Owisokon Lahache, an Iroquois visual artist and educator based in Kahnawake, cannot remember “a time of ever not creating something.”
That innate creativity has led Owisokon to express herself and her culture in many different art forms throughout her life, from painting, pottery, and sculpture to digital media and design.
In 2021, the McGill School of Continuing Studies commissioned Owisokon to produce two artworks that bring more Indigenous symbols and representation into the school’s virtual and physical spaces. The paintings were produced in line with the newly formalized Indigenous Relations Initiative (IRI) and its five-year strategic plan.
Owisokon recently spoke with Dr. Carmen Sicilia, Associate Professor and Director of the IRI, about the paintings, the importance of representing and respecting Indigenous cultures, and lifelong learning.
How Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities can navigate their paths
The first painting Owisokon mentions, entitled Navigating Our Paths, depicts numerous boats, ships, and canoes sailing off the coast of Turtle Island. It represents both the first arrival of Europeans on Turtle Island and the subsequent relationships between Indigenous Peoples and settlers. Among the European vessels, one can see the Santa María (a Spanish ship used during Christopher Columbus’s voyage across the Atlantic), followed by British, French, and Dutch ships. Toward the bottom of the painting, canoes and boats of many different Indigenous nations can be seen.
According to Owisokon, the painting was given the name because “we are still on that road working together side by side but not crossing each other’s paths.”
The deeper meaning of the painting can be understood through the subtle shading of the sky and the waters.
“You see the two rows of darker waters, those are representing the paths of our nations—how we do our governance, how we work together or independently of each other,” Owisokon explains. “So, when the Dutch came, we said: ‘Well, we need to have some kind of treaty.’”
This resulted in an agreement between the Iroquois and European newcomers (at first, the Dutch), which was symbolized by the Two-Row Wampum Belt. The belt is made from two rows of purple wampum on a white background, representing a canoe and a European ship. Owisokon says the agreement “made it very clear: these are your rules, your laws, your methods of doing things. We have our own.”
Meanwhile, the sky and two lighter rows of water represent peace, power, and righteousness. Explaining righteousness, Owisokon says: “It’s making sure the laws that we have and the agreements that we have—not only with our own people but with other people as well—are adhered to.” She adds that Indigenous Peoples have always adhered to these agreements, even in the face of the “unconscionable” residential school system.
Owisokon says she would like non-Indigenous people who see her painting to be inspired “to try to make things right” and “to work with us in a very respectful way and to acknowledge some of the things that have happened.”
Celebrating the diversity of Turtle Island’s many Indigenous communities
Owisokon’s second painting is called Dancing Across Turtle Island. The work captures women, men, and children in the traditional clothing of various Indigenous communities. The traditional clothing represents diversity.
“It’s basically talking about how there are so many different nations that are living on Turtle Island,” she says.
Among the communities represented by the men, women, and children in the painting are Innu, Iroquois, Lakota, Métis, Mi’kmaq, Plains Cree, and Tlingit.
For Owisokon, Dancing Across Turtle Island is both a celebration of diversity of Indigenous Peoples on Turtle Island and a statement on the importance of passing down knowledge to the next generation.
The importance of lifelong learning
Alongside her creative career, Owisokon taught art for over three decades in the local high school in Kahnawake. She also taught at the McGill Office of First Nations and Inuit Education (OFNIE) and worked as a mentor at Concordia University’s Obx Labs, a laboratory for experimental media. As such, lifelong learning is something dear to her.
Much of the traditional knowledge she learned as a girl from the older women in her community remains relevant today, especially when it comes to the environment.
“I have plants in my garden that are still flowering, which is highly irregular for this time of the year,” she says, adding that this is just one of the visible “signals” of climate change that she learned as a child.
In relation to lifelong learning, Owisokon believes in the importance of passing down traditional knowledge about protecting the planet and avoiding pollution to the next generation.
Today, Owisokon is learning her parents’ native language, Kanien’kéha, which they were forbidden to speak in their youth.
“I don’t speak [the Mohawk language]. I am a result of the residential school thing,” she says. “So, I am learning. It is taking me a lifetime, and I still by no means am a speaker even.”
However, she made sure that her children learned Kanien’kéha at school. Today, her grandchildren are also learning the language.
The importance of lifelong learning is particularly evident in Dancing Across Turtle Island, she says.
“[The painting] is showing that the diverse peoples across Turtle Island are coming together, being lifelong learners, ensuring that their future—the children carrying information from the Elders and getting that higher education—is going to help them on their journey on Turtle Island,” she says.