it’s in the quiet times…

I did something extreme this summer – something that has caused me a lot of grief, guilt and shame.

I know… what an intro.

My parents are taking care of my kid for the summer.

There, I said it.

I feel wrong just saying it.

There is so much to unpack here.

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It started in the middle of June. I went to Vancouver for two weeks for two academic conferences and my Mom was watching my baby at my place in Saskatoon. And we chatted about it – and she agreed to watch Aerie for the summer up North. I’m still studying for my PhD (one day I will write more about this) and I am working hard on passing a big test that will determine whether or not I continue in academia in two freaking weeks. So much pressure, and on top of all this – blogging, photography, and a new book out to promote. Mom saw all this and was offering to come stay with me in the city, but she hates the city. And Aerie loves the North. It was easy to see that Aerie going North would help me out so much, and that it would be easiest for my parents.

Let me say this right away – I am so blessed to have my parents around to be able to do this, and the only person feeling guilty about this is me. My parents love having Aerie, and she loves being up there. There are no problems there at all.

So this guilt, this shame, and this self-loathing – it’s all internal.

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I like to say that this is an example of a community raising the child, which is an idea that I have taken to ever since my ex and I broke up. Although he and I are still friends, I am the primary parent of our child. And I do need help – and help is here. My brothers and their families, my parents, my best friends, my friends, and so on. If I need help, I just have to ask. Aerie is loved by many, and that is so good. She has a million aunties, just like any rez kid.

So she is doing amazing. She swims, boats, fishes, road trips, eats all the foods, makes all the friends. She is having a dream summer. We talk everyday and I make the trip down to see her very 7-10 days or so, even if it’s just for a night. But this was the longest time we have ever spent apart, and everyone has a comment.

Taking the summer to focus on my academic needs and myself gives me insane guilt, and that’s ok. I know – I KNOW – that this is the best for her and I right now, and that I needed this extra time to focus. But it’s hard.

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It’s hard when my own brothers make “you’re like an auntie to her ha ha ha” comments, while they sit in their two-parent relationships. It takes everything in me to not verbally cut them down because Mama raised me better than that. And I react because I fear what they say is true. Which is insane, I know, but I’m still teary just thinking about it.

It’s hard when I get asked by friends who don’t know the situation – “Where’s Aerie?” I drown in guilt and massive explanations when I don’t need to. I want to justify this to everyone, and I’m the only one who needs that.

It’s hard when it’s quiet at night, and I turn on a cartoon, just so I can feel like she’s around. It’s hard when I wake up in the middle of the night, thinking she called for me, and I remember she’s not there. When I go grocery shopping, and she’s not there, trying to sneak in her favourite snacks. So many moments where I miss the every day feeling of having her by my side.

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But there is a light – we are coming down to the end of summer. Her days at the beach are getting shorter. Her hair is getting longer. Her tan is incredibly dark, and she is thinking about her Grade 1 class and who will all be in there. My exams are coming up, and soon after that, she will be home with me. Those early morning cuddles where I have to convince her to get up – I can’t wait. Our Friday afternoon Starbucks dates – I can’t wait.

I really didn’t even wanna share this – I hate sharing my struggle – but I do know that the academic world is not women-friendly, it’s not Indigenous-friendly, it’s not mother-friendly. And that to succeed, sometimes we have to make sacrifices. This was mine. I gave up my summer with my kid.

But it’s only my sacrifice – as this was Aerie’s gain.

These were the moments where her relationship with her grandparents, her community, her land, and her culture – it only got stronger.

And come the Fall, I can’t wait to hear her stories.

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 – tenille k campbell

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thirty-three

I turned thirty-three earlier this year, and I celebrated at my nephew’s birthday party (he was turning five). I drank a few beers as the million and one kids bowled, screamed, ran around and caused chaos. I ate cake, telling everyone that he had high-jacked my birthday celebrations, and we laughed.

My birthday has never caused me stress, or made me freak out. I love celebrating me (note: I also love celebrating other people’s birthdays) and I love being able to justify the day spent on buying makeup, clothes, eating fancy food and being a diva. I’m one of those people who want birthday months. Love me, spoil me. Be my friend, eeeee.

Anyways, I was going through some digital archives, and was just giggling to myself. Some of these… cringe-worthy.

Let’s go through memory lane.

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March 2008. 24 yrs old. Charleston, SC. This was my first trip to Charleston, to visit my brother Trent. It was hot. Crazy hot. I had bangs, and reddish hair. I know, styling. But I went with my parents and my fiancé, at the time. We went to hockey games, the local aquarium, and I touched the Atlantic Ocean for the first time.

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March 2009. 25 years old. UBC Campus, Vancouver, BC.  I am attending UBC for my MFA in Creative Writing and I am so overwhelmed. But it’s good. I am student-poor. I splurge on a coffee I cannot afford, and I smile. The sun is shining. The mountains are outside the window. I write poetry. I am loved. All is well.

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March 2010. 26 yrs old. Jericho Beach, Vancouver, BC. It is one of our first picnics of the season, sitting on the bench and sipping local craft ale and homemade wine with friends. They take my picture, as I am always the one behind the camera. I hate it, but appreciate it now, years later.

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March 2011. 27 yrs old + 6 months pregnant. Lac La Plonge, SK. I am pregnant with my daughter, Aerie. I am newly married. I am terrified, but content. We are living downstairs in my parents house on the Rez, and while I feel like I should be ‘doing more,’ I am often reminded that I am making a human. And that’s enough.

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March 2012. 28 years old + 8 month old daughter. Saskatchewan. I have a daughter. I am often in the backseat, just watching her as she watched me. I did that. I made that. She made me.

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March 2013. 29 yrs old +  20 month old daughter. Somewhere on the way to Charleston, SC. My mom, my not-yet-two-year-old child and myself are on a road trip to Charleston again. This is my third visit. Mom and I had always planned to travel coast to coast together.

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March 2014. Dirty-Thirty. Saskatoon, SK. We drink too much, eat too fast, and laugh too loudly. No longer married, and adjusting to that single mom life, my friends and family come out to celebrate and I am given shots and stories, and I remember again – I am loved.

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March 2015. 31 years old. University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK. I am guest-lecturing a class. This is insane. I am in my second year in my PhD program and I’m still wondering why anyone would trust me to teach anyone anything. I have also discovered the joys of makeup, which is nice.

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March 2016. 32. Regina, SK. I was asked to model in NDN Supermaidens by JT Arcand, and I am so freaking honoured. Surrounded by inspiring, Indigenous women, being as extra as I want to be – this is a good feeling. My friends and I travel to Regina to see the opening show, and I side-eye myself on a massive poster. I recognize myself in her, and I grin. Supermaiden, indeed.

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March 2017. 33 yrs old + 5 yrs old. Saskatoon, SK. We go out for macarons and hot chocolate, a big girl date, as she calls it. We sit and chat about kindergarten, university, and our favourite dessert. She holds my hand and leans against me.

“I love you,” she says quietly.

“I love you too,” I tell her, kissing the top of her head.

“Can you buy me another macaron then?” She smiles at me, her eyes crinkling up like her dad’s do, and I burst out laughing.

Yep, that’s my kid.

Blessed.

 – tenille  campbell 

breaking the surface

I remember swimming at the lake by our reserve. My brothers and cousins and me, we would dive deep, after we had swum out far enough that we couldn’t touch the bottom anymore. We would hold our breath, trying to be the last one to rise to the surface. I remember opening my eyes and floating in that space between light and dark, watching the sun shimmer through the water in soft waves. Looking at the light, feeling the burn in my lungs, and finally, finally, breaking through the glass of the water, gasping, sputtering, wiping my eyes and laughing.

This last month felt like I constantly trying to break through the surface.

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And it’s hard for me to admit that. I’m not superwoman, but I do “a lot.” I’m in my PhD. I own my own business. I write and manage this blog. I’m a single parent. In the middle of all this, I also write. I’m doing a play. I’m writing a poetry manuscript. I’m tentatively outlining the plot to a novel I’ve been thinking about for the last year.

All these things though, I love. I love my life. I am happy. So why am I so overwhelmed?

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I would understand if I disliked any aspects of this life, but I didn’t. I don’t. I would study and feel content in following a dream I’ve had since I was a teenager. I would photograph a family and smile at the back of my camera, seeing the captured emotions and realize that I love this job. I would cuddle up with my daughter, kissing the top of her head, and try to remember what it was like before I felt this love, before I became her mother.

But slowly, slowly, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t feel the joy. I couldn’t feel the passion. I felt… grey. Nothing. Absent. I went through the motions and denied that anything was wrong. Or I would sigh and shake my head, because even if something was wrong, there was nothing anyone could do to “fix it.”

In between worrying about money, moving homes, my child starting kindergarten, studying for comps, and writing on demand instead of with passion, I finally sat down and said, enough.

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Fuck this.

Fuck feeling like this.

I cannot, and will not, go through my life like this.

Something had to change.

I had to change.

I work with an amazing thesis advisor, and we had a sit down, as we do every week. She asked me, as she often did, “How are you?”

“I’m burned out,” I admitted quietly. She looked at me, eyes a little wide. In all our time together, where she has warned me to take it easy, to not take on so many projects, to be selfish with my time and energy as a PhD is a marathon, not a sprint, this was the first time I had ever admitted to being burned out. To saying enough.

“OK. … What do we need to do?”

I wanted to cry, with relief. Instead, I took a deep breath.

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Saying “enough” wasn’t quitting. It wasn’t a weakness. It didn’t make me “less smart” then those who had come before me.

So you may, or may not, have noticed I stopped writing here for a minute. I needed to step back, and when I did, the women of this blog stepped up. They said ok. They rallied, texted, messaged, and made up for my absence.

And I could breathe.

I took a look at my business and identified what I love doing, and what I do simply for the business. I developed a new business plan, going into effect in January. I identified key goals, and things I could let go.

And I could breathe.

I looked at my PhD with a critical eye. I drew a very badly designed map with crayons, showing where I was in my academic journey and where I needed to go. I’m a visual learner, it turns out, and I need to speak with my community, as soon as possible. So I did the paperwork that needed doing, and soon, very soon, I can start my interviews.

And I could breathe. And smile.

And while I’m still “too busy,” I feel like me again. I feel ambition. I didn’t realize how absent that was until I could feel it again. I felt desire. I felt joy. I felt silly and sarcastic and smart and sexy and powerful.

I feel.

And it’s good.

 – tenille campbell

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NOTE:

This post was written in October 2016. I let it sit for a while because it felt too raw, too vulnerable to admit any weakness, but I knew eventually I would be okay with it.

It’s okay to show the cracks. 

she dances on northern lights

When I went to Vancouver last week-ish, I met up with my (now) good friend, Maddie. I had only previously met her at a wedding for a minute back in the day, but I was gonna crash on her couch because why not. I’ve been blessed in the past to be able to crash on new friend’s couches while travelling, and I knew that Maddie was originally from the North and we had multiple friends in common.

I got lost – of course – and pulled my massive suitcase into Maddie’s place, laughing as we awkwardly discussed how the trip was going. I’m not sure what broke the ice – it may have been her accent which is as thick as her hair (eeeee) – but once we started laughing and then coughing like old men, we quickly bonded and planned our photo session for the next day. Maddie is a talented dancer in multiple forms, but I really wanted to experiment with two ideas – a Métis Jigging Queen, and a more contemporary expression.

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I’ve always wanted to dance, and I’m still that kid out on the floor until the lights turn on, but once I saw the way Maddie could move – my heart ached even more for my lost dream. In a good way.

Maddie creates.

Maddie lives dance.

There was a fearlessness in her that I could appreciate, but never replicate. She gave me her all, and it was great to work with someone who trusted me to create my art while she did hers – making Indigenous magic happen.

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And because my creeper skills are great, I also contacted Elisha of @mua.nativebarbie after seeing some of her work on Instagram. She did this Coast Salish style on her face that had me thinking she could interpret what I wanted pretty easy. Elisha showed up, at first pretty quiet compared to Maddie and I, but as we went on – telling stories, snickering, coughing, sharing – Elisha started to laugh exactlyyyyyy like us. We’re a great influence.

And she slayedddddd her art.

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We were originally only going to the Métis Jigging creative session, but we had the opportunity to finish up with an oceanside session the day I left. We laughed over misheard words – “he thought your name was sweetPOON” – and I stood still for a second, listening to the Rez accents in a big city, the sweet rush of ocean wind blowing through our hair, and I smiled.

Sometimes you find kin in the most unexpected places.

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*These are just a few samples o fetch images; hella more coming soon 

Credits:  Model: Madelaine McCallum // Hair+Makeup: MUA Native Barbie  // Pink Gown: Chloë Angus Design // Earrings: Savage Rose  // Beaded Belt: Melody // Mukluks: Unknown (will gather name)

 – tenille campbell

small town grads, big city dreams

I graduated in 2002. I was surrounded by my best friends, with my sweetie (at the time) by my side, and my parents and huge, extended family there to celebrate me. It was a good time, despite the fact I did not win the English Award (huge side-eye to my teacher, Chuck). I wore a pastel blue a-line dress with silver florals, white knee-length gloves, and a set of pearl earrings and necklace that I still have to this day. Somewhere. I may even have had on a tiara, I’m not sure.

Oh man, I found a picture.

Whyyyyyyyyyy?

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Okay, I’m not gonna lie, my hair was luscious. I miss that. I also did not have a tiara, but I did have “pearl” drops in my hair.

I can’t explain it.

It was 2002.

I am so distracted now, by the amazingness that is our grad picture. Our theme was something to do with springtime and forests, and we made sure the women had outfits that matched the decor, because obviously, and my first love is also in this picture (not naming names) and I can’t believe I ever thought I was fat.

Oh, memories.

Anyways.

For me, grad was a big deal. I had made it, and I had made it with my besties by my side. I remember the joy I felt in that day, and I remember the amazing food my family made, and I remember the crazy stories from the after-party around breakfast the next day.

But I also remember it being my first time in front of a professional camera. I remember being somewhat interested in photography – I still had a point and shoot that I carried arounds school – and I remember how rushed I felt with my 15 minutes to get 12 images of my family, myself, and any friends I may want. I sat on the hard bench, trying to imitate the moves he had made the other grads do, and I felt the awkwardness in my shoulders, and I didn’t want to smile, because this wasn’t good.

When I received my images back, there were no images where I felt beautiful. Where I felt powerful. I didn’t like the way I looked, I didn’t like the way I was posed, I didn’t like the cliché of it all. I didn’t see myself in this set of stock images.

I didn’t order any prints, and I think the pack of sample images is still at my mom’s place, somewhere.

Fast forward to 2010, and I was asked to document some grad images for my hometown. I had moved back from Vancouver earlier that spring, finishing my MFA and deciding what I wanted to do with my life. And somehow, the camera was going to be part of it.

So a few nights before the big event, I took my Grads down to the rivers, the valleys, the fields of grass, and laughed. I made them sit in down, spraying them down with bug spray as we were swarmed. I made them hug trees, stand stoic, grin at me with mischief in their eyes. I made them go down into the dam, go sit on the piles of chopped wood, and stand in the forests.

And it was good.

It was soooo good.

I’ve been photographing my Northern Grads going onto my seventh summer. I have worked in Beauval, Patuanak, Meadow Lake, Birch Narrows, Prince Albert, Rosthern and North Battleford. I have worked with my Métis, Dene and Cree kids while laughing at thick accents and the massive amount of family members that show up for ‘immediate family only’ images. I have eaten dry meat given to me as a gift, and smoked cigarettes with Elders even though I don’t smoke – because you don’t say no to tobacco – while trying not to cough. I have helped Grandma’s across fields of grass, and watched Uncles hop off the skiffs to join in on the family portraits.

I have marvelled at the absolute beauties that our youth are.

I hope they see these images and smile. I hope they look back at their stacks of prints, grin, and remember a good time, a good moment. I hope they feel powerful.

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 – tenille campbell

making the cover

“So…. can I tape your nipples?”

My cousin Tara and I have had some weird conversations in our creative journeys. From video shooting to making her be the cover of my first poetry book, we’ve had some amazing times together.

In late October, I was working with Signature Editions on my book cover (to be released in April).

I needed a very specific shot of an Indigenous woman, standing proud, playful, and sensual.

No biggie.

Just decolonizing images, one Indigenous at a time.

I’ve chatted before about how our body and image are often portrayed by outside eyes, which fetishize our skin colour, our culture, and our beauty. I wanted to avoid that, obvs.

So I called Tara up and asked her to be my model. And while I was totally chill, for the most part, with writing and promoting this book, it’s always something to have your face be ‘the face’ of a book cover and have it forever be identified as part of this project. And when you’re chatting about casual sex and intimacy, I wanted to make sure Tara knew what she was getting into.

“Hell yes.”

No wooing needed, she was in.

I set up my RezStudio in my living room. Backdrop. Lights. Music playing. Kids playing in the bedroom. We laughed, as our kids played together the way we still play together – loud, dominant, yet so kind to one another.

And we shot. And shot. And we laughed even more. We chatted about position, lighting, sexuality, and the power of images. I kept making sure that Tara felt comfortable the more she undressed, and we laughed again – “I haven’t seen you this nekked since we took baths together.”

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Finally, after the hair teasing, the secret grins, the lip-gloss, and the taping of nipples, we were done. We sat and had tea, and listened to our kids play some more.

I didn’t know how to say thank you. I still don’t. This is powerful medicine for me, being able to take these stories and images and present them in a positive way.

Tara also shared some thoughts with me:

This is experience for me was so empowering. I’ve had the honour of working with Tenille on several occasions, and the thing I love the most is she’s always willing to go out of her comfort zone in order to share my ideas and visions. I appreciated this experience even more because she allowed me to go out of my own comfort zone while still feel completely at peace with it all.

In our culture, it’s almost seen as taboo to be open about sexuality. I know there is a long history of our stories and experiences being exploited, so this is a way for us to take back what is ours. Our bodies and spirits intertwined with healthy sexuality and openness.

When she first showed me the images from this shoot, I was completely amazed with how flawless she captured her ideas, what felt funny, awkward and cheesy to me in mid-pose came out strong, bold and effortless in photograph.

I feel its so important for women to feel comfortable within their own bodies and thoughts because we live in a time where images are hyper-sexualized beyond our control. We live in a time where we are shunned if we are openly sexual and on the other side of the spectrum, are considered to be of higher honour and respect if we are humble and modest.

I think it’s absolutely vital that women be accepted as we are, whether we are fully clothed or willingly exposed. This book is what needs to happen for us to begin this dialogue. We are able to giggle and tell stories amongst ourselves, so why not enable us to openly share our thoughts and innermost feelings with humour, beauty and confidence? Feminism doesn’t have to be seen as angry and aggressive, feminism needs to be seen as empowerment with acceptance and knowledge of self.

With that being said, I am so honoured to be a part of this experience. I see this book as a huge leap for the feminine peace of mind. Thank you, Tenille, for taking this step forward for us all.

Ekosi and Maci Cho.

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As a reader, I know the power of a book cover. As an artist, I think about tone, texture, shape, white space, font choice, meaning, and layers. As an Indigenous woman, I know the stereotypes that are often portrayed about us. I am leery and weary of feathers, tribal designs, buckskin, and the hyper-sexualisation of our bodies. So how was this going to work, consulting and deciding on a final image for a book about Indigenous erotica?

I am incredibly lucky that the team at Signature Editions listened to my concerns, and wanted to work with my own photographs. I am pleased to show you a draft of the final cover:

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 – tenille campbell

How do you say “dating” in Dene?

When I was younger, around eleven or so, I told my mom I was in love with Brian. He was a boy in my class, we had been good friends since Kindergarten, and he and I were now in love.

She was cool. “Ok.”

So began those first awkward steps into dating. I had a Friday the 13th Slumber Party (I know, I was a weird kid, but it was awesome) and we held hands as we watched scary movies. My cousin had a birthday party and invited him, and we shared our first kiss on the trampoline as our friends watched. I remember thinking “don’t blush, don’t blush, be cool.” We went to the same Bible Camp in the summer (sigh, I know, but all the kids did it) and he would meet me at the lake when our groups went swimming, and we would splash water at each other, laugh, and then run away.

It was all incredibly innocent and fun, and I am so thankful he was my first boyfriend because we were friends throughout, and stayed friends to this day. I don’t even remember how we broke up – I’ll have to read my old diaries, ha – but my entire youth has memories of him – bike riding, climbing trees, late night phone calls, slow dances, stolen kisses, and walks around town. And it’s all so idyllic.

Dating nowadays, not so much.

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Last year, I decided to try dating. I had been in a long-term relationship, and when that ended, I took some time to heal. To be alone and to work on my own goals and I succeeded. Wrote some words. Published some images. Took some trips. Had a great time.

I then decided to try this dating thing.

And I was so badddddd at it.

Like, awful.

Let’s not confuse dating and sex, mmmkay. Sex is easy. Sex is effortless. I could sleep with a new person each week, no problem, if that’s what I wanted. There is no shortage to people who want to have sex – easy, casual, emotional free sex.

But that’s not what I wanted.

I wanted to try the butterflies again. The nervousness. I wanted to get the secret grins, and the anticipation. I wanted to look forward to seeing and thinking about someone else again.

One of the first dates I went on was with a white guy. Which was new for me. Being from a small Northern Indigenous community, I usually dated Dene’s, Cree’s and sometimes, when I was feeling exotic, Métis. But “dating” in the North – it’s not like in the city.

Dating in the city seems to be ‘lets go out and do something together, come home, and plan another date, if the first one went well.’

Dating in the North is more akin to “let’s go for a drive/to a party/to the lake/etc” and all sudden, you’re “going out” and in a long-term relationship for the next three to six years.

There is no in between.

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But me and this white guy, I call him Dreamcatcher, I met him online, of course, and we chatted, exchanged numbers, and set a date. He was an amateur photographer and knew the difference between f-stop and ISO, so he had me at “Canon.” He sent me some of his images to check out and while I cringed, I also kept silent.

Art is subjective, I said to myself.

On date night, Dreamcatcher picks me up at my place, and hops out of the truck and opens the door for me. Me, in typical Tenille-fashion, am rocking bright red lips and massive Savage Rose feather earrings. And people always have a comment on my earrings.

“Hey. Nice earrings. Did you hunt for the feathers yourself?”

Ummmm, no.

“So I knew an Indian in high school … do you know him?”

“So I knew a girl who made dreamcatchers… do you make them?”

“So you get cheap smokes, hey?”

“So, you’re a Pocahottie, hey? You don’t look supperrrr Indian, but I can tell.”

By the time we got to the coffee shop, I was wide eyed in amazement – how did he not get how rude and racist these questions were? But as the barista made my caramel macchiato, I decided to go all in. If this was gonna be my first date with a white guy, so be it. Let’s get all the ignorant questions out there.

“So, the guy who pumped my gas this morning, he was white. Blond and blue eyes. You know him?”

“So, ever date your cousin? I know how limited the small towns are…”

“So, like living on my land?”

“So, where are you really from? Like, where did you people come from?”

Needless to say, that date did not end well.

Nor did the date with a new guy after that. No, I do not want to use my treaty card to pay for your gas. Nor did the date after that. No, I’m not interested in a debate about what “equal rights” means and how we should abolish treaties. Nor did the date after that. No, I’m not a fake Indian, and yes, I have lived on reserve.

It was absolutely crazy to me how often my Indigenous identity would come into play.

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Finally, I contacted one of my old, old boyfriends. A Cree guy who used to play baseball. I creeped on FB, and I knew was still single and still cute. He was the same old guy – incredibly friendly, sweet, and charming. He came to the city, and we hung out the entire day. Lunch, a walk along the river, chatting, a coffee chop, supper, a movie. Not gonna lie, there was a lot of kissing in-between conversations. And a lot of laughter, joking and grins.

And not once did our Indigenous identities come up in a negative way.

It was a breath of fresh air. I was able to relax and remember how to do this. How to let my guard down and let someone in. How to trust that the conversation coming my way would not be a verbal assault of some sort.

Dating in the city is still weird. I miss the days of knowing everyone in the room, knowing who likes who, knowing who likes you. I miss knowing the community I could get involved in, and the backstories of who already messed around with who. I’m still dating outside my community though, and even meet a non-Indigenous guy who did make me grin and give me butterflies… but that’s another story.

And at least I know to avoid the guys who start the conversation with “wanna play Cowboys and Indians?”

 – tenille campbell