Produced as part of the creative dialogue through the Testify project between Georgia Lloyd-Smith and Maxine Matilpi.
My fingers rest on the keyboard – poised, primed, ready for a synaptic happening. Indigenous law is… But is definitely not… Indigenous law should be… But not anywhere close to…
To my surprise, they move. Strange spider-like digits tap-tapping, clickity-clacking, blurring, buzzing across the keys. R-E-C-O-N-C-I-L-I-A-T-I-O-N. Backspace Backspace Backspace Backspace Backspace Backspace Backspace Backspace Backspace Backspace Backspace Backspace. V-I-T-A-L-I-Z-A-T-I-O-N. Backspace Backspace Backspace Backspace Backspace Backspace Backspace Backspace Backspace Backspace Backspace Backspace. L-A-W. Backspace Backspace Backspace Backspace Backspace.
Back to blankness. Small black vertical line appearing and disappearing on the left of the screen. How am I going to write this piece? Why did I sign up for this Testify project? Where do I begin the story and what do I have to contribute? How do I encapsulate the vastness? And the diversity? Words feel like an imperfect vessel for this work. The sharp points of Ws and Ts pierce the wholeness of silence and space.
<<Flap flap flap flap swoosh>> I look up from my computer screen, relieved by the distraction. I can hear the wings push down against the air. Slow, powerful down beats. The Douglas Fir branch outside my window bends with the weight of Raven’s landing as She settles with unimaginable grace. She tilts her head to the side and stares in at me through the window. That look – part-inquisitive, part-mocking. I look away, uncomfortable under Her intense gaze. Silence permeates. Minutes pass.
“What are you looking at?” I manage.
“Me?…Why?” I’m puzzled by Her presence.
“Hmm…well, for starters, you’ve been staring at that plastic box for a while, barely moving,” Raven answers, in a surprisingly sassy voice. “What exactly are you doing?”
“Oh, I’m writing,” I reply, mustering all the matter-of-fact, self-assuredness that I don’t feel.
The Douglas Fir branch outside my window bends with the weight of Raven’s landing as She settles with unimaginable grace.
Raven stares back at me, her head tilted in that same inquisitive mocking look I would become well acquainted with. I can tell she isn’t going to let this one go.
“Well, trying to write would be more accurate I suppose,”
“Hmm and what is it you are trying to write about?”
“Indigenous law!” I reply excitedly. “It’s for this Testify project – it’s all about Indigenous law and art and collaboration and reconciliation.”
“Hmm…” Raven strokes her chin knowingly, deep in thought.
I watch Raven, deep in Her Thinker’s pose and feel comforted by Her presence. She’s here to guide me in this journey, to give me a message or a sign, something that will get my ideas flowing. Once the initial log-jam is cleared, I’ll be writing smooth, clear, and flowing like a river. I just need to clear the cobwebs, as they say. And Raven is here to give me guidance. Me, of all people! Raven chose Me to help. What an honour and privilege. I must be walking the right path. Such a generous, beautiful Creature to come down and help me like this.
I look back at Raven sitting quietly, deep in thought, and feel myself fill to the brim with gratitude for Her presence.
“Hmm…writing about Indigenous law? Sounds boring,” Raven says. “Tut tut tut tut tut” Raven click-chuckled, that throaty, clicking chuckle as She flies away.
Indigenous Laws are Concrete
Maxine’s non-descript silver Toyota Corolla pulls up beside me. “Jump in,” she says as she clears off the passenger seat. For such a plain looking car, it sure has a lot of personality. Baskets of apples, yoga mats, lavender bunches, blankets, puzzles. You name it – Maxine has it… in her car. I feel immediately at home.
“I’ve got the list of things we need.” She starts with the knowable items, “Mortar mix, chicken wire, gloves, masks, bucket” and then moves to the downright fantastical, “Air entrainer, super plasticizer, diamond dust.”
First stop, Slegg. We stride into the store, heads held high, straight over to the customer service desk.
“Hi there, we are making concrete Raven sculptures and need to buy all these things written on this list.” Maxine announces. “Can you help us?”
Raven stares back at us from behind the counter, that same inquisitive tilt to Her head, only now donning a starched, pumpkin orange Slegg t-shirt, worn jeans, and work boots.
“Let me see.” She looks down the list. “Nope, nope, hmm…nope, definitely not, nope, never heard of it.” She pauses as She gets to the end of the list and looks up. “Ma’am, you know this is a construction store, right? This store is for building. You know, like proper structures. Not for your little art project,” Raven sasses us.
Maxine and I take back our list and slink back to the car, deflated, small as ants. After a few moments stewing, we reflect on the work of Indigenous law revitalization.
“That isn’t law, it’s just culture or custom” – the common colonial response to Indigenous law.
“That isn’t building, it’s just art.”
But this isn’t just art. We are building – conversation by conversation. It is a construction project, a giant one at that. The beauty of the work is that the process is the outcome. There is no separation.
Roadblocks and resisters are real. They are everywhere. So like any other project, we start by gathering the resources that exist to build a foundation. What laws are already known, lived and practiced? What have people already shared? From this foundation, we can broaden our search to explore the space between the concrete forms.
Tomato Basket Raven Skeletons
First day of construction and first stop, Margaret’s house.
A treasure trove of metal scraps stretches before us. Every piece of metal could become a bone in our concrete Raven’s skeleton. The entire backyard of trinkets brims with potential.
Maxine finds a candlestick holder – the perfect foundation. Margaret and I score tomato baskets – the ribs and spine of our Ravens. Next up, maple syrup heart, pool noodle bladder, plastic bag brain. We bend, shape, stuff, unstuff…
“Hello there.” I hear a voice and look up. There’s Raven again. Perched in the Arbutus tree, same tilted head, mocking look.
Why does Raven always catch me at moments like these? I think as I stuff the Pampers plastic bag into my Raven’s exposed underbelly.
“Hey Raven.” I sigh.
“What are you doing hanging out in a junk pile?” Raven teases, same tilted head, same mocking look.
At least this time, I have an answer.
“Oh, remember that project I was writing for? Well, I took a break from the writing to make concrete Ravens as symbols of Indigenous law. We were inspired by the beautiful kokum Ravens that Val Napoleon paints. It is a commentary on the process of revitalizing Indigenous law and the important work of rebuilding. Plus Maxine says this hands-on learning is part of Indigenous pedagogy. Indigenous pedagogy – it’s her favourite word.”
“Hmm…” Raven stares out over the ocean with her pensive look. I know not to disturb these ponderings so I continue stuffing bags into my Raven skeleton.
“Seems a bit strange to make a statute of me when I’m right here.” Raven turns and flies away.
I shake my head. Raven’s visits are leaving me more confused than ever.
Raven to the Rescue
Maxine and I board the Tsawout First Nation community bus to join a group of Tsawout members heading out on a storytelling fieldtrip. The trip was organized by Tsawout as part of the RELAW (Revitalizing Indigenous Law for Land, Air and Water) project that Maxine and I work on.
Bagged lunches in hand, we climb the narrow dirt path to the top of the mountain. “This is LÁU,WELNEW – Sencoten for ‘the place of refuge,’” one of our organizers explains. “Today, we will hear the Flood Story and learn how this place got its name.” It is a warm, sunny summer afternoon and the sweet smell of sunbaked pine greets us as we settle into our little nooks to listen to some W̱SÁNEĆ stories.
The story tells of a great flood. The Creator comes to tell the W̱SÁNEĆ people to prepare for a coming flood. Those who listen fill their canoes with provisions and weave together long Cedar ropes to tether their boats together. When the water begins to rise, the canoes start paddling. Without the help of the usual landmarks to guide them, they head out to sea.
“And that is when I arrived,” Raven interjects. She swoops down beside the storyteller with wonderful dramatic flair. “Creator sent me to them with a message. Creator told me to get them back on track, to guide them to this mountain where they would be safe. At first, when I landed on their canoe, no one knew what to do with me. No one would listen. They were all too afraid. But I was patient. I waited. And eventually, one man was ready to listen. I told him to head to the mountain in the distance. To this mountain here.”
The canoes paddled for days to reach the mountain. When they arrived, they tethered their canoes to the top of the Arbutus with the longest Cedar rope ever made. As the water rose to cover the tops of the trees, they waited. The Cedar rope pulled tight and still they waited. Eventually, the water level began to fall until they were back on dry land. They gathered the large coil of Cedar rope and gave thanks to the mountain for saving their lives. “This mountain will be called LÁU,WELNEW and we will be called the W̱SÁNEĆ ‘the emerging people’.” To this day, people of pure mind, body, and spirit can see the coiled Cedar rope on the top of the mountain.
I sit still listening. I reflect on the importance of this story, in this place. A printed copy of the story, covered in notes and question marks, lies creased and tucked in my back pocket. I wanted to be prepared for this fieldtrip so I did what Canadian lawyers are trained to do – read, think, write, re-read, think, write. I read this story in my office, before bed, with my morning tea. I listened to recordings hoping the spoken word would move me. The preparatory reading primed me but it isn’t until I sit on top of LÁU,WELNEW and let myself listen with every part of me that I begin to absorb understanding. I imagine the water slowly rising around us and feel a sense of panic. I experience the gravity of this flood and appreciate the importance of the name LÁU,WELNEW, a true place of refuge. I see the teachings come alive around me.
One story, so rich with law. The preparation, patience, trust, collaboration, communal ceremony. The complexities of law reveal themselves over time like layers of Arbutus skin. I am young in this work, still peeling back the first few layers.
“You sleeping or what?” Raven says as She lands a few feet away from me.
“Oh, just listening,” I respond apprehensively. I’ve learned not to trust Raven’s unannounced visits and I prepare myself for some tongue-in-cheek criticism.
“It is good to see you here,” She responds in a silky, sage voice.
To Sew is to Pray
“To sew is to pray. Men don’t understand this. They see the whole but they don’t see the stitches. They don’t see the speech of the creator in the work of the needle. We mend. We women turn things inside out and set things right. We salvage what we can of human garments and piece the rest into blankets. Sometimes our stitches stutter and slow. Only a woman’s eyes can tell. Other times, the tension in the stitches might be too tight because of tears, but only we know what emotion went into the making. Only women can hear the prayer.”
—Four Souls by Louise Erdrich
Maxine and I work side-by-side. Hunched over this thick Hudson Bay blanket, we sew buttons along the outline of Raven who lies flat against the Moon. Raven has come to visit us once more. This time as a crest and though She has been reduced to 2-D, Her presence looms large.
Easy chatter, interspersed with silence, and blended with the occasional sewing anecdote. Maxine stops, rises, and leaves the studio quietly. I continue to sew in silence. The up, down, up, down, up, down movement relaxes me. I think of…nothing much at all. My whole being is occupied with the task of poking the needle up through each tiny buttonhole. Thoughts, though not unwelcome, are not much help in this work.
Maxine returns with a printed copy of her LLM thesis on Button Blanket pedagogy , sits on her stool, and reads aloud from the page :
“The blankets are stunning. Unlike some so-called traditionalists whose blankets are based on colours and designs used in 1952, Max (my cousin) is not afraid to deviate from the red and black (or green and black) colours that originated with the Hudson’s Bay Company’s “point blankets.”
I appreciate that her designs have evolved over the years; she’s not frozen at some point determined by colonial history or laws. After all, the Button Blanket itself is a colonial product, starting as it were with the HBC blankets. These blankets are an expression of our culture and laws, are not static or frozen or in a place they were when the settlers first noticed them. The blankets have evolved along with our culture, ceremonies, and laws.
The first step in blanket making is the placing and sewing of the borders and for this, Max’s husband helps cut and place the borders with his measuring tape and carpenter’s square. She tells us how the blanket is meant to represent a house with the borders being the walls and roof.
Max’s reminders of the blanket representing the House, connect with what I already know about the House being an element of Kwakwaka’wakw law. The House is where laws are formalized through the potlatch system and where I’ve felt the power in the collectivity of the 12 Kwakwaka’wakw tribes coming together as one.
Marie Battiste reminds us that Indigenous learning is situated and in context. Learning opportunities need to be provided both inside and outside the classroom—if in fact, there is a classroom. I maintain the classroom itself is a feature of Western pedagogy. Teaching and learning doesn’t just happen within the walls of a single-use classroom; nor does Kwakwaka’wakw law happen only in the House. Law, like learning and teaching,
My mother used to say that when she was growing up, potlatches were not held in a separate place, but were held in regular houses, the same ones people lived their everyday lives in. Now, Bighouses are treated like separate sacred spaces, like churches or government buildings with a danger of setting Kwakwaka’wakw law apart from our everyday lives, possibly diminishing its importance.
Finally We Sew Buttons.
The hard part is sewing from the back of the blanket up through the button and having to guess where to put the needle in. Sometimes it goes smoothly and each time the needle goes through the button-hole on the first try. Other times it takes five or six attempts to get the needle through. When this happens I learn to take it as a sign that I should stop, take a break. We are constantly making meaning.
Indigenous pedagogy, I’ve learned, is embodied and experiential. This couldn’t be an ordinary conference talk but instead, must happen away from the podium.
This work is affecting my dreams.
The button work requires me to wear my reading glasses for hours at a time. I dream that because of sewing blankets, my glasses have gotten ridiculously wide and this changes my view of world. My perspective gets wider and wider until I’m able to see the whole wide world in a wholly different way and I’m grateful for this new way of seeing.
Another dream. This one about my mother. I dream I’m travelling with her and she tells me about her plan to make a blanket for ____ . I can’t remember who. But I tell her that I can help her, that I know how to do some of the work and that I can teach her.
The learners become teachers; the teachers become learners. Button Blanket pedagogy is reciprocal. Lorna says the best way to learn is to teach and as it turns out, this Indigenous pedagogy presentation may be teaching me more than the people who are here listening. As I get up to do my talk on Button Blanket pedagogy here in the Mungo Martin House, I again slip out of my sandals to
. . . slowly . . .
around the fire pit,
as though this were a Ladies Dance in a ceremony.
at each corner and as I do this
moving past the people in the corner sewing the “life-line” buttons on my blanket,
past the drum log,
past the bottles of juice that remind me of t’lina,
here in this House with which I have a relationship,
I talk about teaching and learning while simultaneously teaching and learning.
I move past the dance screen and the ten hanging blankets.
Each blanket is like a relative.
I’m at home.
Working on this LL.M has coincided with the development of UVic’s Bachelor of Indigenous Laws and I’ve been reminded of the relevance of my story and the larger project of decolonizing the institution. I’ve realized that learning doesn’t have to be about suffering.
The work we did with Max was totally relevant. For one thing, there was the important deadline, a memorial potlatch for our mother, but also, these blankets are deeply connected to our culture, place of origin, and laws. Making blankets has significance and blanket makers in our communities get respect. We stayed focused on our tasks and we had fun.
Compared to law school, Button Blanket work was all about connection, reciprocity, and relationship. It was embodied and contextualized, had relevance and meaning and was deeply connected to family, place, and community. It is the pedagogy, theory, and methodology of Indigenous Law.”
“Thanks for listening,” Maxine says as she puts her pages down. “Ya, of course, thanks for sharing.”
How (this) Raven Got Her Wings and Colour
The final coat of jet-black paint covers our concrete Ravens. We stand back to take in the final view.
“Not bad,” I remark.
“Hey, that one looks like Uncle.” Raven’s now-familiar voice descends from the branch She perches on. She swoops down for a closer inspection.
“Nice tail on this one. Very well proportioned.” Hop, hop, hop. “Hmm…you missed a spot here.”
I look over at Raven and reflect on our mini-journey together. When we first met, I saw Raven as my rescuer. I hoped She would free me from my writer’s block and write this Testify piece for me. And in a way She did. In Raven-esque fashion, She tricked me into learning and then tricked me into writing about it.
I learned that law, stripped to its core, is interaction. This project provided space to embody that idea through dialogue, conversation, and friendship. As Maxine and I worked, we talked and not just to each other. We talked to passersby while sewing buttons on the BC Ferries cafeteria table and to our colleagues while sewing in our office boardroom. We talked to my family while mixing and pouring concrete and to Margaret while rummaging through her treasure trove. We talked to our Trickster Flash Mob Choir while warming our voices together. I learned that true listening is not passive. Listening requires preparation. We must continuously and deliberately open ourselves so that we can trust and be trusted.
I learned that law is indeed everywhere. The container that once held all the law I ever knew has been broken open by Raven who made a crack in my fictionalized, institutionalized legal dam. The law flowed through the crack, first as a trickle, then in a great gush. It covered the land, the beings, and the relationships and gave me a new lens to see law in the lived experience. Law in a stand of trees supporting each other with the strength of diversity. Law in a schoolyard game of baseball, in the wisdom of a “Re-Do” to settle a tie. Law in processing and allocating a moose amongst a community.
And I learned that law is about being a good person. The character of goodness will be different for us all because we each have a unique role in this world. For me, this goodness includes being a loving daughter, sister, and now aunt. And it means creating space across this land for Indigenous laws to grow, flourish, and evolve. //