Since it’s already day 4 of being on the water with Student’s On Ice, I’m not quite sure how or where to begin because so much has happened in the short time that I’ve been a part of this ship family.
I am, as you can already probably tell, quite fond of the whole idea of this Expedition. I must admit, I was a bit worried at first that this trip would talk a good arctic talk and gush over European and Settler explorers at the same time leaving out a genuine Indigenous voice or at the very minimum, bring in a token moment sprinkled in to one or two days of the programming.
I was worried that Indigenous knowledge about the Arctic or the relationship that we have to the land would be romanticized and then fade into the background of the entire experience while settler-colonial attitudes lead the rest.
I had fears of sweeping into Inuit communities with a voyeuristic type presence and then sucking back out like a vortex leaving a bad stench behind.
All fears based in experiences from the past and etched in to my brain resurfaced as I boarded the plane. I suppose I had low expectations and I was prepared to bite my tongue because the reason I am here is to teach art and to dance for the people. Also, I am here because:
- A) I was presented with the opportunity to participate with Student’s on Ice through the Canadian Commission for UNESCO and the Canada Council for the Arts
- B) Going to Greenland and to the Canadian Arctic on a ship to teach art and dance seemed like a pretty good deal to me.
What I decided to teach on the ship was our connection to the land and art using animal and environmental materials like birch bark (donated by Pinook from Kitigan Zibi First Nation Reserve), Fish Scales, porcupine hair, quills and caribou hair (from my community of Lac La Biche, Alberta). Understanding this connection presents students with a greater potential to respect the traditional arts and culture of Indigenous people through learning about the related traditional Indigenous knowledge of the materials they’re using and their very place in the world and how we are connected to everything. Sharing this Indigenous philosophy was a way to show the importance of keeping a culture alive and healthy through visual art, language, songs and dancing.
On one particular stop-over in Uummannaq, I recall a setting that filled me up with mixed emotions as I entered into a church where a Greenlandic Indigenous men’s choir proudly and melodically sharing their gospel tunes. After having gone for a run up the side of a mountain where I noticed a trash filled shoreline and a metal graveyard for discarded vehicles with an adjacent human graveyard I began to become pre-occupied with the underlying social issues that are all too prevalent in too many Indigenous communities, not just in the Arctic, but around the world. I was starting to feel overwhelmed with all of the blatant reminders of the effects of colonization around the world.
Sitting in the church that afternoon I forced myself to close my eyes and plug out the mental noise so that I could appreciate the resonance of the all men’s Inuit choir so that I could just enjoy their proud moment and the sound of their beautiful voices.
All too often Indigenous people are put into positions where we are the ones to bite our tongues, silently grieve and hold back the tears but instead, the day ended with an open and frank conversation at the dinner table with non-Indigenous participants who were happy to have the ice-broken on these very issues.
What I found on this ship and so far, and generally during the entire Expedition, is that people have mostly been open to talking about what makes them feel uncomfortable and if there is anything that we have learned from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it is that recognition of the problem(s) and opportunity for release is the beginning of moving a community and a nation forward.
The program creates awareness among students and staff about Arctic Indigenous People, their history, culture, current issues and opportunities and stimulates further conversation. Possibly without direct intention, Student’s On Ice has become an act of reconciliation.
As for the art part, I have led several workshops on fish scale art, birch bark biting and traditional medicine and how this informs arts practice. I am working on one piece a day as pre-studies for a bigger piece. These pre-studies will be included in an on-board exhibition along with the beautiful pieces created by the student’s of the art workshops in the next days to come.
With the team of artists on the ship we will collaboratively paint a traditional Inuit kayak that is built on the ship and through a connection with the scientists and their microscopes, we are looking at the beautiful shapes and patterns of fish scales, porcupine qills, birch bark and animal hair at magnified expressions.
Tomorrow I will be taking a small group of drawing artists out on the land to listen to Paul, a Botanist from the Museum of Nature about his teachings of Arctic plants while we draw samples in our own unique styles – all to be exhibited at some point on the ship.
Stay tuned for more adventures of the Aboriginal Arts Residency!
PS – For those of you wondering how my daily running has been coming along, I have managed to continue running each and every day. While away so far, I’ve run in Sisimiut, Illulisat and Uummannaq and am about to do my first ever run on-board for sea day in the exercise room to complete day 343 of daily consecutive running.