14 September 2018 - 3 November 2018
kiya itako (be you) presents two mirrored Nēhiyawēwin (Plains Cree) phrases written in syllabics. One phrase, set atop a prairie sky, is installed outside of MOCA Toronto; the other, on a childhood photograph of Arcand, is installed outside Mercer Union. The two sentences come from words spoken by Joi T. Arcand’s mentors, offering contradictory descriptions of Arcand’s “authenticity” as a Cree woman and as a second-language learner of Nēhiyawēwin. The words speak of the importance of language to cultural identity and of the anxieties, hope, struggle and loss surrounding that relationship.
In 1892, Richard H. Pratt wrote, “Kill the Indian, and save the man.”¹ Shortly afterward, he founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a model for nearly every other Industrial/Residential school across the United States and Canada. Pratt was an ardent proponent of cultural genocide as a more civilized alternative to the literal extermination of Indigenous peoples (which was the defacto aim of the US government at the time). He believed the elimination of Indigenous languages and cultural practices would be just as – if not more – effective a means for erasing Indigenous presence.
When an elder says, “language is the key to our survival,” they are resisting this genocide. But this sentiment – as well as its less generous cousin, “you aren’t Indigenous if you don’t speak your language”– places the essence of lndigeneity in languages that very few individuals know. But how does one adequately learn a language without people to speak with, or access to communities that offer language immersion? How can one think in a language when only broken phrases have been learned from an Aunty, an app, or during week-long retreats? And how can tools for communication – that vary widely across nations and territories, and which have undergone continual evolution throughout history – be the sole repositories for an entire culture?
These are the central tensions within which Arcand’s work exists, a widespread struggle to recover language and a sense of self in the shadow of cultural genocide. Arcand’s imagery investigates the aesthetic, cultural and communicative meaning of Nēhiyawēwin while demanding a confrontation with legibility–she asks: who has access to the knowledge carried within language? Although Cree is the most widely used Indigenous language in Canada, those who speak it account for less than 0.3% of the national population, and even fewer still are able to read syllabics.² Here in Tkaranto, syllabics are more likely associated with Anishinaabemowin rather than Cree. This is because Nēhiyawēwin is not native to Tkaranto.
Monolingual Anglophones, who may interpret Arcand’s pieces as “foreign,” are partially correct if one follows a hyper-localized understanding of place. But these definitions of territory don’t take into account that Nēhiyawēwin was likely spoken on this land long before English, since Indigenous ancestors were multilingual and they travelled through territory exchanging knowledge. Languages travel too.
In the future, we may see something completely foreign to current languages. What comes from a Chikasha learning Cree on Dakota territory? Or an Anishinaabeg mis-reading Nēhiyawēwin syllabics and finding something new? Somewhere in the ambiguity of this intersection – moving from nostalgia to constructive illegibility – there is space for understanding that doesn’t annihilate the cultural meaning imbedded in its constituent parts but instead reaffirms their vitality. In between the foreignness and familiarity of these pieces, in between truth and falsehood, there is a new reality striving for articulation.
1 Official Report of the Nineteenth Annual Conference of Charities and Correction (1892), 46–59. Reprinted in Richard H. Pratt, “The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites,” Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the “Friends of the Indian” 1880–1900 (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1973), 260–271.
2 Darnell, Regina and Michelle Filice, “Cree Language,” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Published 2006, last edited 2018.
Joi T. Arcand is an artist from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, Saskatchewan, Treaty 6 Territory. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with Great Distinction from the University of Saskatchewan (2005). Recent solo exhibitions have been presented at Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff (2017); ODD Gallery, Dawson City (2016); Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon (2014); Wanuskewin Heritage Park, Saskatoon (2014); Dunlop Art Gallery, Regina (2013); and Gallery 101, Ottawa (2012). Arcand has served Chair of the Board of Directors for PAVED Arts and was a co-founder of the Red Shift Gallery, a contemporary Aboriginal art gallery in Saskatoon. She was founder and editor of the Indigenous art magazine, kimiwan (2012-2014), and recently curated Language of Puncture at Gallery 101.
John G. Hampton is a curator and artist currently living in Treaty 2 territory, Manitoba. He is the Executive Director of the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba and Adjunct Curator at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto. He holds a Masters of Visual Studies – Curatorial Studies (2014) from the University of Toronto, and a BA in Visual Arts (2009) from the University of Regina. He is the former Artistic Director of Trinity Square Video (2013-2016) and Curator at Neutral Ground Contemporary Art Forum (2010-2013). He currently sits on the board of directors for the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective and the Whitehead Foundation, and is a member of the Canadian Art Museum Directors Organization and the Aboriginal Education Council for OCAD University. He is a citizen of Canada, the United States, and the Chickasaw Nation.
SPACE is a series of commissioned works for the billboard space on the side of Mercer Union. Joi T. Arcand’s kiya itako (be you) and the accompanying text by John Hampton have been commissioned in collaboration with MOCA Toronto. The project consists of sister text pieces that dialogue across the two sites.
Image: Joi T. Arcand, Northern Pawn, South Vietnam, 2009. Digital photograph. Collection of Saskatchewan Arts Board. Courtesy the artist.