Opinion: The passive contributions of dehumanization

Written by Starlit Simon

“Ankweywitew, Matues” dress exhibited at the Saint John Art Centre as part of the group show “Wayfinding.”  Canvas, paint, porcupine quills, sinew, button snaps. 2022. Photo: Naomi Peters.

What Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) amplifies for me is the dehumanization of Indigenous people and that Indigenous women and girls are facing the deadly and horrific effects of that dehumanization.

Where does this dehumanization stem from?  Racism, 100%! But even the problematic ally with a saviour complex wearing the guise of well-intentioned for an ego stroke is as problematic in the dehumanization of Indigenous people. 

Tokenizing, pigeonholing, trauma porn – are all ways in which there is a lack of care for how the individual’s well-being is impacted. These microaggressions, disguised aggressions, or well-intended aggressions, also contribute to a collective dehumanization and a narrative that we are not as human. 

These may not be the direct causes but they’re the screws that secure and keep the well-oiled machine of institutionalized racism, control, and power running smoothly – remember there were people apart of the residential school systems who thought they were doing a good thing, they believed they were saving Indigenous children by giving them an “education” they were certain they would otherwise not receive. 

Throughout all historical atrocities of genocides and democides, you can find people who partook or worked for the system in some capacity who declare that their intentions had been good, and they reflect in horror at what they partook in and say things like “at the time, we thought we were doing a good thing.”

Keeping us as less than human keeps those with power and privilege comfortable. To ease the guilt and shame of that, Indigenous people are turned into a box that can be ticked through one or several actionable items. When the task(s) are completed, and the boxes are all ticked, the privileged can then remove themselves from the responsibility of what is actually required; an ongoing relationship that continuously gives voice, power, and autonomy to Indigenous people.

With this dress I’ve made, I hope to stir up enough discomfort in those whose bodies would be privileged if ever they were missing or murdered, to take action through ongoing listening, inclusion, nurturing, and embracing of Indigenous people as autonomous human beings.

“Ankweywitew, Matues,” front of the dress (detail). Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

I named this piece “Ankweywitew, Matues” which means in Mi’kmaw “he/she/they will look out for me, the porcupine.” The porcupine quills are the armour Indigenous women and girls must wear in order to exist and be safe in this world.

The heart on the chest is our mother earth’s heart that keeps beating for us and is where we all return and are finally safe in her embrace. 

“Ankweywitew, Matues,” front of the dress (detail). Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

The back of the dress looks like a set of wings for the MMIWG who’ve gone on to the next dimension, where I like to think there exists a playing field that is finally leveled.

“Ankweywitew, Matues,”  back.  Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

The oil spill is symbolic not only of how we must harvest our porcupine quills now – from roadkill  –  but is also representative of the oil rig man camps that have been identified as places where there are high rates of MMIWG.

“Ankweywitew, Matues,” front (detail). Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

The double curved motifs are emblematic of the beginning and the end of stories. The many Indigenous lives that began and ended abruptly in violence. The dress in its entirety is unwearable to symbolize the many who are still missing. 

MMIWG art creation, stories and poetry raise awareness that we are indeed human and valuable. They remind us in gentle and jarring ways to never stop looking, or advocating, and honouring. They scream that we have our own voices, and that we know what we need. They express that we are just as unique in our own individual personhood as we are as a nation with shared colonial trauma. They demand that the scales be tipped so that Indigenous women and girls’ only options upon being born into this world isn’t to be resilient, or die, but to live and to thrive.

To create this dress and to write this piece in a way that was mindful, patient, and reflective, I needed time, support and understanding, which artsnb offered me with generous funding through their Equinox grant program and through amazing open communication.  Wela’lioq / Thank You All. 

Starlit Simon is Mi’kmaw from Elsipogtog First Nation and a full-time PhD candidate at the University of New Brunswick in the Faculty of Education.  She has previously worked as a Mi’kmaw language instructor and as an academic advisor to Indigenous post-secondary students at UNB.  Starlit received her Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from UNB in 2006 and her Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from Saint Thomas University in 2012.  She then went on to receive her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Kings College in 2015. Her writing has been published in the National Geographic Traveler, Dawnland Voices, Dawnland Voices 2.0 and The Fiddlehead. 

She can often be found highway hunting for porcupine roadkill where she harvests the porcupine quills to create pieces of art that can be found on her website at www.starlitsimon.com as well as on her social media platforms on Facebook and Instagram as Mikmaq Matues. Simon has had her artwork on display at the Saint John Art Gallery and has been an award recipient twice with the artsnb Equinox Program.  She has also been selected for a 10-day artist residency in Kouchibouguac in the Spring of 2021.

Stay up to date with Starlit’s practice:

Facebook: @starlitsimon

Instagram: @starlit.ann.simon