Ímesh (To Walk): The “app”lication of Indigenous art and landscapes at Simon Fraser University

Bryan Myles, Bill Reid Centre at Simon Fraser University, Canada


In 2016, The Bill Reid Centre at Simon Fraser University, along with SFU’s New Media Lab, launched the first tour of a mobile app titled Ímesh (To Walk). When finalized, the app will present three walking tours around SFU’s Burnaby Mountain Campus that focus on Indigenous content. Along with presenting various place names in the languages of the local Tsleil Waututh and Squamish Nations, the app locates Indigenous artworks on Burnaby campus and signals their connection to the unique and diverse worlds that shape them. This paper presents a narrative account of the theory, circumstances, and the scholarship that guided the app project to this point, and presents examples of how the app seeks to decolonize art and landscape in the context of SFU Burnaby. However, its primary focus is the theoretical argument that giving authority to Indigenous perspectives regarding land and art can disrupt the dominant paradigm of settler society, and bring about understanding and respect by requiring the inquirer to be open to different realities.

Keywords: mobile app, decolonization, Indigenous, art, landscape, multiple ontologies, walking tour, Canada, installation, British Columbia, Tsleil Waututh, Squamish, First Nation, Simon Fraser University,

I would like to begin by acknowledging the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlil̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) First Nations, on whose traditional territories we are gathered today. This is an often-heard phrase at public events in the metro-Vancouver area, and one that varies slightly depending on the physical location of the speaker. It is very likely that these acknowledgements are most frequently heard on the region’s university campuses, where dozens of speakers address audiences each day. Unfortunately, it is in these same contexts that the formulaic repetition of this phrase runs the risk of diluting an important message intended to show recognition and respect for Indigenous peoples (Vowel, 2016). This territorial acknowledgment, and more specifically, the lack of context and meaning that often accompanies its didactic repetition, is the jumping off point for a mobile app project.

This paper recounts the app project currently under development by the Bill Reid Centre for Northwest Coast Studies at SFU, and SFU’s New Media Lab. The app is titled Ímesh, meaning “to walk” in the Squamish language, and is intended to decolonize art and landscape at SFU’s Burnaby Mountain campus while providing an embodied understanding of what it means to say “we are gathered here on unceded territories.” However, prior to this discussion, and in accordance with Indigenous protocols, it is first necessary to situate the author in relation to what follows.

I am a fourth-generation settler in Canada, and am of Scottish and German descent. My paternal great grandparents, the side through which I trace my lineage, were sodbusters who immigrated to Saskatchewan from Scotland. They, my grandparents, and now my father, continues to raise crops and cattle on the family farm in southern Saskatchewan. My generation consists of the first urban dwelling and university educated members of my family in North America. The prairie landscape, weather, and people, are an important aspect of who I am, and a prominent part of my identity. I come to the topic I’ll be discussing today through an interest in human diversity, a concern for social justice, and a great number of largely unrelated circumstances. I am informed by the Western academic tradition of cultural anthropology, and all the baggage that discipline carries with it (see Battiste & Henderson, 2000, 31-4). Conversely, I am informed by the Western academic tradition of cultural anthropology, which is uniquely self-reflexive, and progressive in its ability to challenge the academy’s Euro-American understandings of knowledge and pedagogy. I work at Simon Fraser University (SFU) as the Interim Director of the Bill Reid Centre (BRC) for Northwest Coast Studies. The Centre is located within the Department of First Nations Studies and focuses on visual and material culture produced at the intersection of Northwest Coast First Nations and settler society. I am also a Ph.D. student studying these same material and visual expressions. I do not have Indigenous ancestry, but I consider myself an ally of Indigenous people. My work and my studies are guided by the same principals as the Bill Reid Centre, and that is to work with First Peoples to further understanding and respect for their diverse cultures, both in the past and in the present.

I am hopeful that those reading this paper are unfamiliar with this narrative-style of writing in an academic context, and that it has disrupted a sense of what might be considered “normal” or “traditional.” It is this disruption, unfamiliarity, or sense that it doesn’t quite fit here, that I am trying to draw attention to throughout this paper. My introduction has drawn on Indigenous protocols, and by doing so I am gesturing toward ways of knowing and being in the world that differ from the objective, reductionist, and conclusive style of writing frequently encountered in academia. In accordance with these protocols, I relate these aspects about myself to contextualize my knowledge so that my audience can make connections on political, cultural, and social grounds (Kovach, 2010; Martin, 2003; Sundberg, 2014).

Creating tension between ontologies

Now, whether the introduction I’ve written above has been an effective heuristic device or not, those in attendance at Museums and the Web 2018 have had the chance to witness local First Nations protocols of welcome and introduction. These protocols, and the words, actions, and songs of our Coast Salish hosts are informed by ways of knowing and being in the world that are not continuous with or subordinate to that of settler society (Martin, 2003; Linda Tuhiwai Smith, 2012). It has become common place to refer to the understandings that inform such practices as worldviews (Hart, 2010) or ways of knowing (Grayshield, 2010; Martin, 2003), and in current debates within anthropology, as different ontologies or worlds altogether (Henare et al., 2007; Paleček & Risjord, 2013). It was this notion, that there are a diversity of realities, or, “multiple ontologies” (Boast et al., 2007; Srinivasan et al., 2010), that informed the creation of the Ímesh mobile app. Much like reading or witnessing protocols of welcome and introduction that are foreign to us and disrupt our pre-perceptions, I suggest that creating access to Indigenous understandings of land and art can similarly disrupt the dominant paradigm of settler society, and bring about reflection, understanding, and respect that can be placed in the service of decolonizing the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

This paper attempts to relate some of the circumstances and the scholarship that have guided the Ímesh project to date, and share a few examples of how the app attempts to decolonize art and landscape at SFU. I want to be clear that I am not claiming to have experienced or to know the world of Indigenous people, nor am I claiming that it is possible for non-Indigenous people to do so. What Ímesh aims to do is create an embodied engagement with highly visible aspects of Indigenous culture on SFU’s Burnaby campus, and, by unpacking some of the meaning which has been supressed via Western mediations, make Indigenous perspectives and frameworks for understanding more visible. The work is heavily influenced by theoretical and applied scholarship in the fields of museum studies, anthropology, and science and technology studies, and in particular, by an article by Ramesh Srinivasan, Katherine Becvar, Robin Boast and Jim Enote titled “Diverse Knowledges and Contact Zones within the Digital Museum” (2010). Like the work of these authors, who document diverse cultural understandings at the site of the museum catalogue, the goal of the Ímesh project has been to relate diverse cultural understandings at the physical site where art and landscape are encountered. Like them, I hold that a consideration of multiple realities accepts the tension that lies between different interpretations and creates knowledge by exposing users to paradigms that are not their own (2010, 737).

Ímesh is primarily aimed at non-Indigenous users, and is intended to disrupt a settler perspective. However, the app is also intended for Indigenous users in the sense that it has a role to play in reshaping perspectives about education, which was once a tool of colonialism. For these users, I hope that the app can begin to frame the university as a place with the potential to reclaim languages, histories, and knowledge, and to find solutions to the negative impacts of colonialism by giving voice to alternative ways of knowing and being (L. T. Smith, 2005).

Figure 1: aerial shot of SFU Burnaby looking North. Photo courtesy SFU Creative Services

Contextualizing the Ímesh project

Simon Fraser University is located at the top of Burnaby Mountain, in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada. The location of the university is on the traditional territories of three Coast Salish First Nations: The xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlil̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh). These nations have had a spiritual, cultural, and economic connections to their lands and waters for thousands of years evidenced by the naming of places throughout their respective territories, and stories about the land passed down through generations.

As outlined in my introduction, it has become customary in urban progressive spaces in Canada for guests to acknowledge host nations and their territories (Vowel, 2016). Until recently, there has been little recognition of Indigenous contributions, perspectives, and interests on the Burnaby campus beyond these territorial acknowledgements. However, over the past few years there have been numerous Aboriginal initiatives and services established at the university. Of note is SFU’s Aboriginal Strategic Plan, which has articulated a vision for establishing a secure future at SFU for Aboriginal peoples (Simon Fraser Univeristy, n.d.). At the forefront of this 5-year plan is a section titled “Thoughts about ‘Indigenization’” and a quote from Elina Hill (2012) discussing Linda Tuhwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (2012). Hill writes the following:

[Indigenization] is a project with two dimensions. The first involves an intense awareness of Indigenous perspectives and interests, and an acknowledgment that such world views are not continuous with or subordinate to the world views of “settler society”…Indigenizing is one of many ways toward decolonization and toward improving Indigenous lives…decolonization is the primary goal. Sharing knowledge at the site of the university may be part of decolonizing processes, and the university can be a space where both settlers and Indigenous peoples learn to respect and even offer support for common goals.

At around the same time that SFU was articulating this vision, The BRC was being relocated to SFU’s Burnaby campus from downtown Vancouver where it shared space with the Bill Reid Gallery. The BRC, which had been established by Dr. George MacDonald in 2006 and mandated to explore the visual culture of Northwest Coast First Nations, saw it fitting to align itself with the universities thoughts on indigenization and decolonization.

Figure 2: Bill Reid’s Black Eagle canoe at SFU Burnaby. Photo by Bryan Myles














The first project that the BRC was involved with at SFU was the relocation of Bill Reid’s fifteen-meter Black Eagle canoe from VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver to the Burnaby Mountain campus. During the preliminary work to choose a location, Dr. MacDonald noted the increasing number of Northwest Coast artworks at the Burnaby campus and suggested the creation of an art walk using the traditional brochure format. As we continued our work to find an appropriate location for the canoe, to write an interpretive sign, and consult with our First Nations advisory group on hosting an u’tsam or witnessing ceremony, the art walk idea blossomed into something much larger.

Walking through the campus to locate prospective pieces, it became clear that no effort was being made to communicate information about the shared cultural knowledge that informed the Indigenous works, nor was there mention of what each piece was attempting to communicate. In addition, only a handful of the pieces were created by local artists on whose traditional territory SFU is located. Through these observations, it became clear that an acknowledgment of Coast Salish territories would be a necessary part of the art walk, both out of respect for local First Nations, but also to educate the audience about the provenance of works and the diversity of First Nations culture. As the sole employee of the Bill Reid Centre after Dr. MacDonald’s retirement in 2014, I decided to undertake the project on my own, and quickly realized that a hard-copy pamphlet was limiting in several respects.

Due to its geolocation features, and the ability to communicate information via multiple media formats, I quickly identified mobile technology as the most fitting platform for the walks. Conveniently, the technology enhanced the opportunity for an embodied engagement with the art, and would produce an experiential rather than didactic territorial acknowledgement (Denham et al., 2012).

Notes on methodology

Ímesh has benefited from numerous conversations, suggestions, and insights from people inside and outside the project. However, as I am the one permanent fixture at the BRC, and originator of the project, I am thoroughly enmeshed in it like no other. The project was conceived and initiated prior to my choice to undertake graduate studies at SFU in 2015, and thus has shaped and been shaped by this transition. Ímesh has grown with me, and I with it, and this is yet another reason why I’ve chosen to write this paper in the style of a first-person narrative. The narrative style allows me to present the project as a situated and unfolding series of events that acknowledges the presence of the author. This method asserts that because all learners build knowledge on their own experience, a level of subjectivity is to be expected, and in this case it’s embraced (Creswell, 2013; West, 2012). The method for creating the app, which was strongly influenced by a restrictive budget, was a subjective undertaking, and relied on personal relationships that developed in the years prior to the project and which have strengthened while it unfolded. These relationships engendered collaborations which ultimately led to the platform being donated to the project, and the participation of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and səlil̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ (Tsleil Waututh) consultants.

Before Ímesh began in earnest, an initial environmental scan was conducted to locate similar projects and gauge their approach. There were surprisingly few site-specific projects based in Canada that focused on Indigenous land and art simultaneously (University of Toronto, 2017). Numerous apps from Australia that focus on Aboriginal content were also located (Creative Spirits, n.d.). All the apps surveyed, both in Canada and abroad, tend to fall into four categories: culture, storytelling, language, and museum collections. Seldom were these topics mixed within any one app that I reviewed. Additionally, the apps surveyed were primarily aimed toward school aged children and tourists. None of the apps reviewed prior to or during the project were created to explore the context of a university, and although implicit in many of the apps, none of them made explicit note of decolonizing or indigenizing intentions.

Of most interest in the survey was that the University of British Columbia (UBC) has initiated a similar, but much more robust digital mapping project in collaboration with the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) First Nation called Knowing the Land Beneath our Feet (KLBF). This project uses digital mapping to “make familiar UBC spaces unfamiliar…by reaffirming the living Indigenous and Musqueam cultures, histories, and relations on the Point Grey Campus” (University of British Columbia, n.d.). The UBC project is not currently available to the public, but is site-specific to the UBC campus,/xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) territory, and to my knowledge, does not deal with Indigenous art located throughout that campus. Comparatively, the UBC project appears to include as many sites and locations as can be identified, and seeks to collaboratively record a depth of knowledge that Ímesh does not. Ímesh, on the other hand, is a cursory introduction to the Indigenous cultures who have produced art at SFU, to Burnaby Mountain itself, and to places seen from the mountain-top that have had their Indigenous names silenced through the impositions of settler society. The brief and introductory approach of Ímesh is intended to foster social and political impacts by making it easier for users to retain and redeploy information. The redeployment of Coast Salish place names back on to the landscape can be viewed as a form of repatriation that reclaims space and knowledge rather than physical objects (Hogsden & Poulter, 2012; Kramer, 2004).

Figure 3: app preview. Image courtesy SFU New Media Lab

Ímesh (To Walk)

Ímesh is freely available for the iPhone and currently consists of the Indigenous Art Walk, with two additional walks under development. The following presents a brief description of each of these walks, and provides additional details on the methods employed for creating the main features of the app: the Indigenous Art Walk, and the Coast Salish Place Names.

Coast Salish Place Names uses geolocation to alert users to various mountaintop vistas from which they can view the lands and waters of the local Coast Salish peoples. In these locations, users are presented with still images of the location and the various practices (both historical and contemporary) associated with that place. The imagery is presented in addition to three-hundred word descriptions of why the location is significant to local First Nations. Users will also be presented with an audio file to hear how the place name is pronounced in one of two local dialects, all the while seeing the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) spelling on their screen. This walk is being developed in consultation with Dr. Rudy Reimer or Yumks, a Sḵwx̱wú7mesh archaeologist and SFU Faculty member, and in consultation with Mr. Gabriel George, a prominent community leader and Manager of Language and Culture at səlil̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ Nation.

The process for selecting, describing, and approving the Coast Salish place names occurred organically and informally. I contacted Dr. Rudy Reimer with the concept for the app; he then put me in touch with Mr. George; and the two of them suggested three place names used by their respective Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and səlil̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ communities. The specific places were chosen due to those places already being public knowledge, and describing them did not entail sharing esoteric or sensitive information. I then undertook my own series of walks to locate the best places on Burnaby Mountain to view these places. Research assistants were hired to help with research, writing, and photographing the locations. The write-ups with associated images where then reviewed and approved by Dr. Reimer and Mr. George, who suggested edits where they saw fit. Both Dr. Reimer and Mr. George briefed and sought the necessary approvals from their respective communities for the project.

During various scouting excursions around Burnaby Mountain, at times alone and at others with a photographer, but always with a camera, we photographed the specific points on the landscape at various seasons and at various tide levels. We also conducted several Web and archival image searches to illustrate activities associated with each locations. A powerful tool used in the erasure of First People in the national consciousness has been to speak of them as if they only existed in the past. Therefore, a guiding principle at this stage was to pay strong attention to the contemporary and use present tense in the descriptions.

The Indigenous Art Walk currently provides a walking tour of SFU’s Burnaby campus and adjacent Burnaby Mountain Park. This walk takes users to various pieces of Indigenous art and presents information about the context, meaning, and knowledge that informed each piece. Similarly, this walk employs multiple media formats to introduce and contextualize the artworks. The premise for the art walk is the idea that these art objects are carriers of different types of knowledge that emerge from specific contexts. As with the place names, information presented on each piece attempts to make these knowledge systems more visible. This walk also utilizes geolocation to guide users to the locations of each work. The information presented in the art walk was gathered primarily through library and internet sources, and incorporates direct quotes and/or video clips from the artists where available.

To create the art walk, I first conducted a series of walks around campus, photographing clearly identifiable and publicly accessible Indigenous artworks. I then conducted preliminary library and Web based research on the artists and the pieces, and reached out to the artists to learn more about the themes they were exploring. Unfortunately, and despite expressing interest in the project, none of the artists I contacted could participate directly. I then returned to library and Web sources to broaden the research to the cultures represented by the pieces. This round of research and writing focused on information and quotes from the artists themselves, or from sources produced by their communities or created in collaboration with their community. This was done to ensure that the information came from a source that the artists or their nation had already approved, and did not attempt to speak for, but with the nation represented. Links to these sources and additional reading are also available in the app.

Finally, the Indigenous Initiatives section of the app is closely modeled on an initiative taken by SFU’s First Nations Student Association (FNSA) (http://www.sfu.ca/olc/indigenous). This walk is meant to provide users with a consolidated list of services and initiatives oriented towards Indigenous students on the Burnaby campus. It also uses geolocation, images, and summary information regarding the purpose of each office or service. Users are connected to Aboriginal oriented news items, events, and extensive academic, cultural, and personal support service networks.

Exploring Coast Salish place names

SFU’s Burnaby campus and the City of Burnaby’s Burnaby Mountain Park are located at the top of Burnaby Mountain. The mountain, along with Burnaby lake, Burnaby the municipality, a street in Vancouver, a mountain range in McKenzie Sound, and an Island in Haida Gwaii, take their names from Robert Burnaby, a legislator, freemason, explorer, and personal secretary to Colonel Richard Moody, who was the first land commissioner for the Colony of British Columbia (City of Burnaby, n.d.). Various locations on the mountaintop offer stunning views of locations with settler place names such as Mt. Seymour, Grouse Mountain, North Vancouver, Burrard Inlet, the Georgia Straight, and metro Vancouver. Nowhere in Burnaby Mountain Park, and only just recently on Burnaby campus, where in 2017 SFU commissioned a Coast Salish welcome figure, is there mention of a past or present Indigenous presence. One interpretive site in Burnay Mountain Park recounts the geological formation of Burnaby Mountain and the North shore mountains, which places knowledge of the landscape squarely within the authority of Western scientific traditions, and removes any notion of a landscape marked by humans or shaped by alternate forces. The only thing that comes close to an acknowledgement of an Indigenous presence is a large wooden sculpture by Ainu artists indigenous to Japan: Naburi and Shusei Toko. This large sculpture, titled Playground of the Gods, is directly inspired by Bill Reid and the totem pole traditions of northern Northwest Coast First Nations (Dubreuil, 2004). The location of the Ainu sculpture, while giving no mention of the Coast Salish or their territory, is reminiscent of the placing of distant Kwakwaka’wakw totem poles in Stanley Park at the turn of the 20th century. These actions contributed to the erasure of local Salish peoples and their claims to Stanley Park and other parts of the city (Hawker, 2003). Ironically, visitors to the Ainu sculpture at Burnaby Mountain Park learn not of the artistic influence of Northwest Coast First Nations, but that Burnaby and Koshiro Japan are “sister” cities, and that the Ainu are aboriginal people who inhabit the northern island of Hokkaido.

Figure 4: Kamui Mintara (Playground of the Gods). Photo by Bryan Myles

































From the top of Burnaby Mountain, many see a coastal habitat threatened by pipeline expansion, or the margin where a large urban area meets dense forest and steep mountains. Surely, what draws tourists and locals to this location are the views of the land, the sea, and Vancouver sprawling across what can only be perceived as a previously empty landscape. The European names, applied during Capt. George Vancouver’s “discovery” of the region, or recalling prominent settlers thereafter, serve to reinforce the myth of terra nullius, and erase occupation and use by Indigenous people. However, when taking a walk around the campus and Burnaby Mountain Park with Dr. Rudy Reimer, the significance of a name, along with an entirely different landscape, is revealed. It is this knowledge that the place name walk attempts to communicate.

The following is an example taken from the six Coast Salish place names presented in the mobile app:

Figure 5: Lhukw’lhukw’ayten (Burnaby Mountain). Photo by Bryan Myles



Lhuḵw’lhuḵw’áyten, “where the bark gets pe[e]led’ in spring” is the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) place name for the area that was formerly Barnet Mill, and today is known as Barnet Marine Park at the northern base of Burnaby Mountain. In modern usage this name is used to refer to all of Burnaby Mountain. The name Lhuḵw’lhuḵw’áyten derives from the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh word for arbutus, lhulhuḵw’ay, which comes from lhuḵw’ (peel), and means “always peeling tree.” For generations, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people have seasonally harvested this tree’s bark, using it for different cultural purposes: it provides important medicine; it can be made into a ‘tea,’ which is used as an eyewash; and, the leaves can be chewed to treat colds and tuberculosis. Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people also harvested cedar bark on Burnaby Mountain. Used for spiritual and utilitarian purposes, cedar is one of the most culturally important trees. Bark-peeling remains an important practice that continues today throughout Sḵwx̱wú7mesh lands. In the spring, when the tree sap is running, strips of cedar bark are carefully peeled from the trunk in a way that does not damage the tree. Uses of the bark have included basketry, mats, clothing, and rope. In the past, newborn babies were also wrapped and diapered in the softer inner bark. (The Bill Reid Centre, 2016)

In sharp contrast to the settler names for this place, the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh name is symbolic of the ideas and attitudes people bring to their relationship to the land. As it comes from an oral society, the name is a mnemonic device that carries history, traditional environmental knowledge, and teachings (Joseph 2016; Thornton, 1997). The place name also embodies a sense of belonging to this place. The name tells of a coexistence with the natural environment, and attests to the longstanding relationship between people and place by anchoring the past to the present (Joseph, 2016).

Indigenous Art

Art is prevalent throughout the Burnaby Mountain campus. There are large sculptural pieces located outdoors; hundreds of two- and three-dimensional pieces within the public corridors; and untold hundreds more decorating the walls of offices, departments, and faculty units. Some of the largest and most highly visible pieces are those created by Indigenous artists, including the most iconic pieces that have come to stand as symbols of SFU. These highly visible and cherished pieces are displayed and considered within a Western art paradigm where art is individualistic, market driven, overly concerned with form, and valued almost entirely on its aesthetic merits (Assefa, 2015).

The Western system of classifying and representing art has its roots in the 16th century emergence of the artist as an autonomous creator (Phillips & Steiner, 1999). In this conception, the role of art is seen as overcoming the ordinary or mundane relations that humans have to the natural world. Therefore, within the realm of the aesthetic, the highest forms of art are those considered to be the freest of nature, or art for art’s sake. Lower forms of art are those considered to have a utilitarian purpose. Namely folk, or Indigenous art, which is generally considered as communal, functional, and holistically integrated into the daily lives of people (Assefa, 2015). This notion, that fine art is the free and unfettered creation by an individual genius, has remained relatively undisturbed since the late 18th century (Phillips & Steiner, 1999).

Framed within this paradigm, Indigenous artworks at SFU are lacking identity, meaningful description, and recognition of the shared cultural knowledge passed down through generations that inform their creation. Only a small handful of these works name the nation(s) from which the artists claim their heritage, and if the art is recognized as Indigenous by the viewer, the piece and the artist are at risk of being homogenized into a broad concept of Indigeneity (Phillips & Steiner, 1999). The artist as individual creative genius is evoked via the label associated with each piece. These labels name the work, the artist, credit the patron or the owner of the collection, and nothing more. This is not to say that the artist is not a creative genius, or that patrons don’t deserve credit or acknowledgment, but that there is a reality silenced through this representation that is not currently accessible. Based on some of my own experiences, I would suggest that each Indigenous artist would first and foremost acknowledge that their creations are not just individual works, but draw from a shared cultural knowledge that they are permitted to use due to their genealogy (Ki-Ke-In, 2013). For example, I once asked James Hart, a Haida artist, where the idea for one of his monumental sculptures came from. He replied that “it started about 5000 years ago,” implying that his work was a continuation or progression of the work of his ancestors. This is a much different understanding than notions of private intellectual property that most Western and non-traditional artists would claim for their pieces (Sewid-Smith, 2013).

The example from the art walk below shows how each work on the walk is the visual embodiment of a way of knowing unique to the people who created it.

Figure 6: dedication of Frog Constellation. Photo by Greg Ehlers

James Hart’s Frog Constellation

Frog Constellation is James Hart’s tribute to a small shamanic piece collected on the Northwest Coast in the mid 19th Century. As he explains, “The frog is quite powerful in our [Haida] thinking. It’s one of the creatures that can go in two worlds, in the water and in the upper world, our world. . . The frog is one of my family crests.” Shamans were very important figures in Northwest Coast society. It was their job to cure the sick and ensure that runs of salmon and other game were plentiful. Shamans held the power to affect these things because of their ability to travel to, and communicate with, the spirit world. Frogs are considered the primary spirit helpers of the shaman because of their ability to move between worlds. Frogs are also a symbol of good luck, prosperity, and healing, and are known as great communicators. Their songs are believed to contain divine power and magic. Hart explains that this particular piece depicts an old Haida love story: “The frog king took a young man’s lady, and he couldn’t find her . . . An old gentleman told him where to look, so he dug in the ground there and frogs came out; millions of frogs came out. The last one was the frog king, with the young lady on his back, and so the young man’s love was returned to him.” (The Bill Reid Centre, 2016)

This example, along with the 12 other art venues, relate a number of previously unavailable aspects regarding each piece. Common to all of them is that land is integral to an Indigenous worldview, but not just in the sense of the physical earth we walk on. In the context of these pieces, land is a much larger and complex concept, and is better understood as a metaphor for the entire universe and what extends beyond it. All the works encountered in this tour are alive with embedded metaphors, historical clues, and indirect references that present unique versions of the universe and what lies beyond.

Giving authority to Indigenous understandings

Overall, the app communicates cultural knowledge in the form of stories, place-based knowledge, histories, land use, traditional practices, relationships between humans and non-humans, and ways of life that are unique to specific people and places. These details are integral to understanding the diversity and uniqueness of Indigenous cultures, and gives authority to ways of knowing, which in most cases, will be different from that of the app user.

It is important to note the effort to give authority to the indigenous understandings in the mobile app project. This paper has made attempts to define and contrast those understandings with a Western art paradigm, and similarly recounted how colonial place names have served to erase Indigenous people and their claims to territory. Ímesh takes as its starting point the incommensurability of knowledge systems, and thus, does not present these comparisons. This gives centrality and authority to the Indigenous paradigms, and allows for independent reflection on the part of the app user. This strategy leaves comparisons solely in the purview of the app user, which is an important exercise in itself as it positions learning parallel to an Indigenous pedagogy, which values independent learning through observation, listening, and reflection (M. Battiste, 2002).

The focus of this project has been to capture incommensurability, and create tension between different interpretations and understandings (Srinivasan et al., 2010), and not to define, equate, or compare what Indigenous knowledge is and is not—and this is certainly not my place as a settler ally. Following a suggestion encountered in Marie Battiste and Sakej Henderson’s Protecting Indigenous Knowledge and Heritage (2000), the app strives to highlight the process of understanding, not the creation of definitions and comparisons. The information has been presented in such a way as to ask the inquirer to be open to accepting different realties, not for them to gain experience of them, or claim knowledge or authority over them, as comparable Western ways of knowing almost certainly engender (Henare et al., 2007).

Results and conclusions

At this stage, it has been difficult to fully understand what the impact of the app has been. In fact, this forum is one of the first public appearances of the app apart from a small promotional video done by SFU Creative Services (goo.gl/uwZ26b). I have heard many great things from SFU instructors, Indigenous, and Métis students, and generally receive support and encouragement when I discuss the project. Unfortunately, there has been next to no feedback via the App store, and no other metrics were included to record user responses. It seems important to reiterate that the project was intended as a digital version of an art walk pamphlet that could decolonize art and landscape, not as a research project with a predetermined methodology for recording user data. Arguably, it is still early in the game as two of the three tours have yet to launch, and broad promotion of the project is being held off until completion. Anecdotal evidence generated in my own conversations suggests that a clear majority of the target audience is unable to access the app due to it only being available on the iPhone. An Android build is currently being added to the budget and will be underway once the iOS version is complete.

I have increasingly come to see this work as a first phase or template for something more collaborative and more detailed, and which would have a higher use value for the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and səlil̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ, but also for the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, and the kʷikʷəƛw̓əm (Kwikwetlem) First Nations who also share the territory. In subsequent phases, I would like to be able to fully collaborate with these communities, conduct stakeholder meetings and assessments, and receive user feedback. These are all activities that were not feasible due to the circumstances of the planning and execution of this originating project.

This mobile app is, of course, partial, and can only ever be a brief introduction to the divers and complex ontological worlds it references. However, it only asks that one accept that these worlds exist. Throughout this paper, my goal has been to illustrate how we begin to decolonize through different understandings of art and landscape. Ímesh attempts to do this by freeing these pieces and places from colonizing mediations and re-contextualizing them within Indigenous ways of knowing and being. I have not only argued that the app creates a healthy tension between Indigenous and non-Indigenous ways of knowing, but have tried to perform this tension for the reader, by drawing on Indigenous protocols of introduction, relating examples form the app, and by writing in an unfamiliar style. Such disruptions force one to reflect on their pre-conceptions and open a space for understanding and respect. Thus, by creating access to Indigenous ways of knowing, and giving authority to them, Ímesh facilitates understanding and respect by requiring app users to be open to accepting these different realities.


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Cite as:
Myles, Bryan. "Ímesh (To Walk): The “app”lication of Indigenous art and landscapes at Simon Fraser University." MW18: MW 2018. Published January 15, 2018. Consulted .