That Looks Like Me Last Week.
Updated: Jun 10
Text by Karen Moe
Images by Bobbi Sue Smith
It’s a different story; it’s the same story, every time I lie bound in the crime scene police tape in a public space. Laying on my back, an opening left for my nostrils, one eye exposed that looks straight up, I can’t see. But I can breathe. And I can feel.
People don’t see me at first. I blend in with the rest of the art installation and, perhaps, they don’t notice me right away because I am a part of the culture they are looking through. I am too recognizable to be immediately acknowledged. Police Line Do Not Cross. Do not cross over what will never happen to you in the reality you have been raised to believe in. We have nothing to do with it. You and me. Us and them. Maintain the line. Walk away.
After a while, people come up to me. They may wonder at the human form. The human length of the object. The shape of a mummy fully bound in blasting yellow plastic inscribed with: “Police Line. Do Not Cross.” In my version, the well-worn phrase swirls and cuts and cancels out the traditional line, the line that contains a murder scene, the line that imposes no involvement in the aftermath of violence. The line that keeps us apart. Wraps, crisscrosses, shreds, knots, loops and spirals are synthetic sinews that fuse flesh with surveillance, a different combination with each performative wrapping shouting the same message. Police Line: Cross.
It’s a different story; it’s the same story, every time I lie bound in the crime scene police tape in a public space. In the Downtown Eastside, Vancouver, Canada 2015, I felt the presence of two humans standing near me. I knew there were two because I could feel two bodies interacting, connected by their close proximity and relationship. It is amazing how much we can see when we can only feel.
They hung out for a while. Chatting next to my radical feminist attempt to say something about systemic violence as never an act of only one individual. Myself as a white woman in a white supremacist patriarchy: a human who is inevitably complicit because of the coincidental colour of my skin; a woman who has been terrorized because of the coincidence of my sex. This is my attempt to shred it. Fiercely. Joyfully. And leave it laying at our feet.
I don’t know if they had noticed me yet, this thing lying next to them composed of the police tape that is so common in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the neighborhood known as the poorest postal code in Canada, inhabited by mentally ill, disenfranchised people who more often than not self-medicate with street drugs — the majority being Indigenous peoples. (1) My pleading form may not have said anything to the two men. Why should it? They just seemed to have ended up in there, noticed something going on at InterUrban Gallery as they were walking by. I don’t think they’d planned to come to the performance. I was in their ‘hood. The part of Vancouver that is so often viewed as ‘all their fault’ that has, in fact, been preordained. The part of the city that no one wants to end up in. The neighbourhood that tourists — if they happen to stray from the site-seeing tour — can’t believe exists in Canada. Canada, ranked the number one country in the world for the fourth year in a row with the highest quality of life. It seems the invisibilized demographic has been left out by the global market communications companies that calculate such designations. (2) Regardless, the two men who had ended up in the shock that exists at the core of Canada’s most beautiful city were aware enough of my presence not to step on me. And I wonder now: how would it have added to the performance if they had?
I don’t remember what they were talking about, but I knew right away that they were First Nations men. That is what we call the Indigenous peoples of Canada now. First Nations: a term that started being used in the 1980s to finally acknowledge the fact that the Indigenous peoples actually were here first. Legitimately. As sophisticated societies. As cultures. First Nations: no longer Natives and certainly not Indians. I could tell the men were First Nations because of their accent, their way of speaking the language of the colonizer that is still intoned with their Indigenous tongues even though they were forbidden to speak it from 1884-1996, the span of the Canadian residential schools when First Nations children were taken from their mothers and put into the so-called care of the Catholic Church to “take the Indian out of the child.” (3) Aggressive assimilation it was called: depriving the children of their culture and language.
“For their own good,” said John A. Macdonald, Canada’s iconic first prime minister and the Father of Confederation when all of the territories that are Canada were pulled together to create a nation state composed of stolen land. But only stolen from savages. Not people at all so, how could it be stealing? For their own good. They had nothing until we came, at least 20,000 years of nothing. (4) “These savages must be assimilated,” my forefathers said. Ironic, now, how these brutal policies of assimilation resulted in segregation. After the buffalo population had been fully exploited by the European colonizers, the Indigenous peoples were stuck onto reservations — out of sight out of mind, as the saying goes — in order to be ‘civilized’ by a society that constructed the first peoples as lesser than by decimating their livelihood.
The priests and the residential officials went above and beyond to fulfill their god given roles as disciplinarians by sexually abusing at least one out of every five Indigenous children. (5) And the scientific community pitched in and used five of the residential schools to conduct nutrition experiments by keeping the children in a state of malnourishment and make the ground-breaking, scientific discovery that they get sick and often die. (6) Surprise. They did. Many Indigenous children, victims of Canada’s recently disclosed dirty little secret, died. (7)
The language that I immediately recognized from having grown up in British Columbia is one of genocide. And, when the two men decided to look and notice this concoction of violence and irony at their feet, they bent over me, unaffected, and one of them stated:
“That looks like me last week.” And they walked away. They were gone by the time I could see.
I remember, as a child, my family and I would drive through ‘Indian’ reservations sometimes (8)—when we had no choice, that is. These were the ones in the country-side where there was only one road so they couldn’t be avoided. We had to drive through the Mt Curry Reservation on the way to an alpine cabin. It was always an experience of novelty and dread. And a sense of doom that was also a part of me. The one just passing through.
My mother didn’t want to. She would say, “It’s too bad we have to drive through and see this. What is wrong with these people? How can they live this way?”
I was horrified and fascinated at the same time. Here was a completely other world that appeared out of nowhere. It wasn’t a gradual transition; there was always a bang as the smooth pavement ended and the highway became a makeshift mass of patches, potholes and dirt. Dad would complain about damaging the suspension; all of the cars started to spew dust and we hurriedly rolled up our windows. But the flying dust wasn’t the only reason for shutting the outside out.
“We’ll be through this soon enough,” Mom would say. “Just don’t look. That’s what I do.”
“Don’t look!?” I recall my child mind thinking. “How is that possible? How can't I look? Everything has suddenly changed. Isn’t this strange? What has happened? What IS this!!?”
I had the exact same feeling when we drove down East Hastings Street in Vancouver and had no choice but to go through skid row to get to the famous Woodward’s department store. Just like with the Mt Curry Reservation, we had to see what was supposed to be kept hidden so that we could get to where we were going.
“Why are their noses like that, Mom?” I would ask, my face glued to the window, wondering at the men slumped in doorways or rolling around the sidewalk with their noses bloated, bashed up and red. Just like the people we would pass by in an Indian Reserve, I couldn’t fathom what this all was and why. But I knew it was important. I knew it was something I shouldn’t look away from. And, somehow, the men with noses twisted up into fleshy knots reminded me of Santa Claus.
“Don’t stare. It’s rude.” I was reprimanded.
As we drove through the Mt Curry Reservation, it looked to me as though the houses had been turned inside out because so many things that were supposed to be inside of a house were strewn around the yard: lop-sided sofas with cushions that seemed to have leapt off out of their own free will; broken dishes and bottles screamed a violence I had yet to have any acquaintance with; tables missing legs gaped morose as crooked amputees; grimy toys made me shudder with the thought of touching them not to mention playing with them; the most forlorn teddy bears looked like they had been run over by the broken down cars sitting around as sorry deflated lungs, doomed to be forever out of breath. But what I remember most are the baby carriages and strollers, overturned and defeated, and the adults, slumped on sloping front porches; the children with haunted eyes who sometimes returned my gaze and I would receive a jolt of inexplicable guilt; the hazy toothless grins of the adults who still had a bottle to grasp. And then the ones who were finished, an empty bottle lolling nearby, passed out face-down upon a scraggy carpet of dead grass.
In 1970s Canada, I knew something was terribly wrong that no one dared speak of and it wasn’t just on the way to a mountain cabin or a department store when it would show itself. I realize now that it was a part of my every day; it was the ignored texture of my childhood; and, even though I remember how it made me feel heavy with shame, theirs enforced, mine made of ‘don’t look,’ I was able to hush it over to the side.
Every day, the school bus would pull up at the top of the road that led to the Indian Reservation on the edge of Lantzville BC. Snaw-Na-As First Nation, it is now allowed to be called. I remember two native (9) kids in particular who would get on the bus. I think they were brother and sister. I have no idea, though, because I never talked to them, but that is what I imagined. That is all I knew: what I imagined and that they came a mysterious enclave of poverty just off to the side of my privilege.
Everyone looked away as they got on the bus, a communal gesture of ‘You don’t exist’ that is always underlain by the desire to stare. When I did just that, furtively, out of the corner of my eye, I observed that they didn’t smile much (why would they?) but, when they did, it was secretly, to each other, like they were afraid to move so as not to be noticed, to be as invisible as we wished they were. When I saw as I was pretending not to, their teeth looked to me like they hadn’t been brushed in days. (10)
“Why don’t they brush their teeth?” I wondered, mystified. “Doesn’t their Mom make them brush their teeth every morning and every night before bed like mine does? Why are their clothes dirty? Doesn’t their Mom wash their clothes like mine does?” As soon as they boarded the bus, their heads bent towards the floor with a snap of an omni-present conductor’s baton in unison with the cut of our bright morning chatter. Silence. Ominous, as they made their way to the back of the bus. The First Nations children always sat at the back.
“Why?” I always thought. “Why do they always sit in the back?” But never dared to ask. It seemed like a question that didn’t matter because it mattered too much. I remember, after the daily scene of these mysterious children getting on the bus, I wouldn’t see them again all day. “Where did they go?” I sometimes remembered to notice. “Were they at the same school?” And they must have been. There. Somewhere. The bus didn’t go any farther; they were obedient in the shadows. This was the mid 1970s, small town British Columbia, Canada.
I didn’t know anything about residential schools until the early 1990s. When I was in university. I went to a relatively left-leaning university with a somewhat radical Cultural Studies department at the time when this normalized secret finally started to be disclosed, discussed, acknowledged. I learned that the last residential school was shut in 1996, over one-hundred years from when the first one was opened. I was shocked. How could I have had no idea? How could such a secret have been so immaculately kept?
I thought of the two kids from the reserve that got onto the school bus every day. I had my answer. These kids had somehow escaped the fate of literally being sent to a residential school, but they had not escaped the legacy. Their parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, big brothers, grandfathers, grandmothers, great-grandparents and maybe even extending back into the foundation of great great, any of these relatives who had been taken away from their mothers and forced into the residential school system would have suffered abuse. And they would have taken those effects of that abuse back home with them. And these kids, the ones I assumed were sister and brother, who boarded the bus every morning with their heads bowed as though they were ashamed to exist, would have been victims of this cycle. On the way to school, I was witnessing a silent apartheid. But isn’t apartheid always silent in terms of there being no reason to talk about it because that is the way it is meant to be? Shamefully, decades later, like the rest of my country with its squeaky-clean surface, I had the answer.
I think now of the top of the hill where the two First Nations kids waited for the bus as phantoms on the cusp of a mystery. A mystery I would never solve. I wasn’t allowed to. I was afraid to. This is no excuse: it’s how it was. The world at the bottom of the hill was meant to be a void, a naught, a nothing. As I was scared of that hill, I was also drawn to it. I felt guilty for not going and guilty for wanting to. And, every time I couldn’t help but look, I turned away.
Bobbi Sue Smith The Soot of a Thousand Extinguished Candles 1-10. Watercolour, charcoal, ink, candle soot. 30cm x 10cm 2020.
Karen Moe Lethe Performance Mexico City 2016.
About the Artists:
Bobbi Sue Smith is a visual artist who has worked in both solo and collective capacities in communities ranging from the isolated to the metropolitan. Her work, in painting, textile, and photography collects and questions the impressions of the quotidian experience, paying particular attention to the roles of memory and story. Her diverse body of work is unified by the aim of promoting discourse and critical thinking about materiality, process, class politics, and the socio-political contributions of the handmade. She currently lives in Paris, France. You can follow her work on Instagram @madebysmitty and her website madebysmitty.com
Karen Moe is a writer, visual and performance artist and a feminist activist. Her work focuses on gender, systemic violence, and justice. She has been published in such magazines as Border Crossings, ArtSpace, WhiteHot and Revista192. She is the editor and founder of the magazine “Vigilance: Fierce Feminisms.” Karen has exhibited and performed across Canada, in the US and in Mexico and has just finished her first book, Victim: a Manifesto. Karen lives and works in British Columbia, Canada and Mexico City. www.karenmoe.net
(1) https://www.vancourier.com/truth-transformation/opinion-voice-for-urban-indigenous-people-desperately-lacking-1.2343454; https://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/rate-of-homeless-aboriginals-hits-new-record-metro-vancouver-homeless-count; https://www.vancourier.com/news/vancouver-s-record-breaking-homeless-population-at-2-223-people-1.23853962 (2) https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/quality-of-life-rankings; https://www.vancourier.com/news/study-ranks-canada-1-in-the-world-for-quality-of-life-1.23609916
(8) I am using the derogatory term ‘Indian’ here (of course, we all know that the peoples who had lived in the Americas for Millenia were not Columbus’ mistaken ‘Indians’ when he failed to reach his goal of India) for authenticity’s sake because that was the term that was used in the 1970s. And is still, shamefully, sometimes used today out of ignorance, fear and, as with the reality of systemic sexism, a result of taking systemic racism personally. The only way non-people of colour can ever be involved in the conversation on race is to not take reality personally.
(9) As with the term ‘Indian reservation,’ my generation called First Nations people ‘native,’ so I will use the term ‘native’ now for authenticity. This may have been a ‘step up’ from ‘Indian,’ but is still an outdated term that needs to be used mindfully. See: https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/indigenous-peoples-terminology-guidelines-for-usage
(10) I have been warned and criticized that this testimony of it looking to me as a child as though the indigenous children's teeth hadn't been brushed in days is a racist comment and that I should take it out of my account and that there is no way I could have noticed this as they walked to the back of the bus. I responded, "That is what I saw and that is what I thought. I can't leave out the truth when I am telling the truth as absolutely and as raw as possible." Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I was imposing an prejudice that the native kids were dirty that had been ingrained into me by adults and the colonizing civilization of which I am a part. But maybe I was right; maybe their teeth hadn't been brushed in days due to the impoverished condition of this reservation in Canada, and so many like them, in the 1970s. I believe very strongly that this long-overdue and most welcome conversation about systemic racism needs to also include the voice of the colonizing culture. However, it's crucial that the voices of the colonizer not take anything personally and not tell stories of fear and threat and, thereby, continue racism and hatred. We need to tell our stories because we were there; we were a part of the exploitation based in race, as also with the exploitation based in sex and gender, that we are all working to put an end to. Forever. And for good.