Blanket Exercise – Part 2

Encounter #3 – Material Culture and Rebellion in Whitehorse

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The Healing Totem in Whitehorse

My next encounter with the Blanket Exercise happened in Whitehorse, at a day long applied workshop on the TRC and the Calls to Action, being jointly sponsored by KAIROS, the Yukon Public Service Commission, the Council of Yukon First Nations and the Yukon Human Rights Commission.   The first half of the workshop was dedicated to the Blanket Exercise.

From the outset, there were some visible differences from the context of the exercise I had done in Montreal.  It was not just numbers (Montreal had involved a dozen or so people, and there were three times that many in Whitehorse). In Montreal, the organizers had no idea how many people would show up, and so there was a certain improvisational necessity involved.  In Whitehorse, people registered in advance, and so the organizers had a good sense of not only how many, but of which people would be there.

This time, the exercise was run by facilitators who clearly had significant experience with running the exercise, who knew how many people would be there, and who had a sense of comfort with the performative dimensions of the script. One of these dimensions involved the use of “material culture”:  the woman running this exercise had brought a large selection of goods, and she had placed them all over the blankets — moccasins, scarves, beads, wooden boxes, carvings, children’s knit mittens, animal pelts, and containers of medicine. When the exercise began and participants were invited to take our place on the blankets, we were also invited to pick up the items on the blankets and carry these objects with us.  We were told we could use them to trade with others.

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Material culture embedded in the exercise

I found that this time, making introductory contact with others was much easier.  I wasn’t told simply to greet others; I had a concrete object in my hands, giving me an easy topic of conversation in case of awkwardness. It also meant I could take my attention off of the others on the blanket, and give attention to the thing I was holding.  It made me feel a bit less awkward.  Additionally, there was an instant bond between me and the object I first picked up — a pair of hand-made gloves that I knew to have been made by the mother of a student in our law school class. The object gave me something tactile, visual and sustainable. The ability to focus my attention on the object was less stressful to me than having to focus my attention of people’s faces.

As this was my second time with the exercise, I was also more curious about what people were thinking, so there was an impetus for me to go engage and exchange with others in a more exploratory way.   As I did so, I realized that there was something more going on with the use of the objects. Early on in the exercise I recognized that not only did I have an object that I really loved, but also that it was “worth” more than many of the other objects people were carrying. Nevertheless I found myself seeking out people with other items and hoping to trade with them, which would mean surrendering my (valuable) object for their (less valuable) item. In part, I knew that none of these goods were really mine and so the question of value didn’t matter. At the same time, having a more valuable object gave me an inroad to making a connection with someone else on the blanket. I quickly realized that though my object may have been worth more than theirs, the exchange of my more valuable goods with what they had available was a way for me to open a conversation with that person, a way of building a relationship for the future.

Gaining that insight through this additional element of the exercise opened a spot for me to begin re-thinking my assumptions about trade. I recalled the ways in which people talk about Indigenous peoples as having made a bad trade, and realized that colonizers may have been really missing the point. The reasons for the trade may have been something very different than an assessment of equivalent values of the object.  The objects themselves might be part of the work of building longterm relations and commitments between people. For me, that piece of insight, which happened as part of the trading element of the exercise, before anything negative happened, was a piece of great value for my own understanding.

Throughout the entire exercise, we carried our goods with us. However, the goods of the people on the blanket who got small pox or who were killed off, were left behind, abandoned and alone on what become unoccupied blankets. In many cases these blankets were isolated from the other blankets and as such there was no way for those of us who remained to get them, for we couldn’t move to that space.  The loss of objects, and their ‘capture’ by the settlers, was very visible in this part of the exercise.

While participants in my McGill experiences were mainly settlers, in Whitehorse I had the opportunity to do the exercise where the majority of participants were Indigenous people.  There were also a significant number of participants (both Indigenous and settler) who were doing the exercise for the third or fourth time.   And so, there were some striking differences in how this experience unfolded.

As part of the exercise, corners of blankets are folded by the colonizers, reducing the “footprint” of the blanket. In Whitehorse I had the chance to witness another person on a blanket, enacting very strong moments of rebellion. The colonizer/facilitator would push the blankets to reduce their space, but when the facilitator turned their back, the person simply ‘undid’ the fold, and returned their blanket to their former space.  I was taken aback, as it had not occurred to me that I could resist.  I also noticed one participant who kept their feet pinned to the corners of their blanket, with a very aggressive and hostile stance, trying to ‘face-down’ the colonizer each time they approached.  At first, it was disquieting to witness this stance — to see the anger and the determination in their refusal to move off of the blanket when instructed. It was in that moment that I realized, if that person was resisting, I, too, could resist. And so my own resistance was inspired and born, my own rebellion was supported.

From that time forward, I too, tried to keep as much of my body as possible on the blanket to prevent it from being pushed in. Shortly after this, one of the colonizers made us sit on the ground. When we were made to sit on the ground I had a strong felt experience of constraint. I am aging and my body is never as limber as I imagine it to be. So sitting on the floor, trying to occupy my space, was difficult when I couldn’t easily move around on the blanket. I experienced discomfort in my body as I tryied to maintain positions that were quite unnatural in order to continue to occupy space, in order to protect it from colonizers. Further, I noticed that each time that I thought I had re-stretched my blanket out, as soon as I gave my attention to another part of the floor for a moment, I would turn again to find that the settler had come around and pushed the blanket back once more, erasing the gains that I had worked so hard to maintain in the first place. I became aware that in order to protect my space, I had to keep my eyes on it at all times, taking my focus off of anything else that might be happening in the world around me.

At one point during my resistance, a colonizer finally came and stood right beside me. I was being actively surveyed. The person’s proximity made it impossible for me to increase my resistance, constantly pushing my blanket into smaller and smaller shapes. There was something nearly claustrophobic about this encounter of restraint and constraint that left me feeling anxiety in my body.  I was not new to the history of legal constraint, but I had not expected to feel it so viscerally in my body.  What was surprising to me was physically feeling an overlap between my intellectual knowledge and my body, being enacted through this pretend exercise of restraint.

As an aside, this version of the exercise also made use of powerpoint.  A screen was set up to one side of the room, and it projected sometimes the text of the scrolls that individuals were reading, and sometimes images which supported those scrolls. The powerpoint was an interesting addition, and I found myself wondering at the work it was doing.  The images sometimes added a visceral punch to the words we were hearing.  It also provided another site of focus when the affective parts of the exercise were mounting.  However, it also was a site of distraction that sometimes pulled me out of the embodied dimensions of the experience and into something that echoed with my classroom experiences (of greater distance).  I was left thinking about both the additions and detractions of having that additional visual/textual field.

I found the debrief session at the end of the exercise to be a site of significant learning.  During the circle, one of the Indigenous participants shared that they had participated in this exercise before and had really hated it. They had started this time with a similar feeling. They had been wiped out with small pox right in the first round and thus been denied the opportunity to resist or rebel or to push back against the exercise and had been moved back to the side to sit in a chair and observe.  There was a moment however, when they thought about the ways the ancestors are said to be still present. This person began to consider how they might participate in the exercise even though they were dead. Though they were in the dead area of the circle, this person began calling out in a low whisper to Indigenous people in their quarter, messages of support and resistance, encouraging them to be strong, to stand in solidarity, to hold the line, to push back.

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Leaving Whitehorse, and heading for home

It was also moving to listen to other other Indigenous participants who had remained on the blankets til the end, and to hear them speak of how powerful it had been to them to hear these words of support, love, and resistance being spoke from ‘the past/the ancestors’.  It pushed me to think about my own experiences of the relationship between the past and the present , and of the role of memory in evoking the strengths of those who have gone before, and how such memories can strengthen those who come after.

I felt very grateful to have been in circle with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants, learning from each of them about insights (whether comforting or painful) that had come up through this moment of shared experience.   I was also struck by the realization that the Exercise need not be understood as as ‘one-time’ event; there was much that could be learned through multiple iterations.  The flight back to Victoria had my mind circling around questions of material culture and rebellion.

continue to Blanket Exercise – Part 3

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Author: Rebecca Johnson

I teach Law at the University of Victoria.

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