Canada Day, Rebecca Belmore & Me

Yesterday Toronto was bursting. It was hot and humid. It was Pride. Spain was playing Italy, and it was Canada Day.

If I’ve learned anything about Canada Day, it is that it’s important to spend the
day with other NDNs, if for no other reason than it is an antidote to the swath of Canadian amnesia out celebrating their country, forgetting that it is built upon the decimation of our nations and four hundred years of subsequent violence targeting our families, relations, and friends.

So I got up, watched Ryan McMahon’s Clarence Two Toes Happy B’Day Canada, read Drew Hayden Taylor’s “White people, here’s your one-time Canada Day special: Native people apologize back!” in the Globe and Mail, and headed to Toronto for artist Rebecca Belmore’s performance on the grounds of Queen’s Park as part of ANDPVA's and Wanda Nanibush’s curatorial project House of Wayward Spirits Performance Art.

The site of Belmore’s performance was Queen’s Park, in the expanse of a large, old oak tree, Mitigomizh, in our language.

There were four pots of Nibi (water), and three large plastic bottles of water marking the front of the space, telling me that this performance was going to be about women. Nibi within Anishinaabeg philosophy carries within it many complex teachings and it is also a strong reference to women. There are four female spirits responsible for the water in the oceans, the fresh water, the water in the sky and the water within our bodies. Nibi is the responsibility of women. Nibi is women’s sovereignty.

Belmore began by leading her three shkaabewisag (helpers) around the Mitigomizh that would become the focal point for the work. Over the next hour, large sheets of brown kraft paper were unrolled, moistened with spray bottles of water and carefully wrapped around the tree over and over. They used Nibi to hold the sheets together.

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At first, the tying of the brown paper around the tree seemed like a marker to me. My attention was exclusively on Mitigomizh. It was the Elder, the Nokomis in the park. I imagined the destruction Nokomis had witnessed over the course of her life. I thought of all of the water held by her roots and in her body. I thought of all the black oak trees, and black oak savannas that are no longer in Mississauga territory. I noticed the hordes of people walking by the tree, not noticing, on their way to see the horse statue and the legislature. For an hour, we sat or stood, talking and laughing quietly with our friends, eating and drinking and looking at Nokomis, the old oak tree in the context of water. We watched as our water was used to hold together the paper, methodically being wrapped around our grandmother.

I remembered the murdered, the missing, the stolen, the erased. I remembered generation after generation after generation after generation of our warrior women. I remembered the generations yet to come.

When Mitigomizh was wrapped with the paper, it reminded me of a sexy, strapless party dress, with ruching from top to bottom, and one asymmetrical strap coming across her shoulder, where Belmore had attached the gown to the tree (by initially throwing the paper tied to a yellow rope over a very tall branch).

Mitigomizh for me had become sexualized through no choice of her own. She was aesthetically beautiful, but then she was also aesthetically beautiful before the performance began. I had just forgotten to notice.

Then, one of the shkaabewis, dressed in her own black party dress with long and with flowing black hair sat in the lap of Mitigomizh. Belmore took the wig off the shkaabewis’s head and placed it over her faced. Then she continued to wrap the shkaabewis into the tree with the paper. All the while, our sacred water was being used as the glue. Eventually, our Anishnaabekwe disappeared.

Belmore then sat on the ground, in front of the pots of water, facing at the Mitigomizh and the disappeared Anishnaabekwe.

That in and of itself was emotionally moving.

Then, the pinnacle.

The peace was suddenly and without warning shattered by the sound of gunfire. I immediately thought of Oka, and the sounds of bullets terrorizing the pines. The violence of the explosion vibrated through my body and the ground.

The twenty one gun salute felt like the brutal targeting and assassination of Indigenous women disguised as a salute and an honouring, which speaks to the insidious and manipulative nature of colonialism, helping, reconciliation and the dangers of perpetually placing Indigenous women in the context of victimhood. The audio also included casual chatting, as if nothing was happening. As if it was all so normal, because violence against Indigenous women is normalized.

The layers of paper on Mitigomizh’s body made the stereotype of “easy squaw” came alive for me as the paper now became the layers of sexism, racism, heteropatriarchy slowly and seemingly gently, but fiercely and persistently wrapped around my body, replacing my own context of sacred being, good in her own right, with one of violence and attack, directly in the line of fire with people who are not afraid to pull the trigger. The water, my own fragmented power being used to hold me down, hold me back, to make me disappear.

This is the collective story of Indigenous women in Canada.

We all, to varying degrees face the daily firing squad, disguised as a reconciliatory salute. Our young girls are slowly but surely wrapped in heteropatriarchy and racism. Our bodies are never our own, but always focal point of the gaze, receptacles of violence. And then there is our grandmothers. Carry the water inside them, rooted to the land, their bodies magnificent archives of story.

The brilliance of Belmore’s work is always for me in its apparent nuanced simplicity, that hours and days later becomes more and more complex. It is the very best of Indigenous storytelling grounded in the very same process that have brought meaning to the lives of our Ancestors – multi-dimensionality, repetition, abstraction, metaphor and multiple sites of perception. In short, a multi-layered conversation whose meaning shifts through time.

At the end of the performance, Belmore took the wig off of her shkaabewis’s face (the lovely Cherish Blood, Blackfoot woman from the Blood reserve) and helped her out of the wrappings and down off the tree. The image of Rebecca extending a hand to Cherish and Cherish bursting through the bonds of 500 years of oppression with a huge smile on her face is one of the images seared into my memory from that day. The others, I’ll carry with me, and every time I pass by a Mitigomizh, wherever I am in the world, I will now remember the fierce, gentle, beautiful, nurturing nation building spirit of Indigenous women.

Rebecca Belmore takes (back) her (our) space (land) in the world and her work compels me to take (back) my (our) space (land) in the world. Yesterday, she took every Mitigomizh in my territory back, no matter where they grow. She embedded the story of Anishinaabekwewag into their bark, and in doing so she liberated the story of Indigenous women from the bonds of victimhood.

And for those gift, I say Chi’Miigwech to Rebecca, because today I feel slightly more healed than I did yesterday.