Kin‑dling and other radical relationalities

Brent Michael Davids (Lenape) during First Nations Dialogues' Kinstillatory Mappings in Light and Dark Matter. Photo Ian Douglas
Brent Michael Davids (Lenape) during First Nations Dialogues' Kinsillatory Mappings in Light and Dark matter.
Photo: Ian Douglas.

On a night in the woods north of Tallahassee at Pine Arbor Tribal Community, Mvskoke scholar, linguist and elder Sakim told me that in Muscogee (Creek) cosmology, what we know of as the Milky Way is the path of ancestors—and he said, “I think we all know, our bodies are stars.” And the belt of Orion? It isn’t a belt. And it isn’t Orion. It’s a butterfly. And the belt part is actually the juicy middle part of the butterfly. And the top wing is this world and the bottom wing is a reflection of this world. And then there’s that liminal, juicy line. So there’s always you, and there’s always the reflection of you, in play.[1]

There are these brilliantly shining stars above us. Some of us can’t see them so well, as though we forget to look up or they are shielded through our ceilings or lost in the light pollution. It’s good when I remember they’re there when I am where I live, in the brightly lit town of New York City, on Mannahatta in Lenapehoking. They offer me grounding. When I am in consensual relationship with star beings I feel more deeply the ground and I understand more wholly how to move.

I get to work and be in what is currently called Australia a lot. I have family and loved ones there, human kin and more than human too. I was in the bush on Country about four years ago now. And it was so dark. And the stars were so bright. And it’s a different sky there than I am used to, as most of you reading this know, but I was so far north, just outside Broome, I could see part of the sky I recognise and it landed me, in relation to the sky I knew less well. And of course, it’s one sky, as it is one ground. I spend so much time thinking and being with ground that there is a dance I do that teaches us to move, bit by bit, across the world. Well, it can, if you focus hard enough.

I was with an astronomer on this particular night outside of Broome and he pointed his green laser up to a dark patch in the sky and he said, “this is not a place with no stars. There are billions of stars, right here. These are just dark nebulae, blocking your view.” It reminded me of Sakim, of his words and teaching. It reminded me of what we forget.

During the bushfires recently, we gathered—pre‑pandemic, when we could gather—around a Kinstillatory Mappings in Light and Dark Matter fire on the Lower East Side of Mannahatta. We passed a hat for the Fire Relief Fund for First Nations Communities and Wildlife Victoria. We ate soup, we snuggled under quilts on a cold night, we gathered love. Demian DinéYazhi’, Nicole Wallace, and Karyn Recollet shared poems and essays and light. We were kinstillatory in action, in thought. We shared space across ground, across stars—and we reflected our love, bouncing off fire‑light to you.

We share an excerpt of a larger essay entitled “Kin‑dling and radical relationalities” in order to introduce a set of provocations that we are thinking alongside—together. This is an introduction to concepts and thoughtlines woven into a longer thought experiment. We ask of you to please stay in conversation with us as we are learning that kin‑in‑the‑making also holds space for rupture, as much as it gestures towards joy. We fall in love—over and over again—with the provocations of Nehiyew scholar/poet Billy‑Ray Belcourt,


Sister of forest fire, sister who dwells in the wreckage. she who forages/for the right things in the wrong places. nothing is utopia and so she/prays to a god for a back that can bend like a tree splitting open to/make room for the heat.[2]


Quilt from Emily Johnson’s performance project, Then a Cunning Voice and A Night We Spend Gazing at Stars, 2017. During the provocation: This is Lenapehoking, countering perceived invisibility for Umyuangvigkaq at the ACE Hotel in NYC with PS122, Georgia Lucas, who was then 11 1⁄2 years old, and the youngest person in the room, looked up from her sewing and said, “I was born here. But now I understand. This land does not belong to me, but I belong to the land.”
Detail of Quilt from Emily Johnson’s performance project, Then a Cunning Voice and A Night We Spend Gazing at Stars, 2017.During the provocation: This is Lenapehoking, countering perceived invisibility or Umyuangvigkaq at the ACE Hotel in NYC with PS122, Georgia Lucas, who was then 11 1⁄2 years old, and the youngest person in the room, looked up from her sewing and said, “I was born here. But now I understand. This land does not belong to me, but I belong to the land.”

We are Emily Johnson (Director, Emily Johnson/Catalyst) and Karyn Recollet (Assistant Professor, Women and Gender Studies). In this article we expand Recollet’s writing on glyphing through reflecting, challenging, and holding space for her concept kinstillatory glyphing.[3] We also engage Johnson’s view of dance as everything: culture, history, past, present, future; as vital spaces of gathering meant for shifts of consciousness, awareness, and responsibility.[4]

As artists/scholars it is important for Recollet and Johnson to build relationships with the land upon which they visit and live—these relationships extend to responsibility, care, reciprocity, and anti‑colonial understandings of love.

An urban Cree, Recollet was removed from her home community at Sturgeon Lake, Saskatchewan. In foster care for the first six months of her life, she was adopted by a mostly British family and raised by her beloved grandparents and mother in Southern Ontario. She met her beautiful extended family in Sturgeon Lake when she was eighteen. As a consequence, Recollet creates her grounding as celestial, as her kinships manifest in relationship with the stars.

Emily Johnson is a dancemaker of Yup’ik descent. She makes dances for every body and is trying to make a world where performance is part of life; where performance is an integral connection to each other, our environment, our stories, our pasts, present, and futures. Emily grew up in Alaska with her extended family in close proximity. Family gatherings centred on harvests of salmon, moose, and berries frame her worldview and work ethic.

We work together in many forms as sisters and colleagues. We work from ground to sky and beyond; through love and rupture, with word, thought and action. We help focus each other’s curiosity, intuition and research; and together we create offerings through dance, writing, star activations, fire gatherings, all‑night performances, seven‑hour long Umyuangviqak’s—which are endurance‑based round‑table discussions held by councils of Indigenous women. We also hike, or have hiked, and send messages to one another across space time.

We tend to notions of radical relationality, kinships, care, and our comprehension of star worlds. By radical relationality, we are thinking with the idea of “relations of care” as a concept and idea shared by Donna Haraway and Maria Puig de la Bellacasa. Drawing upon Haraway’s relational ontology, that “beings do not pre‑exist their relatings,” and Haraway’s thoughts on the situatedness of knowledge,[5] Puig de la Bellacasa evokes ways of thinking with care, and how we come to imagine relations as a means of worlding.[6] As such, our praxis is necessarily dialogical and relational. The processes that we evoke in our practice are processual as we gather, collectively witness, and provoke—with knowledge holders Indigenous to the territories on which we are visitors.

We ask of this collective work, how do we make consensual, nurturing, respectful, and loving relationships with one another, the lands we occupy, our more‑than‑human kin on earth, with stars and constellations, Ancestors, and beings yet to come? Our collaborative process is rooted in the understanding that we do not activate land; rather, land activates us—therefore curation is light and open to possibilities. What are some points of departure kinstillatory gatherings can offer to activate territories and explore dialogical, movement‑based spaces? And further, what have we been learning and witnessing as part of this process?

Our intentions are to think with fire as a technology and be‑ing that embodies and explicates forms of Indigenous sociality, a concept whose inspiration was drawn from Ashon Crawley’s insightful writing in Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility.[7] We ruminate on the possibilities of fire as a conduit for expressions of love and intimacy toward place and each other. We describe the potential of fire as kinship—a be‑ing that renders possible futures for Indigenous folx; and we evoke a conversation which centres kinstillatory gatherings as a methodology.

First kinstillatory fire on Grand Street at Abrons Arts Center. Pictured: Muriel Miguel, Carole Johnson, Deborah Ratelle, Murielle Borst Tarrant, Kevin Tarrant, Lily Bo Shapiro, Ali Rosa‐Salas.

Kinstillatory Mappings in Light and Dark Matter are monthly fire‑side gatherings held on the Lower East Side of Manhahtaan in the amphitheatre of Abrons Arts Center. With careful attention, Kinstillatory Mappings are spaces wherein Indigenous folx have the capacity for sharing in joy; while providing an opportunity for non‑Indigenous folx to witness interruptions of normative space/time. Within these fire gatherings non‑Indigenous settlers are expected to challenge each other’s appropriative actions, and focus on responsibility, accountability, and care. This is achieved through sensorial activations alongside meaningful conversation, witnessing, and potential accomplicing.

As a form of relational practice, we continue to learn about occupying in‑between spaces, and have gained insight into how to move within rupture. Ongoing tensions we experience include navigating complicated assumptions of Indigeneity, and gendered restrictions impacting our fire keeping practice. Also, we acknowledge our positionality as visitors on Indigenous territories, as neither of us consider many of the spaces on which we create work as our homelands. Nehiyaw Métis scholar/ lawyer Chelsea Vowel asks us to consider the ethics of guest‑ing well on Indigenous territories:


Are guests only those people who are invited? Or are they anyone who finds themselves within the physical territory of their hosts? To what extent was permission actually sought to be in these territories, and conduct the affairs that Indigenous nations are thanked for “hosting”? What if an Indigenous person stood up and revoked that assumed permission?[8]

Meeting the technologies of fire.  Photo: Emily Johnson.

Kinstillatory Glyphing:

Jumping scale into the atmospherics

Kinstillatory describes (a) a choreography of relationality with land, ancestors (including future ancestors and more‑than‑human kin) and possibilities; and (b) a technology to spatially orient a collective to think, dream, and activate community futures through forms of dance, song, feasting, and witnessing.

The concept Kinstillatory coalesced through witnessing the choreography of Starr Muranko’s Spine of the Mother. This piece created visual and sonic glyphs centring the sounds of stars in relationship with one another captured through the aural vibrations of two rocks rubbing against each others’ bodies—thus sounding each others’ grooves and textures.

Within the choreographic vocabulary of Spine of the Mother, dancemaker Tasha Faye Evans gestures towards a projected image of the cosmos, wielding precious rocks in her hands which she then places on fellow dancemaker Andrea Patriau’s spine. This activation is an embodied alignment between body and land, gesturing lands’ overflow into sky/space. This piece offers an otherwise orientation where our grounding can be considered more celestially rooted, thus evoking the possibility that constellations (for instance the Pleiades) are simultaneously futuristic maps and ancestral portals to our spaces of origin.

Kinstillatory describes a relational practice of being grounded when you are not of this place, and considers the possibilities of rooting/routing towards the sky. This concept also refers to falling in love with rupture to mimic the practices of supernovas exploding to expel mass/consciousness, thus providing a framework to jump scale through extending the potentials for multi‑variant grounding practices.

Kinstillatory informs a complex, more celestially‑rooted form of land pedagogy, wherein gatherings create possibilities to enter into what Grace Dillon has conceptualised to be Indigenous slipstream space/time.[9] We perceive the need for methodologies to accommodate rupture, as Indigenous artists/scholars/activists are brilliantly and necessarily articulating these orientations towards the future. For example, Nehiyaw scholar/multidisciplinary artist Kirsten Linquist asks, “how do we form relationships and communicate in times of stress?.”[10] 

Kinstillatory gatherings are more than think tanks, they are perhaps spaces for “a new generation emerging into the heartbreak” (Mylan Tootoosis).[11] In these moments, young people experiencing this heartbreak could use a refuge, a stillness from the storm … a constellation that holds them up and supports them—an incubator for ideas, renewal, resistance, the gathering together of hearts and minds to create futurity maps to activate their gorgeous joy.

Kinstillatory Mappings:

A monthly fire‑side gathering on the Lower East Side

Land‐ing, joy. Thomas E.S. Kelly (Bundjalung‐Yugambeh/Wiradjuri/ Ni‐Vanuatu) leads a dance during First Nations Dialogues’ Kinstillatory Mapping in Light and Dark Matter, January 2019. Photo: Ian Douglas.

“The SilverCloud Singers were drumming and Lucien was grilling vegetables—we all shared the intimacy of song, food, dancing, waiting … the kids asking Lucien about the ingredients as the fire marshall and I took turns lifting the security lid off the fire in order to roast tomatoes—holding the heat together, eventually passing the plate of vegetables, then meringues, then tea … how the kids were over the moon and how the drummers led us through the night—at the fire and with the food—and the collective gathering of strangers and families and how we round danced! And how the kids kept dancing. It seemed an important fire. It seemed, thus far, the most PLACED.”

Activating within and alongside urban Indigenous Lenape land space, Johnson hosts and tends these fires with a careful consideration of fire as central be‑ing. The fire creates the opportunity for kin‑in‑the‑making, opening portal spaces and generating kinstillatory glyphs in space/time continuums. Lightly curated, Johnson mobilises the forms of these gatherings: visiting, witnessing, sharing, tending, drumming—all in the presence of fire and one another—on, within, and alongside Lenape land and water.

Fire determines the shapes of these gatherings—embodying and offering ethical and generative forms of gathering, witnessing, and accomplicing. Kinstillatory gatherings are thus cyphers; interventions encouraging the collective untangling of settler colonial choreographies of space‑making. Kinstillatory Mappings in Light and Dark Matter have fostered further thinking about kinstillatory as a praxis of Indigenous care to create space for more nuanced discussions of Indigenous radical relations.

Fire’s capacities as a relative/kin specifically situated on Lenape homelands, creates a hub space for Indigenous sociality through forms of intimacy. As the fire is cared for, the fire in‑turn creates space and calls people in. The fire’s sound, gestures, movement, and warmth become the technologies for kin‑in‑the‑making: neighbour meeting neighbour, child meeting fire, settler meeting round dance—an Indigenously defined space.

The space itself, filled at times with drum or song, poem, story, and silence becomes an in‑between space full of care, welcome, pause and eclipse. Just off busy Grand Street in Lower Manhahtaan, the intention is for people to walk into this space off the sidewalk, to come knowing there is a gathering or to join it in surprise. This is otherworlding, this is futurity building. The intentions/wishes of this essay are for our readers to walk alongside us as we enter these territories of otherworlding in metaphor, sound, possibility and sometimes revelling in the necessary pauses and stillness.

SilverCloud Singers at Kinstillatory Mappings in Light and Dark Matter.



  1. ^ Sakim, personal communication, March 2016. 
  2. ^ Billy‑Ray Belcourt, “The Rez Sisters II,” In This Wound Is A World, Calgary, AB: Frontenac House, 2017.
  3. ^ Billy‑Ray Belcourt, “The Rez Sisters II,” In This Wound Is A World, Calgary, AB: Frontenac House, 2017.
  4. ^ Emily Johnson, “Then a Cunning Voice and A Night We Spend Gazing at Stars,” in Daniel Sack (ed.), Imagined Theatres: Writing for a Theoretical Stage, New York: Routledge, 2017, p. 219.
  5. ^ Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14:3, 1988, pp. 575–99. 
  6. ^ Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in the More than Human Worlds. Minneapolis: University of Arizona Press, 2017. 
  7. ^ Ashon Crawley, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, New York: Fordham University Press, 2016. 
  8. ^ Chelsea Vowell, “Beyond Territorial Acknowledgements,” Apihtawikosisan ( blog), 23 September 2016. 
  9. ^ Grace Dillon, Walking the Clouds, An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 2012. 
  10. ^ Kirsten Linquist, “Using Digital Media Arts and Technology for Decolonial Truth‑Telling Across Temporal/ Spatial Layers and Networks.” Conference presentation presented at the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association Conference, Los Angeles, California, May 2018. 
  11. ^ Mylan Tootoosis, “The System isn’t Broken, it was built this Way: Seeking Justice for Colten Boushie and Tina Fontain.” Conference roundtable presented at the Native American and indigenous Studies Association Conference, Los Angeles, California, May 2018. 

Emily Johnson is a Yup’ik artist, choreographer and director of Catalyst, whose works function as installations, engaging audiences in sensing and seeing performance and environments, where performance is part of life, an integral connection to each other, our stories, our past, present, and future.

Karyn Recollet is a Nēhiyāw writer, artist and Assistant Professor in Women and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto, whose focus in on urban Indigenous art‑making practices as complex forms of urban glyphing—expressing an expansive understanding of land pedagogy that exceeds the terrestrial.

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