In conversation with Michelle Sylliboy – poet and photographer

Michelle Sylliboy is a Mi’kmaq interdisciplinary artist who is contributing photography and poetry to Weaving Reconciliation: Our Way.

Born in Boston, Massachusettsand raised on unceded territory in We’koqmaq Cape Breton, Michelle spent twenty-seven years living and working on unceded Coast Salish territory. Currently Michelle is working on her Philosophy of Education Doctorate Degree fieldwork where she will combine her artistic background and education by creating a Mi’kmaq Komqwejwi’kasikl (Hieroglyphic) curriculum with Mi’kmaq teachers and elders.

Michelle’s poem “The Art of Reconciliation” has woven its way into the various artistic threads making up Weaving Reconciliation: Our Way.

The poem was originally written for The Art of Reconciliation, a storytelling event organized in collaboration with Renae Morriseau (director of Weaving Reconciliation: Our Way). The event brought together local Vancouver Artists to respond to the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Process by asking the tough question: What does reconciliation mean to you as an artist? “I felt anxiety around the subject of reconciliation because – who am I reconciling with? Why is the government and chiefs forcing us to do reconciliation – who are we reconciling with?” asked Michelle. “I never had a chance to reconcile with my parents because of residential school. As a child of a survivor, that question is hard to answer.”

“We all wrote something for that evening just to respond,” she said. Reinforcing the challenges within that question Michelle stated, “I’m not sure who you want me to reconcile with on a grand scale, let alone on a personal scale. The meaning behind it is quite layered.”

The poem was featured in The Capilano Review along with multiple layers of images of water (photographs taken by Michelle), overlaid with Mi’kmaq words.

“We’re constantly fighting with the government for our resources, so water was something I wanted to acknowledge,” she said.

“The words in the Mi’kmaq language represent what I’ve lost, and I suppose I don’t feel ready to tell people – because it’s a lifetime. It took me a long time to figure out what happened to my family and why I grew up the way I did. I lost everything. There were so many things that happened to me that it’s hard to describe and it’s very painful to tell people.”

Michelle said she was asked to translate the words but declined. “I said no. You don’t have a right to know what I went through. And if you feel left out of the translation and if you feel frustrated that you don’t understand, then that’s good. I wanted people to know what it’s like to be left out of the conversation. So that’s layered as well.”

Some of Michelle’s photography is being incorporated into the projection design of Weaving Reconciliation: Our Way. “I was happy that Renae wanted to use that as part of the background and just allow the audience to think on different levels.”

Director Renae Morriseau wanted “Moving visuals that engage the emotional reality of the story.”

“When you look at the imagery across Canada and what indigenous people have lost – their land, their ceremony, their ability to even protect. Everyone is being arrested for protecting the environment. And that’s our role – the Creator put us on the world to protect the environment. This supersedes all law,” said Michelle.

Knowing that the show would be touring to different territories, Michelle and Renae chose to include images from across the country. “It was a way to claim space and acknowledge the sacredness of Mother Nature and the territories where the play will be entering. Each territory that you enter you need to acknowledge.”

Near the end of our interview, Michelle admitted that parts of the show were related closely to her own family’s experiences. She chuckled about the dangers of being friends with a writer, while at the same time expressing feeling honoured at her experience being included in this way by long-time collaborator and co-writer of the show, Renae. “My father died in November, and we never got to reconcile with him about our relationship.”

Michelle has recently signed with Tradewind Books to publish her first book of poetry. “I said I’ll write for youth, and it has to be in the Mi’kmaq language- so that’s my latest endeavour. It’s a lot of work.”

“I’m busy with my PhD,” Michelle said. “It brought me home and that’s a good thing. I’m learning more and more about the language from my elders. I can even talk to the dog in Mi’kmaq.” Though she admits, “It’s hard to go back and forth between languages.”

Michelle’s work can be found at Chapter’s in the latest issue of First American Art Magazine.

“[In the article] I talk about my creative process. They published my first Mi’kmaq hieroglyphic poem. The first one I wrote was about Standing Rock,” she says. “The one in this magazine is about not having the ability to communicate until it’s too late.”

More on Michelle Sylliboy and her work can be found on her website and blog

I am grateful for the time Michelle took to speak with me. She was interviewed over the phone while under a starry night sky in Cape Breton after a snow storm that delivered about 25cm of snow on unceded We’koqmaq territory. On the other line I listened from a rainy downtown eastside, with the last rays of sun passing into evening on unceded Coast Salish territories.

– posted by Julia Siedlanowska

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