An Interview with Christi Belcourt
by Katherine Nixon
Artwork by bitty
After moving away from the city in 2000, Michif artist, Christi Belcourt, began to paint full time. Over time, she says the plants and land became her teachers and she began to understand the interconnectedness of everything in a deeper and more profoundly spiritual way. Her love for the earth and her people can be seen throughout all her work.
Currently, Christi working with the Onaman Collective to support the resurgence of language and land based practices.
Recently, I was given with the opportunity to ask her some questions about her work and how she sees moving forward.
Katherine: How has art helped you express your culture?
Christi: The worldview, which is commonly shared by many different indigenous nations across the globe, is that there are laws (which are natural laws) of the earth to which human beings must adhere to and be respectful of. And those observing those natural laws, and living in, as people would more commonly referred to, as living in balance with the earth, is what has sustained human populations and the earth and every other species since the beginning of time. But what has happened more recently is that we are seeing that, especially since the advent of the industrial age, is the human species has begun to believe they contain it, and control, the natural laws. And we are seeing the consequences of breaching that very sacred and spiritual balance that we have with the earth. And so this worldview is still held within Indigenous communities of common belief and practice, of the act of walking softly with the earth and needing to really be respectful and mindful of the spirits that exist all around us, in the land which we are privileged to live upon. And that we are dependent on everything else in the earth, and that nothing, absolutely nothing is dependent on us. And so the idea that we’re at the top of the food chain is actually quite opposite in reality, where we’re really at the bottom. And we are dependent on everything, and therefore it’s incumbent upon us to walk softly, and be respectful and gentle in the ways that we approach the earth. Which is in direct contrast to the systems that are governing the earth at the moment, which are based on capitalism, and basically taking from the earth and not returning anything; really believing that human beings are meant to be dominant over the earth. Which is a really predominantly Judeo-Christian belief, and a belief of other religions around the world, that have formed the belief systems of governments that are basically destroying the world. So combined with the capitalist system and the corporate structure of the world, we are seeing a rapid climate change and things that are happening that are creating poverty and suffering around the world through the capitalist model which is mostly disguised as democracy. So my paintings now are a reflection of the belief system that we need to be in balance with the earth and we need to respect things that sustain our life system on this planet, and the ecosystems in which they live. And so, I paint what some people might think are simply pretty flowers, but what I’m trying to really say is let us exalt the beauty of the earth and the way that she sustains us all, and let us respect that beauty as if it were our own son and daughter.
K: I know you were one of the inspirations for the Valentino designs. How was that for you? When the non-Indigenous populations of the world are watching and seeing your designs, how did that feel for you to get the message out there-through your artwork?
C: I think the message that was carried forward with Valentino was that the vast majority that would have seen the dresses, or the collaborative work, would not have also necessarily read the messages about the work, and they wouldn’t have necessarily understood that was what they were seeing. For the people who did the the time to maybe look a little bit further, or read some of the interviews that happened, they maybe would have got some of the messages. Y’know, people’s attention spans are very limited nowadays. And we’re oversaturated with media, and it’s hard to get messages out in a really deep and meaningful way.
But that said, it was fun to work with Valentino. Valentino: not the Valentino, but the designers within Valentino. And it was a pleasure to work with them. As far as fashion houses go, they have been rated #1 by Greenpeace for a number of years for their consciousness, I suppose, for wanting to move towards having all of their materials sourced sustainably. And they are conscious of that. They have been, unfortunately in more recent years, accused of appropriation of Indigenous designs, and this is really very sad and disappointing for me. Because it was one of the very clear, distinct questions that I had at the beginning; and I had made it clear that I didn’t approve of fashion houses who appropriated Indigenous designs. And I find that most of the big fashion houses that appropriate on a regular basis, seem to be completely tone deaf and ignore the concerns that are being brought forward by fashion designers that are working themselves in a more conscientious way.
K: What would be your hope for the future in terms of moving forward and looking more towards real and true reconciliation?
C: For me, reconciliation cannot happen without the return of stolen Indigenous lands. And it is that simple. When we look at what colonial governments did in the 1800s and into the 1900s, is they systematically went about the earth and removed Indigenous people from their lands. Not just in North America, but in so many other continents as well. And they wanted their resources. They wanted Indigenous people out of the way so they could have a free-for-all in the resources, and make themselves rich in the process. And over time, a lot of those colonial governments, such as the British empire, the countries themselves moved towards independence from England, but they left their colonial governments behind. So although they may have gained independence, it is the fact that Indigenous peoples were removed off of their land for their resources was never resolved. And it is most the issues that we face, as Indigenous people, are a result, a direct result, of those purposeful, tactical efforts to move us off the lands and to assimilate us, or in some cases outright eliminate us. And were are and still are experiencing and live everyday with the fallout of that reality. And we cannot fix it without having what was taken be fully restored. Which to me is our lands, and complete control over our lives and over our lands. And that would mean, perhaps, that I’m talking about separation. Maybe I’m talking about other countries. Many people get up in arms when I talk about that. They say “What do expect us to do, divide Canada up into 70 different little parcels?” And other people get quite hostile when I bring this up, they say “What do you expect us to do? All move back to Europe? We’re Canadian!” And of course, Indigenous people have never, ever been unreasonable. On the contrary, Indigenous people have been welcoming, they have been accommodating, and they have taken 400 years of abuse and genocide and still, they turn around and say they’re interested in reconciliation. So I think Indigenous people have proven through their actions how exactly peaceful and beautiful they are and how willing they would be to discuss models whereby we would have our land back, but there would still enough for Canadians to be able to survive and thrive. So to me this is what reconciliation truly is, is to put us on equal footing. Whereby our nations are equal with the Canadian nation. And then we can then begin to discuss a true relationship that is reciprocal. Right now we are not anywhere near a reciprocal, equal relationship; and this has very huge consequences on our lives, and on our children’s lives. And so, when I think about reconciliation, I think about land immediately, and what I would love nothing more than to see everyone who lives on this continent live in a way that has protections and where their children are able to thrive; where our languages and our people are really able to regain everything that was stolen and lost to us over time. So that, to me is reconciliation; is you return what was stolen, and you fix it and you make it right; and then you back off.
K: You mentioned about children being affected. I wanted to ask you about the Onamoan Collective that you started with Isaac Murdoch. Could you maybe go over some of the stuff that you guys are doing?
C: It is an initiative that is being done by the elders and some of the youth in the region; Isaac and I might be the more public figures but people mistakenly think that this is our thing, when it isn’t, it is really being driven by the youth in this area. And they are actively trying to regain and learn their language. It’s a language of community that’s trying to also regain some of the traditional knowledge around land-based living and practices. And so we started to build camps and put the infrastructure in place so that we could have space on the land in which we can dedicate more time to learning the language and learning the traditional skills. One thing that is a hardship on Indigenous people that are trying to do these practices is that 80% of the land mass in Canada has been deemed Crown land, and when they try to build camps, it’s really an issue of trying to have some land on which to do these things that is outside of reserve boundaries and in their traditional territories. And there are many examples of people being persecuted by provincial laws for trying to build camps within their traditional territories. For example, right now, Sylvia McAdam, who is a co-founder of Idle No More, built a camp with her brother on their traditional territory on their dad’s traplines; the province moved in a destroyed their buildings and took everything off the land, and have now charged her. And she is to appear in court in the coming weeks, for trespassing on her own lands. And this is the common treatment of Indigenous people when they’re trying to move back to their own land to exercise their rights on their lands and to be together with their family doing traditional practices. And this is the more common treatment than not. Again, it goes back to land, that we have the issue with the land, always. And this would alleviate a lot of problems, if we could have control of our own land without being imposed upon by the provincial and federal governments.
K: That’s so important, just acknowledging the fact that this land is Indigenous land and not Settler land.
C: Can I just say one thing there? I think that land acknowledgements are nice, but they are not enough. And I believe that as more people are sort of adopting land acknowledgements into their practices of their educational institutions and within governments, I think that if anybody reading this is currently doing land acknowledgements, I would also encourage them to begin to talk and push for their local and regional First Nation and Métis people to actually have physical land. So it’s not good enough to just acknowledge the land that we’re on, but we must also move towards giving the land back, and taking action in that direction; otherwise acknowledgements become nothing more than just empty words.
K: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
C: I think that a way also that we can move forward together in the spirit of reconciliation is to join forces against corporations and governments who are trying to ruin our water. So it means not turning a blind eye to areas in other regions where their water is threatened, but offering our support. Whether it’s financial, moral, or physical support on the ground, to create connected networks of advocates and people who will take action to protect our water. This is the biggest threat that is coming in the next decades … water for the coming generations. The corporations are happy to continue to pollute the earth. And they will avoid cities and big centres where frankly the population is high of people who come out to vote. So they will avoid those places; but they have no hesitation to go through smaller towns and to go through Indigenous communities to poison their waters because they don’t have the physical numbers of support that is needed. So if we want to move forward together, then we need to unite for the water, and force governments to stop giving favours to corporations and force governments to turn to green technology and invest in that, and not ask; because they’re not listening to the people. The corporations are really running the show and they’re running governments, and we need to wake up, and unite before it’s too late for the next generations. And this is a way I see that we can work together. We always say that water has no flag and that water has no race and it’s just the people coming together to help one another, and to make sure future generations have something good and clean for themselves as we did when we were growing up.
Christi Belcourt is a Michif (Métis) visual artist with a deep respect for Mother Earth, the traditions and the knowledge of her people. In addition to her paintings she is also known as a community based artist, environmentalist and advocate for the lands, waters and Indigenous peoples.
Katherine Nixon is the unassuming attendant of St James highschool by day, but in her spare time is a hell raising humanitarian. She has spent a lot of her life volunteering and advocating for human and non-human animal rights. Her work includes organizing solidarity events, creating relief packages for Refugees, winter-survival kits for Guelph’s homeless, and spending time volunteering at Hope House.
My name is Bitty. I am two-spirit and I make art. I have maternal Coast Salish roots of Lkwungen, Quw’utsun and Lummi descent and paternal roots of mixed Irish, French and Euro ancestry. The art I contributed about Matriarch Camp is a piece I drew to fundraise to sustain camp and out of a deep respect and gratitude to Ma’amtagila grandmother Tsastilqualus Ambers Umbas and the young matriarchs, warrior womxn and salmon protectors who hold the space that is Matriarch Camp.