On indigenous people

Since I’m a newcomer to places like New Zealand, Australia, and Canada, I don’t harbor much of the shame of the colonialist past that many people who were raised in those countries do. As a foreign woman, I’ll happily stumble into places and stories that are verboten to locals. This is how a Maori leader ends up taking me on a tour of the iwi land his grandfather fought to recover in the 1970s during the protest of Bastion Point. This is how a Shinnecock gives me a totem animal and tells me stories of their ancestors while the tourists shop for trinkets and untaxed cigarettes.

French cousins make a trip to the Shinnecock visitor center, Eastern Long Island in 1982.

Perhaps due to this comfort with indigenous stories, I was happy to volunteer my time to learn a unit on Healing and Reconciliation and impart something to some elementary-school kids. I wanted to learn more about the relationship of First Nations people to our current structure in Canada.

We did some training. First, we acknowledged that we are on the ancestral and unceded territory of a particular people. Then, we explained our own culture and our place in it. Tough for me as a globe hopper, but I do have one consistent culture regardless of where I live: artist.

This ability to connect to other artists is one of the ways that I’ve been able to bridge some cultural divides. Artists can trespass into a lot of spaces. Here, my grandmother learns her craft in a room full of men in France in the 1930s.

I started out by telling the reconciliation training group that I had little experience with the indigenous people of the states where I’ve lived in the USA but then I recognized that this was not true. I’d grown up surrounded by indigenous faces, actually.

My artist grandmother had previously bridged the divide in order to paint. Of course, she was taking part in the colonial tradition of rendering people into cultural artifacts that we can hang in our parlor, but I think she also recognized the beauty of people when she traveled, such as when she went west to Navajo lands.

So I grew up surrounded by images of various indigenous people, not knowing to this day what country they’re pictured in.

Her living room with the cultural artifacts that includes statuary from Côte d’Ivoire and Hawaii.

You can see, there are masks and more native faces lining the halls of her home.

This girl would sometimes be in my bedroom.

This is how I knew her best, when she was in her 50s, chic and on the UES of New York with her poodle, Gigi.

Her home in the Hamptons decorated with more African statuary and a screen from China and a chair from Milan and a wall hanging from Taiwan. And so on and so forth. I believe the throw pillows are from Mexico. It’s hard to keep track.

The reflection in the window is classic NYC in the 70s — her paintings feature at Bergdorf Goodman.

The images of indigenous people surrounded me and yet I’d responded to the group that I didn’t really have a background of knowing First Nations people. The invisible people.

I’ve since learned some of what I should know local to my current neighborhood and the general history of Canadian residential schools. I’m glad to be aware of my part in erasing generations of people from their own land. Although I was born in a place that was absorbed by the Roman Empire long ago and hasn’t changed much in 2,000 years (we still make the good wine!), it’s important to acknowledge that I have also lived in many places that were stolen from original inhabitants.

Reconciliation is a process where first you have to admit you’ve been a thoughtless asshole.

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