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Toronto artist's work bridges traditional and urban First Nations life

Photo of Rebeka Tabodondung. Courtesy of Tanja Tiziana

Rebeka Tabodondung and David Shilling’s Beverley Street apartment doubles as the office of Muskrat Magazine, a new online arts, culture and living publication. Visitors quickly find that their home, just like their magazine, is a stimulating blend of ancient First Nations tradition and contemporary urban family life.
 
A pair of finely beaded leather gloves hangs inside the sneaker-crowded entranceway. Betty Crocker’s More Slow Cooker Recipes sits on a shelf alongside an Ojibwa language dictionary. A photo of an inukshuk is mounted next to bottles of olive oil, while a piece of decorated bone dangles close to the espresso maker. A Malcolm X portrait painted by David’s uncle, the late Ojibwa artist Arthur Shilling—famed for melding European and First Nations influences—overlooks the living room, where tidy baskets hold toy trucks belonging to Zeegwon, Tabodondung and Shilling’s young son.
 
“More than 50 per cent of Canada’s indigenous people live in urban centres,” says Tabodondung, Muskrat’s editor and curator, as she settles in at her kitchen table-cum-desk while Shilling, art director and webmaster, works in a nook upstairs. “There’s rich history for us even in the heart of the city. My son’s great-great-great-grandfather is buried at Yonge and Bloor.”
 
Spadina Avenue, just five minutes away, is named for an Ojibwa word (ishpadinaa) meaning “up a hill,” which makes sense because it leads up to Casa Loma, an old camping ground that offered a great vantage point. This history infuses contemporary Toronto, raising questions about stereotypes around First Nations people and “modern” urban settings.
 
“I find so many times in conversations around identity, health, politics—anything really—there’s polarizations between ‘on reserve’ and ‘off reserve,'” says Tabodondung. “I think Muskrat is bridging that divide, in a way.”
 
Tabodondung and Shilling’s own lives also blur the distinction between urban and non-urban Aboriginal life. This fall, they returned to the city after three months in the home they’ve recently built at Wasauksing First Nation near Parry Sound.
 
“In Aboriginal and Canadian media, there isn’t a lot of representation of voices of artists and other individuals who are going back to the land, whether physically or in terms of values,” says Tabodondung. When she’s editing Muskrat, city-balcony container gardens of traditional medicines are of just as much interest as the wild-rice farming resurgence on rural reserves.
 
“With Muskrat, we wanted to create a space to profile people like that in a way that could be inspiring to the Aboriginal community in Canada and beyond.”
 
The first issue, which went live last November, reflects that unique mission. One video features Kai Zyganiuk—a Toronto chef of West Indian, Native Canadian and Polish descent who’s worked at the Four Seasons—cooking a traditionally themed meal of wild salmon, sweet potatoes and green beans. Another video looks at Ojibwa artist Keesic Douglas, who last year canoed from Rama First Nation near Orillia to The Bay on Queen Street West, where he tried to trade his great-great-grandfather’s Hudson Bay Blanket for beaver pelts.
 
“I got the sense in early discussions that Muskrat wasn’t going to focus on how ‘deficient’ First Nations people are— their disasters and problems—but rather focus on contributions they can make to broader society,” says Deborah McGregor, interim director for Aboriginal Studies at the University of Toronto. McGregor contributed an essay to the debut issue tracing the Ojibwa re-creation myth in which the muskrat—among the smallest and most humble of animals—is the only one brave enough to dive into deep waters after a massive flood and bring up soil for a new land to be built.
 
The muskrat’s parable of great ends from inauspicious beginnings is a powerful one for Tabodondung, who was kicked out of high school before graduating. At 19, while on an exchange program for indigenous youth from Guatemala and Canada, she had a revelation which changed the direction of her life.
 
“That was the first time in my life I’d ever heard of an indigenous perspective of history,” she says, recalling the youth program’s visits with Aboriginal groups in B.C. “I realized the Aboriginal experience of colonization in Canada is not a perspective that is included within the education system, within media and general Canadian consciousness. I began to understand the power of media and the importance of indigenous people to control their own stories, to tell their stories the way it happened to them.”
 
Her passion sparked for media and education that includes Aboriginal perspectives, Tabobondung moved back to her ancestral lands in Ontario and returned to school, where she helped plan the University of Toronto’s first powwow. She began to study film and created a documentary, Original Summit, about indigenous people and globalization at the 2001 FTAA summit. Around the same time, she and Shilling co-founded Maaiingan Productions, a collective of Aboriginal writers, editors, photographers and designers that does work for clients ranging from Canadian Tire to the University of Toronto’s First Nations House. When one of those clients, Spirit magazine—an artsy, urbane take on Native life—closed its doors in 2008, Tabobondung and Shilling recognized there was a void in the community and the city.
 
Though the reception they’ve had for the new magazine is widely positive—both the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council have supported the project—tight budgets have slowed their planned biannual publication schedule. “We [at Maaiingan] have worked as a team for other magazines, which lends us strength, but this is our first independent one,” says Tabobondung. As a result, there’s been some shuffling of roles between the first and the second issues.
 
The upcoming November 2011 issue will continue to blend the traditional and contemporary. With a theme of food, it will profile Toronto’s new Aboriginal restaurant Keriwa, showcase national Aboriginal food swaps where online networks are used to exchange sugarbush, wild rice and wild salmon and examine tradition-inspired ways to fight the alarming diabetes rate in Aboriginal communities. Quarterly updates of some sections are planned, as well as the creation of an annual print edition aimed at libraries and schools.
 
“Through our experience of colonization here in Canada, much history has been silenced… through residential school, through shaming, through language loss,” says Tabodondung. “I feel compelled to document those knowledges that we do have remaining in our communities—I see media as a tool for documenting that, and I see art as a way of revitalizing that knowledge.”