How art books help repatriate ‘Indigenous land and life’
By Erin Morton
“Decolonization is not a metaphor,” as scholars Eve Tuck and K Wayne Yang remind us. While Tuck and Yang here refer to overuse of the term “decolonization” in education systems, their statement might also be considered in relation to publishing and creative projects: if decolonization means the “repatriation of Indigenous land and life,” how might this be achieved through the specific work of art books?
Indigenous-led curatorial and creative practices that repatriate Indigenous art and writing are crucial for the resurgence of “land-based” and “embodied knowledges,” as art historians Heather Igloliorte and Carla Taunton argue in their new edited book, The Routledge Companion to Indigenous Art Histories in the United States and Canada.
Three recent art books that use such repatriation as a method of resurgence are Resilience: Honouring the Children of Residential Schools, Wabanaki Modern | Wabanaki Kiskukewey | Wabanaki Moderne, and TautukKonik | Looking Back.
Anishnaabe artist Jackie Traverse, from Lake St. Martin First Nation, and Residential School Warrior Geraldine (Gramma) Shingoose, a Saulteaux woman, activist and elder from Tootinaowaziibeeng First Nation, Treaty 4 Territory, have together produced a colouring book, Resilience, honouring the children of Residential Schools. In her foreword, Shingoose writes that “even in our suffering we were always playful, joyful, and happy children,” offering a story of resilience and love in the face of the cruellest forms of settler-colonial Canadian state violence against Indigenous children.
Traverse’s lovingly rendered drawings of children wrapped in tender care are offered alongside teachings such as “Lilybeans” (to whom the book is dedicated), Shingoose’s granddaughter, framed in a heart and a thunderbird that “tell her she’s loved by her mom and her kookoo.” Intergenerational and grandmother-led teachings are a gift to the reader of this beautiful book, which speaks first to Indigenous children.
In Wabanaki Modern, published in Mi’kmaw, French and English, curators and writers Emma Hassencahl-Perley (Wolastoqew) and John Leroux (white settler) include a foreword by esteemed Plains Cree art historian Gerald McMaster, which contextualizes the period of the 1960s as one of cultural resurgence for First Nations, Inuit and Métis artists in Canada. The book is divided into two essays by Leroux and Hassencahl-Perley, which together historicize and visually contextualize the history of the Micmac Indian Craftsmen or MIC from Elsipogtog, New Brunwick.
Leroux (who, in full disclosure, completed his PhD at the University of New Brunswick under my co-supervision) documents this group of “minimalist” printmakers and painters against the colonial and often bureaucratic struggle with settler governments to help fund their initiative, situating the MIC artists within a longer continuum of millennia-long Mi’kmaq cultural resiliency and resurgence. Individual stories from the MIC group, such as Michael Francis’s, document the oral traditions and life experiences that influenced his art, including a screening of the Disney movie Snow White at the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School.
Wabanaki Modern’s inclusion of extended interviews with Francis complement and contextualize the visual and material documentation of his art. The beautifully reproduced images in the book display the materiality of each object: the paper transparency of a story leaflet; the torn edge of a printed note card and accompanying legend to the silkscreened burlap package in which these objects were sold; the texture of the handwoven wool tapestry portraying the Mi’kmaw story of the Wild Goose.
Hassencahl-Perley’s essay offers a personal story of encountering Francis’s granddaughter, Starlit Simon, by chance through research on the MIC collection held at the University of New Brunswick’s Mi’kmaq-Wolastoqey Centre. The essay goes on to contextualize the history of the MIC within the community history of Elsipogtog, which includes settler-colonial occupation and racism, and within the larger narratives of Indigenous art history by scholars such as McMaster, Jas M Morgan and Sherry Farrell Racette.
Hassencahl-Perley elucidates the importance of Mi’kmaw storytelling within the MIC’s visual and material iconography and in combination with textual stories printed on note cards, stitched into deerskin wall hangings and sewn into textiles; as she puts it: “MIC designers Michael Francis, Stephen Dedam, Michael Dedam, and Vincent Barlow ensured that future community members, Wabanaki citizens, would have access to the stories they used in their artistic depictions.”
The essay concludes with a reflection on Mi’kmaw women’s labour behind the scenes of the MIC, as Jane Dedam and Mi’kmaw women of the MIC “produced jewellery, regalia, and copperwork; pulled the silkscreen prints; and hand-made the packaging” that was crucial to the collective’s output and success. The book concludes with a full list of MIC members and contributors.
TautukKonik / Looking Back, published in Inuktitut and English, by Candace Cochrane, Andrea Procter and the Nunatsiavut Creative Group, is a photographic teaching on Nunatsiavut, with a foreword by Julius (Joe) Dicker, AngajukKâk (mayor) of Nain. The foreword establishes the family and community connections behind Cochrane’s historical photographs of northern life, from an Inuit perspective that uses language resurgence to share stories about the past.
Procter’s introductory essay details storytellers and Elders such Levi Noah Nochasak, a collaborator on Cochrane’s photographs, who helps to document colonial and community histories around hunting, fishing and trapping dating back to the 1500s, to the establishment of the self-governing region of Nunatsiavut in 2005. Cochrane details the process of taking the photographs contained in the book, which she took as part of the International Grenfell Association, describing the resulting images as “a bouquet of all I saw in Inuit culture that I found unique, generous, courageous, caring, and at times difficult.”
The photographs are divided into thematic clusters around land, seasons and change, which are presented alongside Inuit stories offering knowledge on each theme, many by Nochasak. The black-and-white photos themselves are part portrait, part documentary, and each shows an interconnectedness between Inuit, land, water and non-human animal alongside a story and a teaching, such as, “August is the best time to pick berries, maybe late August, maybe September, early September. That’s when the berries are good and big. We fatten them. We pick berries, even bakeapples, in the fall. We save them for winter or Easter or birthdays.”
Procter provides a curatorial essay on the process of exhibiting the photographs in Nain, which included tremendous community involvement looking at images of families and place they lived. A full biography of each member of the Nunatsiavut Creative Group co-authors as well as bios on Cochrane and Procter closes the book.
As Igloliorte and Taunton note, there are Indigenous “nation-specific” practices that Indigenous art and languages can help share with a wide audience, in ways that re-generate long-held community knowledges for new generations. These three books offer such regenerating practices for entire families.
Erin Morton is professor of visual culture in the Department of History at the University of New Brunswick and the editor of Unsettling Canadian Art History (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2022).