Dreaming Thunderbird- Reflections on Art and the Law of the Gift

By Rebecca Johnson

Beginning with Dreaming –
Dreams of Place

The call for collaborations for this project invited people to reflect on “opportunities for relationship between Canadian and Indigenous laws”, to reflect on “dreaming a way forward”. Dreaming a way forward indeed.

As Shain and I have worked together on this project, I have been reflecting on the world of dreams: dreams of justice, dreams of reconciliation, dreams of the future. I do know that the language of law is not generally thought of as the language of dreaming. But perhaps it is just that we are unaccustomed to thinking of law thus. For surely a Constitution, for example, is indeed a kind of dream – a dream of ‘union’, a ‘dream of relationship’.

But as a settler woman, living in these times and this place, with full knowledge of the cultural genocide that is part of Canada’s history and legacy, and with knowledge of the part played by Canadian law, the dream can be bitter. And it is particularly hard to hold onto this truth, this knowledge, and still stand, day after day at the front of a law school classroom, teaching law. It is a challenge to bear witness to the past and present of this truth, to keep one’s eyes open to this reality, and still try to hold on to the best of what Canadian law offers. I find myself yearning for dream that can draw on the best of what I have inherited, and build a different relationship of Canadian and Indigenous Law, one that might leave me feeling nourished and hopeful. So how do I participate in the process of building a different relationship? Of dreaming a way forward? How might that path emerge in the intersection of Art and Law?

It seems clear enough that the path forward must begin with acknowledging that, in this story, I too have a place. Place has indeed mattered in the shape of my life and dreams. I draw often on three of the places whose landscapes and windscapes are imprinted deep in the heart of me. I was born in Calgary, in Treaty 7 territory, to parents who were also born in Alberta, to parents who were similarly uninvited guests to that territory. The feel of the big sky with a Chinook arch moving in; the wind dancing a path through a field of grain or canola flowers; the foothills rolling up into the mountains – these images are burned into the retina of my deep memory. And I spent each childhood of my summer surrounded by family at my grandfather’s property on the Shuswap Lake, in Secwepemc territory. The feel of the rocky beach under my feet and I race with other children down to the water; the dappling of sun through the branches of a forest canopy of cedar, fir, pine and yew; the crackling of the wood and smell of the smoke while sitting around a night-time beach fire, sharing stories, songs and marshmallows with a bowl of stars scattered above us. And how did this amazing place come to be ‘ours’? I now I teach law in Victoria, as an uninvited guest in unceded Coast Salish territory. Mount PKOLS (also known as Mount Doug) sits as presence, offering one who climbs to the top the possibility of 360 degree views of the ocean around us, and the Mountains across the waters on the mainland. There is not a day that I don’t feel gratitude for the beauty of that place.

But how do I think about what it means for me to be a settler, to acknowledge that my deepest connections are to a land that is not ‘mine’? It is a challenge to figure out how to move past the impulse to justify my presence in these places, to deny my complicity in the status quo, or be paralyzed by guilt. But are there other dreams I could dream? I spend my time moving primarily between two spaces, the school year in Coast Salish territory, the summers in Secwepemc Territory. To dream a way forward, to dream a different dream of justice, I accept that I might need first to know the laws of these places, the stories of these places. So where would the dream take me if I were to ask what it would mean to acknowledge that I live in Indigenous land, and begin to live in relationship with Indigenous laws in these places? What might be required of me?

And so Shain and I begin working together. I must admit that, on my side, the collaboration is inflected by fear. My own fear. Fear that I will get things wrong; fear that I am not capable of learning this law; fear that this law is not ‘mine’ to learn; fear that my attempts to learn will re-inscribe histories of colonial co-optation; fear that I will be understood as doing a kind of indigenous law ‘blackface’, trying to be something other than what I am. I also find myself mocking myself, wondering at my fear in learning a different system of law. Is it based in an assumption that my law – the Commonlaw (or indeed French law, British law, Brazilian law, Japanese law, Chinese law…) can be taught and learned but the laws of Indigenous people cannot? I know that I need to dis-embed the assumption that Canadian law is living and Indigenous law is frozen in the past. But how do I learn that law?

Ch’askin – Golden Eagle Rising

In trying to learn law, I remind myself to think about Indigenous law with as much richness as I try to think about my own common-law tradition, and to remember that there too, law has been taught, captured and conveyed in images, songs, the tactile. Story is what makes law intelligible. For settlers as for indigenous peoples, there is much to be learned by seeing law framed as stories, songs, practices, customs. There is much that is made possible by the translation of law between words, stories, songs, and images. In my own efforts to understand the laws of the places of my heart (Alberta, the Shuswap, the West Coast), I have been pointed in the direction of story. And of stories and images unlike those I grew up with. These are stories Raven, Robin, Seagull, and Eagle. Stories of Wolf and Wolverine, Porcupine and Beaver. These are stories of relationships, of difficulties, of problems and problems solved. Stories designed to be put into the hands of listeners: to be told, to be sung, danced, carved. Stories to be shared, and carried forward. Stories to be returned to. Stories as carriers of history, procedure, humour, warning, and hope. Stories, as Louis Bird reminds us, are tools for thinking. What do they make us think about? And how do they make us think?

In our collaboration, Shain and I begin with story. He presses me in the direction of one particularly powerful image – Ch’askin, the Golden Eagle of the Sechelt People, their Thunderbird, the highest symbol, the being carrying the highest aspirations of the people, a protector, a point of connection between the people and the Creator. It is to Ch’askin we turn to think about Law. As we talk together, and I look at images of Thunderbird, I find myself wondering how to make sense of it as an image. First off, I know I am a baby learner, still learning elements of Salish design. I am not sure how I would know the difference between an Eagle, and the Thunderbird. Shain points me in the direction of the horn on the head, the curved beak, the eye of the ancestor sometimes visible in the body of the bird. But here still, I wonder. What can I see of law in its doubled head, the tongue, its wings, the frock, the direction. That is, how do I read its style and shape? A scary question for a person trained to read law in statutes, regulations, a judicial opinions. But I suppose that is the same fear encountered by every first year law students. It is just another language to learn.

Worrying about my lack of fluency, I went in the direction of art books. Here, I thought, I could learn the basic vocabulary for this form of dreaming. Perhaps we could create a kind of “Rosetta Stone”, a way to translate the most powerful and important parts of Canadian and Indigenous law from text to word to story to image. Thinking of the Rosetta Stone, I find myself in a flashback to my last sabbatical, when we moved to London for the year. I spend much of the year wandering through the halls of the British Museum with my two young boys, surrounded by objects and images from around the world. There was always a crowd around the Rosetta Stone. Encased in glass, there it stood, the key to deciphering the hieroglyphs. The Stone is the reiteration of the same text in three different languages: demotic, Coptic, and Hieroglyph. One can see how the same meaning is carried through three languages. But there was a second version of the stone a few rooms away. This version is only a copy, and so there is not as much of a crowd. Because it is a copy, it can also be touched. Here, one can run one’s fingers over the stone, feel the words which carry law across languages.

Shain and I wonder about an art project that might enable us to do something similar across the languages of law. How does, we wonder, a dream of justice move from words, to image? We imagine a glowing Ch’askin lifting off from a background of text: words like responsibility, equality, justice, kindness, respect, responsibility, balance, protection. Concepts important to the lifeblood of Indigenous and Common Law. But as we talk about this, I return to the same problem. I know that this law exists. But how do i learn to read these images? How do I develop literacy in the words, sounds and images of Salish Law? How do I read its style and how do I read its shape?

In this process, Shain pointed me to the book on Salish Art, S’abadeb. The word S’abadeb is a Lushootseed term for gifts. It invokes a principle at the heart of Salish culture: reciprocity in both the public and private domains: “This richly symbolic word expresses the importance of giving and receiving gifts, tangible and intangible, including names, songs, spirit powers and the bestowal of artistic gifts at feasts and potlatches.” It raises the important role of leaders, elders and artists in passing vital traditions to the next generations.

I flipped through the art book, page after page, as my eyes became accustomed to the style and shape of Salish images, also noting the number of the objects that were in the category of gifts. Indeed, much of the art in the volume, the editors note, belongs to “a complex network of social interactions that have been disrupted by colonial collecting attitudes and behaviours.”
As I read, I begin to see that, on the part of the Salish, the gift was operating as a tangible reminder of practises of giving and reciprocal obligations. And I find myself thinking again about my desire for a sort of Rosetta Stone – an easy way to translate between languages. Because I begin to see that my understanding of ‘gift’ may be incomplete, or even inadequate to the task. As I read, I increasingly see that on the colonial side, it seems, the gift was more frequently operating as an object floating free of those obligations. The gift carried its weight as a commodity, or an object of beauty. Perhaps the settlers receiving these gifts did have some sense of reciprocal obligation, in a particularized way. That is, of the gift operating as an acknowledgement of relationship between the person doing the giving, and the person doing the receiving. A kind of debt relation, if you will. I find myself thinking about gifts within my own legal tradition and the legal treatment of those gifts. The way settler law focuses on the intention of the giver and the status of the gift.

I wondered about the meaning of reciprocity as Salish people saw a lack of reciprocity on the other side, as settlers accepted gifts (from the Salish, from the earth) and yet attempted to continue in enacting their own law, understanding self and others largely through the concept of gift as understood within their own culture. Operating within an order based largely on freedom and contract, an order in which gift is an object and not an obligation.

And so I return to the image of the Thunderbird, thinking about “the gift”. I find a version of the story to read. Here, I read a story in which Ch’askin aids the people when they have reached the limits of their collective abilities. In the stories, Ch’askin assists the people in the building of the longhouses; helps them provide food for the community; assists in driving off those who threaten war; provides islands in the oceans to guide travellers back to home.

I know the book I am looking at is written for children, and remind myself that this means treating it more seriously rather than less. I pull to mind elder Ellen White’s reminders that Law is not only for adults but for children, and that laws are to be put in the hands of the young, and not only the old. I remind myself that in this context, I too am a child. I am a baby learner, just beginning the journey of knowing the law of this place. And so I return to the images of Ch’askin, asking myself more. I begin to notice that when Ch’askin appears in these stories, it is not simply a matter of providing what the people need (a kind of delivery mechanism). In the stories, the people are also already working together, working at the edge of what they can manage individually. In many cases, Ch’askin enables people to work together to provide what it needed for the collective good. I find it striking that in each of the stories, the people have indeed been working together, doing what they can to provide for the collective, for the security, nourishment, shelter, and safety of the group.

I find myself thinking about what it is that the story of Thunderbird is teaching me. I find myself thinking about the concept of “The Gift”. Or about doing the work of making the return real… to attempt to perform or live those values. To think about gifting, and gifting collectively. Collaboratively.

Law is full of big words: equality, justice, responsibility, care, jurisdiction, duty, respect. In my own classes we talk about the difference between law on the books and law in action.
I find myself wondering about the image of Ch’askin, and about my desire to find law in it, to read it like a book, to see the law inscribed in its component parts. And maybe this is possible to do. Reading the image, I can find law in the double heads, two-spirited equality, equality of genders. To see justice or care in its wings. To see strength and power and authority. In the images, I also see that the eagle is always in movement and in relation and collaboration and responsive to changing circumstance. In the written story we have, the eagle is always involved in a position of giving, or rather of assisting when there is need.

I wonder about returning to the story at different points by myself, thinking about film theory and how it opens space for us to occupy different subject positions, to see what is to be learned from imagining ourselves as the abandoned child, the starving traveller, the struggling artist, the thief, the murderer, the colonizer and the colonized. I think of all my own inherited stories and things I have learned from them, and the ways relationships are figured against a background of ‘contract’, a background in which the world in which God has created a world of plants and animals over which man has been given dominion. Dominion. I think of my own stories of origin, and what they suggest about law.

And I return to other stories of origin, stories in which animals and humans are in relations with each other. And I find myself thinking again about Ch’askin, and what the story carries. I think about the way the story shows us how the people become united. If this story is about the highest law, what IS it? Is the story pointing me in the direction of desire? Of the hope for a powerful being who will intervene when things seem most impossible, most difficult, most dire? Or am I being asked to model a behaviour? What law is this? This highest law? Certainly, the Thunderbird has power beyond the power of any individual. The Thunderbird’s power is brought to bear in moments of need. And at some point, I find myself shifting focus, and asking not about what the thunderbird IS or what powers it HAS, but asking about what it DOES. I am reminded of the number of times I have heard Indigenous people remind me to think less about nouns and to think more about verbs. And then it seems clear. The gift. The giving. Because help has been asked for. Because there is need.

In the summer, at the Shuswap, thinking about this question, I sit on the deck at my mother’s house. I watch an eagle circle in the sky above me, its wings spread out, its feathers working together to work with the wing to provide lift and glide. I think there is much law that could be taught, simply through the feather. I have seen people speak of the feather and each time I find myself thinking of my own experiences from childhood forward, of picking up a feather, brushing it against the grain, stroking it back, wondering about its lightness, its function, its feel, its place in a larger wing structure, all the parts that make up the feather, all of the feathers that make up the wing. I think also of the nest that seems to be built in the corner of the deck every year, the small birds that emerge and the way that the birds, too, learn to use their wings. It would seem that having wings isn’t quite enough. There is learning to work with the wind, itself always in movement.

What movements are possible on clear summer days and which work in violent storms, both of which come to all?

And what is the difference between stories of Robin, of Raven, of Eagle, and of the Thunderbird? For Ch’askin – the golden eagle, the thunderbird — is only one image of law, itself always in interaction with other laws, other stories, or reminders. I sit with my family on the deck (in the woods by the lake), watching the eagle above us as we reflect on what it might have in its claws. There is clearly something there – undoubtedly a fish of some sort. A Salmon? And in thinking this, my mind then turns to a Salmon smoked in my backyard many years back, a Salmon brought by Darren Charlie, who walked us through ceremony, and told us a story of the Salmon Peoples. The story came with a song, and with sharing my backyard many years back. The story that comes to my mind every time, the salmon is on my plate before me. The story that reminds me of salmon as a gift and my responsibility to remember that it once too was alive and in a relation with me.
And I think of the Secwepemc story of the trout child, and again, I find myself reminded of the relationships in this territory between the water, the land and the sky. How am I called to act? How does this law apply to me? I am not fully certain of what is required of me specifically. I do know that law is written on the land and that the stories, songs and art or powerful ways of engaging with the deep roots of law, ways that make visible for me, that law is written on the land. But the story also tells me that to be written on the land is not to be immobile, but to be in relation and in movement and in action.

So how do I understand what Ch’askin has to teach me? I reflect on Shain’s image of the golden eagle rising. There is so much in his image of this story, of this law. The image speaks for the need for us to be always watching. It reminds us of the work from above to be monitoring and watching, for the work of waiting, encouraging of collaboration, of becoming capable, of learning to work with each other in piece, of the many people required to do big works, that the lifting of the pole for the house requires the work of all, and may require work that goes beyond physical capacities. It reminds us that we sometimes move beyond our capacities and requires the help of others when we are lost or exhausted or able to move further. It reminds us to be alert, to be watchful, to be ready to hear the calls of those who need help around us. It reminds us of our need to wrap our wings around others, that the law involves both touching and being touched.
I continue to be touched, and continue to learn… //