On Being a White Guy With No Idea What He's Doing

In a couple of weeks, Bleeding Heart Art Space, the little gallery I lead, will open a show that is more ambitious than anything we’ve tried before.

A double-show, really. A gallery exhibit involving physical paintings and projected photographs. A massive outdoor installation involving 50 some trees arranged into a circular ‘forest’ pathway. So much is involved here. Connecting with artists and hashing out ideas. Permits and logistics. The physical labour of pruning 50 trees of their branches and building stands for every tree. There are costs attached to all of this.

None of those things scare me much. In those tasks, at least, I have some idea what I’m doing. Reconciliation scares me. Opening the doorway to a conversation about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in this country scares me. Because what do I know?

What does a white male possibly know about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women?

In my case, not much. Not yet anyways. 

I know some statistics. I know some of the injustice and anger. I know there is pain from open wounds. 

I know that Indigenous people can be incredibly resilient, beautiful and strong. I know I have been welcomed into ceremonies that mean more than yet I understand and have existed longer than I can comprehend. I know Indigenous people in this country have a worldview the often lines up more closely with Jesus’ version of the “kingdom of God” than with a Western Capitalist version that can destroy our connection to the earth and to one another.   

I’ve learend how the term ‘stolen’ is used when talking about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Women who have been stolen from us. Life stole from them. Language stolen. Land stolen. Culture stole from so many Indigenous people over generations. Dignity and respect stolen. The middles and endings of so many good stories, stolen. 

Often when a thing is stolen, if restoration is to happen, the thief must give it back.

Am I the thief? Is that my place in this conversation? Is that what I know?

Certainly I am implicated as a white, European male living on Treaty land. By coincidence, I'm reading the story of George Simpson and the colonial ambitions of the 1800’s Hudson’s Bay Company. As I read I feel a pang of shame. Shame for what I’m learning and shame for how little I know about any of this.

Shame cannot be the end of this journey. Perhaps this awareness–these recognitions of cultural, collective culpability–these are the beginnings of reconciliation.

I took this photo on a recent visit to the Royal Alberta Museum. It says so much to me that is hard to shake. 

I took this photo on a recent visit to the Royal Alberta Museum. It says so much to me that is hard to shake. 

My status as a Christian makes this all the more fraught. Residential schools are a blight on our nation and the Church, and I’m a citizen of both. Much harm has been caused in the name of religion. Pain that doesn’t heal quickly. Pain that leaves gaping scars. Inexcusable pain in the name of colonialism. But there is light to be found in the Christian faith, too. 

Jesus himself was never on the side of the oppressor. His message was one of love. Humility and open arms. In the end He became oppressed to death.

Jesus is a lofty example–perhaps too lofty a starting point for broken little me. But those of us who have tried our best to follow his way of love have built many bridges. There are plenty of examples, going back as early as the first church leaders.

The Apostle Paul used to be called Saul. He started out an oppressor. One story has Saul standing ringside as people stone an early Christian. He traveled far and wide to hunt those hated ‘little Christs’. On one such trip, light burst from the heavens. He ’saw the light’ so literally it knocked him flat and left him blind. Left helpless, Saul was taken in by the same Christians he had oppressed. There was a time for learning. For understanding. For knowing. The transformation became so complete that Saul got a brand new name. This is the moment we meet Paul. In the middle of a powerful empire and the powerless subjects, people reached out toward each other. People saw each other as beloved children of God.  

Reconciliation is slow, hard work. It took a while for people to trust Paul. Understandably so. 

I know this at least. To be careful. To be prayerful. To be mindful. To be respectful. To take things slow.

Here are some other things I know.

I know a bit about art.

I’ve watched artists craft an experience that transports me from my own headspace into theirs. I’ve learned about ‘creating a space in time’, as author Michael Card puts it. About the power of art to call our attention where attention is needed. About the power of art to amplify unheard voices. The ways art gets past our defenses and enters through the heart’s back door. The ways stories and songs and pictures and dances can lead us where we’re otherwise unwilling to go. I’ve seen these powers at work. I believe they are Divine. I believe they lead us toward reconciliation.

I know some things about growth.

I’ve learned how muscles need to be pushed to their limits until they tear ever so slightly. Muscles grow by healing. I know life is more interesting lived at the edges of understanding. That there is value in carrying big questions. The way a goal should rest just outside the limits of possibility. How often impossible things become possible on the other side of resolve.

I know some things about community.

I know I cannot do this alone. Where I lack understanding I can lean on the understanding of those around me. A cord of three strands is stronger than a cord of one. When you lift heavy weights or climb high ladders you should always have a spotter. The more dangerous a situation, the more we need someone who ‘has our back’.

I may be a white man who does not know what he is doing, but I am not alone.

Our upcoming shows began over coffee with Lori Calkins, an Anglican Priest who is also a Metis woman. A woman who deeply desires reconciliation. She posed the idea of an outdoor public installation to bring attention to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. The idea could not have come from me, and it did not.

Heather Ritz is involved. She knows a lot more than I do about the difficult history of our Indigenous people in this country. She has invested much time and care into knowing. 

Travis Enright is involved. He is an Indigenous Anglican Priest who has done much heavy lifting for reconciliation. Some of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women were taken from his parish community. He’s been part of many difficult conversations. 

Lana Whiskeyjack is involved. She’s an Indigenous artist of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation with great hopes for the future of her people and their culture. She brings a lived experience to this project I can never possess. Birthed in the pain of our dark history, her art shines with vibrant joy. 

Those of us bringing this exhibit to life are connecting with new people daily. Indigenous elders. Artists. Women who work with vulnerable women. Community leaders.

Clueless as I am, there’s one more thing I know for sure. Reconciliation matters and I have to start somewhere. Even from my ignorance.

Justice matters and it’s better to move towards it than to sit still. I begin my journey with one foot planted in the arts and the other in my faith. From here, my best hope is to remain open to the Spirit’s leading. With friends to guide. With prayers for understanding. With pleas for grace.

I am ready to learn just how much I do not know.

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