“What is missing?”: Marie Clements’s New Opera about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Violence against Indigenous women and girls is pervasive in Canada. The National Inquiry  Interim Report, (Our Women and Girls are Sacred) cites an estimate that Indigenous women are “12 times more likely to be murdered or missing than any other women in Canada, and 16 times more likely than Caucasian women” (at pp. 7-8). And the Native Women’s Association of Canada points out that numbers alone communicate little about the lives of Indigenous women and girls, or the calamitous losses experienced by their families and communities.  As NWAC point out in their discussion of the Faceless Dolls Project,  “each statistic tells a story.”

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The cast of Missing (photo credit: Dean Kalyan)

In a new chamber opera that debuted in 2017 in British Columbia, librettist Marie Clements and composer Brian Current portray ongoing colonial violence against Indigenous women and girls and emphasize the need for difficult learning.

Missing, performed in English and the Gitxsan language, immerses audience members in a discomfiting comparison of the divergent life chances of two young women with similar aspirations. Ava, a white law student, passes by a hitchhiker on the notorious Highway 16, the “Highway of Tears” where so many women have gone missing. After a car accident, she glimpses the body of a high school student, a character Clements names only “Native Girl,” who stands in for the multitude of lost girls and women.

Ava returns to her studies after recovering and encounters Dr. Wilson, a guest lecturer, whose discussion of missing and murdered Indigenous women challenges students to move beyond fleeting sympathy to grapple with their own complicity. “What is missing,” Dr. Wilson asks the students, in a society that “can’t recognize another human being as another human being?” One of Ava’s classmates disavows shared responsibility for the structures and histories that make Indigenous women vulnerable to violence; she angrily insists that they are to blame for their own “bad choices.”

forever-loved-FINAL-cover-small.jpgThe student’s defensive reaction in the opera, and her reliance on problematic stereotypes, will be familiar to many instructors. Maxine Matilpi explains that “when we dispel lies and deal with the omissions from their prior education, non-Indigenous students tell me that they would rather we didn’t spend so much class time on colonization or racism; they find it uncomfortable and frustrating, even irritating” (See her article “Personal Political Pedagogy with Respect to #MMIW” in D. Memee Lovell-Harvard and Jennifer Brant, eds, Forever Loved: Exposing the Hidden Crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada (2016), p. 264).

But in the opera, Ava, is not defensive.  She has been transformed by her near-fatal accident, and is receptive to Dr. Wilson, who instructs her in the Gitxsan language and then mentors her when she becomes a new mother. The care and cultural teachings that Ava receives are further reminders of what the other young woman was deprived of by her assailant, while scenes of her mother’s limitless grief portray how badly she is missed. As Ava encounters Native Girl in uncanny ways, she learns to reach out to her, offering care and witnessing.

Marie Clements, an acclaimed Métis playwright (she is also the writer and director of the new film The Road Forward), when interviewed about Missing, said that her desire was to create a work in this Opera that would engage the empathy of Indigenous and non-Indigenous audience members by portraying “a Canadian story . . . one that we’re all responsible to.”

The disappearances and tragic deaths continue, and at the first hearings of the National Inquiry, families have described losses that extend across generations. Marilyn Dumont, a Métis poet and professor, commemorates Helen Betty Osborne, a high school student who had to move away from home to attend high school. “Betty,” Dumont writes, “if I set out to write this poem about you / it might turn out instead / to be about me / or any one of /my female relatives.”

Clements’ opera is a great resource for those looking for ways to engage with the difficult realities of our shared colonial histories in ways that make this story one that we are all responsible to.

SOME RESOURCES:

Chantelle Bellerichard, “New opera about MMIWG tells a story ‘that we’re all responsible to,’ says co-creator” (Oct 29, 2017) http://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/mmiwg-opera-to-premiere-in-vancouver-next-week-1.4375797

Sarah Petrescu, “Power of Opera Gives Story of Missing Indigenous Women Emotional Depth” (Nov 21, 2017) http://www.timescolonist.com/entertainment/power-of-opera-gives-story-of-missing-indigenous-women-emotional-depth-1.23099825

Interim Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, “Our Women and Girls are Sacred” (2017) http://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/files/ni-mmiwg-interim-report-en.pdf

Highway of Tears Symposium Recommendation Report (2006) http://www.turtleisland.org/healing/highwayoftears.pdf

Jorge Barerra, “100s of Faceless Dolls Disappear” (Oct 10, 2017) http://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/mmiwg-faceless-dolls-disappear-1.4363768

 

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Core Strengthening – A MOOC to get you going!

Part of TRC Calls to Action  #27 and #28 includes training in “intercultural competency”.   I find myself reflecting on the very real challenge for many of us working in law:  how do we as professors strengthen the grounds of our own intercultural competency?   Part of what we are engaged in is a new practice of balancing.  What resources are available to both students and faculty alike?

There are some very interesting resources out there and available in the world.  Just as one example, here at UVic, our colleagues Robina Thomas and Rob Hancock at the office of Indigenous Academic and Community Engagement have developed a Cultural Acumen Training, program, and have been providing the first module (an 80 minute ‘foundations’ session) to Faculty, to staff, and in classrooms.   It is a delight (and a politically meaningful one) to see institutional support for the kind of learning/unlearning that has to be done as we move forward on this work.  One of the ways I think all of us can contribute to the work is to support and make use of the resources available in our particular institutions (conscious of course of the thoughtful cautions of Jula Hughes re the colonization of cultural competency work).IMG_20171122_112632

I also want to do a big shout out to University of Alberta, and their Indigenous Canada MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) [taught by Professors Tracy Bear and Paul Gareau].  It is a wonderful response to the TRC, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

If I were to suggest a gift for the holidays, it would be to give yourself the gift of signing up for this course.  OK.  The thing is, this gift is FREE!  But you can also pay for it.  I think it was something like $65 if you want to take it for the Certificate.  I took the PAYMENT option, partly as a way of trying to keep myself accountable (and so i would have a small amount of pressure, so i would TAKE the time needed each week to actually DO the work).

The Course is super well designed, and has 12 lessons/weeks.   The site tells you to anticipate a time commitment of 3-5 hours a work per week.  I will say it took me less time… maybe because i am just so smart already?!  🙂  That said, i have subsequently returned to and re-watched several components (sometimes with my kids), so there you go on the time front.

Here some truly delicious things about the course:

  1. It is in manageable time chunks!  The course is online (I guess that is why one of the “O”s in “MOOC” is for “online?”)  It has been designed so you can work around a fragmented schedule (if your life works as does mine).  It is broken down into small video components (each between 10 and 20 minutes long at the most).  The videos have little quizzes built into them (so you can answer questions right at the spot that you are getting access to new information).  I totally enjoyed watching a segment or two in the evening, sometimes while eating dinner. IMG_20171122_152153
  2. There is art!  In the design of the course, they worked with artist Leah Dorion, to have her produce original art work for the course.  For each week in the course, there is “Interactive Painting” segment where the artist walks you through one of the paintings, discussing the elements in the painting, and how they relate to the subject.   Various elements from the paintings are then incorporated (as visual markers) into the weekly lessons in ways that really help to anchor and extend the content.
  3. There is significant breadth in coverage.  Topics for the 12 lessons include the fur trade and other exchange relationships, land claims and environmental impacts, Indigenous women, legal systems and rights, political conflicts and alliances, Indigenous political activism,urban Indigenous governance practices, contemporary Indigenous life, art and its expressions and more.  There is also a great 49 page “Native Studies Glossary” with links to internet resources.
  4. The production values make it a pleasure to watch.   We academics are smart, but not always fun to watch when filmed.  They did a really good job on the design, and so I found the mix of talking heads, images, animations, and text to really hold my attention.   It is designed in a way to touch various learning styles.  In short, the videos not only held my attention, but gave me lots to think about in terms of pedagogies!  I am also in love with the intro music for the course (and often found myself humming along).

In short, there are great resources out there to support us as we do the work of extending our own intercultural acumen, of familiarizing ourselves with the history that is our own.  This is a resource that I would feel comfortable recommending to students and colleagues alike.  Certainly worth thinking about as a concrete action each of us can take in the direction of taking up our own personal obligations under the TRC to educate ourselves for the work ahead.

 

 

 

Pulling the Weeds – by Suzanne Lenon, Kara Granzow & Emily Kirbyson

As non-Indigenous faculty and graduate student teaching in the disciplines of Sociology and Women & Gender Studies, we regularly include discussions of settler colonialism in our course material. And, as teachers in disciplines that encourage critical thinking about societal power arrangements, we wish to develop learning resources in ways that build accountability to the TRC’s calls for reconciliation and Indigenous scholars’ calls for decolonization.To this end, we were awarded a small grant from our university in which we proposed to develop pedagogical tools that would more tangibly speak to the colonial politics of knowledge production, trouble the idea that settler colonialism is of the past, and ‘unsettle’ the racial and heteronormative colonial logics of identity and belonging.

Situated as we are at a post-secondary institution built into Blackfoot territories and in close proximity to the largest land-based reserve in the nation, we have a student body that seems to experience settler colonialism in a variety of ways, directly and/or recognizing its importance, or as completely disconnected from their everyday life. It is this full range of student experiences that we attempt to invite into an ‘unsettling’ pedagogy.

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Spotted Knapweed in bloom [http://mtweed.org/weeds/spotted-knapweed/]
We offer here a discussion of one assignment we designed called “Pulling the Weeds.”[1] The assignment was designed to foreground land as crucial to decolonization and to provoke student thinking on the relations between themselves, land, property, and nationhood in a local context (Tuck & Yang, 2012). Students were to (1) read the Wikipedia entry for spotted knapweed and submit a hard copy, marked with notes and/or highlighted excerpts; (2) go out on to the prairie and find the knapweed; (3) document the experience of picking it; and (4) write short responses to versions of the following questions:

  1. Describe the experiences of seeking out the knapweed.
  2. Describe the sensory elements of picking the knapweed (how did the soil smell, what was the texture of the weed, etc.).
  3. Where did you pick the weeds? Whose land were you on?
  4. What is your relationship to the patch of land that you picked the weed on?
  5. Write on your (dis)identifications with the knapweed or the plants that you left in the ground.
  6. Why do you think I asked you to pull an invasive plant species in this course?
  7. What connections can you make to this week’s readings?

The activity was assigned in a second year feminist theory course, a third year sociology of race and ethnicity course, and in a graduate level methods and theory course. The readings that students were required to complete varied from course to course, and ranged from Leanne Simpson’s (2014) Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg Intelligence and Rebellious Transformation, Adrienne Rich’s (1994) Notes Toward a Politics of Location, and chapters from Audra Simpson’s (2014) Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States.

Students were encouraged not to worry about having the correct answer. They were encouraged to be creative and thoughtful, and to respond even if they were unsure of a question’s meaning. In spite of the bewildered looks when we asked them to go weed-picking, the very physical nature of the assignment expressed in their papers (the heat of the sun, the toughness of the weed’s roots, the itchiness of the weed, the pleasure of being outside), and the anxiety expressed about not being able to ‘find’ knapweed and hence complete the assignment, students wrote rich, varied, complicated, and thoughtful reflection papers. In their course evaluations, some students articulated the transformative learning that occurred from this assignment, suggesting that we delivered in fulfilling our institutional motto, “Fiat Lux” (Let there be Light).

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Rocks painted by Alice Matisz, artist

However, we also wish to reflect here on two inter-related sets of limitations to the assignment.

The first set of limitations is related to the mechanics of the assignment and the strictures placed around it by virtue of being developed and carried out in the context of a post-secondary institution. We asked students to pick knapweed only once, but now wonder about requiring multiple knapweed pulls over the early fall months of the semester as part of an ongoing reflexivity-praxis assignment. Leanne Simpson (2014) writes in “Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg Intelligence and Rebellious Transformation” that theory is not just an intellectual pursuit – “it is woven within kinetics, spiritual presence and emotion, it is contextual and relational. It is intimate and personal, with individuals themselves holding the responsibilities for finding and generating meaning within their own lives” (p. 7). This beautifully captures our aspirational desires for this assignment.

We wonder, then, what effect(s) several knapweed pulls might have on students, on their intimate engagements with the prairie, on their meaning-making of social locations, on fostering the process of an ‘unsettling’ pedagogy? Moreover, how would a focus on the restoration or identification of native plant species (rather than only on the eradication of invasive ones) shift the performative and meaning-making axis of this assignment? Yet, as Simpson also reminds us, neither the practice of picking knapweed nor the restoration of native plant species can be performative of land as pedagogy when the necessary conditions are not in place. For Simpson, such conditions include the requirement that our post-secondary institutions ensure “the full, valued recognition of [Indigenous] freedom, sovereignty and self- determination over bodies, minds and land” (p. 17).

The second set of limitations has to do with some of the oversimplifications of the assignment. We required students to identify knapweed with the help of a Wikipedia page that, among other things, describes the weed’s ‘systematics and taxonomy.’ We chose this website because it is highly likely that it would be among the first sites a student might otherwise visit to find out more about knapweed, and because the literary practices constituting the webpage’s knowledge production remind us of those employed in the classificatory work at the heart of scientific racism and the colonial project. What we did not foresee, however, was the extent to which students would rely on the language of the Wikipedia entry to explain their processes of weed identification thereby unwittingly reproducing and reifying colonial systems of classification. This constitutes more than a limitation for us; it is also a failure of the assignment.

Complicating this, students’ papers drew parallels between the tenacious ability of knapweed to stunt the growth of other plants and the white settlers who worked to invade and take over Indigenous bodies, lands, and lifeways. This raises a number of concerns for us. First, despite our attempt to heed Tuck and Yang’s (2012) warning, the assignment provokes primarily metaphorical understandings of knapweed as settler colonialism and its eradication as decolonization. Second, this metaphor relies upon and reproduces a settler/Indigenous dyad as ahistorical and naturally existing. Third, it naturalizes a hostile relationship between the two, the outcome of which is both anticipated and assumed final. How can this then constitute the assignment as an ‘unsettling’ pedagogy? As problematizing settler colonialism “as a living phenomenon?” (Monture 2007, p. 207). Moreover, we worry that in attempting to address “the settler problem” (Regan 2010, p. 11), we inadvertently re-centered precisely that which we hoped to unsettle. This is a failure for us. One of the unforeseen outcomes in attempting ‘unsettling’ pedagogy is producing communities of individuals who embody and enact another version of settlerhood, that of the enlightened settler. We realize that we must be vigilant about the subtle and less obvious forms that uphold settler colonialism: we worry that success in teaching about colonization that leaves any room for a redeemable enlightened and benevolent settler subject (including ourselves as teachers), whose governments have apologized and who ‘know better’ than earlier generations, is part of the ongoing remaking of settlement.

One of our intimate attachments is to be ‘good’ teachers, that is, to teach anti-colonization and antiracism on the Blackfoot territories occupied by the University of Lethbridge in a way that avoids the pitfalls of pedagogies of inclusion and the fallacy of ‘safe spaces’. We share our experience of this assignment in the conviction that the moments of disorder, failure and uncertainty that arise within our teaching practices are sometimes necessary mis-steps. Though such practices may propel us towards imagining other, perhaps less colonial, ways of being in and of the world, they are also only made because of the colonial foundations on which our presence here as teachers and citizens resides.

 

[1] Pulling the Weeds was inspired in part by a published conversation between Snelgrove, Dhamoon, and Corntassel (2014) wherein Corntassel describes efforts, largely on the part of Cheryl Bryce of the Songhees First Nation, and a “Community Tool Shed”, to revive Lekwungen “foodscapes and landscapes” (p. 25). The Community Tool Shed, located in what is now commonly called Victoria, B.C., is a site that brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous folks who work to rid Lekwungen homelands of invasive plant species and to foster traditional plant growth.

 

References

Monture, P.A. (2007). Racing and erasing: Law and gender in white settler societies. In S. P. Hier and B.S. Bolaria, eds. Race & racism in 21st century Canada: Continuity, complexity, and change (197-216). Peterborough: Broadview Press.

Regan, P. (2010). Unsettling the settler within: Indian residential schools, truth telling, and reconciliation in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Rich, A. (1994). Notes towards a politics of location (1984). In A. Rich (Ed.), Blood, bread and poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985 (210-231). London: Little Brown & Co.

Simpson, A. (2014). Mohawk interruptus: Political life across the borders of settler states. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

Simpson, L. B. (2014). Land as pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 3(3), 1-25.

Snelgrove, C., Dhamoon, R., & Corntassel, J. (2014). Unsettling settler colonialism: The discourse and politics of settlers, and solidarity with Indigenous nations. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 3(2), 1-32.

Tuck, E. & Yang, K.W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1), 1-40.