we all begin in water

Tracing rivers and Indigenous epistemologies
By Hannah Claus
we all begin in water
Performance of Karine Wasiana Echaquan in front of the artwork water song (Kinosipi) by Hannah Claus during the opening of the exhibition Of Tobacco and Sweetgrass. Where Our Dreams Are, Musée d’art de Joliette, February 2, 2019. Photo Credit: Romain Guilbault.

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Editor’s Note : This article was written in English and is now published in Rungh. A French language translation was published in the collection, D’HORIZONS ET D’ESTUAIRES, by Éditions Somme Toute (2020), edited by Camille Larivée and Léuli Eshrāghi.

Kinosipi [Rivière de l’Assomption] flows near the Musée d’art de Joliette. It is perhaps half a block away. Aside from the striking architecture of the art museum itself, this was the first thing that I noticed. Rivers are important in Indigenous epistemologies, or specifically Kanien’kehá:ka* epistemology as this is the one that I know better than the others. Rivers are active bodies of water that were the connectors between places and people before this land had highways. People travelled the rivers and waterways to visit families and communities for feasts, gatherings and trade.

The installation, chant pour l’eau [Kinosipi] is the second water song installation that I have made. The first was in 2015. It started with my interest in wampum belts. I was learning about these from various teachers, such as Alan Corbiere (Anishinaabe), Rick Hill (Haudenosaunee) and Darren Bonaparte (Haudenosaunee). Wampum belts are mnemonic objects used to recite oral agreements. It seems to me that the fundamental principle of wampum belts is to communicate in so many ways about relationships within Indigenous worldviews. These woven devices are made of tubular purple and white beads which are formed from shells taken from the sea floor. The weavings are determined by the parties who are entering into the agreement. Together they decide the number of beads, the dimensions, the graphic design, the symbology, etc. Everything about the belt holds meaning: from its construction, to the elements with which it is made. While I am only beginning to learn the language, several people have told me that the word for a wampum belt in Kanien’kéha** is kahion:ni, which translates to: “a river made by hand”. This refers to the agreement which, like a river, is active and always ongoing. Visually, this is represented by the warp threads, which when cut from the loom are left long. The intention inherent within the agreement is meant to last as long as the waters flow.

I was gaining these teachings at a time when I was preparing to go to a residency in Mi’kma’ki, the Mi’kmaq territory that Québec has named the Gaspé. What could I bring to the Mi’kmaq nation as Kanien’kehá:ka tanon kerastanions [a Kanien’kehá:ka and an artist]? It was mentioned to me that Listuguj (one of the Mi’kmaq communities in the territory) obtained its name from a Kanien’kehá:ka attack… but that is another story. Mi’kma’ki is a territory rich in rivers. Fishing, rivers and tides announce the seasons; the rivers are as different from one another as snowflakes. My thoughts turned to rivers, as these are what bring us together. I met with various community members from Gesgapegiag and Listuguj during my residency to talk about rivers: salmon fishing and camps, fishing rights, net-making and permits. I finally encountered Victoria Labillois, a Listuguj business woman who spoke to me at length about many things, and in passing, of her drum group. When she told me of the songs they sing to thank the waters, I knew that this was the connective element I was looking for. I asked if she could see whether the rest of the group would be willing to record one of their songs for me. When they agreed, I arranged to make a digital recording, so that I could create the water song installation.

The key element I wanted to bring forward with this installation was the idea of relationship, as I understand this to be communicated within wampum belts. On one level, the idea of relationship comes through connecting with others to create the installation, but this is manifested through its form as well. The threads of the installation extend from floor to ceiling as a reference to the connection of earth to sky. It comes from the song, which is an oral testament to the singers’ relationship with the waters. Rivers connect us. It is also a relationship with territory and the land, for the singers and also for me: a guest, who for that time, is in connection with their specific territory. Rivers connect us. In this first water song installation, imagery from various rivers in Mi’kma’ki are printed on transparent discs. These are strung on threads to form the visual pattern of the digital sound waves created by that song.

we all begin in water
Hannah Claus, water song (Kinosipi), 2019. Installation view, Exhibition Of Tobacco and Sweetgrass. Where Our Dreams, Musée d’art de Joliette, February 2 - May 5, 2019. Photo Credit: Paul Litherland.

Returning now to the exhibition in Joliette, it struck me, as I walked over to stand beside the river near the museum, that this idea could transpose well to other rivers, other communities and other songs. Water plays such a strong role in all our lives: we begin in water, we are composed of water, water is life. Rivers are all very different, as are the people who are in relation with them. The first thing I try to understand when I go somewhere, and in particular, when I exhibit somewhere, is whose territory I am visiting. Joliette is interesting as technically, it is Anishinaabe / Algonquin territory, but is generally acknowledged as being Atikamekw, simply because so many Atikamekw people live there now.

It was now late October 2018, and the exhibition was to open in January 2019. It took quite a few phone calls, messages and methods to find someone from the local community to work with. Finally, I reached Sabrina Paton at the Centre d’amitié autochtone in Joliette. Sabrina was incredibly enthusiastic, and immediately sent me several names of singers and storytellers, though at the same time told me it would be hard as at this time of year, many would be away hunting, and often people just communicated through Facebook. When none of this first set of names worked out, she sent me several more. And then some more. Finally after several weeks, one person answered my message: Karine Wasiana Echaquan.

Karine is an Atikamekw storyteller originally from Manawan, who is currently living in Joliette. We arranged to meet at the Centre d’amitié where she had a contract at the time, doing workshops with children. As I had described my project to her through Facebook and email, she knew that I was looking for a song for the river to use in my art project for the Musée d’art de Joliette. I showed her photos of the previous installation made in Mi’kma’ki and explained what I intended to do and why. It was important, however, before getting to the song portion of our meeting, that we introduce ourselves more – that we learn a little, who the other is. She told me about what she does as an artist-storyteller, and I told her more about my art-making and practice as an artist. She also told me a story about the name the Atikamekw had for the Kanien’kehá:ka, which meant something along the lines of “we must run and hide in the hills / forest”, but again, that is another story…

Karine shared with me her memories of rivers; growing up beside rivers and being on them in a canoe with her grandfather when she was little, waiting in the canoe, playing on the riverbanks and falling asleep in the canoe, while her grandfather collected birchbark. Karine’s grandfather, César Newashish, was a master birchbark canoe maker. There are several films on him and his work, one produced by the National Film Board of Canada. Throughout our conversation, Karine kept saying: “c’est pas pour rien qu’on s’est rencontré” which roughly translates to, “there’s a reason for us to have met like this” or “there’s a reason for our connection”.

Karine was excited to share with me about her grandfather who was such a great artist. She told me his canoes were the only two housed in museum collections in Quebec. The first is in the collection of the Musée de la civilisation in Québec City. When I heard that I said, “No! Do you know, I also have a work at the Musée? It is another suspended installation, hanging next to your grandfather’s canoe. In fact, from the right angle, it looks like his canoe is going into the clouds that are my installation…”. We both laughed at that coincidence. “C’est pas pour rien qu’on s’est rencontré”. The other canoe, Karine continued, is a part of the McCord Museum’s collection. “No!!” I repeated again. “Karine, I am doing a residency as an artist right now at the McCord! I’m working with objects in the collection to make another exhibition later this spring!” We shook our heads, smiling, “C’est pas pour rien qu’on s’est rencontré”.

Karine sang me her song, which she had written for me, for this project. I recorded it on my telephone. She explained what the words to the song were about before singing it in Atikamekw. She sang about being on the river in the canoe, her grandfather, about birchbark and about water.

Given that birchbark figured so strongly in the song, I knew I had to incorporate this into the imagery for the installation.

Later that day, as I walked along a path towards the partially frozen river, I photographed the birch trees, their branches and trunks. All were covered with one of the first snows of the season. The river was a mixture of ice and greyish dark water. These snowy frozen images make “chant pour l’eau [Kinosipi]” a quieter installation, composed of silvers, greys and whites from the winter waters, birch branches, ice and snow. Winter is the time for storytelling and song. At the opening of the exhibition, Karine stood beside the installation, drumming and singing her song.

*Kanien’kahá:ka means “the people of the flint”. It is the proper name for the people commonly called “Mohawk”, and is the one by which we call ourselves.

**Kanien’kéha is the word for the language.

Hannah Claus
Hannah Claus is a Kanienkehá:ka and English visual artist who explores Onkwehonwe epistemologies as living transversal relationships in her transdisciplinary practice.
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