Crossing the Borders Inside me

I had the honour of participating in an Elders and Youth Conference at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto on July 26th, 2019. This conference was put on by the NCCT to restore and rebuild relationships between youth and elders due to what colonization: residential schools, the foster-care system and intergenerational trauma has done to our families.

When I was younger, I had misinformed ideas of what it meant to be native.
 I thought being Indigenous meant experiencing intergenerational trauma and pain and since I am an urban Afro-Indigenous youth, I felt as if I did not experience enough trauma to identify as native.

Both my paternal grandparents are residential school survivors and my dad was taken away from his community through the sixties scoop. I grew up rather privileged compared to some of the stories I heard from my father and from my cousins. 

At the conference, Jeremiah shared his story with us and something he had said, resonated with my experience, “it does not matter if they are sober, or if they are Christian and do not practice traditions, elders are to be respected because they lived through the pain and the trauma”.

The border crossings project, initiated by Sharada Eswar who is the Community Activator at the Art Gallery of Mississauga, has taught me that It takes strength, humility and compassion to be able to listen to someone else’s stories.

When I was 21, I decided that being in T’karonto (Toronto) was not grounding me in terms of being Woods Cree, I needed to know my community that my dad was scooped from. I needed to meet my family, relatives and grandmother who still lived on the reserve.
I met my kohkum (Nehiyawewin for grandmother) that year.
I have seen her another time since then, and in August of 2019 I will see her for the third time. I am privileged that she is still alive and a fluent Woods Cree speaker. More than that privilege, I have a responsibility to get to know her and rebuild those connections. I visited my late uncle’s grave the last time I was there; Isaac Roberts had died in 2008 by suicide. I have not had the strength to ask how, or what he was like when he was alive.

Centre for Suicide Prevention has concluded that the leading causes of death for first nations youth and adults up to the age of fourty-four is suicide and self-inflicted wounds.

In the Lac La Ronge Indian Band and the reserves within my band, 6 girls committed suicide in 2016. None of them were older than 14.

I have not had the strength to ask about the traumas my father faced in the foster-care system. I am scared of the responses, I am scared of digging up unburied yet hidden wounds that have not healed. Most of all, I am frightened that I will not be able to emotional support my loved ones and to hold their stories.

I proudly identify as Nihithaw now, as someone who is reclaiming their language, traditions and place in their community.  As a nihithaw iskwew, decolonization means unpacking what colonization, the canadian state and the media has forced down my throat. My identity and journey as an Indigenous person is as valid as anyone else’s. It comes with responsibilities to my community and to my ancestors, past and future. I can not speak on the traumas I did not experience, those are not my stories to share but being Indigenous comes with much more than just those traumas. It is more than the status cards that the government of canada ‘provides’ us.

Today If you were to ask me what It means to be Indigenous, I would say: It is more than our traumas and it is more than our resiliencies. My purpose in life is not to resist a system that is impoverishing, underfunding and killing my people. Being Indigenous, simply means that, being Indigenous.
What does it mean to be Woods Cree and a community member, well that is a whole different story and that story begins thousands of years ago.

I will leave you with this:


            “We can choose to continue to think of ourselves as victims and always look to justify our own fears and inadequacies and our own failings by blaming colonialism, or residential schools, or government paternalism, or other realities of our past.
We can also decide, if we choose to do so, that this is a way of thinking that no longer is useful for us as we look to the future.


These factors were certainly part of our past, but it is a past which we have struggled to overcome, and the reality is that we have overcome them.


It is no longer useful for us as individuals, as communities, and ultimately as a Nation to remain stuck in a way of thinking which does not reflect the possibilities for the future”

- Matthew Coon Come, Grand Chief, Grand Chief Council of the Crees.

This is not for non-Indigenous people to minimize and invalidate what we have experienced, collectively as nations and individuals.

Indigenous people: This is for us.

Ekosi.


Keisha Erwin is a staff member at the Art Gallery of Mississauga. They have been hired to work alongside the Community Activator and the amazing human being who created the border crossings project, Sharada Eswar. Keisha is an non-binary urban Afro-Indigenous youth (Afro-Caribbean and Nihithaw, Woods Cree). They are a band member of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band. Their father is Woods Cree from Treaty 6 territory and was put into foster-care at a young age (scooped during the sixties scoop) and raised in Sarnia, Ontario. Their mother migrated to Canada from Jamaica in her late teens, and tried to make a living here in this society in which, people of colour particularly Indigenous and Black peoples face many systemic barriers.

Fostering Community Across Borders and Reconciling Differences

There are many difficulties in demolishing borders and barriers between marginalized communities. Coming from two marginalized communities (First Nations/ Indigenous community and the African Diaspora), I have been pushed on a path to discover how to bridge different communities together in ways that do not harm and re-traumatize one another. I have been hired at the Art Gallery of Mississauga to work on the border crossings project alongside the creator and Community Activator, Sharada Eswar.

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In regards to the relationship between migrants, refugees and asylum seekers and Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island, there are no less difficulties. People who experience oppression, trauma, war and colonization elsewhere, seek to gain landed status, safety and citizenship, here in a society that has and continues to oppress Indigenous peoples. Migrating to Canada, a country that emerged out of colonialism, and living on lands that Indigenous peoples have been displaced from is benefiting from settler-colonialism. Furthermore, without Indigenous narratives in immigration, Indigenous erasure continues to be perpetuated. These realities might seem irreconcilable and marginalized communities continue to be pitted against one another.

Our humanity and recognizing the humanity in others, implicates us in each other’s sufferings.

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Many communities that are marginalized do not have the time nor the capacity to learn about each other’s struggles and resiliencies. They face their own struggles, baggage and traumas that they are trying to heal from.

The past several weeks, I had the privilege of attending two out of three of the workshops that were part of the Habi: Weaving Stories of Migrant Labour and Indigenous Resurgence series and organized by Kwentong Bayan Collective.

In the events’ descriptions, they state:

This project explores the inaugural convergence of National Indigenous People’s month and the newly announced, Filipino Heritage Month in June 2019.

In the Filipino language, “habi” means "weave” - referring to the practice of weaving, or the patterns found in woven materials. HABI is also the process by which something is kept together and made whole. 

This month-long public programming series will feature three community arts workshops exploring Indigenous history, labour, migration, and our relationship with the land.

The Community Art Build began with a land acknowledgment by a member of Kwetong bayan collective. They spoke about consensual solidarity with Indigenous peoples and the obligations of newcomers. “[We use] weaving as a metaphor for community building, storytelling and providing strength to each other”. We had discussions about the abuse that people under the temporary foreign workers program and Caregivers program are susceptible to because of the lack of rights that they have. In this workshop community-engaged arts was used as a way to strengthen social relationships and to begin dialogues on how people can show up for one another.

The third workshop called Indigenous Teachings with elder Philip Cote provided insights about the history of T’karonto and relationship to land. In the space we began by playing instruments; the gong, a traditional instrument to welcome Ancestors of the Philippines, and then a drum song sung by Philip Cote to welcome the Ancestors of these territories to the space (Anishinaabek, Haudenosaunee and Wendat ancestors). Philip Cote began with a smudge to instigate a space of learning, of good mind, thoughts and spirits. The smudge was lit so that we could lead and think with our hearts. He spoke about how one of the biggest borders between people is dehumanizing one another. He said that we think with our minds too often and that our minds do too much rationalizing.

            Art is the Spirit of the People and the heart of our community is the land

- Elder Philip Cote

 

For myself and for many other Indigenous peoples, land is integral to our identities. The relationship we have to earth is often romanticized by non-Indigenous peoples. Our Elders/ Traditional Knowledge Keepers and Medicine people pass down oral history of our knowledge of the land (that has been gained and passed down for thousands of years) and how to sustain and steward the land. Philip Cote took us outside and taught us how to offer tobacco and connect to the land, all of our relations and the creator. He showed us that, you do not have to be Indigenous to this specific territory to build a relationship to this land. I emphasize that I do not want to take away from the acknowledgement that the nations, whose lands, we are on should always be centred. It is my understanding that when we build relationships with the land, we are able to connect with Anishinabek laws and teachings on a deeper level. Many Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island (North America) have been displaced and disconnected from their traditional homelands. Many Indigenous peoples globally have been displaced.

Through the sharing of his knowledge, Philip Cote showed us kindness and a recognition of our traumas that have disconnected us.

What I learned through these workshops was that solidarity does not have to only be done in monetary forms. There are other ways to show up for one another without going to protests or providing money. Both of these are incredibly valuable as well. However, I began to see beyond a performative solidarity and towards giving strength to one another and building community. Community began to be built during the art build, when we asked questions around reciprocity that often went unanswered. Elder Philip Cote showed us how to give each other strength. There is an incredible amount of strength in knowledge, the medicines that he showed us on the medicine walk can be used for multiple ailments. Helping each other and giving strength does not need to cost anything, and these spaces do not need be filled with conversations about how we have harmed each other or about our traumas.

In modern Western societies, artists have been seen as specialists who are separate from and not accountable to their communities.
-Ontario Arts Council

 

As people we are often strategically divided. Being in a space together, collectively participating in the creation of art is revolutionary in and of itself. 

 

border crossings is an archaeology of the present. By using stories and narratives as our main resource, we aim to fuel alternative ways of seeing across a broad range of physical and cultural contexts. Led by a collective of Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists working together, produce a significant body of work that transcends colonial politics and art-making.

border crossings celebrates the Art Gallery of Mississauga’s commitment to bringing people and communities together using art as a common denominator. With this initiative Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities may engage with ideas of self-representation to question colonial narratives and present parallel histories, while exploring relationships between the spiritual, the uncanny and every day.

These stories are personal and powerful, giving the audience access to personal histories and realities. Connecting our past to our present, these stories will be treated as media art pieces, rather than simple stories and will highlight, reinforce and challenge both traditional and contemporary world views as they relate to our relationship to land, to one another, share and philosophical teachings by connecting through laughs and heartbreak.

 

 

Keisha Erwin is a staff member at the Art Gallery of Mississauga. They have been hired to work alongside the Community Activator and the amazing human being who created the border crossings project, Sharada Eswar. Keisha is a non-binary urban Afro-Indigenous youth (Afro-Caribbean and Nihithaw, Woods Cree). They are a band member of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band. Their father is Woods Cree from Treaty 6 territory and was put into foster-care at a young age (scooped during the sixties scoop) and raised in Sarnia, Ontario. Their mother migrated to Canada from Jamaica in her late teens, and tried to make a living here in this society in which, people of colour particularly Indigenous and Black peoples face many systemic barriers.