We talked with several of the students at the Freda Diesing school, on and off camera. I would have really enjoyed engaging in conversation to a much further extent with all of the learners at the school, but those that I was privileged to talk with, I learned a lot from. Each person learning and teaching at Freda Diesing have inspiring stories to tell – stories of how their engagement with art has helped to inspire a deeper connection with their identity, but this self identity being deeply connected to their larger community of place, land and people, including their ancestors.
This posting is meant to provide a sketch of some of the key messages that I learned listening to several students speak of their stories of how they ended up coming to the school as a student and what experiences they have had since their immersion into the program. I have kept these names anonymous for this blog posting as these conversations were either recorded for the film or were unrecorded informal conversations. I feel it is imperative to stress that what I write here is not their direct voice – rather, I provide a brief account of what I learned. I wanted to write this posting because of the deep inspiration I felt from each conversation. Fuller accounts that were provided through recordings will be provided to the students themselves and the Freda Deising school for their own use over the coming months. Sections of these and other recorded conversations will be used for a shorter film specifically related to the Freda Diesing school, and for a longer documentary film that we will be producing from our entire journey, integrating moments from each place we have visited and will visit over the next 8 months.
An older student told me that art, or his engagement with and learning about First Nations art, had saved his life. I was admiring a design he was drawing as a copy from an old bent-wood box and I asked him about his work – what he was doing, how long it had taken him…. He said that he was in his second year. And then he looked at me and said that art had saved his life. This came as a surprise as I was not expecting him to talk with me about this sort of experience as suddenly as he did. He told me that Dempsey had come to teach a class that he sat in on – while he was in prison. He said that he had a long sentence and that he had been an alcoholic and drug user like many people from his community. He also told me that he had been to residential school as a child – a horrible part of his life – similar to many other people from his community. He said that after being introduced to art through these workshops he decided to stay involved and he ended up coming to the school after he was released. Art helped him to reconnect to himself, to heal, to be proud of his identity.
One student we spoke with, a first-year student, spoke to us with a great deal of enthusiasm about the ways in which studying art is helping him connect to his community and identity. We noticed him on the first day speaking publicly about different repatriated Nisga’a objects (masks, blankets, combs, shaman’s regalia) within each room at the Nisga’a museum, but did not realize until the end of the day that he was also a student. He was interning at the Nisga’a museum (which he is really enjoying), helping to convey the histories and importance of different repatriated objects in the museum to visitors. When we asked him to introduce himself in the interview, he spoke to us first in his own language to introduce himself (we found this quite often) – his name, where he was from. He also introduced himself through his ancestral past and his crest. He told us about being half-White, that having this identity meant that he was not as engaged with the community growing up as he could have been. He did not grow up in the dancing, ceremonies, cultural events. He explained that before coming to the Freda Diesing school, he learned from a non-native how to carve native art (this person also taught him philosophy). He did not focus on learning more about art or becoming an artist. He went to study mechanical engineering at university. He had a hard time with the linear non-creative environment and ended up failing his first term. He knew that he wouldn’t be happy and so he then pursued art and ended up with a scholarship to come and learn at the Freda Diesing school. He spoke proudly and confidently telling us that learning at the Freda Diesing school gave him a really strong integration into traditional perspectives towards everything. For example, he explained that right now, as we spoke, we were in Tsimshian territory – and how when we went to the Nisga’a museum, we went to the Nass and back – to a different territory. He marveled how this was done in a day, that before the time of contact, this would have taken well over two weeks. He explained that thinking this way, in a traditional cultural sense – gives more respect towards everything. He loves being at the Freda Diesing school with so many First Nations students – from different First Nations communities and has learned, in his view, that all First Nations cultures are connected – pieces of the same spiritual forms.. He told us that there is so much to learn and that he wants to learn as much as he can. He is particularly interested in learning about traditional spiritual forms, the stories, language and grammar through which each form has come into being. He also just really wants to help in his community. He told us this with a strong sense of energy and passion. He also told us that he is torn about this – ‘helping’ is easier if you are a shaman – you cannot force these things. He told us emphatically that art opened the door for him to re-connect – to himself, to his community.
Another student came back to the Freda Deising school later in life after other career trajectories. He introduced himself as Haida and German and explained that art had always been a side interest, but eventually he decided to go back more strongly into it. He knows now that he wants it to be a full time career. He loved art as a child, but he did not pursue it in school. He wanted to work in a logging camp when he was an adult. He was discouraged from doing art because of money – he explained that most people stay away from art because of income. His abilities in art waned – he told us how he had lost his edge because of so many years of doing other types of work. He told us how he used to always tell people that he was an artist and when they asked about his work he would say that he wasn’t doing it now… but he would again soon. This ‘soon’ took a long time to happen. Now, however, he is in it properly, learning with other artists at the school and intending to continue with his learning and practicing after. He then discussed his background and connection with his community. He told us that the Haida have possibly been on Haida Gwaii for at least 20,000 years. He talked to us severity of how disease had decimated the population of the Haida and the stealing of the objects by the British. He also told us how the Haida burnt their objects because of the fear of God through Christianity. These tragic stories, as well as his own desire to be an artist, helped him to be inspired to learn and engage with Haida art – to help maintain the continuity of the art. He described how inspiring it is for students from different First Nations groups to unite and learn from each other as much as learning about their own cultural past – like they are able to at the Freda Diesing school.