‘OCCUPIED’: Occupation of Land and Sea

‘Occupied’ illustrates and explores the legal concept of occupation of land and sea, through the pairing of Haida abstract visual language with a surreal photomontage.

The inspiration for this work is ‘Occupied’, originally produced as an abstract Haida painting and limited edition serigraph to explore whether it was possible to create Haida formline art without formline. The ‘Occupied’ is resplendent in multiple and stacked U- and oval-shapes, two of the building blocks of northwest coast art. The design is immediately recognizable as Haida art, but does not have a form-line – the backbone of northwest coast graphic design. While this is reflective of the lack of internal or external skeletons of Octopuses, it has deeper significance for the Crown’s assertion of title in Canada. In this work, the absence of formline draws attention to the legal fiction of the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius which are the foundation for the Crown’s assertions of sovereignty and title to purportedly dispossess Indigenous Peoples of Indigenous Title. One of the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery and related concepts, as well as “the requirement for Aboriginal people to prove the validity of their existence and territoriality” because it “does not conform to international law or contribute to reconciliation” and is a “manifestation of historical wrongs”.

‘Occupied’ completely fills the image, masterfully balancing positive and negative spaces so that each defines the other. ‘Occupied’ illustrates aspects of both Crown and Indigenous Title. Because Indigenous Title predated and survived the Crown’s assertion of sovereignty and has not been extinguished, the Crown’s assertion of title is illustrated by the ‘negative’ spaces of the ‘Occupied’ image. The negative spaces are distributed throughout the entirety of this design to illustrate the Crown’s claim to virtually all of the lands, waters and ‘resources’, with little or nothing left for Indigenous Title. For instance, in Haida Gwaii, the federal and provincial Crowns claim 99.84% of the landbase and 100% of the marine spaces.
The positive space in ‘Occupied’ represents indigenous occupation of land and sea; Haida laws blanket the entirety of the land and sea. The positive space is ghosted-in because indigenous laws might not be immediately recognizable under Western legal systems. While Indigenous Peoples may not articulate indigenous laws as laws, they are known subconsciously and exercised intuitively. Once articulated and recognizable as Indigenous laws, they call out to one’s consciousness. Likewise, once you see the ‘Occupied’ design, it can no longer disappear visually and, once you see it, you think “How did I not see it before?”

‘Octopus Woman’ appears to us today to challenge the denial of Indigenous Title in Canada is a vestige of antiquated colonial rule. The BC and Canadian governments deny and give little protection to indigenous laws, governance, culture, and ways of life. These denials are centuries old and are effective bars to both negotiations and litigation establishing Aboriginal Title. Throughout Canadian jurisprudential history, the Crown has insisted upon proof of use and occupation of Indigenous territories. Yet, the Crown is not held to the same standard. Nor are individual property owners, who would be hard pressed to prove use and occupation of every square inch of their property. In the meantime, the Crown continues to grant access to third parties and the Crown continues to receive royalties and other benefits from Indigenous territories. The ‘Occupied’ painting was created in this context, to encourage Indigenous Peoples to “reclaim our place in the world”, reasserting and governing lands and waters. Unsustainable development escalates the need to protect the land and sea, such as in Haida Gwaii, where commercial fishery landings taken are valued at $84 million annually.

Octopus Woman is shown in a temporary state of transformation. We learn from Indigenous art and ceremonies that supernatural beings often appear in partial states of transformation: half human and half animal. For instance, the “Eagle Spirit” mask and dance depicts a human being partially transformed into an eagle, incorporating strengths from both states. Indigenous Peoples can draw upon the power of intermediary states through the use of any and tools that assist with protecting the land and sea for future generations. While Indigenous Peoples have a rich box of knowledge and tools to draw upon, there are other ‘Western’ tools available that may not be perfect in form but are helpful nonetheless. Examples include drawing protective lines on maps, engaging in land use planning and joint management with the governments of British Columbia and Canada. There are innovative ways to utilize these Western tools without compromise to Indigenous Title, as demonstrated by the Haida Nation’s success with protecting 75% of the landbase, 74% of the coastline of Haida Gwaii, and implementing joint management through new EBM principles over 100% of the terrestrial and portions of the marine territory of Haida Gwaii. Using these tools to enforce indigenous laws partially transforms land and marine management in Canada, and is an interim step along the journey to transform the Canadian legal system so that it more accurately reflects its multi-juridical origins.
The power of female octopuses is the singular devotion to the next generation. After laying eggs, she obsessively tends to them, touches them continuously to ensure they have fresh oxygen and are free of bacteria and algae. She fends off predators and does not eat for the entire incubation period – one of the longest of all animals. The longer her vigil, the greater the chance of her offspring surviving. The next generation is the “beginning of the end” for her, as she dies, starving and exhausted after the eggs hatch. ‘Octopus Woman’ reminds us of the need to incorporate a future-generation-focus in our concepts of land and sea occupation.

Catching an octopus is an act of respect: respect for the life the Octopus embraces so dearly but eventually gives up so that we can continue to live. Catching an octopus is also no small feat, and it is not for the faint of heart. You must first goad her to grasp your hooking-stick so hard that you can pull her out of her home through the small crevice underneath the rock constituting her ‘door’. This requires immense patience in a limited amount of time, before the tide comes back in. Once pulled out of her home, she fiercely fights for her life. Her tentacles on her eight arms grasp anything and everything: gumboots, pants, hands and adjacent rocks. Yet, she must be extricated, lifted into the air, and slammed on an adjacent rock, over and over again. After literally wrestling the life out of the Octopus, her mantle must be turned inside-out and her innards removed. Then her beak – an actual bird-like beak located in centre of her tenacious arms – must be removed. Without cutting implements, this last step is indeed an act of bravery as her beak evokes fear of losing one’s digits in the process. The last act is one of respect: returning her innards back to her home, so that future Octopuses will occupy the dwelling. She continues to move long after the ordeal, her nerves seemingly remembering the territory she once covered as her arms and tentacles slide over each other in the harvesting container.

The original red and ochre colours from the ‘Occupied’ design have been adjusted. Octopuses become red in colour, signaling aggression and a willingness to engage in battle. ‘Octopus Woman’ is depicted sitting on top of a rock, overcoming and conquering her realm above the water. Her colour shows her aggression and willingness to engage in battle over occupation of territories. Seemingly calm, she asks us: “Do Canadian citizens really want their governments to engage in a battle denying Indigenous Title?” //