WELCOME TO THE ENGLISH GRADUATE PROGRAM AT SFU

This past summer I took part in site/ation, an Indigenous Art Summer Intensive taught by Tania Willard at UBC-Okanagan. Running for the month of July, the course featured guest talks by such luminaries as curator Candice Hopkins, dancer Tanya Lukin-Linklater, poet Jordan Abel, artist Marianne Nicolson, as well as visits to local gallery exhibitions, studio time, and even a concert by the Snotty Nose Rez Kids (see photo). I learned a great deal about land-based aesthetics and politics and the relationship between Indigenous art and questions of the Anthropocene. And I also learned, again, about what it is to be a student. I had to apply to UBC to be an “unclassified” student in order to register for the course, so I had the happy (?) task of dealing with 21st century university bureaucracies – getting transcripts from institutions that, in my case, I had not attended in decades (York University for my PhD – I defended my diss in 1994); navigating online systems with yet more passwords, fees, and arcane deadlines and regulations. So even before I began the course, I became very much aware of the hurdles that graduate students face on a daily basis – as my namesake (Bill Clinton), was fond of saying, “I feel your pain.”

Then, when the class began, I had the experience of seeing a graduate course from the other side of the laptop – the morning of the first day, I read on Canvas that there would be “quick presentations” at the class. Absurdly, even though I was not taking the course for credit, I felt a pang of anxiety – how do I sum up my reasons/interests in thinking about Indigenous art making? Will I be up to date with the readings on extractive scholarship and dark ecologies? How do I dial back my propensities for “white mansplaining” (as my partner is fond of saying, since I am a professor, mansplaining feeds my family)? Many of these anxieties were alleviated not only by Tania, who was/is somehow gracious, generous, and whip-smart all at once; but also by my fellow students, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who all taught me much about how to listen and how to learn and how to contribute; and, indeed, by the “site,” a ramshackle building on the edge of the UBCO campus, from which we went on walks around the land, somehow finding Syilx territory “beneath the paving stones,” to adapt a Jeff Derksen poem, of the university.

The course came to be made up of three features: classes during which we would discuss readings but also, crucially, go out onto the land and observe the terrain; a weekly keynote followed by a panel discussion of emerging and established Indigenous artists, writers, and curators; and ancillary events, including readings at a record store, openings at galleries in Kelowna, Penticton, and farther afield, and classes held at the beach or at campsites.

The readings – from Marisa Gomez-Barris on “extractive scholarship” to Timothy Morton on “dark ecologies” and John Borrows on land-based legal education – were all compelling (ok, I’m being polite – Morton left me cold). Perhaps the most profound was the so-called Laurier Memorial, an address to the Canadian Prime Minister when he came through British Columbia in 1910 on a politicking train procession. Composed by leaders from the Secwépemc, Nlaka’pamux, and Syilx Nations, the document, a historian’s note tells us, “came on the heels of Interior Peoples’ [the Secwépemc, Nlaka’pamux, and Syilx] escalating dispossession at the hands of settlers and the [government] policies that sanctioned them,” and a recent report which “acknowledged that B.C.’s Aboriginal Peoples had been unfairly and illegally dispossessed since time immemorial”. In the Memorial proper, the chiefs provided Laurier with a history lesson that was also a geography lesson. Describing when European settlers arrived in the area in the mid 19th century:

When they first came among us there were only Indians here. They found the people of each tribe supreme in their own territory, and having tribal boundaries known and recognized by all. The country of each tribe was the same as a very large farm or ranch (belonging to all the people of the tribe) from which they gathered their food and clothing, etc., fish which they got in plenty for food, grass and vegetation on which their horses grazed and the game lived, and much of which furnished materials for manufactures, etc., stone which furnished pipes, utensils, and tools, etc., trees which furnished firewood, materials for houses and utensils, plants, roots, seeds, nuts and berries which grew abundantly and were gathered in their season just the same as crops on a ranch, and used for food; minerals, shells, etc., which were used for ornament and for plants, etc., water which was free to all.

So this history was the context when I went to see the Snotty Nose Rez Kids at the Rotary Centre in Kelowna (including a great opening piece by Soleil Launiere), this was the geography for driving south to see Sheldon Louis’ paintings at the Penticton Art Gallery and driving north to see a show on pottery at the Kamloops Art Gallery (after stopping for a dip in the lake on the Secwépemc First Nation), this history was a context for hearing Tanya Lukin-Linklater present her choreography for a rain gut parka and the care for that belonging, this was the context for canning salmon, guided by Peter Morin and his Tahltan technique, this was going to the beach on ukʷnaqín lake and discussing “submerged epistemologies,” this was hearing Elder Richard Armstrong discuss Syilx cosmologies.

A few hours after listening to Marianne Nicholson discuss land and water sovereignty and the Hexsa’a̱m: To Be Here Always exhibition, I drove down to the coast, leaving, for now, the Okanagan valley for the rainforest. What I had read and learned and listened to was already soaking into my writing and thinking. For an hour or two, as I drove up to the Coquihalla Summit, the hills were still brown. Then the land turned green, and I drove towards, and past, Hope.

 

Clint Burnham

Professor of English and Chair of the Graduate Program