2019 was proclaimed the International Year of Indigenous Languages by The United Nations. Initiatives around the world were created to promote the learning and preservation of Indigenous languages, as well as to raise awareness on the language rights of Indigenous people. 2019 also reminded the world that violence towards Indigenous people, their cultures and their land is ongoing. It is significant that an international organization such as the UN could create a platform for the experiences of Indigenous people worldwide this past year, and of course, events around Indigenous languages, cultures, and rights continue to be organized. (To view some events happening in and around Canada about Indigenous languages, see the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre Inc.’s website.)
Winnipeg is known for having the largest urban Indigenous population in Canada, yet there is only one artist-run centre dedicated to contemporary Indigenous art in the city’s rich cultural scene. On a November afternoon, I met up with Janell Henry, Assistant Curator at Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Art. We talked about the exhibition she curated, [shooger-koht-ed] / ZiizibaakwadAgoke / Ésíwinikátéki, which was held from June to July of 2019. It was part of a larger project called Sacred Sounds, created partially in response to 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Janell put together the exhibition as a way to address the sugar-coated language of reconciliation, and is continuing to organize Sacred Sounds at Urban Shaman. She shared her personal experiences with language and spoke to me about visibility and access regarding Indigenous languages. Through Sacred Sounds, Urban Shaman has been able to make Indigenous languages more visible, which has been meaningful to Janell as an organizer and as a gallery-goer. As a public space, I’m sure this project has been meaningful for many others in Winnipeg, too. Janell, being so warm and open, shared so much about how her youth and her family contributed to her involvement in music and art and it’s interesting to see how that carries on in her current projects. As you read on, I hope you chuckle to yourself here and there as I did when I revisited the recording of our conversation.
"...I wanted to bring these languages into institutions where it’s not the sole responsibility of the individual wanting to learn the language. It’s out there in the public [...] before this project I’d never seen big blocks of text that were in Cree[...]this seems like I have to do this, for younger generations, for myself and my kids--to see the language."
You and I had previously talked about an exhibition you curated at Urban Shaman this year, [shooger-koht-ed] / ZiizibaakwadAgoke / Ésíwinikátéki. You had mentioned there were other projects related to the exhibition. Can you tell me more about those projects?
During the exhibition, Urban Shaman wanted to do a gathering because [shooger-koht-ed] / ZiizibaakwadAgoke / Ésíwinikátéki is part of a bigger project called Sacred Sounds. We received funding for Sacred Sounds to produce translations in languages around this territory, and we named seven languages: Ojibwe, Oji-Cree, Swampy Cree, Inuktitut, Dakota, Dene, and Michif. They’re all available at the Indigneous Languages of Manitoba Inc. We’re translating the website - which is being redesigned - into seven different languages. We’ve just seen the first page from the design proposal and it looked really cool.
I hear that it’s hard getting a hold of the Michif guy. So I’m worried that we’re not going to have all our languages when we unveil it. It could say, like, “this one to come,” and we could unveil them one at a time. The Indigenous Languages of Manitoba Inc. (ILM) doesn’t have a big staff or that many translators. Roger Roulette does our Ojibwe translations and Alderick Leask does our Swampy Cree. I always see Roger walking around Winnipeg. He’s always wearing this hat, and this flannel jacket... It seems he’s been getting a lot of work. He’s also translated trails in parks into Ojibwe, so we’ve also started working with him at the Winnipeg Trails Association, too.
Another part of the Sacred Sounds project is translating all of the promotional material into two languages for the Urban Shaman invites, our Facebook, and on our website. We’re hoping that at the end of this project’s funding, we’ll be able to keep the translations going. So far, there’s been [shooger-koht-ed], there was Dee Barsy’s exhibition These Tiny Helpers / Agaashiiwi-wiiji’iweg / Ókik ká yá apisísisicik owícihiwéwak, and then the 50 to 500 Members’ Exhibition + Sale. The fourth one will be Patience…Endurance curated by Daina Warren as part of the Beadwork Symposium: Ziigimineshin, running from February 6th to February 9th, 2020.
We’ve been sticking to Ojibwe and Cree, and we haven’t had any requests to translate into any other languages so far, but if another artist were to come and ask for a different language out of those seven languages, then we would ask ILM. We’re still really getting to know Ojibwe and Cree, and it still amazes me that Cree has so many k’s in it. [Laughs.] I’ve never seen that. And I still can’t read those two.
Liz Garlicki, Urban Shaman’s Outreach Coordinator, was saying maybe one day we could have students writing the translations and then have the translators look it over to have a mentorship opportunity there, in order to educate students/ youth and help keep it going. It would probably be good challenge for them, because we would be giving them lots of translations.
That’s also great because it would show a growing demand for translations.
Yeah totally. So, the other component of Sacred Sounds is the gathering. We want to have it alongside the unveiling of the website and the launch of a publication. The idea is we want to celebrate these language workers and have a night of entertainment and dinner. The tentative date for that is in the spring of 2020. It will be open to the public.
How did you find yourself interested and working in the arts and culture industry?
J: I came in through media production. I was interested in music and how they set it up and everything since I was a kid. My dad is a musician. So I would always see him fiddling on his guitar and he would be on the road when I was younger. I saw the love he had for it, and I was like, “He loves this so much, I love this too!”
There was always equipment around the house, and he recorded some demos in our house back in the 90s. He would play at coffee shops, and he and his brother would set up their stuff at the community hall and jam.
Then my uncle started a radio station in Roseau River, my reserve. It was called CKOP 100.5 Renegade Radio, and my dad DJ’d there every morning. I did an internship at the station when I was in high school, and it was a lot different than over here in Winnipeg. We didn’t abide by CRTC rules, we did our own thing. My friends would come with me sometimes and we’d end up swearing, because it was part of a band’s name. If we swore too much, my dad would phone us and be like, “Okay, you guys, stop.” [Chuckles].
I also did event set-up for my dad, Billy Joe Green, and his son Jesse Green. Jesse runs Strong Front A/V Productions, and he let me volunteer with them sometimes. They actually made my cousin and I their roadies one time, when we were only sixteen. They were always really supportive and always let us help.
So that was my introduction to media production and it was so much fun. When I moved to Winnipeg, I started studying audio in media. That’s what really kept me going: the music scene and all the setting up. When I got into university, after studying audio in media, I went to the radio station at the University of Winnipeg, CKUW 95.5 FM, and did some Indigenous programming. I’m really nervous all the time, so I thought “I need somebody who’s fun and not shy,” and so I asked my cousin Tony Seenie: “Would you do this show with me? Because I really want to do it but I don’t want to be the only person talking.” He was like, “Yeah sure I’ll do it!” He’s funny.
About two years in, Jesse Ducharme joined the team. We had Bret Parenteau come on our show lots of times. He was a regular co-host. We had Vince Fontaine come on our show, we had JC Campbell. So that was fun, a live production environment. Then, during university, I started working in galleries and got into the arts scene.
Sometimes I feel like the music and art scenes here are kind of seperate.
Totally. Once when I was going to an art class, people would ask if I was an artist and I would be like, “I don’t know what I am.” I do production, I would love to be a musician, but that’s just a lot of anxiety for me. I dabble, but like, a professional musician – not there. Mad respect for them.
What do you play?
Guitar and bass. I played bass in high school for a few years, and then I taught myself a few songs on guitar.
Do you have any favourite Manitoba-based bands right now?
Attica Riots is like my all time favourite, and they’ve been doing lots of shows for years. When I moved down here, we were going to Attica Riots shows. They’re awesome.
Going back to some other questions I had in mind–do you have a set of values, focuses, or principles that drive your creative work? Similar to an artist statement?
That’s a bit difficult to say. For example, working in production, it’s technical. For certain projects, I challenge the Indigenous - Canadian dichotomy while working within both realities. But I really like the idea of being a shape-shifter when it comes to curatorial and creative work. There are big differences in working with music and being in the arts and in curatorial work. Right now I’m working as an audio engineer with Rhayne Vermette for her upcoming film. Is that artistic work?
I think that most of my work is always tailored by context and audience. It just can’t be any other way. I find that the hardest part of it is keeping a consistent and true voice. I notice that in the arts, it can be very serious. Coming from a radio and music background, I’m always trying to be laid back and create a mood where the artist feels comfortable to perform at their best. That’s where I’m at right now, I feel like I’ve nearly found my voice, but how do I incorporate humour into it where it’s not corny, true to how I feel, and it’s just perfect? I don’t want to be the art person know-it-all, when I’m definitely not.
What did [shooger-koht-ed] mean to you and why were you interested in bringing those artists together?
[shooger-koht-ed] was built on my research from university, which was focused on writing and psychology. A lot of the inspiration for [shooger-koht-ed] was from cognitive linguistics. So it was two to three years of thinking of language and bringing things together slowly. The artists in the exhibition matched up with my ideas of cognition. Works were specifically chosen to illustrate 4 different points from the artists: Catherine Forest represented soul wounds, Jessica Canard represented survival, Scott Benesiinaabandan represented spirituality, and Bret Parenteau represented dissociation.
You’ve mentioned that Indigenous cognition was important to [shooger-koht-ed]. Can you speak about what Indigenous cognition means for you?
I guess it’s Indigenous cognition versus Indigenous knowledge. To me that seems like it’s something that’s learned or something that’s acquired, almost. You go to elders for knowledge, you take part in ceremonies for knowledge, and there are Knowledge Keepers, you know. It feels like knowledge is wise. And so cognition, it just happens. With the artists in [shooger-koht-ed], they’re not working from a purely traditional background, they’re very contemporary. So they’re taking their cognition of right now and showing what it looks like rather than the traditional way, and they’re working in contemporary mediums.
The definition of cognition is “the mental action of acquiring knowledge through thought, experience, and the senses.” So it’s the mental action–like when you have a thought, it’s just being fired, shot off, electricity in your brain. So the way it gets fired off, it gets connected to all these other things and that’s just how it happens, and you have no control over it.
If you go and look for Indigenous knowledge, you almost have to do it in a way that follows protocol, and there's a tension there. Some things are different from tribe to tribe. An urban Indigenous person is just walking through and picking up senses of what’s around them.
Installation view of “[shooger-koht-ed] / ZiizibaakwadAgoke / Ésíwinikátéki” at Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Art, 2019. Photo: Karen Asher.
Do you see Indigenous cognition as being different for each person? Also taking into consideration their specific cultural context?
Yeah. Like you were talking earlier about noticing the different languages when you were in Mexico, in Oaxaca. They have certain thoughts about their area, so they’d have their own native Indigenous cognition. Kind of like Indigenous knowledge but less traditional and wise. It’s hard to say. When you said “way of being” earlier, it made me think of traditional values like living the good life. That would be one of the culturally salient things about being an Indigenous person.
We love to live the good life, which means you’re going to be alcohol-free, you’re going to be a land protector and all of that... That takes a lot of effort. Some people are just living, so there is that perspective too. They may not have a perspective on traditional values, but they have a perspective on society that’s right here and right now.
What were some challenges you had with [shooger-koht-ed]?
The hardest part was finding the voice. I had these feelings that I didn’t know how to express, I didn’t find the right structure. It was almost like this exhibition was the right structure for that–I would try writing some poetry, or I would try to write a song, and nothing was ever the right fit for it. This just had the right tone for what I was trying to express. The way I thought of it, the exhibition was focusing on those emotions, and the Sacred Sounds project was moving forward with integrating languages into the institution.
I have personal issues with linguistic acquisition. I know a little bit of Ojibwe, I remember learning a little bit of my language when I was in first grade. I lived on the reserve at Roseau, and I was learning Ojibwe. Today, I can count up to five confidently. We also learned how to braid our hair. Those are things that stuck with me for some reason, I don’t remember anything else from that time. We moved because of the ‘97 flood. We were evacuated and we were staying in hotels for a little while, so we eventually moved back to Winnipeg because we had lived in the city before moving out to Roseau. When we moved back to the city, I was back to learning English. Everything was in English.
We moved back to the reserve again – this time I was in grade four – we lived on the extension of the reserve, about half an hour away from the main part. It’s a Métis town that is too far from the school, and the closest town is fifteen minutes away. So when I was going to school there, I started learning everything in French until grade twelve. We had to learn grammar, and there’s all these grammar rules. I got by and I could understand everything, but I couldn’t really speak French. So it takes really long to put sentences together when I do speak French.
I started thinking about Ojibwe like that after high school, I started thinking about the structure of the language and how I can learn it better. I decided I should learn Ojibwe, it was just something on my mind that wouldn’t go away. Then I had my first son. I was six months pregnant at my high school graduation and I moved and started school in the city when he was one. There were lots of programs to learn Ojibwe, but it was hard to go there after school and I also had a job. It was pretty hard to have that sense of, “Yeah, I know what I’m doing.”
So out of these last ten years of being in the city, the first five or so I was trying hard to learn the language and I’m kind of able to myself introduce myself. But for all the time that I put in, I didn’t really have much to say for it. That really started getting to me. “Why is it like this. What is wrong with me? Why can’t I learn this?”
Roger Roulette was speaking at a language table I went to once and he was talking about the block of shame. And I was like, “That’s it, that’s what it is.” I get really emotional sometimes when I want to learn Ojibwe; there’s a lump in my throat and I feel like, “I can’t do this right now.” It’s easier to not do it, because you have to work, you have to take care of the household and the kids, and so that’s one of the other motivators of programming Sacred Sounds.
I wanted to bring these languages into institutions where it’s not the sole responsibility of the individual wanting to learn the language. It’s out there in the public, it’s support. Before this project I’ve never seen big blocks of text that were in Cree. That is totally different from the other interests in art that I have. This seems like I have to do this, for younger generations, for myself and my kids--to see the language. I’m really happy that I can introduce these languages into Urban Shaman specifically, especially because it’s an Indigenous gallery. It’s also kind of sad just because it’s like, “Damn, I’m the one who’s doing this. We’re just at this point now.”
Do you think it would have made a difference to have had more of your primary and secondary education in Ojibwe?
I can still remember it, it’s weird, it’s just natural. It’s like if you started learning art at a young age, it’s a lot easier than if you’re a teenager. When you’re a kid, you just learn easier.
Also, do you think it would have been different for you to learn Ojibwe outside of the education system altogether?
That’s part of the thing too, that’s where the block of shame comes in. My Grandma Henry never really spoke the language and she went to residential school. She never forced her kids to go to school because of the horrible experience she had, and so my dad never graduated. But imagine if she did speak her language, it would probably be different. My other grandma is Métis. My Papa speaks Saulteaux though, he’s funny. You can kind of see how some things translate from Saulteaux into English, like in Saulteaux, you don’t say “bye.” So when he’s talking on the phone he never says bye, he just hangs up! [Laughs.] That’s just something in the language and how it translates.
My granny speaks a few French words but her dad was all French. Same with my Grandma Henry, she would say a few words in Ojibwe here and there. I know some people in my community, and their parents do speak the language fully.
Living on the extension of the reserve, I brought up at a language table that it seems like Roseau doesn’t have that much stuff compared to some reserves in Ontario, or compared to what I’ve heard from other people I’ve met even further north in Manitoba. But one lady at the language table said, “No, that’s not the story that I have and I’m from Roseau. We had ceremonies every weekend, we did this, and that.” So it seems that their family was really culturally rich in that sense, but I guess my family wasn’t. It’s just weird who’s near it and who’s not, and so putting those languages in public is really what needs to happen.
One thing I’ve noticed is that they have a lot of signs on the road in Ojibwe in Ontario, and they might just be place names. We have Roseau River Anishinaabe First Nation, and Anishinaabe is part Ojibwe I guess. Our school is called Ginew which is “golden eagle” and so there’s small things like that. However, if it was just more prominent, like on the highways, trails and all that, it would be even more public.
I was going to ask if you get opportunities to travel and experience art or cultural events in other places. What have you noticed about art and other things, like those signs in Ontario, when you think about other places compared to Winnipeg?
I never noticed it before, but I really know the areas around Winnipeg and southern Manitoba, and my mom is from up North so I have family that goes up North. I don’t go up North that much but they talk about it, and you can hear about how different communities are or how communities talk to each other. So I kind of know the area through that, and then the small rural communities in Southern Manitoba, I’ve driven around there a lot. I never really thought about that as travelling, because it’s all home. And my boyfriend is from Ontario so we’re going that way more now. It’s pretty similar to here except for the different culture and language.
For art stuff, I really only travelled once to Saskatoon for a media arts conference, that was pretty cool; they have lots of Cree there and they have a Cree word of the day. I was just thinking, we should have Ojibwe in our area. I know this area is really heavy in Cree and Ojibwe, but I’m Ojibwe so I’m always looking at Ojibwe first. Travelling is hard with my kids. But my boyfriend travels with his music stuff, so I’ve gone with him a few times to Toronto, and a few other places: Guatemala, Antigua...in one of the museums in Guatemala City, they had a medicine wheel but the colours are different since it’s different traditions.
Can you talk about your experience working as a Curatorial Intern at Urban Shaman for a couple of years? Are there any lessons that stuck out in your mind, either from artists that you’ve gotten to work with or simply from being in that environment?
When I began in 2013 or 2014, I was introduced to the gallery through a course called Indigenous Spirituality in Art at the University of Winnipeg. That was the first art class that I took because my major and minor were psychology and writing. Daina Warren was teaching the class with Jessica Jacobson-Konefall. Scott Benesiinaabandan was one of the artists they showed us and they presented this piece of his about language, and I thought it was awesome. He’s definitely stuck with me. When I came up with the project idea for Sacred Sounds and [shooger-koht-ed], I knew Scott was going to be in the exhibition, he just had to be.
What were some of his works that really impacted you?
There was Psychic Histories/Blood Memories, and he had Animikiikaa 10/97 as part of the Insurgence/Resurgence show at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Towards the end of the Indigenous Spirituality in Art class, they announced that Urban Shaman was going to be hiring an intern for the summer so I thought that maybe I could apply. I got the position, and they ended up hiring me for a 60’s Scoop project after the summer, A Place Between. Then I was on contract during the school year. I actually worked with Scott for A Place Between and his piece, the fear of disappearing, was on a billboard right outside Neechi Commons in the North End, and it had some Ojibwe too.
Seeing the way that they conducted that project made me realize that it was a special project outside of their regular programming, and I learned that you could just apply for projects. That was good to know and it got me really excited. So putting it all together, it was a learning experience. So with the 60’s Scoop project, they had already gotten the money, they had the program figured out, and so from that experience I learned how to put together an exhibition. I was also gallery sitting at Gallery 1C03 at the time. I didn’t really go out to galleries that much before this, it was always music shows. Learning about how to put things together, putting together the programming for shows regularly happening at Urban Shaman was really useful because I didn’t study curatorial practices or anything. I didn’t even know what a curator was.
I always feel motivated to try different things; sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. I was just at the gallery working on different projects, and I realized “We’re an Indigenous gallery, it would be cool if we had Indigenous languages.” There’s a bit more hype about Indigenous languages now, and so I thought we should put something together. Looking at the project in business terms really helped me grasp the concept of how to do these things and how to properly pay people for what they’re doing.
This last question is just for fun: do you have any artistic crushes? Or who are some artists or creative people you are looking at these days?
Oh yeah, the musician Arthur Renwick. He plays country rock and he just came out with some new songs. When I started working at Urban Shaman, I noticed he did a publication there with Leah Fontaine called Land As Power. I was like “What! You do music and visual arts?” So yeah, I love him.
For artists who I look to a lot, definitely Scott Benesiinaabandan. When I first met him for the 60’s Scoop project, I actually didn’t even realize that he knew people from my res - he made a joke about my res and I was like, “How do you know that?” [Laughs.] He’s such a nice guy and so easy to talk to. I also started working with singer-songwriter Abigail Wall She has an amazing voice, amazing style, and great character. I’m really excited to see her work out there. She does some painting too. She’s working on an event coming up at Graffiti Gallery.
The above is a conversation conducted by Winnipeg based artist/thinker/cultural worker Mariana Muñoz Gomez with editorial support by Juilee Raje. Frontis portrait by Winnipeg based photographer Mary Vallarta.