Although originally billed as keynote presentations by Jeannette Armstrong and Shawn Wilson, we were told by the afternoon’s emcee Stephen Foster that Richard Armstrong would be opening for Jeanette, followed by Shawn, and that pleased me some because Richard’s July 14, 2016 introduction to Syilx cosmology, preceded by Carmen Papalia’s Blind Field Shuttle (July 12, 2016) and followed by Fahreen HaQ’s Being Home performance at the Alternator Gallery (July 15, 2016), had a profound effect on how I have come to understand everything from indigenous land pedagogy to relationality to collaboration.
One of the more remarkable things that happens when listening to Richard, something that is rarely experienced these days when in the company of even the most experienced public speakers, is the complete lack of “ums” and “uhs” in his presentations. Could it be that Richard, who reminded us more than once that the knowledge he carries is not generally found in books, has rehearsed his words to the point where they flow in and out of him as naturally as bats from a cave? As someone who is always considering the presence of form as content in writing a work of art, in writing on a work of art or, increasing, in writing with a work of art, I have come to experience what Richard says of the land’s participation in our growth as human beings an instance of Richard performing that land. Or if not the performance of that land, then perhaps more humbly its embodiment.
It is my understanding that Richard gave a more recent introduction to Syilx cosmology last week, as well as took part in what emcee Foster described as an “inspiring” conversation with visiting artist Alex Janvier at the FINA Gallery. But as there likely were details about art and artists that occurred to Richard after his conversation with Alex, details particular to the Syilx people, Richard no doubt saw the need to address these things to an Intensive comprised as much of artists as scholars. And so it was for this reason that, after a few words about who he is (a Syilx knowledge-keeper) and where he comes from (an Okanagan Valley divided into two colonial spheres by a politicized 49th Parallel), he announced that he would speak to art and artists.
“Are there things an artist should not be doing?” Richard asked rhetorically. And then of course the answers.
The first answer began with some context concerning that reductive popular cultural mediator known as Hollywood. Richard told us of Hollywood’s persistent use of red ochre face paint when depicting indigenous people in its films. “Red ochre is sacred,” Richard began, and from there he told us how it has particular uses, like the marks found on petroglyphs. Artists can mix red ochre to make paint for use in paintings, he added, but red ochre should never be applied to one’s face. The second verboten concerns the use of a deer’s dew claws in the making of an artwork, for these, too, are sacred. “These are used to make rattles for the Winter Dance,” Richard told us, before moving on to what at first sounded like the unrelated topic of “land law,” but was, as we have come to know (also) through the writings of Oglala Lakota theologian Vine Deloria, Jr and more recently through those of Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, writer and artist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, another contextual introduction to how stories are told both of and from the land, and if “[a]rtists can use stories to make art,” as Richard encouraged us to do so, then the laws of the land that provides us with such stories must be observed.