Bihttoš: A Tale of Radical Decolonial Love

In late March, I attended the Vancouver International Women in Film Festival, to watch a small selection of female-produced short films under the heading “Compelling Characters”. Within this selection, I saw Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers’ beautiful piece, Bihttoš. Worth noting, Tailfeathers was the only Indigenous filmmaker featured in this selection, and one of few performers/directors of colour.

Tailfeathers is Sami (on her father’s side) from Norway, and Blackfoot (on her mother’s side) from the Kainai/Blood Nation in Alberta. She attended VFS for acting and later UBC to pursue a dual degree in Women’s and Gender Studies and First Nations Studies. She uses her films as a form of activism to shed light on topics such as land abuse (in Bloodland), violence against Indigenous women (in Red Girl’s Reasoning) and here, in Bihttoš as a means of addressing intergenerational trauma left behind by residential schools (and their equivalents) and the resiliency/survival of Indigenous peoples

Tailfeathers embarked on this film as a result of her involvement in the Embargo project which challenged her to write a story about her family. Bihttoš is the result of a years’ worth of conscious effort, and a lifetime of lived experience and growth.

Bihttoš, which examined in particular, Tailfeathers’ relationship with her troubled and formidable father Bjarne Store-Jakobsen, was divided visually and narratively into thirds.

The first, appearing in animation and narrated by a young Elle-Máijá, depicted her parents’ fairytale-esque love story. They met in a bar in Australia, both attending an Indigenous Rights conference as Sami and Blackfoot activists. Her father fell in love with her mother, Esther Tailfeathers, at first sight, and would travel across an ocean to profess his love for her.

The second, appearing in archival photographs and dramatic reenactments detailed Elle-Máijá and her family’s move from Sapmi when she was 5, to North Dakota to support her mother in pursuing her MD. This segment also detailed Tailfeathers’ and her brother’s means of adapting and struggling with the shift in their lives and in their parents, notably in her father, who fell into a deep depression and began to abuse alcohol. Tailfeathers noted that she often felt obliged to support her father as his confidante and felt the need to keep her family together.

This was unsuccessful, and following her mother’s decision to leave her father, Store-Jakobsen attempted suicide. Tailfeathers at this time was 16. Following this, Tailfeathers and her father went without contact for 9 years.

After this period, they reconnected via an 8000 km cross country road trip. This final third of the movie is comprised of Elle-Máijá’s own personal footage of the trip. A few years after this reconnection, Store-Jakobsen opened up to Elle-Máijá about his experience at Sami boarding school; until this point he had been unable to confess his experiences to anyone, and had coped by fighting valiantly for Sami rights.

In response to this admission, Tailfeathers found relief from much of the emotional struggle she had been both consciously aware of and things she hadn’t realized were weighing on her until that moment. She was able to find incredible compassion for both of her parents’ experiences, and chose to forgive them for not being able to love one another, and for not being the shining, perfect gods that we all tend to imagine our parents as being.

I would like to tie into this film Karyn Recollet’s notion of radical decolonial love; which encompasses all types of love romantic and otherwise between all peoples. Tailfeathers’ parents demonstrate tremendous RDL; her mother became an MD to finish the work of her older brother who had died not long before, in the midst of pursuing his own MD, her father fought for and secured government recognition of the Sami as Indigenous peoples in Sweden and Norway, Elle-Máijá herself creates films out of love for her own people, the land she belongs to, and Indigenous women across Turtle Island, she was able to find forgiveness (a deeply difficult and powerful act of love) for her father and understand her parents as imperfect people and not just as her caregivers.

I would also like to mention Ric Knowles’ concept of remembering as a tool for healing along with Recollet’s notion of colonial weight, as connected to intergenerational trauma incurred from the residential school system and its genocidal equivalents. Store-Jakobsen’s act of remembering his painful, and traumatic experience to Elle-Máijá lifted a portion of the colonial weight from his body that he had been carrying since he was a child. By virtue of her connection to him, and the traumas she herself carries in her body as a result of his experiences, Store-Jaksobsen’s remembering also lifted this colonial weight from Tailfeathers.

This concept blurs nicely into Monique Mojica’s concept of mining the body for organic texts as well. Elle-Máijá’s acts of remembering, delving deeply into her childhood memories and also the experiences of her parents, and examining the physical and emotional sensations that arose of these processes resulted not only in the beautiful story she has shared, but also in the furthering of her own healing process.

More widely, her opening this vulnerability to a broader audience allows for others in similar positions to examine their own connections to land, family, and themselves, perhaps catalyzing the healing processes of many more people to come.

I would like to leave you all with the following:

A link to the first portion of the film: https://vimeo.com/111828006

A brief and problematic review of Bihttoš by Addison Wylie, a non-Indigenous professional film critic trained in television broadcasting and film production: http://wyliewrites.com/canadas-top-ten-film-festival-14-shorts/

(Wylie seems to completely miss the point of the film, focusing mostly on aesthetic choices that Wylie feels were “risky” or amateurish)

Another brief but significantly kinder review by Joy Fisher a Victoria based playwright: http://coastalspectator.ca/?p=4071

(Fisher acknowledges the traumatic results of government sanctioned modes of ethnic cleansing and lauds Tailfeathers for her skilled storytelling. I wonder if Fisher is able to empathize with/better understand the story because of her position as a woman and the female tendency to emotionally caretake)

A brief note, it was quite difficult to find even a handful of reviews for this film although it was released in 2014. Those that I could find were quite brief, and often provided in a batch with brief reviews of other related films.

Question: How can we explore the notion of blood memory and organic texts as a means of furthering our own scholarship as Native and non-Native students and as a means of fostering collective healing and growth?

*by this I mean, engaging in connection to both the land we occupy and ourselves, mining our physical sensations and experiences and emotions that are called up as we mine these experiences.

Lalakenis All Directions Feast

On the 15th of January I had the honour of attending the Lalakenis All Directions Feast, hosted by Beau Dick at the AMS Nest. In addition to my involvement as a witness, I had been asked to involve myself as an organizer, participated in the Pipe Ceremony, and last minute danced a mask (Bakwus).

Beau Dick or Walas Gway’um is a hereditary chief, artist, carver, and teacher of the Kwakwaka’wakw people specifically from Alert Bay. Beau hosted this feast to serve many purposes; as a call to action to all peoples of North, Central, and South America to acknowledge violence perpetrated by the government to Indigenous peoples (and to begin to undo the hurts caused by this violence), as a means of sharing spiritual and physical wealth, to honour and open the way for the Lalakenis All Directions exhibition that was to open the next day at the Belkin Art Gallery, and to provide a spotlight for those in the community doing art and engaging in activism to share with us all.

Because the event lasted an entire day, it would be an absurd undertaking for me to try to describe it all here. The particular events that I will elaborate on in brief here are the sharing of a smallpox song by Lorne, Jeneen Frei-Njootli’s performance piece, and the Pipe Ceremony.

Lorne (from Montana, I do not know his full name or nation), early in the event shared a smallpox song and detailed how it came to him. He described a time in his tribe’s history when smallpox was ravaging the community. He said that one family afflicted with the disease cloistered themselves away in a cave to prevent the smallpox from spreading to others. He said that their voices found him, passed along the song, and asked that he not forget about them.

Tearfully, he shared the song with us. I think it’s safe to say that no one in the room was left with dry eyes. I could help but link this performance to Yvette Nolan’s notions of survivance and remembrance. Lorne strongly acknowledged his love, connection, and gratitude to his ancestors, and in that moment we were all able to share in that gratitude and connection. The tremendous love between they and him filled the room and asserted the intentionality and radical decolonial love underlining Indigenous survival and thriving.

The Pipe Ceremony, which happened earlier in the event, was hosted by Gyaauustees, the pipe keeper and carver, to provide the opportunity for Beau’s grandson, Gavin, to receive a pipe. The ceremony was also an opportunity for many of us who had been through trauma or who had lost loved ones recently to receive support and healing.

I myself had lost my grandmother a few weeks prior to the event and entered into the ceremony with a heavy heart. It was transformative, and deeply moving to have been able to be a part of Gavin’s entrance into his community as a man, in a sense, imbued with new spiritual purpose and responsibility, bestowed upon him by his elder’s deep love for him.

Finally, Jeneen Frei-Njootli performed a unique piece by playing a caribou antler manipulated with her hands and breath, and played percussively. The sounds the antler produced were reminiscent of the landscape that raised her- the Canadian north, traditional territory of her Gwi’chin people. I couldn’t help but think of the significance of the use of the caribou, an animal strongly connected to Gwi’chin spirituality, cultural expression, and material survival, and how perfectly it recreated the experience of its and her homeland.

I feel as though each of these acts was an act of love, forgiveness, an underscoring of Indigenous presence and thriving, and of course, acts of ceremony. Additionally, in Lorne’s song and in the Pipe Ceremony in a more private sense, there were elements of “poison exposed” referring to the release and exposure of negative or traumatic incidents for the purpose of lifted the weight of colonial trauma. This exposed poison was then soothed by the day’s ceremonies and the sharing of openness and love.

 

I would like to leave you all with the following question regarding this notion of poison exposed: Is there sense in exposing poison simply for the outcome of personal release, or must this exposure be paired with ceremony or structure in order to leave the individual exposing this poison in a better state than they began in?

In Motion

I attended In-Motion in late February at the Roundhouse Performing Arts Centre. The event, part of the Talking Stick Festival, involved two separate contemporary dance pieces in sequence, followed by a Q&A panel with all of the performers.

The first piece, NDN Way was performed by Anishnaabe/Metis/Irish dancer and visual artist, Brian Solomon and Mestiza dancer/choreographer Mariana Medellin-Meinke. The piece was fairly abstract and set to a recording of Cindy Bisaillon’s 1974 interview with Cree-Metis elder and knowledge keeper Ron Evans.

I have a fairly limited background with formal dance both as a performer and a viewer, and I entered the event fairly nervous about the difficulty I would have in interpreting a plot line from Solomon’s choreographic choices. To me, it seemed to be largely an examination of the stages of life and development humans go through, linked intimately to the idea of the Sweat and the emotional/spiritual/physiological challenges endured by Sweat participants.

I also saw themes of Native erasure, resilience, freedom, struggle, and release illustrated by the ways that Solomon and Medellin-Meinke interacted with each other, and the ways their individual physical and facial expressions morphed from the beginning of the performance to the end.

In the Q & A Panel following the performance, Solomon explained some of the inspiration for the piece. Part of it, he said, came from seeing young people full of potential struggling very publicly with drug dependence on the outskirts of his neighbourhood. He also described personal struggles with health and the tragic loss of some of those close to him. I imagine the performance, which appeared at times to be very physically challenging, was a tremendous outlet for both he and Medellin-Meinke to find emotional, physical, and spiritual release from these sadnesses and struggles. As well, the recreation in a sense, of the Sweat ceremony lift that weight from the performers and the audiences alike.

As I watched the piece, I wished several times that I could pause and rewind moments so I could retrieve more meaning. I understood that there were many layers to the piece, and felt as though my lack of basic understanding of contemporary dance movement hindered my ability to delve through all of the intended projections of the choreography. In addition, there were several points where I felt the compulsive urge to move or dance along with the performers. I felt embarrassed about it until, during our presentation on the event, Vanessa mentioned a similar experience. After having had that confirmation, I decided that the urge to physically respond was more than likely the performance unlocking something within the both of us (and very likely others in attendance), although I’ve yet to give much thought to what that something is.

The second piece, Greed, was performed by Byron Chief-Moon (Blackfoot), Jerry Longboat (Mohawk-Cayuga), Olivia Davies (Welsh-Anishnaabe), and Luglio Romero (Costa Rican). The piece was introduced by the evening’s program as an examination of greed as told through the lens of a man struggling with the stock market. Chief-Moon has stated at various points that Greed was a contemporary reinterpretation of the traditional Blackfoot story of Bloodclot Boy (I will provide a link to this story at the end of my post) and the concept of triple witching (a time in the stock market where one can win or lose millions).

I found this piece much easier to interpret, I think, partially because I had heard earlier in the month from Chief-Moon himself a bit about the piece and its origins. As well, the information in the performance program provided a basic outline of the central theme, while the description of NDN Way felt more cryptic to me.

I saw plenty of Christian imagery throughout the piece; there was a point at which Chief-Moon’s head was pushed down repeatedly by the other performers that seemed reminiscent of a baptism into the religion of greed. Additionally, quite early in the performance, Davies was held aloft in a very Christ-like way. I thought it was an interesting and apt parallel to draw  between Christianity which has been responsible for the justification of much greed in the world (via the attempted takeover and annihilation of many Indigenous peoples around the world) and greed represented by the American stock market.

I feel as though both performances embody Yvette Nolan’s concept of survivance quite well; Solomon’s piece through the lens of Indigeneity surviving trauma with lightness and hope, and Chief-Moon’s piece via the struggle to maintain traditional knowledge despite Western society’s favouring of capitalism above all.

I also thought both Solomon and Chief-Moon’s very contemporary forms of storytelling were compelling, but would like to problematize the word “contemporary”. Obviously, any Indigenous performance occurring in the present is “contemporary”, but I think there is a prevalent Canadian conceptualization of Indigenous performance in particular as being wrapped up in tradition in a non-living/fluid sense of the word. These performances are different from many others I have witnessed in that they are told in very abstract ways, not ones that would necessarily be pereceived as “traditional” by outsiders/non- First Nations viewers.

Question: Byron-Chief Moon’s performing arts company COYOTEARTS, seeks to support contemporary retellings of traditional Indigenous stories. How might this effect Native and non-Native audiences differently? What are the pros and cons of opening these stories up for display in “acceptably” tradition and “non-traditional” ways? Are there better terms for traditional and contemporary that aren’t in competition?

 

See here for a (very problematic) review of Greed: http://www.vancouverobserver.com/culture/dance/demalahamid-and-circadia-indigena-dance-first-nations-experience-old-and-new

http://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/BloodClotBoy-Blackfoot.html (see here for reference to the Blackfoot Bloodclot Boy story)

*End note: it was difficult to find reviews for both Greed and NDN Way, although significantly harder for the latter. Both of these pieces have been performed several times over a period of at least a year, so I found this quite interesting. Worth noting is that Greed itself is an experimental piece, and as such it has fluctuated in performers and means of presentation in the years since it opened.