Grounded abstractions:
an interview with Conor McNally

by Robert Jackson

Conor McNally is a Métis filmmaker living in amiskwaciwâskahikan (Edmonton) Alberta, Canada. McNally’s collection of films ranges from absurdist reflections of prairie hockey culture (MCDAVID, 2015) to Indigenous women’s contributions to the political activism of the 1960’s (Beading Red, 2021); from a moving portrait of his brother’s struggles with incarceration and mental health (Very Present, 2020) to short collaborations with contemporary Indigenous artists like Dene / Blackfoot painter Lauren Crazybull (IIKAAKIIMAAT, 2019) and the band nêhiyawak (nipiy, 2020).

McNally’s most celebrated film ôtênaw (2017) is a reflection on history, nêhiyaw (Cree) narrative imagination, and territory. [Editor’s note: the film can be seen on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/203909985.] McNally’s documentary practice is rooted in Indigenous philosophies that emphasize balanced and healthy relationships between humans and the more than human world. Read in and against the framework of settler colonialism—which attempts to reinscribe all social relations within capital’s grammars of possession, accumulation, and domination—McNally’s focus on Indigenous social relations offers both a critique of settler colonialism’s dispossessive order and an affirmation of Indigenous lives, lifeways, and aesthetics.

I sat down with McNally is the fall of 2021 to talk about ôtênaw, his development as a filmmaker, and the ways that Indigenous conceptions of kinship shape the representations of collectivity and the category of the political in his films. In this preface to my interview with McNally, I offer some conceptual and political context for ôtênaw in an effort to bring the film’s formal and thematic innovations to bear on this special dossier’s call to nuance and deepen contemporary Marxist film and media criticism. Specifically, I consider how McNally’s attention to land as a site of spiritual, material, and political relation renders necessary a more fulsome engagement with settler colonialism in Marxist thought.

ôtênaw follows the nêhiyaw scholar Dwayne Donald on a walk through amiskwaciwâskahikan’s river valley. Donald is renowned in Edmonton for these walks, during which he braids together nêhiyaw philosophy, an analysis of the dynamics of accumulation and dispossession that characterize the city’s colonial development, and land-based approaches to decolonial education. Donald’s stories provide the narrative structure of the film, as well as its cinematic foreground. Shot largely on a 16mm camera, ôtênaw sets Donald’s stories in a rich visual topography composed of atmospheric shots of the lands; archival photographs of Indigenous life in the late nineteenth century; painterly abstractions; and footage of Donald, the storyteller. In many moments throughout the film, McNally’s speckled black and white cinematography blurs into archival photographs and painted abstractions that accompany Donald’s stories on the soundtrack.

Papaschase scholar Dwayne Donald. “A place to renew relations. To connect again.”
Archival still from ôtênaw. Portrait of McNally’s brother, Riley from Very Present.

If Donald’s stories provide the narrative structure of ôtênaw, McNally’s visual constellations are the poetics of its composition. These constellations presence Indigenous lives and lifeways despite what Donald repeatedly calls the “façade” of the settler state’s literal and figurative architecture. The temporal palimpsest of McNally’s frames gives the film its historical sensibility: one that troubles a linear chronology of past and present that underwrites colonial mechanics of progress.

A distorted image of Edmonton’s skyline.

In ôtênaw, McNally experiments with exposure and abstraction, opacity and transparency, offering images of history as an animated relational space. This representation of history resists both stagist, colonial narratives of progress that haunt historical materialism as well as tropes of authenticity that capture Indigeneity with anthropological expectations of legitimacy and legibility.[1][open endnotes in new window]

In this collision of image and history, McNally’s formal experiments resonate with Walter Benjamin’s famous—and famously elusive—presentation of the dialectical image. In a well-known passage from The Arcades Project, Benjamin writes:

“It’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on the past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation” (462).

Abstract painting overlaid on photo of Treaty 6.

One exemplary still from McNally’s film overlays an archival photograph of the official Treaty 6 document with an abstract painting McNally composed on the original 16mm film with which he filmed the rest of the documentary. Treaty 6 was an agreement entered into in 1876 by the British Crown and a series of Indigenous nations. Today, Treaty 6 territory stretches from western Alberta, through Saskatchewan, and into Manitoba and includes 50 First Nations.[2]

In ôtênaw, McNally’s abstractions are often accompanied by either prayers or descriptions of wisdom concepts from nêhiyaw thought. In this particular frame, the blur of abstraction and archive juxtaposes nêhiyaw theories of treaty as a sacred, reciprocal, diplomatic relationship with the contractual treaty theories of the colonizers. In this specific case, McNally’s abstraction is set against the treaty document in a way that holds the two together in the contradictory unity of the cinematic frame.

In other words, treaty is presented here as a social contradiction. On one hand, for example, the nêhiyaw legal scholar Sylvia McAdam describes Treaty 6 in relational, kinship terms premised on the protocols and practices of nêhiyaw law. (41, 78) The form of interdependence McAdam describes is one of material, spiritual, and political reciprocity informed deeply by Indigenous peoples’ relationship to their territories. On the other hand, as nêhiyaw/Saulteaux academic Gina Starblanket describes it, the dominant colonial narrative of treaties is a story of land transactions which brought Indigenous people and settlers together in relationships of interdependence determined by capitalist logics of abstraction, value, and exchange. (4) In the first instance, treaty is a living, spirited relation meant to govern people’s relation to the earth and each other in mutually beneficial ways.[3] In the second, treaty is a reified social form rooted in capitalist contracts of property and (dis)possession.[4]

The image of treaty that ôtênaw represents is neither a “settled” nor merely historical agreement. Neither the archival photo nor the painting take precedent over the other. Instead, the two images occupy the same frame, creating what—in a Benjaminian mode—we might call a “critical moment” (463) in which viewers are not only challenged to discern the implications of the two treaty visions on their own terms, but also the interpretive rupture that their meeting might produce. 

Historic image of Edmonton’s Rossdale flats, on the contested site of Camp Pekiwewin.

Benjamin’s figure of the constellation as a concept for thinking through temporalities also resonates with the role of constellations in the work of many Indigenous philosophers. In her crucial account of Indigenous liberatory thought, for example, Anishinaabeg writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson describes celestial constellations as material, spiritual, and conceptual reminders of the intimate relationships between past, present, and future in Indigenous thought. Simpson writes,

“The future is here in the form of the practices of the present, in which the past is also here influencing. […] This works because constellations are placed-based relationships, and land-based relationships are the formation of Indigenous thought” (213).

Depending on where you are looking from and your relational knowledge of that territory and its stories, you will have a different understanding of the “critical moments” into which constellations invite you.

One of McNally’s painted 16mm frames.

Simpson’s emphasis on constellations as land-based frameworks for understanding temporality and relationality inflects Benjamin’s theory of the image-as-constellation with a particularly grounded focus. Simpson’s constellatory thought is helpful for a Marxist film and media criticism attuned to the specificities of settler colonialism because it helps us transpose Benjamin’s insights from the space of the Arcades—and thus the commodity form in general—to a more particular focus on way value and domination unfold in settler colonial contexts. This focus on land is particularly important for thinking through ôtênaw’s immanent critique of settler colonialism.

ôtênaw is, above all, a film that insists on the importance of Indigenous peoples’ personal, collective, political, and ontological relationship with land. Viewed with an eye for how the fundamental contradictions of capitalism play out in settler colonial contexts, the film’s representation of land-based relationships is explicitly politicized toward the end of the film when Donald’s narratives turn toward the dramatic impacts of what he calls—perhaps in an echo of Karl Polayni—the “great transformation” of private property and settler colonialism.

The film’s insistence on the importance of land-based relationships to nêhiyaw philosophy comes, in part, by way of the film’s organizing philosophical concept: wâhkôtowin. Like any philosophical concept, wâhkôtowin is a difficult one to explain. Through my own experiences in land-based education, invitations into nêhiyaw ceremonial practice, and learning from nêhiyaw Elders, knowledge keepers, and scholars, I’ve come to understand wâhkôtowin as a set of ethical and practical guidelines for living a balanced life informed by a deep respect for the undeniable interdependence of human and more-than-human life. This is not an abstract ideal: it is a material obligation that must be lived and, as ôtênaw displays, Donald’s walk is a practice of wâhkôhtowin. In a recent essay, Donald writes:

“Wâhkôhtowin refers to enmeshment within kinship relations that connect all forms of life. When human beings undertake walking as a life practice, the wâhkôhtowin imagination can be activated, wherein the networks of human and more than human relations that enmesh us become vivified and apparent. From this confluence of walking and the wâhkôhtowin imagination emerges the possibility of a new story that can give good guidance on how to live life in accordance with kinship relationality. (55)

ôtênaw’s“wâhkôhtowin imagination” invites viewers to entertain the possibilities of reimagining their relationship to land while also describing how the enclosures of private property delimit those possibilities. Following the Dene scholar Glen Coulthard, the primary struggle at stake in ôtênaw, then, is not only struggle

for land in the material sense, but also deeply informed by what the land as a system of reciprocal relations and obligations can teach us about living our lives in relation to one another and the natural world in nondominating and nonexploitative terms” (Red Skins 13, emphases in original).

The obligations to live in nondominating and nonexploitative ways that emerge from wâhkôtowin provide important foundations of nêhiyaw legal, social, and economic life (McAdam). The importance of these kinship relations also makes them the target of capitalist violence both historically and in the contemporary moment. As Marx describes in Capital Volume 3, the transformation of land into property requires the destruction of all forms of relating to land that do not fit within the commodity form. As Marx reminds us,

“Landed property receives its purely economic form by discarding all its former political and social embellishments and associations, in brief all those traditional accessories, which are denounced as useless and absurd superfluities by the industrial capitalists themselves, as well as their theoretical spokesmen, in the heat of their struggle with landed property” (755).

Here, we find a foundational antagonism that structures settler colonial capital: the need to destroy “traditional” forms of Indigenous land-based social relations in order to impose the “purely economic form” of the commodity.

While rigid forms of Marxist analysis might subordinate the struggle over land to the exploitation of labor, I would argue for a more nuanced analysis that thinks colonial dispossession alongside capitalist exploitation as a core feature of capitalist accumulation. As Coulthard suggests, shifting from an analytical focus of exploitation to the analytic of dispossession allows Marxist scholars a more capacious framework for thinking capitalist social relations, especially in settler colonial contexts (Red Skins 14). After all, separating people from the direct means of production—in other words, land—is, for Marx, the prerequisite for proletarianization. Whether or not the dispossessed are incorporated into labor in recognizable ways is secondary. Thus, Coulthard’s commitment to a Marxist analytical project, while also acknowledging the different character of class struggle in colonial situations:

“the theory and practice of Indigenous anticolonialism, including Indigenous anticapitalism, is best understood as a struggle inspired by and oriented around the question of land...and less around our emergent status as ‘rightless proletarians’” (“Wards” 62).

In fact, Indigenous peoples’ negative, or uneven, access to the reproductive technology of the wage is one of the primary ways in which Indigeneity is structured by capital. Disproportionately high rates of incarceration, houselessness, poverty, lack of access to clean drinking water, and violence against Indigenous women, queer, and two-spirit people are all expressions of Indigenous peoples’ superfluity to the market. In other words, abjection rather than exploitation is one of the primary mediations of capital’s relationship to Indigenous peoples. Here, forms of containment, such as residential schools, reservations, and incarceration must be read as the ongoing practices of “discarding” and “denouncing” “traditional” relationships to land that threaten the purely economic form of property.

While scenes of the land and its relations consistently ground ôtênaw along the banks of the kiskâciwan-sipîy (North Saskatchewan River), the film explicitly speaks about the dynamics of dispossession in its final movement. In one particularly pertinent example, Donald tells the story of Indigenous people who had been commissioned by early settlers at Fort Edmonton to hunt and provide food for them as they were struggling to survive the winter. When the Indigenous communities saw that the settlers were gardening in the spring, they reasonably assumed that since they had shared the abundance of their skills, knowledge, and territories with the settlers, they should expect the same reciprocity. But once they started to harvest potatoes from the garden, they noticed that settlers began to fence off their land, eventually adding armed guards to protect the garden from “thieves.” Donald’s story connects the privatization of land in amiskwaciwâskahikan to a global, if uneven, history capitalist enclosure.

Notably, in the fall of 2020, the scene of this conflict over the garden—land just south of what is now the Alberta Legislature grounds—was home to the Pekiwewin Prayer and Relief Camp.[5] Led by queer, two-spirit, femme Indigenous activists, the camp was a grassroots response to the acute crises of COVID-19 and the opioid epidemic as well as the perennial crises of houselessness, police brutality and poverty that impact many urban Indigenous people in Edmonton. Camp Pekiwewin lasted for three and a half months and was home to over 400 people. Despite the services it offered and the community fostered, however, the camp was subject to constant surveillance, criminalization, and hostility from the City of Edmonton, the cops, and homeowners in the surrounding neighborhoods. As winter set in, residents of the camp were forcibly removed by armed police officers in hazmat suits, their homes and possessions were bulldozed and trashed, and their community was replaced by a crude metal fence protected by the daily presence of security guards. The fact that these two stories take place over a century apart, on the same patch of land, and follow settler capital’s predictable trajectory of dispossession, criminalization, and enclosure are realities that ôtênaw’s formal and conceptual offers prepare us for. However, as McNally’s cinematic practice insistently teaches us, they are not the only realities.

Police in hazmat suits evicting residents of Camp Pekiwewin. Photograph by author.