Bringing Back the Flower Dance: An interview with Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy

by Shabina Lafleur-Gangji

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy, a Hupa, Yurok and Karuk woman currently working as an Assistant Professor of Native American Studies at Humboldt State University. I got the chance to ask her some questions about her upcoming book We Are Dancing For You: Native Feminisms and the Revitalization of Women’s Coming-of-age Ceremonies (which is set to be released this spring), and learn more about her work supporting the revitalization of Native American arts and culture.

Illustration above: Teach her by Mia Ohki 

S: First off I wanted to thank you for taking your time to do this interview. I recently came across an advertisement for the book and have been exploring your writing ever since. Do you want to tell our readers a little bit about your work both through academia and in your community?

B: My work focuses on Native people and communities to help tell the stories of our strength and resilience. I try not to separate the work I do in academia from the work I do in the community, although it is sometimes hard because of the way that academia expects certain kinds of discourse. I’m always thinking about how my work can show the important ways that Native people have always been foregrounding land and environmental based knowledge and how they have built a very long tradition of education and intellectualism that most people do not learn about in schools. My academic work is focused on elevating Indigenous voices and the work being done by Indigenous peoples on the ground. Some of the most important things that we can learn about how to build a future that is liberated from patriarchy, heteronormativity, and white supremacy should come from Indigenous teachings. Since the beginning of time we have been theorizing our worlds – so I know we have a lot to offer when it comes to addressing major issues that are part of this contemporary culture.

The work I do on the blog is trying to use humor to break down people’s ideas about Native peoples and issues. A little while ago a friend asked me what I thought were my most powerful tools that I have to continue the work we do to liberate and elevate our communities and I said “humor.” I’m always telling students that Native people are probably the funniest people I know, usually inappropriately funny, but people don’t learn that about us, or even see that in movies or on television. We laugh all the time. My grandma was always saying to me “everything is a funny story…later” and “if you can laugh at something it doesn’t have power over you anymore.” That’s how I feel about colonialism. Colonialism is counter-intuitive, doesn’t make a lot of sense and it is just dying to be the punchline in a joke. I’d like to think at some point I’ll find a way to bring a lot of humor into my academic work, but I haven’t done it nearly enough yet.

S: So, your book We are dancing for you, is about to be released this Spring. Can you talk to us a little about the book, about what inspired you to put these experiences into words?

B: The book came out of my personal experience with the revitalization movements for our women’s coming-of-age ceremonies in the Northern California region. When I was 12 years old I started menstruating and my mother offered to do a dance for me, but I refused. A lot of it was internalized ideas about menstruation being dirty or shameful, but it was also internalized ideas about “primitive Indians” and how they celebrate women. After I turned it down my mother continued to do work with the women in our community to bring this dance back. It was important to them to center young women so that we could teach our young women self-determination and self-worth. Part of the idea was combating our recent history of colonization that had targeted our women’s ceremonies for eradication, and part of it was also to empower the entire community by showing how we value gender equality and that young woman are an important part of our cultures and futures.

The more work I have done with Native communities and peoples the more I see how our Native feminisms were silenced by colonialism and that we are working now, not just to decolonize, but to decolonize in a way that dismantles patriarchy. When I started going to these ceremonies, and singing over these girls I wouldn’t have used these words to describe what we were doing, but the more I listened and learned and the more research I did in Native feminisms, the more I realized that our ceremonies were and continue to be an important praxis of decolonization. My original thought was “how can the women who did this work on the ground tell this story?” For too long, the story of Native people and Native cultures has been told by mostly white, male anthropologists and ethnographers. So I wanted to make sure that this story, one that is about our survivance and our resilience, was told through the voices and memories of our people. And this also becomes the theorizing and demonstration of what Native feminisms actually look like. Our cultures are about balance and equality and that’s feminism.

S: So often the ceremonies and histories of Indigenous people around the world are written about through a colonial and anthropological perspective. More often that not, these writings are deeply influenced by racist assumptions. Can you talk about the power of writing about stories from your own community?

B: You know, I grew up knowing who the anthropologists were that studied our communities. I could name some of them, including Alfred Kroeber (one of the most famous). And I knew what he said about our people – but almost in a joking way. We joked a lot about how wrong assumptions were about us. Many people think about our cultures and peoples as in the past, almost as if we stopped existing because we were not the “pure” Indians that were being described by anthropologists in their books. So I do think it’s important that now we are finding ways to tell our own stories and interpretations, using the knowledge we have to decide what the narrative of our cultures and histories are going to be.

What is interesting about revitalization movements like these, is that in our community the women actually used the anthropological research to help understand the ceremony. So while Kroeber was writing these things down because he believed that the people were dying, or that the ceremony was going “extinct,” instead, they became part of the record that would be used to revive the dance. That’s a powerful moment. We are not dying, vanishing Indians, we are revitalizing, living peoples. And these books don’t hold our dying, in the past cultures, they are part of our living cultures. I like to think (and I theorize in the book) that many of the Native people working with the anthropologists at the time envisioned that moment from the very beginning. So they didn’t buy in to the “you’re dying and should tell us stories so we can document them before you disappear,” instead they were thinking “one day our people will find these stories and these descriptions and I want them to be here for them when they do.” There are transcripts that I’ve read which are Native people saying just that, like in one case a woman offered a song and she opens it with something like “this is a Flower Dance song, it hasn’t been sung in a long time. I hope one day someone will sing it at a Flower Dance again.” And then we did. That’s not the story that Kroeber or other anthropologists were telling when they wrote and published their books, but that has always been the real story. That’s the story that we are going to tell.

S: How has the reclamation of this ceremony impacted the young people in your community?

It’s hard to summarize, because there are so many ways that the ceremony has affected young people. Some of the   young women I interviewed talked about how it showed them the amount of support they have in the community, so they felt like they could do anything and would always have people to help them. Others talk about how it gave them the confidence to do things that they might not otherwise do. People talk about how it demonstrated for them that women can be central to ceremony and that seeing women singing together showed them how much support we can give each other. At first when we did the dance many young women didn’t want to do it because it is usually done after a girl starts menstruating. They were worried about people knowing because of our western menstrual taboo. But now young women are planning for their dances their whole lives. They talk about them. They are excited for them. It has made people in the community excited for young women as they grow up. So instead of young women feeling ashamed about puberty etc. they are excited and happy. Most of the young woman I’ve seen who have gone through this ceremony are now doing amazing things, reaching for their goals in life, and making sure to pass along their own lessons to younger generations. I love that young people see women singing, because for a long time you didn’t really see women singing in our ceremonies. Now, you have young people requesting women to sing for them, or you have them complimenting women singers. These types of things change very quickly, I have found. For instance, when I was 12 and my mother offered to do this dance for me I said no because I was scared and didn’t want people to know about my period. After we did the first revitalized dance, young girls were still hesitant. Now we’ve been doing the dance for over 15 years, and guess what, this is just what we do. My daughter is 10, she’s never known a time when we didn’t dance for young women who had their first menstruation. She hasn’t known a time when we didn’t come together as a community to show young women how much support they have. She hasn’t known a time were we didn’t reach out and provide support for young woman as they move from being a child into being an adult. So in her mind, this is just who we are as Hupa people. That only took 10 years.

S: What kind of advice do you have for people wanting to revive ceremonies in their own communities?

B: I would say, start by listening. Go to as many elders and people as you can and just listen to their stories, their memories, their questions, their visions of what this could look like. Collect all the stories and memories and ideas that you can. Listen to them and then listen to the people who left their stories in the archives. It takes a lot of listening because you are helping to wake these stories up. All of the women I interviewed they kept saying all it took was to “scratch the surface.” They said “we just had to start going to people and hearing their stories and then another person came and another. We found one story in the archive and then another and another.”

The best advice for the archive is to read the books but also read the notes. Anthropologists and ethnographers usually kept detailed notes of their interviews. This is where you are going to really be able to listen to the words of those who worked to leave an archive behind. The notes are very often different (more detailed, more focused) than what is in the book. In some cases they can completely contradict what is in the book. So read the notes, read the transcripts. Listen to those stories.

And after you’ve started “scratching the surface” be open to what else comes your way. At first there were not very many songs that people had to sing, but that’s okay. We came and sang the three or four songs people knew. But then after that other people started remembering songs. Or other people started to get songs. I got a song once while I was making mashed potatoes. It just came to me. I started singing it and I couldn’t get it out of my head. Now I sing it all the time. So the women like to tell me,   you start this journey, and everything comes together, because these ceremonies have been waiting for us to search for them again. They’ve been waiting for us.

Anthropologists like to say they went “extinct” or “disappeared” but I like to think about what my mentor Ines Hernandez-Avila taught me. They never went extinct, they were just waiting for us. So we scratch the surface, and we listen for them, and they will come back to us.

The last thing the women told me was “just do it.” They said, start the listening, do the research, put some notes together and then just do it. Don’t wait for it to be the perfect time, just do it. After the first one there will be a second one and then a third one. You just have to do the first one. So, just do it.

S: How can people get a hold of your book?

B: You can pre-order it now on the University of Washington Press website or on Amazon. It will be released in May-June 2018. I know for sure it should be at the Native American Indigenous Studies Association Conference this year in Los Angeles, CA. I’ll also have a link to it on my website.

Mia Ohki
Mia Ohki is a Metis Japanese-Canadian artist, born in Connecticut, USA, and raised in Alberta, Canada. She presently lives and works between Edmonton and Calgary, AB. Mia primarily illustrates with black pen on white paper to convey ideas surrounding the social, feminine and cultural influences in her life, however her art is mostly influenced by her background, with Japanese and Metis culture frequently appearing in the subject matter.

Dr Cutcha Risling Baldy
Dr Cutcha Risling Baldy is currently an Assistant Professor of Native American Studies at Humboldt State University. Her research is focused on Indigenous feminisms, California Indians and decolonization. She received her Ph.D in Native American Studies with a designated Emphasis in Feminist Theory and Research from the University of California, Davis and her M.F.A in Creative Writing & Literary Research from San Diego State University. She also has her B.A. in Psychology from Stanford University. 

My Gender is Sacred Femininity

Illustration of a women looking at a moon text reads "she asks me not to get rid of monsters, she knows the interruption of love by trauma, is inevitable like a sun that sets the orbit of planets a moon illuminating the unseen certain as a body ready to heal move and be moved from orpheus and eurydice"

reflections on community, astrology, healing, and the universe

by Shaunga Tagore

         I was born in the sparkle of a Gemini Sun, just as it was setting on the horizon, and the constellation of Scorpio was Rising on the horizon. I was born on the eclipse of a full Sagittarius moon. I was born carrying wounds that ancestors never got to reconcile in their lifetime. I was born to be a storyteller, to create magic out of madness. 

              In the Fall of 2015, my friend Hisayo and I made a date to drink wine and chat about trauma (because what else would two Scorpio-types do on a Tuesday night?). 

     We chilled in my old apartment over-looking Wallace-Emerson park in the west end of Toronto; a cozy run-down dwelling that held me during a year of many changes and learnings: a shocking, painful break-up; the weekend I burnt writing from dozens of journals I had been carrying around with me for over ten years; and where I learned to talk to ghosts and cast spells for the first time in my life. As the evening went on, Hisayo and I chatted and ranted about community, relationships, and how trauma and power dynamics impact how we build these things. We talked about whether we found differences between dating people on feminine or masculine spectrums, as well as how we experienced our own genders in relationship to that. At one point I blurted out in a tipsy stream of consciousness, you know, maybe my gender is just actually just Sacred Femininity! Thank you to Hisayo for their wide eyes and finger-waggy encouragement: Shaunga, that is brilliant. You need to write that shit down!

     My gender, my healing, my art and my sense of being are all expressed through the Sacred Feminine. This is the place where I ground myself, move forward from, and access my intuition, intentions, actions, and decisions.

     Sacred Femininity is my connection to the universe, my relationship with my ancestors, my trust in Spirit. The Sacred Feminine is evident and glistening everywhere around us – inside the memories of rocks, the medicine of plants, the rhythms of ocean waves, the transformation of ocean depths, the surrender in riptides. It is in the wisdom and interdependence of trees, the growth and lessons of mountains, the destruction and creation of volcanoes. Sacred Femininity is in the cycles of planets, the inspiration of stars, the mysteries and unknowability of our galaxies. Sacred Femininity is our universe, our Mama Earth. She is the home that holds us all. Without her, we wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t have bodies or breath. We wouldn’t have anywhere to live.

     It has taken me 31 years (the age I am now) to re-remember my relationship to this sacred knowing, to Spirit. It’s taken me this long to work through enough trauma related to displacement, violation, memory-loss, and denial that hindered my relationship to spirituality since childhood. Now I am finally able to create a clear channel between myself and Spirit, and honour the Sacred Feminine in myself and around me in a new way, and many old ways.

    And I feel like a weirdo. It’s hard to explain to people how and why I live the way I do when conversations about trauma and Spirit are not valued in many queer communities; when they are often seen as separate from activism, justice or politics. Especially over the last year as I have been embracing this part of me more fully, I have been witnessing my relationships changing with people who don’t quite know what to do with it.

    Spirit and Femininity have always been the central target of white masculinity (or in long form, the Colonial, Capitalist, Ableist Patriarchy Cis-Tem). White masculinity is confused by Sacred Femininity. Terrified of her. Always in attempt to control, harness, deny, minimize, belittle, erase, suppress, violate, exploit, interject into and mansplain away.

     White masculinity’s laws are directly in conflict with Spirit Law embedded in the universe, Mama Earth, and her guidelines of how we should respect the home she offers us. Spirit Law is governed through sustainability, balance, mutuality, consent, self-determination, personal agency, interdependency, collective growth and ongoing change.

     White masculinity’s cis-tem is not sustainable or balanced; it creates luxury for some at the expense of others, it doesn’t think about the future, it uses and exploits without regard for the consequences, it takes without consent. It denies our relationship to Spirit, to our soul’s purpose for being here on this planet, to the unique configuration the stars and planets formed the minute we were born and that gave us a story in our bodies to fulfill.

     White masculinity knows that if you violate Spirit – our relationship to an awesome life force, our connection to creation, to existence itself – and if you deflate the people on the planet who most fiercely honour and embody this connection, then you can conquer the planet as a whole. This is why colonization has always and continues to centrally target Black and Indigenous women, 2Spirit, transwomen, gendervariant people, women of colour, healers, witches, caregivers, artists, and other channels of the sacred divine, including Mama Earth herself.

     When I think about when/how I have been the most hurt in relationships and community – whether romantic, friendship, work, within arts-collaborations, or activist pursuits – these are the times that my own Sacred Femininity has not been respected. When I have not given myself permission to respect the Sacred Feminine within a community, a relationship dynamic or in myself. These days I strive to make my moves and decisions by grounding in Spirit. This means I have been learning to recognize when the universe is talking to me. When she does, I trust the answer before I know the question. In my early 20s I made the decision to move to city half-way across the country in an instant, and now know that was Spirit talking to me. As an artist and creator, I receive visions for my plays and performances and I commit to those visions before I know what all the details look like. What I know for certain is that listening to Spirit never lets us down; the universe will never send us down a wrong path. Of course, none of this is “practical” according to white capitalist masculinity; none of this is “productive” or leads anywhere “successful.” It won’t be taken seriously by white masculine institutions or the people who uphold them. Even amongst community I can be treated like I am “flaky,” “irrational,” or others will attempt to control or devalue my way of being and creating. I’ve come to realize in the building of relationships and community – no matter where other people are at with their own trauma, journey, relationship to power, they need to at the very least accept and respect the Sacred Femininity in me.

     Here I come back to the confirmation that healing work is so important to pursuits of activism and justice, to change and liberation individually and out of collectively destructive global patterns. Healing is not about ‘fixing’ ourselves until we are not broken. Healing is about looking deeply inward and accessing the parts of our spirits and bodies that are so powerful, they have never been harmed. They are so divine, so sacred, they cannot be tainted by anything that attempts to destroy us. I believe this exists in everyone – a memory of the constellations that birthed us, a returning to an alignment with Spirit Law, a defiance of human-made cis-tems the universe was never meant to hold. As an astrologer, I learn a lot about this kind of healing, this returning, and about relationships and communities, from the 12 different zodiac constellations and planets. All the signs have different feelings about each other. They have different kinds of conversations: some may be supportive, some may be clashes or arguments, and sometimes signs can speak to each other without actually listening to what they other is saying (and how often do you see that happen in community…)

     When I do a reading for someone and analyse their individual birth chart, I see all the complicated and nuanced ‘conversations’ that happen all at once within an individual person. A basic example: we might be super reserved and cautious in new situations (Scorpio Rising, what up!), but playful and bold around who we consider family (perhaps a Leo Sun in the 4th house!). A unique combination of these ‘conversations’ surface when I do compatibility readings between two people, and they are definitely present when thinking about astrology as a whole (or if I were to imagine how community could function as a whole). The fact that the signs of the zodiac make a circle is significant to me. It tells me that in the midst of all these different kinds of relationships (where some signs are best buds, some signs are constantly in drama, some just don’t get each other) – everyone is needed to make the circle whole.

     In an art performance showcase, for example, you need all the signs to pull off an amazing show: you need the element of fire (Aries, Leo, Sagittarius) to boldly express themselves on stage, put creativity, passion and beliefs all on display and energize the room. You need the earth element (Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn) to create physical accessibility and comfort for the space, to make sure there is food backstage and everyone who worked to make the show happen is compensated fairly for their work. You need air (Gemini, Libra, Aquarius) to create language expressing the politics underlying the event, to create avenues of communication and consent between audience members and performers, and you need water (Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces) to open our hearts to give and receive, to know there is a deeper purpose to why we come together in this way – to feel, to be moved, to be transformed.

     In our individuals lives and communities, sometimes we go through times where it is important to be open to abundance and expansion (Jupiter), sometimes to learn about our own limits and boundaries (Saturn). Sometimes we might need to take risks and try something completely new to break free (Uranus), sometimes we are more in tune with our dream world, our hidden emotions (Neptune), and sometimes we transform ourselves entirely by letting go of deeply rooted patterns holding us back from our own empowerment (Pluto). When the lessons we need to learn might not always line up in harmony with our partners, friends, or the people we work, create or organize with, how do we keep room for each other? Respect each other? Be accountable to each other? How do we support each other and love each other while we may react differently in a crisis (Moon), find pleasure different kinds of relationships and romance (Venus), clash in the way we express our anger and sexuality (Mars), have trouble understanding the different ways we communicate (Mercury), and feel like we have really specific and unique purposes for being alive (Sun)? Healing is being curious about all of these questions. It is wanting to know ourselves in our unique story nobody else can tell. It is wanting to respect the divine, the Sacred Feminine in all of us.

     The Sacred Feminine implores us to ask of ourselves and one another: who are we in our genders, families, blood lines, ancestors, past lives, future lives, spirit karma? In our relationships to childhood, work, lovers, school, borders, displacement, immigration, police, violence, privilege, power? What are our joys and strengths? What makes us shine the most brightly, what is our best contribution to a good world? When are we doing our best, when are we acting in detriment to ourselves, and how does this impact our relationships and communities? It is having a conversation with ourselves and recognizing: this is a pattern I am stuck in, this is a habit I have, this is the impact on myself and others…and it no longer works for me. I no longer choose this. It doesn’t help me or the state of the world. It keeps me stuck somewhere I don’t want to be, and I am committed to change. Sacred Femininity, healing, community and justice is the opposite of denying our feelings, and hiding who we are from ourselves. It is thanking ourselves for surviving thus far, and wanting something more.

*Parts of this article have been previously published on

Shaunga Tagore
Shaunga Tagore is a performance artist, writer, astrologer, intuitive counsellor, arts-based educator and community organizer; a non-binary tenderqueer superqueero cat-lady magic-making weirdo.

Transformative Communities

A Conversation with Tina Reynolds

By: Savannah Clarke

Tina Reynolds was in Guelph on February 24th to speak on a Transformative Justice panel to explore the work that herself and other Black women are doing in their communities to keep each other safe, to resist police violence, and build alternatives to prisons. She took some time to sit down with our interviewer Savannah and share some knowledge.

Savannah: Can you start off with your name and some background on what you do and who you are?

Tina: My name is Tina Reynolds and I am a social worker, a junk-lecturer, I live in Brooklyn, New York. I teach at York College in New York City in the behavioural science department and I’ve been doing that for ten years. I have experienced being in prison and I have been an activist and advocate for over twenty years. Advocating for women, children and families and specifically changing the perception of women as they’ve been impacted by the criminal justice system

S: So what is the importance of meaningful relationships in the work that you do?

T: In 2004, we started an organization called Women on the Rise Telling Her Story (WORTH). One of the things that we did for our first strategic meeting was to make an agreement amongst ourselves that our relationships as women who have been impacted by the criminal justice system mattered and had to be put first. That we were stepping out and doing something that was very unique. We were collaborating with our sisters whom we had left behind. Within our own lives we were making a way for them to be able to have some stability once they returned. So, our relationships in establishing those conversations moved towards a co-creative, inclusive, collaborative vision of the organization and the way at which we would do our advocacy work. We knew many people working within the human services and criminal justice services. Some of us had gone back to school and received our degrees. We saw that the resources that were most valuable were ourselves and that we could actually leverage some opportunities for our sisters coming home through our positions in the work that we were doing. The relationships we established in these organizations and amongst ourselves became really important and vital in us assisting women and being there as a resource for when they came home. So relationships are really important.

S: It sounds like it sort of builds the foundation for your organization?

T: Absolutely. We built a foundation and moved through our relationships differently. We’ve all had our experiences that were different from our prison experiences. Within those prison experiences that we had, we came with our own individual passion around the impact and effects of our own prison experience. WORTH was never a mono-issue organization. We always held up and offered opportunities for women and saw that there was an need for dignity and for understanding for how every women served their time and how it is that they came home and what it was that impacted them the most and what drove them to do this work from a passionate place. Usually it was an issue that impacted them terribly during their incarceration that they fought really hard and adamantly for when they came home.

S: Earlier you mentioned your sisters and doing work for those that have been left behind, how do center the voices of those who have been most marginalized in our communities? More specifically from your perspective on working with women in prisons.

T: The organization is called Women on the Rise Telling Her story. It’s our her-story, it’s our linage, our story. Our stories are so important and they can mean different things for different people. What we’ve done with centering our stories is allow ourselves to be seen as experts and to see ourselves in dignity. We’ve been able to see ourselves as women who have had the prison experience and most importantly are not those experiences that we’ve had. We’ve taken our experiences, shaped and molded them to be shared with other people in ways that could be used for presentations, literature, journals, books and poetry. We make sure that we are in the centre of that and how we get that place is an understanding that it is necessary to be fully self-expressed. Full self-expression comes about in many different ways. We’ve centered our voices through full self expression, the dignity offered through others and it’s putting the story in the center.

When we use to open up our office in the morning, we would come in and the first thing we did was sit around a table that was in the middle of the kitchen, in our office in Manhattan. Now our office in is Queens but that Manhattan office was so special to the needs that we had as women. There were times when would come in and we would sit around the table and debrief from the day before of our organizing efforts or whatever it was that we were working on. Often times we didn’t start working until after noon because we just had the need to be in conversation, to hear each others voices and opinions. To find out about what mattered, our children, our challenges and barriers. From one issue to the next, we committed ourselves to doing better and dedicate ourselves to the issue and what is of our passion. They were really great times.

S: So, you mentioned earlier that you own your experiences and that you get to shape and decide how they are used. How do you work to change the narrative of how people see prisons in our communities?

T: For myself, I think that the narrative of prisons had to change from a place where I felt like I was being rescued when I sought out resources after prison. The idea that I had was that prisons were a place of punishments and that notion stands today. It is within our society that we rely on this particular environment to punish people, rehabilitate people and a place where it is politically entangled within various things in our society. It is part of a system that takes the freedom away from people. [However], it is also part of a system that takes the freedom and life of those that are in our communities. It makes [people in our communities] bound to that particular system. If there is a person they love within, they cannot live their lives as if it does not exist. The prison narrative, for me, is looking at it from the context of what has been done to brown and black people throughout our history.This is an environment, a place and a space specifically for those same things to happen under the guise of punishing because someone has committed a crime. Often times the idea of crime is one where there has not been a crime committed at all. There has been more of an issue of criminalizing of people. So, when we think about the things people do and the reason why they were arrested for things that they do is because we have not held our systems of the way in which we are policed, the department of corrections and other systems that prohibit us from being full human beings – have not been held accountable. We have not asked them questions, taken lead or held our power. As long as we continue to not take our power we have a narrative where we feel it is necessary to have prisons within our community and within our lives. I believe in prison abolition. I think there is a way for us to end incarceration. I believe there are ways for us to heal and have difficult conversations. I believe that there are people who commit crimes and I think we should have equality around that. If the rules bend for one, we have to understand that they are stronger and more stringent than the other. So we have those two paradoxes to look at. The conversation around punishment is more important in our society, I think, then the narrative of prisons and what they stand for.

S: What are some challenges that you’ve faced in the work that you do and how did you overcome these challenges?

Tina: The challenge of the work is being at peace with women. Working with women, for me, was the biggest challenge. It was one that I did with joy and I still do with joy. It is that humility that needs to be full and in the center. It is checking ones’ self and your intention. It’s the debriefing and being able to listen to others. As well as, truly being inclusive. It is being able to apologize, rededicate and recommit yourself to being a stand for what it is that you are doing and for those that you are doing it with. Knowing that you need to be a good follower as well as a good leader.

S: My final questions is, do you have any advice for our generation when working on this movement? We’ve talked a lot about exchange of knowledge, how do we build this movement that is intergenerational?

Tina: When I first started college, I always thought about the intergenerational impact of mass incarceration. Now I know that there is an intergenerational impact of mass criminalization of a people, on black lives specifically. When I first heard of #blacklivesmatter, I thought about how it was that all lives mattered and I was excluding myself again. [This is because] Inside, around the trauma that I’ve experienced it’s always been about exclusion of self and inclusion of others and not looking at myself, specifically as a black woman, as my life mattering. I’ve had to take that on in many instances that I’ve had to do this activism work where I’ve had this internalized fear. So, the intergenerational aspect of moving this movement forward, because it’s not a new movement, is including all black and brown people. It is the inclusion of all black lives. It’s the inclusion of all women, trans and queer women. It’s the inclusion of all folks that have been oppressed and dehumanized. It’s the inclusion of trans folks, queer folks, youth and their voices. It’s the inclusion of having folks being able to create and imagine, what it might look like that’s different. It is not being ashamed of what it is you’ve done as a person [ but instead] having it propel you to be fearless of the shame and the guilt. And to understand, especially young folks, that these conversations are happening with all people. Showing up in different spaces is not something that is thought about or planned…it’s happening. The universe is answering and offering. It is creating a space for these conversations, meetings and connections to be made because it’s really important. A friend of mine has always said to me what is very integral to activism are the three C’s. They are to have clarity, remain capable, and maintain compassion. So, the three C’s, for me, are those things. To be really clear and to sit down and be still and to think about what it is that I need to do next and how it is that I’m transforming… as well as other things are transforming around me. Being patient, loving, kind, consistent, available, flexible, a person that is listening, a person that is hearing and involved. Just being.

Tina Reynolds
Tina Reynolds is Co-Founder and Chair of Women on the Rise Telling HerStory (WORTH). WORTH is an association of formerly and currently incarcerated women who have been empowered by their own experiences while involved in the criminal justice system and beyond.  Reynolds has received a Master in Social Work from Hunter College and is currently an adjunct professor at York, CUNY in the Behavioral Sciences Department teaching “Impact of Incarceration on Families, Communities and Children” and Human Development.

Redefining Brown Bodies Through Art

an illustration of a magical girl wearing a nose to ear chain and a awoken third eye

An Interview with Chitra Ganesh

By: Shabina Lafleur-Gangji

As a South Asian woman I feel the complexities around how colonialism have shaped our minds and imaginations are rarely explored. So often brown bodies are depicted as non-sexual and dirty. This is why Chitra Ganesh, a Brooklyn based artist, has always inspired me.

Ganesh explores topics like shadeism, sexuality, diasporic experience and colonialism in a way that allows the viewer the witness the current state and reimagine the possibilities. the current state and reimagine the possibilities. For this issue of the Peak I was lucky enough to be able to get in touch with her to ask her about her work.

Shabina Lafleur-Gangji: As an artist, what inspires you to explore sexuality and depictions of darker skinned brown women in your work? What is the role that art can play in helping us reclaim our histories and our imaginations?

Chitra Ganesh: I am interested in expanding the bounds of what kinds of female bodies are visible, legible and represented in both art historical and mass mediated contexts, such as fashion, entertainment, and popular cultures. More often than not, we come into contact with an extremely limited pictorial range of female bodies –whether this is in mainstream culture or within the realm of the art historical canon. Art historically speaking, within the traditions of Western Classical and European art, brown and black women are frequently adornments to their (white) protagonists and counterparts- anonymous maid servants, wet nurses, handmaidens, slave labor, and so forth. They are literally relegated to the pictorial margins, or blend into the backdrop. The ambiguously gendered subordinate black figure in Manet’s “Olympia” is a key example of this, where brown and blacks women’s anonymity props up white female sexuality. In mainstream representations across the globe, dominant images of women veer towards extraordinarily thin, young, hairless, light skinned, and more. My own frustration and boredom around this reductive visual monotony in part inspires me, and so I make the kinds of images I would like to see in the world. Art gives me, us, the capacity to imagine something beyond the existing norms- space where non normative bodies, attitudes, and affective or psychic states can inhabit, thrive, and desire in a potent imaginary field. Among many other things, art and a gender based critique of power are exceptional liberatory tools to harness as we move forward.

Shabina: How do you feel that the experience of class/ of shadeism differs from South Asia to countries like United States and Canada?

Chitra: As I see it, each particular place has its own geopolitical context, a history of hundreds (or hundreds of thousands) of years that inform attitudes towards skin color. In both Eastern and Western hemispheres, skin color has long been a signifier of class– a differentiating marker between manual laborers, say, and a ruling class who have the privilege of being at home while others toil under the sun.

On the South Asian subcontinent, these distinctions certainly converge with caste oppression, which mandates the harshest and most brutal forms of labor to be performed by Dalit populations. The US certainly has a very unique construction and framework of race.  One thing that this election has taught me is how much of our national history and current politics are built on the back of anti-black racism and the legacy of slavery. On the one hand, anti-black racism and the caste system both produce social and economic oppression that are alive and well today, and in many way, form the backbone of their respective nations. On the other hand these two histories are irreducibly singular, though they can be strategically considered in the same frame to render legible how these oppressions continue to operate in everyday life on the 21st century– for example, to raise visibility around issues of caste oppression in an American context.

Shabina: How do you feel the colonial legacy impacts the way South Asians are seen and the way we related to our own bodies?

Chitra: I think attributing the preponderance of South Asian subject formation to British Colonialism doesn’t do justice to engaging the incredibly complex politics and history have operated in South Asia long before and after British occupation. I think the British colonial legacy in one piece in a much larger puzzle of histories and attitudes that inform how we may see ourselves and one another. The legacies of American imperialism and xenophobia also perpetuate these continued poles of orientalism and illegibility that South Asian women, for example, have to face on a daily bases. Our identification(s) in the US may be as is as much a product of how misogyny, islamophobia, and xenophobia continue to operate here. Incidences of anti-muslim hate based attacks have risen 67% in the US in the past year – and this is the tip of the iceberg, only that which has been reported. And how frequently do we see these issues, or Standing Rock, for example, mentioned in mainstream American politics?

Shabina: One of your more recent exhibits Protest Fantasies focuses of global resistance to violence on bodies and land. Can you talk what the inspiration was behind it?

Chitra: The particular theme of Protest Fantasies came about by just being really struck and amazed by the power of protest in this moment. It’s been an ongoing part of my life, whether in 2003/4 to protest the Iraq War or any number of things, but then really looking at a lot of the images of die-ins and talking to another artist friend of mine, they look almost like history paintings. The gestures are just extremely performative. There are so many versions of how people are thinking about protests now.

One piece Rana Plaza depicts images of the women who survived the Bangladesh sweatshop collapse, and this is their one-year anniversary performance, getting ready to march and sing. It’s indistinguishable from performance art. Similar to monks who set themselves on fire as a form of protest against China’s oppression of Tibet.

The piece Femme Power captures the rich emotional texture of wanting to resist — tears of rage that ferment into something. It brings out the part of an otherwise peace-loving person that can’t deal anymore.

I feel that exposing that pain with a sense of agency is really powerful. It’s not a kind of victimization. I think empathy is as important as fantasy. And art enables empathy. And if you remove some of reality from the story, people feel more comfortable empathizing with a different character. I think that’s how science fiction works, for example.

We’re artists, and our role is also that of translator — to translate things from one mode of expression to another within our own practice. To get from journal to memoir to essay to a poem, and use that translation to invite the audience to step in. I feel like myth does that too.

Chitra Ganesh
Chitra Ganesh is a Brooklyn based artist widely recognized for her experimental use of comic and large-scale narrative forms that bring to light representations of femininity, sexuality, and power typically absent from canons of literature and art.

Shabina Lafleur-Gangji
Shabina is a queer mixed race weird witchy lady from Guelph who is into community organizing and revolution.

Indigenous Femmes Talk Tradition, Culture & Anti-Fashion

An Interview with Sage Paul

Interview by Gesig Isaac

Gesig: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your art.

Sage Paul: My name is Sage Paul. I am an Indigenous woman. I am Denesuline from the caribou clan and was born and raised in Toronto. I currently live and freelance in Toronto with my fiancée, playwright Cliff Cardinal, our dog Frodo (the happiest living being of all time), and our Bengal cat, Tiga. When I wake up, I start my day with the view of an art deco building from our 5th floor apartment window across the skyline. It’s like we live in the sky. Then I get to real life.

I am an artist and designer. My mediums include mixed-materials, craft, fashion, costume design and visual arts. Broad, though I feel the language and beauty of those materials and practices weave a succinct narrative. That narrative comes from a deeply personal place from within a collective experience and blood memory. My most recent work is called Re-Dress (Redress), which is a pair of caribou antlers I saved (…purchased back) from a trendy furniture store in Toronto, and with the help of my mom, I am clothing the antlers with the beaded-red peyote stitch.

In practice, I usually finish the production of my work with my sister and mom (in fact, I think my mom’s helped me bead or sew everything I’ve ever done). The very act of making clothing or art with my mom or sister is an act of resistance and the restoration of Indigeneity from the grounding of family. It’s this kind of space I hope to maintain, for the fundamental necessity that family and land thrive. This philosophy activates sovereignty, culture, and resistance for balance in our modern society.

Gesig: Tell us about your Setsuné project.

Sage: Setsuné means “grandmother” in Dene and we are an Indigenous fashion incubator founded by myself and Erika Iserhoff. Gabi Caruso of Red Pepper Spectacle Arts was also vital in the development of the Incubator. Setsuné was founded for the purposes of creating a collective platform for Indigenous women who create works in fashion, textiles and mixed-materials. It is a platform that provides access that we didn’t find anywhere else: to traditional practices, techniques and skills. We create and exhibit our works in an artistic context within an Indigenous framework. Setsuné is the largest project I’ve been working on for the last few years.

Our programming includes a series of hands-on workshops in an intimate communal environment facilitated by Indigenous artists from across Canada. The series takes place in downtown Toronto right now, with the goal of touring them, and includes hide tanning, fish scale art, silk screening, sewing, moose hair tufting, roach headdress making, regalia making and any other skills or knowledge we seek. These workshops are traditional, cultural and contemporary; they’re for anyone and everyone with amplified access for young, self-identified Indigenous women. The workshops are truly Indigenous in a traditional and contemporary sense in the very act of us doing it.

Our first exhibit speaking to cultural appropriation is called Indian Giver: Truth Telling and Narratives of Representation. Exhibited artists were selected by community members, and then artists worked together and independently to develop pieces in fashion, textiles and mixed materials. The final works are diverse in form and craft. They are unique, empowering and abstract as they relate to fashion. A group of 8 artists opened this exhibit to a really great response at Gallery 1313. The show will be touring Canada in 2017.

Access to this type of knowledge, skill and space has built a community of artists and creators that now work together outside of the workshops within their own practices. The strong sense of self-determination and community is a positive and inspiring outcome that we see from our programming. It is really rewarding and exciting. The platform we so greatly needed was actually more widely necessary than we knew. This community of Indigenous artists continues to grow. There are now multiple requests coming to Setsuné from mainstream and western organizations who want to collaborate with us and the artists we work beside.

We are committed to bridging the gap between Indigenous artists and the mainstream art, fashion and retail sectors. We will maintain community and sovereignty through our partnerships as we continue to grow. Two of our goals are to be working nationally and internationally and have a permanent home for a gallery, retail space and studio. We listen to each other and the artists we work with to ensure we are serving the needs and desires of our community.

Gesig: On the Setsuné website you mention being anti-fashion- tell us more! What does that mean?

Sage: Personally, being anti-fashion is about using fashion as a medium to share my vision, tell my story and assert my political views; and not a commodity. I am free to create work not confined by the constructs of the fashion industry or the history of western fashion. It’s a simple concept that I hope lets people experience my work in an accessible way.

The inclusion of “Anti-Fashion” on the Setsuné website is about shining light on the work that takes back our ways and stories implicated by cultural appropriation and commodification. Just being native is political because we are not supposed to be here. We have experienced the largest genocide in history and we’re the fastest growing population in Canada. There are now a number of artists using fashion, textiles and mixed-material as an art form to reclaim and broadcast our culture and ways. Anti-fashion builds a platform through the fashion industry and the mainstream to widely celebrate our stories and ways for and by us.

Gesig: Can you define what is “traditional”? Is it definable at all? Is that something you get hung up on in your work?

Sage: Yes, traditional is definable, although I know there are years and years of academic discussion about it that we could get into. Traditional is the way things were done in our community before me and us, the way we continue to do them and how we will do them in the future. To put it simply, traditional is cyclical, evolutionary and timeless in a way that respects our ancestors, family and land, and in turn, myself. Knowing and practicing traditional ways keeps us alive.

When it comes to getting hung up in tradition: I get hung up on a lot of things in my work. It’s a part of the challenge and process of creating. What comes out in the end is what the work wanted to say, whether or not there are traditional aspects.

Gesig: Are there taboos for you? Things we can and cannot touch as indigenous people who are looking to our ancestors and culture for inspiration?

Sage: There is an individual responsibility to be respectful and accountable for how we “use” culture- our own culture and others. If you think you’re doing something wrong then you probably are, and that is the light-bulb moment to go find guidance from Indigenous leaders, knowledge holders, community members… I think it’s important to question oneself throughout creation, especially if something is ceremonial or sacred. Being inspired is only one part of the creative process and doesn’t justify cultural use. Looking to ancestry or culture for inspiration stirs a lot of questions. This exploration makes our ancestors proud and resonates with future generations.

More importantly though, there’s a wave of non-Indigenous artists and designers who are looking to use their art to honour our culture and in doing so furthering their own career. My advice for these heart-in-the-right place assholes is that they should fuck off. Whatever that warm feeling in your heart that’s making you feel really good about yourself, you should ignore it. Buy a Cris Derksen album. Go to a rally. Vote with your heart; but don’t steal our fashion like you have everything else.

Gesig: What advice do you have for folks who maybe didn’t grow up around parents who created art, practiced their culture etc?

Sage: For those who are interested in art and for those seeking to understand more about their culture, my advice is to jump in! Dig deep for that knowledge, because it’s there: Setsuné, cultural and community centres, friends, family, elders, art, libraries, within yourself, everywhere. There’s a lot of really beautiful and not so beautiful parts of art and culture that will take a lifetime to understand. The important part is to just listen.

Gesig: Have you seen a surge in upcoming Native fashion designers in the past little while? If so, why do you think that is?

Sage: There is definitely a surge of Native designers and craft artists since even only ten years ago. It is important to acknowledge though that there are millions of Indigenous artists who create fashion and craft and have been doing it for a long, long time – craft, adornment and storytelling through dress and utility is ancient. I think modern visibility of our art has grown because of the fact that we reclaiming our ways. Since contact, our ways and culture have been violently exploited by the colonizer and we are only the first, second and third generation since the residential school system, which banned practice and visibility of our culture. We still thrive and continue building and rebuilding our platform and economy that supports each other. This includes supporting our artists, designers; buying Indigenous-made, and encouraging larger society to do the same.

Presently speaking, there is a sense of pride from within our community to see and wear our stories by our designers. It shows we are here and alive. On a practical level, we also live in the digital age that connects and grows our national and global Indigenous community and economy.

Gesig: What future projects are you excited about? Tell us about them!

Sage: There are a couple big projects confirmed for Setsuné, including the tour of our exhibit Indian Giver in 2017. Confirmed stops are Toronto, North Bay, Regina and several others to be announced. The tour will also offer hide tanning workshops and panel discussions. All details for this will be available in the new year with dates and venues at our website, as well as at our presenters’ sites.

Another project we are working on is in partnership with a large retailer that upcycles the unused textiles of the retailers’ products.  We are designing illustrations for a collection of textile-based products. We will work with Indigenous women specifically for the development of our own fashion and textile retail businesses. The completed collection will go on sale early next year in Toronto. The partnership will allow us to fairly employ Indigenous women artists and also supports the growth of Setsuné.

We are condensing our annual workshop series into a weeklong seminar. Old School Seminar brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists, cultural leaders, and arts and crafts leaders for an immersive program of North American Indigenous dyeing and weaving workshops. Lectures will explore the symbolism, storytelling and identity of our culture through these mediums. Dates will be released in the new year with the full program of activities.

Personally, I am working on a few costume design projects, including design for two plays written by my partner Cliff Cardinal and a Young People’s Theatre production Munschtime!, a play based on the stories of Robert Munsch and directed by Herbie Barnes. I am also working on a play produced by Storefront Theatre called Divine about water diviners. I’m looking forward to dreaming up the style of these characters, it’s a magical experience to create and design someone’s vision and story. I’m super stoked about all of them!

I am also in the research and development phases of working on a multi-faceted, conceptual project of fashion, storytelling and video. And another fashion collection. These are for 2018.

Wow, 2017 and 2018 are going to be big years! Thanks so much for reaching out, this was a lot of fun to share.

Sage Lovell
Sage Paul is from the caribou clan. She loves beauty. Her work reflects her values in family, culture, and resistance through fashion and mixed-materials. She most recently was a curatorial leader and exhibiting artist of Indian Giver: Truth Telling and Narratives of Representation (2016). She has completed three fashion collections and designed wardrobe for film and theatre including collaborations with Danis Goulet, Kent Monkman and a Centre for Indigenous Theatre production directed by Herbie Barnes. Sage is the co-founder of Setsuné Indigenous Fashion Incubator.

Gesig is a mixed race, half-breed Forest-Femme demon. She currently resides in wolastoqiyik territory.