By Dane Gibson
A unique event is coming to Vancouver Island University on Saturday (Nov. 26) – one that challenges audiences to think about the traditional and cultural significance of Indigenous law in a new light.
Testify is a collection of paintings, performance pieces and written work created by a pairing of artists and legal thinkers. There are 22 mostly indigenous participants who came together in the project curated by the Testify: Indigenous Laws + Arts Collective. Testify is a response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to acknowledge, recognize and make space for indigenous laws and legal orders.
“We wanted to talk about indigenous laws using the medium of art because of how deeply people are impacted by art. It was a way to talk to the heart of the subject and invoke an emotional response,” said Testify co-coordinator Ardith Walkem, who is a B.C. lawyer and member of the Nlaka’pamux Nation.
“Traditionally and through to today, many indigenous laws are reflected through artistic expressions such as dance, carving, storytelling and performance. The link between indigenous law and art is not as far apart as it is in the western tradition, and that is what we are trying to show.”
Walkem joined award-winning artist Corrine Hunt, who is a member of the Raven Gwa’wina clan from Ts’akis, a Komoyue village on Vancouver Island, to create a powerful sculpture for Testify depicting a Big House with designs and stories both inside and out. The overarching theme of the work is indigenous laws about ‘hope’.
“Indigenous people have an inequitable relationship to Canadian society and part of that comes from the failure to recognize indigenous laws. Testify is doing something powerful and creative and issuing an invitation to broader society to join us, through Testify, in addressing this disparity that exists,” said Walkem.
Walkem points out that on July 4, 1885 the leader of the Red River and North-West resistance and founder of Manitoba, Louis Riel, was famously quoted as saying: “My people will sleep for 100 years, but when they awake it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” She says it is in that spirit that Testify was born.
“We can talk about justice or the need to recognize indigenous laws as much as we want, but unless that talk can reach someone’s heart or spirit, it will just remain talk and may not make a difference in how people think or consider these complex issues. By using art as a stepping stone, through Testify, we hope to create a wider, more constructive dialogue,” said Walkem. “There is a renaissance of indigenous law across many countries in the world. What we are saying is now is the time to stop denying these laws exist because our people need them.”
The other co-coordinator on Testify is one of Canada’s foremost aboriginal rights lawyers and VIU chancellor Louise Mandell. She worked with artist Richard Heikkilä-Sawan to produce a monologue for Testify called The Gift.
The Gift opens by stating: “Art is an act of peacemaking. Art is alive. It is a dialogue. When art grips us in our heart, which can happen in a heartbeat, we are changed. Like art, indigenous laws are alive. These living forces participate in our belonging, being and becoming.”
Like The Gift, each piece in the Testify collection celebrates a unique aspect of the topic. Laws surrounding care of children, the role and place of indigenous women in society, decision-making regarding land and resources and a broad range of other foundational principles are explored.
Part of VIU’s Reconciliation Road series of events, Testify gets underway at 7 p.m. with an art display and performance at VIU’s Malaspina Theatre. On Sunday, at 11 a.m. everyone is invited to join participating Testify artists in the Malaspina Theatre lobby for brunch and bannock.
The events are free but you must register to attend.
Dane Gibson is a writer with VIU's communications department.