The second week of my residency here in Banff is coming to a close. We’re all a little more settled in as our studios feel a little more like home. It’s been a full week: movie nights, readings, a seminar with all the “In Kind” participants then a trip to Banff Ave. Brewery, hiking in the mountains, and a studio visit with Raymond Boisjoly–all while finding time in studio. I’ve been discovering and learning about all sorts of new things.
This week I started listening to A Tribe Called Red, a band out of Ottawa, Ontario. Its members are indigenous to Canada, and they coined the term “powwow step” to describe their style: powwow music meets dubstep. So good. And so obvious. Combining these seemingly disparate styles of music is a natural move. Some of their songs deal with serious topics like the violence against indigenous people in “Woodcarver”; others are more fun like “Good to Go.”
We also watched This May Be The Last Time, a documentary by Sterlin Harjo that debuted at Sundance in January. He explores the disappearance of his grandfather in Oklahoma, while exploring the spiritual landscape of the Seminole community there. The church in that community have a long traditional of hymns in their own language.
I personally resonated with the film. The soundscape was filled with cicadas and southern accents as the interviewees talked about how the Christian faith was an important component of their indigenous identity. These individuals spoke about being thankful for their faith despite the ugly history of how Christianity came to their people. Christian missionaries were often the instrument that systematically destroyed indigenous culture in North America. Often the mission schools took children away from our communities, disallowed the speaking of indigenous languages, and made a space that allowed unchecked abuse. Most of the songs in This May Be The Last Time had been sung on the Trail of Tears. This is a space that generates a lot of questions and struggles for me as I also find my faith intertwined with my Navajo identity.
The residency’s leader, Raymond Boisjoly, often says that indigenous people find themselves in situations not of their own making. A number of issues came up in our “In Kind” seminar. In today’s political climate, Christianity can also make indigenous communities dangerous for its queer members. There is also the question of giving money to organized, religious institutions that continue to practice colonialism cloaked as “evangelism.” The thing about these issues is that they are not theoretical–they are deeply personal. What strikes me is that the dominant culture and consequentially the Christian church doesn’t understand that even today individuals experience the consequences of these horrific histories.
I find myself melding together odd histories in my work. My Hero Twins series marries Navajo creation myth with the Virginian hunting and fishing scene. That’s weird. And kind of awkward. But when you get to know me, it makes sense. While I’m at Banff, I’m exploring the next part of the story where the oldest twin goes off to fight the rest of the monsters alone. There is an agency in stepping out into the wilderness. The fight with the monsters is to still exist as an individual and as a community.
As indigenous people move forward in contemporary society, they hold onto their own identities and histories. At Banff, I’m hoping to be part of that conversation as I learn about the strategies of my fellow artists and their communities. Some of the work here has a foundation in contemporary practices like photography, painting, and installation. Other work starts with a foundation in traditional indigenous practices like Northwestern Formline. Contemporary voices, traditional voices, mythical voices, all together.
Sometimes it’s very serious. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s hilarious. Sometimes it’s awesome–like powwow step.