Rethinking Aesthetics and Ontology through Indigenous Law: On the work of Val Napoleon and Loretta Todd
by Zoe Todd
Indigenous legal orders, and the ways they are articulated and enacted – including art – are a focus of some of the most exciting and timely research and theory happening in North America at the moment. How we rebuild our legal orders, as Indigenous peoples in territories throughout Canada, necessitates that we engage fully with our stories, our communities and the lands we inhabit. As an anthropologist, this engagement has become even more important to me because the Euro-Western academy is currently captivated by relationships to the other-than-human, the ontological and the cosmopolitical. As an Indigenous feminist, I feel a need to indigenize these Euro-Western narratives through the stories that scholars and artists like Val Napoleon and my Aunt Loretta Todd have shared with me through their own work. To me, Indigenous legal orders, and the stories that inform and enliven them, have much to teach all of us about what it means to engage with land, animals and other humans in accountable ways. This legal-governance discourse informs the decolonization project ongoing within North America.
In my own work as an Indigenous researcher, writer and artist, I seek to understand what it means to rebuild a Métis Indigenous legal order through my relationships to land, to family, to mentors and teachers; I engage this study through stories. As an urban Métis person, I have often struggled to find my elders and mentors within the sprawl and noise of my prairie city. Furthermore, as an Indigenous scholar studying in the heart of a deeply colonial Empire – Britain – and within the colonial discipline of anthropology, I have struggled to assert my own Indigenous thinking within the colonial structures of the academy. But through family, stories, and the broader community, I have been lucky to find women to look up to. Two of the biggest intellectual and artistic influencers in my life are my aunt, Métis filmmaker Loretta Todd, and Indigenous legal theorist Val Napoleon, who is member of the Saulteau First Nation in Treaty 8 territory in northern BC and is an adopted member of the Gitanyow (Gitksan) House of Luuxhon, Ganada (Frog) Clan, as well as holding a PhD from the Faculty of Law at the University of Victoria.
One of my earliest memories is a summer when my Aunt Loretta was visiting us. She was in Edmonton to make a film, one of many she has crafted in her amazing career. I had some sense of what filmmaking meant, because at the time my mom was a radio journalist working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Video cameras, control rooms, mics and editing were nothing new to me. But what I did not realize, tiny as I was, was that my Aunt was forging an important path for Métis women in the 1990s and beyond. It would be many years later – once I was in university – that I would realize how much of an impact my aunt had had on Indigenous women and filmmakers around the world. I still remember a moment from my undergraduate studies when a professor’s eyes widened in delight when they heard that Loretta was my aunt. Over the years, people have shared their experiences of watching her films for the first time, or of reading articles about her life and story. It is hard to root myself in place as a Métis person, when the government is intent on denying our distinct peoplehood or histories. Having my aunt to look up to, though, gave me a sense of purpose as an Indigenous woman. If I could not firmly root myself in the homeland of my Red River Métis ancestors – diasporic as we were – I could root myself in the interplay of colour and sound, story and meaning she employed in her films.
Stories and art have been a foundational part of my life, not only as a Métis woman but also as the daughter of a non-Indigenous journalist and a Métis painter. I learned about the importance of a good story through the pieces my mom, Cheryl Croucher, put together for the CBC and later in her work as a freelance writer, journalist and producer. And my dad, painter Garry Todd, can hold a room in his thrall as he tells stories of his grandmother, Caroline LaFramboise, and her role as the charismatic Métis matriarch of the Todd family in the 1950s and 1960s in Edmonton’s Rossdale Flats (pehonan). Many of these stories are channelled into his paintings through his use of rich colours and palettes that echo the heart-aching skies and fields and forests of my prairie home.
It never occurred to me, though, that stories and skies and land and Métis histories were a mode of thinking, or were art or law that could stand alongside the Euro-Western philosophies and artistic oeuvres in which my non-Indigenous peers were immersing themselves at school. However, once I began graduate school, I began to question the primarily Eurocentric narratives and methodologies open to us for inquiry. I was tired of seeing Indigenous art and the work of Indigenous thinkers relegated to “craft” and “myth” and temporally marginalized as belonging to a distant and fading past. Through reading the work of anthropologists Julie
Cruikshank and Ann Fienup-Riordan, however, I realized that story is itself a present and active mode of inquiry, one that anthropology – despite its failings and coloniality – makes room for. And this is where I returned, in a serious way, to the centrality of stories in my own upbringing as an urban Métis woman.
Stories and art are tools that Val Napoleon employs in her ground-breaking work as the Law Foundation Professor of Aboriginal Justice and Governance and lead of the Indigenous Law Research Unit at the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island. Considered a leading thinker on Indigenous legal orders and law in North America, Val was a community activist for many years before she became an academic. Her advocacy encompassed work throughout the period of Delgamuukw v. British Columbia (in the 1990s, the Delgamuukw sued the provincial government for rights to unceded territories in northwestern BC, a case famous in anthropological circles for the original trial judge’s dismissal of oral history evidence[1, 2]). In a recent interview, Val explained that she went to law school once her first grandchild was born:
I wanted to be able to say something like :if you want to do something, you have to go and do it,” and then I realized that I hadn’t done that, I hadn’t walked the talk. Because I had applied to go to law school when I was 21 or 22 – I was accepted – but I didn’t go. Life happened and I just didn’t go. So I thought, well, that was something I wanted to do and I have to walk the talk.
As an Indigenous woman and a community activist, Val wanted to ensure that women were well represented within the spaces where decisions were being made. Her motivations to study law were thus rooted in the Indigenous feminism that informs her work today:
I was a community activist. I saw older women disappear around me and that phenomenon didn’t happen with men as they aged. And law is an important language. Not just Canadian law, but law—Indigenous law, other laws around the world—is a way of thinking and a way of operating and making decisions.
At the heart of Val’s work is an assertion that Indigenous laws are neither fragile nor incommensurable with state laws, but rather a set of living and dynamic processes with which Indigenous peoples must actively engage and mobilize within our communities and nations. This engagement is not easy; as she says, you have to do the work.
So, what is Indigenous law, for those who are not familiar with this work? Through her work, Val demonstrates that Indigenous law is dynamic, alive, robust and integral to the assertion of Indigenous self-determination and sovereignty in Canada. It is also, as Val points out, a set of processes that require constant intellectual engagement. It allows Indigenous peoples to tackle complex internal community issues as well, from how to address intersections of violence and gender to the management of watersheds and lands in the context of extractive economies. It is the set of processes through which Indigenous peoples actively engage and shape the world. Indigenous legal orders “describe law that is embedded in social, political, economic, and spiritual institutions,” as Val writes in a 2007 paper for the National Centre for First Nations Governance.3 It is from reading and engaging with Val’s work and the work of other Indigenous legal scholars that I have come to prefer to use Indigenous legal orders in my own work over the far trendier Eurocentric notion of ontology (so common in anthropology and art scholarship at the moment). As Val’s work teaches me, Indigenous legal orders centre action and engagement and unambiguous confrontation with colonial realities rather than simply acknowledging that other ways of being exist. Legal orders place the onus on an active engagement across difference and sameness rather than just describing difference or alterity. As Val articulates, “law is a verb.”
Indigenous law is also, as Val asserts, a tool for working across legal orders, to engage respectfully between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. In my studies, I was drawn to Papaschase Cree scholar Dwayne Donald’s pedagogical work on “ethical relationality” and Indigenous Métissage4 because he makes space to work across and between Indigenous and non-Indigenous intellectual and political and economic realities. I was drawn to Val’s work primarily because she does not shy away from the difficult questions of how to address the colonial logics and divides between Indigenous and non-Indigenous institutions and processes in Canada. Instead, she urges those of us reading her work to lean into the discomfort and work of rebuilding and activating our legal orders and confronting the paradoxes that confound many thinkers engaging with the task of rebuilding the legal orders that colonialism tried to deny.
I first met Val during my Master’s degree at the University of Alberta. I was working in a non-Indigenous department, and struggling to root my work in Indigenous thinking. At a 2009 meeting arranged by the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta and the National Centre for First Nations Governance, I first heard Val present her work on Indigenous legal orders. Her words stuck. I was no longer a Métis student passively or hopelessly stuck in a non-Indigenous pedagogy; I was an active agent who had a duty to work with Indigenous legal orders as living and present realities articulated through people’s stories and lives. This realization deeply informs my own work.
Long before I struggled with the academy, however, my aunt was already directly confronting the similarities and differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous intellectual and artistic practices. My aunt was the first person in my family to go to university. Much like Val, my aunt went to post-secondary school later on in life, once she had worked for many years in community projects. She grew up in Edmonton but left home at 13, as she was “in a hurry to grow up.” She moved to Vancouver, and was pregnant with her daughter, Kamala, at age 14. She worked different jobs to support herself, and began volunteering at the Vancouver Native Friendship Centre and then working for the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC). It was at UBCIC that she was deeply impacted by the advocacy and thinking of George Manuel.
With the experience of learning from influential activists and leaders of the time, and with many years of work in community projects throughout north-west coastal communities, she went to Simon Fraser University to study film. At that time, she points out, SFU film studies was very experimental:
The thing about Simon Fraser was that you had to study art history, you had to study political history. So there was a lot of discussion around the meaning of art, the history of art, but always within a Western tradition. But they were radical enough that they were also recognizing that all those western traditions were borrowing from other cultural traditions. And I had a couple of really good professors who were very encouraging, and I found myself really excelling at theory. Theory doesn’t just begin and end at theory: it takes you into so many realms.
Her theoretical training and her years of community practice weave together in a number of politically and intellectually informed works that explore the “many realms” to which she alludes: from education and residential schools in The Learning Path (1991), to Indigenous women artists in Hands of History (1994), to the stories of Indigenous war veterans in Forgotten Warriors (1997).
Art and stories blend into both Val and my aunt’s work. While we are conditioned to view law as aseptic and sterile in Euro-Western contexts, the relationship between law and aesthetics and the sharing of stories in oral, visual and embodied forms is intimate. Through the use of graphic novels, posters and her own artwork in her research, Val demonstrates that Indigenous legal orders can be shared and understood through visual and aesthetic means. A brochure published for the Indigenous Law Research Unit features Val’s Kokum Raven Series paintings.5 The series features the Raven in a collection of playful contexts: sitting on top of a copy of Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian; riding an Indian brand motorcycle; flying in the sky with kerchiefs; wearing a set of headphones; sitting with a friend wearing a delicate string of pearls. Val explains the visual use of the Raven in the brochure:
Indigenous law is in the world and there are many ways to learn about it, teach it, and to represent it. The way I have chosen here is with the raven – a trickster for some Indigenous peoples. She can teach us by being a troublemaker and by upsetting the log jams of unquestioned assumptions. She can also teach us with love, patience, and a wicked sense of humour. She can create spaces for conversations and questions – that is her job as a trickster and a feminist so that nothing is taken for granted and all interpretations are laid bare.
In my aunt’s Cree language series, Tansi! Nehiyawetan, the opening credits feature an animation of a raven flying over an urban landscape, to explicitly honour the West Coast territory within which the Plains Cree language show is filmed. The raven features here, too, as a teacher and a guide welcoming viewers to enter the realm of nehiyawewin (Plains Cree) language. And my aunt’s film work is, in some ways, explicitly an extension of the realm of storytelling and aesthetic traditions she grew up with as a young woman in Alberta. Whenever I have the chance, I relish sitting with this gifted storyteller over a cup of tea to listen to stories from her childhood or her illustrious career, which has taken her from waitressing to behind the camera, to classrooms, to the United Nations, to community gatherings. I like hearing her tell a joke or a story – the distinct shift of tone in her voice to share a funny anecdote from her travels and work is familiar and treasured to me. And I can see the fingerprint of her sense of aesthetics and humour and social justice within every piece she writes, directs or produces.
Val translates stories into legal action, processes, art and living text. My aunt translates stories into shadow and light and sound. In a story featured in a 2002 article written by Jason Silverman, a version of which my Aunt shared with me recently when I interviewed her for this piece, her first encounter with filmmaking as form was on a blizzarding Edmonton night when she was a child. As she watched over her siblings in a non-descript motel on the outskirts of Edmonton while my grandmother dealt with a family crisis, my aunt found herself watching an old horror film flickering across the TV. She lay there motionless, frozen by the imagery on the screen and the coldness of the draughty room. But something outside caught her attention, and she moved to the window where the clouds had lifted and the prairie moon was shining down on the earth. In that moment, she saw the imagery of the film reflected on the window, and it was in that instant, she says, that she understood film to be the interplay of shadow and light. Many years later, this moment would deeply inform her transformation of stories to screen.
Much as Val urges her interlocutors to engage in the active process of rebuilding Indigenous legal orders, my aunt actively engages with Indigenous stories as a mutable, dynamic and rooted medium. In fact, confronting and confounding assumptions about Indigenous pasts, presents and futures is one of my Aunt’s specialties. In her 2014 sci-fi action pilot, Skye and Chang, my Aunt directly engages Indigenous futurisms and Indigenous feminism through science fiction. In an early film school project, she filmed neon light in Vancouver at different speeds, imagining and re-creating the worlds her father and uncles would have inhabited in their time on the skids in downtown Edmonton in the 1950s and 1960s. In an upcoming project, she explores the relationships between Western science and Indigenous stories.
The work of both my aunt and Val is monumental, and the stories continue to flow. As Val explained in our recent interview:
I receive requests every week from different Indigenous peoples – communities and Tribal Councils… So what is amazing, what is magic is when people say things like “I’ve heard these stories all my life and now I see the law in them and now I see legal principles everywhere.” So these are everyday people who don’t have university education, who are taking the stories and learning from them and applying them to things that they have to deal with today, the very real and hard challenges that they have.
For my aunt’s part, she continues to develop new projects. When one’s business is reasserting Indigenous laws, stories, art and thinking, the work is never done. But it is hard work that is worth engaging, because it is literally re-shaping the face of Canada. I, for one, am forever grateful to these two women for their tireless devotion to their craft. Through their work, scholars and artists like me have access to art, stories and law that ground a rich and dynamic Indigenous intellectual praxis in Canada. In order to decolonize the academy and the art world, we must draw upon our own thinking, art and provocations. Many of us have filtered our words, stories and aesthetics through the measures and metrics of the Euro-Western academy for a very long time, because these are the rubrics the academy enforces. We, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars and artists alike, tend to cite non-Indigenous thinkers before Indigenous ones because the currency of words within the academy demands it. This is something that Sara Ahmed critiques in her work on the politics of citation as a “citational relational”7 that privileges mostly the voices of white, male actors, and which she describes “as a rather successful reproductive technology, a way of reproducing the world around certain bodies.”8 Thinking with Ahmed’s work, I argue that in dealing with Indigenous ontologies, citation is also a resuscitationl9 of specific ways of framing legal orders and cosmologies themselves. As an Indigenous feminist, I seek through my work to revive and enliven the thinkers and worlds that honour and acknowledge the lives, laws and language of Indigenous peoples as distinct and concrete intellectual traditions in Canada. It is exciting to engage with work that does not need the old citational or Eurocentric paradigms in order to assert its vision. I am eager to see the worlds that are brought to life through an Indigenous praxis in Canada, and excited by how the reciprocal relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous thinking and art are steering us in new directions through rich and provocative stories and aesthetics.