Sunday, June 06, 2021

215 Children


A nun shaves a child's head on arrival at a Residential School:
Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan

The discovery of a mass grave containing the remains of 215 First Nations children at the former Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia has shocked many people, both in Canada and elsewhere. Today, 6th June, there is a gathering outside Canada House in London to commemorate these children, some of whom seem to have been as young as three. At our online event on Thursday, with two First Nations poets, we observed a minute of silence. This horrific discovery may at last serve to draw attention to the true horror of the Residential School system. I hope so. But the grave has come as no surprise to First Nations people themselves.  Richard Jock, CEO of the First Nations Health Authority, acknowledged that the discovery was deeply distressing for Indigenous people, but at the same time pointed out: "That this situation exists is sadly not a surprise and illustrates the damaging and lasting impacts that the residential school system continues to have on First Nations people, their families and communities.''  There has been a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the Residential School system, led by the Indigenous Justice Murray Sinclair (who spoke at ORIGINS 2013), which reported in 2015. There have also been numerous autobiographies, novels and films. In London, we have screened WE WERE CHILDREN and INDIAN HORSE. Yet, in spite of this, people still seem astonished. The crime against humanity is systematically ignored. Why?

I suspect it has something to do with the acknowledgment of responsibility, and the need for reparation that is consequent upon it.

I'd like to explore this in reference to a similar, though not of course identical, case in Ireland: the Report of the Commission of Investigation into the Mother and Baby Homes, published last October. Here too, there was a mass grave of children whose burials went unrecorded, at the home in Tuam, operated by the Sisters of Bon Secours. Like First Nations children in Canada, the children of unmarried mothers in Ireland were placed in the "care" of Catholic orders, where many were abused, where many died, and where few or none were deemed worthy of a recorded or humane burial. They lived and died beyond the gaze of society.  

When the commission's report was discussed in the Dáil, Catherine Connolly (who Chairs the house), quote Hannah Arendt's important aphorism in relation to German guilt for the Shoah: "Where all are guilty, none is." Connolly was objecting to the idea that "society" should be blamed for Tuam, since the guilty individuals were clearly the nuns charged with running the home. If, Arendt argues, everyone is regarded as guilty then there is no risk attached to acknowledging guilt, and injustice comes to appear inevitable. It can actually become very convenient, even narcissistic, to declare guilt, and we could perhaps read some public apologies by contemporary political leaders for historical wrongs in this way.

Connolly, however, continued to argue: "You're saying here today that we are all responsible. I am not responsible, my family was not responsible, the people I know were not responsible."  This is where she parts company with Arendt, who was very careful to differentiate between responsibility and guilt.  Without asking anyone to acknowledge a guilt or blame which is clearly not theirs, Arendt still insisted that we can and should be held politically responsible for the actions committed by the states of which we are citizens, not least because we have inherited whatever may have been gained through those actions.  It is only by an acknowledgment of that collective responsibility, and meaningful action to redress the harm done, that we can truly be reconciled to historical injustice.  

This is what makes attempts to shift all the blame for Tuam or Kamloops onto the Catholic Church disingenuous, and what renders expressions of disbelief and sorrow from Canada's settler populations and (yes) the UK woefully inadequate.  In the same way that much of Britain's modern wealth is founded on slavery, it is also drawn from the systematic plundering of Indigenous lands and resources, and a key element of that was the campaign to destroy Indigenous culture and de-humanise Indigenous people, of which the Residential Schools formed a significant part. 

If we are genuinely shocked by the discovery at Kamloops, then let us be shocked into a recognition of the need for a genuine reparative justice. Let us explore how sovereignty over unceded territory might be returned. Let us look at who decides what happens to natural resources. Let us consider what should happen to the vast wealth that corporations and individuals have amassed through ongoing processes of colonisation. This call resonates with the recent words of the Indigenous Australian artist Richard Bell: “We need a new constitution for a new republic... There’s got to be a day of reckoning. There has to be exchanges of money and land. That cannot be avoided. Until then, we’re never going to say that you [non-Indigenous people] belong here. You won’t be able to say that until we say you can.”

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Indigenous festivals and the re-making of the world - guest blog by Graham Harvey

Among the many impacts of the Covid19 pandemic is the moving of festivals to online venues.  Starting on 13 May 2021, this year’s ORIGINS Festival of First Nations will begin with a series of digital events. Previously, the biennial festival has brought Indigenous artists and thinkers from around the world to perform and present in London. Before the pandemic, an exciting programme of events over a period of about two months provided audiences with opportunities to enjoy and engage with music, theatre, dance, talks, films and other media in venues as diverse as the British Museum, Rich Mix and public parks. The festival not only begins with a ceremony informed and largely led by Indigenous participants but also includes many performances inspired and informed by Indigenous ceremonial repertoires and or sacred knowledges. In addition to be hugely enjoyable and profoundly educational, ORIGINS has been an exciting site for my research about religion. The 2021 ORIGINS Festival promises to be similarly inspiring and provocative.

You can find plenty of information about this year’s year-long ORIGINS Festival of First Nations – and about previous festivals – in the organising company’s website and in social media. The opening event on May 13th includes an online performance of the short play, Katharsis, by Yvette Nolan (Algonquin, Canada) – billed as “a digital love letter to a theatre left empty by the pandemic”. The festival continues with a series of talks by Indigenous writers (poets, environmentalists, and a horror novelist) addressing the three main themes of this year’s festival: Covid, Climate Change and Colonialism. As the festival continues throughout 2021 and into 2022, live, face-to-face performance-based interventions in public spaces are planned. Some will move beyond London, including a journey of a Totonac artist’s totem carving to the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow this autumn.

In addition to contributing to dialogue with some of the Indigenous presenters and performers, my involvement with the festival involves research focused on dynamic interplays between ritual and performance, and celebration and decolonisation. The first of these seeming contrasts is a classic issue in the study of religions and related disciplines. Some scholars have insisted that theatrical performances are different from religious rituals in several ways. Rituals, it has been claimed, do not have audiences, only participants. They carry and convey serious meanings rather than offering entertainment. They do not encourage improvisation but should follow established traditions. Each of these (and other) comparisons have been challenged and the inadequacies of their underlying assumptions often rejected. More recent studies of both theatre and ritual have reflected deeply on their commonalities. This is improved understanding of and debate about the ways in which people improvise when they get involved in religious rituals, making them part of contemporary lives in one way or another. We might also play with phrases like “suspension of disbelief” and “make-believe”, sometimes used in relation to theatrical performance to think about what happens when people do ceremonies.

Grupo Sotz’il in OXLAJUJ B’AQTUN – ORIGINS 2015 photo by John Cobb

All of this is useful to students of religion in reconsidering some key terms and debates in our discipline. But what happens at the ORIGINS Festival suggests that another phrase might be more useful: “world making”. Performers, artists, film-makers and speakers raise important issues and proffer powerful suggestions about ways of tackling the contemporary challenges. In various ways, audiences are invited to set aside colonial and romantic perspectives and to reflect on how things might be different. They are challenged, explicitly or implicitly, to consider the legacy of European historical, cultural and religious processes, and especially to re-imagine communities that embrace rather than exclude Indigenous peoples and the larger-than-human world. There are, then, religious and political world-making projects braided in with the enjoyment of rich cultural events. If the world is, as many Indigenous people insist, made up of multi-species communities, then the solutions to pandemics, climate crises and colonialism have to involve the needs of all living beings. My research at ORIGINS and other Indigenous festivals leads me to think that we could expand our notions of religion and democracy to embrace many more participants than just us humans.

Graham Harvey is Professor of Religious Studies at the Open University

Monday, April 05, 2021

Indigenous Enterprise: Preserve, Perform, Progress

Indigenous Enterprise Dancer

2021 is going to see a series of online events under the ORIGINS banner, several in partnership with our friends at BEYOND THE SPECTACLE. One of these was a film presentation of dance styles and discussion with the Native American dance troupe INDIGENOUS ENTERPRISE, who had already started the year impressively through their participation in President Biden's virtual Inauguration Parade. Here are some of the ideas put forward by MC Prophecy as part of the discussion that followed the film.

As Chief Arvol Looking Horse says whenever he's called forward, any time you find Native people under attack, you will find that the land is under attack, because Native people are the stewards of the land. The recent resistance movements, for example Standing Rock, are environmental movements and they are also youth-led movements. That's why organisations like Indigenous Enterprise work with forms like hip-hop as well as more traditional music and dance - it's a way "to light the fire, to spark the flame".

The Covid-19 pandemic gives us an opportunity to see how Indigenous culture points towards social change. "Sit down, sit still, think about what's going on in the world." It's showing that we have to put the self aside for the good of the community and of the planet. His own moniker as MC Prophecy is taken from the 7 Fires Prophecy of a choice between two paths: one well-worn and scorched, the other new and green. 

"We need to change.  As a species on the planet, we need to change."

MC Prophecy
Like Standing Rock, the American Indian Movement of the 1970s started as an environmental movement, with the resistance to the drilling for uranium that broke a treaty with the Lakota people over control of the land. The drilling led to radioactive water: and Standing Rock also reflects an attack on water.  

These youth-led movements complement the teachings of Elders. Mutual teaching and exchange is at the heart of Native culture. Even enemies should sit down and talk together before they resort to conflict. But isolating people on reservations doesn't allow for this kind of interaction. When there is real interaction, then there should be a proper exchange between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people: "we have to think about ourselves as a species." It's fine to be inspired by other cultures: he was himself inspired by a Japanese village that has managed to reach a point where it has no waste.  

"But we have a group of people who can't think that way....  Are we going to live with the Earth, or try to be masters of it?"

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Seun Shote


Seun Shote as Ato in THE DILEMMA OF A GHOST, with Shonel Jackson

Everyone involved with Border Crossings will be deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Seun Shote, at the age of only 47.  There is a very full and warm obituary in The Guardian, so this blog post is specifically about the time he worked with us, playing the leading role of Ato in our production of The Dilemma of a Ghost by Ama Ata Aidoo, back in 2007. Seun was at the centre of a rich and challenging casting mix, with four performers from the National Theatre of Ghana, and two young Black British women straight out of drama school.  This meant he was the most experienced cast member with regard to UK theatre, and it was very beautiful to see how carefully and tactfully he took on a mentoring role towards Shonel Jackson and Anniwaa Buachie, without ever assuming any higher status. At the same time, he offered a cultural bridge for the Ghanaian performers, making their first foray into Europe: as a British man with Nigerian heritage, he was deeply sensitive to their West African culture and expectations. He made my job as director a whole lot easier.  

Seun's warmth and good humour made the tour of that production the most joyful and carefree I can remember. Touring is exhausting, potentially stressful and often challenging - you need a cast who understand how to look after one another, and Seun did that in spades.  

His performance as Ato drew off his understanding of African and Western cultures with great sensitivity. Ato is the "One Scholar" who has returned to Ghana after studying in the States, carrying the hopes and expectations of his family. Watching him negotiate the complexities of that dilemma was an object lesson in the complex performance of the globalised moment. He was also incredibly funny - the great scene in which Ato breaks to his family the news that he has married an American woman was guaranteed to set the audience roaring with laughter, as Seun sat with a huge forced grin on his face in response to the demonstrative expressions of horror erupting all around him.

He was a fine actor and a precious soul, whose unexpected death at such a young age is a cause for great sorrow. With the ancestors.  


A donations page has been set up in Seun's memory, as he leaves a young family.  

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Deb Haaland

Deb Haaland

To mark Monday's historic confirmation of Deb Haaland as the first Native American to serve as Secretary of the Interior, we wanted to re-publish here the powerful Afterword that she contributed to our programme for ORIGINS 2019.  Huge congratulations to her, and to the Indigenous people of the Americas and the world.
The Indigenous history of the United States and so many other countries is often overlooked. Having voices like mine in the halls of power provides an important perspective, and shines light on blind spots that have existed due to the nature of who traditionally is elected. With a new movement of Indigenous people across the globe working to protect the planet and our sacred places, we have found our voice. 

Part of my job as one of the first Native American women serving in Congress is to ensure my colleagues know just how important our land is. We can convey to our colleagues what it feels like to have a very long bond with the land, and why it's important that we protect those spaces. It’s about understanding our past and talking about our future. It’s going to save our planet. 

It’s also the key to ensure that no matter what a person’s background is, they too can run for office. Everyone deserves to identify with the governments that represent us. It's not only reserved for other folks. It belongs to all of us. Those of us who want to lead. We should be fierce and lead, because our lived experiences are invaluable to the public discourse. 

 - Congresswoman Deb Haaland, Member of the Pueblo of Laguna, Representing New Mexico.
Confirmed as Secretary of the Interior, 15th March 2021.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Environmental Policy

Hivshu - Magnetic North - photo: Gayla Morell

Border Crossings recently updated its Environmental Policy.  As the policy is, in many ways, a public statement, it seemed important to place it in the public domain.  

Friday, March 12, 2021

Alastair Niven


Alastair Niven at ORIGINS 2015

Until 2013, Border Crossings didn't even have a Chair of the Board.  We rotated the role from meeting to meeting, with the aim of being egalitarian.  When Alastair Niven became our first Chair, we soon discovered that leadership is not the opposite of equality: indeed, it can be the way to facilitate better equality, as a good Chair makes sure that every voice in the room is given equal weight and validation, encouraging the more reticent to speak up and politely silencing anyone who might attempt to dominate.  I shouldn't have been surprised - these are, after all, the qualities needed of the director in rehearsals - but I will confess that it was an unexpected and very pleasing discovery.

During the time he has been Chair, Alastair has shown unstinting dedication to the mission and values of Border Crossings.  He has done far more than run board meetings with characteristic tact and amiability.  He has often spoken at our events: the photo above shows him taking on the role of our Elder, welcoming visiting Indigenous artists to the 2015 ORIGINS Festival.  In the spirit of Indigenous cultures, Alastair has always understood the centrality of hospitality to any productive enterprise, and has several times hosted board dinners at his house in Kennington.  He has even travelled with the company, joining us for an Erasmus + meeting in Malmo during 2019, where we managed to find an Italian restaurant that looked out across the sea, and a very fine bottle of Chianti.  

Well connected and eloquent in his advocacy, Alastair has also been a terrific ambassador for the company, helping us to make many new connections and to forge new partnerships.  He was only able to do this because he understands in such depth the field of interculturalism.  As Director of the Africa Centre, as Literature Director of both the Arts Council and the British Council, and as Principal of Cumberland Lodge, Alastair spent his working life steeped in the diverse arts and cultures of the planet, and was crucial to the changes that have happened in recent decades, as the imperial and imperious monolith of "great art" has been dismantled, and a multiplicity of voices from "the margins" have started to be heard.  It's very pleasing that Alastair saw his role at Border Crossings as a continuation of that journey.  

His memoir, In Glad or Sorry Hours, has just been published, and is full of extraordinary insights and revelations.  Alastair writes in the same way that he talks - so the memoir is very good company.  Border Crossings has a brief but warm mention - appearing on page 245 of a 250 page book!  We always knew that we were quite a small, though pleasingly significant, part of his story - but he has been a huge part of ours.  Alastair chaired his last board meeting yesterday, passing on the role into the very capable, and doubtless very different hands of Jatinder Verma.  We will miss his presence at our meetings, but we know he will still be coming to our events, and will always be a part of the Border Crossings family.  

So this blog post isn't a goodbye - but it is a thank you.