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Michelle Sylliboy

Michelle Sylliboy is a Mi’kmaw, Two Spirited female from Cape Breton, We’koqma’q First Nation. She is

an interdisciplinary artist, working in photography, sculpture, and poetry; painting now and then.

Michelle Sylliboy InterviewMichelle Sylliboy
00:00 / 35:54

Interpretations of their own teachings and opinions shared here are the responsibility of each artist. 

Written transcript is below.

"I only got to know that person for a couple days... I gifted her the best thing I've ever carved... asked her to return it back to the whale's spirit, that was a very valuable spiritual journey that I went on. And it didn't even occur to me; because you never know who you're going to meet. You have to always open up and be prepared for goodness and for incredible, [for] healing to happen."

Written Transcript,
Interview with Michelle Sylliboy
for Kindling

Michelle Sylliboy: My name is Michelle Sylliboy. I'm 51, I'll be 52 this summer. I'm Mi'kmaw, female, I guess Two Spirited I suppose I'll talk about that later. And I'm from Cape Breton, We'koqma'q First Nation. 
 
Louis Esmé: Alright, thanks. For the next section do you want to talk about your artistic expression and what methods you use? 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: Sure. I'm an interdisciplinary artist. I get bored easily. I'm a photographer, sculptor, and a poet. I do some painting every now and then, but only if when the mood suits me. I mostly work with photography and sculpting and one of the pieces I've worked on and have been exhibiting is the ribs a pilot whale. I carved four pilot whale ribs [of] my written language onto the whale bone. 
 
It took me a while to figure out what I was going to carve because I'm currently doing my PhD where I'm revitalizing [a written language] - and [I wanted to put] my twist on how to preserve an ancient language, [a] written language, the hieroglyphic Komqwejwi'kasikl language.
 
[In the last several years, I've been working a lot with the komqwejwi’kasikl writing.] I wrote the first Mi'kmaq hieroglyphic poetry book. [When the whale bone came into my life] I decided to collaborate on the whale project by asking [random] people, whoever I came across really, if they could tell the whale anything, what would they say to the whale? 
 
[Each participant had to choose a message,] a hieroglyphic message from the dictionary that I was given, and [then later] I carved their messages in the hieroglyphic language onto the whale bone. [For my participation.] I chose to write a story about how climate change impacts the whale's environment. [That decision was made last year] after I saw the orca whale carrying her [dead] baby for 17 days [on the news]. I was very impacted by that [story] and so I decided to respond by telling the whale's story. That's one of the pieces I'm most proud of right now. 
 
Louis Esmé: That sounds really awesome, Michelle. 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: Yes. 
 
Louis Esmé: Is there more that you want to say about that, about the whale's perspective? 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: Oh, no, not really. I mean, it's going to be exhibited at the Nova Scotia Art Gallery. That's the next place it's going. It's done really well because I had my exhibition, the first one in March, March 31st of last year was our opening so the month of April in Cape Breton. And then from Cape Breton went to Newfoundland and then from Newfoundland it went to Calgary. And then they just came home, they spent a month and a half in the prairies. So that was, you know, sure it was a shock to the whale to go inland away from the ocean. And now it's back home and it'll be at the Nova Scotia Art Gallery. [COVID delayed the opening. It was April 2021]
 
Louis Esmé: Congratulations. That's really great. 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: Yes. So I'm excited about that. As for which artists or art movements I've been influenced by, I think, I'm a fan of Rebecca Belmore - I'm not a performance artist full time, but I think my direction might go in that way because I've been using performance as well as a way to draw in the audience and have the audience participate while they're attending whatever event I do. It's been quite enjoyable and I think that's the direction I might be going into later as I get older. 
 
Louis Esmé: How does the land and the water where you're from influence your work? 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: Well, [with] the language revitalization that I'm working on, [I learned] the Mi'kmaq hieroglyphics are from the land. So That they were originally used as maps. That's the story my elders wrote about back in '95 when my elder, the late Murdena Marshall, published a book about the history of the Mi'kmaq hieroglyphics. That book really influenced my thought process around the written language. 
 
It planted the seed and [how] the seed allowed me to to think about [the art process], since '95, about what can I do? Because my elders have done a lot of work to preserve [the language], and each generation does something [else] someone like me will go: "oh, my God,", you know, "this is incredible.” There's an expansion per each generation and I know that regardless of what I do, the next generation will do something even more incredible. So Planting seeds is [now] part of my process and [yes] the land influences the work. My photography [represents] the landscape, and I paint over the photographs, the way my ancestors would have painted over and etched into stone or into the landscape or birch bark. It inspires my work a lot. 
 
Louis Esmé: How does your gender identity and/or sexual orientation, knowing that these are not Mi'kmaq concepts necessarily, how do you feel like they influenced your early years and how does that influence your work now?
 
Michelle Sylliboy: Hm, those ideas or concepts, I'm in my 50s, so I think those questions are more for the younger generation. I know when I talk to my friends who are older than me have I found - not very often do I come across people - it's very few who identify or have this need around gender identity, sexual orientation it’s a western influence. [In] my poetry, I will write about  my relationships with other women and how that impacts me. In [my writing] world it has a great influence, so I will write about it, but when it comes to my artwork, it tends to be more about cultural identity more than sexual orientation or whatever. 
 
Louis Esmé: What role did art play in your early years? How did it influence your work?
 
Michelle Sylliboy: What role did art play and how has that influenced your work... 
 
In the 30 years that I've been doing the work. I collaborate with people, and one of the things that I learned early on was that I really enjoyed bringing younger people together with [professional] artists. It was something that I thought was very important. As soon as I graduated from Emily Carr, I recognized that a lot of young people do not have that opportunity to connect with emerging [or professional] artists the way they should. So every time I did an event or curated a project, I brought young people together with people who have been in the art world for a long time or who have been [in the art world, or who have been] writing for a long time. And to me, that's Native ways of being, Indigenous ways of being, and that is our epistemology really, is to connect one another. 
 
Louis Esmé: Can you say more about the generation that you grew up in and how that's influenced your ideas about art? 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: Storytelling - I think an artist's goal is to generate stories and dialogue, and sometimes you have to tell the difficult stories and generally artists will tell the difficult stories and they will create a way to make you think, and make an impact from a subliminal level to a conscious level, and those are the friendships that I formed with other artists because they have this need - not need - but they play an important role in generating dialogues amongst cross-culture, cultures and community awareness, and also being the bridge between how to communicate important issues that are affecting our people right across the country and sometimes the world. 
 
Louis Esmé: So the next section talks about your Indigenous identity and what aspects of your Indigenous identity influence your art practise. 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: My Indigenous identity, it influences me quite a great deal. I am very fortunate that I grew up with my people and I grew up on the reserve. I speak the language, as a child people taught me how to sing the songs and the dances and [the ability to go] into the woods and know which medicines to pick and what not to pick. Every year I would and pick sweetgrass and ki'kwesu'skul, which some people call ragroot, and [I] gather them for the winter because you need the ki'kwesu'skul. I mean, if I was with you right now, I would hand you the ki'kwesu'skul for your poor cold, and I thank you for doing this even though you don't feel so good. 
 
Louis Esmé: You know, that's so funny, I just picked some up the other day. So can I mail you some after and with some tobacco as well? That's really funny.
 
Michelle Sylliboy: Ah, you can do whatever you want, you need to take your ragroot though. I don't need it, I have some already, you know. But the way I look at the world, of course, it's from a First Nation's world view and it's how I see. Everything I do is connected in that aspect. And sometimes not, sometimes I just deal with issues of the day. So [In] my book of poetry, I wrote about issues of the day and what was going on around me and how that impacts our way of life with the land and culture.
 
Number 4b. Cultural teachings around gender and sexuality, if you feel comfortable sharing how do they relate to your art practice? 
 
You know, I firmly -  in the Mi'kmaq way, they say that women are supposed to communicate with other women if you need support or teachings or whatever, and that the males are supposed to go to the men, if they need teachings or whatever, but I find that as I get older I call my friends who I feel comfortable with. And I think it's about knowing where you're safe, because I think Residential School and the Federal Day School has taken that aspect of our lives away, they ripped it apart. And a lot of people are trying to revitalize our roles within our own communities and society. And that's missing and has been for a long time because you don't see people going to their uncles or their aunties, you know, young men who just become new parents and who don't recognize that, you know, their partner just gave birth to your child. They're not ignoring you. They're trying to, you know, feed the child, take care of the child, your child, and it's time for that mother to do what they set out to do, which is to nurture and raise a newborn. I told my niece, if you have that communication to go and see his uncles, or see a male, older male who has successfully raised children and what made it successful. 
 
So, yeah, both roles need to be revitalized as far as I'm concerned. You know, let's teach the future generations how to communicate [to] and go and feel safe and communicate, period. A lot of our people don't know how to communicate because Residential Schools and Federal Day Schools slapped that out of us. We were shamed into not saying anything. 
 
Louis Esmé: Yeah. 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: And if you're a child of a Residential School Survivor and you're a Federal Day School Survivor, it's a double whammy.
 
Louis Esmé: How do you think that -. 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: Sorry, go ahead. 
 
Louis Esmé: Well, just, how do you feel that art can do - can open those lines of communication? 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: When I [write with] the hieroglyphics. I am very careful of what words to say or what words to write about, we've got to choose our words wisely because it affects people around us. And so I was very mindful when I was writing my poetry. And what message do I want to come across, who's going to read my book? I really, really paid attention to that, because once it leaves my, you know, laptop it's done, or even my own space. I was very conscious of it, yeah I was mindful of it. 
 
Louis Esmé: How do you feel your gender identity and or sexual orientation influences your art? 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: If I write about it in my poetry, it does influence it, not all the time, but it depends how I'm feeling. Everything depends on how I'm feeling and if it's necessary, I'll write about it. My language is verb oriented, so it has to be happening in the moment. If you're fluent in your language, you would understand it. And I don't know if you are fluent in your language, but Mi'kmaq people are very task oriented and everything's happening in that moment because the language is like that, it's action oriented. And so, we describe things as they're happening. 
 
And that's what's going on with my work, I describe things as they're happening, and so I'm almost like, you know, a newscaster or whatever. I think all Mi'kmaq people are newscasters because they are describing what's going on. And that makes it a very complicated, complex thing because the language itself can be described in millions of ways. You can ask Mi'kmaq people; how do you say something? You know, if you ask for one word or two words or a statement, "how would I say this?" and if you were in a room full of people, you will get a room full of answers because they are describing how they [see the world] - what they think is the response you need to hear. So it's quite interesting, very complicated, too, because it makes my dissertation and doctoral work quite complicated. 
 
Louis Esmé: Yeah. 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: All right. Where are we, 5b?  So Do I identify as Two Spirit or (unclear) how do you identify? Well, the Two Spirit - the Two Spirit definition is a translation, from an Ojibwe word. And that's great, and I remember in the 90s, I felt kind of relieved that I wasn't alone in the way I felt about the word lesbian or gay, because I thought, I [never felt] comfortable with this. And when we started having those conversations in the early 90s, I thought, oh, I'm not alone. This is great, I could deal with that [meaning]. But then as I got older, I recognized each nation should be reclaiming how they're identified in their culture, in their language. So I've been trying to work that through, even now it's like how do I identify? And do I even want to, right? Because the language is so complicated. So that's something I'm wrestling with right now. 
 
Louis Esmé: Yeah. 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: But for the sake of the common [usage] - for people to identify, [or to] identify me, because everybody knows the word Two Spirit, I'll use it for the sake of simplicity, you know? 
 
Louis Esmé: How do you feel that, you know, knowing that, that you've shared that - how do you feel that the way that you are as a Mi'kmaq artist who's rethinking about these words and doing your own work with these concepts? Do you feel that this is consequential to your art? 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: Well, I'm trying to preserve a language, a written language, and I think it's important for each nation, whether you're Ojibwe, Cree, Mohawk or Wet'suwet'en, whatever, that you research your own language and history so that you can preserve from your own way, from your own culture.  I think it's important because Two Spirit [has] now becomes a melting pot that [someone like] Joseph Boyden is claiming. [That’s crazy] he's a straight man. And so it's complicated, right? It's become something it's not. 
 
And so people are abusing the word and redefining it even. And that, to me, is disrespectful to the Ojibwe people because it's their translation. And so I'm very conscious that, you know, I'm very aware of [conservation] and protecting [of] our culture and our identity, because we're at an interesting time [in history] because everyone wants to be Native and there are Indigenous [communities] being torn apart by people who are claiming their ancestors from the sixteen hundred. And so. We actually do need to protect our culture and our language. There are positions within the Two Spirit communities. 
 
Louis Esmé: How do you feel this shows up in your artwork? 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: Does it show up in my artwork? Not really. It's not in my artwork. No, because I'm more concerned about the issues of the day. I haven't. I've never done my art around my [sexual] identity because I tend to involve everyone within in my space. Now, if you happen to be Two Spirit, great. But when you're in the culture and within your community, you're part of the community, it has nothing to do with sexuality. 
 
Louis Esmé: As an Indigenous artist, what is your experience with mainstream art scenes? 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: It's been very positive and I enjoy working with the community in the mainstream, I came into it late, I guess I should say, kind of late, because I was always in the background supporting other artists and now it's my turn. For the last 25, 30 years, I've been supporting others. And it's time for Michelle to go out there and show her work and do the work. [And so], it has been a very positive experience, so far. 
 
Louis Esmé: What’s been useful in terms of solidarity and support from non-Indigenous artists? 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: You know, everybody I know in the art world. Your sexuality is not an issue, but maybe [but maybe} because a lot of my friends have been in the business for a very long time, 25, 30, 40 years, and we all have our different experiences. I know that people who are older than me [who] broke the ice in the mold and allowed someone like me to walk in and go, Okay, I'm fine. I'm safe because someone older made it possible [paved the way].
 
I'm very lucky because [I was] part of the community when the Toronto Two Spirit society started, I was there when we created the organization. And so [I] had those conversations when the Toronto Two Spirits was [talked about]. A lot of the people in that room were, you know, 10, 15, 20 years older than me, and they were, you know, [and] they made it possible to have that [conversation] so that younger people would not know what it's like to be discriminated against or have a safe place to go to and have a safe environment to congregate and connect and learn about [their] gifts as you know, Two Spirit people, because it is the gifts that make us separate from everybody else [from other cultures] and once you recognize what those gifts are as a Two Spirit person, a person [with] who has multiple gifts that need to be nurtured, young people need to be aware that there are things about us that need to be nurtured.
 
Young people need to go to people that recognize what's going on with you, because we've been through it and we've been nurtured, and we survived it because some of our gifts are quite powerful. And so, having that safe place and having a conversation with people who have those gifts, and those teachings are necessary.
 
Michelle Sylliboy: I was very happy when the society was formed and I finally had a safe place to have those conversations with people. And I thought, oh, I'm not crazy. It's okay to feel this way. It's okay that [you know] there are strange things happening to me. I can talk to somebody about it because it's normal. I mean, when it comes to Indigenous worldview, there are things that [are] normal to us and not for non-Indigenous people. You'll notice a lot of gay members work in the field of health  in services. [Why?] because they have the gift of compassion and they have the gift of medicine and they know how to bridge those worlds. It's always, you know, somebody... if you start to be aware of the kind of people that work in those fields, you'd be surprised how many, whether they're native or non-native. 
 
Louis Esmé: Are there things that you feel that the mainstream art scene can do better to support Two Spirit, Trans, Non-Binary, and/or Women Indigenous artists? 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: What question are you on? 
 
Louis Esmé: 6c. 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: I guess, are you talking about racism? 
 
Louis Esmé: I mean, yeah, I guess it's up to you to decide if there's - which part of that you feel you can speak to, but definitely racism is something that we can address better. 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: I think that sexism is quite predominant in all aspects of society. And in the art scene, you know that is true. Sexism is very predominant. And when you look at who are the major players and who are the artists that are being supported, it's generally men. I think that the Arts community has to make amends to other people that exist in this world other than men, Native men too have to speak up and go, If my art is worth a $100,000, my sister's art is as well, and that it's a very valid and necessary thing to fight for because if you put seasoned artists together who have been practising at the same time one a man, one is a woman, and it would be the man's work that would be sold at a much higher price, equally valid, equally educated, equally whatever. But it's always the men that get higher price. And so that to me needs to be looked at and torn apart and go, hey, what's going on here? but that is a western way of doing things, it's a patriarchal system, patriarchal way of thinking, and even in Indigenous societies. So I think we need to sit down and the men need to step up to the plate. You know, you've enjoyed these privileges, so now you need to start supporting [both of you]. 
 
Louis Esmé: Do you want to talk about how mainstream art scenes can better support Artists of Colour, Indigenous artists who are Brown, dark or POC, Black? 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: Well, start hiring. Hire the Two Spirit, Transgender, Non-Binary, Women. Start showing their work in the gallery’s permanent gallery, that don't discriminate against. If you're going to have a collection of Indigenous art from across Canada, [come on] balance it out. [Don’t just buy men’s work]. Make it equal. [Let’s support one another.]
 
Louis Esmé: Does your art practice involve or include non-Indigenous artists? 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: Well, when I asked that question about the whale, I did ask non-Aboriginal people that same question and I've collaborated with a lot of non-Aboriginal poets and musicians. Yes, I collaborate with other artists, and it doesn't really matter to me if you're Native or non-Native.
 
If you're a great artist and you're not racist or homophobic then I'll work with you. But, you know, it's been generally positive in that aspect. I've enjoyed working cross culturally and also just focused on the art. So, yes, I have, it's been great. 
 
Louis Esmé: So the next section, seven, Indigenous Art Scenes: as an Indigenous artist, what's been your experience with Indigenous art scenes? 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: Pretty positive, Native people tend to work together. They collaborate. I've learnt a lot in that world because we support one another. 
 
If I'm looking for a curator, I will look for an Indigenous curator first so that they get the support and they get to put that on their resume, and if I can't find someone, then I will go elsewhere. But I generally try to support artists who I feel would bode well in that collaborative experience and I think. I don't know, maybe native people are used to working and collaborating and supporting one other because we need each other and it's a small community. And so it's really valuable and important to support and lift each other up. And I've always [experienced] that with other artists, you know, we're here to lift each other up, and that's been great. It's been really wonderful. 
 
Louis Esmé: What's been useful for you in terms of solidarity and support from other Indigenous artists? 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: What's been useful. I guess expanding and growing the network and sharing knowledge and sharing ideas and also allowing each other to be nurtured? 
 
In whatever field that we're working on or whatever project that we're working on, and it could be just a phone call a phone call of support, you know, or an email, a support and go - because we tend to be isolated, artists tend to be isolated, and sometimes you have to just reach out and go, hey, what's going on? I haven't heard from you, and so that in itself is very helpful. And also, you know, if you know that certain artists need that extra financial support and a job or whatever, you make it happen, if the funding has been approved, you make it happen, so. but definitely the sharing and supporting one another has been valuable right across Canada and sometimes the other side of the world. So I do [have been] very lucky that way.
 
We do need each other and we learn from each other and communicate. And, you know, if we make mistakes, we can gently let each other know. But that's the beauty of the Indigenous art scene. We do support one another. And if you don't know anybody, then maybe we can help you and introduce you to somebody that can help you in your field. 
 
Louis Esmé: That leads into the next question of: how do you offer support and solidarity to artists whose lived experiences are distinct from your own? 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: I've been working in education for a long time, I worked with youth for a very long time, so I've always had opportunities to support someone's dreams. And I will, if they're like, I really want to be an actor, or, I really want to be stage directing, or I really want to do filmmaking. I will introduce them to people I know and go, here's your connection. It's up to you now [to do] what you want to do with it. I'll let the other artist know that you might be calling and, you know, I will give them that information, and if they need support, if they needed support for education, I [will] set up educational opportunities for them because it's important for someone to walk you through the steps because someone could be terrified. I don't want to walk into that institution because of past traumas, or maybe they're too shy or whatever, but they just needed that gentle hand. Okay, this is good. You know, that's been my role as an educator for 25 years. 
 
Louis Esmé: That's really awesome. Yeah. Does your art practice involve or include global Indigenous artists and how does this impact your work? 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: Right now, yes. I learnt how to carve the whalebone when I was in New Zealand back in 95. Must have been 95, I know it was around 25, 24 years ago, when I was in my undergrad, it was my first year of undergrad [but] before I went into that program I had gone [to] the Commonwealth Games in Victoria. I think that was 1990. It could be 1992, must be 90s, and I met this incredible carver, Māori carver, because the Commonwealth Games had been in New Zealand four years prior and so they were passing on the baton.
 
[At the time] I was very fortunate to be working with this couple who were selling native arts jewellery. I was just a young kid and I really wanted to learn how to carve and I met this carver. I gave him this piece of jade, and I [thought] he was supposed to have it. And he was so touched by that gift of exchange. I asked him, what do you do for a living? [He said], I'm a carver. And I said, oh, I said, I've always wanted to learn how to carve, and he [said], I'll teach you. I said, careful what you say, I said, because I will call you on it, and he [said, go ahead] call me on it. Here's my card.
 
Few years later I went into the Fine Arts program at Langara College, and I found that card again. I thought, I think it's time, so I applied for grants and I went to New Zealand. I spent the summer, our summer there and he taught me how to carve whalebones. I carried that whale bone for [many] years. [For years] I would have these incredible dreams of whales over and over again, hundreds of them, never alone. They were always in a pod. And each time the whales would tell me something and each time I would wake up and go, wow, that was powerful. And none of it made sense until I started to carve the whale that I had now. 
 
Last summer I had an opportunity to go back to New Zealand, to the NAISA conference, to present the work that I was doing to other doctoral students, and I met this other doctoral student a Samoan woman who is a [also] poet. The organizer of the NAISA doctoral [student] conference, looked at me, she was a Māori Two Spirit woman. She looked at me and she looked at Fetaui and she goes, you are a poet, and you are a poet you two should read [poetry]. 
 
We looked at each other [and said] the host just asked us to read. So we read our poetry. We stood across from each other in front of this huge crowd and we read our poetry, and after that experience we had a conversation [and] got to know each other. and She [said] you need to meet my sister. And she kept saying this over and over again, you need to meet my sister, my oldest sister, and I said, Okay. And, you know, we spent the conference chatting and getting to know each other and then at the end [she keeps repeating], you really need to meet my sister, I want you to meet my sister. And I said, Okay, I will meet your sister. I said, I will go to Auckland a few days early so that I can spend time with you and your family and this sister of yours, and she [said], Okay! And so I get there and she tells me, my sister is dying of cancer. I said, Oh, okay. And I said, Alright, [let’s go].  And she's about to have her cancer treatment and that's where you're going to meet her. 
 
Alright, so we get to the hospital. Prior to the conference, the whalebone that I carved like 25 years earlier, I knew that I had to take that whalebone home back to New Zealand, because the job was done, the whale had done its job, and it was time for the whale to go home. 
 
So during the process of meeting the sister, who is also Two Spirited. [I] get to the hospital and she was anxious about the treatment and she was, as you know, at the end stage of her life, and we started talking and I started to do some body work on her and then I showed her sisters, she had all these sisters, and I said, Okay, these are pressure points for you to press whenever your sister has anxiety about her treatment. And then she started to tell me what she wanted to do before she died. Her sister and I went to this health food natural path store. I said, I know exactly what you need that will prolong your life and I'm going to go get it. So we went and got it and I made [the tea] for her and after I made it, I went to her, [by now] she was home, and I said, what do you need ? What do you want to do? She said, I want to go to Hawaii to meet my family and see them one more time. 
 
And I said, Okay, drink this medicine. Tell the medicine exactly what you need, thank the medicine And each time you drink it; you thank it and you tell it exactly what you need and it'll do it for you.
 
[After which I] left [but] on my way to the airport I realized that my bone carving that I made was meant for her. And so I [told her] sister, I have this bone pendant that I made the last time that I was here, I think your sister has to take it back to the Spirit World and thank the whale [on my behalf], and during that time I was with her. Her sister [told me she] was a world class waka captain. She was a Seafarer; the ocean was in her blood, it was incredible. I was just blown away and I thought, wow, this is incredible, no wonder Fetaui kept saying ‘you have to meet my sister.’ ‘You have to meet my sister.’ It was such an incredible connection. It was like love at first sight, you know, and mourning at the same time, because I only got to know that person for a couple days. And I gifted her the best thing I've ever carved, and I asked her to return it back to the whale's spirit, that was a very valuable spiritual journey that I went on. And it didn't even occur to me; because you never know who you're going to meet. You have to always open up and be prepared for goodness and for incredible, [for] healing to happen.
 
But I also know that the whale did its job. While I was in New Zealand, I stayed at this home full of women who were working with women who [came from] difficult home situations. [The home] was started by a lesbian couple. They were no longer a couple, but they still worked together because they believed in the cause of supporting women who were in abusive situations. And they gave me this pendant and it was a beautiful bone pendant, and a friend of mine took me for this cruise and toured us around. We ended up on this beach that the movie - I don't know how old you are, but there was a movie back in the 90s called “The Piano,” and it was filmed in that location, it was a movie that I watched [years ago]. I [remember I] looked at my friend at the time and I said, I'm going to New Zealand. [She said], what do you mean, I’m going to that beach and I'm going to New Zealand, and I did [just by] watching that movie. [Anyways] the waves were so strong, I had rearranged the string on my pendant [before we left] and it fell off, the ocean took my pendant. I didn't know until we were like ten minutes away and I thought, oh my God, my pendant's gone. 
 
By the time we got back to the beach, it was dark. And we looked, and looked, but couldn't find it, and I said, well, the ocean took it. And [I kid you not] this is like a miracle, after I realized I have to give my whale bone back to the spirit of the whale; a week later, that whale bone that I lost to the ocean came back, 
 
It was the most incredible thing. I posted on the community Facebook page a photo of my pendant and I said, I lost this here on your beach, if somebody finds it can they please return it [to my Canadian address]. A South African tourist found it and a local person recognized it and said, I know whose that is she just posted it on Facebook. 
 
Louis Esmé: That's incredible! 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: I know, I know. That [waka] woman, she died after she came back from Hawaii. She passed away a couple weeks later. And the family honoured my wishes Emma was very honoured to wear it back to the spirit world and gift it back to the whale.
 
Louis Esmé: Thank you for sharing that, yeah. 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: They actually made a documentary movie about her life because she was so incredible. Yeah. And it's in the editing stages right now. I don't know when it's going to come out, but it's in the editing stages right now. 
 
Louis Esmé: I want to see it when it comes out, she sounds great. 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: I know she was… I mean, I only know I knew her for a couple of days and then I got to know about her through her family and it's like, oh my God, my. 
 
Anyway that’s [a huge] problem, I'll go off on a whole different tangent. 
 
Louis Esmé: Stories are important. 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: I know. How do we... Where are we? 
 
Louis Esmé: Number eight, social issues. 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: Well, I try to address every aspect that I can and almost everything that I do is around social and cultural issues [in] my work. If you read my poetry book [and] you see my artwork almost everything I do is social and cultural issues. Photography, writing, sculpting. 
 
Louis Esmé: How does your creative practice involve community? Can you share about your process? 
 
Michelle Sylliboy: Oh, God, I've been doing capacity building since the beginning of my art career, and that's all I do even when I was launching my book, I collaborated with musicians, local musicians in every city I went to and it was incredible. It was important for me to involve other artists so they can showcase their work. I wanted younger musicians to collaborate with older musicians, it was my dream that if they worked well together in that community, that they would continue with the collaboration, and so I still do what I've always done, even though it's about my work.