Jeneen Frei Njootli is one of the co-founders of ReMatriate, a social media-based photography campaign which seeks to challenge the cultural appropriation and stereotypes Indigenous women have undergone in the western media and advocates for ethical, sovereign representations in their place. The project creates a space for Indigenous women to submit photos of themselves as they see themselves and want to be seen, reclaiming power over their own images.
Lorraine Netro is an Indigenous elder and activist for her people, women’s rights and environmental issues in the North. The News has spoken to her previously about the Porcupine caribou, a subject about which she has been an outspoken educator, raising awareness about the importance of the caribou calving grounds, presently threatened by the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil exploration and drilling by an American bill signed into law Dec. 22.
Frei Njootli has organized the first ever ReMatriate showing to honour Netro and her work, and to showcase some of the women and their unique perspectives and ideas from the social media project.
Both women are from the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. They are generations apart. Netro is dressed conservatively in a loose-fitting sweater, wears her wavy black hair loose, beaded feather-pattern earrings dangling from her ears. Frei Njootli wears a Volcom brand black hoodie and stylish boots, her hair shaved on the sides and bound up against her neck in a tight braid. Her own earrings are little glazed slices of a geode.
“What’s at stake is their (the Porcupine caribou) calving ground,” Frei Njootli says. “That’s their birthing ground, that’s a connection to motherhood, to that power…. I really wanted to focus on (Netro’s) work, for the caribou and for Indigenous women.”
“I feel I am constantly blown away by what you’ve achieved…. I feel such a deep admiration for your work for the caribou and our people,” Frei Njootli says, reaching across the table and putting her hand over top of Netro’s.
“I am so honoured by all these young women doing their work,” Netro replies, smiling and wiping at her eyes.
Frei Njootli and Netro tear up, even as they begin to laugh. The Vuntut Gwitchin consider their relationship with the Porcupine caribou to be sacred, and the subject is a deeply emotional one. Simultaneously, the women say they are both so happy to be there, to be doing the show, to be working together and honouring each other. This juxtaposition is at the heart of the show and the ReMatriate project, they say.
“So often the representation of Indigenous women in media is so negative,” says Angela Code, a co-founder of ReMatriate, citing the large number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls as an example. “It’s good to know the dark parts of our history, the tragedy … but there needs to be a balance.”
Code is also at the table with Frei Njootli and Netro. A Sayisi Dene woman, Code is originally from Tadoule Lake in Manitoba, but now lives and works in Whitehorse as a filmmaker and artist.
“One of the things I’m most proud of, being Indigenous, is the strength of our ancestors,” says Code. “No matter what shit they’ve gone through in their lives…. They always came through it. That’s where I find my pride, that’s what I see in ReMatriate.”
“We need a balance, there’s no questioning that,” says Netro.
Walking into the gallery, viewers will be greeted with a glossy photograph of Netro, dressed in traditional beadwork garments and looking calmly and proudly into the camera as part of the ReMatriate project. That beadwork, along with other pieces — including a pair of baby slippers fashioned from Porcupine caribou hide and white rabbit fur, beaded with large red flowers which Netro made for her granddaughter — will be on display as part of the show.
“This is something that we create, for our family, for our friends, for our relatives and friends…. It always has a deep, special meaning. It always has a story and that story and the pieces we create connect us to our ancestors,” Netro says.
“All Indigenous art is political,” Frei Njootli says. “For most Indigenous artists, just making their art is a political act.”
Netro nods along. The art of First Nations people, such as beadwork, has ancient and spiritual values embedded deep within it, she says.
“The thread (in beadwork) connects us to our ancestors and ties us to where we come from and is created in everything we do.”
Alongside these pieces, phrases such as “I am a proud auntie” and “I am a warrior” have have been written on the walls, quotes taken directly from other Indigenous women participating in the project reflecting how they see themselves. First Nations women from all over North American have participated in the project, Frei Njootli says.
“This project creates a positive space for the representation of Indigenous women,” she says. “A place where they can see themselves reflected, a place where we can practice lateral kindness to each other.
“We (Indigenous women) deserve to have positive spaces where we can feel safe to acknowledge each other.”
This is ReMatriate’s first ever gallery showing, Frei Njootli says. While many of the project’s members come from British Columbia, when the project first began in 2014 the majority came from the North. She says that, because of this, it’s been a really beautiful and satisfying experience to do this premier showing in Whitehorse.
“I’m stoked,” she says with a laugh.
“It’s really exciting to see it come to fruition in the North.”
The show opens Friday, Jan. 5 with an open house from 5 – 7 p.m. with snacks, tea, and a talk by Netro at Arts Underground.
Contact Lori Fox at email@example.com