Tannis Nielsen has been a part of the Toronto arts community for over twenty years. Her work includes research, teaching, and a range of visual arts. Her art focuses on anti-colonial theory, natural law/Indigenous governance, Indigenous arts activism(s), and the relative investigations of Indigenous science and Western quantum physics. Her most recent project is The Simcoe Underpass Mural which features two walls. The Eastern wall: Gchi-twaa-wendan Nibi (Honour the Water) is dedicated to the Water Walkers. The Western wall: ‘N’ gekaajig kidowog (My Elders Said) is dedicated to Elders who have lived/are living in Toronto.
Erica: Can you introduce yourself and explain what brought you to live and work in Toronto?
Tannis: I am a mixed Métis, Anishinaabe, Danish multimedia artist and mother. My Mother is Merle Monkman who was born in Goldfields, Saskatchewan. My grandma told me they had to take a dog sled across the Athabasca to get to a hospital. My grandmother was born in a Métis village called St.Louis in Saskatchewan. Her name is Kitty Boucher. My Grandfather was Joe Monkman. He was born in Halcrow District, Saskatchewan across the river from St.Louis. His family was originally from Peguis, Manitoba. In the 1880s then known as St. Peters. I haven’t met any Monkman relatives from Manitoba but I have maintained my familial connections to my granny’s side in St.Louis. My dad Paul Nielsen, was born in Aalborg, Denmark. I always try to be as specific as possible in providing my introductions to ancestry/territory while also ensuring the Danish side is honoured. It’s more than just protocol as it’s also a fun way to discover new cousins and community.
I came to Toronto in 1989, when I was 19. Before that, I lived in almost 30 different places across Canada. What brought me to live and work in Toronto was my daughter’s father. I met him in Calgary as he was about to get signed with the Toronto Argonauts, but then we separated. Because of my daughter’s mixed (w Jamaican ancestry) I didn’t want to bring her back to redneck Alberta where I came from. It was important that she also be connected to her dad’s family. It takes two to parent, so we stayed here. Then I entered university in1996. That’s when I first met Rodney Bobbywash, who was the first person to welcome me to the Indigenous community. What an amazing person to first meet! I was at U of T for eight years.
Erica: What inspired you to create the Lower Simcoe mural and what do you hope people take away from it?
Tannis: I look at that mural like a land acknowledgement. Oftentimes, I’ll be in a faculty meeting and I’ll be asked to do the land acknowledgement. I’m like no, you should do it. I often put it on Settlers to do that land acknowledgement. I painted the mural because I wanted pedestrians walking by to immediately gain the sense that this is Anishinaabe – Haudenosaunee territory. There are 20 portraits of Elders on the wall. There are also going to be quotes from each Elder. I’ll have a quote from Art Solomon and a quote from Rodney Bobiwash so pedestrians can also begin to understand a little bit of the natural laws, which is our governance and classification of this place. Hopefully, they’ll be inspired towards environmental sustainability by gaining some access to those teachings. That’s what the water wall is about. To honour Grandmother Josephine Baa and the water. And also because the mural is so close to the water. And it’s really funny because the night that we started the water wall there was a huge flood. The Simcoe underpass got flooded out and cars got stuck in the water. My friends who live under the bridge, Mitch and Alex, said, “Hey, as soon as you started the water wall we flooded!” That was just the water reminding us that it’s this force of nature. I hope that people gain an introduction to Indigenous territory, cosmology and environmental sustainability. That’s my inspiration for that.
Erica: The mural subjects are recognizable Indigenous leaders who have made an impact on the Indigenous community here in Toronto. Who did you select and why did you choose to select them?
Tannis: They’re recognizable to our community. They are not recognizable to mainstream society. I wanted to honour them on a platform, showing mainstream, who are our teachers and leaders are. It was really hard to choose who to select. I went on Facebook and asked the FB community who they wanted me to paint, and they gave me 80 something names, which is great because we have so many respected people in our community that others wanted to honour. Marie Gaudet was my cultural advisor – she’s an Anishinaabe Elder from Wiki. She’s been one of my best friends for 15-plus years. We wanted to have a representation of the traditional caretakers of the land here. There are also some people on the mural that aren’t from here, including Lee Maracle who is Sto:lo. She’s been living and working in our community as an Elder and teacher for decades.
Erica: In what ways has the Indigenous community including artists impacted Toronto?
Tannis: Indigenous artist, Nyle Johnston is from Cape Crocker. He worked on the Simcoe Mural project with me. If you look at the work he did on the mural, it’s very much of scroll painting, or petroglyphs painting – symbols and iconography. He refers to himself as a rock painter. I think we are continuing in the original use of the function of our form, which is to identify and to mark place and territory. The natural laws of place and territory are transcribed through our visual iconography. Western anthropologists say that we never wrote our history down, but if you look at the Lakota winter counts, the petroglyphs, the symbols, geometry and iconography that are woven into baskets and blankets – that’s our written history and visual literacy. I think Indigenous artists are continuing in that original intention with our art.
I believe “All Indigenous art speaks either to, from, or about the land.” I forget who said that and have tried finding the quote many times, but I believe them. I had an Indigenous artist disagree with me once. And that’s cool, we don’t need all agree, but I believe even if you paint someone wearing a ribbon shirt or skirt the teaching of the ribbon skirt or shirt is from the land. Teachings of that fashion are of the land. We visually transcribe our teachings. That’s our literacy. That’s our visual sovereignty. That also continues the land acknowledgement. You look at the work that Robert Houle has done throughout the city and the performances of Rebecca Belmore. Those artists are within the notion of place and they start with the land first, most of us work that way. Indigenous artmaking is also mapping Indigenous territory through our art.
Erica: How should the city of Toronto acknowledge and celebrate Indigenous presence in Toronto?
Tannis: Land back. They often ask an Anishinaabe person to do the land acknowledgement and give them an honorarium, but I sometimes wonder if they do that so they don’t have to learn how to pronounce the nation’s words. It goes beyond the land acknowledgment, it is a practice of token recognition. It’s also just about the land, acknowledging the rivers that were paved over, the mounds, the sustenance we are given from living in this place and what we need to thank, honour, respect and take care of the land. The city of Toronto fundamentally is built from a capitalist economy, the crux of a capitalist economy is that it was built and sustained through racist ideology. Without treaties or doctrines of discovery, there wouldn’t be that economy. It’s built on the backs of attempted erasure of our sovereignty. When the apology happened, I Googled the true meaning of reconciliation. I found it under a Christian context – it’s a physical act of sorrow. In the movie Black Robe, where the Jesuit priest is whipping himself with the reed – that’s a physical act of sorrow. The priest was seeking penance. It’s not that I want settler society to whip themselves with reeds, but they could make their reconciliation physical. If we look at truth and reconciliation under a Christian context, the truth is the removal of territory, family, ancestry, language, ceremony, the denial of our humanity, and civility. The truth is the intentional spread of smallpox and other genocidal strategies. That’s the truth. Knowing that everything they tried to take away is tied to land: culture, ancestry, cosmology, ideology. Where that all came from is from the land. If reconciliation is a physical act, it’s an attempt to put ALL OF THAT back. The way you put all that back is starting with the land. That’s the foundation and where everything comes from.
Erica: Do you have any favourite stories or understanding about Toronto?
Tannis: What I love most about Toronto is the Dish With One Spoon agreement and how normally contested nations came together and agreed to share the land and resources. We’re continuing to do that today, but there’s a problem today. It’s like a knife is on the table today, whereas the Dish With One Spoon had no hard edge, no fighting, but there is sure one hell of a fight under capitalism. Indigenous homelessness, suicide, oppression. I think if we can go back to that original agreement of the Dish With One Spoon and have every citizen in Toronto be in understanding of that, and build an economy around that, that would address things like the token land acknowledgement. If we could go back to that land-based economy and equal access reciprocity, the Dish With One Spoon treaty would enable more sharing and less competition by recognizing the original economic structure and the original constitution/natural laws of this place.
Erica: You often center your work on Indigenous cosmological understanding. What inspired you to do so?
Tannis: My Danish father once asked me, “why you always painting your mother’s culture?” I told him that I’m on Turtle Island. One day, I got to go to Denmark to learn about Danish culture. I find that there’s this reversal – you know how people look at Native North America with this romantic stereotypical view and lack of knowledge. I’m guilty of doing that to Denmark. I romanticize and stereotype Denmark because I have very little knowledge. There’s Hans Christian Anderson, there are castles, the national animal is a swan. How could you not romanticize it? (joking)
I think before Christianity, we all had land-based spirituality. I’d like to go to Denmark and see what that spirituality is like and if there are any remnants of that around still. When I try to Google land-based spiritual practices in Denmark, I get taken to spiritual new-age sites. It just inherently doesn’t feel right to me.
Learning and growing into a deeper understanding of an Indigenous/Anishnaabe cosmology helped ground me through a reconnection to land, place and spirit. I was on my own at the age of 12 for a few months when I first quit school, never graduated high school, lived all over and was nomadic. With the birth of my daughter Brittany, I thought I better get some grounding. Literally what was grounding was my grandmother, my grandfather, my mother, and gaining a greater awareness of who they were, where they were from, and entering into the community here.
I was a really angry kid growing up, so once I started learning about historical trauma, colonization and its effect on our psyche, I started to redirect the anger from my family towards the system instead. That was healing for me to do.
That was what my thesis was about because my grandma spoke Cree, Dene, Saulteaux, Anishnaabemowin, Michif, French and English, but not with me. She only spoke the colonial languages to us. My thesis idea was about the undoing of that. She got Alzheimer’s and started speaking in Cree to me. She started to let go of her colonial erasure. They say when you have Alzheimer’s you remember all of these things from childhood, but you can’t remember two hours ago. With my grandma’s permission, I recorded her telling me all of the stories from her childhood, how her brothers would trap, how she would skin the furs, and sell them. She’d tell me how she started making bison robe coats for the RCMP. She used to put the collars on the coats. The collar on the bison robe coat is the hardest to do because it comes from the gruff – under the neck of the bison, which is the longest hair. She started telling me all of these cultural physical actions in her life. It was incredible to gain access to it.
I was 12 when I first quit school and my parents divorced. That’s when I went to my first pow-wow in Mission, BC by a residential school. I thought it was a family reunion because my mom and everyone looked alike. I never grew up with specific cultural identifiers from either side of my family, after the divorce my mom started bringing our culture into our home and started telling me stories. Unfortunately, I didn’t care because I was 12. When I was 16-17 I was into partying, and then afterwards I was just trying to survive being nomadic and living all over Canada. With the birth of Britanny, I began to ask where am I located? What’s my ancestry? What are my roots? I often tell people my cultural knowledge is only about 28 years old, even though I’m 50.