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Indigenous Innovators: Sharing Truth In Art

January 24, 2017

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This article is a part of Animikii’s Indigenous Innovators series in which we profile Indigenous leaders, activists, artists and entrepreneurs to better understand the challenges and opportunities Indigenous Peoples face in Canada today.

There’s no other artist out there quite like Janet Rogers. If you know anything about the Mohawk Tuscarora artist, Janet Marie Rogers, you know that she is not only an exceptionally hard-working artist but also a fearless one. Janet has already had a long and storied career as an artist within a full variety of mediums and she continues to take risks on new projects and on new artistic mediums. So far in her career, Janet has worked professionally as a visual artist, a broadcaster, a radio documentarian, a columnist, an author, a poet and a spoken word poet. She’s served her inspiration in every medium and continues to cut a path for emerging Indigenous artists in Canada.

Janet Marie Rogers 

Janet was born in 1963 on the west coast of BC on unceded Coast Salish Territory in Vancouver. Janet would eventually return to Coast Salish Territory to live and work but actually grew up on the traditional territory of her family in southern Ontario. Janet attended high school in southern Ontario and upon graduating, moved to Toronto to live and work. She lived in Toronto for 13 years and worked during that time not as an artist but in “non-traditional trades.” Specifically, Janet worked in jobs with de Havilland Aircraft and the City of Toronto; Janet described that period in her life as fairly turbulent. She said that she partied more than she should have and that “the more money [she] made the more she [partied].”

In the summer of 1990, Janet was working as a street cleaner for the City of Toronto; that was also the summer of the Oka Crisis in Kanesatake. Janet felt the “urge to want to go to Kanesatake and help, but [she] knew that in her present state [she] would be going there for the wrong reasons.” Janet recognized that she’d be going to centre of the conflict to “hang out and drink and that wasn’t helpful.” So the next year, in 1991 Janet got sober and has been ever since. With a “clear head” Janet looked at her life and realized that she was ready to take on new challenges; within a few years she was offered a job in Victoria, BC working in arts administration and in considering the offer, she “looked around Toronto and thought, ‘Yeah, I’m pretty much done here!’” and left for Coast Salish Territory in 1994.

As Long As The Inspiration Will Continue To Come,

I Will Continue To Serve That Inspiration.

Janet ultimately took the position that was offered to her in arts administration and worked hard at it; unfortunately, she was let go from that role and was put in the position of being in a relatively new place without the comfort of a steady job. Janet was devastated after being let go; she decided again that she needed to clear her head and left for a weekend of camping and prayer on Quadra Island. She spent that weekend on Quadra Island in a spiritual state, asking for guidance about what was the right path for her to take and how she could move forward in a positive way. Upon returning home from her trip, Janet was met with a message on her answering machine offering her a job! She was soon hired to coordinate the cultural village stage for the Commonwealth Games that were coming to Victoria that year. Janet was incredibly grateful for the opportunity to continue working in the art world and was excited by the opportunity to meet more people within the Indigenous Community on Vancouver Island.

Even as she was moving from Ontario and starting her new career in arts admin, Janet was planning to continue her fine arts practice in Victoria, however, over a short two year period, Janet had very consciously decided to pursue writing more seriously. She didn’t necessarily stop working on visual art but focused her energy on writing instead. Just as with her visual art practice, Janet is a self-taught writer. However, even within the realm of being “self-taught,” Janet recognizes that she gained a lot of her training and skill through residencies, fellowships and workshops. She developed her voice, style and comfort with writing through these educational experiences and by learning from writers before her - this is how she continues to develop as a writer today.

Taking Another Leap

As she was starting to attend more writing workshops and build up her own body of work, Janet was simultaneously working full time with the Sooke School District as a teacher’s assistant working with Indigenous students. For Janet, this position represented just another steady paycheck, another unionized job. While she appreciated the security a position like this could afford - it simply wasn’t what she wanted to do. Whenever she was eligible to, Janet would take leaves of absence to attend writing events or even to present at them. She continued this pattern for almost the entire decade that she was working with the school district; then in 2005 when she applied to take her leave of absence, she said that her bosses had just “had it with [her].” They pressured her to make a decision about what she wanted her career to be - writing or working with students. At the time, Janet was “furious that they were holding [her] feet to the fire” so to speak. That night, she went to a steam room at the community pool to think through the decision facing her - water plays an important role in her spirituality - and she says the decision to leave her unionized job to work for herself as a writer and artist came to her “like a lightning bolt.” She says that at that moment, she knew it was time for her to just trust in her gifts and trust in her inspiration as an artist.

The Answer Came To Me Like A Lightning Bolt And I Was Like, “This Is When You Leave.”

And I Just Had To Jump, Man. I Just Had To Jump Off The Ship

And I’ve Never Looked Back Ever Since.

Since leaving her position with the Sooke School District, Janet really has never looked back - that was the last time she had a long-term job and the last time she has truly worked for someone other than herself.

Janet Rogers 2

Totem Poles And Railroads

In December of 2016, Janet released her newest volume of poetry, entitled, Totem Poles and Railroads. Before Totem Poles and Railroads, Janet had published three collections of poetry: Unearthed, Red Erotic and Splitting the Heart. She had also released three spoken poetry recordings: 6 DirectionsGot Your Back and Firewater. Janet started writing the newest volume during a residency at UNBC. When she started this residency, she was planning to write a radio play - but that play never came to be. Instead Janet found that “all of this other poetry started coming out and you have to pay attention” to that. Janet says that eventually she “clued in” that she was working on a new collection of poems! Always one to follow her inspiration, she continued working on the collection and launched her newest book in December of 2016.

I’ve Always Believed That It’s Part Of The Artist’s

Responsibility To Make Records Of Our Times.

When she’s creating her work, Janet is always thinking on some level about the future generations; she believes that “it’s part of the artist’s responsibility to make records of our times” and she wants her work to be part of that historical record. She wants to use her art to document what was going on the country and the culture during this time of “Reconciliation,” a time of contentious public fights about pipelines and land sovereignty and the tension that exists between those two movements. Totem Poles and Railroads touches on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission - in fact, the collection contains a piece called, “CALLS/ TO/ ACTION/ BR-UMP-BUMP” in which Janet explores themes of authority, honour, and action vs. empty gestures.

The collection also expressly pays tribute to historical women and women artists. For example, within the collection, Janet wrote to, about, or for Nina Simone, Laura Secord, Pocahontas, Sacagawea and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Janet’s collection follows in her tradition of writing expressively and candidly about her own life experiences and about the experiences of Indigenous people living in Canada and the USA. The collection differs - or adds significantly - to her existing body of writing in that it truly does read like a record of today. While Janet uses historical research and well-known historical figures to explore the themes within the collection, she writes expertly about contemporary Indigenous issues - issues of identity, voice, self-governance and culture - that we read about in headlines every morning.

Totem Poles and Railroads

“looking to the left                                                                                                   Then right                                                                                                       positioning ourselves                                                                             somewhere in this redress                                                                       patching up our wounds                                                                                     like road crews                                                                                                           in the commission of truth                                                                       merging and making square                                                                       armed with these calls                                                                                       to action”

- Excerpt from “CALLS                                                                                                                                              TO                                                                                                                                                ACTION                                                                                                                            BR-UMP-BUMP” 

 150 Years

I don’t think anyone would ever accuse Janet of being ‘too soft’ on settlers, but she is an artist that truly seems to believe in some form of Reconciliation. Janet has used her platforms and her opportunities to create art that both speaks to Indigenous people about her own experiences but also helps to broaden understanding of modern, Indigenous life in Canada for non-Indigenous Canadians. Janet was the resident Poet Laureate for the City of Victoria from 2012-2015; she used her tenure here to create art that was authentic to her own voice and shared her Indigenous perspective with the City. For example, during her time as Victoria’s Poet Laureate, Janet was asked to write a piece commemorating the 150th anniversary of Victoria’s incorporation as a city. She took that request and created something that spoke to the true history of the city - not to denigrate settler Canadians, but to share the truth through her art. She ended up writing a 6-page poem entitled, Lekwungen Land: 

Janet Rogers

“in human years, 150 is a long time                                                        in human years, 150 is a blip

so we take our place as collective witness                                        to tell the next generation                                                                      that one hundred and fifty is both                                                    long and short                                                                                                  for one day, when we are forced                                                        from here                                                                                                    shaken or flooded or sunken back home                        Lekwungen Land will sigh and say

 ‘Take your stuff and things                                                                  leave me with my simple beauty                                                        the same beauty that lured you here                                                  in the first place.’

 The first place                                                                              Lekwungen Land”

- Excerpt from Lekwungen Land

Janet read Lekwungen Land in the same way she read countless poems during her tenure as Victoria’s Poet Laureate - she read it in front of the City Council in the City chamber. But in this particular instance, Janet remembers reading the piece to the Council, taking note of Chief Andy Thomas from Esquimalt Nation on one side of her, and Lieutenant Governor of BC, Steven Point, member of Skowkale First Nation, on her other side. Janet stood between these great leaders, reading her poem, Lekwungen Land, to the Council of mostly settler Canadians. She remembers feeling like a “triangle of representation of Native presence” and remembers feeling that positive changes in Indigenous-settler relations were on the way.

With Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation taking place this year,  Janet talked about her plans for responding to the “Canada 150” campaigns. When we spoke, Janet had been thinking a lot about Chief Dan George’s Lament for Confederation piece performed in 1967 (Canada’s centennial year). What she loves about the piece is his honesty - his willingness to pen his “open letter to Canada,” and his willingness to give an “unapologetic wagging of the finger to Canada.” At the time we spoke, Janet was planning to revisit Chief Dan George’s piece, or pen some kind of reply to it in 2017.

Janet Rogers 3Emerging Artists And Reaching For “Success”

Janet has been in the Indigenous arts Communities for decades now; when she was starting out, she faced a different set of challenges than those she sees emerging Indigenous artists facing now. For example, when she was starting out, she never felt the pressure to try to create works that would resonate with a broad audience to make money - in fact, she never expected to make money as an artist! Janet has always made work that was authentic to her experience and rooted in her Indigenous identity. She never struggled to decide if she should create work that is rooted in her Indigenous culture or not - for her, it was never a question. However, she recognizes that emerging Indigenous artists might be facing the question of ‘should I make work that isn’t rooted in Indigenous traditions?’ She sees the Indigenous arts community moving to a place where emerging artists have the freedom (and the burden) to make that choice - and she sees it as a positive shift. Overall, Janet sees that “today’s emerging, Indigenous artists have so much support,” and encourages these artists to network in the Community and to learn from mentors wherever possible. Janet’s own career has been bolstered by residencies and by learning from those who went before her. The Indigenous arts community is - overall - a very welcoming place for emerging artists and encourages everyone to get involved.

I Had Other Writers Who Helped Me Along The Way, That’s For Sure. And I Find That

Especially Within The Indigenous Community, We Are Generous, And In

The Arts Community We Are Generous With Our Time.

To Janet, the word “success” means being “able to wake up in the morning and say ‘hey I get to live my life uncompromised today.’” To Indigenous artists, Janet encourages you to “do your best to stay true to yourself as an artist, and [she hopes] that the world will respond in kind.” She knows that there will always be times when you have to make compromises or adjustments but believes that “truth comes through in art” and that “people recognize truth on a visceral level and hopefully that turns into - whatever: money, career, appreciation, acknowledgements. Whatever people are in the game for.”

What’s Next?

For artists like Janet, there’s always a new project on the horizon. At the time that I spoke with her, Railroads and Totem poles had just been released, but already she had been thinking about the next projects to come. For the moment, Janet is loving the work she’s doing in radio and is starting to do in podcasting. She is the co-host of the long-running, weekly program, Native Waves Radio on CFUV (the UVic campus radio station), and has recently worked on radio programming with CBC. So for right now, Janet is looking forward to exploring radio and podcasting as mediums, but will never say ‘forever.’ Even as close as 10 years ago, Janet never would have expected to be working in podcasting professionally - she recognizes that as technology advances and as culture evolves, the artistic mediums that will best allow Janet to express her inspiration and best allow her to make a record of the times, will continue to change.

Who The Hell Knows What’s Coming Down The Lane In Terms Of Technology? ...But I Hope To Be Moving Right Along With It - Whatever Comes.


January 24, 2017

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