Note: I’ll say now that I won’t include any of the photographs here; they seem too personal, too intimate, for me to share without the photographers’ permissions. They seemed sacred and, if you’re interested, I’d encourage you, instead, to go and see the exhibit yourself at the McEwen School of Architecture on Elm Street. It’s more than worth the time for a visit. Take someone to talk to about the work, though, because you’ll want to…trust me on this one.
Just before March Break, I heard about a photography exhibit that would be at the McEwen School of Architecture. It had been organized by the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) and was the result of a project that was undertaken to address the causes and effects of intimate partner violence (IPV) in First Nations communities. There are plenty of statistics in other places, but suffice it to say that domestic violence is an issue across Canada. The Noojamadaa Exhibit was important for me to take my class to see, I thought, so I scheduled a visit for this past Friday morning.
The class I’m teaching is a Grade 11 First Nations, Metis and Inuit contemporary literature course, but we also learn about indigenous culture, as well as social and political issues that affect all Canadians. Given that I teach at an all-girls’ school, and we often speak about what healthy dating relationships should look like for girls (in terms of them knowing to avoid boys and young men who may be abusive) it made sense to take them down to the McEwen School of Architecture, to spend the morning really immersing ourselves in the photography exhibit.
The goal of the project is best explained by a mission statement that was posted at the entrance: “This exhibit features thoughtful photography and images shared by the Manitoulin First Nations women during a four week research project. Originally inspired by the Photovoice methodology, The Noojamadaa Exhibit uses an experiential learning approach to foster and promote healing and reconciliation. It’s a space for indigenous and non-indigenous peoples to reflect on our shared journey towards wellness, through contemplation of our relationships with one another and our surroundings.” Dr. Marion Maar, Associate Professor of Medical Anthropology, is the woman who coordinated and spearheaded the exhibit. She, along with Gayle Adams-Carpino, a Lecturer of Interprofessional Education, were there on Friday morning to give us a bit of a talk about the project and a tour of the exhibit. It was one of the best field trips I’ve ever been on, from a teaching and learning point of view. Pedagogically, I know we’ll have lots of conversation and spirited debate in the classroom tomorrow, so I think that’s one of the benefits of getting students out to see how art can be socially active and can instigate change in how people view issues within their communities.
So much of what we talked about on Friday morning had to do with what we’ve already discussed this semester in my class. We talked about the residential school system, and about the notion of lateral violence, and of how cycles of abuse and the loss of traditional ways have influenced the shape of indigenous families and communities. We talked, too, about the notion that it will take seven generations to heal from what’s happened through colonization and the residential school system. It’s such a difficult topic, and rightfully so, but what this exhibit does is show how people can be resilient and manage to turn darkness into light. It reminded me, again, of Richard Wagamese and “Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations,” and of how he speaks about light as the goal to aim for in our daily living.
The girls spread out around the exhibit, taking notes and choosing one photograph to examine fully. Alongside each photo, there were bits of text to explain what the photographs represented. One of my favourites was a photo of a pair of wedding rings on a table. The words offered by Tasha Behm, though, were what spoke to me as I looked to the photo and then back to the text: “People forget what a privilege it is to be able to grow old with someone. Marriage isn’t just a piece of paper but an endless vow to love someone unconditionally for the rest of their lives.” Another photograph, of a bride and groom, was complemented by a quotation that spoke, again, of how marriage was a partnership and not something temporary to just have and then throw away. Candice Jacko-Assiniwe, of Birch Island, wrote of her wedding day: “Our relationship is nowhere near perfect; we have had some difficult times. For all that we had been through together in the last sixteen years, we have always supported one another as individuals, acknowledge our mistakes, worked at forgiveness and strive to be best as we walk through this life together. In this picture on our wedding day, I told him “don’t let me fall” and he reassured me by saying, “don’t worry, I’ve got you.” And the image of him holding me, and me trusting him while laughing with one another, reminds me to always remember to support one another through our struggles, and always to make room for laughter.” The last photo that spoke to good partnerships and marriages was one of an older couple, taken from behind, and holding hands. The words that went with this one were the loveliest, I thought, to do with couples and long lasting love. It was Tasha Behm, again, who wrote: “Sometimes the greatest love story isn’t Romeo and Juliet who died together, but grandma and grandpa who grew old together.” All three of these pairings, of photos matched with reflections of words, spoke to me strongly. While I’ve been single for a long time now, I know this is the kind of relationship that I’m looking for, what I want, and what I’ll honour and value most during my time on the planet. There’s a worth to a union that is a true partnership of shared values, humour, compassion, friendship, and love.
Here’s the thing: our girls need to understand that healthy relationships and pairings aren’t all flash and glitter. The kids I see in high school are often tied to the whole popular culture thing in an almost oppressive and addictive way. A lot of make-up and over-exposure on the internet and cell phones seems to give them a sense of self, even just for a little while. It really worries me because you can see they have more to offer and cultivate. They Snapchat a lot, and they text incessantly. They take countless selfies on a daily basis and they seem to enjoy living on the surface of things. They also don’t really love to read, which is a bit of a worry for me as a writer and as a teacher. The problem, though, is that all of this superficial stuff seems to translate to their expectations of what a relationship with a boy/girl/ferret should look like. Still, “good relationships” aren’t at all about money and superficial things. They’re more about the values and qualities that will last, the assets of spirit that each person would bring to a union.
A lot of kids these days also come from broken homes and families. It does cause them stress, despite what some of their parents might actually think. I’ve seen it in classrooms, when a young girl of sixteen or seventeen will try to explain with whom they live. “Miss, my mum and dad divorced, but then my mum lived with this guy and he left, so now she’s alone, and Miss, is she ever depressed.” Usually I just nod sympathetically at that point and listen carefully. Sometimes, all they really want is to have someone listen to them. “And, then, Miss…my dad….he found someone else, and I really really liked her. I even called her my step-mum and we were friends…but then they broke up and there’s a new woman at my dad’s house. She has three kids, so now I guess I have step-brothers and sisters, but I’m not really sure.” This is the lineage of a lot of kids’ families these days. I think, somehow, that’s why teachers feel more responsibility on a daily basis. Sometimes, you end up being (and more often than you ought to, for the kids’ sakes) a pseudo-parent, the one person with whom they might actually feel safe with every day. So, I think it’s important for them to realize that quite a large portion of society is dealing with false and superficial issues around pairings and partnerships. Everything seems so fleeting, in my mind, anyway. People having to work at something is an old-fashioned concept. I often wonder if my parents ought to have stayed together for their lifetimes; they weren’t always content or happy, but they worked through things and I saw how much they loved each other in the end, when the chips were really down. The thing about this photography exhibit, though, and these three photos in particular, was that we could see that people were talking about relationship as something worth working at, something to cultivate in a sort of garden-ish and organic way.
We’ll talk, too, I’m sure, about how girls value themselves in relationships. I worry about this a lot, to be honest. I don’t have kids of my own, so these girls become like my kids. Sometimes, I hear snippets of things and wonder how they are managing in the world. They are so in a place where they are building their own senses of identity, questioning their sexuality, and wondering about which path they should take to move forward into adulthood. As an adult, and I often say this in class, it doesn’t get much easier, but sometimes, just sometimes, it helps to honestly tell them that the path is never clear in any of those areas of life. I do worry, though, that they tend to make themselves seem less than to attract boys, in some cases, and it’s something I’ve seen over the years as a teacher. If they pretend to be ‘less than’ smart or clever, then they aren’t desirable to boys, they sometimes seem to suggest. That just makes me very angry. They should never, ever, be made to feel that it would be better for them to be daft or permissive, or to absent themselves from being treated fairly and equally in a relationship, so I’m hopeful they’ll have seen that, too, reflected in the exhibit on Friday. Women should be strong and unique and independent. If that scares a man, or intimidates him, then it isn’t a woman’s fault. These photographers, these women’s voices, prove that in their documenting their lives.
The other photographs that struck me, in particular, were ones that told the story of a young girl who lost both of her parents, a mother to suicide and a father to murder. Next to her family’s broken story was a child’s drawing of a graveyard. It sent shivers through me. Both of these horrible things occurred on Manitoulin Island, just a few hours away from where I live. I remember hearing about the murder on the news, but not the suicide. The thing is, how does suicide get to be so easily swept under the rug? We know suicide rates are high on reserves across Canada, especially for young people. This is the ripple effect of residential schools through the generations. It isn’t simple to explain, and I dare not try here.
All I know is that I was glad that this young girl, the one who had drawn the horribly sad picture of the cemetery, was shown in another pairing of photographs on the wall next to it. There, she had grown up into a teenager, sitting on a rock on the edge of a northern lake, somewhere on Manitoulin, the sun setting behind her. And then, another photo, of her modelling a dress at a school fashion show. The text, for that panel of paired photographs, was all about the little girl, now a young woman, reflecting on how she’d managed to rise up out of grief and tragedy, to become a person with dreams and goals. The overwhelming sense of the exhibit was embodied in this one set of panels, the notion that First Nations women are resilient and strong.
Perhaps the best example of resilience came in seeing the photo of the little girl spinning round in a hoop dance. Her grandma, or mother, or auntie, or big sister, had taught her the various moves of the hoop dance. Each variation mirrors a spirit animal, as Dr. Maar explained it, and the speed with which dancers move, with such grace and elegance, always amazes me. The image of this little one, dressed in her regalia and telling her story through dance and drumming, was a photo that made me tear up a bit. Despite all of the disruption of culture, and most of it being the result of how residential schools and the 60s Scoop ripped families apart, somehow, an elder taught a youngster how to dance. That is resilience. That is truth.
There were so many beautiful and thought provoking photographs. I only hope that NOSM can get the exhibit out into the city and outlying communities. It raises many issues in a person’s mind: what makes a healthy relationship, between partners, between parents and children, between children and the school system? The variations on a theme are endless, I think, and should encourage conversation. I know the exhibit is meant to be a teaching tool for medical students, in an attempt at cultural sensitivity training, but I actually think that “regular” folks from the community around here would benefit from experiencing this exhibit. It shouldn’t be an exhibit that doesn’t see the light of day outside of university buildings.
I think it’s so powerful, to know that the university, and NOSM in particular, is making collaborative forays into using photography to do research into something like what constitutes a healthy relationship within indigenous communities, from a woman’s point of view. Both Gayle and Marion were so warm and welcoming to my class, and I know I’ll be able to carry on a thoughtful conversation with my students tomorrow morning.
Women play such a key role in Ojibway culture. They are the Water Keepers and the tellers of stories. They are the mothers, the aunties, sisters, and daughters. Intimate partner violence isn’t something that is confined to any one group in society. Women, though, are often the victims. What I thought, on Friday morning, after leaving that beautiful school of architecture building, was that it was fitting that Marion and Gayle had asked women to take the photos that best represented healthy relationships from their perspective. The result is an exhibit that feels intimate, raw, and beautifully honest. You don’t want to rush, taking in the photographs and the stories that go alongside them. You can hear the voices of the women, know the stories they need to tell, and you leave with a sense of their resilience and strength.
If you have a chance, do try to see this exhibit. I’m sure you can call NOSM and see where it’s being displayed next. I’m hopeful, to be honest, that it will be displayed around town and in outlying communities. It’s that powerful a tool and seems, to me, to have the ability to suggest social change and advocacy.
One little pebble, thrown into the water, causes a ripple…