To Tend Is to Care For

Grief, Mourning, and Work in Kite’s Grave Tending Song

Kite’s performance video Grave Tending Song(2022) opens with images of Pine Ridge Reservation, Oglala Lakota County in South Dakota, where most of the artist’s family lives. Having grown up not far from there, in rural Saskatchewan on Treaty 4 lands, this landscape feels deeply familiar to me: soft rolling hills descend into valleys of scrub brush and skinny poplars; a shallow creek of barely moving water, soupy with green algae, traces a winding path. Sun-crisped tall prairie grasses rustle in the wind. Fences and dirt roads crisscross the land as telephone lines crisscross the pale blue sky. The summer air sticks to you. The breezes don’t offer much relief from the heat, but they are sometimes perfumed with wildflowers, sage, sweetgrass, flax, and hay.

A single bell chime introduces Kite’s soundscape, a gentle drone accompanied by the artist’s vocalizations. It rises and falls, thickens and spreads, and is punctuated with breaths, gasps, and moments of sharp silence, capturing the auditory atmospherics of hot prairie summers, a familiar blend of organic and inorganic hums and crackles: grasshoppers, crickets, cicadas, frogs, motors, AM radio static, the wind.

A sequence of still shots guides the viewer toward the site of Kite’s gesture: a small cemetery, where the greens and golds of this landscape are dotted with brightly coloured artificial flowers, lawn decorations, and tiny American flags. Worn wooden benches overlook a handful of plots. In the next scene, the artist approaches one of the plots, which belongs to her birth mother. The grave is marked with a simple white wooden cross and a spray of red silk roses. Its perimeters are defined with patterned tiles and scallop-edged concrete paving stones. Kite crouches down to remove a collection of small white stones arranged in a geometric pattern, moves offscreen, and returns with tobacco. She makes an offering. Then she gets to work, pulling the weeds that grow around the grave.

Kite’s actions are deliberate, but not precious. This work is real and physically demanding. Some of the weeds have thick taproots anchoring them deeply into the soil, so removing them requires considerable force. Their spiky foliage has the potential to scratch and irritate the skin; the fibrous stems can cut into the palms. Under the sweltering sun, her job is even more taxing.

Grave tending, Kite notes, “is kind of a common action, a cultural activity.”1 She writes that many of her relatives “maintain close relationships with the areas around [her] great-grandmother and great-grandfather’s home site and burial grounds through fishing, foraging, gardening, grave tending, playing, and horse riding,” articulating the ways that caring for ancestors is a regular part of everyday life.2 Grave Tending Song scores this process. The soundtrack aligns with the artist’s actions as well as her bodily reactions to the sweltering heat, the resistance of the deep-rooted weeds, and their sharp, sudden release from the ground. The bell chimes and rattles during points of intense physical contact with the earth, the plants, and the marker. Her vocalizations stammer, and her breath catches and breaks as her body strains. The drone thickens like the humid air and abruptly breaks when a particularly tenacious root finally gives, taking clumps of dry earth with it and requiring the artist to reflexively recalibrate her centre of gravity, rocking back on the heels of her black cowboy boots. This work requires the artist to act and react in response to the nonhuman entities who exert their own stubborn force of will on her body. It also requires a certain amount of improvisational making-do: Kite has no gardening gloves, so she places smooth, flat leaves between her hands and the rough stalks she’s pulling. She has no spade or trowel, so she uses the stake-end of a solar-powered globe lamp nearby to hack at the roots of a weed so it can be removed. It’s not until she is finished weeding that the soundscape eases. This work is never truly finished, though, since the weeds will always come back. The turn toward entropy is inevitable, no matter what we do to fend it off. 3

The rhythms of nature are cyclical. It’s a mundane fact, but one that, if contemplated for even a moment, can inspire profound wonder and dread. It’s late summer now, as I write. Soon the birds will migrate, the insects will die, the plants and trees will go dormant, the snow will come, and all will be quiet. Next year, the birds and insects and weeds and wildflowers will return, most of them anyway, and we’ll be back amongst them, until we aren’t.

Ceremonies that follow seasonal cycles and stages of the life cycle allow us to mark time and transformation. Like musical or event scores, ceremonial protocols are both instructional and interpretive. They can be endlessly iterated, but each iteration will be unique; there will always be improvisation. The rhythm of grief is much less predictable. It comes, as Joan Didion describes, “in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.”4 It demands our attention, and at the same time has the power to immobilize us. Addressing grief requires improvisatory prowess, as well as responsive strategies to contain and release it.

Grief is so intimate, reflecting the singular nature of a loss, the singularity of a relationship, and yet it can spread and diffuse to encapsulate all the forces that have shaped that relationship, and everything it has come to represent. Kite’s doctoral work focused on locating, within Lakȟóta ontology—and specifically Lakȟóta conceptions of nonhuman beings, such as stones—an ethics of praxis for working with AI technologies. This research, conducted with respect for cultural protocols grounded in an ethos of reciprocity and generosity, provided opportunities for the artist to reconnect with her Lakȟóta family and homeland after three generations of separation.5 Tending to her birth mother’s grave is something that Kite does regularly during family visits. And while she speaks to the emotional and physical difficulty of this work, she also notes that being able to “go back and mourn continually . . . feels really healthy.”6

In addressing Grave Tending Song, Kite notes that “experiences with death outside of Lakȟóta culture don’t give [her] a lot of tools to deal with situations.”7 This is not surprising. The contemporary funeral industry is designed to distance the bereaved from the deceased, with much of the work of caring for the dead outsourced to professionals and hidden away. Further, the dictates of polite society request that we keep our keening to a minimum and refrain from being too maudlin, for too long. And many faith traditions offer funeral rites that can feel, particularly for nonbelievers, like inadequate containers for our grief. The Catholic funeral mass, for instance, does not permit eulogies. Nearly indistinguishable from a regular service, its orthodoxy can be comfortingly familiar to those of us raised within this faith, but it can also feel achingly impersonal and unconcerned with the painfully corporeal aspects of death and grief. And while grave visitation and leaving flowers or other offerings for the deceased is a common practice across cultures, the work of tending the site is often carried out by groundskeepers. In entrusting the care of our loved ones to the funeral industry, we deny ourselves important opportunities to mourn them.

While grief is something we experience, mourning, “the act of dealing with grief,” is something we do.8 Death is beyond our control and beyond our knowledge. It’s inevitable, and it’s unchangeable. Confronting it can send one into a state of futility where it can be difficult to do anything. But doing something, especially in service to someone, or something, beyond the self and beyond this state, is immensely therapeutic. It reembodies us, pulls us out of the existential muck and dread. My father died last spring, and tending to the various tasks associated with organizing his funeral, celebration of life, and personal belongings kept my feelings of incapacitation and overwhelm at bay. Even miserable tasks like sorting through my father’s paperwork grounded me in the present and rooted me in my body. And doing this work alongside my sister, our family members, and our dad’s closest friends was resolutely healing and sometimes even joyful. We cooked and ate together, shared stories, laughed and cried together, all while doing the same mundane chores we’d done thousands of times before.

It’s no wonder that preparing and sharing meals together—an essential human pleasure addressing our most fundamental need—is such an important part of the mourning process. In an ongoing series of performance and sculptural works titled Aǧúyabskuyela (2020–), Kite explores the contemporary Lakȟóta mourning practice—one so common it “verges on protocol,” she notes—of sharing cakes, often decorated with an image of the deceased, at funeral wakes.9 Sharing and eating the cake together beautifully articulates the ways that loved ones remain with us even after death, and that when we grieve, we rarely do so alone. In Aǧúyabskuyela, Kite makes cakes to mourn the loss of beings, both human and nonhuman, while speaking with friends, relatives, and elders about how they mourn the loss of kin, traditions, species, and land.

As we face climate catastrophe, contend with the ongoing violence of colonialism, emerge from a devastating pandemic, bear witness to countless tragedies relayed by an unrelenting twenty-four-hour news cycle, and cope with the individualized pains that are simply a part of being alive, grief can overwhelm and incapacitate us. Climate activist and marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson has addressed the need for traditions that can help us mourn what we have lost due to climate change, so that we might be able to “metabolize what’s happening and then move on.”10

By getting to work and doing something that is well within our control, we often find we can manage much more than we previously thought possible. “Having your hands busy,” writes Robin Wall Kimmerer, “tends to free up your mind.”11 The familiar structure of simple tasks, their repetition and recurrence, can help guide our emotions into a more regular rhythm, can help us process and make sense of them. And tending to this work in service to another—something or someone beyond the self—generates compassion and orients us toward an ethos of reciprocity.12 When we enter these social contracts, we make ourselves vulnerable; we will love more deeply, feel pain more acutely, and suffer greater losses. And when we uphold these contracts, tending to and caring for what and whom we have left, we ameliorate some of the pain that comes with inevitable loss. The risk seems worth it.


1 Kite, “Virtual Encounters presents: Kite and David Yu In Conversation,” LOMAA (London Ontario Media Arts Association), streamed live on March 5, 2023, Vimeo video, 1:09:20,
2 Suzanne Kite, “Hél čhaŋkú kiŋ ȟpáye (There lies the road): How to Make Art in a Good Way” (PhD diss., Concordia University, 2023), 57,
3 The word entropy comes from the Greek entropia, “turning toward transformation.” Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. “entropy (n.),” accessed August 15, 2023,
4 Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (New York: Vintage International, 2005), 27.
5 Kite, “Hél čhaŋkú kiŋ ȟpáye,” 9, 29.
6 Kite, “Virtual Encounters.”
7 Kite, “Virtual Encounters.”
8 Didion, Year of Magical Thinking, 126.
9 Kite, “Aǧúyabskuyela, 2020,” artist’s website, accessed August 27, 2023,
10 Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, “Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Naomi Oreskes: The Schneider Award,” December 30, 2021, in Climate One, podcast, 53:00,
11 Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013), 238
12 See Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 237–40.

Blair Fornwald (they/she) is an interdisciplinary artist, writer, and curator. Their practices are united by a collaborative impulse and a sustained interest in art’s affective properties. Born and raised in rural Saskatchewan on Treaty 4 lands, Fornwald is also interested in Prairie (queer) aesthetics, regionalism, and social class. She now lives in Winnipeg, Treaty 1 Territory, where she is the director and curator of the University of Manitoba’s School of Art Gallery.