Undoing the Colonial Myth of “Firsting”

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Editor’s note: This article is part of a series of reflections on the 2017 Canadian History and Environment Summer School. You can find all the articles here.

Author’s note: Please be aware that, in this article, I discuss ongoing colonial violences including racism, residential schools, settler colonialism, colonization, and colonial violences to land.

Undoing the Colonial Myth of “Firsting” —

In the book Firsting and Lasting, Jean M. O’Brien (White Earth Ojibwe) argues that “the colonial regime” has presented itself “as the ‘first’ to bring ‘civilization’…to the” lands that it has colonized and, in so doing, has attempted to erase Indigenous peoples from the landscape (xv). O’Brien calls this phenomenon “firsting.”

The CHESS 2017 summer school challenged this colonial myth of “firsting.”

A powerful act of de-firsting was presented in the keynote given by Bonnie Devine, an Anishinaabe scholar and artist from Serpent River First Nation and professor at OCAD University. During her keynote, she spoke (among other things) about her art piece Battle for the Woodlands, which recently featured at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), and which I had the privilege of seeing in person at the close of CHESS. In this art piece, Devine maps Indigenous — specifically, Anishinaabe — understandings of land and water overtop a facsimile of an early nineteenth-century colonial map of Upper and Lower Canada.


Battle for the Woodlands

Battle for the Woodlands

The majority of art galleries are colonial. The AGO is no different, perpetuating colonial perceptions of landscape by featuring Western frontier landscape art by settler Canadians like J.E.H. MacDonald, Paul Kane, and Cornelius Krieghoff. Through their works, these painters present common myths that “first” Canada’s landscape by presenting it as untouched wilderness and empty space ready for the taking by white settlers, who are “civilized” and have right to this land.

During her keynote, Devine voiced that, by being featured at the AGO, her work begins “defac[ing the] colonial space” of Western institutions. I would extend this idea to suggest that the piece de-firsts by reclaiming the space as Indigenous. Battle for the Woodlands covers two entire walls and part of a third wall, from floor to ceiling, towering above the majority of the settler Canadian landscape paintings nearby. The size of this art installation prioritizes Anishinaabe perceptions of land and, in so doing, de-firsts and celebrates the continued survival and resilience of Indigenous peoples and knowledge systems on this land that is and has been Indigenous land since time immemorial.

It’s not only that Devine’s map defaces and reclaims the colonial space of the gallery that makes Battle for the Woodlands such an empowering tool for and of de-firsting — it is also that this piece is literally painted overtop a nineteenth-century colonial map of Canada, thereby overtly suppressing and invalidating the colonial vision, as well as colonial assumptions that Western “civilization” has rights to the land and water.

Colonial maps often present land as a commodity. They fail to acknowledge our relationship with the land, or they present that relationship as one in which humanity takes and takes and takes from the land and never gives, that is, as a relationship that is one-sided, abusive of the land, and that fails to see the land as living. What is perhaps most powerfully de-firsting about Battle for the Woodlands is that, in it and through it, Devine deconstructs this notion of land as commodity. She shows the land and waterscapes as living, as is most clearly offered in her envisioning of the Great Lakes as animals, painted in a colour that is also reflective of blood. As Devine said in her CHESS keynote and as Battle for the Woodlands shows, the land and water are our “lifeblood…our kin, our lungs and heart.” As we come to understand and to celebrate the land as living and as life-giver, so too should we come to understand our relationship with the land as one that should be of kinship. Devine’s de-firsting work urges us to re-map our own understanding of this land not as commodity but as kin.

I also wish to acknowledge CHESS 2017’s de-firsting and decolonial approach to pedagogy. All too often, Western humanities pedagogy encourages us to acquire knowledge and engage with the world by searching in a book or on the computer, removed from land, communities, and experiential learning. What made CHESS so special was its prioritizing of land-based, community-based learning. Indeed, the majority of our time at the summer school was on the land with the local Indigenous nations. We learned about these lands from/with Six Nations and the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation. CHESS’s focus on land-based, community-based learning that privileges Indigenous perspectives is, in itself, a powerful de-firsting of colonialism and colonial knowledge systems, and a pedagogy that I urge Western institutions/organizations to celebrate and practice.

The land-based, community-based, de-firsting experience from CHESS 2017 that has particularly resonated with me occurred while visiting the former Mohawk Institute at Six Nations with members of the Six Nations community.

The Mohawk Institute once functioned with a “firsting” intent during its time as one of Canada’s residential schools, seeing itself as a beacon of “civilization” where Indigenous children would grow “civilized” by becoming Westernized and Christianized. The Canadian residential school mandate — one of Canada’s various acts of genocide — was to vanish Indigenous people from the land by forcing them to assimilate into the body politic.

During our time at Six Nations, we were given the opportunity to walk around the exterior of the Institute with a community member. Upon approaching the building’s outer walls, we noticed a series of handwritten words etched into the brickwork, made by former students. These students had carved their names into the building’s bricks. Many of these carvings also contain students’ home communities, nations, messages to family members, years of imprisonment at the Institute, and other statements that signify a longing for and continued connection with homeland and culture. By writing their identities, stories, and presence onto and, ultimately, overtop the building’s facade, these survivors debunk the colonial myth of “firsting.” This act emphasizes the continued presence and survival of Indigenous peoples, their resilience, resistance, humanity, and rightful belonging on/with this land.

I strive to carry the rich decolonial, de-firsting teachings from CHESS into my work, my worldviews, and the ways that I navigate and live as an uninvited occupant and guest on the Dish With One Spoon Territory in Tkaronto (i.e. Toronto). Miigwetch, nya:weh, thank you to CHESS, Six Nations, and the Mississauguas of the New Credit First Nation for this generous and inexpressibly valuable experience.

Acknowledgement: I was honoured and privileged to have presented a talk on the re-mapping abilities of Kent Monkman’s Miss Chief and Bonnie Devine’s Battle for the Woodlands at the recent 2017 ILSA gathering at/with Sto:lo nation. Much of this write-up has been taken from, revised, and adapted from my ILSA talk. Additionally, the photos featured here were taken by me in June 2017.

Works Cited

Devine, Bonnie. “Claims, Names, and Allegories.” CHESS. Women’s Art Association of Canada, Toronto, ON. 31 May 2017. Keynote.

O’Brien, Jean M. Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Print.

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Ashley Caranto Morford

Ashley Caranto Morford (she/her) is a PhD candidate in English and Book History at the University of Toronto, where she is an uninvited occupant on the territories of the Wendat, Haudenosaunee, and Anishinaabe nations. Ashley is a diasporic Filipina and British settler. Her work intersects Indigenous studies, Filipinx/a/o studies, anti-colonial pedagogies and praxis, and digital humanities.

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