Artist Christi Belcourt on Kindness and Sacred Earth

Christi Belcourt is a Michif (Métis) visual artist who generously donated the 2019 Bioneers Conference artwork, Prayers and Offerings for Genebek Ziibiing (Serpent River). Belcourt is an esteemed artist and activist whose deeply moving work celebrates the beauty of the natural world and traditional Indigenous world-views. Her artwork spans a range of mediums and is collected privately and publicly around the world. Among her most iconic works are the Water Is Life images that she and artist Isaac Murdock collaborated on for the protest banners at Standing Rock. In 2016 her collaboration and resulting transformative piece with Italian designer Valentino, made global news and established best practices for countering the appropriation of Indigenous art.

Cara Romero, Director of the Indigeneity Program at Bioneers and a renowned photographer in her own right, spoke with Christi Belcourt recently about her art and activism.

CARA ROMERO:  Would you share with us where you’re from, about your community, and a little bit about what it’s like?

Christi Belcourt

CHRISTI BELCOURT: I’m Michif from the Métis Nation. My people come from a place called Lac Ste Anne but before it was renamed Lac Ste Anne the original name was Manitou Sahkahigan, which means spirit lake. It’s a very spiritual place where people go to pilgrimage every year. It is a community that is around a lake and a shared space with the Métis people, First Nations people, and non-native people who live around that lake. It’s a place where, unfortunately, I don’t have any land because through the years of colonization and the stealing of Indigenous land, Métis people like my community were left without a land base. There are only eight small Métis settlements in the province of Alberta, and you have to be a member of those settlements to be able to live on them. So by and large, the Métis Nation has become a landless people, in the sense that we have no legal lands left because the government has managed to take them all.

As we’ve seen throughout history, Indigenous lands are being swindled even today through land claim settlements which offer money instead of land. Every single year there is less and less Indigenous land. I believe that the government’s ultimate goal is to remove all Indigenous People from their lands completely, to remove their rights over their territories, and to get every last inch of land absorbed into Canada in a way that gives Indigenous Peoples no rights to say yes or no to development on their lands.

CARA: One thing that your art does is demonstrate Indigenous resilience in the face of this oppression, and your ways of being demonstrate cultural resilience. Can you talk about where the Michif of Métis Nation is in the face of all this, while keeping together cultural transmission?

CHRISTI: I think that within all Indigenous Nations, we have amazing people who do the work of the grassroots at the grassroots level, who continue to maintain the traditional knowledge and maintain their connections to the land. Because our governance structures have been usurped by foreign governing structures – such as Band Council elections, our Métis Nation organization elections. These structures are are not really leading at the grassroots level in terms of transmitting traditional knowledge.

There is this amazing movement of people all across North America who are working really hard, without notice, without acknowledgement, to maintain their traditions and their languages, and they’re doing this through small groups, through one-on-one apprenticeships, and through just simply being on the land and picking the medicines, and learning their language, and tanning a hide. All of these are acts of resilience in the face of what we’re facing. I see this great movement, a silent movement, where there is this massive resurgence to reclaim and restore those things that we hold dear to us in terms of our nation and our culture and our values, which are all connected to the land.

Our Lives are in the Land by Christi Belcourt

CARA: You’re known for what I call “artivism,” bringing positive impacts to our Indigenous communities through increased visibility, that beautiful thing that art can bring. You obviously do more than that as an artist, but can you talk a little bit about how you found your way to becoming an artivist, and your philosophy behind making art that gives back to your community?

CHRISTI: That’s such a big question. I don’t know if I have a philosophy. [LAUGHS]. I like the word artivism, by the way, I think that’s really cool.

What I really believe is that the thing that’s going to move us and raise up the level of consciousness as human beings is that we really have to be able to see our connection to the Earth, and see this Earth as a living, breathing, sacred being, which is connected to us and us to her, both on a physical and cellular level, as well as a spiritual level. Human beings have been led to believe that we’re at the top of this pyramid, that we are dominant over the Earth, that the Earth is here for our taking, and we’ve commodified everything. When we switch our thinking into believing that the water is alive, that the trees have their own life and their own territories, that the animals have their own territories, and when we start to walk really gently and softly on the Earth because we see this Earth as a sacred living being, then it changes and raises up the consciousness of how we need to be on this Earth. So less is truly more.

I also believe that kindness is the most important of all actions. It’s really difficult in this world, where we’re inundated with a level of violence seems to be permeating everything. It’s causing a lot of us to feel traumatized through the images that we’re seeing. There’s a lot of stress and fear. Somehow, we have to switch that around. What is the antidote to greed? Generosity. What is the antidote to being mean? Kindness. Kindness is an action that people can take in their daily life. I feel like taking that action can really change this world around, because when you’re kind to even the plants, let’s say, then you walk really softly on this Earth. When you’re kind to the waters, you don’t pollute. When you’re kind to the Earth, you don’t throw things out your window and pollute. You don’t buy plastics as much. You really try to change things around for yourself and for your community.

There’s great work that can be done at the community level. I believe that trying to do things at a huge level, trying to change masses of people won’t come about from the top down, it has to come from the bottom up. We have to do the work with our community at the grassroots level to cultivate this consciousness and awareness. I think as Indigenous People we have that and it’s something that we can share with non-Indigenous people. The level of consciousness of the human species has to be raised up to see the Earth as a living, sacred being, and that’s going to make a really big difference.

I guess that’s my philosophy: Kindness and Sacred Earth.

Thunderbird Woman by Isaac Murdoch and Christi Belcourt

CARA : I like that. Everything has a ripple-out effect from there. That’s a beautiful starting place.

When we asked if we could pay for the usage rights for your image, you made a special request, that instead of paying you usage rights, that we, Bioneers, donate those funds to a language project in your community, the Onaman Collective. Can you tell us about that language camp?

CHRISTI: Onaman Collective is the language camp we started two-and-a-half years ago, within the territory where I live, which is Anishinaabek territory (I’m not living currently within my own territory.) But this is an Anishinabek camp that is a year-round, land-based language and traditional teaching camp. It’s for youth and elders, and we haven’t received or accepted any government funds, so all of our fundraising has been done at the grassroots level. So far we’ve got six cabins and a couple other buildings and some lodges for ceremonial purposes, and a beautiful garden that we started this year.

What we’re trying to do is create a safe space for people to come and learn the language, to create art, and to learn traditional skills on the land, and traditional arts in a very relaxed, non-programmed format. We’re trying to get away from the idea of doing weekend workshops, and really trying to encourage a longer-term experience with regaining some of the traditional knowledge and reconnecting with the land for people. A longer term experience means that rather than just making a basket where somebody harvested the materials for you on a weekend, we’re saying let’s go harvest the materials year round. Let’s learn what that is really like. Let’s learn the language around that. Let’s learn all of the Ojibwe language around that activity. Let’s learn from the elders what they did when they were children. Let’s learn this on a deeper level so that we can really, truly pass these skills and knowledge on to our next generation so that the youth become the language bundle carriers, they become the traditional knowledge carriers, that they can really carry this forward.

I’m old enough that I’m lucky enough to have had elders when I was younger that had grown up and lived in the bush and understood all of these things. We need to be able to give these skills – the language, the ceremonial knowledge, the spiritual knowledge of the land, and the philosophy – we need to be able to give the worldview to the youth in a way that it becomes a sacred bundle that they carry forward so that when they become elders, they’re able to then pass that on to the next generation after them.

CARA: That is so powerful. I’m just in awe of that philosophy, and wish that we had something like that in my own community, a year-round process for gathering the materials and knowing when to get out there, knowing the words, and then realizing that the language is deeply rooted in our cultural landscapes. That’s a really powerful thing for the youth to be able to garner from a camp. It’s a really whole and healing approach to what I call cultural transmission.

CHRISTI: Start it up. Start it up.

CARA: Like you, I grew up at a time it was different. There was less TV, there was less distraction from just sitting around. Right? [LAUGHS] We were learning some of these things just by osmosis, being near people that had grown up in a different time period, and more attached to the landscape. Just honoring that whole story is amazing.

Can you tell us what you’re up to now and what you’re doing next?

Honouring My Spirit Helpers by Christi Belcourt

CHRISTI: We have a dream of building an art studio/language learning space at the camp. Right now we have cabins, but we have no large space where people can gather and work on large projects, like building a canoe or put a quilting frame up. The youth have asked for a dedicated space for the language where they can have a little library and a classroom. We’re working on fundraising for that. That’s probably our last big push for the camp in terms of building.

We have a number of gatherings that we’re planning. We have storytelling in the wintertime. We’re going to be hunting and trapping, and we’re going to be having a hide-tanning camp. The youth want to do some more skills around traditional weaving, cedar mat weaving and bulrush weaving, making baskets and mats. We have another youth that wants to do ash baskets, so she’s going to be bringing in an elder to teach that. We have a number of language lessons planned.  There’s always something in the works there, which is exciting.

In terms of my own art, I’ve just started painting again because I found some time to do that, which feels great. I’m starting to ruminate some things in my mind about artistic images that I might want to put out there according to what’s going on right now. You know, there’s the actions that are happening in Hawaii. A thing I’m spending a lot of time thinking about these days is the people that are trying to cross the southern border in the States and are being separated from their children, and the injustices and crimes against humanity that are happening right here on this continent, committed by the US government to the people who are Latinx people. It’s really hard being so far away, but I believe in prayers, and I believe in making our offerings. I believe that when we ask, there is a grand spirit world and a greater design here at work. I also believe that continuing the path of traditions is following our traditional knowledge in terms of our spirituality and ceremonies as well. It’s really important to use all the tools within our bundle — and that means our prayers and our offerings to the lands and the spirits of these lands as well, to ask them for help. I’m trying to think along those lines, what we can do to join with others to help the people that are being caged and to stop this genocide from happening.

Bring Our Children Home by Christi Belcourt

CARA: We’re going to be doing a panel on that in the Indigenous Forum at the Bioneers Conference this year. It’s an intergenerational panel with Indigenous folks from North and South, including some of the tribes right there on the border. We’ll talk about what it feels like as Indigenous Peoples to have that colonial divide between us causing an irreparable wound amongst our people. Hopefully, we can garner insight for how we can talk about that amongst ourselves. It’s always good to be able to articulate those issues, and then hopefully that resonates with the audience, that they’re able to think about those borderlands from an Indigenous perspective and realize how violent it is, and how it violates Indigenous sensibilities about that space. I think about that particular issue a lot too. It’s very painful, not only being far away, but it’s also very painful being so close to it.

I’m from Southern California, Mojave Desert. We have a lot of people who descend from both sides of the border, and are living proof of that we’re connected and humans are part of the ecosystem. You were talking earlier about being kind to the land. It’s just a painful ordeal that’s going on down there.

CARA: Finally, if people wanted to find out more about the camp and are moved to donate, how can they do that?

CHRISTI: It’s the Onaman Collective, and that’s the work that I do with Isaac Murdoch.

And we have a Facebook auction that runs for Onaman Collective Auction for Action which runs about four times a year. There’s just a whole bunch of ways. But the email is probably the easiest to contact us just to ask us questions or to donate:

CARA: Perfect, Christi. I feel really blessed to have had the opportunity to talk to you today, and I wish you the very best in all of your endeavors. Thank you for your generosity and your ways of being. You’re very inspirational to many artists. And just keep on keeping on.

CHRISTI: Oh, thank you so much. It’s been a real pleasure to speak with you. I hope one day we can meet in person. Thank you for using my art work for this initiative. I saw the poster. It was beautiful.

Of course, I wish you and everybody there all the best.

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