The Other Side of the River
Engaged Arts on the Rez
The Secwepemc nation is an Interior Salishian nation that covers an expansive area of 129,135 acres and encompasses over twenty Aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities. There are seventeen surviving bands in the nation with two distinct language dialects, and approximately nine thousand Secwepemc people who call Secwepemcstin home. We have a 'documented' history of inhabiting the area for at least ten thousand years and, over that time, have developed a fairly strong and detailed spiritual connection to the land that we celebrate in songs, storytelling, and our language. During the winter months, we lived in keek-wilis, or pit houses, dug into the earth, with a solid beam and earth roof, which added insulation and warmth from the fires we had centered our homes around. This is when we would work on our stories, and when arts and crafts were made for trade and practical usage. Life was guided largely by the seasons and the Secwepemc people were closely attached to the natural environment.
I had been the Community Arts Coordinator for the Secwepemc Cultural Education Society in Kamloops, BC, for only a few months at the time, and was new to the Arts Administration world. This is also a new position for the Secwepemc people and our society where I work with a variety of bands, councils and chiefs. The job I had was completely new; no one had done it before and I wasn't sure how this was going to go. Aboriginal artists in urban Kamloops had a low profile, and so reaching out to the artists in the Secwepemc territory wasn't easy, considering it is such a vast nation and Kamloops is very sprawled out. I had been away from the community for many years, living in different parts of the world as a musician and artist, so coming home was not without some challenges. I had actually avoided working in Indian country for my entire
life, because I know it is like any other community that is closely knit: there are good and bad things in terms of inter-personal politics and people, not to mention family politics and band politics, which aren't always a bad thing. They're just the sociological webs we have to make sense of our world.
Now, for example, “I'm a war party baby I tell people,” – meaning my N'laka pamux dad was tipi-creeping in another nation and found himself a Secwepemc woman. In Indian country, often the first thing you are asked when you meet someone is, "Who is your family?" or "What is your last name again?" I've even had people recognize who my family is by the way I walk! That made me laugh so hard! Just recently, I met an elder at a luncheon and she said, “You must be a Bose boy, which brother is your father? Bill or Chris?” This just shows that it's a small world.
As part of my job, I'm also supposed to communicate and open doors across the river to the rest of the Kamloops community, who really know very little about what goes on in Indian country. It's amazing for me to think that just across the river from town is the Kamloops Indian Band reservation. It's just a river, with several bridges going back and forth, so it's not really much of a barrier separating us – the urban world and the Reservation life – but it might as well be a concrete wall with razor wire and machine-gun posts.
It's very difficult to understand and to imagine that after all these centuries of cohabiting the same continent, many people only know about Aboriginal people from what they see on the news, which, of course, isn't really good news as it is usually footage of protests, land claims, Aboriginal men and women dying or murdered and so on. That is the wall we put between ourselves, culturally and racially, and these are the things that art projects and shows will hopefully begin to bring down. We've got award-winning Secwepemc artists and authors living in the Kamloops region, and no one really knows!? So, I've been 'building bridges' between our communities culturally, letting people know who our artists are, and that they are ready for exhibitions and performances. That we are alive and well culturally and we want and need to be heard in order for us to be a part of this society, and the time is now.
One of the immediate challenges was figuring out how to reach out to the artists in the urban area of Kamloops. Many of the artists I now work with didn't – and many still don't – have a driver's license, and there is no public transportation to the somewhat isolated reservation administration buildings where I work. Local transit is a daunting and unrealistic task with artists trying to board a city bus with their portfolio, so right away I knew I would have to reach out to the community and actually go to the artists themselves. So, I began tracking down artists, going to coffee houses, and generally working over everyone I knew. This, I thought was an amazing opportunity to promote our people and our art in a way that had never been done before, and I knew the impact it would have on youth would be tremendous.
Now, when I was a young punk, no one was interested in my art, or what I was doing or anything like that, so I did what any kid would do and got into trouble. Perhaps I should say 'mischief’ instead, because when nothing positive is happening, a negative will fill the void, and we see this every day in our world. I figured that I should talk with student support workers in the district, introduce myself and go to the schools to talk to the kids and tell them I was there to promote them and the community, to get them shows in art venues and to encourage arts within our community. Many were and still are hesitant to participate, but more than that, I've learned that some don't feel their art has any sort of 'value' and don't know how to appreciate their own work. Self-confidence, self-esteem, self-worth, drugs, gangster lifestyle, peer pressure, various types of abuse, recovery and youth pregnancy are some of the issues I've been talking about when working with the artists in the Secwepemc/Kamloops area. This isn't just a regional problem either, as I also collaborate with an Art/Language administrator from the Ktunaxa Nation in the Kootenays, and she faces the same challenges.
Finding the artists was and has been difficult, and I think this has to do with Aboriginal people being culturally reserved around people they don't know, a sort of shyness and humility that has been taken advantage of over the centuries and still persists to this day. Basically, I had to earn – and still am earning – the trust of artists, and the only way to do this is to go out face-to-face into the community to meet the artists. I learned this the hard way after putting ads in the Secwepemc News, our newspaper that goes out to the more than twenty communities in the Secwepemc Nation. It has a print run of five thousand copies, and every month I'd put in ads for calls to artists for future shows and thought the calls would just start rolling in. After a couple months of this and not much action, I decided to start hosting monthly events – sort of coffeehouses – to try and reach out to the artists. There was some success with this, but I wasn't really getting anywhere and so I just basically started calling friends up and telling them I needed artists and to spread the word out through the community.
I began going to the high schools and really trying to reach out to the kids. I told them that art is their voice, to use art to say the things they couldn't vocally, and in this they would find strength. This reminded me of what our leaders had been saying for years, that our youth are our future, but none of them actually seemed to listen, or have the time to care. So, here I was actually encouraging the youth to find their voice, to show the people they had talent, they had something to contribute to the community and they were going to be heard. Art is often cathartic – not always, but it can be – and so I told the kids and artists that art is a powerful form of expression, it can show the world things it doesn't want to see, or things it should see and for them not to be afraid of truly telling their story.
It's been a tough go. Many artists don't have enough money for food, let alone supplies, so it's a constant struggle to keep them engaged and interested in showing their work. I should also mention that many youth thought that I wanted "Indian" looking art, as in stereotypical images of totems, eagles, pow-wow dancers and sort of the more traditional stuff; I had to tell them that I wasn't interested in that, what I was interested in was seeing what they would create, and there were no rules, no boundaries for them. It was their art, their voice; they just had to figure out how to use it. I told them that our first big show would be at the Kamloops Art Gallery and was a collaboration with the youth in the Ktunaxa nation. Suddenly they got interested – a show at the Gallery and a chance to see what other youth were doing in another nation, and they didn't have to create clichéd artwork. I think they felt a bit of pride, and it was really rewarding to see their expressions once the art began to come out and I talked about different styles and mediums of art.
Fortunately, a tough job has been made easier with the help of the Kamloops Art Gallery and their visionary team of curators who were interested in Aboriginal art and supporting it through shows at the Gallery, collaborating in events such as the first Annual Aboriginal Film Festival (which they funded) in February 2008, as well as opening their facilities for workshops and assisting in grant writing for projects. The Community Arts Council of Kamloops has also been amazingly supportive in helping us find gigs in town, making connections and contacts with the city of Kamloops.
In the Aboriginal community, the process is different and requires more sensitivity. People seem hesitant to accept you if you are not from the nation, because over the years, so many people have come through Aboriginal country promising the people the moon and the stars if they share their songs or their stories, and then they've run off and published them or whatever. So building trust in the community is the first step and still is to this day. Some people have grievances and carry them a long time unresolved; I've gotten accustomed to a certain amount of 'damage control' as I go about the communities bridge-building and forging new partnerships with bands and councils. But it is so worth all the effort, because it feels like I'm making a difference in artists' work and lives, which is something you can't put a dollar sign on all the time.
Anyway, back to the cultural intricacies of dealing with administration of the arts in Aboriginal politics and governance, which is something I don't have a lot of experience navigating – the big, scary, bureaucratic way of business and administration. I know things work at a glacial pace administratively, and pitching the importance of art and creativity to our chiefs was, and is still, a daunting task. Politics, land claims and the Olympics seem to be at the forefront of many an Indian politician's mind, which makes for some interesting and heated discussions on how art impacts our children's lives and why it is important to support their creativity and fund youth art projects.
Promoting arts and culture is a tough sell anywhere, and it's no exception in Indian country. When you tell people you are an artist, if you have the confidence, they usually ask what typical handicraft or traditional craft do you do? A painting or video art is something people are slower to accept into the canon of Aboriginal art, and when looking for funding on a band level, this has been a tough go, so for the most part, I've nearly given up. Unfortunately, land claims seem to be a black hole/money pit that many bands are pursuing and I'm sad to say I don't think my job will ever find a permanent place in my nation.
The importance of hearing our youth is, to me, second to none, and I've been trying to get the Aboriginal administration to understand this, and to see the value in the work I’m doing. Since attending the conference, my contract as the Arts Coordinator ended and I was shuffled to another department to begin another short-term contract. Once my arts money ran out, that was it, and the problem was I had all these kids I had contact with, and their art, and they were wondering what was going on – were there any more shows, were they on their own and so forth. I had built up a trusting mentorship with these artists, and suddenly it was over, and they were back where they started. It was difficult for me and the artists, and I would meet up with them after hours, or during, to continue and finalize some projects. Through it all, the administrative heads were just like, "Well, too bad, it didn't make us any money, so this is your new job now, take it or leave it."
Luckily, this contract found some more cash through another grant, and so I've got another year to convince the bureaucracy of the value and importance of this job to the people. Without art there is no culture and without culture there is no heritage, and without heritage, there is no language, and without language, we are lost.
Our youth need positive actions and events, safe places to create and to find and use their voice, and all too often busy, modern parents forget this or expect someone else to do it. I've been doing this, but it isn't free, and so I'll work to make sure things are successful and invite the administration to participate in events and exhibitions.
The impact we have had creating opportunities for artists has been so rewarding: helping them get started on art projects, watching them become increasingly confident and proud has been amazing to watch. I know the positive effects of this job will increase as time goes on and it is not too difficult to imagine a creative community being fostered through this approach. These, really, are the first steps in a lifelong journey.