In Defiance: Indigenous women define themselves

By Aaren Madden, September 2016

Lindsay Delaronde’s collaborative photography project uses images to defy the language and attitudes that marginalize indigenous women.

Nikke Goodwill, Nuu-chah-nulth, CreeLANGUAGE PLAYS A POWERFUL ROLE in the history of colonialism, racism and sexism. Even small words have major implications: there is a big difference between, say, the history of Vancouver Island and a history of Vancouver Island. The former leaves no room for alternative tellings or voices, while the latter acknowledges that as the whole point. That single mark carries with it a powerful paradigm shift. 

Even the way we refer to a place is meaningful: the part of Vancouver Island in which these words were written is, after all, unceded Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations territory. Place names carry weight. And then there are those words that, in an utterance of single syllables, can deliver the blows of colonialism, racism and sexism with visceral force. Words like squaw. 

When someone says it, “they are stereotyping native women,” explains Lindsay Katsitsakatste Delaronde, an Iroquois/ Mohawk artist living and working in Victoria. “They are saying, ‘You are a low- class citizen. You are the other.’ It implies oppression, marginalization, exploitation and sexualization,” so much so that, since the turn of the 21st century, it has been removed from place names around North America. 

With “Project Squaw,” a unique photography-based initiative three years in the making, Delaronde has examined the word and the long shadow it has cast. “It’s looking at that word, looking at the history of it,” she says, from “first contact with fur traders and explorers [who ‘took’ First Nations wives]…continuing to all the problems that come with the Indian Act and Bill C-35, where they took away a woman’s status if she marries out. All of these legislations and laws and policies based on an indigenous woman’s identity, on what she is and what she isn’t. This power.”

Delaronde’s aim is to offer alternative manifestations of identity and power. “I have a tension, a conflict in my art,” she observes. “It’s not about going into battle, but about creating a place of change. This project is really about providing space and working with virtues that are particularly related to our cultural teachings around respect and love and joy,” she explains.

Its concept combines all aspects of Delaronde’s education, intertwined with an art practice that reaches back to childhood. Born in Montreal in 1985 and raised on the nearby Kahnawake First Nation, Delaronde experienced domestic violence and trauma in her youth. She always turned to art-making, including traditional forms such as beadwork, for solace. “Art is my place of healing,” she says. “It is a sacred place. It is something you partake in and you go into a different realm. You have power there; you have control. You have personal agency. You can reconstruct things, deconstruct things. And that process is very mindful and focused and was very much a contrast to my home life. So art has been a means of understanding myself and the world.”

At 16 years of age, Delaronde attended the Fine Arts program at Dawson College in Montreal, then came west to do an undergrad degree at Vancouver’s Emily Carr University of Art and Design. At the end of her final year, she moved to Victoria, where her daughter, now 9, was born. She completed a Master’s of Fine Art at the University of Victoria in 2010. Throughout her education she studied and worked in a wide variety of media, from printmaking, drawing and video to performance, exploring her own voice and role as an artist. 

All the while, Delaronde has been aware of the impacts of colonialism personally and culturally. “Looking at those larger themes and trying to find [her] role in that,” she completed the Master’s in Indigenous Communities Counselling at UVic, which combines First Nations and Western counselling methods. Realizing how an art practice helped her in her own healing, she has been finding points of cohesion. “As time went on, I was really interested in narrative therapy, person-centred therapy,” she relates. “I was looking at my own cultural background in terms of what does group look like, community-based gathering. Looking at different ceremonies and rituals. We don’t heal in isolation. Our worldview is about coming together and doing ceremonies so we could be visible; we could be seen. We could be part of community. The individual healing is the group healing—one is the other,” she explains.

“Project Squaw” takes this into account. It is a collaboration between Delaronde and 32 First Nations women ranging in age from 22-56 years, whom she photographed in a style and setting completely of their own dictation. It will appear at UVic’s Legacy Gallery downtown from October 8 to December 24 in an exhibition titled In Defiance. In it, each woman will have “individual narratives and stories, but the viewers will see this collective, a community voice that will counteract the term squaw. It’s ‘in defiance’ of that word.” 

Important in the process was the full control each woman had over how they were represented, given that the project deals with deeply personal responses to sexuality, female identity and the body. Also important to Delaronde was that she be the first to be photographed. “You can’t ask somebody to do something that you are not able to do yourself,” she states. For the participating women, she saw herself as facilitator, her counselling education coming into play. Through discussion and collaboration, she helped each woman in the group—community workers, mothers, educators, scholars and more—find the power in their vulnerability, both in the final image they chose for the exhibition and the personally written statement that accompanies it.

That power is visible in the confrontational gazes of those who face the camera head-on. No matter where their eyes are directed, these women claim, act in and declare their spaces, which include rivers and fields, forests and mud puddles. Seen in context with their statements individually and collectively, no meanings need be inferred. “The woman has already defined herself—she’s telling you; she’s showing you,” Delaronde states.

The frequent natural settings give way to an underlying theme of the female body as connected to the land, both as givers of life and receivers of violence: “Violence against women is directly related to the exploitation of the land as commodified, objectified, sexualized.” 

Describing her role in this project as “a great honour,” Delaronde is understandably protective of how these images are understood and received. “There are people who are part of this project that have family members who are missing, who are murdered, so this history is very alive and real in a lot of us. When we are looking at being sexual, the repercussions of that have been fatal,” she says. 

“Violence against indigenous women is a fact—it happened and it’s happening. Looking at the word squaw was a touchstone for everything that followed, sifting through what is real, what is authentic, asking who am I really, underneath all of these labels,” Delaronde concludes. “In Defiance is looking at the stereotype; it’s looking at what Canadian culture thinks of native people; it’s addressing it, and then it shows something else.” Something that can be put into words like consent. Safety. Honour. Agency. Authenticity. And other small words with major implications. 

In Defiance is on from October 8-December 24, 2016, with an opening reception October 21, 7-9 pm and “In Conversation with Lindsay Delaronde and Sarah Hunt” on October 22, 2-4 pm. Legacy Art Gallery Downtown is at 630 Yates Street, 250-472-5619, www.legacy.uvic.ca.

Aaren Madden is a Victoria writer with an education in Art History and Museum Studies. As such, she spends a lot of time thinking about the power of words—and the power of pictures.