“I am tied to my ancestors, we are tied to the land,” Secwépemc artisit Tania Willard tells Broken Boxes.
With her Indigenous identity at the centre of her art and curations, Willard’s art becomes an act of resurgence. Revitalizing connections to land, culture and family, Willard’s art intersects with the United Nations Sustainability Goals of Life on Land and Reduced Inequalities.
In the face of mounting environmental pressure as a result of European industrialization of Indigenous land, Caribou Renaissance, Diffraction of Light and Land, Vestige and Carrying Memories of the Land, is a call for action towards stronger conservation efforts. Also with reference to the colonial conquest, Anthro(a)pologizing and Snowbank and Other Investments illuminate the dark truth behind the law and policy that has shaped the subjugation of Indigenous groups.
In a short series of eerie images depicting caribou hunting, Caribou Renaissance instills a sense of urgent responsibility in its viewers. The overlaying text: , “For the gray ghosts…Yecwimínte…for the thousands taken,” adds to the dreary tone and invites viewers to a moment of self-reflection. “Yecwimínte/Xyemstwécw” translating from Secwépemc to “taking care of the land”, juxtaposing an image of a caribou carcass washing away with the current of the river forces viewers to ask themselves if they are doing enough to fulfil their responsibility as caretakers of the land. However dark and direct Willard’s tone, entitling the piece as a “renaissance” is a hopeful ode to restoring the Earth’s biodiversity. With her use of dark imagery she inspires viewers to take action themselves but also to demand their institutions to take action towards reducing habitat degradation and preventing the extinction of threatened species.
In a book titled, Secwépemc People, Land, and Laws by Marianne Ignace, professor of linguistics and First Nation studies at Simon Fraser University, and Ronald E Ignace, Secwépemc historian, retell history from the perspective of Secwépemc elders. “Their stories and the place names they remembered told of places where they had camped, enjoyed the landscape, picked berries, and accompanied their husbands, uncles, aunts, and grandparents to fish for salmon and to hunt for deer, caribou, and moose,” they write.
The elders recount on days of abundance, prior to the exploitation of their land and resources. The destruction of the forest habitat not only dispossessed the people but, as depicted in Caribou Renaissance, our non-human counterparts suffered massive loss as well. Currently, mountain caribou native to British Columbia and Alberta are an endangered species. As of February 2020, when the caribou population reached dwindling numbers, B.C. partnered with the First Nations communities to protect endangered species. A people, culture, and knowledge that was once thought to be “backwards” and out of the realm of Western institutions is being revived, as can be seen here with the Caribou conservation in B.C.
Art and research like Willard’s acts like a catalyst for such partnerships. By bringing Indigenous knowledge and environmental practices into the mainstream, a future where the land can be as abundant and vibrant as it is described by Scewépemc elders can be imagined once again.
Diffraction of Light and Land is another piece that targets ecosystem restoration. Clay sculptures of aerosol cans with “respect land” painted on them send a straightforward message. Similarly, Vestige and Carrying Memories of the Land makes references to the unsustainable land use that came with the colonial occupation. A tobacco leaf with an overlay reading, “A memory as smoke, a memory as medicine,” refers to the way in which the traditional sacred use of tobacco became commercialized after the colonial expansion.
For thousands of years, tobacco was central to various healing and spiritual practices of several First Nations groups. Used to treat asthma, toothaches, earaches, and other illnesses, as well as a means for spiritual purification and cleansing, tobacco use in Indigenous society is far more nuanced and complex than its use for your average Marlboro smoker.
The European industrialization of tobacco, taking this once revered plant and turning it into a plantation crop, was another method of Indigenous subjugation. The industrialization of tobacco removed the Indigenous connection to the plant and in its place created a multi-billion dollar industry profiting off of nicotine addiction and the misuse of Indigenous land. In Vestige and Carrying Memories of the Land, Willard attempts to reconstitute this connection once again. By placing her Indigeneity at the core of her work, Willard revives a knowledge system and meanings attached to the land that have been repressed at the peak of capitalism and mass consumerism. Reclaiming connections to land becomes a means for Indigenous liberation while simultaneously combating desertification and reversing land degradation.
Similar to the way in which meanings attached to the land were altered by colonial influence, meanings Indigenous peoples attached to themselves became massively distorted. The 1876 Indian Act introduced policies such as residential schools, renaming individuals with European names, and a plethora of other racist and regressive laws that instilled a deep seated sense of inferiority under the gaze of the European colonizer. These laws however would not have the legitimacy and impact that they did had they not been supported by the study of anthropology. Anthropology in its early stages was a means by which these colonial practices were justified and maintained for years following the occupation.
Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto by Vine Deloria Jr describes this concept in depth. The trend of anthropology in the 1960’s was for anthropologists to visit First Nation reserves, make observations, yet maintain distance from the settlers. This phenomenon is touched on in Willard’s 2018 piece entitled Anthro(a)pologizing.
Anthropology became an imposition of European knowledge that functioned to reinforce policy changes, referenced in Snowbank and Other Investments 2020-2022, that supported Indigenous assimilation. In response, Willard’s Anthro(a)pologizing 2018 urges viewers to recognize the study of anthropology’s hand in the subjugation of Indigenous peoples and the loss of Indigenous culture so that such histories of subjugation are not repeated and appropriate reparations can be made, “reducing inequalities and ensuring no one is left behind."
Willard’s work is particularly relevant when thinking about the present state of the environment. With wildfires taking over Maui, Northern Alberta, and British Columbia it is crucial that immediate action be taken towards improving life of land. Reviving Indigenous connection to land will not only fortify conservation practices but will also function to make reparations for the culture forcibly taken away by colonial land occupation.