Creating Space, Creating Community

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Day One, Act Two: Tenille Campbell

2018 Real Life Conference Speaker Summary

“Creating Space, Creating Community”


In the midst of holding 100 women’s rapt attention, Tenille Campbell told a story of Indigenous photographer Claudine Bull of Lakeland Area, Alberta. A prolific contributor at the beginnings of the online blogging community Campbell helped start, Tea & Bannock, Claudine had shared her child-rearing experience, along with her baby, with the community. And then her posts suddenly stopped.

“Sup? You OK?” Campbell asked in an arm-linking concerned, yet friendly way.

“Children are good medicine,” replied Claudine. “I got a great reminder of this by reading something from a friend who’s about to have her own beautiful baby and will not be showing images. She reminded me of how sacred children are.”

“Sacred. That word resonated with me.”

“I knew I had the most sacred baby in my entire world. But in my effort to share and curate, I forgot to protect her sacredness. I love photographing her as well. But, I was taught to keep ceremony in private. Because of my daughter’s sacredness, in a lot of ways, she reminds me of ceremony.”

Claudine proudly made the decision to keep her photographs close to her heart, cherishing them in private. In a world where we’re pushed to share out loud more and more, this woman valued her child’s image and essence in a gentle protective way.  

“When was the last time you saw an Indigenous mother being showcased like this?” Campbell asked Real Life attendees.

“It was about her relationship with her daughter and giving that space. I just thought it was beautiful and complicated and complex.”

This is why Tea & Bannock exists.

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Tenille Campbell is a doer, a giver, a storyteller. She’s a tenacious voice where others are not hearing. She is unapologetically Indigenous, political, feminist, woman, mother, photographer, writer, poet, erotica writer, PhD candidate, and sex educator.

As she unravelled the juxtaposition of the written and unwritten histories of Indigenous people in Canada in her talk, each layer revealed the hard truth: As progressive as white Canada thinks it is towards Indigenous people, it’s not. The truth is the majority of white Canada has no clue what real life is like for Indigenous people under its arcane government policies. And specifically, what life is like for Indigenous women when murder and disappearance rates are rising, and little is being done to protect them or solve their cases.

The reservation life Campbell describes is family-focused, full of heritage, heredity, honour, and symbolism, in mammoth swaths of wide open wild land. It sounds like another world to me, living in Canada’s crowded urban metropolis Toronto, which is precisely why her telling the true, lived history is so valuable. We lose sight of other people’s realities while bogged down with the barrage of news and misinterpretations.

When Campbell and fellow photographer Joi T. Arcand day-dreamed about a space for Indigenous female photographers to feel safe with one another, to hold each other up, they knew the only way it would exist is if they created it.

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They wanted a space where Indigenous women could “look at their sisters, to look at their cousins, to look at women and say, ‘You feel me. You know me. You know the struggle.’”

Thus began the collective Tea & Bannock. Named for the spaces Indigenous women experience community, at home with their aunties, making community together.

“Breaking tea and bannock, with aunties across the table, it’s ceremony in its oldest sense. Sharing gossip, sharing laughter, sharing joy. That’s what I wanted this place to be for us.”

Tea & Bannock is “Indigenous women, holding each other up. Visual artists, supporting each other. A safe place to talk about the work, interpretation, and inspiration behind projects. A place that reminds us of sitting at home around the kitchen table, with tea and bannock.”

“We needed, specifically, a place to talk to other Indigenous women. At the time, a lot of political things were happening for Indigenous people in Canada. There weren’t a lot of safe spaces. When we say safe spaces, we mean places we can walk without being cat-called, we can walk without being told to go back to the rez, which happens.”

“We’re also a group of Indigenous women who have accomplished a lot. We’re photographers, we’re established, we’re emerging.”

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When Tea & Bannock launched, it skyrocketed. It got shared tweeted, retweeted, featured in the news. As Campbell says, they became “Indian-famous” really fast.

“With all that Indian-famous notoriety in Canada, came the hate mail. Came the death threats. Came the negativity. Came the fake accounts blasting us. Came the Instagram comments. It was hard. I assume most women get hate mail. We get blamed for something. And nobody is surprised by that anymore. Which is sad.”

The hatred gave further proof of the need for the community. A much needed space for Indigenous women’s narratives. The collective now includes a mentorship program.  

“We have to take an up-and-comer and teach them. Spend an hour with her, spend two days with her, spend a shoot with her. You define how you want to teach, because we all will teach differently. Then write about it. Share space with them. Give them a platform.”

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What’s bannock? It’s a kind of flat bread that is baked or pan-fried, and has different names, depending on the region. For Campbell, it’s “flat bread that is baked in the oven, often poked with forks to release steam, and served with fresh butter and berry jams." Mention it to anyone who knows it, you’ll be met with moans of delight. If you’re fortunate enough to have some shared with you, it likely accompanied a friendly discourse and a smiling face. It’s a delicious embodiment of camaraderie for Indigenous people.

Campbell’s necessary history lesson is not the one you’ll read about in textbooks, the real history of what Canada has put Indigenous people through since the white men stepped foot on these shores. Canada’s history isn’t comfortable or convenient. As progressive as the rest of Canada touts itself as being, it still doesn’t know how to listen to and serve the Indigenous population. Canada still has a tragic number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was created to help educate and end this epidemic.

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“The key thing about the Indian Act is that it defines how bands can operate. I’m Déne, I’m from English River First Nation. We have Chiefs and Councils, which is not one of our traditional mandates. It is from the Indian Act.”

“It defines who Indian is. In the United States, there’s something called ‘blood quantum.’ This is the Canadian version. The Indian Act decides who is Indian. It takes away our governing to say who is in our band. It does not take into effect kinship. It does not take into effect traditional adoption.”

“I’m Déne, my ex-partner is Déne, our child is Déne. But, if I had married a white guy, she would be “half”-Déne. If she married a white guy, their child would no longer be considered Indian.”

Stop for a moment. Reread those words. The government determines who is considered Indian. Not heredity or heritage, but the Indian Act. They are systematically trying to erase Indigenous people. Now read that again.  

“It’s a way of breeding out Treaty rights in Canada, so that the government would no longer have an obligation to us.”

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“Being Indigenous does not give us a free pass. Often Indigenous have anti-blackness, anti-immigrant-ness we have to address. Often there’s this idea that we struggle so much, that we can’t have empathy or compassion for other people’s struggle. When Black Lives Matter happened, there was the white mainstream pushback of, ‘All Lives Matter.’ Don’t say that. The native version, ‘Native Lives Matter,’ community member, Jessica Wood, addressed it in a blog post that reached 10,000 views. It was a call to Indigenous people to stand in solidarity with the Black community. And like other posts, it also got hate mail, including pushback from the Indigenous community.”

In a poignant blog post after speaking at the Real Life Conference, Campbell talks her experience speaking about the Indigenous community as a whole to a non-Indigenous audience.

“People get stuck in this victim narrative. Sometimes the battle should not be how much we suffer, but how much we’ve grown, how much we’ve done, how much we’ve healed with each other.”

“Being Indigenous is joyful.”

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“Everyone thinks we’re dead,” she says of the dichotomy of stereotypical Indian women. From the loud slut to the maiden (Tiger Lily, Pocahontas) and the crone (elder, wise older woman), these unfortunate caricatures are dated misinterpretations of Indigenous women.”

“If we don’t exist in popular culture as one of these stereotypes, then we don’t exist.”

The horrifying continuation of the treaties and the Indian Act, the shit-show that is Halloween, where white women still think dressing up as missing and murdered Indigenous women isn’t offensive. False representation and appropriation of Indigenous culture is offensive. And it’s often Indigenous women who have to explain why.

“It’s exhausting. There is so much emotional labour that goes into educating non-Indigenous women about this.”

At the end of her talk, she refrained from taking questions. Instead, she gave us a challenge: To sit with what she said. To seek out answers. To do our own work. And if after all of that, we still had questions, to approach her at the conference. This powerful closing stayed with many of us afterwards. The essence of her talk was about empowerment and injustice. It was about reframing the outsider misinterpretations of Indigenous women’s identities. It was about pushing ourselves to build community and safe spaces wherever it is needed. It was about listening. It was about being open to lived knowledge.

“Meld the world. Your words matter as much as your images.”

Tenille Campbell is Déne and Métis, from English River First Names, Northern Saskatchewan. She currently lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, pursuing her PhD in Indigenous Literature.

Tea & Bannock Collective

Tenille Campbell, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

Joi T. Arcand, Ottawa, Ontario

Amanda Laliberte, British Columbia

Claudine Bull, Alberta

Shawna McLeod, Northwest Territories

Caroline Blechert, British Columbia

Shayla Snowshoe, Alberta

Jessica Wood, British Columbia

Images by Guest Photographer Featured:

Melody Charlie, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

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Zoë Gemelli