When I talk about Yellowknife to my lovely southern friends, most of what I describe doesn’t even come close to the actual good life this spectacular city has to offer. Every year I make the effort to attend and capture what I consider one of the most epic, coolest events in town- Yellowknife’s Snowking Winter Festival. This year, however, was especially grand, as it hosted a fashion show featuring 3 amazingly talented fashions designers and one jewellery designer – me.
Apart from my freezing hands shaking the whole time as I helped the models backstage change into their next jewellery piece, the feeling of being part of such a unique and beautiful event filled my heart with great warmth.
I remember being in high school dreaming of the day when I’d be part of a fashion event. And now, surprisingly enough, the day after the show I was asked by my old high school to spend a few hours inspiring the minds of students on the importance of pursuing your passion. Not only is it truly a great honour to be seen as a successful artist in my own community, but the possibility of inspiring others to do the same is pretty unreal.
When it was time for questions, everyone sat a bit quiet until the first student asked what I thought was a pretty reasonable question – my age. The teachers and I of course burst into laughter after one of the girls immediately shouted out “You don’t look 28!” Yay! Often times I don’t feel 28 either. Feels like just yesturday I was 17 and sitting in those same seats wondering about my future possibilities as an artist. And now here I am, up at the front of the class, with the same 17 year old spirit self contemplating where my next passion in life will take me.
– caroline blechert
Carla and I go wayyyyy back, okay not that way back but at least eight years back in time. A mutual friend of ours had brought Carla to a prenatal yoga class that I was teaching in Victoria, BC. We were both pregnant with our first babies and due around the same time too. I think we hung out a couple of times after the boys were born, I have a vague memory of them toddling around and fighting over a Little Tikes ride along car. I wonder if I have any photos of that day? Did we even talk about photography back then? I doubt it, I think the conversation was around sleep, nursing, and maybe even potty training. Carla and her son are now living in Wet’suwet’en Yintah (Burns Lake, BC). We haven’t seen each other in years but we’ve stayed in touch through social media. In the past few years, I’ve noticed that she has been taking some beautiful photos of where she’s from, the people, the land, the waters, the animals and the sky. You can see in her images that she photographs with respect. I knew that she had to be part of the conversation on Tea and Bannock so I was pleased when she agreed to be interviewed as a featured artist.
1. Where are you from?
Wet’suwet’en/Gitxsan from the House of Spook’w.
2. Tell us about your journey of becoming a professional photographer.
Growing up, my dad had an old Pentax camera. He didn’t use it much anymore, but always showed off his photos proudly. I loved the sound of the shutter and would sometimes just sit there flicking the shutter just to hear it fly. So when I was 16, I saved up money from my summer jobs and bought my first camera, a Nikon F80 SLR and that was my baby until the DSLRs came out and I switched to digital. I took one Intro to Photography course in university, but otherwise am self-taught and have mostly been a hobbyist.
So, for as long as I can remember, I had my camera with me and mostly took snapshots of my family, plants and landscapes. I took my love of photography and travel to many parts of the world. We didn’t grow up with a silver spoon, or even a copper spoon for that matter, so I found free ways to travel, like volunteering, internships, and working for non-profits oversees while I attended university.
In the beginning of my paid photography days, it was mostly for family and friends doing weddings and other life events in exchange for a small fee or I’d just ask them to buy me a new flash or something camera related. But, I think it was when social media became mainstream and I began sharing my photos publicly that I started becoming known as a “professional” photographer. It was still gradual, but as time went on, more and more people wanted to hire me to do their photos to the point where I had to make my photography a bit more structured and business oriented and has crept it’s way into my consulting business.
As a teen, I also wanted to be a National Geographic Explorer. I actually called them for my Career Prep class in high school and asked what I needed to do to become an Explorer. The lady I spoke to pretty much laughed in my face and said it was near impossible. I hung up and was like, “Whatever!” and proceeded to research it myself and found that instead of journalism or photography, it was better to have a post-secondary education in an explorer related field. So, I ended up with a BA in First Nations Studies and Anthropology and a MA in Indigenous Governance and am now totally happy not working for National Geographic, but rather working at a grassroots level towards Indigenous resurgence in my traditional territory. But if NG ever called, I don’t think I would turn them down!
3. How does your Indigenous culture affect your work?
Being indigenous makes me not only want, but need, to create images of Indigenous people that aren’t stereotypical and promote the reality and tell the true stories of our communities. I make sure that my photos can’t be misconstrued in a negative sense or taken out of context in a way that can be damaging for the individual or community. I also make sure not to romanticize Indigenous cultures like we have been in the past and to show our contemporary lives and our struggle to renew the cultures that were taken from us. I hope that all of my work, whether it be photography, research, or facilitation inspires our young people to celebrate our culture, learn about our history, and find ways to create a difference for our communities as we work to decolonize our ways of being.
In a more practical sense, my indigenous knowledge and identity require a high code of ethics when working with Indigenous people, such as not taking photos at ceremonies for instance. I’ve had some amazing experiences in my life that could have been amazing photo ops, but, I was a participant and proper protocol dictated that I put the camera down.
4. Which photo, to date, has been the one that you most connected with, and why?
I have always had a hard time picking favourites so as I reflected on this question and looked through some of my work, I have to say that hands down any photo of my son is my favourite. He has started to get annoyed with me when I am constantly taking photos but he is seriously, the raddest kid ever.
5. Who are your role models?
I have a lot of role models from the elders who show the utmost commitment and integrity to revitalizing our culture to the youth who are surviving the heavy hands they have been dealt. In terms of photography though, again I can’t pick just a few. I am always admiring other people’s work and there are so many ridiculously talented people out there that I look everywhere for inspiration.
6. Favourite quote:
“The truth about stories, is that is all we are” (Thomas King).
7. What is one of your greatest achievements in your career, thus far?
A couple years ago, I was asked to volunteer my time doing portraits of Indigenous women from my hometown after they got a free makeover. I did, because I thought it would be a fun way to give back over the holidays and I was inspired by my friend Shannon Alec who coordinated the event as a “pay it forward” type of thing. It was a ridiculously fun day and I managed to get some really unique shots just by stepping outside the hall on the rez into the -20 below, bright, and sunny day. I ran home and did some edits and posted the photos online so the girls could see their photos and somehow the media right across the country got all fired up and wanted to share the story and the photos. Many times, since then I’ve been asked if I was the one that did the makeover photos.
8. What do you do to find inspiration? Where do you find inspiration?
I am constantly looking at other people’s photography, not necessarily for inspiration but for admiration so naturally I get ideas and am challenged to take better photos. I also find inspiration in nature, my favourite thing is to take my camera and go take close ups of plants, scraggly trees, or amazing sunsets. I love that when you look to nature for inspiration you can find beauty in everything.
9. How do you want your work to be remembered?
I hope my work creates a positive change in some way whether it is just in an individual’s self-esteem or being proud of being indigenous. But, I would also love to be able to take one of those images that just shake the world into action for social or environmental justice.
10. What words of advice do you have for other aspiring photographers?
Take tons of photos, practice in manual mode, and share your photos and your skills with the world! I’ve met a lot of people who don’t like sharing their photos or doing work for free, but in the beginning this seems like a great way to build your portfolio.
Now go and check out more of Carla’s work at:
Website: www.yintah.com // Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/carlalewisphotography/ // Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/carla_lewis_photography/ // Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/125506682@N02/
Another sister has been found murdered. Another? Yes, another.
My heart aches and my mind desperately tries to rationalize this. But wait, why am I trying to rationalize this epidemic. Sure hashtags such as #MMIW, #MMIWG and#MMIWG2S have pretty much become the norm on social media. People are writing about it, people are making art about it, people are researching it, people are talking about, even the CBC received an award at the Canadian Screen Awards for Best cross-platform project. Okay, great well at least people are addressing it. But those of us left looking for our sister or auntie or daughter or mother know that this has been going on for way too long. Why suddenly is it a hot topic? This is something so real, something so terrible and monstrous and bigger than any one of us can understand. And it has somehow become normalized in our society.
Did you know that Indigenous women are three times more likely than non-Indigenous women to report having been a victim of a violent crime (Brennan 2009)? My mother who is non-Indigenous never reported her abuse from my father. As for myself, I was too young to say anything about the physical and mental abuse I endured from my father (who also experienced abuse) and the sexual abused by my cousins (whom I am sure they were also abused). I hear similar stories from many of my Native friends, it is so normal that we joke about it. But that humour also helps us heal. Tears of laughter. Some of the stories I have heard and even experienced (which I still can’t share with others) are like living your worst nightmare. We sit around sipping our coffees and talk about the friends or family members who are missing or have been murdered. We act like it is normal for us to talk like this. It is NORMAL but it is not OK.
My dad’s cousin Marie Laura Laliberte has been missing since 1997. A good childhood friend of my sister’s Lisa Marie Young has been missing since 2002. Hey, if you go on CBC’s website and search the name Marie there are 24 women that share the name Marie. One of my sisters middle name is also Marie. So much for the blessed Virgin Mary. I even remember a very good family friend of ours, Leah, who was found dead in her prison cell in Saskatoon in the 90s. Her laughter was infectious. And here I am, alive. And I must thank my mother. She fled two provinces away from our home to be as far away as possible from my father who had threatened to kill us all. Again, she ended up in another abusive relationship. Broken hearts. Disconnection.
Sometimes when I think about it, I don’t know how I am still here. Breathing. Living. I am thankful for those people who did reach out to help my family. I am not too sure why I am sharing this publicly and widely on the internet. A part of me is worried about what my family will think. But. Silence. Shame. Family secrets. Fuck it.
I refuse to carry this. I refuse to continue the cycle.
We must speak up.
– amanda laliberte
1. Violent victimization of Aboriginal women in the Canadian provinces, 2009 by Shannon Brennan at http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/85-002-x/2011001/article/11439-eng.htm
When I was sixteen, I went to visit my Grandma (Setsuné) Rose in Patuanak. My family and I lived an hour away, on the reserve by Beauval called La Plonge First Nation, but La Plonge was a smaller reserve from the main branch at English River First Nation, which is by Patuanak.
Anyways, I was in Patuanak, visiting cousins and friends, and when I went there, Dad would tell me to go visit my Grandma. Sometimes I didn’t want to, as she spoke English very haltingly and I never really knew how much she understood me when I babbled on to fill in the silences. I felt incredibly awkward, like I didn’t belong. My language was lost on my tongue, and I didn’t know how to communicate with my own Grandma with ease. But I knew that it was important to Dad that I would go, and so every time I was in town, like clockwork, I would end my visit with a stop at Grandma’s home.
She would welcome me in, give me a tight hug. There would be tea in the coffee pot, Red Rose. Sugar on the counter. Milk in the fridge. A thick, fresh bannock would be covered in a tea towel, butter beside it and jam in the cupboards.
If I came in the spring, there would be the first duck soup of the season simmering on the oven, filled with barley and soft duck meat. If I came in the fall, fresh moose meat stew would be cooking, thick with chunky potatoes and carrots.
This time, when I came into the house, I knew Grandma was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. The family all knew, and we were all doing what we could to make her life comfortable, not taking offense if she didn’t remember us, not taking it personally when she forgot who we were. So I walked in, and she hugged me, and spoke to me in Dene.
“Grandma, I’m sorry. I don’t speak Dene,” I say, shrugging my shoulders.
She shakes her head; straightens her floral handkerchief around her grey hair, and tries again. This time, she speaks to me in Cree.
“Grandma, I’m sorry. I don’t speak Cree.” I’m smiling gently at her, thinking that she is confused and lonely, and I should be patient. I sit down with her, as she breaks me off a slice of bannock.
She looks out the kitchen window for a real long time, thinking. I put some thick raspberry jam on my bannock and start eating, listening to the radio on low.
“You,” she says slowly, as if tasting the words in English, “You stupid.”
I gasp and look at her real quick, and she’s nodding and smiling at me, her eyes wrinkled and mischievous.
“Grandma!” I laugh loudly, head tossed back. She chuckles to herself, shaking her head, and gets me a cup of tea.
“So. Tell me. How is you? Your dad, where is she?” Grandma sets the sugar beside my cup, and sits down. She looks out the window again, watching the reserve go by but still listening, and I start to talk, this time smiling to myself.
It feels like home.
Years later, I still tell this story. It’s one of my favorites with her. The meaning has changed for me as I grow. At first, it was a sign of how Grandma was forgetting, how she couldn’t remember who I was.
Later, as I learned more about her as she was leaving us, it was a sign of her frank demeanor. She was blunt and straightforward. She really did mean I was stupid, but she loved me. Teasing was affection.
Later, after she was gone and I learned about language and identity and survival, I felt the shame. Here was an 80-year-old woman who spoke Cree, Dene and English and who never went to school. And I barely spoke “good” English. And when she called me stupid and teased me, it wasn’t anything to do with my marks or my education, but rather, my loss of understanding. My loss of language.
Grandma Rose, her stories continue with many of us. We all do imitations of her accent, her frank ways with speaking, and her low tolerance for bullshit. The cousins who grew up with her tell of stories of being chased outside with a wooden spoon. The cousins who grew up only visiting on holidays speak of Christmas presents and Easter Church, listening to the hymns in Dene with her. Me, I speak of listening to her voice tell me what to do over our countless visits in my teen years.
“You, you stupid.”
“You, you go outside. Play. Run.”
“You, you eat.”
“Yes, love you.”
…love you too, Setsuné.
– tenille campbell
It’s Gooym (spring) and everything around is waking from their winter nap. This is the time of year the tree frogs start singing, the days start to get longer and the nettle is one of the first plants that stretches up.
Everything has been early this year because of global warming. I don’t know if we have a word in our language for global warming? If we don’t, I’m sure we will need one very soon.
Spring in these parts usually has people talking about cherry and plum blossoms. There’s even a cherry blossom festival.
In the coastal rainforest it is definetly Gooym and this is my favorite time to harvest. Suunt (summer) often gets the glory, with is luscious fruit and the abundant vegetables and while important to me – it’s spring when the sdeti (stinging nettles) start to pop up and tempt me, even when I’m not wearing gloves, that I enjoy harvesting the most.
Sdeti is one of my first plant allies. I didn’t always believe in such things as plant allies, but I’ve come to agree that a plant is a living being and can be your ally, or on occasion, your opponent. Symbiotic relationships exist with plants, there is communication and interdependence. Sdeti once gave me such painful hives the plant actually scared me for many years. Now that I know how to use Sdeti, how to tend it, my reactions to stings are minimal and it’s effectiveness as medicine increased. If that’s not an ally, I don’t know what is.
Sma’lgyax: Sdeti or steti
Gitxsan name: sdatxs or sdetxs
Nisga’a name: Sdatx
Latin name: Urtica dioica
Common Name: Stinging Nettle
I believe working with our territory is one of the most powerful acts of self love and self respect we as Indigenous people can do. To learn the landscape, the language, the cycles, and be a part of them is an act of both resistance and love. Whether it be harvesting herring, tending nettle, tapping trees or using our medicines instead of commercial ones.
This is our greatest inheritance, this is what define us more than blood quantum or band membership – eating our foods, using our medicines, being part of our territory – land, sea and river. Without using this knowledge, we are three generations away at any time from loosing this ability altogether.
I’m currently working on an Indigenous Materia Medica.
Materia Medica is a Latin medical term for the body of collected knowledge about the therapeutic properties of any substance used for healing (i.e., medicines). I’ve been resistant to this part of plant work and herbal medicine because it has felt like it relied on using the wrong words. It relied on a body of knowledge that has often been stolen from our people and then used against us.
Recently I started trying to learn the right words for these plants and will base my Materia Medica on my own languages. I will record the Latin Names for the usefulness to distinguish the specific species of plants across a vaster geography, but I will call them by the names in my languages, their true names, so that we may continue to ally ourselves together.
Honour. Respect. Cherish.
– shawna mcleod