The Cost of Progress

September 10, 2018

The destruction by fire of the National Museum in Brazil this week is a blow to the world’s cultural history. Buried near the end of a number of mainstream media articles about the massive loss of the museum’s collection (90% of the collection was lost, which equates to approximately 20 million objects), I noticed mentions of the particular devastation of many Indigenous peoples’ cultural and sacred objects. These objects were either held by the museum without the permission of the Indigenous tribes, or with their blessing, to safe-keep the objects in trust. Regardless, the Brazilian government had a responsibility to protect these objects to the best extent of their power, and they failed to do so. This is especially egregious in light of the billions of reais they poured into the Olympic infrastructure in Rio de Janeiro, causing financial hardship to the nation. There are reports that the fire hydrants in the streets around the museum were dry due to lack of maintenance, delaying the fire fighting and allowing the fire to burn out of control. Some Indigenous people lamented that some of the objects destroyed were the last and only records of their peoples’ ancestral knowledge.

The misguided narrative of modernity’s “progress” must end. Placing the needs of capital and wealth-production above the value of human relationships and land-centered ethics, our societies continue to reproduce the same destruction of life, love, and spirit that colonization brought to Indigenous peoples. Here in Canada, we see this playing out in the federal government’s decision to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline from Kinder Morgan—an expression of their determination to build the pipeline in spite of many Indigenous nations’ protests. The potential for ecological devastation in Salish waters if a tanker goes awry in the narrow channels, the enormous climate change impact of the additional fossil fuels entering the marketplace, and the habitat destruction that the construction of the pipeline will cause—none of these are to be barriers to the government’s insistence on building the pipeline.

On ArtsEverywhere, three entries in the past couple of years offer us Indigenous perspectives on what we must learn in order to begin shifting our selves, our communities, our governments, and our societies toward the knowledge systems of all our relations.

Among the many aspects of Anishnaabe knowledge system debwewin that Aylan Couchie describes in her essay “When Textbooks are Held Within Forest Floors,” she thinks first of food, nourishment, and the land: “… how so many issues surrounding anti-Indigenous protests directly involve our cultural foods and how this continued behaviour—past and present—affects us. Teachings passed on through harvesting have played their part in resisting suppression of culture; Indigenous peoples must continue to push forward against settler Canadians who continually work to oppress Indigenous rights to food.”

Okanagan teacher and protector Jeannette Armstrong gave the 2017 Guelph Lecture titled “Human Relationships as Land Ethic.” She begins her talk by saying that she decided not to deliver a formal or academic lecture, but to speak to the audience about her own life, her stories, and what she has learned. She talked about how she knew everyone in her extended family and all of the people on the eight reservations near the one she grew up on. Intergenerational visiting was central to their community. The Okanagan people are harvesters of the land, Armstrong explained. The memory of the land stays with her always. She asks us to “internalize the voice of the land” just as the voices of our people become part of you.

One of the most recent series on ArtsEverywhere reflects on Primary Colours/Couleurs primaires in the voices of those who gathered in Victoria, BC in 2017. Throughout the dozens of entries, the artists, knowledge keepers, elders, and cultural workers who are committed to transforming the Canadian art system provide their insights into what is and what can be done.

Thumbnail image: detail of Aylan Couchie, now is the time to see the truth
Wood, lights, corrugated plastic, fishing net
Installation – Ice Follies 2018, Lake Nipissing, ON.

Reflections from Primary Colours / Couleurs primaires

Primary Colours / Couleurs primaires, Canada 

Human Relationships as Land Ethic

Jeannette Armstrong, Okanagan, Canada 

On January 20th Jeannette Armstrong delivered the 2017 Guelph Lecture on Being Canadian, presented here in its entirety. This annual lecture is part of the ArtsEverywhere Festival, a festival of ideas that combines music, art, and conversation to illuminate pressing...

Of Homelands and Revolution

Shawn Van Sluys, Guelph, Canada 
Aylan Couchie, Nipissing First Nation & Toronto, Canada 
Kimberly Mair, Lethbridge, Canada 
Kenneth Hayes, Sudbury, Canada 
Erin Silver, Vancouver, Canada 

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