In the final volume of “Voices of Change”, The Phoenix spoke to Jon Corbett, an Indigenous (Nehiyaw-Métis) artist. Jon’s PhD research is focused on developing a programming language for Cree (Nehiyaw), as well as developing an Indigenous Computing Framework. His digital beadwork is a way of giving an Indigenous voice back to his ancestors and is a subtle commentary on being Indigenous, especially in a modern technological society.
That work is now extending through to his current practice where he investigates and transforms digital weaving and beadwork into Métis woven sashes.
1. Briefly tell us about you and the ethos behind your work.
As an Indigenous (Nehiyaw-Métis) artist, my main concerns in my work are related to heritage, reciprocity, and relationships/interconnectedness of us and our world/universe. My digital beadwork is an example of this, where I "indigenize" the computing interface to be reflective of my Indigenous practice. In a way, I have written my programming code as a way to teach the computer to "think Indigenously.” The computer is a seemingly innocuous device, but I think modern cultures have become ambivalent to its role in perpetuating colonial and settler beliefs and practices. Think about how it forces upon us certain formalized structures (like UI or hardware interfaces), logics based on Western Science, and an extensive use of English in a vast majority of higher-level programming languages, and rarely is culture ever engaged with beyond the surface or resulting applications that computing offers. Part of my work involves undoing some of these ideas and practices. My PhD research is focused on developing a programming language for Cree (Nehiyaw) and an Indigenous Computing Framework—something akin to creating an environment that makes the computer an extension of Indigenous being, not just a tool used to engage with the digital world. So, when we talk about racism and discrimination in our society, I believe it runs far deeper in our lives than we really notice.
2. How does your personal identity influence your work?
Of course, being Métis means I accept a multi-ancestral history that blends European ancestry and Indigenous ways of being. I have felt both sides of the discrimination coin in this regard - by our government's definition, I am not First Nations because I am not full-blooded and do not have sufficient "proven" heritage to support First Nation status because my European ancestry negates that claim to identity. Similarly, through what would be my First Nations territory—Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Manitoba—I would be subject to acceptance by the Band's governing body, but again, my non-full-blood status would also be questioned, this time by the First Nation that I believe I descend from. So as a Métis, I navigate/fight an identity battle between the ruling body of the country I live in and the Band that governs the land and ancestral home of my father and grandmother. But at the end of the day, my identity as an Indigenous person comes from my life experience and the relationships I have with the cultural communities I feel closest to (those being Little Red River Cree Nation and Saddle Lake Cree Nation in Alberta). This self-identity is extremely important to me, because I feel a responsibility to my Nehiyaw lineage to preserve, promote, and advocate for the beliefs and practices of the people I am attached to through blood.
3. How have the recent widespread protests and discourses surrounding race/culture affected you/your work or both?
When it comes to protests and discourse on "touchier" subjects like racial discrimination, I tend to abstain from an opinion, especially when the political environment and media saturation surrounding it can significantly distort public opinions and social realities. Part of my reluctance to openly advocating a specific opinion is largely based on my personal philosophies on fair treatment of all living things and the recognition of the interconnectedness of our world. Neither of which has anything to do with the categorization of people—be it on race, gender, age, etc... What I do not have an issue with, however, is scrutinizing the role of media and governments in addressing these issues. For example, I find it interesting that phrasing like "racism/discrimination against minorities", is a commonly used way of exploring these issues, especially within media and politics. I have an issue with "minority" in pretty much any context, because when it comes to issues related to racialized members of our society you have to ask "who are you" in that reference? Which is actually typical of the systemic racism that exists in media as much as it exists in the government and the institution. The language used is nearly always stated in an assumed position of "whiteness" as superior to others, or in a more general sense "white" is assumed to always be the non-minority regardless of what ethnic groups are being discussed—the moment someone says "minority" we tend to automatically assume "non-white" regardless of the culture being spoken of as "the minority". So when it comes to the current Black Lives Matter protests and pro-action movements, I 100% support them; I feel their pain, their frustration, their sense of being lesser than something that is caused by the governments and civil servants that are supposed to support and protect their people. The first and foremost concern should be the welfare of their constituents, so anyone that does not have those concerns in their agenda has no right in being in their position, and this includes a single person, a government department, or the entire country.
4. What are you currently working on?
My beadwork came about largely as a response to my grandmother's self-oppressed First Nation heritage and adoption of the "homogenized Canadian ideal". It is work that is a way of giving her back her Indigenous voice and is a subtle commentary on being Indigenous, especially in a modern technological society. That work is now extending through my current artwork where I am investigating digital weaving to transform my beadwork into Métis woven sashes. These are typically patterned with colors and geometric shapes, but I am looking at introducing physical imagery. I want to depict visuals that will stand as a record of Nehiyaw society and culture at this moment in time—in a similar fashion to the wampum belt that has been historically used as a way of record keeping and knowledge transfer performed in the tribal nations of the Eastern Woodlands. These ideas and practices are common to a number of North American Native peoples. I want to use those crafts in my digital expressions to record and portray Indigenous experience(s) in our current age. My biggest adversary in this regard is censorship of personal freedom and cultural practice—once anyone impedes or obstructs my (or anyone's) freedom of expression or cultivation of cultural practice, then I usually have strong objections and tend to find ways to express those sentiments in my visual work.
5. What changes would you like to see at UBCO/in Kelowna in regard to racism/discrimination against minorities?
Though I am a member of the UBCO student cohort (as well as faculty) I am not fluent in UBCO policies beyond my own adherence to a "zero tolerance" philosophy when it comes to discrimination or marginalization of people on any characteristic—which I believe is in line with the institution's position of any of those subjects as well. But as one who has not had a need to draw upon the supports that may currently be in place at UBCO for our students that have had negative experiences, in particular to the top two: race or gender, I am not sure what input(s) I could provide for change in that regard. One of the programs or supports I am somewhat familiar with is the Aboriginal Centre and their Programs & Services (APS). In particular, I am grateful to have an intra-organization that aims to make "being Indigenous'' on campus something positive, and their continued efforts to advocate and promote Indigenous cultural practices on campus is very valuable to me. Maybe the only thing I could add would be: it is one thing to promote tolerance, sensitivity, and support for on campus communities that have strong [cultural/racial/gender/age/etc...] identities—we probably have all kinds of policies, guides, and manuals on ethics and expected behaviours—but how many physical events or congregations are initiated, spearheaded, and run by the institution (as opposed to organized and run by the groups themselves)? It is something else entirely to see the University itself lead and/or offer regular events that directly support those identities. In my opinion, the university has to play a precarious game of politics that shows compassion and support for its entire membership without showing bias or favoritism to any of the subcultures that exist within it, and I can see that as being a huge task.