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.
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.
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.