Monday 29 April 2013

Tannis Nielsen Teaching Philosophy

As an Indigenous woman I am inherently located within the praxis of a critical method of instruction that places emphasis towards achieving and sustaining an Indigenous Sovereignty- both locally and internationally. An indigenous pedagogy speaks both “from, to and about the Land” and addresses the concerns of political, cultural, spiritual, social and environmental justice. My pedagogical practice is closely aligned to what Paulo Friere has termed a “liberatory education” where instruction is centered upon sustaining the health of a society through the inclusion/recognition of diverse, Indigenous, ecologically based consciousness. I do thus, by providing my students with a localized indigenous education/perspective on the context of where they are currently located geographically and then I assist the students in thinking critically, about their own indigeneity, cultural ancestral/familial histories.

I initiate these discussions on international forms of indigeneity as a means to unravel a universal, international system of colonial technique and strategy. In doing thus, I am attempting to address the similarities of colonial oppression internationally, both as a comparative inquiry and to honour the diversity amongst our memories, while we work toward building an encyclopaedia of international emancipatory strategies.
No matter what discipline I am teaching, my goal is to provide the students with instructions on how to embed their own contextual realities, epistemologies, creatively into (not only their scholastic texts and art works) but also politically, into society as a means of also asserting their own sovereignty.

The teaching methods I use to manifest my objectives, involve such practices as addressing the importance of process in how we introduce ourselves and relate to one another in class. While indigenous processes are not universal in nature, it can be said, that a commonality amongst Indigenous people(s) is found in the process of our providing introductions. Where-by we first give recognition to whose territory we are located upon and then to name/define ourselves in relation to our own ancestral lands. The importance in doing such, is to provide to our listeners the particular context(s) from which we are speaking. By sharing/asserting our own cultural context(s) (in relation to the current geographic location) it is my hope that together we may come to know each other more as individuals. By introducing our context(s) as coming from particular places, (our own ecologically based consciousness) we may be better abled to grasp, that which we are trying to get the “others” to understand.

Making this type of effort to share and understand one another, to learn about each other’s individual context/cultures has become increasingly important in this globalized world where the quest to maintain or give privilege to only one dominant culture has become the norm. It is this norm ie;the dominating Eurocentric colonial paradigm, that has been sustained/supported at the demise/expense of an individual’s, indigenous loss.

Having students identify and introduce themselves in relation to land, is the first stage of initiating the decolonization methodology, that is part of my pedagogical process. For example if one of my students introduces themselves as having moved to Canada from Persia, I would know then, to adjust the content of my curricula (somewhat) as an effort to address their particular context. I would do this, by inserting specific Persian imagery into our lectures, or by talking about Persias resistance to colonization and also by discussing one of the traditional spiritual practices of Persia (such as Zoroastrianism) and also through my relating anti-colonial theory specifically, as it happened upon the students own ancestral territory.

Another way in which I manifest my pedagogical objective, is by making sure that all students are given an equal chance to be recognized/heard. I provide to the students an equal ground, by getting rid of the hierarchy in the classroom. I do this by physically altering the space (if possible) so that the students (and myself) can sit in a circle facing one another. Traditionally, the talking circle has been utilized by Indigenous peoples as a structure for discussion that was used to remove barriers, so that peoples felt comfortable enough to share their thoughts amongst the group. By having class discussions presented in a circle, we are better abled to develop a sense of community/kinship with one another. In a circle, no one sits in a position that is above another and there is no need to compete to speak, as all are given a chance to been seen/heard.

Developing these types of relationships/spaces in class is imperative, as often the content presented via lecture draws emotive responses from the students. Students need be assured that they are in a secure safe space and that duty of care in respecting honouring one another is always a central objective amongst ourselves. For example while teaching a class I designed (based upon the text by Marie Battiste titled Reclaiming Indigenous Voice and Vision) students were presented with the five stages of colonization (by Poka Laenui) These stages are 1,Denial 2.Destruction/Eradication 3.Surface accommodation 4.Tokenism and 5.Transformation. While I provide to the students evidence of these colonial strategies/stages,(as having taken place in Canada), the students are made witness to such atrocities as the residential school system, the forced sterilization of native women, the smallpox epidemic and the denial of Indigenous rights to Spiritual, and Cultural Practice.

When we engage in our group discussion (on these specific colonial techniques and strategies) I then ask the students to look back, into their own ancestral histories to see if any of these strategies, have been utilized upon their own families territories and 99% of the time the answer is Yes. And so, for a student then to offer to the class their testimony of being witness to their own tragedy, is exemplary of their remarkable bravery/willingness to share. Yet-The students will only share these experiences, if they are made to feel safe while doing so. For example; while teaching the above I had noticed that during the early part of our term, there was a young South Asian woman, who hardly ever spoke, yet when it came time to present her artwork (which answered the assignment to visually portray one of the colonial techniques and strategies) she asserted herself in such an assured way, while telling us of the meaning behind her work, which had focus on the colonial strategy of Denial. She related this strategy, towards the colonization of India. The artwork she exhibited, was the script/text of a language that was once made illegal to speak. Her act of decolonization here, was to recover not only her language in text, but also in her resistance to be silent. Her story (and others like hers, that center upon the reclamation of voice) is just one example, of the many reasons why I teach.

My motivation in teaching is to assist the silenced/the oppressed in reclaiming their own individual/indigenous contexts. If the strategy of imperialism and colonization was an attempt to deny, and eradicate Indigenous context / cognition, then the effort to resist this type of erasure is to upload, re-affirm, and represent our cultural consciousness, as a means of not forgetting. It is my goal, to teach my students how to transmit these messages, by representing the legacies of our histories, ideologies(s), in both tangible and intangible form. I do this, while still ensuring that the Indigenous local, be precedent. For It is only through recognizing and maintaining our diversity locally, that we may find our voices/strengths and compassion for each other’s plight, in the struggle against colonization/oppression, globally.


Artist Statement

When I speak of the process involved in my art, I often quote Cree Elder Willie Ermine, who speaks of the concept of creation/of making, as being similar to the processes utilized in ceremony. Ermine calls this concept Mamatowisowin,which is "the capacity to access the creative force of the inner space with the use of all our faculties that constitute our being.”Mamatowisiwn articulates the methodology used in a quest for vision/knowledge,where the seeker / artist begins to explore his/her own existence subjectively. “Mamatowisiwin is the process of exercising inwardness" (Ermine, 1994).

When Ithink of the meaning of existence, I also think of the teachings passed onto meby my Elders who have said, “If one wishes to understand the workings of self, the universe/the outer realms, then we must first go inside ourselves to learn” and that this particular quest for inner/outer knowledge, is most often guided through a ceremonial process and/or (as Ermine suggests) the processes of Mamatowisiwin.

When I look back at the genesis of my own artistic process, I am able to discern how this particular concept of Mamatowisiwin, has in fact, been utilized in the creation of my work. For example, when I became a Mother, I sought a better understanding of my own Mother and her Mother and the Mothers before them. I sought are connection with them. I sought new knowledge of them. I did this, by creating artworks that centered upon their lives. In the process of these creations, I became aware that I was doing (what Douglas Cardinal had suggested to do) which was to “let go of as much mind awareness as possible, in order to allow the subconscious mind to work” and in doing so, I discovered new knowledge (about my Mothers) that was previously unknown. The stories began to reveal themselves;they became unfolded subconsciously, through the process of my creation. My engagement in the creative process/Mamatowisiwin has been a vital participatory form of research that has brought forth an immense wealth of cultural/historical knowledge. I engage in the process of creation/of art making, both as a quest for seeking knowledge and also as a mechanism for carrying this knowledge forward.

This subconscious acquisition of knowledge was further utilized in 2006, while attending to my last year in the Masters of Visual Studies program at the University of Toronto.At this time, my 96 year old Grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimers.I had noway of attending to her, as she lived in Alberta and I hadn’t the funds to, I decided to focus on her as the subject for my Thesis..For two weeks, I stayed by her side and filmed our exchange. When I returned home, I“wrote” My Grandmothers oral histories into a 4 channel video installation, projected onto aluminized Mylar screens that were installed to reflect/mirror, the Medicine Wheel of her life. The title of this work is “Not Forgotten”

“Not forgotten!” was a visual, oratorical form of resistance against “cognitive imperialism.” Both the artwork and the writing, served as sights of testimony against the colonial structures that enforced the “forgetting” of my Grandmothers localized histories. The installation,allowed the audience a chance to witness the decoding of colonial memory, that had taken place within my Grandmothers mind, ironically as a result of her living with the condition of Alzheimer’s. My Grandmothers Alzheimer’s had ironically caused her to forget the long held, assimilated denial of her cultural heritage. At 96years old, my grandmother (for the first time in her life) started speaking Cree to me.

In writing about this work (my thesis), I refused to use punctuation or capitalization.I attempted to deconstruct / decolonize the structures of an English literacy by utilizing an anti-colonial “first-voice” Indigenous perspective. I chose sovereignty in writing, with the recognition that “language carries culture and the language of the colonizer became the means by which the mental universe of the colonized was dominated.” ( Ngugi wa Thiong’o Pg 36 Smith.)

As a Native woman writing within the academy, I chose “this view of [performative literature as it] paralleled the commitment within certain forms of “Red Pedagogy to the Performative,” as a way of being, as a way of knowing, (and also) as a way of expressing moral ties to the community.” (Graveline, 2000, p.361; Grande, 2000, p. 356). (Excerpt from thesis below)
this performative style of writing
is also parallel
to the circular nature of the narrative
in “Not forgotten!
as my intent in creating this piece
was to represent
the decoding of colonial memory
I could not write of it
by using
a colonial voice
“I lack imagination you say
No. I lack language
The language to clarify
my resistance to the literate…”
(Cherrie Moraga)
At the time,I was worried that my teachers would not accept this form of text. I was worried that they would also accuse me; of not knowing how to properly punctuate or that they would judge me as being weak in articulating my position of resistance. Yet-I also knew, that I could not ask them for their permission to be free “as the permission (I was seeking) resided (only) within myself” (PeterCole)

Looking back, I realize now that my emerging art practice was a continual act of resistance, because I was also utilizing my earlier works as a means of healing.Though- I am now (thankfully) in a position where I no longer feel the need to“always” resist. In fact, the concepts of the work that I am now focused on creating have nothing to do with colonization and decolonization. (Though I suspect as long as we live in a world that is built upon colonial structures, my work will once again, seek to dismantle the racialized dogmas that so negatively affect our existence)

For the past five years, I have been working on a variety of projects that seek to some what universalize (and differentiate) our cosmological positioning as “the Earths descendants”. In 2007 I was awarded a grant to conduct research on the properties of static and other electromagnetic energies (EME). The impetus for my research in EME was born out of an accident during the production of a video project where I questioned the reasoning for the electrical feedback encountered. This investigation into “static electricity” led me to the discovery that the “static/feedback” (on my TV) was actually left over radiation from the Big Bang and had thus taken over 14billion years to appear! The revelation / discovery of this “ancient media”inspired me to produce multiple visual and auditory sensory video projects,installations that utilize electromagnetic energy as the main medium of creation,in works that were articulating my own cultural, cosmological understanding of Creation/Genesis.

After having shown the above research and visual production (an audio and video I produced by using e.m.e) to fellow artist and friend, Master Dancer and Choreographer Troy EmeryTwigg, we began to collaborate on a project specifically to address his ideas concerning the Blackfoot Nations Creation Story. One such exhibition involving my concept of “STATIC,” was further developed by working in collaboration with the ever esteemed (though recently passed) visual artist Joanne Cardinal Schubert. This project was exhibited as the opening piece for the Alberta Ballet and Calgary symphony orchestra in 2009.

I have recently received a grant from The Ontario Arts Council (in the amount of 15,000) to further develop this research, into a six channel video installation. The title of this new work is “A creation/ ᐅᓯᐦᒋᑫᐃᐧᐣ/osihchikewin.” The project relays a Cree cosmological understanding of the concept of Creation, natural law / the structure of the universe, and the “characteristics of space, time, causality,and the quest for freedom.” In creating this project I seek to visually alter our“normative” perspective of space, through uses of technical illusion. In creating this work, it is my intent to share an Indigenous, ecologically based consciousness, as a means of addressing current environmental and social crisis.With this new work, I intend to relay therelationship between human inner space, the natural world, and the mysterious life force that permeates creation. This practice of Cree metaphysics providesinsight into the origin and nature of knowledge, with the result that there isa deeper understanding of the natural order; this spiritual understanding and connectedness is the foundational principle of the Cree ethos.[1]

I will continue to research, create projects that are centered upon an Indigenous cosmological understanding of the working order/natural laws of the universe.While also investigating the properties of a variety of electromagnetic energies, by sourcing multiple ways of documenting its behavior/reaction to certain prescribed environmental conditions i.e.; either by projecting electromagnetic  waveforms on to water/mist in order to document the ways in which the light is refracted, or by using full spectrum cameras, (capable of producing multiple surreal effects,also used in the science of forensics, to make visible, the invisible) Ultra Violet and infrared cameras also produce surreal qualities in imagery and are used to  reveal what is unseen. After having documented the unseen, I wish to gain access to a full dome video projection environment, (such as the digital dome at IAIA) so that I can immerse the audience toward better understanding the indigenous ethos, behind our cosmological worldview.

While I have a keen interest in utilizing new technologies, new media, I am also currently researching the historical connections of Science, Spirituality and Art. My research thus far has led me toward a text by Giambattista Della Porta in his1584 work titled Magia Naturalis/ Natural Magic which provides instruction on theearly science of alchemy and how to manipulate the properties of the elements of earth, water, air, and fire. My intent here is to articulate an Indigenous scientific/metaphysical understanding both in contrast and relation to “other”cosmologies/ways of knowing. I do thus, because I seek a deeper understanding of the universe. By engaging in the processes of Mamatowisiwin and also by utilizing both new and old sciences I seek to become more sensitive and knowledgeable of my surroundings. And also because, “This sensitivity (may) open (my psyche) to the Grand mysteries and to the possibility of a mystical experience, which was considered the only way to grasp certain intangible laws of the universe.[2] .(PeggyBeck and Anna Walters)