By Lynn Gehl, Algonquin Anishinaabkwe
… the 1847 report on Indian Affairs recommended shifting from the provisions of ready-made clothes to the provisions of material with which to make clothes. It was thought that this shift would discourage idleness, (Neu and Therrien, Accounting for Genocide, 2003: 63)
I am of the thought that art has to exist for art’s sake, to please the eyes, for beauty, as an esthetic. After all, for a long time all human cultures have liked beautifying things; not everything is about history and politics.
I am also of the thought that who we are as human beings is shaped by knowledge and power.[i] What I mean by this is that knowledge production can be skewed by the economic order and this then in turn shapes who we are. This includes the knowledge that is produced through art: visual, material, music, and performance such as song and dance. Let’s face it, knowledge is not just found in books and texts. Indeed art can and does serve the hegemonic colonial order and the oppressor well. Some say all too well.
Given that art serves the hegemonic order, it also serves counter-hegemonic efforts of resistance and survival of the more oppressed. Examples of counter-hegemonic art are the bodies of work that Indigenous artist are creating and producing. Such Indigenous artists include Rebecca Belmore, Christi Belcourt, and Isaac Murdoch who, through their art, work hard to create more space for a better world for all of Creation and the Land, not just for human beings.
In the work I do for the Algonquin Anishinaabeg and Algonquin land and resource rights I found Alice Olsen Williams‘[ii] quilted artwork, titled “Tree of Peace Saves the Earth”, to be particularly evocative and meaningful. This 65″x 66″’ quilted work was created in 1991 and resides within the collections of the Michigan State University Museum. This work illustrates a creative Indigenous interpretation of the Tree of Peace; germinated from the ground beneath Canada’s Parliament Buildings, and grown to such a massive size, it desecrates a central feature of the fictional nation state called Canada: Canada’s Parliament Building.
Olsen Williams describes this work:
At the top of the tree sits the Eagle, the strong and sacred bird who helps to look after all the Beings and takes our prayers to the Creator. Around her is the Sun, a Life-giver, for without the Sun, there would be no Life. The four roots of the Sacred Tree of Peace represent the Four Directions that embody the teachings of sharing, honesty, kindness and caring. The roots are on the back of a turtle that represents Turtle Island. Under the roots are buried weapons of oppression. When peace is allowed to come, all implements of war shall be buried. We know that a patriarchal, capitalist, socioeconomic ideology permeates the land.[iii] This system is represented by the Canadian Parliament buildings. As First Nations people we believe it is the Anishinaabeg who will teach the white man about the balance of the natural world and how to live in harmony and peace with all of Creation. This is shown by the Tree of Peace growing through the Parliament buildings, destroying all that they stand for and replacing it with the teachings of peace, caring, sharing, and harmony.[iv]
As an Algonquin Anishinaabe, as an Indigenist (versus feminist) thinker, and considering that Canada’s Parliament buildings squat on my traditional territory it should be more than obvious why I experience the “Tree of Peace Saved the Earth” as important. I am all too aware that the Algonquin are a nation of people who exist without a treaty; a treaty that is nation to nation; versus a land claim that forces us to extinguish our land and resource rights which is what Canada forces us to do (Gehl 2014, The Truth the Wampum Tells).
While some people may say that Canada’s colonial history is over, I know all too well that Canada’s colonial hegemony order continues to flourish and destroy Indigenous nations. This is what nation states do in order to thrive: destroy Indigenous nations. While the current Liberal government’s platform claims respect for the nation to nation relationship and the need for reconciliation, I know all too well that sacred Indigenous land and waterscapes, such as Akikodjiwan and Akikpautik, continue to be further desecrated.[i]
Akikodjiwan and Akikpautik are the land and waterscapes where Creator placed the First Sacred Pipe. Akikodjiwan speaks of the larger landscape where the islands of Chaudière, Albert, and Victoria reside. Adjacent to this is the Chaudière Dam that masks Akikpautik, best thought of as Pipe Bowl Falls and also valued as the First Sacred Pipe. Chaudière, Albert, and Victoria Islands were where people from different Indigenous nations gathered to smoke the Pipe ‒ the ultimate act of reconciliation. These islands were peace-seeking Islands in that weapons were not permitted, rather they were left on the main land (Gehl 2017, Claiming Anishinaabe).
Despite Canada’s rhetoric of reconciliation, recently the Service Ontario Land Registry reported that Windmill Dream Zibi Ontario Inc. is now an owner of parcels of this long lasting Indigenous peace-seeking landscape.[vi] This corporation has plans to build a condominium and retail complex for the rich. In this way Canada’s hegemonic colonial order that denies Indigenous nations their sacred places continues.
In the work I do I have come to value that what makes people human beings are the very beliefs, stories, and assumptions they are taught and socialized into. When nation states such as Canada take away and desecrate sacred places, they harm the people at the very core of what makes them human. It is for this reason that while I do like art for art’s sake, I also value the counter-hegemonic creative pieces that Indigenous artists such as Alice Olsen Williams are producing. The Liberal Government must stop telling lies and stop ripping “apart the very fabric of a highly evolved civilization”. (Neu and Therrien 2003: 77).
[i] At this link you will find an interesting discussion about how funding shapes art productions: https://cfe.ryerson.ca/key-resources/podcasts/are-arts-funders-starting-define-art
[iii] At the request of Alice Olsen Williams in this sentence I changed the word “believe” with the word “know”. Such conviction is valued.
Lynn Gehl, Ph.D. is an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe from the Ottawa River Valley. Her book ‘The Truth that wampum Tells: My Debwewin on the Algonquin Land Claims Process’ was published in 2014 with Fernwood. Her newest book, published by University of Regina Press in September, 2017 is called ‘Claiming Anishinaabe: Decolonizing the Human Spirit’. A signed copy can be purchased through this link:
http://www.lynngehl.com/contact-information.html. The cost is $24.95 plus $5 for shipping.