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The Bush Inside: Cheryl L'Hirondelle Undresses 'Nehayiwin' with kya-phkaci (Don't Freeze Up!) at the Toronto Free Gallery by Warren Arcan

Cheryl L'Hirondelle's work is guided, informed, expressive of, illustrative of, translation for, involved in, and engaged with Nehayiwin, which may be roughly translated as "Cree world view". It is a journey that began with her realization that she needed to go to the bush and "learn the [Cree] language".

[1]

L'Hirondelle works with many aspects and readings of Nehayiwin. One definition is 'to be Cree.' "As I have been learning and living Nehayiwin I have been impressed by how it is more relational than proprietary, and process-oriented rather than object-based. To say ninotem (my friend) - one is saying ‘the-friend-I-am-relational-to’, and in that, there are rules and responsibilities encoded. To approach and see from that point of view, then, everything is shifted and transformed so it's not dissolution of what is, but a shift in perspective.”[2]

The 'Nehi' of Nehayiwin connects to a root word meaning 'four,' leading to a reading of Nehayiwin that bears the idea of 'four-bodied beings.' This provides a model of a human as not split, but a multiple being (body, mind, emotions, spirit).

"The 'yiw' [of Nehayiwin] means to sound the world view."[3] "Central to my work in every discipline … is the whole notion of voice. I talk a lot about Nehayiwin, about the sense of sounding the world view."[4]

These aspects of the language and Nehayiwin, where meaning is a matter of being in relation, where the idea of an original and isolated ego as the guarantor of meaning is syntactically and contextually impossible or ridiculous, where the language, meaning and relationships are braided in the world view, all provides her with the means of making good camp. Her camp, her performance, relies on tipi poles and sixteen traditional teachings associated with them.

*        *        *        *

Cheryl L'Hirondelle is a traveler. She moves as fast and light as her namesake, the swallow (hirondell noun, fr = swallow).[5] She can put up her camp in minutes. The camp is economical, made of only the necessary things, where every element performs more than one job. Objects are multi-bodied in this way.

L'Hirondelle presented her performance êkâya-pâhkaci (Don’t Freeze Up!) at the Toronto Free Gallery on Bloor Street West. Blankets were laid out to welcome whoever happened by, and she laid out bread, fruit and cookies. The presentation time was set for the evening, but the invitations said the gallery doors would be opened at noon. People came and went throughout the day. L'Hirondelle created a space and a time that altered the gallery; her camp prepared the space and the audience became a part of this process.

The performance area was established at the far end of the gallery by a white canvas tent flanked by two speakers on stands. The tent touched the high gallery ceiling. It was braced and supported by metals bars, and ropes secured these to the walls and ceiling. Lit from within, it glowed white, filling the gallery with soft ambient light, giving everyone and everything edgeless shadows.

Multi-coloured blankets covered the floor and food was laid out on the blankets. Each blanket was a different pattern and size, and suggested a unique event in the life of the collector. Here they said, “Sit down, relax, have something to eat.” Cookies, biscuits, cheese, berries...The blankets were arranged on the floor in a perfect grid, and as a group, at a 45 degree angle to the gallery walls. The space the blankets made was further enhanced by Cree syllabics drawn in chalk on the gallery floor following the edge of the blanket space. The syllabics suggested incantive inscriptions or "hobo writing ... tagging"[6] marks that might transform a space and human arrangements. "The syllabics make an idea of Cree territory."[7]

People gradually filled the gallery prior to the announced start time. L'Hirondelle, dressed casually in a skirt, boots and blouse, mixed with the crowd. Without announcement, she went to her tent and began sewing the entry flaps closed with a needle and thread. The audience gradually took notice and the hum of conversation dropped. Those closest to the action took seats on the blankets or arranged themselves along the walls. She took her time. The start of the action was definite but subtle.

Audience members, too shy to step on the blankets, slowly crept forward. At first they stuck to the walls, keeping to the strip of flooring the blankets left uncovered. Soon enough, though, the blankets were filled. L’Hirondelle stepped into the tent before completely sewing it closed, finishing the job from inside. With the tent sealed up, the light inside playfully threw her shadow around the tent walls, exaggerating and distorting her body, estranged, altered, differed from within, remaking her gestures and the space. Inside the tent, she danced, lifted and shook her foot, and even worked a hula hoop. Then she began a slow strip tease of shadows.

Inside the tent, using an array of audio equipment, L’Hirondelle began to loop and layer her voice, creating an improvised audio piece to go with her shadow play. The gallery walls melted as she danced her shadows on the tent walls. She worked with vocalizations and Cree. She spoke, sang, and spoke-sang. Her voices described the shapes and forms of a vast landscape. Her dance and the layered audio ended with what appeared to be a strip tease, a shadow-burlesque. The performance began with playful, teasing energy, but suddenly with the suggestion of nudity looming – sooner or later after all, she would have to emerge from the tent - somehow, it seemed deliberately out of place or out of pace with what she'd established thus far.

She stopped to push long pieces of ribbon through small slits in the canvas. Altogether sixteen. They recalled ribbon shirts and ceremonial garb. It was a slow and focused action made of smaller repeated actions. (Not being a Cree speaker, I later learn she was chanting he Cree words for the tipi pole teachings.) Approaching the tent flaps, her shadow shrunk from dream-time proportions back to human scale. She paused at the entrance, standing behind the ribbons as behind saplings in the woods. The audience knew what was to come next. Her shadow arms reached up. Her hands played with the opening. But just before she opened the screen, she poked one booted leg through the tent flap and waggled it. The children in the front row laughed. The room relaxed. She opened the tent with a strong gesture and stood revealed, arms spread wide. The entire back wall of the tent was mirrored, and the audience saw themselves looking. But she wasn't naked; she wore a flesh-coloured (the hue was specific but thanks to the dark art of generalization, signified 'skin’) 'naked lady' costume: so the joke was on us. Once the laughter subsided, she left her tent and walked among the seated audience, talking Cree with them, patient and charming. Then she returned to her tent, and began a call and response game, teaching the audience Cree. The energy was high and joyful.

                                                 *        *        *        *

During a storyteller residency in Northern Saskatchewan, Cheryl L'Hirondelle came upon a tipi pole teaching that has been informing her work ever since. Each of the sixteen poles that create the structure of a tipi (the array of poles meeting at the top resembles a swallow’s tail, fitting as L’Hirondelle literally means “the swallow” in French) represents a corresponding idea, value or teaching. In her performance, êkâya-pâhkaci, L'Hirondelle had written the Cree word for these teachings in chalk around the blankets on the gallery floor. [8][9]  She chanted the Cree words while pushing sixteen ribbons through slits in the wall of her tent, letting them roll out and hang in the front.

Obedience: learning by listening to know what is right or wrong.

Radical Inclusivity: "if we're going to survive and make a cohesive camp we have to allow everyone to be present."[10] The day before her performance, L'Hirondelle gave a presentation at the Ontario College of Art and Design. In order to articulate what she meant by radical inclusivity, she spoke about a word in Cree for a woman who's "crazy-ish", but not clinically. The word denoted someone in a camp that doesn't do things in the regular way. "Didn't have kids, did things alternately."[11] L'Hirondelle wants to honour people who do things backwards. From her work in women's prisons, she has said, "prison is full of people with gifts who don't fit in."[12] The character she emerges from her tent as draws on this. She likes to make mistakes: she sings too loud, she speaks a language few understand, she moves provocatively, she moves through the space unconcerned with normal boundaries. She may go wrong at any minute. But one felt no threat from her. As she's said, It's critical in a camp structure that endures that everyone will have a role, "even those who do things wrong or backwards."[13]

A wall tent is a perfect all-weather shelter for a nomadic way of life.[14] Readily collapsible but sturdy, with a woodstove for heat and a hole in the top for the flue, it recalls a life on the land, the lives of a river people. 'Nomadic' is a misnomer, however, if by it one means rootlessness or homelessness joined to an idea of an earlier phase of cultural development... a people permanently wandering out of doors, sleeping wherever they happen to fall from exhaustion. L'Hirondelle's imagery may be haunted, sure, but by imported ghosts with their own agendas. If you find you are unable to set yourself on the blanket, prepare yourself for a negative epiphany a la Sixth Sense: you may be the ghost of the camp, spinning cups and opening cupboard doors in feeble metaphysical protest. It's a very open camp. Ghosts may find their place, too.

Respect: honouring each other's basic rights.

L’Hirondelle makes a distinction between performance and theatre. In her view, theatre blocking - the placement of the actors, the set design, the mise en scène, “…manipulates the attention of the audience. In performance, the audience can look at whatever they want.”[15] This is the 'antiheirarchal gaze' of performance.[16] The cohesive or coherent camp is defined by radical inclusivity which means openness is a structural necessity. Its very existence relies on this. The right to be left alone[17] adheres to whomever or whatever arrives. "Radical Inclusivity is also non-humans as the 'all of us.'"[18]

Humility: to understand our relationship with the Creator and creation.

On making a camp, one makes an announcement of humility: "I am here."[19] It is an offer to whoever may be listening. It presupposes relationships, being-in-relation, a way of understanding oneself where solitude is not only meaningless but impossible, as all things are articulated within or through the play of relations. L’Hirondelle’s performance began with a visiting hours. The white canvas tent, lit from within, filled the space with soft light that gradually strengthened as the day wound down. Gallery-goers sat on the blankets to visit with L'Hirondelle and the gallery staff. The sculptural or installation aspect of the work was thus altered by use, by habituation. An offer was taken up and new relations were created. This beginning was not a latency of the piece, rather, a  deliberate action. It required exactly who was there, their specific arrivals and departures, their unique transit, to create this aspect of L'Hirondelle's installation. That said, if no one ever came, it would not contradict the humility, the statement, "I am here." This "Camp of No Arrivals," doesn’t have the apocalyptic pathos of the last aboriginal chunk of post-contact earth drifting slowly in deep space. Such pathos requires the play of presence/absence and other binaries that create value.

L’Hirondelle’s camp reminds us it’s good to try to think things without attaching unnecessary values. A blanket is a good reminder of this. The Idea of Blanket (cf. The Idea of North) in Indian territory is so pervasive that it almost escapes attention. A blanket on the floor set with food is an index of the relational. It's a kind of architecture, too, then, as it's a field for and of relations.

Happiness: our actions make our ancestors happy in the next world.

L'Hirondelle has come to prefer the notion "performative activities." She realized one of the reasons she was suffering from pre-performance anxiety was because she anticipated her audience and what 'performance art' had to be. She realized she had to "take the work inside and be really happy with what I was doing. And that's not to be egotistical and say I don't care who sees it but they had to be meaningful activities for me. You're not just trying to be spectacle, you're not trying to be noticed but what are these movements, what are these activities, these actions, to me?" She started thinking, "From "our' world view, our ancestors are sitting here with us, so I started to think how our ancestors were witnessing this." So she started moving away from needing a stage and an audience and that separation. (FVA) This realization seems concomitant to Respect.

Love: to live in harmony; kindness and goodness.

Desire as an internally organizing force? Can desire be indifferent? We must move, we must go down stream - must we? Must one? Must one move? Is the move in me? The desire, the route, the path, idea of the path as desire, as constitutive, as a structural necessity? A way in, a way out, but with a mobile aboriginal architecture, with a path that may occur anywhere, it dislodges things, it makes things loose. The shadows in the tent are created by a woman and a light. We know this, but at the same time, we can't help ourselves, or I can't help myself. There is an associative energy at work, the shadows a Rorschachian shimmy. But we know it's just a woman moving about - a tent and a blanket as architecture and as a relationship/image of/to home - a building with relations in mind. We are meant to be with the tent, the light and the food - being with - what is 'being with'?

The question of love touches on one of the great silences among cultural practitioners. It's a silence built of many things and in a sense it's an artifact, fascinating for having gradations of visibility and invisibility, and for being the product of an understanding that leads to a deeper sense of the silence. And there is in this silence (reticence, obstinance, observance, allegiance, coherence) a sort of training that leads to a production of a silence of one's own, and in this way, bears the hallmark of an integrity that understands one's limitations. The limitations are sketched in a preliminary way by the work of translation needed to bridge gaps in understanding. L'Hirondelle's work is so graduated, made out of a loving intent, where varying levels of understanding are met with the appropriate levels of translation. The fact that the syllabics on the floor will be incomprehensible to many audience members is not inhibitory. There is a place for the ones who step in and leave without understanding. There's a place for the ones who sit with her, sing along and share in her laughter. There's a place for the ones who can read the floor and decide for themselves where they are in what she's presenting.

Faith or Finding Truth: to believe in a power greater than ourselves.

In an essay by Candice Hopkins, she presents the idea that a storyteller "in typical Cree tradition" becomes the story.[20] The story arrives in the space created or built between story, listener and storyteller. It complicates the Platonic by suggesting there are no Ideas, nothing to represent, nothing that needs representing, because the thing of the story is here on its own behalf. This makes an interesting image of aesthetics. Nehayiwin speaks of an "us" in regards to relationality. Included in this "us" are humans (of course?), but also other animate beings like spirits or animals. (Cree grammar has animate and inanimate as Latin languages have gender.) It's not necessary to discuss how this alters concepts like "rights" or "nation" (cf. Ecuadoran constitution acknowledging the rights of Nature.) I wonder about the status of an artwork framed by Nehayiwin?

Kinship or Sense of Being Related: the roots that tie us to the lifeblood of the earth.

"It is one of the pivotal questions - tânitê ohci kiya, the one that lets you how we are related. It lets you know who you can take to your tent (ha ha) and what your bloodline is."[21] An invitation to be in the tent is an invitation to be a relation for the moment or the event or the experience[22]...to open one's flaps...[23] It's important to her to say "her family has her back" and that the people she worked with in remote places use a language that may not be critically rigorous, but is in touch with other things like the land. "Then language that engages the land makes it more robust and therefore perhaps more rigourous."[24] So the strength of her work comes from kinships. "Kiyânaw is a word/concept from nêhiyawêwin (Cree language) meaning us/we - inclusive! ... What is kiy (pronounced key) is that we extend a generosity of spirit to all beings ... challenging ourselves to ever widening the circle ... kiyânaw ohci kâkîyaw iyiniwak (we are for all beings)!”[25]

Cleanliness: good health habits reflects a clean mind.

This is also the name for research, and helps explain the impulse to do things well. Gestural, intentional hygiene. She repeated a gesture to sew the flaps closed. Her focus and the repeated action modeled a quality of attention. I can't or won't name or identify this quality of attention, being that it was likely understood differently by each witness and therefore beyond my powers of description and empathy. But I will risk saying the quality of attention would be misunderstood if read as ceremonial.

Thankfulness or Gratitude: giving thanks for others' kindness and the Creator's gifts.

She remade the tent into an image of sacrifice, promise, offering or petition. Then she resumed her dance. She took on forms that resembled pictographs, ancient forms of writing evoking the extra-human. Her shadow played on the ribboned tent wall that recalled tattooed, or similarly marked and processed skin.

Sharing: providing for each other.

L'Hirondelle moved about, busy with her preparations, but taking some time to visit with her guests. They sat in a circle, talking softly with one another, some shyly take some food, careful to take just enough and not too much. The gentle ceremonial of being with new people in a new space and sharing - if you arrive at my camp, there's food - with no thought of return; the obligation of return is not built into the gift. It's as if the image of giving and receiving, and of those who give and receive, are parts of a dynamic of transport affecting all in the relation. It's also a way of non-human relations. There is a lazy eye that can't see that leaving things alone expresses sophisticated relational thinking founded in Nehayiwin.

A cookie, a berry, eye contact, speak a little, listen a little, laugh a little, working out space issues, learning how to negotiate a blanket. Do I step on it? Is that allowed? Is this a performance space or a domestic space? How do I consume this? How do I be here? There were people on the blankets, and a clutch of people at the other end of the gallery, near the entrance, either unsure or reluctant to sit on the blankets. Perhaps too unwilling to implicate themselves in the event, perhaps unclear on the system of exchange in place, perhaps not wanting to be feel responsible, to be feel obligated. She used loops of her voice to improvised a composition for her performance. The strength of improvisation is in the dialogue between the artist's play and what the audience brings to the event. When improvisation works, it makes a tangle of conventional ideas of authorship. The artist responds to the audience responding to the artist responding to the… the question of who leads and who follows soon becomes meaningless. This aspect of improvisation dovetails with her interest in the random. She's expressed her interest in performance being in part a development from her early interest in theatre. In theatre, she says, the audience's eye is guided, is told what to look at and when. Performance for her, on the other hand, doesn't dictate to the audience; their attention is more. If it can be said this way, it is 'free range'.

Strength, Bravery, Courage, Endurance: accepting difficulties and tragedies and the having patience to endure.

L'Hirondelle realized she needed to go back to the bush and learn the language.[26]

One wants to dig into an artist's life to find some correlation between personal events and their work. This is a dangerous game and can make much mischief. The places where a person needs to be brave are personal stories and may not be meant for everyone. It's enough that they show up and do what they must do, at the right time and the right place. That one needs to go into the bush sometimes should need no qualifier or explanation. What they bring back and are willing to share, that's the likely limit of one's questioning. After that, it's the work.

Good Child-Rearing: children are unique and blessed with the gift of life.

Children were most relaxed in the space. When she stuck her foot out of the tent and waggled it, the children were the first to get the joke. The hippest of us kept our distance, resisted getting bound up in the ease, being suspicious of a child's willful or intentional uncriticality. But is such a thing possible? Can someone sophisticated 'be' blithe? Is such a gift so easily given to oneself?

Hope: hope for better things to make life easier for us.

Every work of art has an ambition. It has a direction or intent and expresses world view. This may seem simplistic but it bears repeating. A portage requires repeated strokes as the river will be the river, especially as the greatest failures are typically preceded by mutual misapprehensions of differing world views. I won't speak about intentional criminality, force majeur or simple idiocy. This is more about the work of translation. L'Hirondelle positions herself as a 'wooden boat person' (a Cree phrase for “european') and a Cree, in a place that swirls with relational energy. Her positioning has the allure of an argument, with disjunctions, conjunctions, either/or, both/and, supplement, and complement. Her camp of transient artifacts will already attract and frustrate the collectors with their mesh screens, brushes and trowels. There are some who would place her somewhere on a traditional/contemporary continuum. She pops free and away like a fresh cherry pit.

As much as her work jokes and teases, as much as she makes fun, there is still a place, as there has always been a place, on this blanket. It is a meeting place, a camp that can be erected at any time, any place. The piece becomes an object demonstration of Nehayiwin. The audience sees how such a camp is run. They may be far from running a camp of their own, but they may at least learn to recognize it should they come across it. It's a writing that some may need training for as it's typically obscured by monuments and other nation-on-nation pornographies such as called History. "It's like we have the antidote for some of what's going on in the world, as indigenous beings, we have in our world views the antidote."[27]

Ultimate Protection or Who's Got Your Back: ultimate responsibility to achieve a healthy balance of body, mind, emotions, and spirit.

"Because my work is interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, crossdisciplinary, transdisciplinary... I'm not worried about keeping things in their own little boxes."[28] She spent five years in Northern Saskatchewan. Ahasiw Maskegon Iskwew told her this was her Masters degree.

... the bush inside...

Control Flaps:  connection of all things controls and creates harmony in our life; freedom, to own oneself.

There are two teachings for the tent flaps because there are two tent flaps. I am likely wrong. In fact, I will let this one be wrong because I wouldn't want anyone reading this to rest with this article, taking it to be reliable. I will admit that it is unreliable and that the reader should work to verify for themselves whether I've been true to the sources and the work. In my research for this article, the idea of the tent flaps was unclear. The idea of Freedom doesn't reside explicitly with the tipi pole teachings of the Elderspeak[29] website, but it does emerge in her talk at the Ontario College of Art & Design. I don't see this as a contradiction because Freedom suggests one's poles may become a part of the process. The tension between the individual and the collective is one of the great engines of human production. In êkâya-pâhkaci (Don't Freeze Up!) L'Hirondelle proposes Nehayiwin as approach to these interlocked themes and questions. In the camp one brings what one brings, one takes what one takes, and one gives what there is to give. There is no system, but there are methods. In this light one may note the inadequacy of "aboriginal" to Nehayiwin.

 



[1]  Cheryl L'Hirondelle, Visiting Lecturer, presented by the Faculty of Art, Ontario College of Art and Design, Toronto, October 16, 2008 

[2] Wanda Nanibush, "Pirates of Performance: Wanada Nanibush in Conversation with Cree Performance Artists Cheryl L'HIrondelle and Archer Pechawis." Fuse Magazine, Vol. 32, #1: 33

[3] L'Hirondelle, OCAD

[4] Cheryl L'Hirondelle. Interview. First Vision: Guts, cur. Archer Pechawis,  grunt Gallery, Vancouver, 2006

[5] L'Hirondelle, OCAD

[6]  L'Hirondelle, OCAD

[7] Wanda Nanibush in conversation, June 2009.

[8] “Dene/Cree Elderspeak: Tales From the Heart and Spirit.” HorizonZero: TELL: 
Aboriginal Story in Digital Media 
 No. 17. Eds. L'Hirondelle, Cheryl and Joseph Naytowhow.  September/October 2004

[9]  L'Hirondelle, OCAD

[10] L'Hirondelle, OCAD

[11] L'Hirondelle, OCAD

[12] L'Hirondelle, OCAD

[13] L'Hirondelle, OCAD

[14] L'Hirondelle, OCAD

[15] L'Hirondelle, First Vision

[16] Nanibush, Fuse 27

[17] Nanibush, Fuse 26

[18] Nanibush, Fuse 31

[19] Birkes, Fikret, Sacred Ecology: Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Resource Management. Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis. 1999. 84-85

[20] Hopkins, Candice. “Interventions in Traditional Territories: Cistemaw Iyiniw Ohci, A Performance by Cheryl L'Hirondelle.”
E-misférica Issue 2.1. Spring 2005. <http://hemi.nyu.edu/journal/2_1/hopkins.html>

[21] Nanibush, Fuse 26

[22] Nanibush, Fuse 26

[23] Nanibush, Fuse 26

[24] L'Hirondelle, OCAD

[25] Kiy Manifesto ed. L'Hirondelle, Cheryl.

[26] L'Hirondelle, OCAD

[27] L'Hirondelle, First Vision

[28] L'Hirondelle, First Vision

[29]  “Dene/Cree Elderspeak: Tales From the Heart and Spirit.” HorizonZero: TELL: 
Aboriginal Story in Digital Media 
 No. 17. Eds. L'Hirondelle, Cheryl and Joseph Naytowhow.  September/October 2004