Ronnie Dean Harris spent Saturday (April 7) on Burnaby Mountain, half expecting to spend the night in jail. He was there, along with First Nations Grand Chief Stewart Phillip and many others, to block Kinder Morgan’s access to its pipeline terminal; in the weeks previous, hundreds of protesters had been forcibly removed from the site by police. But on Saturday the Texas energy giant declined to enforce its antiprotest injunction, and Harris slept in his own bed.
On Sunday, just before Kinder Morgan announced that it was suspending all “non-essential activities and related spending” on the Trans Mountain pipeline, he was still wondering why. It could be “a chess move”, he tells the Straight on the phone from his Langley home. Or could a loose confederation of First Nations and environmentalists have won this battle?
Artists, the Salish poet, rapper, media artist, and fisheries activist continues, have a responsibility to examine and demystify injustices both social and economic. “That’s my job,” he says. “I look at this bundle of, like, crossed wires, and I try to make braids of them to make sense of it all.”
Not all artists subscribe to this agenda, but it’s fairly safe to say that the majority of those booked for the upcoming Verses Festival of Words do. And this year the event will be graced by an especially strong contingent of Indigenous creators, ranging from folk legend and electronic-music pioneer Buffy Sainte-Marie to emerging artists like Tahltan-Tlingit electronic musician Edzi’u and the fiery spoken-word performer Mitcholos Touchie.
“I see the surgence—I’m not going to call it a resurgence, but a surgence—of writing by Indigenous writers kind of working in parallel with the need for more activism these days—and the activism I see happening particularly on the West Coast, has to do with protecting the environment,” says festival artist Janet Rogers, in a separate telephone interview. “So I kind of see those two things rising at the same time, and I’m not that surprised. Indigenous writing, in all the genres, in all the canons, has that political voice embedded into it—a resistance voice, a truth-telling voice, a voice that can only come from us.”
The Vancouver-born writer sees herself as part of a lineage of First Nations oratory that encompasses oral history, prayer, and diplomacy—and, as such, one of her messages to settler culture is that “reconciliation” is only a starting place. “It’s fine to acknowledge territory,” she explains. “That’s a courteous practice, and it’s certainly not going to cost you anything to make those statements about land, territory acknowledgment, and things like that. But let’s get to, yeah, returning that land. As a Mohawk person, that’s not even considered radical.”
In the spirit of nation-to-nation reciprocity, this year Verses will partner with the Talking Stick Festival to present its closing gala at the Native Education College. “Oftentimes, when Indigenous people are invited into a festival we go into their house,” Rogers says. “And this is an opportunity where we get to invite people into our house—and it’ll be a different vibe, for sure.”
Meanwhile, Harris is working on his own kind of cultural exchange: integrating round-dance rhythms and cosmic guitar rock with a new approach to storytelling that grows out of his work, as Ostwelve, in the world of rap. “Spiralling Together”, which he plans to premiere when he opens for Sainte-Marie, tells of two estranged worlds that eventually realize they are one.
The metaphorical implications are obvious, although Harris suggests that we shouldn’t read too much into the plot.
“You know, when I write stories now, I really want there to be a lot of different ways into them,” he cautions. “So, yeah, here there are two entities who don’t really know each other. It could be two friends; it could be two lovers. For me, it’s these two galaxies that are fond of each other at one point in time, and then they have to part. They feel lonely way out on the outskirts of the vastness of space—but then they realize that they can transform their loneliness and their fear into a light that’s shaped, like, forever.…And then they just dance, because they realize that their ancestors are around them, their family and their ancestors and their friends. So it’s like this galactic round dance that begins happening: they get to the centre and they spin happily ever after.”
That might be a lot to hope for, but it’s not too much to ask.
The Verses Festival of Words takes place at various Vancouver venues from next Thursday (April 19) to April 29. For a full schedule, visit the Verses Festival website.