Raven John

I met up with my pal Raven, a two-spirit, trickster-transformer and multidisciplinary artist to talk about what it means to Indigenize an urbanized territory. Dropping you into the middle of that conversation…

Mallory: I feel like queer people have the best imaginations, because it’s necessary.

Raven: There’s a quote from a queer filmmaker who described how he always had to translate his life and experiences into non-queer media. Where someone says: “Oh yeah, I can understand a straight person going through that,” and him being like “No, fuck you. You have to translate now.” It’s amazing to not have to translate yourself, and I’ve definitely felt that as a woman of colour, and a queer person, and just a really loud and hilarious person, even.

M: With your work, you use provocation, but I find that you’re able to do it within an embodiment of generosity and love – well, to me it is – it’s never so abrasive that you or your work become inaccessible. So often, I see the term ‘unapologetic’ associated alongside people who use it as permission to be assholes about whatever they’re doing/making. How do carry your work with the amount of grace you do, while also being unapologetic about it?

R: It’s hard. It’s very difficult. I learned that people take any excuse to shut down from learning, especially online – a fucking misspelled word, or punctuation – they’ll literally take any out from actually listening to you and your opinion, because it’s hard to confront. My initial performance for On Native Land, I kind of trick people into standing on residential school tiles. When I filmed the part where I’m speaking to the viewer … there’s no point where I look at the viewer in the eye. I’m kind of looking off to the side, and the camera isn’t filming me directly, but a reflection of me in the mirror. I never raise my voice, and I separate the part where I talk about what happened in residential schools and how awful they were, from where I actually talk about my family going to them. There’s a lot of different strategies to try and make it so people had to be in that space, stand on those tiles, and not run away from it.

It’s definitely a skill, but it’s been really hard to hand-hold people through these lessons, especially when they so often need to see and feel that one-on-one, and because they’re also going to make it about them. That’s part of the reason why I’m moving more into performance work, where I’m at least talking to a crowd of people and not a single person. But even then, you still have to be soft with people. Which is hard, because they’re like, “I’ve definitely heard how awful residential schools were, and have had ample opportunity to look it up online and read about it, and there are first hand accounts by residential school survivors on video and audio that I can look at, and also the ridiculous amount of stats that are available, but also, I’m really only going to absorb that information if you tell me and show me how much that’s hurt you and how much that’s hurt your family.”

It’s just frustrating, because I have multiple papers and texts available on the lessons I give out, but it ends up being that I need to sit with you and hold your hand and say: “This is what happens,” while also re-contextualizing it against the propaganda that we constantly see. Yeah, this happened fifty year ago, but it also happened the same year that the Spice Girls came out. Relating the residential school timeline to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Psycho, the Spice Girls, Toy Story, all of those things that are super important to our lives that we remember and we don’t treat like “back in ye olden days,” but then we talk about residential schools and we historicize it. Just trying to re-contextualize for people in ways that they can’t not associate with. So, for myself, Spice Girls is my favourite things to bring up when they ask “when did the last residential school close?” 1996, the year the Spice Girls got big.

I’ve seen the work I’ve done massively change people, and it’s really rewarding, but I’m not as willing to just open myself up like that. I am grateful for the people who have listened and have taken up mantle to reteach those lessons to other people, especially as white people – they’re going to have an easier time getting other white people to listen – because, yeah, it’s hard for them to learn those truths and find a way to live with it. On the other hand, I’ve also had people be very aggressive about it and come at me yelling and pointing “Well, what do you want me to do. Tell me what to do.” And…I don’t fucking know. I’m literally in survival mode 95% of the time.

M: Would you say that with provocation and humour, as much as it is a strategy to relay information and connect, it is also a method of your own survivance?

R: Definitely. Humour is a huge thing in Native culture, it’s also how we show love.

M: I saw on your website, your Need to Know if Something is Racist consultations, moving into performance work where it’s less one-on-one is a very different space to be working within. It seems that social and community engagement is still a common thread for you, though. How does community engagement in the city encounter re-Indigenizing various landscapes, be it urban, institutional, or even on the internet like social media? Is that something you think you’re doing, re-Indigenizing, or do you think this is a problematic term?

R: No no, I think my work totally is doing that. A lot of people would say that my catchphrase is “that’s racist,” [laughs.] After going through school and learning how to spot and also be able to call-out, especially in a more academic way, the various racisms that we live and engage with and accept in our lives, I have no qualms with calling it out now, and I encourage other people to do it, too, because that’s how a lot of change is made. Allowing and accepting a lot of small things, whether they be catchphrases or prevailing aesthetics, especially unquestioned, is the way microaggressions become hate-crimes.

An on-going project of mine is trying to get land acknowledgements to be a regular thing in film as a part of the credits. I want to get the city of Vancouver – and we’re a huge film city – when allowing permits to film within it, while also thanking the city, you have to do a land acknowledgement as a part of that. It’s not saving the world, but it is making people rethink their position, and is way of holding people accountable. There are definitely people who use land acknowledgments as lip service, and when they do stupid shit, they’re going to have that land acknowledgement as something to backup on them, and say “Hey, you’re super supportive of these pipelines, but you did a land acknowledgement, do you care to address that?” or, “You spoke over this Indigenous elder, but you also have done this land acknowledgment. Care to address that?” Sure, it’s a cultural commodity that is easily acceptable by many people, but it’s also holding people accountable.

M: In an urban environment, can our presence be more than physical? I think land acknowledgments could be an example of that. What would you say are other ways in which our presence can be more than just physical?

R: Language is a big one. There are a few campaigns to have more Indigenous languages on signage, but that can also become a bit of cultural capital propaganda bullshit. It’s hard navigating Indigenizing spaces while also being in such a tourist trap of a city where our cultural commodities are heavily relied upon, like Indigenous mural projects. It rides the line of supporting Indigenous artists and Indigenizing space, but also gentrifying them and making tourists more hungry for our culture. It’s complicated.

M: It is complicated. Do you think humour can be used as a tool to navigate the design of an urban landscape, in a way that resists the commodification of our culture? Maybe there isn’t a clear answer…

R: I can tell you how I kind of do it. So, I work with The Cultch, a really amazing place. If there’s ever a front of house speech, we include the land acknowledgment in it – and I work front of house. So, when I do those speeches, I always modify them, because it feels weird. I also know a lot of settlers and white people feel more comfortable having the land acknowledgment as a way of them being “Oh, I’m allowed to be here, because that person did a land acknowledgment and a welcome ceremony for this event, or festival I’m at. There’s a Native person that said ‘Welcome, welcome to Native land.’ So, I have weird feelings about reading a land acknowledgment as a Native person for work, so I just changed it. I usually say :”As a representative as the front of house person for The Cultch, we are honoured to be on the land to work and play on Coast Salish Territories. And then I usually go “But also, I’m Coast Salish and Sto:lo. You’re on my land. So, feel free to come find me after the show for reparations and repatriation accepted in cash, or as bills of property.”

M: [LAUGHING] Holy fuck.

R: [LAUGHTER] I’ve literally only have one audience so far that didn’t laugh at it.

M: But did anyone come up after and be like “here…”

R: I am thinking I should have a little bentwood box that is in my aesthetic that says “repatriation.”

M: How does The Cultch feel about it?

R: I think they’d let me, and they’re fine with my modifications. They think it’s hilarious. There’s only been a couple patrons where they’re like “we need more injun jokes,” and I’m like “are you a white-passing native person saying ‘injun,’ I hope so.” Also, like, I’m Native, so every joke I make is Native, and sometimes I have people come to me afterward and say we need more of that, because they understand that a lot of it is lip service.

M: That took me a long time to figure out. It was this major epiphany moment when I was thinking to myself – I come from my family where my step-dad adopted me, and then coming out here where there’s such Indigenous vibrance – back home Mi’kmaq people are totally shut down – and just…I was thinking “I kind of want to have a dinner and invite my close friends,” and was like “is that very Native of me?” And then I was like, “Mallory, everything you do is Native.”

R: Oh yeah.

M: It was this big, beautiful moment, and I started to cry and laugh, and I was snotting–

R:  Just snotting Natively

M: Yeah! [laughter] I guess this goes to my last question about visibility. As with front of house and other environments you occupy with your art, how do these various environments impact the expectations of Indigenous visibility, and how can that change our sense of self within Indigenous visuality?

R: Are you asking if I rez it up and wear my regalia to different events? Because probably. I don’t really think about it. I miss my teal hair, because for me, I loved people asking me about it and talking about why it was one of the things I loved about presenting queer and presenting Native. A lot of people are like “what? Is she part Black, part white and very Native?” – every ethnicity thinks I’m their ethnicity – but I love getting asked about my hair, because when it was teal, it was a way for me to carry with me the water of my favourite swimming holes. I was able to have it the colour of the creeks I loved swimming in. I feel like we’re expected to have regalia regalia. It’s like, did you really punch an eagle out for his feathers and wrestle a coyote until you get one of its teeth. You know? Like being super “Native” about everything. The realization that everything I do is Native, and that I can have contemporary regalia. We already see contemporary regalia and consider it traditional. Like jingle dresses come from using tobacco can lids to make the jingles, but we treat that as “back in the ancient days, looooong before colonization.”

M: I didn’t know that about the jingle dress.

R: I never really thought about it until I went to the play, Kamloopa. I have one here, [passes me their keychain, with a rolled up tuna can lid attached to it] which was a mind-bendingly amazing play. I saw it literally as many times as I could. It was the first time I didn’t have to translate myself into a story, into a person, and also saw my sister and my mom, my family. One of the characters wanted to make a jingle dress. She had read how they used tobacco can lids to make their jingles, so she got tuna cans and washed them and tried to hammer them and sew them into jingles for her regalia. It was hilarious and sad. And I thought: “Oh yeah, so obviously we didn’t have tobacco can lids 600 years ago.” We already treat that as traditional and sacred and not new, but we’ve always been adapting into the materials of whatever time we’re in. It was a really beautiful realization and I got to actually go and get one of the jingles of the tuna can lids. Read question number 4, because I really love that one.

M: Yeah! While you work within various mediums, arguably, I’d say that your primary media is provocation and humour. Would you agree with that?

R: Definitely. I love it. I never thought about it that way, and I’m honoured that you came with that to me. One phrase that I really love, no idea where I heard it, maybe I just made it up or mashed it up, was: “Better an honest fool than a clever liar.” It’s something I feel really strongly about. I’m constantly pushing people to be their authentic selves, even if that’s not as put together or elegant or even if it grates people.

M: By modelling it?

R: Yeah, I think so. I think I’m very open and honest about everything, and I’d rather look like a complete goof if it means that people having an easier time understanding me. I’m doing my best being fine with failure, as well, and being wrong and being called out for being wrong. I feel like a lot of people won’t voice their fears or thoughts in fear of being wrong, but I’d rather be wrong, then be told that I’m wrong and learn from it, than just continuing internally.

M: That’s a wonderful offering even to the authentic racists.

R: I had an interesting interaction recently where I got called a white woman to my face multiple times.

M: What the fuck?

R: I’m not really offended, but I also kind of get to live in this bubble being in the theatre and art world and having a really great queer community. But people who are still very new to understanding what privilege is, we can’t just let them be stuck, you know? Understanding they’re having problems with understanding – [this] is work that we still need to do. We can’t completely isolate ourselves from the people who don’t have the same kind of education that we have – and that’s also place of privilege too, but it’s also part of surviving.

Like my name is Raven and I feel that has really guided who I could be as a person, the trickster-transformer. The second name that I was given, was Paceet, which means butterfly, is another transformer that brings medicine down from the mountains. The other name I was given Exwetlaq, I found out roughly translates to “being true to oneself.”

M: That makes me think of a term I heard recently:”white-back-to-the-landers. I laughed, because I remember reading from Lee Maracle’s, I am Woman – I just encountered that text, I don’t know why it took me so long – where she writes that it’s a delusional thought to get “back to the land,” because we’re always with it, concrete or not. Still, I’m fascinated with this idea of being in an urban landscape, being in the city of Vancouver and seeing certain kinds of Indigenous programming alongside the resistances from white back to the lander. Like, what is that discourse? For you as an artist, what ways does being with the land come to mean for you, here, in a concrete environment? You hair seemed to be one way of holding that.

R: Yeah, definitely. Especially someone who grew up in isolation in the middle of nowhere on the mainland, and on reserve outside of a small town. It was definitely a huge change to start living in the city. It wasn’t until my sister moved in with me and was doing spiritual work and having a very hard time with it. I came to the realization of “what the fuck are you doing,” because the spirits are strong in our territories where we grew up, in a more natural environment. Here, we’re surrounded by “x” number of people, “x” being the greater Vancouver area, who have lived and died here and not have addressed any of their spiritual or cultural traumas. And all of that spiritual work that’s not done, as an empath, it can be very, very tiring being anywhere in the the city. You have to learn how to spiritually and emotionally close yourself off to that. You never know who you’re going to come across and what their struggle might be, and they might completely drain you. So, being in a space where spiritual work is almost never done, that’s really hard, especially when you don’t really have a way to ground yourself in nature. It’s amazing to see the cultural spiritual, and environmental work that Cease Wyss does by bringing nature back into the ways that we interact with our environment on a daily basis, and talking about the native plants that we constantly see and have never been able to identify or bond with, and then breaking down that barrier.

M: When you talk about spiritual work and spiritual expression, I can’t help but also go back to how we resist and engage with the putting together and separation of “Indigenous” and “Art,” and where does spirit live within those divisions and relationships. How are you holding all that?

R: I don’t know how to hold all these lies. I mean, my health is not great…I guess, because you have to? And that’s what a lot of Indigenous woman say, is because you have to, and because no one else is going to do it. Indigenous women are expected to do fucking everything. We’re expected to be traditional dancers and singers, we’re expected to be language revivalists, we’re expected to be herbolists, were expected to be spiritual and cultural leaders, we’re expected to be writers, we’re expected to be academics, we’re expected to have long-ass natural hair, and have great cheekbones and super stoic and also have the patience of a god in the face of adversity and never get angry. And on top of art-making, also be a silver and copper engraver, be a traditional tattoo artist now, too, be a carver, know how to sew, know how to can, know how to bake…I know a lot of Indigenous women and queer folk who do, though, because we’re the ones that are carrying everything. And no shade, but shade toward Native men, but l feel like a lot of Native men get away with just being able to carry their trauma and fuck around, then throw out some Native jewelry or totem poles and…this is getting very shady, very fast…but I definitely feel that’s kind of the way it’s been.

M: Are those expectations that come from our Native community or broader than that?

R: Broader than that. I was just making whatever art at Emily Carr and had white women, be like “but when are you gunna make ‘x’ or ‘y’?” My mom loves to point out that literally my whole life I’ve had fear of missing out. I’ve been trying to learn every medium that I can, because I thought if I wasn’t supporting or doing workshops, they might not happen: “There weren’t enough people at that weaving workshop, so the next one we’re not going to be able to fund.” The expectation, I’m not sure where it comes from, but well, we might all get murdered tomorrow.

Actually, I should have brought this up earlier. One of the quotes I’ve saved – I recently learned about how amazing Josephine Baker is. She’s a Black, queer burlesque dancer, and at one point one of the most famous women in the world. I started watching her movie and in the first three minutes, she’s growing up in adversity in the states, they’re doing raids on the slums she’s living in, people are dying, and she says: “When I was fourteen years old, I found out that no one hates a cute, funny Black girl.” I’ve been racking my brain with this quote, because I think part of being loud and funny possibly comes from understanding that the more out there I am, the harder it is for me to get lost.

I’m a big natural hair advocate, but when I was in school, I hated being confused for other people, because I had very long, beautiful straight black hair, but being confused for other Native girls, it made me so mad. And I’m all about being extra, anyway, so dying it these crazy colours and cutting it short grounded me in that a bit, and I also love it just as an expression and being able to constantly change as a transformer. But I was recently thinking that being loud and being performative could partly come from a place of fear, of where at least this way, they’re gunna know I’m gone. They’re going to say something, they’ll say “Raven, she was hilarious, so we definitely have to make sure we find her dead body in the river.” Because I think that being funny and being cute and being charming is a survival tactic. It’s harder to hate you, and I definitely have had racists still like me.

M: Wow. I wonder how many people will be comfortable hearing that?


R: A lot of my art practices come from wanting to be as visible as possible so that people like myself – when I was a kid, I had no one to really look up to, I had no one I really identified with, like maybe Whoopi Goldberg. She’s not even gay –

M: What? No? I think she’s gay!

R: Did she come out, finally?

M: Yeah…yeah!… [chuckle]

R: Okay cool. Finally.


R: I thought I could play with this idea of fame and visibility, and be a very queer, out, visible Native person, so that –  I don’t even want kids to be like me. I want Native kids to look at me and be like “I can do that, or more,” because I never had anyone where I thought “Oh! That’s who I could be.”

M: I love that. My last question is about taking up space, actually, but also, I just want to say it’s not only maybe that the resonance of your name as someone who can transform the person, but you’re also being able to take these really painful and destructive, but honest narratives, and transforming the narratives to say “I can be this and I can do more.” You’re working with transformation as your medium, too.

R: And definitely with people. It’s not just about changing myself, but helping other people and helping them change. I just watched homecoming, Beyonce’s new film. I put it on while I was crafting and I got devastated by some of the dialogue in it. At one point, he’s talking about racism and Black people, about people not having hope, but being the hope that they needed. I was like “ouuuhf.” Just devastated at that. Then there was another quote: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” And I was like “bet!” There’s nothing like me that I knew of out in the world, and I am so proud of embodying the things that I wanted when I was young.

M: Fuck yeah.

R: I had nothing like what I am now to look up to, unless I mash it together from fuckin’ before memes were memes. I make all my own clothes for the most part, I love playing with makeup, and I love dying my hair whatever fuck colour I want. Recently, I was thinking about the things I used to draw and want and long for when I was young, and I am those fucking things now. I get to embody this and embody these aesthetics that I loved and do it better. That’s super valuable to me.

M: That’s so encouraging. I’m emotional a little bit.


Okay, last question. How would you define taking up space versus making space, and how do you think you’re doing that creatively? And maybe we should throw in the notion of holding space, too.

R: They’re all things that I super overthink and navigate a lot, but also at times don’t even think about. I try to queer and Indigenize every space I’m in by just being my authentic self, and by making sure that people know if a  space is safe if you’re queer, if you’re Indigenous, if you’re femme, and if it’s not, I’ll make it that way. Or I’ll let you know that it’s not safe, and it’s not changing, which sadly means that I don’t get the jobs that I want. I refuse to validate other people and institutions that aren’t safe for queer, Indigenous, femme folk, because that’s what my presence does. Wherever I am, I’m giving that place my validation.

M: That’s beautiful, Raven. When you talked about how we’re doing all the work – my hope for this issue has been for the Indigenous people reading it to be able to find one another, to see people doing their own work and that it’s all contributing to our vibrancy and creating safer spaces for us to be whole. I wanted to show Indigenous youth especially that there are Native people to look up to, and to learn how to create these spaces for themselves – I think you’re a wonderful inspiration for that, Raven.