Indigeneity and the Work of Emotional Labour
Įladzeeé: Pulse in the WristIn Dene language įladzeeé refers to the “pulse in the wrist.” In the Fort Nelson Dene Topical Dictionary, compiled by Karen Rice, Mary Behn, Lucy Capot-blanc, Narcisse Capot-blanc, Anna Capot-blanc, Adeline Dickie, Mary Loe, Mimi Needlay, et. al. (Fort Nelson: First Nelson First Nation, 1983), 9.
my eyes obscured by old tears blind, I tip my face, a tear drop slips
slides into the river; it rolls past looking grateful to be going homeLee Maracle, “Clear water” in Talking to the Diaspora. (Winnipeg: ARP Books, 2015), 6.
Leanne Simpson’s short story “she told him 10,000 years of everything” describes the impact colonization has had on Indigenous people’s relationship to the spirit world, showing how these spirits can cope and the healing that can happen when we find our sense of self and locate that sense in relation with each other.Jamaias DaCosta, “Oceans of Love for Leanne Simpson’s ‘Islands of Decolonial Love,” in Muskrat Magazine, April 4 2014. This resilience engages skills and solutions often rooted in work that is mostly invisible and unknown to those comfortable in the dominant heteronormative-colonial-settler paradigm, which remains unacknowledged for economical convenience and is based in a vast expenditure of unspoken emotional labour by First Nations people and minority, migrant, and immigrant people of colour. Emotional labour is unacknowledged work shared in alliance, across intersectional territories; I note here the need to centre racialized bodies, both Indigenous and those of colour, as the key workers in this form of labour. In this essay, I explore a few examples of emotional labour in my work to shed light on what happens each time I’m thrown out of sorts by the privileges of another — everyday privileges that are reinforced and accepted in the dominant heteronormative-colonial-settler trajectory.
Before I begin, I would like to state my relations to the land where I live and conduct my work. As a visitor to the traditional and unceded territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), Stó:lō and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations I hold my hands up in thanks and gratitude. On my mother’s side I am of Cree and Slavey Dene ancestry (Fort Nelson First Nation), and on my father’s side I am of German ancestry.
Home is an ever-challenging concept for Acoma Pueblo poet Simon Ortiz, as explored in his poetry and prose collection Out There Somewhere. Ortiz prefaces his book by recognizing the influences behind the title Out There Somewhere, explaining how the Acoma phrase hauchaw tyah haati is a
phrase spoken in reply to a query by someone who is looking for another person, perhaps a parent looking for a child or a friend looking for their friend. Upon entering a room in a house, the parent or friend might ask, “Where is so-and-so?” And someone will reply, “Oh, he’s out there somewhere,” pointing outdoors, pointing beyond the walls of the dwelling. I’ve imagined the outdoors to be out there somewhere in everyday experience in America. I've spent a large part of my lifetime away from Acoma Pueblo — out there somewhere in America away from the Acoma village area of Deetseyaamah where I grew up. But while I have physically been away from my home area, I have never been away in any absolute way.Simon Ortiz, Preface to Out There Somewhere. (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2002), 1.
Each time I read Ortiz’s preface, I am reminded of how he and I met at the Vermont Studio Center. It was the winter of 2012 and the first artist residency I attended after graduating from art school at the University of Texas. After our initial meeting, I purchased Simon’s book. He also suggested a studio visit. I remember my various reactions to his request but mostly I felt intimidated — this was the first time I had met and interacted with a fellow Indigenous artist. It seemed as if there were a lot of firsts happening between Simon and myself. During our conversations he spoke with me about the various times he had come to the Vermont Studio Centre, and in one of these he looked at me and said: “You are the first Native artist I have ever met at this residency.” In that moment, I felt there was a sense of confusion and connection between us. Due to my dislocation and displacement as an Indigenous person, at that time in my life, I had little to no connection with my Dene family and culture, as I was raised in Texas away from my ancestral Dene territory. Dislocation from territory is common to most Native people; it is a product of colonization. It wasn’t until 2013 that I moved to Vancouver to begin my process of reclaiming my identity and reconnecting to my ancestry as a two-spirited Indigenous artist. As I spoke with Simon about his work, I began to sense what reconnection and recognition feels like. Reflecting on our interactions, this was the beginning of reconnecting to and recognizing my identity as an Indigenous person and artist. I felt like we shared a secret, that of a shared displacement and trauma, and an acknowledgement of the necessary work — both that has been done and that still needs to be done — along the path to healing and resilience. I was no longer invisible to another. I was no longer in the closet about having been dispossessed from my lineage. We shared a sense of quiet aspiration and to have the privilege to stay and feel at home with each other.
That secret, the one Simon and I share, is one rooted in the feeling of being understood, recognized, and made visible by another in an environment that does not recognize the conditions that oppress us. To be understood does not require details; he did not have to ask in order to know. Instead, this understanding is somatic, embodied. It is affect. This affect requires no language to explain nor need to teach it. Either you understand the experience (of colonization, trauma, displacement) and are empathetic and compassionate with the person you share this with, or you are the other who wants in on the secret, who wants to know and can only enter it through language. The secret is that it is non-linguistic. Neither is it mystical. It is how compassion is shared with one who has experienced oppression and struggle, with one who has lived similarly. And from this place we simply relax into it, not needing to inquire more, not needing to grasp or consume the other. This relaxed, unconditional generosity is home.For Indigenous artists, home is not just our ancestral territory: it’s how we embody our sense and experience of home wherever we travel — to residencies, shows, artist talks — and how we share them with another. These moments of recognition of home can offer solidarity, a sense of place, of grounding, and love to each other.
A queer Indigenous body encounters walls and closets and in response bodily wrestles markings, movement, actions with twists and turns, reaching outward, upward, pressing bodily firmly back at what resists, holds in, restricts or constricts. The way is to move into intimacy. To reach out and touch, making a mark so as to re-imagine what walls and what closets.
Recently, as part of the group exhibition Every Little Bit Hurts at the Western Front in Vancouver, I presented that brings the other nearly as close as oneself (2015). This body of work consisted of 62 plaster molds of replicas of my hands holding each other produced from one single latex mold. These sixty-two plaster molds were installed in a pile on the floor just to the left of the gallery entrance. On the walls beside this pile of sixty-two plaster molds were two sets of blue drawings on opposite sides of the gallery. Before the exhibition opening, I created these two sets of wall drawings via two performances that were documented on video. I made various markings using my arms and legs via the blue indigo dye of the Levi’s denim shirt and jeans I was wearing. I made marks by rubbing my body against the institutional walls with movements urgent to find a way to articulate an unknown, rather than being intended as aesthetically dance-like. I aimed for movements that concentrated on finding place and power against the white walls of the gallery. I reference here the seminal body performance work by Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Body Tracks) (1974), as well as Latoya Ruby Frazier’s 2010 performance (in collaboration with artist Liz Magic Laser) If Everybody’s Work is Equally Important, a response to the Levi’s ad campaign slogan “everybody’s work is equally important.” These digitally-recorded drawing performances were then presented as a split-screen video piece, accompanied by Donna Summer’s feverish disco song and call to action “I Feel Love.” The video work was installed in the bathroom across the hall from the gallery, with headphones playing “I Feel Love” just loud enough to barely hear the disco beats from the door of the bathroom — a quiet nod to the closets encountered by queers, redefined or reclaimed so as to feel love. To feel love can be both literal and non-literal, of touch and of spirit.
In 2015, while at the Banff Art Centre’s Indigenous Thematic residency “In Kind” Negotiations, I encountered a text by the renowned physicist and feminist Karen Barad, “On Touching — The Inhuman That Therefore I Am.” This inspired my inquiry into queer touch. According to Barad, “touch is not what we think we are feeling. What we are feeling is the electromagnetic repulsion between the electrons of the atoms that make up your fingers and those that make up the object or person you touch.”Karen Barad, “On Touching — The Inhuman That Therefore I Am” in The Politics of Materiality, ed. by Susanne Witzgall (Duke University Press: 2012). In the development of this body of work, I investigated ideas around queer visibility and invisibility, walls and closets, and the loss of touch in queer Indigenous lives because of homophobia, racism, and colonization. The walls and closets that queer Indigenous bodies encounter are unseen by those with heteronormative privilege. To be without privilege means we are contained and restrained — we cannot walk freely without being marked and watched as outsiders, as breaking rules of the norm. We are outsiders for touching another (whom we love): this is a love outside the norm that does not reinforce the norm but instead problematizes it. A wall can be encountered as an expectation, as the way things should be. A closet is a place where we conceal our desires, where we protect that which is not to be seen, or cannot be seen by certain eyes because it has been made invisible — like a body or a love that cannot exist within the rules of the norm.
What does one want to do but cannot? Who does one want to love but cannot? What is the place of interstitial desire, where we find ourselves performing within a construct that is not one’s own? Where one’s own body is not at home with another’s? What kind of seduction is necessary for this two-spirit to feel honoured and at home?
At the Western Front, touching the walls of the institution with my body, pressing and marking my movements, was a way for me to externalize an affect that could not be placed into language yet. My intention was to bring into the body the dialogues I have had with myself and the dialogues I have had with the institution — the institutionalization of our bodies, of how we should move or act, how we should make and/or present art, and in particular how these forces can impact a queer Indigenous body, made to become visible on command in order to produce and be a contributing citizen.
Being patronized is another form of oppression. Emotional labour is also needed to resist the performances required to fulfill professional expectations — to fit a stereotype, to speak the language of authority, to accept obligingly and obediently without question. Performances to meet these expectations take place at most institutions I enter, where it is rare that I feel at home. Dialogues about these types of expectations and the need for me to perform to fulfill them — despite how they may be alien to my process — are often invisible, rare, or censored, raising the possibility of backlash. Anticipating these outcomes is the work of emotional labour, as I brace myself with an unaffected face of a “stoic Indian.”
Meanwhile, in instances where I pass as non-Native, additional emotional labour is required. To hold together all the parts of myself that are made invisible by the norm — parts that would not be passable — that form the energy of my heart and soul. The turmoil of having to constantly negotiate what one passes for and who one is, truly, is overtime work. It is continual work to refuse to accept the conditions of what the privileges of acceptance cost.
In that brings the other nearly as close as oneself, my working through what I emotionally labour for — the affect of when I am often left speechless or shocked by what is not being understood — is somatically explored, recorded through markings made by the dark denim shirt and jeans. It is the kind of conversation I want to have with the institution. Why have I been erased? Why have you forgotten your place and responsibility on this land? What is the place of love here? These questions are examples of the types of dialogue I desire, what I want to be asked without having to prompt the asking: in what way can I be placed in a space where I won’t need to work emotionally, where I won’t have to perform the labour of what is kept invisible — the legacies of dispossession and theft that no one talks about or wants to touch thus far.
In the performance, I arranged for my twin sister to come to the gallery before the opening and sing the Women’s Warrior song to the walls. I asked her to sing as loud as she could to the walls, to my pile of hands, to the floor. I enjoy thinking that those walls will remember my sister's voice for years to come, resonating and reverberating a history that cannot be erased or stolen anymore. To me, this making visible — the song being sung among those walls, to honor the missing and murdered Indigenous women of this land, to honor the history of this place, and thus of my trajectory — and the reclamation of place and intimacy into home is love.
Voice or symptom: if feeling is a language, how and what have I been taught to articulate?From Laiwan, “On Heroics” in Mix Magazine (Toronto: Spring Vol. 22.4,1997): 56.
Although the concept of home is a vital thread in our stories and existence as Indigenous artists, this thread has been severed with the traumas of colonization. The genocide of the residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, and more has plagued Indigenous people. What I have been taught to articulate may not yet have a language that I know.
As an emerging queer Indigenous artist, it’s a challenge for me to be given the space and opportunity to engage critically with the various ways in which Indigenous artists are performing different levels of emotional labour within the contemporary art world. I accept and appreciate the challenge; it’s a good thing. The lack of awareness and dialogue around emotional labour is a testament to the amount of private internal work Indigenous artists have to perform to be visible in the white-dominated art world. As Indigenous people, we work overtime to be seen in our everyday lives, both by others and by ourselves. As artists, we are expected to work extra hours to earn our identity. These hours of work include developing and nurturing the radical self-love and confidence that is not taught in art school. It is the type of work you have to perform to survive in a capitalist society that views the labour of the artist as superfluous self-expression, work that doesn’t deserve the same compensation as a nine-to-five job. Emotional labour is 24/7. As an Indigenous queer artist, my work is not the same as those of my white peers in the art world. Many hours must be committed to clearing the baggage of colonialism and dispossession so as to even begin making work. It is in these non-public spaces that the core work is done. Doing this — investing in the time it takes to consistently clear a path — strengthens our practice, gaining resilience when facing our everyday existence as Indigenous artists.
Mussi Cho to Laiwan for her guidance and support through writing this essay, to my sister Jeane for her thoughtful insights, to my resilient mother, and to my sister Alicia who is now with our ancestors.