How heavy is the weight of your heritage? Is your identity something you carry, or something that carries you?
On April 2, two Taiwanese Indigenous artists gave a meaningful and respectful performance in response to Vancouver Art Gallery’s current exhibition Guud san glans Robert Davidson: A Line That Bends But Does Not Break. Anchi Lin [Ciwas Tahos] is an artist from the Atayal tribe, and Vava Isingkaunan is a performer from the Bunun tribe. Through song, traditional instruments, and language, the two performed a land acknowledgement that signified their honour in being invited to this land, and their intention of learning during their time here.
Starting from opposite sides of the room, the two performers exchanged the names of the lands they come from, all the way to the Coast Salish territory where they stood now. Each name was repeated in their mother tongues. As they did so, they crossed the room and passed each other, exchanging rocks and other natural materials. All of these materials, Anchi explained in the artist talk afterwards, come from the lands they mentioned.
In Atayal culture, Anchi tells us, they have a process for reconciling and resolving conflict between people or groups. They would take one stone from each community, and exchange it.
When they have finished the exchanges, Anchi creates sounds of the ocean and the wind through an ocarina she made herself. On his shoulder, Vava carries a rock, and starts to walk. With breaths laboured and footsteps heavy, his voice fills the space with the “Song of Heavy Weight.”
And so, the journey of returning to our heritage begins.
The act of returning
Guud san glans Robert Davidson is one of Canada’s renowned artists. Of Haida and Tlingit descent, he has been a prominent part of the Northwest Coast traditional art revival since the 1960s. His art blends the traditional lines and symmetry of Haida culture, while also innovating with new colours and shapes.
In one of the videos shown in the exhibition, Guud san glans Robert Davidson mentions how the traditional lines create two spaces that co-exist, parallels. In Anchi and Vava’s performance, the sharing of space and mutual respect resonates clearly.
Both Anchi and Vava grew up and live in urban societies.
Anchi herself didn’t start to think about her Indigenous identity until she was sixteen, when she had the opportunity to come to Canada. “I was lucky,” she said, “that my host family was First Nations.”
In their house, she saw many traditional carvings, prompting her to ask herself, “What does it mean to be Indigenous?” It didn’t feel right to go around saying she was Atayal when she doesn’t really know what it means to be Atayal. Identity is more than a label to categorize ourselves; identity is a performance, is something lived every single day.
For Vava, culture is something that is rapidly falling out of his grasp. It is something he is actively trying to preserve. In the performance, he played the mouth harp, one of the traditional instruments of the Bunun tribe. He shares with the audience that only five elders in his tribe knew how to play it, and one of them—his mentor—had passed away the month prior. Of these elders, only one knew how to make the instrument.
When is a mouth harp not a mouth harp? When it is tangible culture.
But what about the intangible?
Anchi and Vava spoke about the “act of returning.” How their art and work is all about returning to their heritage, looking back on their people, learning and re-learning. The two of them have similar but different journeys in this act of returning. Different tribes, different languages, different disciplines, different perspectives.
But one thing they agree on—it is a heavy weight to carry.
Colonial impacts on family trees
How do you begin to understand your heritage? Through family, through blood?
In today’s North America, we might turn to DNA tests. But for the Indigenous peoples of Taiwan, their traditional ways do not use blood to define their community.
Vava says, “If you live with us, if you live like us… If you contribute to the community, and the elders acknowledge you, you are Bunun.”
Belonging, then, is not just something you are born into, but something that you do.
But how do you keep track of who you are? Who came before you, and who you will leave behind?
The impacts of colonialism on Indigenous peoples continue around the world today. In Canada, we are still discovering the repercussions of the Indian Residential School System. Forced assimilation took away not only language and traditional knowledge, but entire generations of children. When Guud san glans Robert Davidson started his work, much of the materials and records he needed were locked behind colonial institutions.
In Taiwan, the Indigenous peoples also suffered some of the same violence. When the Japanese colonized the island, a relocation policy was implemented. Indigenous tribes were forced to leave their ancestral homelands. This caused many families to be separated. Not only did they lose access to their traditional ways of life, but even their names were affected.
In Atayal culture, mluhuw is a traditional melody passed down in each family, singing the names of the ancestors and the places they have walked. Families may have the same melody, but the songs are unique to their lineage. This is a family tree, and also an oral history, for the Atayal did not have a written language. In their culture, they do not follow maternal or paternal conventions of naming. In Bunun culture, names are a combination of family name and the natural environment closest to home—one’s name could tell you exactly who they are and where they lived!
However, due to the colonial powers of Japan and then later the KMT, many Indigenous people adopted Han Chinese names. These names had little to no relation to their traditional family trees. This made it difficult for them to find their distant relatives in modern times.
“It’s ironic,” Anchi says, “that in order to trace our roots, we must now rely on the colonial documents.”
What is “identity”?
Today, we use the term “Indigenous” to form an understanding of the first peoples of the land. It acknowledges their ties to the stolen lands we live, work, and create on. It is also connected to the act of returning—recognizing their sovereignty and embracing their ability to tell their own histories and stories.
During the artist talk, Richard Hill, the Smith Jarislowsky Senior Curator of Canadian Art, mentioned how the term allowed him to have a broader sense of the world, the history, and the people. But the term can also be very vague and homogenizing.
As a non-Indigenous person, the term helps me to identify the shared histories of colonial violence and the movements of reclamation of Indigenous peoples around the world. But what does it mean to identify as Indigenous? The lived experiences of the Taiwanese Indigenous and the Indigenous of Canada have overlapping traumas, but it is ultimately different. Each tribe and each nation have their own names, their own words for the hurts and the resilience of their people. How, then, do we begin to understand what it means to be Indigenous?
The next time we meet someone new, let’s take a moment to reflect on the words we use to identify ourselves. What does it mean when we say we are Canadian? Is it able to encompass all the places people come from, or is it a simpler way to explain the complex identities we carry?
Shift your shoulders and stand up straight—how heavy is the weight of your heritage?
Vancouver Art Gallery presents Guud san glans Robert Davidson: A Line That Bends But Does Not Break until April 16th.