I can already tell that this post is going to be longer than I intended it to be. Bear with me, because it is important.
These past two days, I have been attending and volunteering at the Champlain on the Anishinabe Aki: Histories and Memories of an Encounter colloquium at Carleton University. This conference blew me away, particularly because of the strong First Nation – Anishinaabeg – presence. We began each day with smudging ceremonies, prayer, and singing from elders and youths, and frequently the Anishinaabeg got in the final word in the panels and audience questions as well. Conference organizers and participants acknowledged and thanked the Anishinaabeg for welcoming them onto unsurrendered Anishinaabeg land. They were not sidelined as is so often seen in academic conferences. The panels also had a good balance of English and French speakers, and the interpretive services available for all participants that needed them – panelists and audience members – was phenomenal, promoting a wonderful amount of dialogue between many groups from what is now Canada as well as France.
The theme of the conference was to be along the Champlain commemorations and historical encounters with the Anishinaabeg people, but the panels discussions did not linger as much as expected on the man that was Champlain and the celebratory commemorations that have been occurring to mark the 400th anniversary of his short (two week?) visit to the Ottawa River valley region. When they did, the speakers generally brought critical reflection to their panels. The standard narratives of positive, superficial encounters between Champlain, Tesouat (the “Indians” have names!) that are so often presented in official commemorations were questioned, and the negative effects of such stories was discussed; by celebrating Champlain’s historical journey and the supposed arrival of 400 years of francophonie in the Ottawa region that resulted, the long histories of First Nation persecution in the region are marginalized and glossed over.
One image dominated the conference and was discussed on multiple occasions: that of the famous Samuel de Champlain statue on Nepean Point, behind the National Art Gallery in Ottawa. The statue has been criticized for being an inaccurate representation of the physical likeness of Champlain, and also because he is apparently holding his astrolabe upside down (perhaps to reinforce the image of a cross being held aloft). Many have also insisted that the artifact known as “Champlain’s astrolabe” – which served as a model for the one that the statue holds – may not have been Champlain’s astrolabe after all.
Now, this “heroic” figure isn’t out of step with the style of other similar nationalistic statues coming out of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The work is problematic in many ways, but the most infamous is that it wasn’t always alone on that spot. On the base on the left hand side is a small platform where a statue of an anonymous “Kneeling Indian Tracker” statue (this year renamed “Kitchi Zibi Omàmìwininì“) stood from 1918 until relatively recently. You can see a photograph here on Jeff Thomas’ website. Whole essays – maybe whole master’s or doctor’s theses – have or can be written about this subject. Long story short, the statue was deemed offensive – kneeling at the feet of Champlain in a subservient position and in stereotypical dress – and was removed.
…And moved to Major’s Hill Park. Which, if you know Ottawa, is actually within sight of Nepean Point, where the Champlain statue still stands, less than 350 metres away. (Here are walking directions, courtesy of Google Maps.) I ran into Jeff Thomas, an urban Mohawk and famed photographer, at Nepean Point this summer where he was working on a photographic project which you can read more about here. I asked him what he thought of the statue being moved. He doesn’t like that the work is now so hidden, and that the figure now looks like he is kneeling before parliament. Incidentally, the figure’s turned head is also gazing back -longingly? – at Champlain or his original post. I can also tell you personally that the statue is hidden in some tall grass behind a washroom building. It’s definitely out of the way. Out of sight, out of mind. As reiterated at several points during the conference, including by Thomas himself, who was a panelist: you can’t just erase history.
Now, as a part of the 400th anniversary celebrations of Champlain’s trip to the Outaouais region, the National Capital Commission is to do three light shows at the Champlain statue, called “Plain-Chant“, starting last night. There is a huge ring of lights surrounding the monument.
But we didn’t go to Nepean Point. Instead, a bunch of us went to the counter light show at Major’s Hill Park, where the Indian Scout would have remained alone, in the dark, unacknowledged. Some local Anishinabeg people had organized an impromptu counter light show in protest. They festooned the scout with glow sticks (and glow stick bracelets!), broke out the flash lights and bicycle headlights, put on some electric powwow music by A Tribe Called Red, and danced.
And it was epic. It was also much more exciting than the “official” light show, which seemed to make Champlain look like the second coming of Christ, all to loud almost futuristic music (from what we could hear from down below). The lights on Nepean Point also looked garish and frankly like nothing more than a flying saucer. Reliable sources who attended the official presentation reported that there was little to no historical content in that propaganda show – and no acknowledgement of the contribution of the Anishinabeg to Champlain’s few achievements in the region and of course no mention of the fact that that monument used to have a second statue.
I caught a quick view of the Champlain monument as we walked away.
Anishinabe Aki means “Anishinabe Land”. The land upon which Ottawa, Canada’s capital, now sits, was not surrendered to the Canadian government. Land claims are ongoing.
- Champlain on the Anishinabe Aki Colloquium blog and program with titles of panels and the contact information for presenters and organizers. Audio recordings of the panels (save those with sensitive cultural information that we were requested not to record) and a video recording of the keynote speakers will be uploaded online soon.
- Jeff Thomas’ official website. (Thomas graciously gave Carleton University permission to use two photographs from his Champlain statue series in promotional material for the conference, including the awesomely ironic photograph of his son Bear holding up a GPS in the same pose as Champlain and his astrolabe.)
- A Tribe Called Red electric powwow music Soundcloud and free downloads. (Unconfirmed: Jeff Thomas’ son Bear is in this band?) See also a copy of an interview with band members on the Native Appropriations blog in which they talk about their music and what they are trying to do with it.
- For more information on the “Indian Scout” statue, which Thomas refers to as “No Retreat”, see the following articles on how the figure has recently received an Anishinabeg name: Aboriginal artists in Ottawa want traditional name for ‘Scout’ statue CBC news article from August 23rd, 2013. Ottawa Citizen article from August 27th: 100 years later, an aboriginal scout gets a name.
Edit (for additional pertinent links):
- You can friend Kitchi Zibi Omàmìwininì Anishinàbe on facebook! (Not just an official facebook page, but an actual profile!)
- Melody McKiver has also done a time-lapse video of the event. It’s of much better quality than my own shaky efforts!