Visiting Indigenous

Understanding Indigenous Identity
By David Garneau
Indigenous Research Methodology (I). Acrylic on masonite 40 cm x 50 cm 2019
Indigenous Research Methodology (I). Acrylic on masonite 40 cm x 50 cm 2019.

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A decade ago, Losang Samten, a former Tibetan monk, came to the University of Regina to build a sand mandala and share Buddhist teachings. We chatted at an informal gathering. He had just spent the day with Elders at a nearby reserve. I asked why he went to Piapot. His answer continues to shape me: “It is our practice that in a new place we visit the wise people who belong to that land. We compare notes. If we agree about something, we know it is true. If we disagree, it is culture.”

I don’t know if Losang identifies as Indigenous—some ethnic Tibetans do—but I recognize his ethical visiting and oscillating consciousness as Indigenous. I use ‘Indigenous’ to refer to an emerging category of Native being that is gradually eclipsing the identity ‘Aboriginal’. Popularized by the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP, 2007), Indigenous refers to First Peoples who are grounded in their home culture but also identify with and are transformed by relationships with First Peoples around the world. Prior to invasion, Nêhiyawak, for example, were Nêhiyawak. After colonization, they were required to become Cree, Indians, Aboriginal, and a polyphony of other names and beings. Many folks now struggle to become Nêhiyawak, real human beings, once again. They learn their language, protocols, and histories, reclaim their territory, and restore what traditional ways and relations they can. But because a full return to pre-colonial conditions is impossible, they shape new ways of being Nêhiyawak. Aboriginal being oscillates between traditional culture and settler-colonial culture. The pendulum depends from a colonial structure. Indigenous folks, however, center their home culture, but also reach out to learn from and collaborate with non-colonial others. They look for measures apart from colonial culture, institutions, and persons.

The emerging identity called Indigenous results from not being at home. At home, in my territory, I am Métis. I have a certain meaning here and less certain meaning elsewhere. Indigenous identity arises from leaving home, virtually and physically. The Indigenous is formed, performed, and reformed in virtual spaces: online, through phone calls, but also with books, magazines, videos, and other media. First Nations, Métis, Inuit, Sami, Koorie, Māori, Maya, and so on, also form as Indigenous in contingent real spaces such as symposia, conferences, residencies, exhibitions, and other transnational gatherings that center Indigenous bodies, materials and modes. First Peoples, enter the Indigenous through mobility, by visiting people and places that are not home but are home-like because Indigenous. In these spaces and moments, somewhat freed from the limited perspective and pressures of the local, we can better see how we have been shaped and distorted by colonization, trauma, and distorted versions of our home cultures. In these spaces and moments, we trade, contest, and seek from like others what remedies they have discovered.

Losang Samtem’s visit to the Piapot Elders was an expression of non-colonial co-recognition. Two colonized parties meet away from settler surveillance. They recognize each other. That is, they assert and accept each other’s status; their relation to the territory as guest or keeper. But also re-cognize, as in an active engagement; to know again through conversation and ceremony who each other is apart from what one thought they knew of the other. This sort of high level meeting of minds is not tourism, study or other form of extraction but a visit. They met to share knowledge and approach wisdom; to test and be tested, to find their limits and expand horizons. Humble reciprocation is the heart of collaborative interactions among the real human beings.

Losang’s visit was a non-colonial action, an end-run around a settler authority that assumes superior knowledge resides in its ranks and not on a reserve. When we think of the colonial condition, perhaps we picture oppressed Natives and oppressive settlers. Less common is the image of sovereign Indigenous Nations and individuals communing with other sovereign Indigenous Nations and individuals without reference to settler authorization, presence, or definition. Non-colonial action is the recognition and performance of Indigenous alternatives, to everything. It is the doing of everyday acts of sovereignty. Non-colonial action is that aspect of the Indigenous, the tribal, and Aboriginal, that is accessible to non-Aboriginal people. It is not engaged by disaffected settler allies out of moral outrage or pity, but because it offers credible and sustainable alternatives to the dominant modes it will one day replace.

“If we agree about something, we know it is true. If we disagree, it is culture.” Perhaps there was a time, before invasion, where a People felt they knew all they needed to know. But I doubt it. Such confidence is perpetually tested by differences from without and within; from contact with ideas beyond the community, and from speculation, visions, and dissent at home. Every Elder I have listened to explains that what they know is true at the location where they speak from. Elders elsewhere have different knowledge that suit them and their territory best. However, all agree that there are truths beyond the numerous locals. Conversation with wise strangers offers perspective, a glimpse at the real beyond the customary. And then you need to go home. You need to live a life situated, applied, compromised. This requires an oscillating consciousness, a perpetual swing between the world as you find it and the ones you aspire to. Whether you believe in a metaphysical realm of essential Truth, or a materialist one in which truth is contingent agreement, humility requires self-reflection and respectful social testing among equals that unsettles the self and culture we have fallen into. For First Peoples, this is best done apart from settler measures and in the space of the Indigenous.

David Garneau (Métis) is a visual artist, curator, and critical arts writer interested in creative expressions of contemporary Indigenous identities and in varieties of conciliation, especially among Indigenous people, with recent guests to Turtle Island, and disabled folks. He is a Professor of Visual Arts at the University of Regina.
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