During the first week of my time on Lenape lands in New York City, I went to visit the National Museum of the American Indian. When I arrived at the steps I, like many others who had come to learn about the First Peoples of the land, was barred entry by a sign that read ‘The National Museum of American Indian is closed due to Federal Government Shutdown.’ In a political standoff with the opposition, President Donald Trump had closed multiple sites of arts, culture and tourism across the USA, in a ploy to force taxpayer dollars to go toward building his racist wall between the USA and Mexico.
By Kate ten Buuren
It was jarring being invited to a country to participate in First Nations Dialogues, to then have this experience of being denied entry to a place that holds Indigenous history, contemporary art and cultural belongings. As a young Indigenous person seeing the accessibility to Indigenous knowledge and history being gatekept by the government made me think about how important it is to have spaces of cultural significance that are autonomous, grassroots and community-led. I see the power that those spaces have when attending events back home that are organised by mob, and I saw it again when in Mannahatta, while participating in First Nations Dialogues (FND).
The KIN: No Series, was a series of discussions and events curated over the week by Emily Johnson and housed at Performance Space New York, that is a prime example of the need for, and the success of Indigenous-lead spaces. It was inspiring for me as a young Taungurung artist to witness the different forms that these discussions and events could take, as I am very dedicated to creating similar environments that centre blakness and foster connecting and healing between young people.
Two spaces that were set up very beautifully as a part of the KIN: No Series were the Pulling Threads workshop lead by local NYC-based Elder, Muriel Miguel of Spiderwoman Theater and the KIN: Conversations hosted by Emily Johnson, Genevieve Grieves and Paola Balla. Aunty Muriel lead us through step by step tasks for us to each make a patch that would then (if we were comfortable) be sewn together to create a quilt. The action of sitting around a big table, with women of different ages, sewing bits of fabric together and sharing stories - about our families, our identities, our traumas and our triumphs, reminded me of being back home, sitting with my Aunties and cousins and sewing together possum skins, to make a cloak. When your hands are busy, conversation flows easy; there’s less pressure, less eyes on you. And the concept of making something that will eventually be used to keep someone warm, to wrap around their bodies and make them feel safe, is equally evident in the practise of possum skin cloak making and Aunty Muriel’s workshop.
In Emily, Genevieve and Paola’s three discussions that they lead, I was drawn to the causal set up of the spaces the women created; I could see effort had been put into the way the room was set up; always with food, drinks, soft things to touch or wrap yourself in. These spaces had been thoughtfully designed as places where healing could occur. Just like in Aunty Muriel’s workshop, we were surrounded by quilts - they were used as the cushions to sit down on, and when the cold New York winter air came through the windows, could be used to wrap yourself in. These discussions allowed you to listen, to speak, and provided the time to think and reflect on what was being shared within the group. They also set up boundaries, letting the audience know that this was first and foremost an Indigenous space, that the audience should not expect the Indigenous people in the room to do all the work, and also stating that they would not be taking ‘questions’ like a traditional panel talk, instead putting the focus on other people being involved in the conversation - taking the pressure and the labour off the Indigenous women who were there.
The care, love and support that was put into creating these events was only able to come from the women who designed them. It is so important for Indigenous people to lead these events that centre our own experiences and that allow for thoughtful and respectful conversation. Indigenous-lead spaces are extremely successful, we just need to be economically independent to be self-determined, deciding what that success looks like for ourselves. This autonomy would mean we can continue to do the work in our communities, creating spaces with longevity that enhance cultural and artistic practise and extend this focus on healing through art. In the future, I hope that FND will provide more space to meet, collaborate, experiment and challenge each other in ways that respect where everyone is from, and respect the lands on which we meet.
FND was just the beginning in creating global relationships that will hopefully move beyond just knowing each other, and into creating work, and global-scale healing across our communities that have so much in common.