by Sarena Johnson
June is National Indigenous History Month in Canada. And this week we saw a very public discourse around the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two Spirit People with the release of the National Inquiry Report on Monday. As an Indigenous woman, and as someone who uses Twitter for work, I found the ensuing racism online to be quite difficult. In reflecting on this experience and discourse in general, I would like to share a piece (‘Unnamed’) I created this past February at Fashioning Decolonization: Indigenous fashion hacking workshop by Ryerson Master of Fashion graduating student Presley Mills. Presley is showing the pieces from the workshop in a Collaborative Installation tonight, Thurs. June 6, at the Catalyst, FCAD, Ryerson University. Here is my statement about Unnamed:
The dress was a bridesmaid dress I was required to purchase and wear to a Catholic wedding. It’s very structured and formal, and in a way represents the prescribed limits of Indigenous women in a colonial patriarchal system. I had an image by Wyandot Elder Catherine Tammaro, sewn onto the bust by Presley Mills, Indigenous M.A. Fashion graduate student who led the Fashioning Decolonization workshop. The image was from custom art Tammaro created for Walking With Our Sisters, a large scale art installation and ceremonial bundle that has been travelling throughout Turtle Island for the last seven years, honouring the spirits of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two Spirit People. I was fortunate to volunteer for that project while it was in Toronto in 2017, and wanted to celebrate the art and the project instead of just keeping the t-shirt in a drawer.
The dress is floor length, ceremonial length, and I noticed the bottom of the skirt is dirty. I chose to keep that dirt there to illustrate the connection to the earth and resist societal judgements of perfection for women. I used the coyote face pelt to put a face to the furs that are mass produced and worn without intention, but mostly to acknowledge coyote as one form of a sacred Trickster spirit in Indigenous cultures. I remember my Lenape Grandmother, Marion Johnson, reading me Nanabush stories as a child, so Trickster, the wise fool and teacher, is very dear to me. There is one story where coyote loses his eyes so I had my own extracted teeth put on the pelt to literally give him eyes. Often when bodies of murdered Indigenous women are found, they are so decomposed that only dental records are able to confirm their identities, which is why I chose to use my own teeth. There were times it could have been me in the MMIWG2S stats. I also included some mink braid wraps that were my Aunt Marlene Finn’s when she first started powwow dancing. I wanted to include a family connection to the piece to remember my Nehiyaw Grandmother Marge Finn’s sister, Esther Wells, who was murdered in Saskatoon.
I put a deer on the coyote’s forehead, as Indigenous knowledges, art and women, have been constructed to be viewed as ‘prey’ throughout colonization. A current example is in the communities where pipelines are being constructed and the resultant camps of all male workers (man camps) literally attacking local Indigenous women and girls. There’s a link here to cannibalism and bell hooks’ concept of Eating the Other, where whitestream culture literally consumes difference. I also braided yarn to make a small belt – representing myself being one of three sisters, and linking back to the Walking With Our Sisters project. From this I hung a heart of coral, turquoise and lapis lazuli, all sacred stones, in the shape of love. Which, along with humanity, was denied for Indigenous women in the colonial construction of Canada as a nation state. For me, decolonization starts with identifying and healing those parts of our beliefs, that come from these external systems, that prevent us from being able to fully love ourselves.
Unnamed will be on display with Mills’ collaborative exhibition at the Catalyst until June 21.
Suggested reading on MMIWG2S: