This is an excerpt of the speech delivered by Reneltta Arluk to The Global Cafe during last month’s Edinburgh International Festival.
Aaqana, Atira. I am director of Indigenous Arts at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. For those of you who don’t know, Banff Centre is an Arts-based educational institution that was founded on Stoney-Nakoda, Blackfoot and Tsuu T’ina, Treaty 7 territory in the beautiful Rocky Mountains of Alberta, Canada. My position used to be a sessional position, but in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it is a full-time position offering year round Indigenous-led programming throughout all Art disciplines. Big leap, big challenges, big learnings, some inequities. One being, creating space for Indigenous-led practice in the bigger, non-Indigenous institution is all of the exciting. Working with colleagues and staff at various levels of awareness of why Indigenous-led programming is relevant.
Cultural safety is a concept that emerged in the late 1980s as a health focused framework for Maori in New Zealand. It defines cultural safety as, “an environment that is spiritually, socially and emotionally safe, as well as physically safe for people; where there is no denial of their identity, of who they are and what their needs are.” I like this concept because it aims to provide a safe held space for all people to fully engage themselves fully. To bring their best creative selves into the room. With that comes a responsibility to create and offer that space. How do I do that? More important, how do I do that with integrity, generosity and inclusivity?
One way that has been quite valuable is rooting it through my cultural teachings. Inuvialuit are Western Arctic Inuit from the Northwest Territories who have a high regard for curiosity, resourcefulness, patience, kindness and ability. An appreciation of individuals who are successful at whatever they do, who are responsible, keep their word and are modest. These cultural principles are what I strive to live by albeit not perfectly, patience being one of them, but it does help me problem solve and trust that the work I am doing creatively or administratively is connected to an Indigenous, specifically Inuvialuit practice. This is my contribution to the reconnection from disconnection. Or decolonization. However you would like to describe it. I am, as an Indigenous person, doing it. Thankfully, I am not the only one. We, The People, are rising and our voices are uniting, regionally, nationally and globally. Our voices are echoing through the cracks of walls. They are shaking loose the boards and sailing the currents. Our hearts beat as the drum beats, deep vibrations into the Earth. Heard.
There is momentum in what has been coined an “Indigenous Renaissance.” What I see, it is an Awakening. All our people, in all our communities are standing up together. Standing up and demanding clean running water, protesting against pipelines, gathering as water protectors, biking long distances bringing awareness to youth suicide, painting hands over mouths in response to the silencing of murdered and missing Indigenous women, calling out racism on video and posting it on social media, hash tagging #Sealfie for the right to hunt seal, harvesting medicines and scraping moose-hides, sewing once traded beads into exquisite art, we are taking back the names of our Indigenous lands and waters and reclaiming ourselves. We are becoming full again, whole again. We have taken the language forced on us, on our parents, on our parents’ parents, to tell our own stories our own way. So, I humbly suggest to get out of the way. We tell them better anyway. Without permission and oppression. It is time to take away the colonial lens and set our stories free.
“Fear, noun, an unpleasant emotion or thought that you have when you are frightened or worried by something dangerous, painful, or bad that is happening or might happen.“ The Cambridge Dictionary. That is a word I hear a lot. Fear. I also hear, “How?” “How can I …” and “I’m afraid to …”. One is an opening, one is a closing. Both are vulnerable. Both are valid. I offer you, to keep asking yourself “How can I?” and “What are you afraid of?” in regards to creating autonomous space for Indigenous artists to work freely in your institutions, organizations, theatres, galleries, libraries. Are you afraid of getting it wrong? News flash! You will get it wrong. Do it anyway. By telling yourself you need to get it right actually stops you from doing anything at all.
“Apathy noun, behaviour that shows no interest or energy and shows that someone is unwilling to take action, especially over something important.” The Cambridge Dictionary. Fear and apathy are barriers when it comes to reconciliation. Racism as well. Apathy is a form of anxiety caused from fear and inaction. When you feel that way, I challenge you to ask yourself “Why?” This takes to heart two Inuvialuit teachings: curiosity, and being a responsible individual.
Responsibility. You have it. We (Indigenous) cannot move forward together unless you (non-Indigenous) acknowledge your truth in our shared history. Reclaim that and we (All) will rise. When I look at the systematic ways Indigenous peoples have had to navigate, guide, heal, feed, propel, protest, mediate, deny, defy, instill, educate, starve, beg, fight, endure, pray, negotiate and rebel against the systems that were built to assimilate. This historical practice of undoing needs to end so we can rise as a country.
One of our teachings is to offer food and tea when someone comes to visit. It could be said, ”Look where that got us!” In contrast, colonialism and oppression were not invented in Canada. It already existed, and your ancestors fled their homelands to make a better life for themselves elsewhere. Many settled. Some even got real cozy with our women and created the Métis! I was in my hotel in Edinburgh working on this late into the evening and there was fiddle music playing at a venue across the street. It was familiar and I was comforted by it. My grandfather, who was not my real grandfather but did raise me, he was a proud Métis. Being here makes me think of him. He would have liked to have been here I bet, to see where some of his ancestors originated. I imagine the laughter shared.
Mahsi cho, Quyanaq. Thank you to the Edinburgh International Festival and to the incredible people who put this event together. I am grateful – and that’s all I got.
Reneltta Arluk is an Inuvialuit, Dene and Cree woman originally from the Northwest Territories
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