Dossier | Indigenous Voices and White Pedagogy | esse arts + opinions

Dossier | Indigenous Voices and White Pedagogy

  • Corey Bulpitt & Larissa Healey, Brian Jungen, Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture, installation view, Vancouver Art Gallery, 2012. Photo: Rachel Topham, Vancouver Art Gallery
  • Elder Edie Frederick dancing to the Khast’an drummers at the opening of Nekeyoh / Our Home, 2014. Photo: courtesy of Two Rivers Gallery, Prince George

Indigenous Voices and White Pedagogy
By Maeve Hanna

We must play seamstress
Stitch together
Piece by Piece
name by name
voice by voice (1)

The delicate voice of Edie Frederick, a Lheidli T’enneh Elder, carried through the exhibition space as she greeted and welcomed visitors in Dakelh (pronounced Da-keth), a dialect of the Carrier people, of the Northern Interior of British Columbia. Translating, she explained that she is a descendant of Six Mile Mary, a clan head of the Grouse Clan of the Lheidli T’enneh, well known for catching whitefish at Six Mile Lake, now Tabor Lake, and paddling the rivers in her dugout canoe. (2) Robert Frederick, Edie’s husband and also a Lheidli T’enneh Elder, spoke next. He told a story about when his grandmother saw the first white person in Prince George. He stopped momentarily, holding back emotion, and then spoke about his experience in residential school. Everyone was silent, stunned, listening to this man so honestly recount unbelievable and harrowing experiences, all brought upon him by white people. As I looked around, I saw many people I know from the community, many settlers. Robert Frederick continued, telling us the legend of the salmon that is carved on a cottonwood dugout canoe that visitors were gathering around. The canoe was made by Robert Frederick, along with students in First Nations Studies during a course offered at the University of Northern British Columbia. The students had learned from him how these canoes were traditionally made. Robert had carved the legend on one side of the canoe, while the students had carved it on the other, thus learning both the traditions of the Lheidli T’enneh and how to carve traditionally from a master carver.

The Khast’an Drummers emerged from the crowd and started to drum around the canoe. Edie Frederick began to dance, and members of the audience stood and joined her. The moment was incredibly moving. The entire event was captured by different media outlets, including the CBC, a cornerstone institution of Canada, an institution completely immersed in and built from a legacy of white pedagogy and colonialism. I handed Robert Frederick two packs of smokes wrapped in a handkerchief at the end of it all. He seemed touched by this small offering. I was touched by the entire experience.

I have just described the opening event for Nekeyoh/Our Home, an exhibition of work by Lheidli T’enneh First Nation artists at Two Rivers Gallery, located in Lheidli T’enneh traditional territory, known more predominantly as Prince George, B.C. I curated the exhibition, and I am a white settler curator. As I planned this exhibition, I began to think critically about how I could ethically curate an exhibition of work by First Nations artists. I met with Edie and Robert Frederick on a number of occasions. The idea for the exhibition came about as we teased out ways to start a meaningful dialogue between the Lheidli T’enneh and Two Rivers Gallery. At its base, this is the bare-bones truth of the situation: Two Rivers Gallery, the institution and its employees, are on Lheidli T’enneh territory, yet the Lheidli T’enneh do not always feel welcome. Working with Edie and Robert Frederick, and artist Jennifer Pighin, I opened my mind, acknowledged my ignorance, and asked for partnership, education, and understanding. Many artists came forward to participate after discussions and outreach organized with Jennifer Pighin’s help. I received work from people we did not know were making art. An inmate at the local penitentiary submitted an incredible suite of drawings. I did not write or speak on the meaning behind the exhibition; I chose to allow other voices, those of the artists and members of the Lheidli T’enneh, to use the space as their venue for expression. The exhibition created the dialogue for itself and every visitor.

There are numerous exhibitions of First Nations work opening across Canada at an increasing rate. In an article published in Canadian Art, Bryne MacLaughlin states, “Over the past decade, there’s been an undeniable renewal in the presence and criticality of contemporary First Nations art in Canada.” (3) There is proof to support such a claim: Decolonize Me, organized by Inuk curator and academic Heather Igloliorte; Beat Nation, curated by Kathleen Ritter and Tania Willard and circulated by the Vancouver Art Gallery; Christi Belcourt’s project Walking With Our Sisters; Setting: Land, curated by Suzanne Morrissette and circulated by the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. Sakahàn is perhaps the largest of these projects. Organized by the National Gallery of Canada, the exhibition features work by Indigenous artists from countries around the world. On its website, the National Gallery describes how this project came together: “Sakahàn is co-curated by Greg Hill, the NGC’s Audain Curator of Indigenous Art; Christine Lalonde, Associate Curator of Indigenous Art; and Candice Hopkins, the Elizabeth Simonfay Guest Curator, with the support of an international team of curatorial advisors: Arpana Caur (India), Brenda Croft (Australia), Lee-Ann Martin (Canada), Reiko Saito (Japan), Irene Snarby (Norway), Jolene Rickard (United States), Megan Tamati-Quennell (Aotearoa New Zealand) and Yuh-Yao Wan (Taiwan).” (4)

These are just a few among countless others. Art gallery visitors go to see these exhibitions. Critics and curators read and write about them. They travel across the country, are featured in art magazines, are seen by thousands of Canadians. (5) Above all, these exhibitions critically examine issues surrounding Indigenous voices being heard over, spoken through, and discussed within the hegemony of a white pedagogical structure. White pedagogy can be understood, as Billy-Ray Belcourt states, as “methods of teaching through which whiteness is itself teachable, taught to, and that which teaches. It is therefore through white pedagogies that teaching and learning become about whiteness, become power apparatuses through which whiteness is secured.” (6) And my voice is one among many implicit in this problem.

Lee Maracle comments similarly on this notion of white pedagogy in her book I Am Woman, although she approaches it from a feminist and sociological perspective and largely citing history: “I trotted about with my mother to the homes of great intellectuals among the Squamish people. . . . Among them were Andy Paull . . . and his son Percy . . . who came by their knowledge against the will of the state, which precluded our being educated in the institutions reserved for white people.” (7)

Maracle is pointing out that these institutions, at the time that First Nations people were prohibited from them, were the very institutions in which most, if not all, settlers were educated. Herein lies the conundrum and the continued impact of colonialism seen through the ramifications of the residential school system, which, in turn, can be seen as linked to the notion of white pedagogy. Although Maracle may not be speaking directly to the art institution, she is speaking to the overarching issue of ongoing colonialism that is felt by First Nations people across the country. Her writing in this book is specific to Native women, but it offers a clear and thought-provoking entry point into the issues from her perspective. She speaks to colonialism and racist ideology as felt by Native women with complete honesty and, at times, stark criticism, and much of what she asserts can be applied in the context opened here. She also takes European feminism and finds a way to translate it into a language that makes it accessible and meaningful for Native women. It is time for art galleries and museums to use this form of translation with regard to exhibitions.

The impact of white pedagogy within the curatorial practice of white curators in Canada is a priority in Alissa Firth-Eagland’s essay “An Appeal to White People: Relearning our Concepts of Good Will, Intention and Inclusion.” Here she names herself a “settler” and “curator” and states, “As white people, our responsibility is to radically restructure our colonial relationship to Indigenous, immigrant, and culturally diverse peoples. Our role is not to speak for others but to speak for ourselves. That can be our contribution to changing the system.” (8)

I want to take a position here in questioning how we can relegate white pedagogy, which compounds continued colonialism, to the past. How can we abolish institutional whiteness? How can we alleviate assumed white assimilation and dominance? I want to demand with my white voice that I be questioned about my whiteness, that I assume responsibility for the inherited colonialism of Canada, that I undertake truly the role of settler, that I seek out education that does not privilege whiteness above all else. I want to take a position in owning the responsibility of acknowledging whiteness, acknowledging colonialism, and asking the Indigenous voices around me what I can do. In a conversation with Elder Edie Frederick during a symposium for Indigenous Youth Leaders held in Prince George, I broached my discomfort in this area. Her answer to me was eloquent and simple: to approach each exhibition, discussion, or event with an open heart, with acknowledgment and honesty, which I believe is a first of many steps. Sometimes simply accepting one’s ignorance and speaking directly to it can provide the space for discussion and understanding.

Firth-Eagland further cites issues that need to be confronted within the curatorial forum; these issues are uncomfortable for many but, as Edie suggested, require acknowledgment: “Settler colonialism is lodged in capitalism’s economic language of exchange. Curatorial practice is entrenched in a history of decision-making. Left unchecked, these histories assimilate collaborative, creative relationships . . . . To act as chooser [of works included in an exhibition] can over-determine potential outcomes, but more seriously. It can verge on the assimilative.” (9)

This position refers to the implicitness of all white voices in all art institutions. We assume the right, in our positions, in our education, to voice our distaste for the atrocities of colonialism by curating or showing exhibitions by Indigenous artists and/or curated by Indigenous curators. But, in this position, I ask, “Is that my right?” I ask all the Indigenous voices, artists, curators, writers, critics, “How do you anticipate, demand, and desire that white voices acknowledge colonialism, that white voices speak about and learn about and acknowledge colonialism?”

This position speaks equally to white pedagogy, implicating it in the need to hear Indigenous voices. How do we actively listen? How do we unlearn and relearn? How do we unwrite the pedagogical system that has educated the last generation of our voices? How do we teach and reach our children, our new generation of artists, curators, critics and writers? How do we take apart the whiteness of the art galleries and museums that are showing your work, that are providing opportunity for your voice? How do we have the right to take on this role — of opening the doors of white institutions and allowing white pedagogy to influence what is said? And above all, how do we change this?

As a tool for education, as a means for social engagement and discussion, exhibitions are critical to asking these questions. What is important to remember as curators and settlers is that the objective of the artists — rather than our curatorial endeavour — must always be at the fore. This is essential within the context of this position, wherein it is the Indigenous voice that requires us to listen, and the curatorial voice, which is often white and also often male, should be listening instead of reframing the work within a structure that in the end does not support it. It is the curator’s responsibility, then, to use his or her practice as a means to allow these voices to speak unbridled by the inherent whiteness from which a majority of art galleries and museums are built.

I am a settler and a curator. I carry a white voice educated through white pedagogy. I acknowledge my part in this country’s colonialist history and ask, “What can I do to interrupt this dialogue? ”

I take a position here in solidarity. I raise my white voice and ask my colleagues to do the same.

NOTES
(1) Moe Clark, “Butterfly Ashes,” in Fire and Sage (Brussels: maelstrÖm rEvolution, 2013), 16.
(2) Conversation with Edie Frederick, May 4, 2015.
(3) Bryne McLaughlin, “Curator Q&A: How Indigenous Art Took Centre Stage in Sakahàn,” Canadian Art (May 23, 2013), accessed December 20, 2014, http://canadianart.ca/features/2013/05/23/sakahan-national-gallery-of-ca....
(4) “Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art,” National Gallery of Canada, accessed December 20, 2014, www.gallery.ca/sakahan/en/index.htm.
(5) The selection of exhibitions cited above are projects curated by, or in collaboration with, one or more First Nations curators or artists. It is not an exhaustive list. The questions in my essay are asked in part in response to this research trend and to the assumption that this is not the standard within the field.
(6) Billy-Ray Belcourt, “On White Academics in Native Studies, or My Brown Flesh Is Not Your Social Justice Project,” Nakinisowin, n.d., accessed December 20, 2014,
http://nakinisowin.wordpress.com/2014/12/15/on-white-academics-in-native... (emphasis in original).
(7) Lee Maracle, I Am Woman: A Native Perspective on Sociology and Feminism (Richmond, BC: Press Gang, 1996), xi.
(8) Alissa Firth-Eagland, “An Appeal to White People: Relearning Our Concepts of Good Will, Intention, and Inclusion,” Cities for People, December 11, 2014, accessed December 21, 2014,
http://citiesforpeople.ca/en/blogroll/an-appeal-to-white-people-relearni....
(9) Ibid.

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