books

Take Us to Your Chief

Taylor, D. H. (2016). Take Us to Your Chief: And Other Stories: Classic Science-Fiction with a Contemporary First Nations Outlook. D & M Publishers.

 

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