Reconciling what it means to be a contemporary Indigenous artist : Joanna Barker on her experience at Flotilla
Just over a week before Flotilla, I drafted and deleted about five different emails to Philippa at Eastern Edge. In them, I explained to her why I couldn’t attend the event in PEI anymore.
I was convinced I had nothing to say worth sharing. And I was feeling as though I wasn’t Indigenous enough to take up space being held for Indigenous artists. I was feeling like an
But as bad as I am for bailing on plans, I couldn’t back out of this. Not without a real excuse outside of insecurity.
And so, I packed my things for PEI. Still feeling a little anxious come travel day, I reminded myself to remove myself from the center of my experience and to take every opportunity to listen, learn and grow.
The three artists I collaborated with on our presentation and panel were Meagan Musseau, Lindsay Dobbin and Shannon Webb-Campbell. Apart from one preliminary google hangout, the
four of us had never sat in the same room together before.
Before meeting up on PEI, we had decided that our SHEDtalk would look more like a traditional
talking circle, with each of us positioned around the circle representing both an element and a
cardinal direction. The idea of sitting in a straight line and passing a microphone didn’t support
what it was we wanted to create with the space we were given. We also wanted to challenge the
presence of a formal audience and speaker. We wanted our voices to carry alongside of those
who chose to come listen and share with us. A circle allowed for all of this.
I’ve participated in many panels and group conversations, and have met some incredible and
inspiring people in doing so. But never before have I bonded so deeply with all participants in a
project like this. I don’t think any of us would have guessed that come the final day on PEI, we’d
all be scrambling to spend every last possible minute together before going our separate ways.
Let alone, texting ‘i miss you’ to each other come the days immediately following Flotilla.
We were brought together as artists at a talk, and to launch a new project. Now, we are like
siblings and what we share is sacred.
We finished each other’s sentences. We read each other’s minds. We were in each other’s
dreams. We understood and challenged each other, and were moved to tears by the vulnerable
space we shared.
The day of our SHEDtalk, we barely left each other’s sides. We shared a meal by the ocean. We
swam at sunset. We told stories and laughed. We told more and cried. We danced on the
Floating Warren. And at the end of the day, when the pavilion crowd dispersed and the stars were
out, we all used our hands on the one drum and played together. When we stopped and looked
out over the water, a great blue heron took flight from the shore near us.
Bear in mind, that this coming together we experienced as friends and Indigenous artists
happened in a city obsessed with Canada’s colonial history. Ever so often, some Indigenous
pattern would catch our eye as it flickered on a building or in a window. And almost always, they
were presented in a historical context, “before Canada”. The very room we held our circle in had
John A. MacDonald’s face plastered to the wall. Our ability and determination to support and
strengthen each other in that space was an act of resilience.
For me, the friendship I found in Shannon, Meagan and Lindsay stemmed from the common
thread in our individual stories as contemporary indigenous artists. We were given the unique gift
of being encouraged to uncover and explore this thread, closely examining how it relates to each
other, our art and us. I experienced a sense of validation in hearing their stories, and in their nodding heads saying, ‘yes, I understand’ when I shared mine. I saw new value in connecting with your people who share your story. For us, that is a story of having both settler and indigenous heritage and creating art influenced by your whole self. Our
story has conflict, both internal and interpersonal, as we work to reconcile what it means and feels like to be a contemporary indigenous artist, with what is expected of you.
Our time together both inspired and fueled me. I am now standing in a circle of peers. And going forward, whenever I feel like I’m not enough, I reach out to them and they are there for me.
I was scared to attend Flotilla. But I left PEI with the courage, tools, patience and peers to fight
the very fear that nearly held me back.
JOANNA BARKER Joanna Barker is a songwriter and musician of Innu, Mi’kmaq, Irish and British ancestry and a member of Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation. Her album, February, was nominated for two Music NL awards and shortlisted for the Atlantis Music Prize. Currently living in St John’s, Joanna is the Programming Director at Girls Rock NL and the Co-Director of St. John’s Women in Music (SWIM). For the past three years, Joanna has been working as a Research Assistant with Dr. Jocelyn Thorpe (University of Manitoba) on an oral history project of Newfoundland Mi’kmaw perspectives on the past.
Posted October 31, 2017