The Power of Indigenous Print and The Power of Indigenous Refusal


by Laura Grier

I often find myself reflecting on how much Indigenous words have influenced my ways of thinking and making. I am filled with feelings of gratitude as I study influential Indigenous thinkers and scholars, who have helped me to clarify and hold on to ideas I have been thinking through. I look towards Anishnaabe Kwe scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and her book, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance, which has helped me understand more of what I have been experiencing and conceptualizing in regards to Indigenous knowledge, responsibility, and the Indigenous artist. Knowledge is not something you can own. It is fluid, it is a gift, it is collective, it has a past, a present, and a future. What I have come to know, through many great Indigenous peers, leaders, mentors, and elders, is that you have to work for your knowledge. Their knowledge also came from those before them, and it is our responsibility to hold on to our knowledges, as well as our responsibility to consider what to do with it.

I firmly believe that we can create change through art. By activating an artist’s ability to problem solve, real radical solutions can be created. However, until we have a world where Indigenous languages and knowledges systems are taught, and Indigenous knowledges are properly and respectfully accessed, we cannot do this work together.

Laura Grier, Hı̨dǝ nę́nę́ Screen Print, 2019

I hope that this piece of writing can offer a small foundation for audiences to consider print works by Indigenous artists. We are resilient people and I am more than willing to share my knowledge with you, but only if you are ready to truly receive it.

Printmaking holds on to power and it has been what I hold on to when life gets dark.

I’m drawn to Printmaking as it has been a way to release my various anxieties and energies. Anxieties which build and stretch out while I try to cope with my circumstances, pasts, and possible futures. I also use printmaking as a vessel for Indigenous Bets’ı̨nę́ (Spirit). Bets’ı̨nę́ refers to the human spirit and goes beyond any western concept of Spirituality. This Dene knowledge is key to how I see and approach printmaking. Bets’ı̨nę́ is a living entity, it is multi-layered, and I am still learning its presence. The print process can be a tool to tell a story, and the Spirit drives a type of power, which I see most clearly in acts of Indigenous resistance. As an Indigenous printmaker, I often grapple with making something that might reveal the knowledges I have been gifted. Indigenous knowledge(s) are earned. This stands in contrast to much of the western art systems, which is the attitude of “you make, you show”. Because of this western approach, Indigenous work is then at risk of being misinterpreted and homogenized, and the Indigenous artist is at risk of being harmed.

I then look towards my Indigenous Print Elders for guidance and who have inspired me to stay on the path of this medium. Indigenous Print Elders are, from my perspective, Indigenous artists whose work has at some point explored, or utilized printmaking. They carry an Indigenous way of making to the printmaking ethos. They are makers we can learn from, makers who inspire, makers whose knowledges are embodied in their prints. Indigenous printmakers like Dylan Miner and the artistic collaborative duo Isaac Murdoch and Christi Belcourt carry forms of resistance within their work. These artists balance the urgency of political resistance and activism with collective Indigeneity, and they are pushing the front lines of Indigenous political and artistic resistance. These artists are also challenging institutions of power and battling colonial structures. The work done by our Elders and Art Elders is allowing my generation to step into a new space of dialogue and change; space where Indigenous knowledges can perhaps be understood and activated.

When I study Dylan Miner’s work, who has placed their own Indigenous Michif and Nishnaabmemwin languages in their prints, I understand that their relation to language is an inherent knowledge system and a way of honouring ancestors. When Dylan translates knowledge in their art work it creates grounds for understanding and accessibility. However, how I have come to know or see Dylan’s work is certainly different from a non-native white settler. Our lived experiences, and Indigeneity allows for a particular connectivity, which may never translate to non-native audiences.

When I witness Christi Belcourt and Isaac Murdoch’s activist banner projects in solidarity protests, I see strong resilient stories. Stories which carry lessons and truths. The artists carry the responsibilities of a storyteller, who share their words and stories so that we may learn from them. Christi and Isaac’s own inherent responsibility to the land has led to the creation of a strong series of visual communication from the perspective of Indigenous land protectors. By taking on the responsibilities of storytellers, they make sure to give back to communities through activism, youth camps, and collaboration.

Yet, part of responsibility is determining whether certain knowledges are ready to be shared. I have learnt that a story doesn’t belong to the storyteller, but it belongs to the people. But how do we start telling our stories in a world still engrained in colonial hegemonic mentalities? Perhaps, for now, we don’t have to.

So, what is Refusal? Refusal in Indigenous art can mean various strategies and pathways, but I am interested in how Indigenous knowledges should not be subjected to the constraints of the western art system. I was born in Somba Ke (Yellowknife) as a Délı̨nę First Nation. I was displaced from our territory at a young age and was brought up without knowing our languages or our Dene philosophies. I have survived many forms of colonial violence and de-stabilization, but my Indigenous resilience has pushed me forward. My experience is not uncommon, but it should be acknowledged that the time, energies, and sacrifices made for many contemporary Indigenous artists to be here, to have a platform, is great.

When I refuse, I see it as an act of resistance to the various systems that want our knowledges, yet rarely do they take on the type of responsibility needed to understand our creative work. When art work is shown with Indigenous languages in particular, it is hard to communicate the complexities embedded within the intricate knowledge system that is language. Many of us are still learners, and some of us have seldom had the chance to learn from our own communities. The Residential Schools did damage to our shared spoken Indigenous languages and realities.

The devastation from colonialism cut me, but inherited responsibility and Spirit have driven me to seek out my Sahtúot’ı̨nę Yatı̨́ (North Slavey language). Indigenous languages, such as Sahtúot’ı̨nę Yatı̨́, are difficult and complex, and come with many meanings and expressions. Refusal, to me, is refusing to give up knowledges which I have been gifted and refusing to translate those knowledges for people who have not done the work required. My print work is now focused on creating pieces for Indigenous artists; in particular Indigenous Printmakers. An Indigenous artist looking at my work may start to recognize ideas like relational connectivity and land-related concepts. Even further, an Indigenous Printmaker may look at my mark making, and start to see the type of story I am trying to tell them through the marks.

“In moving from individual acts of resurgence to connecting with networks of resurgence, coded communication and articulation are important because they protect the network from cooption, exploitation, and manipulation, and the sovereignty of the network remains in the hands of its Indigenous makers. This is perhaps one of the greatest lessons I continually learn from Indigenous artists: coded disruptions and affirmative refusal through the use of Indigenous aesthetic Practices.” –Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

My work was often translated into English, but I am finding more and more that the English language falls short of the intricacies of Indigenous stories and words. Each word I find in my Indigenous languages is like finding a new relative, a new connection, and that maybe, it was waiting for me too. I am so moved by my Indigenous language because our languages carry deep multilateral power. It can be difficult to show this work as my experience is that my prints are then overlooked, merely glanced at, and rarely discussed. How I see and love, like really love, and hold on to a word or a mark, may never be properly acknowledged or understood by certain audiences. Finally, I want to recognise that my current position and views on refusal are fluid and dependent on how we continuously shape the future. However, my message to fellow Indigenous artists will always remain, and it is that you shouldn’t have to give more of yourself than necessary just to appease western audiences who may, or may not, come to truly understand you, your realities, and your work. Mahsi cho

Header image: Laura Grier, Performance, 2019

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