“I’m a Little Too Rebellious for That”: A Conversation with Joi T. Arcand and Winona Wheeler
by Joi T. Arcand, Chris Lee, and Winona Wheeler
While doing research to design a catalogue for Kent Monkman’s exhibition at the Robert Langen Art Gallery in Waterloo, ON, which was to be typeset in Cree and English, I decided I wanted the typefaces to echo some of the themes of Monkman’s work. So, I opted for Cartier, designed by Carl Dair in 1968 and dedicated to the people of Canada on the centenary of Confederation,1 and BJ Cree UNI, designed by Bill Jancewicz in 1994 for the Naskapi Development Corporation.2 I was interested in exploring the common misattribution of Cartier as Canada’s first typeface, when it was actually preceded by a Cree typeface by around 120 years.
I was fortunate to come across a text by Winona Wheeler (then Winona Stevenson) called “Calling Badger and the Symbols of the Spirit Language: The Cree Origins of the Syllabic System,” which counterposes two origin stories of the Cree syllabary. On the one hand, the syllabary is said to be the invention of an English missionary and linguist named James Evans. However, Cree oral history tells that it was received by an elder named Calling Badger from the Spirit World. Beyond simply supporting the claim that Cree syllabics precede Cartier as this settler-colonial nation’s first typeface, Wheeler’s text compelled me to wonder about how banal genres of graphic design, like the document, legitimize certain forms of memory over others, and also about how things like typography get wrapped up in the mystification of Canadian settler-colonialism as a benevolent civilizing force, bringing literacy, education and modernization.
When I learned about Joi T. Arcand’s work involving Cree syllabics more recently, I found its speculative charge to be provocative. It didn’t plead or petition to prove anything—it is simply here, in everyday scenes, in neon signs, in what she calls Cree Comic Sans, as if it had always been. The paradoxically matter-of-fact yet quasi-mythological effect of Arcand’s work takes the fallacious colonial narrative of Canada as a benevolent force and uncovers it to be something like the emperor’s new clothes, rendering visible the undergarments of the settler-colonial mythology.
I wanted to bring these thinkers and makers into conversation around their respective work and research as it relates to the Cree syllabary’s history, fact and myth, in the context of this issue on graphic design. I think that what follows reads as an illuminating critique of coloniality, and the ways in which graphic design might be implicated.
CHRIS LEE: Some of the threads that run through both of your practices are: an engagement with myth-making, with history and with historiography. I’m playing with the idea of historiography as a genre of design. Winona, you’ve thought about the contrast between the kinds of knowledge and history that are sanctioned through institutions like the university, in contrast to oral histories, which have tended not to be validated or sanctioned as forms of knowledge or history by these institutions—until very recently. And then, Joi, I think of what you’re doing in your work as also engaging in a kind of myth-making, like in your photo series Here on Future Earth (2009), where we see the Cree syllabary populating signage in everyday scenes. There is a charged uncertainty about whether or not these photographs are documents of the recent past or speculative projections of a near future. So, it really occupies this interesting space.
I am wondering if we can start a conversation thereabouts, and think about both speaking and writing in relation to documents and myths, and also to think about the way the history of Cree syllabary has been told, remembered and passed on.
WINONA WHEELER: Joi, I am fascinated by your work so why don’t you start?
JOI T. ARCAND: Well, I am also fascinated by yours, and have cited your work about the Cree syllabary in my own. I come from a fine art and graphic design background, and obviously I am Cree, so all of these interests kind of came together in that project Here on Future Earth. At the time, I was working at the Saskatchewan Indigenous Cultural Centre (SICC), doing layout and design using the Cree language, but also in Dene, Dakota, Nakota, Lakota and Saulteaux. Our clients were mostly First Nations schools that were looking for language teaching materials for people of all ages. It was really tedious work—photocopying, binding educational books—but what I found so fascinating was that I was learning the language by proximity. Knowing that I come from a people whose language was and is passed down orally, I couldn’t ignore the fact that I was also picking up the language by looking at it. I was hearing the language when I was seeing it on my computer screen or on paper, so I guess I wanted to look into it further. At the SICC, I had at my disposal all of this information, and it may have been there that I came across Winona’s writing. I also just had the privilege of being around fluent speakers in the office. It grounded my sense of why we were doing this work, why it was so important to have these oral languages written.
WW: The first time I saw syllabics, I was really young and they looked like word poetry, and what struck me was that they were not random, they were so—and I’m not an artist, so I don’t have the language—but they were very poetic. I thought it was absolutely beautiful just to look at them even though I couldn’t read them—the way that they were shaped, the way they partnered with each other, supported each other and operated in family groups of four.
There is this Canadian myth, and it’s part of the whole colonial national myth, that a missionary came along and invented syllabics so that he could teach “the natives” how to read and write, and so he could translate the Bible. It just sounded to me like colonial bogus and I wanted to challenge that and know who this guy was, this Reverend James Evans, and where did he get such a beautiful, poetic syllabary?
I just couldn’t imagine that an English missionary could come up with something so beautiful, and something that was so reflective of the culture. So, I started to study that. The reality was: he was a missionary for quite a long time in Ontario amongst the Ojibway where he had started to develop a writing system. But it didn’t have the same kind of beauty to it; it was more random, it was more alphabetical. And then he arrived in Swampy Cree territory and within two months he had [apparently] created the syllabary, and that to me is just totally unrealistic—he could not even speak the language. And yes, Anishinaabe and Cree are related, but the Swampy Cree dialect is very different. So, I started doing more research on him and of course he had a local interpreter. And so, it seemed to me that he probably got the language from his interpreter and his network. So, I started to pursue that evidence and then discovered that he shot his own interpreter “by mistake.” Yeah! This was after there were accusations that he was pursuing his interpreter’s wife. And then he was recalled and there were a number of sexual assault charges—not officially but informally laid against him. And I thought: that bugger! So, there’s a whole story of that. Anyway, I started asking around about this syllabary, and came across a number of people who had bits and pieces of its origin story. And I thought, “Okay, well I wonder what academics have to say about it too.” So, I started searching and researching, and almost every single academic privileges the James Evans myth. But there was this one anthropologist, Verne Dusenberry, who spent time among the Rocky Boy Cree in Montana, and he was the only one that I came across back then who wrote down some of the origin stories passed down in oral history: there was this individual, Calling Badger, who passed away and was taken to the Spirit World where he was given this new language, this new way of communicating called the spirit language. [As it turned out], he had actually been having a vision and came back to this world and he shared it. I find it fascinating that [Dusenberry] didn’t pooh-pooh it. The anthropologist said that’s their history, that’s what they believe, and in their world that’s legitimate, and why couldn’t it happen? I found that really, really fun. That little article I wrote3 was just a small piece, it was just preliminary, and I did it because I was mad—mad about this very colonial national myth [that syllabary originated from missionary James Evans], and the people who buy into it. Even some of our own people buy into it. There’s a larger article that will come out later that will expand on that smaller one.
CL: I want to pick up on the way that you referred to the James Evans myth as a colonial myth—because I feel like for many readers that kind of phrasing might be somewhat surprising.
WW: You know, in settler-colonialism and settler societies, there is this driving need to justify the appropriation, the theft, the displacement of Indigenous peoples. You can’t just walk into another people’s territory and assume ownership—you have to rationalize it. You dehumanize people so that they are less than you, and if they are less than you, then they don’t deserve all of this [gestures her hands to refer to everything around her]. And, in our situation, [the settlers] infantilized us, viewed us as children that needed an education, that needed to be dragged up from the depths of our barbarism through civilization. So, there is that whole settler-colonial narrative that goes on while you are taking our land, our resources, and you have to justify in your own mind that you are superiors, that you are better at doing things than we are, and you see it happening up to today. You got nonaboriginal people who come across as though they believe that they can do something better than we can.
And I think that settler-colonialism does not see Indigenous peoples as having the intellectual capacity to create a written language. Because it needs a whole lot of smarts—and [settlers] didn’t think we were smart. So, to actually give credibility to us inventing the system would go against their best interests, because they have to portray us as simple, stupid, backwards and pagan to justify the whole missionary enterprise. And syllabics were popularized specifically for the whole missionary enterprise. So, they took something really beautiful and they used it against us.
CL: Joi, how do you see the contemporary use of the syllabics, both in your artwork, and in the educational context? The story that Winona tells us is one that has a troubling side and an empowering one.
JTA: Well, when Winona was talking about the gifting of the writing system to our people [by way of Calling Badger], in order to ensure that our language carries on… I was getting chills because I was thinking that that moment is now, and we’re seeing the resurgence of syllabics everywhere and it’s really kind of come to a point where people are starting to recognize it as an Indigenous—a Cree—writing system. That gets me excited because it makes me think about how much our ancestors cared about us, that we would have this tool to use. I appreciate the work of people like Winona and other language people who have been pushing back against that myth, and so I just want to add my voice to that.
I do that through my art, and most of the time people who have no reference point for what syllabics are assume it’s foreign because they can’t read it. And when they can’t understand something, they get really uncomfortable. That discomfort means that it must be foreign, it must not be from here, or for them. I like playing with that for myself as well, because I’m not a Cree speaker, and I’m trying to learn. I’m trying to battle my own feelings around not being able to speak, and I’m like, “If I am uncomfortable, then you should be uncomfortable too.” As
settler people, [you should] not have everything just handed to you, without any question or without being challenged in that way, to think about the fact that something that you think is foreign is actually Indigenous.
CL: Yeah, I’ve noticed in the way that you talk about your work, particularly the work that centres the syllabics, that you talk about that it comes from a place. I also find really strong and assertive the fact that you don’t offer translations for your artworks that use the syllabics. It is like, “This is a matter of fact, this is what it is, so deal with it,” which I think is really striking and interesting.
JTA: Yeah, people don’t like that either. [Laughs].
CL: Winona, I heard you say in a presentation once that, as a historian, you like paper, which I suspect—maybe since I’m not a historian—is perhaps because paper gives your scholarly andacademic claims legitimacy; there is a kind of materiality to it as evidence.
WW: I don’t think it has anything to do with creating legitimacy or validation as a scholar—I’m a little too rebellious for that. For me, one of the problems is that I’ve got a really crappy memory; my memory is like a sieve, and so I have a hard time memorizing. I was raised in a predominantly oral family, but I was raised in a literate society and so my memory capacity is nowhere near the memory capacity of our ancestors, which was so finely tuned to hold memories. They were trained from when they were very small to develop their memories, and we lack that. In this day and age, I find that writing it down allows for easier dissemination; it gets out there faster, and that’s really important. I take great lessons from many of the elders whom I have worked with, and my late husband, who said it’s not just about writing it down—the whole process of transcribing and putting it down on paper is very complex, and you’ve got to take so much into consideration, with much respect. You can’t just do literal transcriptions and translations because you’re missing all the nuances and all the shared cultural repertoire. When you put it down in a form, you go through a long process, especially if you want to be respectful to that which you are doing.
CL: Joi, I wonder if you see the work you’ve done, particularly the stuff in physical space that has a kind of architectural scale or installation component—the neon signs, the labelling of the steps—as creating evidence? What’s the relationship of your work to creating evidence?
JTA: Yeah, when I’m making these neon signs, I think: “what is this activating
and what is this object doing in the world?” And it’s doing a few things for me. At first, I was just like, “this would be so cool to see.” I just wanted to see it, like, “why can’t we see this as urban, Cree people?” And then it does something too for people to see themselves and their language reflected and shining back at them. It instills this pride and recognition. I think one of the most exciting things that I saw was this video of school children who had seen my work at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and I was just, like, “Okay, I must be doing this for a reason,” because they were just so excited to see it. So, I think if that’s the only thing that it’s doing, then I’m fine with that.
But it’s also about taking over space, and making ourselves visible in these really institutional spaces, like the National Gallery of Canada, like the Winnipeg Art Gallery—all of these spaces that are also a part of that colonial project, and which hold so much [work by Indigenous artists]. So, I feel like it’s just taking a little bit of [space] back, and also sharing the beauty of the language, educating people, having those conversations with viewers that may be encountering it for the first time. [My neon work] is so in-your-face that you can’t ignore it, and I think that’s part of the reason I use lights and texts—so that it causes you to take a second look. You see neon signs every day, and you see them in English or other languages. You pass by them, and maybe you don’t pay attention. But all of a sudden when you can’t [ignore them], it jars you a bit to be like, “Oh, what is this saying?” and “Where is it from?” I like that it creates all these questions for people.