There’s something more that my art/work can do to empower us as Indigenous people. For quite some time it felt as if my creativity had slowed, even though I was constantly on the go crisscrossing the country. It was as if an autopilot switch was flipped. Equipped? Check. Booked? Check. Bags? Packed. Push the shutter button and travel to the next city, shutter button, next city, and the next. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining—I love photography, the experience of it all was beautiful and has taught me so much along the way—I was simply tired after 7 years of travelling which left me feeling slightly uninspired. There’s something more that my art/work can do to empower us as Indigenous people. There’s something more to it, something deeper. I waited for an idea as these contemplations ran laps in my mind for almost a year until, finally, a thoughtful breakthrough during the quiet winter months at home on my rez in northwestern Ontario.
I should let you know that my first series, Concrete Indians, launched in 2008 and is premised on the concept of Indigenous identity. It’s about self-awareness and the affects of urbanization on cultural identity. That idea came suddenly and within hours the series was launched. It’s based upon an open-call platform and I invite people to submit portrait session ideas concerning urban Indigenous identity. Something beautiful happens when the power of self-expression is allowed the creative freedom to empower not only oneself but, in the process, others as well. The black and white portraits photographed during the span of 7 years have resonated with many Indigenous people across Canada and the U.S. And interest continues to grow. I knew I wanted to continue basing my art/work on that open-call platform but also wanted the next series to somehow broaden the space that Concrete Indians had created.
I must also let you know that I have discussed politics and Indigenous knowledge, philosophies and worldviews with my dad for years. Years. It’s been nearly 17 years actually and as I became a photographer the conversations we had were always present in my thoughts as an artist. No matter where I was coming from, after another year of travelling, I would return home and we picked up where we left off, those long conversations, as if I had never left. Once I decided to stop touring, that creative pull to work on something new positioned itself foremost in my mind.
It wasn’t until January that all my thoughts about Indigenous knowledge started pooling together. The main concepts I wanted this new series to be about, concerned: relationships and Indigenous knowledge. Initially, the series was specifically about reconciliation which has become of such importance since the closing event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, the release of the TRC Final Report including the 94 Calls-To-Action outlined therein, but after discussions with my dad and correspondence with a friend, I understood that the essence of what I was getting at rested solely on the need to focus our attention on our relationships with each other as Indigenous people rather than the historical relationship with the Canadian state. It became clear to me that reconciliation is a(nother) name and a(nother) way for the Canadian government to throw (more) money at the “Indian problem.” What kind of long-term solutions can come from an approach like that? And I don’t want to name all the reports and studies that have been done, nor do I want to say the research isn’t important. The research and findings are important. There are many Indigenous academics and activists who point out the reports and studies on a daily basis, raising awareness about the history of the relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canada. Who is this research for? We already know the problems that exist, our people live with it every day. I also don’t mean to lessen the importance of vocalizing pain, grief and anger. I think it’s good to be angry and frustrated—that anger and frustration is born out of a need for change to occur. Lasting and meaningful change isn’t going to come from Ottawa, nor it is going to come from talking and talking about it. All in all, I want to be hopeful, but at the end of the day I remain critical of the relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canada. I am definitely not aboard the reconciliatory ship.
Then I remembered a quote I read years ago by Metis academic and activist Dr. Howard Adams in his book “Prison of Grass: Canada from a Native Point of View”:
“The racism and colonialism of capitalism will always hold us captive in misery, violence and exploitation. It is time that we recognized our own power and faced the fact that our solutions lie within ourselves.”
The step away from reconciliation allowed the series the freedom to shed light on all the pathways that Indigenous intelligence can create, pathways to a pool, a source, of information that we need to remember and reflect on in our search for the solutions to our current struggles. This is knowledge that already exists within our Nations. The shift from reconciliation also allowed the series to be about the goodness within us and our communities, our present and our future. There are so many already drawing from this pool of intelligence and building solutions within their communities.
It was time to put a name to it all. The title needed to be uplifting and empowering. A few days of text-message correspondence with a friend and the word “emergence” surfaced in my explanation of the shift the series had taken. Then after another week of consulting the thesaurus, text-messaging back and forth with a few more friends, not to mention breaks during which I sat by the fire and did a lot more thinking, a sub-title began forming. The words just beyond my reach. I continued mixing and playing with punctuation and words (I’m certain I’ve read the entire thesaurus) and then finally:
re:collecting indigenous intelligence
Whereas Concrete Indians is about the relationships that we have with our individual selves, emergence is about remembering the complex relations and the intelligence of our ancestors that is honoured and strengthened when we fully understand our place within all of creation. I’m interested in the intelligence of our ancestors, which is intelligence that encompasses every aspect of life. There’s a reason why we say, “all my relations.” In Anishinaabemowin you’d say, “danawemaagaanidook.” Indigenous intelligence is in our languages and philosophies. Indigenous intelligence is rooted in the land and in our ceremonies. It’s everywhere. It always has been. We only need to (continue to) foster its reemergence.
I want to thank the following family and friends for the dialogue and insights shared, for their support, intellect, creativity, and feedback during the several phases this series went through from the idea to the launch: ndede/ my dad, Niigaanipinens for all the discussions (during all phases), Jarrett Martineau (conceptualization, titling and design feedback), Sage Paul and Jason Baerg (titling and design feedback), Ryan Redcorn (branding, graphic, and watermark design), and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (writing feedback/ editing). Chimiigwetch!
The series was launched April 13 and in keeping with the open-call platform, I invite those interested to email ideas to be photographed. Photo sessions can involve portraiture, event coverage, and other session types. I will be photographing my own thoughts on Indigenous intelligence involving astronomy and that vast beautiful night sky spread out above us all as we dream.
– nadya kwandibens