Expressions of Identity, Decolonization and NDN Stories: An Interview With Deron Ahsén:nase Douglas
Deron Ahsén:nase Douglas is a writer and artist who has illustrated covers for more than 1000 publications. Trained in the Fine Arts, Douglas has worked with various forms of art–from oil paints on canvas to sculpting stone to photography. Douglas sees his paintings as "expressions of identity, decolonization and NDN stories." Likewise, Coyote Boy continues that focus in both the story and illustrations. Published by Bear Spirit Press in 2015, Coyote Boy is Douglas's first book; a children's story that he both wrote and illustrated. We discuss the themes of "identity, decolonization and NDN stories" along with his artistic process in this interview. Buy Douglas's book, Coyote Boy, at www.bearspiritpress.com or at IndieBound.
Hey Deron. To begin with, why don’t you quickly introduce yourself to us.
Hi Steve. Sure, not much to say. I’m a Kanien'kéha (Mohawk) artist and storyteller with roots in the Kahnawà:ke Mohawk Territory. I’ve been involved in the arts for about 40 years. Most of my work has been in oils but I’ve worked in stone and wood carving, clay, photography, water color, acrylic, and print-making. Around 2000 I started creating book covers and found it easier to paint “digitally.”
You wrote and illustrated Coyote Boy. What got you interested in the creative arts? How did you start writing and illustrating?
Well, I’ve always been interested in the creative arts. It’s been a part of me in some form or another for as long as I can remember. I’ve always been either painting or sculpting. I see something in the world and it triggers an idea and an image forms in my mind that I need to make solid.
Coyote Boy is my first written story. Since around 2012 I’ve been invited to visit the local elementary schools around here to speak about Native culture. The school board in York Region is really big into bringing Native studies into the class room. Typically what I do when I’m in a class is open with a single question. I write on the board and ask the kids: “Who has seen these terms: Native North American, First Nations, Aboriginal, Indigenous, Native, Indian...”
I was surprised that a lot of kids didn’t know what these terms meant, some heard of the word Indian, but most of the time it was the wrong one. From there I would explain who we were. Most were surprised that First Nations people were here before the settlers. One kid kept asking me, “but where did THEY come from?” Then I’d have to get into the whole, “we were here when the mountains were young and rivers and forests blanketed Turtle Island,” which incidentally is the same answer I give when they ask me how old I am.
Anyway, I would continue with some oral storytelling and some drumming. Coyote Boy came from this storytelling, not the specific story, but the impulse to create it. It’s like I had this story that needed to come out, and I had these pictures in my mind that I needed to create. Sounds kind of silly, but that’s how it works for me.
The subtitle of the book is "An Original Trickster Story," and you mention in the preface that you are writing from a Mohawk perspective where Coyote wasn’t a character in any Mohawk stories. How much of Coyote Boy was a revamp of original Coyote stories and how much was either imported from Mohawk tradition or your own imagination?
First off, let me say that I really like the Trickster. Whether he is known as Nanabush, Coyote, Raven, Iktomi, or the Trickster. Yes, he can be a scoundrel, cruel and thoughtless sometimes. Maybe a fool at other times, but he can also be kind and helpful to his people when they need him the most. Coyote has traditionally been used as a character to teach values within First Nations communities. Sort of like an “if you do this, this will happen” type of scenario. We learn from Coyote and his mistakes, and I think that Coyote is in all of us.
There are many more aspects to him. For example, the Lakota have a Trickster figure called Iktomi that is more spider than Coyote. In some stories he is feared, and in others he plays the fool. But Iktomi is also the provider of technology to the Lakota people. He gave them weaving among other things. But the most important aspect of all these incarnations is that Coyote is a creator. Perhaps flawed in many ways, but still responsible for creating many things in this world. Sorry to take the long road, but it’s important, or maybe it’s just the story teller in me.
Within the Mohawk culture there is no Coyote-type figure that I could discover. We have a different creation story that tells us how the world was created and for us this creates a different pantheon of players. While I was writing Coyote Boy, I knew he would move away from his rez and end up living in Anishinaabe territory. I, therefore, thought that it would be reasonable to think that because he was in a different territory that the Gods of those people would come into play.
So when the boy meets Coyote for the first time, I wanted to stay as true as possible to the character of Coyote as demonstrated within other traditional stories. I didn’t want to give him characteristics that weren’t true to his nature. My Coyote will be mischievous, cunning, sometimes play the fool, perhaps he will only be looking out for his own interests, but he will also become the boy’s benefactor in a small way. All of this opened up a whole set of interesting scenarios in my mind. But more importantly from an educational point of view, it allows the kids to learn about these characters along with Coyote Boy. It’s my hope that the kids who read my books will learn something about the cultures that I am either immersing my characters in or mention as background information.
For example, in Coyote Boy the kids learn that the boy is from a reservation or rez. Many non-indigenous kids have no idea what this is. Here is a teachable moment for the teacher. I also write about the boy’s father being an iron worker, something which the Mohawks of Kahnawà:ke are noted for. All these little tidbits of information are there to act as stepping stones for the teacher; allowing them to explore further these contemporary aspects. I get so tired when I hear that a teacher is only talking about teepees and longhouses. Some teachers grumble and say, “this stuff is so boring." I’d like to say, ”well yeah, look at what you’re teaching!”
That first black and white illustration in the book is so hauntingly beautiful. Then the same illustration comes to life a couple pages later with color and stars and fireflies that become the norm for the rest of the images in the book. What was your inspiration for such dreamy landscapes? And in fact, the dream is the overarching literary construct in this story. What made you want to instill the coyote story into the child’s dreams?
Hátskwe! I was wondering if someone would mention that!
First of all I wanted to transition from the mundane world to the boy’s world view. Now that I think about it, it is sort of Wizard of Oz like. But that wasn’t my intention. I just wanted to show that the black-and-white representation of the world wasn’t how the boy saw things. The colored images allow us to see his world through his eyes. To the boy the world is magical. All of the landscapes are from my imagination except for the boy’s flashbacks to the rez.
But with the chance of sounding hokey, typically an image will start to grow in my mind and I can sort of feel it pressing at the back of my skull, pushing to come out. If I close my eyes I can feel every detail of the image. It’s the same thing when I paint a picture. An idea forms in the back of my head; I can sense the feelings that are associated with the image. Then the rest of the process is trying to express those feelings and images on canvas. It’s difficult to explain because I’m trying to tell you where the root of my creativity forms. But simply put, yes, my imagination.
Okay, let me address your question regarding the “dream [as] the overarching literary construct”. Yes and no. First of all, within Mohawk culture dreams are very important and are not just dreams in the western sense. I grew up with my family and elders discussing their dreams a lot more seriously than is socially acceptable in this settler society. Outwardly they would address these conversations as “all being in fun,” but you could tell by the subtext of the discussion that they were taking it a little more seriously. Anyway, among other things dreams are where we meet our loved ones who have passed on. Or it could be the place where we meet spirits or elders to help us with a problem we need to solve. Within traditional Mohawk culture, a dream is not just something to be taken lightly and dismissed.
Incidentally, the boy’s meeting with Coyote and his subsequent flight across the snow is based on a dream I had as a small child and for the longest time, even into adulthood, it never occurred to me that it was a dream. I know that may seem hard to believe, and some people may laugh, but I brought that dream into adulthood thinking of it as a memory. But it’s not surprising when you consider how I grew up and my culture. So when I created those illustrations and wrote that sequence I wanted to instill the same feelings that I felt during that dream. And if I can be honest, even now I like to think it wasn’t a dream. So in the end, to chalk it all up to a child’s dream is perhaps a little restrictive. I give hints that perhaps he is dreaming, but in the end that wasn’t the intent. After all, Coyote is a powerful creature who can make something out of nothing. Who is to say what is a dream and what is reality?
The illustrations appear, at times, to be a sort of mixed media. Some take on a more realistic feel while others are more illustrated and one sole illustration resembled a comic panel (the dad driving and listening to "NDN Kars" on the radio). At the end of the book you mention your tools for illustration that you used in the book. What were your goals for illustrations in this book and what made you choose computer illustration over ink or paint?
Well, as I’ve mentioned, I’m a traditional artist who typically uses oil paint and canvas, but I was also under a deadline and it takes me up to six weeks to do something like this with paint. So I didn’t see any way I could do it the traditional way. Luckily I had just purchased a Cintiq tablet, which is a really cool tool, and I was just itching to use it for a major project to see how it would work out.
All drawings started out as a pencil sketch in my sketch book. I then scanned and imported it into my computer and literally continued the hand drawing process from there. It’s much like inking and coloring in the traditional sense. But you can do things like sampling and layering that you couldn’t do otherwise.
It’s also a great tool when painting on canvas. Sometimes when I get stuck, I photograph the painting and import it. I can then mess around with different colors or elements without messing up the actual painting. In the end it’s just a tool like a brush or pencil.
The comic like pages, the dad driving with "NDN Kars" playing, the bug loaded up to leave Kahnawà:ke, and going under the bridge for the last time, is a style I used to portray the Boy’s flashback sequences.
The NDN Kars image is based on my early childhood experiences driving from Kahnawà:ke (near Montreal) to New York City to visit family. We’d do the trip easily six-to-eight times a year. I once asked my father why we traveled so much. He replied, "because we’re Indians. That’s what we do; we travel.” I’m not sure if he was joking, but the iron workers of Kahnawà:ke did that most weekends.
Keith Secola allowed me to use the words from his song in the book. But in reality my father actually sung and listened to songs like “Moon River” and “King of the Road.” "NDN Kars" is actually my favorite.
Education seems to be one strong purpose of Coyote Boy. You take time in the preface and afterward to educate the reader on the Mohawk and Iroquois Confederacy. You also list a few Mohawk stories at the very end that were referenced throughout the story. Do you see education and art linked, especially when it comes to indigenous stories and peoples?
First off, Coyote Boy was one of those stories that was pushing at the back of my head to come out. So if nothing else, that would have been a good enough reason for me. But I also spent a lot of time in the classroom with young kids, and I found that they knew nothing about First Nations people, or if they did it was from Hollywood or those old settler textbooks that are either generalized misconceptions or biased. After I wrote the story I realized that there were elements that required background information to fill in the ambiance; references to The Great Tree or the Three Brave Hunters and the Bear, which are oral stories I tell in the classroom.
As I wrote the supplemental information I realized that this would be useful in the classroom and that the teacher and students would benefit. There are very few academic children’s books written by First Nations authors. In a way Coyote Boy is what I do in the classroom, it encompasses what I strive to communicate. I’ve been asked to read Coyote Boy in the classroom, but to be honest I still prefer oral story telling. I like looking at the kids as I tell a story and see how they react. It gives me the freedom to respond to their reactions and to perhaps change a small detail to address a need they may have.
When I tell Rakeni’s Farm–a ghost story–I use a drum. We turn off the lights, and the kids are all sitting around me. I describe the storm and the happenings within the storm that sets the stage. Well, at the end I know I did a good job at telling the story if the teacher in the back corner of the room spills her coffee. You can’t get that from just reading a book. That’s why storytelling was such a big part of our culture and why it is so important now. Rakeni’s Farm will be coming out as an illustrated children’s book next year, but I’m still going to tell it the old fashion way.
"Do [I] see education and art linked?" Yes definitely. Unfortunately, visual arts and the arts in general take a back seat to literacy and math in most school boards. I can appreciate that in this ever-changing world of technology. But while those subjects train the mind, they don’t feed the soul. I think it’s as important for children to express themselves and their world around them through art, whether it’s painting and drawing, or sculpting, or making something out of paper. I think it helps them grow as a person, helps to feed their soul, and perhaps make them a better person. It allows them to express things about themselves and their environment in a creative way. But as an artist, I would naturally say these things, but I still think they are true.
Sometimes I’m invited to go into a classroom to teach an art class. I’m always blown away by the number of students that are afraid to draw a picture because it wouldn’t be right. I’ve had students ask if they were doing it right and if it was worth an “A” grade. I feel that the school system has divorced imagination and the creative process from childhood, and this scares the hell out of me and saddens me at the same time.
When it comes to indigenous stories and people, I think that art is integrally linked. Look at how many indigenous people are in the arts. I don’t think that is an accident. Sure, we have doctors and lawyers and Indian Chiefs, but we also have painters and sculptors, dancers and writers, and all kinds of creative people. Deep down I feel that Indigenous people are spiritual by nature, and nothing else is as spiritually rooted as the creation of art. So naturally what would be a better way to learn about First Nations people than to experience their art?
In your acknowledgements, you mention the kids at Kateri Elementary School in Kahnawà:ke and the Edward T. Crowle Public school in Markham. Had you donated books to them or let them in on a beta read of this story?
Edward T. Crowle is where I first started my storytelling, and they were the first to purchase books for their library and classrooms. It’s sort of my home school and all the kids know me and wave as I walk into the yard. It’s a really nice feeling and I felt that they deserved a shout out.
Kateri Elementary School in Kahnawà:ke is one of the schools on the rez that I’m from. They say that if you can make it back home, you can make it anywhere. But seriously, I was very proud to hear that the kids and teachers at Kateri liked Coyote Boy. It’s like your family. If they can say, “hey, you did real good there," it makes you feel good.
A teacher from Kateri learned of Coyote Boy from my Facebook page and ordered a copy. Typically, people want me to sign them so when I found out she bought one and I learned that her class loved the book, I decided to donate a few to their library. I plan on donating all of my future children’s story books to their library. They also wanted me to do some storytelling in their classroom, but we haven’t worked out the details yet.
What do you see in regards to literacy among Indian kids? What are some ways we can increase literacy among indigenous peoples?
Well, I may get in trouble for this, but I think that in a lot of ways the problems that indigenous kids face as far as literacy is concerned is the same as non-indigenous kids. You need to have books available to indigenous kids that spark an interest. The books need to tell their stories in a way that the indigenous kids can relate. Hell, when I was growing up there were no kids books geared towards me. Nothing with strong indigenous heroes, or stories that I could relate my life experiences to. If I did find something with an Indian character he was typically some sad fellow on the corner begging for loose change or falling over drunk, and these were typically written by some white dude that was using this Indian character as a literary vehicle.
As an adult, I was thrilled when I came across Native writers and read stories that I could actually relate to. And I still do. I love reading Sherman Alexie and Thomas King. I laugh out loud and chuckle to myself when I come across an inside joke that I know only an indigenous person would understand or relate to. That kind of book is life changing. Imagine what would happen if all these little Native kids came across a book or two that they could relate to on that level; stories with powerful heroes acting within an environment that the kids recognize. Or maybe even just a little Mohawk boy running around with a coyote getting into trouble and learning about his world. Imagine how many would be interested in reading?
Is there anything else you wanted to mention or talk about?
Well, Rakeni’s Farm is supposed to come out sometime next year and I feel another Coyote Boy wanting to break through my head. I think I may do the next one the old fashion way, with oils and canvas, but we need to see. I’m currently working on a group of paintings that are exploring the role of technology within Native culture and different aspects of the trickster within today’s society. I’m hoping to be able to exhibit those at the Woodlands Cultural Center in 2016, but if I don’t get in, any gallery out there can contact me!
I have a website at www.derondouglas.ca but I haven’t had time to do more than put up an under construction page. I hope to get that done soon. I think that’s about it.
Where can we buy your book and other works?
You can get Coyote Boy: An Original Trickster Story online at Amazon and all those places. The best place, however, would be straight from the publisher at www.bearspiritpress.com. Amazon takes 40-50% and that’s just not right. If you get it from the publisher and you want me to sign it, email the publisher and he’ll forward your message and a book to me and I’ll take care of it.
Niawen’kó:wa for having me, and Ó:nen ki' wáhi