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Decolonizing the Gesture of Friendship between Indigenous Nations: a Greeting from the Anishanabe of Canada to the Tzotzil in Chiapas

From August 15-17, 2013, a celebration was held in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas to mark ten years of collaboration between the Hemispheric Institute and FOMMA (Fortaleza de la Mujer Maya,) a Mayan women’s theatre collective. Among the invited guests was Rebecca Belmore, one of Canada’s most renowned and beloved indigenous performance artists. From the Anishanabe nation, Belmore had traveled to Chiapas through the auspices of the Canadian Consortium on Performance and Politics in the Americas (CCPPA), a newly funded initiative to incorporate Canadian artists into the hemispheric fold and forge connections with Latin America. Although Belmore was not scheduled to perform during the three-day event, while in Chiapas she was persuaded to create an impromptu intervention. How she conceptualized this intervention as a greeting to the Tzotzil Mayan women of Chiapas and transformed a gesture of friendship into a visceral embodiment of decolonization is the story I tell here. It is a story narrated from my memories of working with Rebecca on this intervention, both as a facilitator and as a translator. It is also a story about an encounter between indigenous nations that exceeds translation, one in which a flash of recognition transcends the differences of language and history.

My story begins on the opening night of the celebration as Rebecca and I are waiting for a play by FOMMA to inaugurate the festivities. As we chat, I ask if she would consider performing during the celebration as a way to connect with the women of FOMMA. Her response is unequivocal. She doesn’t speak Spanish or Tzotzil, only English, and she has come to Chiapas to be in the audience, and not on stage. Then the theatre darkens and the play begins, in Spanish. When it finishes, Rebecca turns to me and announces that she wants to perform after all, something simple–a greeting–and that she wants to collaborate with the woman who was spinning wool on stage. That woman is Victoria Patishtan, whose character in the play is entangled in an ever-tightening web of machismo, racism, and approbation, and who in the final moment of the drama, hangs herself.

Later that evening, Rebecca and I find Victoria (Vicky) in her office and, with me translating, ask her if she would be willing to collaborate in creating a performance work. Rebecca explains that she would like Vicky to spin strings of wool, just as she had on stage, and that in turn Rebecca will make beads from masticating pieces of a language-Spanish newspaper to fasten to the strings as a gesture of friendship between them. Rebecca also asks Vicky if she can greet her in Tzotzil as she hands her each string, so that Rebecca can reply, “No, English,” before putting the string in her mouth to attach the beads. With a wide and somewhat incredulous smile, Vicky agrees to collaborate with Rebecca, and they decide together that after spinning and beading for half an hour, they will tie the strings to form an unbroken line.

The first location planned for the performance is at the entrance of FOMMA’s cultural center, where Vicky and Rebecca will sit together at a table spinning and beading as people arrive for an evening play. Minutes before the performance is to begin, a sudden deluge of rain forces its postponement. The next morning, Rebecca tells me that she has decided to add a three-minute solo performance to her and Vicky’s collaboration. She doesn’t tell me what she is planning, only that she will need a scarf and my assistance in translating her words into Spanish.

That afternoon Rebecca and Vicky begin making their beaded strings in a corner of the FOMMA cultural space as a roundtable panel discussion ends. While they work quietly in unison, exchanging greetings in English and Tzotzil, a crowd gathers round. Once Rebecca and Vicky have accumulated a number of beaded strings, laid neatly in rows, they tie them together. Then Rebecca gets up from the table and stands to face the audience. She explains that she will present a work that she last performed thirteen years ago during the Oka Crisis in Quebec, Canada, when the Mohawk Nation’s defense of their sacred burial grounds escalated into an armed confrontation with the Canadian military. Rebecca then asks for the scarf I had brought for her, wraps it around her neck, and proceeds to strangle herself while singing the Canadian anthem. With her face turning purple and her voice breaking, the violence she inflicts on her body is terrifying, and jarring: a stark contrast to the peaceful exchange of strings and beads. When she finishes singing, a shocked silence fills the room and Rebecca returns to the table where Vicky is sitting. Together they pass the long string of beads to the audience, who lift it over their heads and pass it to each other to form a circle of friendship uniting performers and witnesses. It is only after this collective gesture has been completed that the silence, and the performance, ends.

For each person who witnessed Vicky and Rebecca’s collaboration that day, the silence provoked by Rebecca’s self-strangulation opened a space in which to reflect on the unanticipated entanglement of gestures, words, and colonial violence. For my part, I understood the discordance between Rebecca and Vicky’s gentle exchange of beaded words and strings and Rebecca’s re-enactment of the Oka piece that followed as a way to make present in Chiapas the decolonial resistance of Canada’s indigenous peoples. It is only now, upon further reflection, that I understand how Rebecca’s embodied violence was integral to her gesture of friendship between indigenous nations. Through the act of self-strangulation, Rebecca had mirrored Vicky’s hanging on the opening night to make present the shared history of colonialism between the Anishanabe of Canada and the Tzotzil Maya of Chiapas: one that has silenced indigenous voices and cultures in the hemisphere since the first encounter with the Europeans. Through the re-enactment of this silencing, Rebecca had given to the audience the gift of silence, one in which a gesture of friendship between all nations could occur, and words of reconciliation emerge.

By asking Vicky to collaborate in making beaded strings, Rebecca’s gesture of friendship also closed a space of silence between herself and Spanish-speaking indigenous peoples in the hemisphere she had encountered fifteen years before. In 1997, Belmore was commissioned to produce a work for Insite, a site-specific exhibition held on the San Diego-Tijuana border. Upon arriving in San Diego, she discovered that everyone she met assumed that she was an indigenous woman from Mexico, and spoke to her in Spanish although she could only understand English. To embody this linguistic divide, she wandered the streets of Tijuana until she found a young indigenous woman from Oaxaca who looked just like her, and asked her to pose for a photograph. From this photograph, Belmore created a mural-size portrait of the woman that she installed on an abandoned marquee in downtown San Diego to serve as a mirror and a metaphor for what separated and united them. Fifteen years later, her gift of silence to those who witnessed her self-inflicted violence was at the same time a gift of words to herself and Vicky, bridging the linguistic divide between them and uniting their mutual determination to decolonize the past, the present, and the future.

Dot Tuer is a writer, curator, and cultural historian who divides her time between Toronto, Canada and Corrientes, Argentina. Tuer holds a Ph.D. in Latin American history from the University of Toronto and is Professor of Visual Studies at OCAD University. Her writings explore the artistic practices of new media, photography, and performance in the larger context of the Americas, and the relationship of cultural expression to issues of colonialism, technology, and social memory. She also has a research interest in Indigenous-European encounters in the early colonial period and mestizaje as a site of intercultural exchange. Tuer is the author of Mining the Media Archive (2005) and her essays on Canadian and Latin American post-colonial perspectives have been widely published in books, museum catalogues, contemporary art magazines and journals. Most recently, she curated a major exhibition of the Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Frida and Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting, for the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2012. Tuer is currently at work on two new book projects, the first exploring the thematic of colonial resistance and historical memory in Canadian art and the second the relationship of witnessing to testimony in Latin American photography.