A Conspiracy of Traveling Companions
Associate Professor of Geography Soren Larsen has a long history with the Cheslatta Carrier Nation in British Columbia. His involvement with the indigenous community began in 1998 while he was working on his master’s thesis at the University of Kansas. Larsen says he had wanted to find a thesis topic that built on the senior thesis project he did while he was an undergraduate, in which he interviewed elderly sharecroppers who had been displaced by flood-control dams constructed by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Larsen saw a post on the Internet from the Cheslatta Carrier Nation asking for assistance to oppose a dam the Aluminum Company of Canada wanted to erect on a river that sustained the Cheslatta community. Larsen was invited to visit and did his master’s thesis research—a mapping project, and says he was “hooked.” He did research for his dissertation on another trip, and made subsequent visits to the nation in 2006 and 2013. Two years later, the senior policy adviser for the Cheslatta, Mike Robertson, attended Canada Days at MU, and Larsen and Robertson conceived of the idea of doing a children’s book for the Cheslatta.
The Trip of a Lifetime
Maddie Davis, a junior majoring in photojournalism and French, took Larsen’s honors class on indigenous people in spring 2017.
“It was a writing-intensive course, and Soren really liked everything I turned in, and we got along well,” Davis says. “I was interested in the topics we were writing about, so he told me he was working on a children’s book and asked if I would be interested in helping. I said I would love to.”
Davis says her interest in indigenous peoples and cultures stems from the time her grandmother was a docent at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, which had a section on Native American art.
“Maddie did this project for the honors class where she was putting visual elements together with text. So when this idea for a children’s book came about, I instantly thought of her because of the relationship of how you work with visuals and text,” Larsen says. “I got her on board, and we decided we needed an artist, so I called the art department.”
Mike Robertson photographs Hayley Portell sketching a portrait of a Cheslatta elder.
Hayley Portell was taking Assistant Teaching Professor Mark Langeneckert’s anatomical drawing class when he mentioned Larsen’s project and offered to help interested students prepare their portfolios.
“I knew nothing about the Cheslatta, but I’ve done a couple of Mizzou Alternative Breaks trips with a focus on indigenous people,” Portell says. “I’ve gone to Bluff, Utah, on the edge of the Navajo reservation twice, first as a participant and then this past spring, I led the trip.”
Larsen, Davis, and Portell began working on the project in earnest this past spring and communicated regularly with Robertson.
“The elders were saying this book is what we need, but one elder in particular was telling us to slow down, don’t go so fast. That’s when I suggested we go up there,” Larsen says. “That idea resonated with Mike (Robertson) and Chief Corrina Leween and Council—we needed to meet the people, and we needed to see the places.” And so the book project became a kind of study abroad trip, and Larsen decided to take his 13-year old son, Eli, along for the ride.
With Open Arms
The timing of the trip was fortuitous. It lasted three weeks (two for Portell) and occurred during the Cheslatta Carrier Nation campout.
“That’s the perfect time, because everybody goes down to the lake, and they camp out for four days. We went down there and camped out, and that’s a great time to meet people,” Larsen says. “The thing that blew me away was how powerful art was in forging and forming relationships.” He says Eli also facilitated a lot of relationships just by being himself and wanting to fish.
“I didn’t know how to teach Eli to fish because I’ve hardly fished,” Larsen says. “There was this moment at the campout when I was sitting at the Council fire and I looked up, and there’s Eli with a two-and-a-half pound char (similar to trout), hanging it up on the scale, then cutting its head off and splitting it open, and I was thinking, ‘How did he learn how to do that?’ I mean, I can’t do that, so it was a really cool thing.”
Eli and Soren Larsen at the Cheslatta Carrier Nation.
Davis admits it was initially a bit odd “to be in a situation where you are far from everything that is familiar,” but she says the Cheslatta were welcoming and friendly.
“Of course they were a little wary of us because we’re from the outside, but they warmed up to us pretty quickly because we wanted to listen and learn from them. I also had my camera out, and they were interested in that,” Davis says. “It’s interesting how a visual medium like that can open up doors to different conversations and people. Before the trip, I was having trouble being happy with my work, but being up there made me even more interested in indigenous cultures and maybe gave me more direction for my career.”
Portell had a similar experience developing relationships through her plein air sketches.
“I’m still trying to reflect and process everything, but the main takeaway for me was being able to create these pieces for them and give those back,” Portell says. One of the elderly women Portell sketched during the trip died Aug. 5, after they had returned to Missouri. “To have been able to make that piece for her daughter before leaving is just really important to me, and also the relationships with everyone there and how open they were as a community to let us in and share.” Portell says it’s part of the “decolonizing methodology” Larsen talked about in class. ”There’s no set definition of how it works—it’s about recognizing the agency of the indigenous community, and letting them control how these projects work. So for them to be so open with us so that we can make this art and become better allies for them was an incredible opportunity.”
Giving Back to the Community
“A big part of decolonizing methodologies is the gifting process, and one of the things that inspired this children’s book in the first place is my sense that I’ve been taking from the Cheslatta—I’ve built an entire career on it and haven’t given back in ways that resonate with them,” Larsen says. He also is working on an ethnographic fiction called Return to Cheslatta, which he says is a memoir of his experiences with the Cheslatta Carrier Nation.
Family relationships are central in decolonizing methodologies. “There is this way of thinking about family that is a little bit at odds with how I was raised to think about family,” he says. “The Cheslatta helped me see that family is kind of like a conspiracy among traveling companions. The original meaning of conspiracy is to breathe together—to conspire—and in a way, that’s what you’re doing when you’re traveling together, whether that’s doing research with an indigenous community, or traveling through life with your kindred. We think of family and relationships as this kind of predestined thing, but it’s really more like companions who are thrown together in life, and we become family as we travel together.”
Larsen says they plan to publish the children’s book sometime this fall, though he says the Cheslatta are just as interested in Maddie’s photos and Hayley’s plein air sketches as they are in the formal book. Davis says School of Visual Studies Director Jo Stealey also wants to hold an exhibit of her photos and Portell’s sketches.
The trip to the Cheslatta Carrier Nation was funded by an Undergraduate Research Mentorship, with supplemental funding from the Department of Geography.