To start off, I will offer a disclaimer that I am not an Indigenous knowledge keeper, and I don’t have generations of knowledge behind me to teach and to share. But I am an Indigenous knowledge-seeker. And it is within my process of information gathering that I find myself and my connections. As I began to discover Indigenous beliefs in the sacredness of land, it is here that I found my place. I will attempt to share my ways of knowing, my ways of integrating my Indigenous and non-Indigenous worldviews.

Within the purview of most worldviews, I think we can all agree that land brings us life. It is from nature that we get our food, water, clothing, shelter, transportation and warmth.  Over time, humans have been able to create some of these necessary things in non-nature environments, but without the land we cannot manage all of these needs. What sets Indigenous views apart from this is the belief that land relations are bidirectional, meaning that in as much as we take from the land, we must also give back to maintain holistic balance.  One of the biggest questions that tends to be asked is what this balance is and how we can strike it.

“Country is loved, needed, and cared for, and country loves, needs, and cares for her peoples in turn. Country is family, culture, identity. Country is self.”

Ambelin Kwaymullina

Meaning of Land to Aboriginal people – Creative Spirits

First Nations people have centuries of knowledge of the land to which they have been connected and just as long studying the balance that occurs within the ecosystem. This knowledge, in itself, is a well-accepted form of scientific study different from western science.  In this worldview, knowledge and the learner are interconnected. What this means is that the very act of learning can impact the knowledge. For example, an ecology student watching coyotes in their natural environment will have an impact on vegetation and the microsystems through which she walks. As a result, some Indigenous worldviews of the land tend to be very much about relationships.

Can this knowledge be applied to human relationships? Can Indigenous ways of knowing be valued alongside non-Indigenous views? The answer is yes, if we honour and understand this bidirectional approach. Each worldview influences the other in a way that maintains balance.

Recent events occurring on Wet’suwet’en land and in solidarity events across Turtle Island have ignited passions on all sides. It appears that at least two worldviews are in conflict: those who honour the bidirectional view of the land and those who are looking for the extraction of resources for profit and possibly survival in a particularly brutal and unforgiving economic system. In fact, this conflict in itself demonstrates how connected we all are, but in a way that does not promote balance.  I urge us all to explore ways of looking for healing, while honouring both worldviews and very importantly, honouring reconciliation and the long term effects of the worldview responsible for colonialism.

Just like plants connect to a geographical place, we are all connected to where we live, and to each other.  To keep a balance within the world, the connection requires us to be bidirectional in our relationships with the living and with the land. You as the reader and me as the writer have now been connected through this writing. I present to you my knowledge, you read and absorb this offering, and I receive the gift of your audience.


20181009_113447Erin Newman is a therapist by day, and a writer by night. She is also a parent, student, advocate, artist, and teacher.

In the Name of Allah, The Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.

Thank you so much for having me today. And thank you everyone for being here. I would like to reiterate that we are situated on Treaty 6 territory and that these are the traditional lands of Indigenous people who have lived, gathered and passed through here for many thousands of years. They are still here and it is on you to insure that that is forever the case.

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I also want to acknowledge that I am a white, cis woman, the child of Italian immigrants to this land, and the mother of a beautiful, Arab girl, a convert to Islam and all those things are combined, I am afforded certain privileges and I pray that I am using these to the advantage of every person, people of every gender, orientation, religion, ethnicity, ability and anything else we use to identify ourselves.

I came here today to inform you that the day you were born was not the day you came out of your mother’s womb. The day you were born was the first time you witnessed injustice and you decided to take a stand. Deep down inside you, alarms bells started ringing and a call resounded through the center of your being. A call to take action, a call to stand up and use your voice to say, “No, hatred will not live here, Oppression will not be tolerated, injustice will not be served today.”

The day you heard that call may have been November 8th, when the one who shall remain unnamed was legitimized in his hatred and misogyny, and propelled to the highest institution of the most powerful nation in the world. And we will oppose him. And all echoes of him at home.

That day might have been before. It might have been after. The day you hear that call might be today, right now.

For it is a call I am issuing. This is not a call to silent prayer but a call to submission of the ego in the service of others, even if those others are a future self in need of your present compassion. It is a call of recognizing that any of us could be oppressor or oppressed and that many of us are both, and we’re standing on a fine line and you are choosing dignity, respect and compassion that every single one of us has earned by virtue of our existence.

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It is a call to make space for one another, to take space when it is not yielded, to recognize that we create the worlds we live in, and that hatred and love take effort of an equal measure. The day you were born was the first time you saw hatred in action and you chose Love.

Fierce love. Love that dismantles and is disobedient. Enraged love. Disappointed love. Grieving Love. Love that refuses to accept anything less than solidarity, anything less than taking care of one another.

Taking care of one another does not only mean fixing dinners and giving shoulders to cry on – though those things are important. No, taking care means a commitment to the idea that, even if I have never met you, I love you and I respect your right to a life of dignity and hope, a life of self-actualized growth and I will fight for you.

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I do not accept that black, brown, Muslim, Sikh, and Jewish people with varying orientations and degrees of ability are made the collateral damage in the bulldozing path of a historical lie spun incessantly about racial and social superiority, while those who spin it hold our planet, our children, our wealth, our future, our collective soul hostage. I do not accept how they divide us. I do not accept that our trauma and violence are painted as intrinsic to who we are, while they cover their colonization in the fog of words, in a war of semantics, in imperial programming. I refuse to normalize their hatred.

The day you were born was the first moment you witnessed power in action and you said no to it. Where you traced its institutions, its circulatory system, feeding life into those who designed it and relegating the rest of us to despondency and despair. You deserve better than a life of despair.

Answering the call is a commitment to replacing despair with kindness, even when kindness means blocking roads and lobbying governments. Especially when it means that.

So I want to ask all of you and please let me hear a beautiful Yes:

Do you hear the call?

Do you hear the call today?

We are not here to feel good about ourselves. We celebrate who we are and we resist in our joy but we are not here to joke around about what is happening south of the border, around the world, in our own backyard, in our families. We are here to make a public declaration to do better and to stop those who won’t.

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The work does not end here, it starts right now.

I want you to turn to the person next to you, put your hand over your heart, look them straight in the eye and face their humanity. Thank them for being here today. Thank them for taking a stand and answering the call of Justice.

Repeat after me:

I am here for you.

I will always be here for you.

I will defend you.

I will use my voice

In the face of your oppression.

I will work for justice.

I hear the call.

And I answer it.

Very good.

Hear this call today, everyone, I am holding you accountable Let it echo every day in every action you take.

It is history calling, wondering what side you will be on.

It is our duty to memory, wondering how selective you will be.

And it is the scales of justice calling, wondering what your balance look like.

All our lives hang in the fold.

Thank you.


Nakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. She recently completed graduate studies and work as a research assistant in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta, as well as a research fellowship on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism for The Tessellate Institute. Nakita serves her community as the Vice President of External Affairs with Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC), as an advisor for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life,  and as a member of the Executive Fundraising Board for the YIWCL Cree Women’s Camp. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and is currently working on a graphic novel memoir weaving her experiences abroad with her community work and research.

Photography: Lindsey Catherine Photos & Media

Video: Radical Citizen Media

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The Drawing Board owner, Nakita Valerio, had the pleasure of sitting down with graffiti artist and community leader, AJA Louden to talk about his art, his genre and all of the incredible social justice work he is doing with both. As always, Louden proved himself thoughtful and eloquent beyond measure and it is our joy to speak to such passionate, intellectual individuals, as well as uplift their work by providing it with the public platform it deserves – something to which Louden is no stranger. As the founder of the Aerosol Academy, a participant in CypherWild and avid supporter of First Nations community causes, Louden has the perfect marriage between doing what he loves and doing something that matters: his art is where those two principles meet.

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Louden grew up in Calgary and recounts his first distinct memory of seeing an incredible graffiti display when he was around ten years old. “I don’t have a lot of contextual memory for it, but I know I was traveling in the backseat of a car, even if I don’t know where I was going or anything. These kinds of memories are the best because they are hazy but so foundational – something really jumps out at you through a fog. I saw a series of five or six light posts and each of them had the word “Trikone” written on them vertically. I couldn’t help but wonder “Who was doing this? Who would do this?” It was like a rabbit hole of questions I was falling into trying to reconstruct the story behind this public display. I just kept imagining six people standing there and painting the posts at the same time – I could see it like a film in my head, and for me it represented something hidden and esoteric – a private world made public that not a lot of people have access to. After that, I started seeing tags all the time – they stopped fading into the background for me.”

He didn’t do much about it but in middle school he got into hip-hop and break-dancing. In such communities, people are encouraged to develop a new identity that will be connected to their work and Louden was gracious enough to reveal (laughing the whole time) that his middle school name was “Spyda.” Of course, we vowed never to let him live it down, but Louden, with his sharp wit and humble demeanour, was quick to offer himself up, telling us the story of his first graffiti experience:

“I remember that one of my first graffiti moments was carving that name into my desk at school and then filling it in with markers. I didn’t think of it as wrong at all. It was just putting myself out there. Later, I wrote an exam and on the back page of the test, I wrote the same tag. Well, not surprisingly, my teacher saw the graffiti and then the tag on my test and pulled me aside. This was my first clash with authority over my graffiti. I was so brutal because I just told him a bold-faced lie: I had seen the graffiti and copied it onto my exam, of course.”

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Despite this first foray into this world, Louden says it left him a bit. He didn’t take visual arts seriously and was not informed on the history of the culture around it early on. In high school, he became rebellious and anti-authority – what some might call “a critical thinker.” He ended up taking a year off after high school and this, combined with moving to Edmonton for university and having more control over his own time ignited a search for his identity. He ended up studying sciences and much of what he learned is used in his painting work now, including lessons from biology and anatomy but also the soft sciences like psychology and sociology. Despite dedicating himself to his studies, he never saw himself working in a lab and realistically, employment prospects were low.

Louden notes that the biggest thing he took from that experience was realizing how passionate he is about knowledge and learning. It has informed how he asks questions and expresses himself artistically as well, especially since subscribing to several academic journals. He credits scientific observation with informing his ability to recognize patterns, activities and methods of expression to elicit affect.

While Louden’s work seems so visceral and spontaneous, he does mention the influence of technology in what he does. He has a graphic design background as well and that has affected his painting as an artist by putting different tools in his repertoire. He admits to being deeply interested in the technology of actual paint which is not something people often think about. “Changes to paint have reflected the commercialization and commodification of graffiti which is not necessarily good or bad. There are some people who have strong opinions about it but I just view it as change, like anything else. As a result, an artist these days has a whole lot of caps, cans, propellants and pigments to choose from, each of which can dramatically alter how they express themselves.”

Of course, Louden is also inspired by the masters like Caravaggio or by those who are really passionate about typography, citing a classic book by Robert Bringhurst called The Elements of Typographic Style which he says is essential for painters using words. The book helps us to understand how words have shapes of meaning and makes us more conscious of those we choose to express ourselves.

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Despite all of this brilliant forethought, Louden still has a hard time answering the question of how he would describe his work now, noting that when he first started getting back into painting, he worked solitarily for four or five years. In the graffiti world, that meant he was using styles that hadn’t been passed down through the community; however, as he broke into the community more, he started meeting more people and getting a variety of influences. And because of this diverse background, Louden is influenced by different, somewhat disparate things. He might describe his work right now as being about realism with some impressionistic effects. He is into portraiture and his lettering varies depending on the project, adapting to his expressive needs: It can be somewhat abstract at times while his subject matter revolves around authority, conflict and asymmetric warfare.

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Recently, Louden has put these themes to good use, doing important community work in indigenous communities and other humanitarian work as well. He had the pleasure of doing an AFA one week workshop at Beaver First Nation, near High Level where participants focused on the theme of finding identity through creativity and in place. A strong understanding of one’s identity becomes a powerful tool in the uneven match between oppressor and oppressed. Louden states that he tends to be less interested in struggles when the power is matched, helping participants to draw attention to discovering who they are, the psychological effects of occupation, reigniting one’s relation to the land, and how traditional wayfinding is communicated. Discussing one’s orientation in their environment and how this is dictated by our historical upbringing and cultural awareness was a particularly moving point in the project.

Additionally, Louden has been thinking to do some work on the parallels between Palestine and the plight of indigenous peoples in Canada, drawing symmetries between their experiences with colonialism and invasion. This has been a driving interest for him and a personal curiosity and is part of how he thinks more critically about the land he lives on and the context of where he paints in the environment it sits. Louden is nothing if not conscious of being respectful of the fact that this is Treaty 6 territory, effectively stolen land, and taking serious steps to avoid the appropriation of settler narratives into his work unintentionally, while at the same time not telling stories that are not his to tell. This careful balancing act is part of the reason he flourishes in graffiti education and in helping others express their own stories as well. Louden notes,

“In reality, I’m connected to the colonial narrative and the indigenous story through the land; it is part of my history too.”

Another high-profile project Louden got to work on was a wayfinding and signage program for the net-zero Mosaic Centre, creating landmark art pieces and using recycled parts from the building construction to do so. It was an amazing project because it got him thinking more consciously about how words perform a communicative function but are also aesthetic. The group collaborated with a neurologist at the University of Calgary who was studying brain cells that define our spatial awareness and how people navigate spaces, their literal place-making cells – research which has huge implications for the creation of landmark artworks and its relation to the interpretive capacities of our minds, even if such landmarks have a long historical use, such as Inukshuks.

Ever humble, Louden casually notes that he has also been fortunate to do a lot of workshops through Aerosol Academy which is a graffiti school he started. Through this group, he has developed an educational workbook – a kind of history of unsanctioned public art which examines culture, graffiti practice, tools and techniques and how to make art in legal spaces. And he has also had the privilege of opening up some street art walls as a lead artist consulted by the City of Edmonton and chosen as the city’s artistic representative. Traditionally, walls are about separating spaces and keeping things apart but Louden is unique in that he has tasked with building communities around walls, as gathering spaces to meet and practice the craft.

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Through these walls and other work, Louden is inspired to resist, especially in breaking down the false binaries between art and graffiti, and graffiti and crime. Louden is aware that there is a lot of scapegoating that happens about graffiti primarily because it is an intensely visual form of protest and the ultimate unruliness to change the landscape around us. However, in this context, it is important to realize that graffiti is a symptom of other social ills and a way for the disenfranchised to express themselves when made voiceless. The public expression of graffiti provides a venue for people to have their voices heard in terms that they dictate.

Louden points to the exaggerative campaigns against graffiti by hegemonic powers that be show an imperfect approach to the understanding and remedying of social ills.

“Graffiti is easy. It makes it easy to look like the government is doing something when they clean graffiti up, but in reality it’s a bandage solution masking what is still simmering below the surface.”

Ever the scholar, Louden cites a criminology theory called Broken Window Theory that continues to influence public policy development because it claims that where signs of crime exist, crime will accumulate. The theory is so named because it uses the example of broken windows in destitute neighbourhoods as an example. For Louden, he doesn’t see how this applies to graffiti at all, except to those who are not sufficiently well-versed in graffiti language to interpret what kind of painting exists in certain areas. Ultimately, it is the quality of graffiti that dictates more information about the state of a community and indicates its richness, not poverty, of culture.

Louden’s project of “gathering walls” seems like the ultimate reclamation of a symbol of colonial oppression, turning its meaning on its head to give the oppressed a voice. But resistance is not the only regular theme of his work. Louden is also inspired by what those in the trade call “them feels” – a term to describe a moment of inspiration or emotion. He is influenced by something as simple as an aesthetic glimpse, the emotional response one gets when they look at something.

The other cause that calls him to certain avenues of visual expression is the study of restorative versus retributive justice. Louden describes the latter as what we are accustomed to in North American settler culture: There is a lack of contact between a victim and their perpetrator because their conflict is mediated through the state and the resolution is usually a state-mandated punishment of the offender. Restorative justice models are based on traditional indigenous models and aim at “restarting” a relationship between “victim” and “perpetrator”. The meditation is not of the punishment but of the relationship that has been damaged without recourse to revenge narratives. The model is based on a circle in which both groups communicate with one another and an authority mediates the discussion to initiative self-reflectivity. The goals are understanding not only why the person violated the relationship but to make them understand the ripple effect it had on the lives of everyone around the victim. Louden says that if graffiti artists were more aware of the effects – positive or negative – of their painting on the world around them, it would go a long way to bridging the disconnect between the painters and the community in which they paint. Venues for communication, breaking down the fear of graffiti, and its decriminalization would go a long way in showcasing the realities of a sorely misunderstood group. Not a lot of people realize that less than 2.5% of all graffiti is gang-related, but the societal obsession with it is a symptom of capitalist society’s obsession with private property – a cultural phenomena, that contrary to popular belief, is historical and not universal.

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Ultimately, this is what Louden puts into his work but he is clear when he says that there doesn’t have to be a higher ethos behind graffiti work. Rather, self-awareness among graffiti artists and changing the language around public art in the communities it exists would go a long way to creating mutual understanding between people.

What all of this boils down to is a commitment, from Louden, to education creating channels of communication. He believes in providing people with tools to understand the Other and argues that sometimes doing this through art is the best way because it often speaks right to the heart, “them feels”. Through his work, something as ethereal and fleeting as empathy is a very real, achievable goal.

As we drew our interview to a close, Louden wanted to leave our audience with the final inspirational thought:

“Look a little closer. There are a lot of rabbit holes to peer into and there is a richness to life you can easily miss. You have you use your eyes and your feelings to see it.”

An incredibly talented and ever humble artist, AJA Louden is just the kind of visionary that the Canadian arts and graffiti scene need – someone to who gathers people and takes back the walls we build between one another.