learning to canoe and learning to listen are the same

On Julie Nagam’s white pines lay over the water

Tarah Hogue


My paternal great-great-great-grandmother was a Cree woman named Jane. I’m certain that Jane wasn’t her given name (she may have been the daughter of a chief) but that is how she exists in the archive. The mechanisms of colonialism nearly erased her. Perhaps it would have forgotten her entirely had she not been the country wife [1] of a sloop master from the Hudson Bay Company, George Taylor. Their daughter, Margaret (Marguerite) Taylor also became a country wife to George Simpson, the Governor of Rupert’s Land and one of the most important men in the fur trade of the day. Simpson recommended that his officers make such alliances with prominent First Nations families in order to aid in the security and goodwill toward the company, though he himself was a notorious womanizer who was known to abuse and abandon his many country wives. Margaret was somewhat of an exceptional case, however, as she and Simpson remained together for many years. She travelled with him to New Caledonia (what is now British Columbia) in 1828 in a historic cross-country canoe journey to establish trade relations with the First Nations there.

I imagine my great-great-grandmother, Margaret, sitting in the canoe. Although the land surely became strange to her as they passed through many different Indigenous territories, I think of how invaluable her knowledge must have been to that journey. My great-great-grandmother and the canoe she travelled in are at the very heart of relations between Indigenous and settler people, including trade, expansion, colonization, assimilation, and resilience. Simpson eventually abandoned Margaret and their children as he had done with his other country wives. As more European women arrived in growing settlements such as the Red River colony—where Margaret spent the remainder of her days—the practice fell out of fashion following Simpson’s own directives as a powerful figure within the Hudson Bay Company. Margaret endured all of this; she survived because she had to, both for herself and for her children. Although it became common as time went on for Métis people to disassociate themselves from their Indigenous ancestry—again, this was a survival mechanism—my grandmothers remained in the archive, in part because of that canoe. They were there all along, waiting for me to find them on my own journey of self-learning. [2]

The canoe is a thread that binds us together, my grandmothers, my father and I, through both time and space.

...

The methodology of the canoe is grounded in a particular ability to see the layers of knowledge buried in the land and to hear the environment, which sings the song of the transformation of time, space and memory. The land has the ability to retain memories of significant value as it has born witness spanning millennia to the individual events and occurrences that have shaped our surroundings. [3]

The first thing I did when I received the materials for your work, white pines lay over the water (2011), was to read your text “A Home for Our Migrations: The Canoe as Indigenous Methodology.” I am comfortable in text. I think through ideas and concepts textually more often than visually and can feel lost without the context offered by words. This is, in part, shaped by my experience and education within academic institutions. It is a current I struggle against often, to release myself from the grip of language. It is also, however, what has carried me here. It has aided me to delve deeper into the things that challenge, inspire, and propel me forward. In this way, language is like a river: we flow along with its currents, are caught in its torrents, marvel at its power, ferocity, and beauty. You write the canoe as a tool to help us navigate the waters of entangled relations, of a history of occupation and of knowledge of the land, water and all living beings of the natural and spirit world.

As I read, I was struck by my own memories of and relations to the canoe. You write, “This is part of the experience of the canoe, because it carries our memories that mark different moments in time.” [4] As someone from the prairies transplanted to the west coast, grounding my relation to your work in this way might be an instance of the canoe as methodology as well, marking a moment from which we can move out, together.

When I was in my early teens, I was a counsellor at a summer camp on the east side of Sylvan Lake in Alberta, which is about a thirty-minute drive from where I grew up in Red Deer. The lake is a major destination for folks all around central Alberta as a place to swim, boat, and fish, and I used to play in it for hours as a child. Some of my fondest memories with my father were made at that lake, swimming and building castles, giant whales, and mermaids out of sand. He loved that place too. His ashes, the ones that were given to me for safekeeping, rest in a small box painted with a scene of the lake, just coming into view over the hill on the road we used to drive into town on together.

My father taught me to canoe (the word is both noun and verb, it encompasses so much), and I taught younger children how to canoe as a camp counsellor. These were moments of great pride for me; at a time when I experienced more self-doubt than self-love, it was deeply satisfying to pass on that knowledge and the feeling of both freedom and responsibility that comes with canoeing. That was before I learned I am Métis and that my father was Métis, though my mother’s Dutch lineage meant that our family’s connection to the water has always been strong (in fact, my brother grew up to be a sailor).

When we spoke over the phone, you told me that you began work on white pines lay over the water at a time when you were homesick for your own land in Manitoba and that you wanted to find out for yourself what ideas, what history, and what remnants of Native Space [5] there were in Toronto. You lived beside the Humber River in Bloor West Village; it was a space where you spent a lot of time and you had heard about the so-called “underground” history of the place. Toronto, as you explained to me, has a very contested history. There is no one accurate or official history, there are only different versions, different narratives, which to me seems like a more responsible way of telling history anyway. You decided to explore areas of overlap and contradiction in the telling of history, which you said makes the work frustrating for some people.

Within Indigenous epistemologies, language marks the importance of place and the integral connection of all beings. This is true of the place that is now called Toronto and the lands around the Humber River that were lived in and traversed by both settlers and multiple First Nations. One speaker in white pines lay over the water describes the carrying place trail that First Nations used as a way to skirt the rough waters of the Humber, which eventually, as the speaker describes, “became known as a place for people to meet… and to stop. That’s why some nations refer to this as the meeting place. Each nation has their own way of calling a certain place a place so that way their people know where to go.” The following speaker tells us that “Toronto... if it is a Huron word, one of the meanings is a place of plenty or a place of many, much more so than the gathering or meeting place. It was a place of plenty… of water and earth, and where earth, water and air meet, you have life.” [6]

While listening to the layered narratives of white pines lay over the water, which were produced as a soundscape in the work’s installation, I was struck by how, as someone who grew up in an urban environment, the sounds of passing vehicles or of planes overhead lulled me into a familiar sensation of being within an environment whereas the sounds of the crispness of air passing through the trees in autumn, the crunch of snow underfoot or the gurgling of water as it travels downstream brought me sharply into my body, into being acutely present within myself and within the experience of listening. It was like being shaken by the shoulders, being told to straighten up and pay attention because what is happening here is important. The land around us and the land underfoot, though sometimes obscured by the development that has been built upon it, has witnessed almost unfathomable amounts of time and history. As one of the speakers in the work enjoins, “If you really listen, you can hear the voices of the people, of the ancestors and the land...” [7]

The hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ (Musqueam) word for canoe is snəxʷəɬ, while the word for bus is θi: snəxʷəɬ, meaning “big canoe.” [8] Audrey Siegl from Musqueam taught me this as we sat outside a cafe in Strathcona, a neighbourhood in Vancouver and land that was once freely traversed by the overlapping territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. One of the streams that ran from the Fraser River (or stal̕əw̓ in hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, which means “river”) all the way inland to what is now one of Vancouver’s most diverse neighbourhoods bordering Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside, is buried beneath the ground, perhaps never to resurface. Audrey tells me where I can go and still feel the presence of that stream beneath the earth: behind a bus stop on Prior Street at Hawks Avenue, where the land dips and where it is always a few degrees cooler. I thought about the Humber River in Toronto and the stories you shared through a careful engagement with different knowledge keepers. I thought about things uncovered and things buried. At one point in white pines lay over the water, a woman and a man separately tell of a Seneca woman who was moved from her resting place and how the belongings she was buried with were taken, disturbing her ability to find peace in the next life. The woman offers a song.

Audrey tells me that over 800 ancestors have already been removed in the development of the Marpole area in Vancouver. The Musqueam community was able to protect c̓əsnaʔəm, the ancient village and burial site, from a condo development (that was planned without prior consultation with the Band) that unearthed ancestral remains in 2012. Audrey recalls, “It wasn’t just a win for Musqueam, it wasn’t just a win for our community, it was a win for people around the world who are working to protect what they have left of their culture and their ancestors because without our ancestors, without our connection to them, without our connection to our languages and our ways of living here—even though we can’t go back to the way we lived before—we deserve to at least know what that was, we deserve to feel connected to that.” [9] I am reminded of the writing of Leanne Simpson:

The beauty of culturally inherent resurgence is that it challenges settler colonial dissections of our territories and our bodies into reserve/city or urban/rural dichotomies. All Canadian cities are on Indigenous lands. Indigenous presence is attacked in all geographies. In reality, the majority of Indigenous peoples move regularly through reserves, cities, towns and rural areas. We have found ways to connect to the land and our stories and to live our intelligences no matter how urban or destroyed our homelands have become. […] Whether urban or rural, city or reserve, the shift that Indigenous systems of intelligence compel us to make is one from capitalistic consumer to cultural producer. [10]

white pines lay over the water is also working to protect culture, is standing vigil with the ancestors who once traveled along the banks of the Humber (I wonder what they called their river?) like the people that traveled along the banks of stal̕əw̓. You write, “The canoe moves in a circular motion between past, present, and future because it is the continuation of an ancient story, not just the beginning.” [11] I think about the bus, our modern-day canoe, and how its hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ naming traces our connection to the land through time and space. It also points to an ingenuity of adaptation, resilience, and survivance of Indigenous peoples. We (Audrey, you, I, and others) are working to learn these connections, to understand our place in the lands we come to find ourselves in and the lessons contained therein.


Notes

[1] Country wives were First Nations or Métis women in common-law unions with European men involved in the fur trade that were conducted without the presence of a clergyman and were “according to the custom of the country” or “à la façon du pays.

[2] I owe much of my genealogical knowledge to Christine Welsh’s text “Voices of the Grandmothers: Reclaiming a Métis Heritage,” in Canadian Literature 131 (1991): 15–24, as well as the documentary film she made, Women in the Shadows (Direction Films and the National Film Board of Canada, 1991).

[3] Julie Nagam, “A Home for Our Migrations: The Canoe as Indigenous Methodology,” in The Lake, Maggie Groat, ed. (Toronto: Art Metropole, 2014), 73.

[4] Ibid., 73.

[5] Native Space “can be understood as the network of relationships formed between all of the earth’s elements and its creatures.” Ibid., 71.

[6] Julie Nagam, white pines lay over the water, 2011, audio track.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Many thanks to Patricia A. Shaw, Founding Chair, First Nations & Endangered Languages Program at the University of British Columbia for providing the proper spellings of the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ words included here.

[9] Conversation with Audrey Siegl, August 18, 2015.

[10] Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, “Land as pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 3:3 (2014): 23.

[11] Nagam 2014, 72.

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Tarah Hogue is a curator and writer of French/Dutch/Métis heritage originally from the prairies. Based in Vancouver BC, she received an MA in Art History, Critical and Curatorial Studies from the University of British Columbia in 2012. Hogue is grunt Gallery's Curatorial Resident (supported by the Canada Council), where she is researching Indigenous feminisms for an upcoming project. Hogue has curated a number of exhibitions in Vancouver including Facing the Animal at Or Gallery (2012), No Windows at Satellite Gallery (2011) and was co-curator on two exhibitions about the Indian Residential School system: Witnesses: Art and Canada's Indian Residential Schools at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, and NET-ETH: Going Out of the Darkness, organized by Malaspina Printmakers (both 2012). In 2009 she co-founded the Gam Gallery, an exhibition space, studio, and boutique in the Downtown Eastside. Recent writing projects include "Remembering Residential Schools," in The Response Book: Weaving Histories (Capilano University and Presentation House Gallery, forthcoming), a curated reading list for the Pacific Association of Artist Run Centres' online publication database ArcPost, "Indigenous Women Artists in Artist-Run Centres," a postscript text for Artspeak, "The Specter of Artistic Labour," and "The Refeatured Landscape: Embodied Approaches to the Imaging of the City," for Decoy Magazine.