Jaskiran Dhillon is an Assistant Professor of Global Anthropology at the New School in New York City. She is a first generation academic whose work is focused on setter colonialism and anti-racist feminism. Her first book, focusing on state intervention in the lives of indigenous youth, is forthcoming.
Maria Hupfield is a Canadian artist currently residing in Brooklyn, NY. Much of her work focuses on the issues and identity of indigenous women. She has received much recognition and numerous awards for her work.
Alex Cadena: So, I was hoping that you could give our readers some context about the current situation right now in Canada regarding missing indigenous women and the political conversations that have been happening.
Jaskiran Dhillon: Go ahead, Maria.
Maria Hupfield: I’m reminded that really recently there was, in the U.S. legislation that went through around the ability of on-reserve police to prosecute non-native men for abuse against native women. So prior to that being passed, there was nothing they could do—a non-native man could sexually abuse, they could rape, they could beat a native woman without any consequences, and not be held accountable. So that’s a big step forward here, that I’m thinking of.
JD: I mean I think there’s two different issues that you’re identifying, so one is police brutality, and failures in protection against indigenous women and girls, which is sort of a long history of colonial gender violence manifested now in a contemporary criminal justice system that continues to use gender violence as a tactic to maintain indigenous dispossession, and then the murdered and missing indigenous women and girls is another piece of that story, so police are implicated in those questions both through their failures to protect, so the assumption being that a police force is actually created by a state in order to protect its citizens, where in the case of indigenous communities or nations, the RCMP was created to aid in their elimination and dispossession.
JD: I mean I will say, I can understand why families whose sisters, wives, partners, aunties, cousins have gone missing are calling for an inquiry. People are seeking some kind of recourse.
AC: What place you have found your artistic voice in light of these current issues?
MH: Well, the thing is—personally, in my own history, nothing has really changed. That stuff has always been embedded within my day-to-day life. Things that I’m looking to address are how to have control over my own representation and present new visualities that are empowered, increase mobility, build relationships, present unexpected experiences and shared encounters through performance, and have the potential to bring people together in all its complexity.
AC: My mom is a human rights lawyer, and she forwarded me a very interesting BBC article that talked about the Red River Woman and the death of Tina Fontaine and all the murders in the Winnipeg area. Were exposed to the article? Do you think these articles are detracting from or shifting where the blame should actually be?
JD: I think by it’s very nature, media—mainstream media—is owned by corporations that have a tremendous amount of control over both the content and the production of knowledge, and the transmission of that knowledge, so whose stories get out, what way are they spun, how are they represented—so when Maria speaks about control and agency, and being able to represent whatever it is that she chooses to represent in her art, I think the same way of media, It’s very easy to pin the entire epidemic of murdered and missing indigenous women and girls on somebody like Robert Pickton because you’re able to identify a single person on which to place the blame. When it’s, in fact, an entire colonial state structure that not only supports his individual actions but promotes a whole host of colonial gender violence indigenous women and girls and transgendered people live with these every day, in both the extreme cases like the Robert Pickton case and in invisible, everyday cases that people never see—and systemically in institutions.
AC: What are things that you think should be done to erode at this settler’s colonialism mentality?
JD: Just to say, the United States is also a settler colony, just as much as Canada is. This was all indigenous territory, including where this university was built.
MH: You know I think there’s a lot of possible approaches to this, but the simple answer that I hear time and time again is give indigenous people back our land. How do you create a situation where non-native people will acknowledge a position of advantage, and promote a willingness to face and rectify the way in which they’ve benefitted off of a violent history of racial inequality and colonization? That’s a tougher way to go.
JD: But what about some of the things you were talking about around indigenous resurgence? I mean, I even think of the work in the arts. That plays such a big role in people’s political awakening.
MH: For sure. The over whelming response to the Walking with Our Sisters memorial exhibition on missing and murdered native women and the way in which artist Christi Belcourt mobilized people around this issue through art and community is the premiere example of the potential of art to transform institutional spaces and play a big role in peoples political awakening. Artists and musicians carry movements forward because they have the power to transcend barriers, go straight to the heart, and speak to the parts that make us as living beings. I look to my peers like Belcourt and I think it is a political statement in and of itself to be doing the type of work that I’m doing, where I am doing it and in the way that I am.
JD: Me, too.
MH: Thank you.
JD: I think part of the answer to that question, too, is in settlers—people that live on occupied territory—recognizing their own complicity in perpetuating settler colonialism. If your entire historical knowledge is built on this idea that these countries were created justly and were created through the myth of the two founding fathers, the British and the French, and this notion that this was empty land, and that nobody was here, and you sort of keep propagating these myths in people’s consciousness while building a very ferocious sense of nationalism—which in the United States takes on a whole other form than it does in Canada—it’s difficult to shift political perspective. Institutions of higher education, public education have a piece of work they need to do in building critical pedagogy. It starts with you. You might want to frame part of this article in relationship to how across institutions of higher education across America, issues of race and colonialism have been coming to the forefront, right, in the wake of black lives matter, in indigenous lives matter, people are really calling attention to, I mean you see a lot of focus on this in universities southwest of the united states where there’s larger numbers of indigenous faculty that are calling for anti-colonial curriculum and pushing the decolonization of the academy, not really the language of diversity but the language of decolonization. But I think also in relationship to anti-blackness, there’s been a huge resurgence of critical inquiry into institutions of higher education. It seems like a moment nationally that these things are happening. And for good reason.
AC: It was great that you said all this because it was really tied in to my next question, I wanted to ask you if you’ve noticed differences between showing your work to an audience of indigenous people versus in an art gallery or in a different setting and what those differences are?
MH: Well I think that the more opportunities for artists practicing responsible indigenous methodologies to show work everywhere, the better. The key about that is how do you position, how can you be responsible to the audience so that they can enter into and recognize what they’re getting into and also realize what their role is within that. Every space is codified there’s certain familiar roles that people participate in, and those can come apart in so many different ways. It is a really tricky thing, you have to be very deliberate in the way content is framed. And a big part of why I choose to live in New York is because there are more opportunities. I’m not condemned to just one way of showing my work or one kind of work, I have and work hard to create many opportunities. And they can function in many ways across and between various communities.
AC: What have you seen the community of Canada doing in terms of organizing you guys have seen and what effect that’s had?
JD: I think it’s understanding and it’s an awakening. And I think Idle No More too offered certain kinds of issues around indigenous politics to become more prominent. So definitely colonial gender violence, definitely resource extraction, and issues of climate change that are happening on or close to indigenous territory and sort of fierce indigenous resistance around those things. The problematics of the child welfare system. The disproportionate incarceration of indigenous youth, women, and men across the country in astronomical rates, so things that are very very real and lived were pushed to the surface and there seems to be more critical media on it now, more writing about it, more international attention on Canada than there ever has been, which puts pressure on the domestic state to act, when you have to fend off international critiques because you’ve positioned yourself as a humanitarian nation in other parts of the world, suddenly Canada becomes more uncomfortable. So that coupled with an internal movement that is pushing the boundaries around what’s possible is cultivating a kind of political awakening that can’t be easily dismissed.
MH: And I think we also need to acknowledge, we’re also reaching a point where we’re getting more of a critical mass around indigenous middle class, and academics, so that awareness of the history is becoming more accessible and integrating more as a part of the community. And then combine that with the cultural strength of people who have been in the face of so much, who continue to endure, and having nothing to loose that brings forth a certain moment.