The S-kwíkwal Initiative is a collaborative project between The Art Farm and our partner Talaysay Tours. S-kwíkwal is a shíshálh Nation word that roughly translates as ’story’; a story based on someone’s real life events, as opposed to myth or legend.
The demand for Indigenous Knowledge Carriers and Cultural Ambassadors has grown exponentially in the past ten years; a reality lived by our project collaborator, Talaysay Tours. While this growing demand speaks to a changing consciousness in Canadian society, the on-the-ground approach to reconciliation remains mired in the colonized systems it seeks to subvert. The trauma of colonization continues to have real-life impacts on Indigenous communities, families and individuals—missing and murdered women, alcoholism, poverty, high rates of disease related to PTSD. As we turn to our Indigenous colleagues to build relations and heal these wounds, we need to ensure we are not caught in the same ‘extractive’ model that got us here in the first place.
Inspired by the wisdom, integrity and joy of the west coast Potlatch, the S-kwíkwal Initiative is exploring and designing a holistic grassroots approach to empowering and tooling Indigenous Knowledge Carriers, storytellers and artists while holding space for the ongoing impacts of colonialism that can affect individuals on a personal, familial and community level. The program is also developing clear guidelines for settlers and settler-led organizations (within the arts and beyond) that broadens our understanding and appreciation for the challenging work and practice that Indigenous Knowledge Carriers, storytellers and artists engage in.
The Art Farm is committed to a vision where people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities can engage in creative projects that reconnect us with the land, ourselves, and each other. This commitment has led us on a deep journey of relationship building with our host First Nations, the Shíshálh and S?wx_wú?mesh people. We’ve witnessed the impacts of colonialism through these relationships and collaborations. We have seen how these impacts have real-world consequences that many of us, outside of Indigenous communities, do not face. We have learned through this process that authentic collaboration with Indigenous partners means accounting for these day-to-day impacts—the niece that needs support, the residential school survivor who has fallen ill—and building in time and space to adapt and accommodate as needed.
The S-kwíkwal Initiative speaks to a challenge the arts sector, indeed Canadian society, must face as we aim to “decolonize” the systems that define us. These efforts require collaboration with Indigenous partners. In the arts sector, this includes everything from project design through to production and presentation. Across many sectors, however, there is a similar pattern. Indigenous Knowledge Carriers are approached at multiple stages of projects for input, ideas, consultation, knowledge-sharing, and more. As our awareness of the traumatic legacy of colonization grows, our yearning for rectification grows too. Yet, there is very little understanding and appreciation of the costs required to cultivate, nurture, support and sustain Knowledge Carriers. The approach to engagement remains extractive. Amending for injustices within the systems that created them inevitably leads to more injustice.
We come to this project with great humility. The Art Farm has played a role in this extractive approach to Indigenous collaboration. When we first began reaching out to our host Nations for partnership, we would come with an idea for a project and seek their blessing to do it. It took many years of honest feedback to recognize how this approach ‘took’ something (a blessing) with little consideration for what we could give back (beyond a financial honorarium). When we committed to a more reciprocal approach to engagement, we began to appreciate the level of commitment and resources this takes, along with the relentless energy required for. Culture Keepers to show up, be present, and share their stories with the wider world.
So why us? We are not experts in this. We are not ‘qualified’. But we are experienced at leading initiatives where expertise and qualifications are simply not that helpful. Our mandate includes “holding space for the mess of creativity”, and the S-kwíkwal initiative requires just this. We are honoured and privileged to partner with Talaysay Tours as we dive into the mess of this work, and we look forward to sharing what we learn along the way with you all.