Traditional Knowledge as a powerful driver in research
[O’Reilly Runte] We have two scholars with us who are superstars. Tania Willard, who is a scholar of Secwépemc and settler heritage. She’s assistant professor of creative studies and visual arts. She is at the University of British Columbia. She’s an artist, a poet, a curator.
She specializes in Indigenous languages, visual art, relational aesthetics and socially engaged practice. With a master’s in fine arts her work demonstrates the shifting ideas between Indigenous Knowledges and cultural practices between traditional and the contemporary, between an aesthetic of portrayal of Land Rights and environmental consciousness.
And it is a real privilege to have her with us today. This is original future-looking work that she’s doing. We’re so proud of it.
And Chantelle Richmond has her PhD from McGill. She’s a professor at Western University and she’s a member of the Biigtigong Nishnaabeg Bear Clan.
She’s an associate professor of geography, but she is in charge of the Interdisciplinary Development Initiative in Applied Indigenous Scholarship. And when we talk about the future of research, we often say it’s at that interdisciplinary cross that things will happen, and she truly is at that crossroads between geography, the place that people are, the identification, meaning of that place in their lives, their lives as they are affected by the environment, and traditional cultural practices. Having studied how health and diet are important to local populations, she’s actually studied with colleagues around the world in Hawaii and New Zealand to use her knowledge globally.
So Chantelle, we are so pleased to welcome you and you have been brave beyond my possible way of conceiving things in defining what kind of research you can do and how you can make that research real for people, such as canoeing down the Pic River and reclaiming and naming all of the places. That is brave and lovely.
Mr. Martin, I know you’re going to kick off the conversation with some questions, so please consider me the spectator and carry on.
[Martin] Well, thank you very much, Roseann. You described me earlier as the future. Let me tell you, it’s been a long time since anybody has described me as the future, but I have the honour really to introduce the two people who are going to be the, who are the future. That’s Tania and Chantelle.
Tania and Chantelle, as scholars at the beginning of your careers, can you share with us and with those who are listening the words that might encourage young people to follow in your footsteps? You’re both extraordinary role models and the question really is how can we motivate the next generation of scholars, researchers and artists to emulate you?
Over to you, Tania, and then to Chantelle.
[Willard] Great. Well, thank you so much. [speaking in Secwepemctsín]
I just want to greet you in my language of Secwepemctsín. And I’m so happy to be here today. I think all of us, perhaps at this point, think, well, I think of the future as my children as opposed to myself. But thank you for all the kind words and the introduction.
I think being here today, this kind of representation matters. I think for myself, if I think back to my undergraduate degree, it mattered to me that Métis filmmaker and professor Christine Welsh taught a women’s studies course.
This was the first time I had had an Indigenous instructor in my entire life in my entire educational experience, and it mattered to me to see her in that position. And I hope it matters today for young people, young Indigenous people to see Chantelle and myself here today because it opens up possibility, it opens up possibility to see ourselves.
Writer Richard Van Camp, who I’m a great admirer of, also talked about this idea of permission and seeing somebody and having a representation gives us permission to dream and to act and to set goals to become what we see, the kind of representation.
But I want to add to that and say that scholars in my life, though not represented in educational institutions, were represented in my family. You know, the scholarly work that they have done in education, in activities and harvesting from the land and maintaining tradition, are as valid scholarly activity as my work in the institution.
So I think I have, you know, amazing mentors and family who were there, who were representing themselves as Secwépemc people or as Canadians. I do come from a mixed background of Secwépemc and settler ancestry and that modelling of the possibility and how knowledge can be carried in such varied ways, I think leads me to where I am today. So, thank you for that question.
[Martin] Well, thank you, Tania … and Chantelle.
[Richmond] Okay. Well, [speaking Anishinaabemowin].
My name is Chantelle and I’m so happy to be here.
Thank you very much for that really, really welcoming opening. Roseann, those were beautiful words. I’m so happy to be here with Tania today, and I have to say that I, 100 percent, agree with this idea of representation and creating the structures that open the space for more diversity in science and in the arts and in social science research. And I think, you know, as Tania was speaking, I was reminded of the fact that like 20 years ago when I did my PhD at McGill, there wasn’t a single Indigenous faculty member there. And that was not very long ago.
The Canadian Institutes for Health Research has only been ongoing since 2003, and at that time there was an inaugural scientific director, Geoff Redding, who led the establishment of the Institute for Aboriginal People’s Health. And that was a really brave and a really important step forward for identifying that we needed to create an institute that would embrace Indigenous Knowledges, that would support Indigenous leadership around research and that it would create places that would embrace Indigenous ways of knowing about our own matters. And so, as we try to seek solutions to our most pressing matters, right, thinking about chronic disease, food insecurity, ongoing water struggles, and so on, that we can begin to build the base of knowledge from our own people.
And, I think this is so important because it creates the structures for success because Indigenous Peoples have been structurally disempowered for a very long time. I think the other really key thing that has happened in the past 25 years is that we’re seeing the embracing of Indigenous People and Indigenous Knowledge and ways of knowing that embrace nature, that embrace family, that are super relational and allow for ways of expertise and ways of knowing that take us outside of the university.
And so that, you know, as we’re trying to create solutions and create a new base of science. And I shouldn’t say it’s a new base of science because it’s a really old way of knowing, right? Because we’re doing research that is founded in our families, in our ways of knowing that have existed for a really long time, it’s just that they are now being brought into the spotlight and recognized as valid. And so I think that has been very exciting for me and to be, I say, validated in this way of doing research by tri-council, by my university, and being among this new wave of scholars who are doing this work has just been so empowering. And I think it’s really, you know, as Tania said, it’s within us and that’s what makes it so special. So I’m just, I’m really excited about what’s happening in this time in Indigenous research.
[Martin] Well, look, that’s really tremendous, and there is no doubt that the CFI represents the future and you two represent the future. You too, Roseann. And so here I am desperately trying to catch up. I want to ask you a series of questions.
The first one is really health, mental health and community health are central issues in both of your careers, Chantelle and Tania.
So, Tania, you’ve been quoted as saying in recognition of historical traumas that opening up those spaces for those conversations and for that awareness could be healing. So I’d ask you, really, can you elaborate on the relationship among land and culture, health and the environment, from your perspective? And then I’m coming to you, Chantelle, after.
[Willard] Perfect. Thank you for that question. I am trying to remember when that quote may be from, because I think that though it is still important to open up conversation and dialog to address these kinds of issues, both within our communities and with outside communities, the time for that, I think, has started to pass, and we’re in this time now where there’s enough of a plan, a roadmap for us from things like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. You know, going back to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, we have the missing and murdered women’s inquiry and all of the voices of all of the people who have, you know, been brave and courageous to defend their culture, their land, their ways of being.
We have enough of those voices now that we should be able to see the path and start to take action to travel that path. And I think that’s where I see us today. Sometimes we’re still in this time of truth telling, of conversation, but I think that really importantly, we need to start to take action today. We need to start to follow some of those recommendations, and we need to be really active about pushing for change. Because we need to act now, we need to put those plans in place that take us from talk to resourced solutions and implementation and sustaining the strategies for those policies. So, you know, this isn’t a project here, a project there. These are really sustained ways to follow those recommendations, to follow the voices of those who have stood up and said, “This is harming my community. This is harming my culture. This is harming my family,” and by extension, all of us are in the same boat when those kinds of harms are perpetuated. We need to now start to alter the systems around us in order to move forward. And I think we are doing that. I see that exactly in the work of Indigenous researchers and scholars, in the work of settler allies who are really pushing for, you know, on the ground change to fundamentally restructure the conversation.
So, you know, we need to share with each other in order to heal, but we need to also change in order to maintain that health. And though my work touches on these issues, it really does so from an artist perspective. So I want to be careful here to not, you know, give myself any credentials. My perspective on health comes from being a community member, being active in my community and other kinds of communities and really seeing the healing that artistic and creative expression can bring. Because it’s been a really important place for people when they feel displaced or they feel hurt in different ways to be able to exorcise that through expressive ways of making and being.
I have seen and worked with youth as an Indigenous youth. I’ve seen this heal. I’ve seen this change people, the ability to express themselves. So that’s part of my commitment to artistic and creative practice and seeing that in a holistic way as improving conditions on an individual basis and then by extension, community and larger public spaces.
[Martin] That’s very well said, Tania, and Chantelle, now over to you. As the director of an Indigenous health lab, you know this area quite well. How do you envisage the bringing together of Traditional Knowledge and contemporary healthcare practices? How do you envisage bringing together the community and researchers and the disparities in health in Canada and the world? That’s a very big question. So over to you.
[Richmond] Well, thank you for the question. And you’re right, it is very big. I think that the most important role that I play is, like, I’m a relationship builder. I often see myself as a person who, sadly, has had to learn to live in and survive in two different places. I’ve written quite a bit about this, about how for a long time I had to really be mindful of who I was presenting myself to be, depending on what environment I was in. And so for a long time, that meant presenting my Indigenous self when it was safe to and guarding myself very carefully and presenting my non-native self in other places.
You know, that’s like a heavy burden to have to shoulder. I think that the changes that we’re starting to see, the awakening that’s happening in universities and all of the great work that Tania cited, the reports and the work that our communities are doing to bring light and attention to the fact that, colonial policies, processes of dispossession, structural disempowerment, this stuff is still happening. It’s really awful. I think that Indigenous students, Indigenous people have to guard themselves when they come into institutions. And so my role, as someone who’s been there and has been able to successfully navigate it and to earn a Canada Research Chair, to kind of learn how to navigate these systems to my advantage means that I’m capable of bringing others in and I never want to bring students or communities into places when I know that it’s not safe for them to be there.
And so what we have done is we’ve kind of started to create spaces that are safe. And so that means that we’re working really hard to bring more Indigenous hires into the university and we’re creating spaces that represent Indigenous voices, Indigenous Knowledges, Indigenous foods and languages and so on. A lot of that work happens inside the walls of the university, but most of it happens outside. So that means, I think, we have to be paying attention to the ways that we do research on the land. And in that case, this is where I think that relational piece is happening because not everybody is capable of engaging in that work. So, I think the relational piece means I’m working very hard to bring students in and train them in a good way. But also, we’re trying to break down boundaries so that we can make, I think, university research spaces places that are really good and that are meeting the needs of communities. So that we don’t have to just be doing the work out there, but that we can do it safely in these places so that we have say, medicine gardens on campus and other places where people can fully be who they need to be and they don’t have to remove pieces of themselves. So, I think that there are particular places and times and roles, and our allied scholars play a really important role in doing that work. I think that funding organizations like CFI, like the Tri-Council, for example, are really paying attention. This, I think, is a very important structural change that is happening to lessen the systemic burden that Tania was talking about earlier. I hope that that helps a little. Thank you.
[Martin] It does. It helps a lot. So I have a question really for both of you. The relationship between humankind, between humanity and the land and water is of extreme importance to Indigenous people. We all we understand that and the tremendous insight that the Indigenous people have in terms of land and water. I first noticed this over 60, 70 years ago when I had a summer job as a university student, so it’ll be 60 years ago. I had a summer job working as a deckhand on the tug barges on the Mackenzie River. Most of the transportation at that time in the North was done on the Mackenzie. I got a job as a deckhand, and of course I was working with a group of young men, my own age, who were either Dene, Inuit or Métis. All were deckhands my own size. When we would pull ashore, we’d just sit around and talk and we would talk about much of this. I remember describing this conversation to my wife, and she said, I don’t think young male teenagers ever had a serious conversation about anything. But the fact of the matter is we did. And I learned an enormous amount from these young men, all teenagers my own age, all Dene, Inuit or Métis. So what I would really ask the two of you is to explain the special insight and the relationship of the Dene, the Inuit and the Métis to the land. Specifically, I’d ask you, Tania, to speak about the land-based BUSH Gallery and Chantelle, I would ask you after Tania has spoken to talk about your canoe trip and talk about the Guardians who I admire enormously. So, over to you Tania.
[Willard] Perfect. Thank you. I was realizing we did mention the connection between land and nature in the last question, and I didn’t go there, so it’s great to get a chance to speak about that. It’s really guided my work as an artist, as a curator, as a community member. That relationship, it goes beyond just a descriptive kind of relationship. It’s very deep. It’s very spiritually connected. It’s a connection to our ancestors. And really importantly, it’s a connection to the ecologies around us. The ecologies around us that, you know, on many reserves, because of the lack of development because of structural inequity means that we also at times have richer biodiversity in our lands, you know, not in our whole territories, which are, of course, a very larger component of unceded territories, but talking about just the reserves. So we have this incredible asset. We have, our community members who still rely on the land for foods. There’s so many important models of how deeply we are connected to our lands. I really feel that everyone can learn from that. In your example, you’re speaking about Dene, Inuit and others who have special knowledge that comes from a continuum of thousands of years of their ancestors’ knowledge bases, and as Chantelle was saying, we’re only coming to a point of starting to recognize and affirm those knowledges outside of those communities now. And there is an incredibly rich sphere of language that is knowledge that is tied to the land. You know, so much incredible work that we have yet to see. And in part, this is also because Indigenous Peoples needed to protect that knowledge from ways that it was being extracted from our communities and made to serve other kinds of initiatives or ideas. So now, with Indigenous Peoples in positions to bring their knowledge with them, not for it to be taken and, and studied at the institution, but for us to come with that and come with our communities, you know, now we can start to find ways to share those important teachings and learnings that are often land-based.
We’re talking about Dene folks, and I’m going to speak from my perspective, not, of course, from other Indigenous Peoples, but a very inspirational project for me that I had a chance to visit is the Dechinta Center for Research and Learning. This is a project in Yellowknife where many Indigenous Dene youth are engaged in both political and curricular disciplines, we might recognize in Western universities, as well as land-based knowledge. This idea, for me, is quite revolutionary to think about affirming Indigenous Knowledge on the same playing field as other more Western, rational kinds of knowledge. That’s been really instrumental for me thinking about this idea of BUSH Gallery, and BUSH Gallery is something that I do as an artist, as a collaboration with both other artists as well as with my land. And that’s a continuum of me being there on my land.
I can recall my great, great grand uncle who testified at the McKenna-McBride commission, and he said, “I don’t want to sell my land and I don’t want to lose my rights.” And that’s the same place we are today, 100-plus years later. Part of my work is to look at the struggle my ancestors have had for their lands, which is ongoing today. Instead of showing work and thinking about art in many different city centres across Canada, which I had a chance to do as a curator and an artist, I wanted to be in place on my land, in my territories and start to think of that from that centre, not from a centre, you know, in a gallery in another city displaced from my community.
So all of that learning that is so attached and integral to the land has been incredibly important for me. It’s led me to my CFI research project, SITE/ation Studio. This idea of how we can cite the land and Indigenous communities’ knowledge in a way that’s commensurate with a text citation. So we’re all familiar with, you know, the conventions of citation at university when you’re citing another scholar and a text and importantly, a lineage of knowledge. But for me, I have learned as much through site specific or SITE/ation.
I’ll give a quick example, which is I’ve worked with Elder artist and basket maker Delores Purdaby from Neskonlith community of the Secwépemc Nation, and she taught me, mentored me in birch-bark basketry. And here you have this incredible, artful object, vessel, but it is symbolic of a transformation that requires us to know the land. It requires us to know which side of the tree the bark grows thickest on because it faces the sun versus in the shade. It requires us to know the season to collect it. And importantly, in the way that Dolores teaches and many other Indigenous Peoples, it requires us to offer something in exchange for harvesting that material. And that just there, that simple act of offering and having respect could be a transformative change for everyone.
If we had to thank and give an offering for all the old growth trees that we log in B.C. still today, for all of the resources we pump out of the ground, you know, would that fundamentally change our relationship to be a being who is respecting and in relationship to another being of this, you know, something we consider a resource? That’s a fundamental shift in how we think.
I’m really taken with this idea of the symbol of the basket. You know, we might have used it for picking berries or different kind of traditional foods, but I also think of it as this container of ideas and the possibility of transformation. I also do this work because it fills me with joy, fills me with joy to learn more about the land. We live in this time of, kind of, scarcity and thinking of the, you know, the real scary future of climate change. But I also see that when we can shift, when we can respect, the land is also abundant and it invites us to be in relationship and we need to just start to pay attention to that, in my view.
[Martin] Well, thank you, Tania. Chantelle we now want to hear about this canoe trip, and I’m very interested in what you’re going to say about the Guardians.
[Richmond] Well, thank you very much for the question. So as part of this ongoing study that I’ve been working on with my own community, Biigtigong Nishnaabeg, we have been looking at describing, exploring, examining ways that our community is reconnecting with our traditional territory. As a little bit of background, our community has been engaged in a comprehensive land claim for almost as long as I’ve been born. So we’re going back to the late seventies and we’re now in 2021 and it’s not settled. So we have a massive Traditional Territory that we’re fighting to maintain our rights through this legal process. Above and beyond that legal process, our community is growing impatient and we’ve been searching for ways to assert our rights because we see all sorts of encroachment in our territory, by mining companies, by cottagers, by logging, over a 40-year period.
So we recognized the need to establish a canoe journey through the heart of our territory. The Pic River extends from the mouth of Lake Superior up to Long Lake, about 100 kilometres. The length of the river had not been canoed for a very long time. There’s all sorts of different logging roads, and so on, that has really changed the nature of the way that our community and our community members who now really live at the mouth of the Pic are able to engage with, enjoy and connect with our lands and resources of our Traditional Territory.
The idea to do this canoe trip came from our chief, Duncan Michano, who’s a long-time trapper and canoer, general guy that you just find out on the land. What we did was we created the canoe trip and we paired up young people with older folks, Knowledge Keepers, people who understood the land or Guardians. They were dropped off at the top of the river and made their way down. Before the trip could actually happen, there was a lot of clearing of passageways and so on to make sure that it was a safe journey and to make sure that people could get through. It’s not really remote, but you’ll lose cell service in there, so you really have to know where you’re going. And so they did a lot of work to kind of prepare for the trip in terms of the land, but also having connections and re-establishing those connections between the Elders and the leaders of the trip and the young people. Because we really wanted to walk the path of our ancestors or canoe the path of our ancestors, but also to reclaim the places, reclaim the trees and reclaim the mountains and the special places along the river. We are known as Biigtigong Nishnaabeg the people of the muddy waters, and that’s where we see the mud eroding right in our river is really like dark and clay like that.
This trip was very important on multiple levels. What was really special about the trip was the way the young people could sense their ancestors. I think if we think about the length of time it had been since our old people travelled on that river and compare it with how long it takes for water to cycle through the atmosphere and come back down, it is possible that they were actually travelling on the same water. These young people described that like beautiful sense of knowing that their people were with them. And when I say people, I don’t just mean, and I shouldn’t say people, I mean relatives. They knew their relatives. They understood the land. They could understand the trees, and they could just sense this the whole way through. So this type of research is transforming young people, it’s re-establishing our connections with places, with sense of identity. This is so critical for the wellness of people and the wellness of communities. So, not only are we reconnecting people with really old knowledges and our sacred laws and teachings, because that is what is at the foundation of this work, but we’re doing it in a way that brings them into the university and teaching them that they can actually do this work and bring others in.
So I think one of the greatest pieces of my job is that I get to go home and I get to work with my mom. So when Tania was talking about the joy, one of my very first research grants, was actually funded by CIHR (Canadian Institutes of Health Research) and we created a documentary and we had young people in northern Ontario, so our community Biigtigong and Batchewana First Nation of Ojibwe. We trained young people, we brought them down to Western and trained them in qualitative methods and film studies and then they worked with actual filmmakers and filmmakers in training to create a documentary.
My mom apparently is a natural on the camera, and she was being interviewed in my childhood living room and I could see my engagement photo of my husband behind her, and she was just laughing and singing and sharing these beautiful stories.
I think that is what we’re trying to do is to reconnect families and our knowledge systems and these original ways. I just think it’s so beautiful and even though we’re doing it in very different settings and in contemporary ways, I think the spirit of what we’re trying to do remains the same and that is why it’s just so important and so beautiful.
[Martin] Well, this is great stuff. I could just listen to the two of you all day. Do either of you know, I’m just throwing this in, forgive me but … do either of you know … were the Guardians represented in the Canadian delegation in Glasgow? I don’t know but I think it’s something that really should be followed up on.
Both of you, in what you’ve just said and throughout this piece, you’ve really adopted an interdisciplinary approach. You come back from all that way. And I guess the question is, why have you done so? Because it doesn’t always happen. And would you say that it’s really important for research today and in the future to do so? Go ahead. Tania, you go and then Chantelle.
[Willard] Sure. Thank you, Chantelle for your sharing of the canoe journey. It’s really wonderful. You know, with this question I’m reminded of the very important scholar and Elder and Knowledge Keeper, who is also at UBC Okanagan, Jeannette Armstrong, who is a Syilx Knowledge Keeper, and Elder, who is also a full professor and she’s amazing. I’m so lucky to be at UBC Okanagan, where she also works within Indigenous studies.
But I remember her talking about pushing for interdisciplinary approaches in research as a way of working that was really more aligned with Indigenous ways of thinking, being and carrying knowledge that we’ve always, I’m speaking broadly here, but there’s also specificity in terms of my Nation and other diverse Nations. But culture and language, ceremony, all these have been also important sites of knowledge, and those are essentially interdisciplinary ways of both absorbing, sharing and creating knowledge.
So it resonates with me when Jeanette Armstrong talks about the importance of interdisciplinary approaches. As an artist, it’s just the approach that’s quite natural to me. I’ve always been interested in the world around me, the sociopolitical context, my rights and how I assert those and bring other people into those in terms of Indigenous Rights. I do that through art, and I do that also as an artist, as a responsive act. I’m not necessarily always working in one medium like painting or sculpture. I’m also working with different methods, depending on the project I’m thinking about or sharing.
So with this natural kind of tendency to work with interdisciplinary approaches, both as an artist, and as a mixed Indigenous and non-Indigenous background, I do see this as being really important ways of coming at problems in different kinds of ways.
We’ve seen lots of exciting artists working with scientists, which has arrived at new kinds of knowledges that maybe wouldn’t have come about with a strictly disciplinary approach. I do think it offers all kinds of potential for arriving at a different method of problem solving, so I think that interdisciplinary approach can be so important.
And importantly, I think we must consider it as robust and rigorous, if not also sort of spirited and circuitous at arriving at knowledge. But I think it’s really important to see it as a critical space of inquiry that is as robust or rigorous as any other kind of scientific or engineering approach, that it can really allow us to arrive at a different place than a strictly disciplinary approach. So I really think that collaborative way of working, working across disciplinary borders that we can continue a line of inquiry and research that, in my mind, is also a bit of a counterweight to some of the harms that a rationalized Western scientific approach has created, whether intentionally or not. That’s perhaps a larger debate. But that interdisciplinary, you know, at the heart of being an artist, I’m deeply interested in collaboration. I think of my collaboration with not only other artists, but community members, non-artists, the land itself. And for me, it offers so much generative space of inquiry that can exceed the kind of perhaps structures and rule systems and borders of disciplines.
So it’s a transdisciplinary kind of approach. An interdisciplinary approach. I think for me it’s the way I work. And I think it’s an imaginative and infused with potential. It’s a really kind of futuristic way, perhaps, to think about working as well to work in those different kinds of interwoven methods.
[Martin] And I take it you agree with that, Chantelle.
[Richmond] I do agree with that. I think as somebody who is focused on health and the environment, the way that I view interdisciplinary approaches is essential.
We’re at this time, I think where Indigenous health is actually not improving. We continue to see horrible things happening and environmental crises taking place in Indigenous communities. You know, early death, suicides happening in Indigenous communities, really inequitable health and environmental outcomes happening. And so, more research is not going to solve the problem. More money is not going to solve the problem if we’re not working together in a good way. I think that what we need is a more focused, maybe values-based approach that is about listening to communities.
You know, for a long time research in health and medical sciences related to Indigenous people was really descriptive. It was okay to publish about disparities and documenting disparities between health, life expectancy or rates of diabetes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples. And it’s not okay to continue doing that work if it’s not making a difference for Indigenous people. I think this is why interdisciplinary approaches are so critical because they engage with tools and with methods and with theory that help us to understand the roots of inequity from lots of different ways of knowing and ways of approaching the problem.
I think a lot of times, as a geographer, people are very confused about how it is that I do health research. I think this is because I’m interested in looking at how processes of environmental change, processes of environmental dispossession continue to take place in Indigenous communities and how we can research back on these matters. I really think that the most important way of doing really good interdisciplinary work that is going to connect and bring about change is a values-based approach. That means that we’re centring communities, centring matters of like Indigenous communities and their self-determining needs and putting Indigenous leaders in place around these projects.
[O’Reilly Runte] I was going to say, this is absolutely wonderful. We might only have time for one more question, Mr. Martin.
[Martin] Oh, well, okay. Let me just say that if we ever can come back, I would really like to see us be able to deal with this whole question of the values approach and to hear from Tania as well on that. Okay, I’m going to have to cut you, and I really don’t want to do that. But Tania, you’ve told a story about selling fruit at a powwow and seeing breakdancing. You’re bringing together traditional and contemporary art. I guess the real question is, is this the evolution? Is this the evolution of what we’re talking about? Or are you in the process of creating a new vision?
[Willard] Yeah, I tend to not think of an evolutionary process because I see it as so, the past, the present and the future is so intertwined, especially when we think of the ways in which we’re informed by ancestral wisdom today. So I tend to think of it as a continuum as opposed to an evolution. Evolution sort of presupposes a kind of binary of the past and the present and the future. And I really see that as more interwoven.
So I really tend to think about a continuum of practice. There are so many fantastic Indigenous ancestor artists who are in collections at museums and galleries across this country that are unattributed. So, you know, it may say Secwépemc on an item, it may say Anishinaabe and may say Mohawk, but we don’t know who those makers are, who made such incredible, innovative. So though we’re talking about the past, beads are not something that existed before interaction with settler communities or, maybe some were from larger trade routes and of course, the role of dentalium and other shell-based items used for necklaces and adornment and trade were very important and were existing before settler contact. But we have these forms like I can think of, you know, Métis floral beadwork, wool Melton blankets for Coast Salish Peoples.
Those are contemporary works in that they’re using new materials in adaptive and innovative ways. And so, those works, we tend to think of them as works of the past because they are unattributed, they’re resting in museums. But those are belongings. Those are ancestor artists who possessed incredible contemporary innovation and adaptation. I think that’s so important to start to think of those very differently.
In this story you shared, I think it’s also important to recognize my auntie Joyce Willard, who brought me to those powwows. She would run a fruit stand and we would sell fresh fruits at powwows at Tk'emlúps/Kamloops Powwow. That was such a fantastic experience, and that’s why it’s important to acknowledge our relatives who brought us into connection with community and culture.
There was this great breakdancing crew coming through. In terms of thinking about continuum versus a break with the past or some kind of evolutionary stream, all of the dancers and community members who were at that powwow came out and celebrated with those breakdancers. I remember a blanket dance happening after which was offering money to support these young Indigenous men who were doing this amazing breakdance routine. That was embraced, and many new ideas are always continually embraced.
We can look to all of the incredible work that young Indigenous artists and activists are doing in social media, that’s a whole other level, not my generation, the TikTok generation. But I do see incredible work being done there by young people and think of the futurity of that and how that is deeply connected to those that came before them. And so that idea of continuum is really important to me and how I think through these kinds of practices as an intersection of past, present and future as opposed to a hard border between that kind of concept of time.
[Martin] Right. Since we’re a little tight for time, I’m going to just hop ahead. I want to ask you, Chantelle, and then I’ll ask you, Tania, to comment. You have both worked with people from around the world, from the Arctic to Africa, and I’ve got some notes on what you’ve done. You’ve worked the Arctic … Africa and then Hawaii and Ontario. I’ve got to tell you I worked the Arctic to Africa, to Ontario, never in Hawaii. I don’t understand how I could miss that. Gosh, you’re lucky. What I really want to ask the two of you, you first Chantelle. How does international dialog, how did the knowledge of what’s going on abroad, how does that enrich your outcomes and how do you handle it?
[Richmond] Great question. I think we are in this time where we’re facing environmental crises. We’ve seen forest fires happening in the Amazon, unprecedented forest fires. I remember I went running this summer, and even though there is not a forest fire for thousands of kilometres away, the sun rose and it was like this deep red colour. So despite the fact that Indigenous Peoples live in very different ecologies, we have very different cultures, very different ways of knowing, the threat of environmental change is consistent among us because we are land-based people. Our ways of knowing, our knowledge systems, our links to our ancestors, our stories, our creation, are founded in the land. What we’re trying to do, in the work that I’m doing right now, we have a collection of community-based projects. My community Biigtigong, Ihumātao, just south of Auckland airport in New Zealand or Aotearoa or and then just at the base of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii and through all of these cases, what we’re trying to demonstrate is how Indigenous people stand for their land and why. Because I think that if we do not understand the fundamental role that Indigenous Knowledge and Indigenous protection of, and the establishment of Indigenous Rights in these places holds not only for the wellness of Indigenous people, but for all people, then we will be doomed.
And so we are taking, I think, a stand that if we can talk about and share the relationality between Indigenous Peoples, their ways of knowing, and their wellness and the ways that it is so firmly planted in the land, we can share a really good message with all people.
I think that these knowledges, these ways of knowing, have kept Indigenous people alive for a really long time. You know, I shared yesterday I was able to visit with my children’s public school, who’s being renamed at the moment, and I showed a photo of my grandmother and her sister, who, despite all the efforts of Indian agents, and so on, to take their children, they were able to save their children. And the only reason that I’m here today and that I’m able to have that be a part of this conversation is that they practice incredible resilience and strength and courage and had that foresight. That makes me really, really proud. I think really, just really happy that I’m able to share these messages, so I think a big part of the reason that we do this work across Nations is because we have similar struggles. And so if we can share our strategies for protecting our places, protecting our people, with other Nations, with other Indigenous Nations, it’s going to be, I think, a safer place, a better place for everybody.
[Martin] Well said. Do you want to comment on that Tania?
[Willard] Sure, I think Chantelle said so much there, and perhaps I’ll just, you know, I think it’s important to put things firmly in the reality today too and on the ground and Indigenous Peoples are still being criminalized for defending their lands. And for defending their lands, let’s be clear here, not just for themselves, but for all of us. For all of us, we need to start thinking about how we are protecting lands and resources in this time of accelerated climate change.
And I think my point about continuum is also to see that our ancestors, my great grandparents, also faced an intense and accelerated type of ecological change that was really devastating. You know, people were being fenced out of places they gathered berries, roots, where they hunted. That actually continues today. It continues with models of private property and resource extraction, which come into conflict with Indigenous Rights. And so these are things we need to think about, you know, in the moment, and we need to start to change the playing field, in my view, and it’s my work within artistic practice perhaps uses unconventional means to have those conversations. I think we’re at a time where we need to look to the unconventional, the interdisciplinary and other modes if we’re going to come together and create the kind of shifts, I think that our great grandchildren would like to see us contributing to.
[Martin] All right, I’ve got one last question and a comment, and then Roseann is going to kill me. The question is, you now had a whole bunch of questions posed by somebody of a generation that you can’t even believe still exists. Do you, would either one of you have a question that you wish had been asked or that you would have asked each other?
[Willard] I’ll just say I’m so affirmed by Chantelle and her work and her responses. In academic institutions, we still face the fact that we are statistically a very small but potent force. I think at UBC, Vancouver and Okanagan, Indigenous faculty make up about two percent of the entire academic faculty. And so it’s fantastic to be able to share with Chantelle and all the successes of her work. I perhaps don’t have a question, just to be able to express my support for her.
It’s not always easy for Indigenous faculty within this, these kinds of spaces and the ways we’re trying to put a foot in the door and hold it open for each other. So, thank you so much Chantelle for all you’ve offered and for all the questions and conversation today.
[Richmond] I will just say the exact same back to you Tania, miigwech. I think that you have shared really beautifully. I think that a big part of what we’re trying to do, as you said, to put our foot in the door, we’re actually trying to address structural change. We’re trying to make spaces so that other young people and older people can come in behind us and see themselves reflected in this place so that they don’t have the same experience that maybe we have.
And I mean, it’s something that’s so recent. I’ve only been an academic for not 20 years and I feel like I’ve already seen this massive transition happening. So I just have to say that I’m really honoured to share this space with Tania and have just appreciated this really beautiful space to comment really honestly about, not only our successes, but also the challenges and the tensions because they are real and we have to pay attention to them. I think if there’s one final comment, it would be that our universities really need to do the work necessary and keep paying attention. Building the space for more students and more faculty and staff is really important but we also have to be making structures that welcome the knowledges and our communities and our children when we bring them into the space so that we know that we actually do matter and that we actually are welcome.