Sociologist and activist Guy Sioui Durand (Tsei8ei 8aho8en in Wendat) met with me in Québec City’s Cartier-Brébeuf Park, on unceded Iroquois territory. He lives in a condominium on the edge of the Park, as a way of “recolonizing” the land of his ancestors.
By Flora Lasalle
A Token Indian?
The indigenous peoples have long been a subject in sociology. Even today, to Guy’s dismay, the majority of anthropologists and art historians studying indigenous art are westerners. “We’re an object of study,” he observes. “But since the resurgence, there is also the voice of the indigenous people, and we’ve only been given this place to speak very recently. We’re esteemed in some milieus such as art, but we’re often invited to big conferences as ‘Token Indians’ from a Francophone milieu. We’re not there as masters, and it’s the whites who usually control the discussion.”
Despite all his degrees, Guy has not been given the opportunity of becoming a university professor. “The university system is simply in favor of non-indigenous persons,” he says, “so there’s a trail to be blazed there, there’s a struggle. It is difficult to be both the object and the subject of study. I occupy that singular position. Today I’m seen as a specialist by the few who do this, and my thought is taken into consideration. But it’s not because of a title or a position. I’ve taught at universities, but I’m not a professor.”
His unique position sometimes obliges him to fight for basic rights, such as the right to be adequately compensated for his contributions to academic institutions. He gives the example of one of the last conferences he attended. “Thinking that we were all salaried professors, they didn’t pay us. They had me show up as a ‘Token Indian.’ So I, like others outside the institution, asked for a payment. Why? For justice.”
He adds: “Not so long ago, I spoke at a Montreal university. They offered us each $100, but I said ‘At least $150, I came all the way from Québec City. At least you’ll pay my transport costs!’ In the end, they offered us each $500. It’s not easy even if you know the ropes. But when you don’t know too much and they invite you, you’re just happy to be there. That’s the case for most Indians, but also artists in general.”
Refusing to be Victimized
This sociologist recognizes that indigenous persons have only recently been given the right to speak. Canadians are more interested about their condition than ever before. But he thinks this isn’t being done correctly: “The dominant society is very conciliatory, they’re very interested in First Nations persons, but through our victimization and misfortune: truth and reconciliation, homeless in the streets, aid and all that.”
It’s an approach that annoys Durand. He doesn’t want to be seen in this way.
In the image of his bloodline, he is combative: “I am a free citizen. I am the opposite of a victim. It’s particular, and it’s not a position of domination. When I organize an exhibit, I don’t have an institution behind me, I don’t have a team. It’s done out of conviction. I feel young and old at the same time. I’m full of energy. I have an expertise I built myself. In the First Nations world, I am knowledgeable. Plus I am a Wendat, so I am vindictive. Victimization means very little to me. That’s what I want to say…”
His goal is to represent indigenous artists in the best possible way. Conscious of the impact of his work, it is of primary importance for him that indigenous people can express themselves and that their voices can be listened to.
“My path, I walk it in a responsible and enthusiastic manner. That’s very important to me. I’m in the world of research, contemporary art, the art of experience as well. So with time you understand that you can become a model or a source of knowledge, a reference, and that becomes important for you and yours, for your world as well as for the world. There’s always that temptation, with time, to stop, but there has to be a passing of the torch, there has to be something to follow you.”