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Launching our first film! – ‘Re-learning the Land: A Story of Red Crow College’

Launching our first film! – ‘Re-learning the Land: A Story of Red Crow College’

Posted by on Jul 8, 2015 in all posts, Canada, on the road | 2 comments

relearningtheland2015 We are thrilled to be releasing the first of our series of films this month – ‘Re-Learning the Land: A Story of Red Crow College’!

It has been quite a journey from the time we started in our first visit to Red Crow College in Alberta in September 2012, then a second visit in 2014 where we deepened our relationship to this place and the people we met all of whom we have learned so much. We continue to be affected and inspired by all these experiences and are so grateful to all those we met in Alberta, who collaborated in the making of this film.

Between these visits we also launched our Indiegogo campaign (whilst well underway in our journey) and are really grateful to all those who contributed to make this project possible. ‘Re-learning the Land’ is the first of a series of films we are editing based on this journey. We are also deeply grateful to all those in the ‘Artisans of Meaning’ team – our co-creators of these films who have been with us on this journey. We hope you enjoy this film – it was made with love and a deep respect for a way of knowing and learning premised on the building of relationships – to the land and its beings, to our communities and to the deeper parts of ourselves.

Our hope when we set out on this journey was to tell stories and experiences of these wonderful places and people who have been creatively re-imagining learning and education. Our intention was to offer a platform for these films that we felt could offer inspiration and be a trigger for critical and creative reflection, conversations and action amongst people whose dreams and questions resonated with those of the people found in these films.

  Screen Shot films websiteWith this in mind we have built a website which will host our films and have supporting materials for those of you who may feel moved to host your own screenings and conversations for this film or any of the films to be created. You can find all this on http://films.enlivenedlearning.com

Here is a synopsis of the film:

RE-LEARNING THE LAND is the story of a Blackfoot community in southern Alberta, Canada, and how they have re-taken control of their education system within Red Crow Community College. The film traces the decolonization of their learning and the development of an innovative program, Kainai Studies, within Red Crow College, the same site as a former Residential School.

The Kainai Studies program is reclaiming and teaching to a new generation the Blackfoot knowledge system that sustained their community on their land for thousands of years.

The film, made by directors Udi Mandel and Kelly Teamey and in collaboration with members from the Blackfoot community, raises a host of important questions related to the purpose of education and what it takes to create a deep ecological consciousness and connection with our local environment. By witnessing how students and faculty within Red Crow College are re-building relationships with the land around them, we see a greater sense of purpose, confidence and identity from amongst those participating and learning within the Kainai Studies program.

  ‘Re-Learning the Land’ explores how education can be used both to wipe out particular ways of knowing and lead to suffering, as in the case of residential schools, or else to promote healing and a transformation of individual and community through a reconnection to history and place. Based on a very different cosmology, set of values and ways of teaching, ‘Re-Learning the Land’ is a subtle exploration of how an indigenous way of learning can create transformational relationships with the land, its beings, the community and one’s own self.

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Learning by running… across the prairie with students and teachers…

Learning by running… across the prairie with students and teachers…

Posted by on Feb 28, 2013 in all posts, Canada, Red Crow Community College | 0 comments

Although our main focus during our journey is to higher education initiatives emerging from indigenous scholars, community activists and artists, throughout our time in Canada, Mexico and Peru we also encountered and learned from teachers, students, community activists and organisations working to promote these indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing in primary, middle and secondary schools.

Our first experience visiting in/with primary, middle and secondary schools was in the Blackfoot Kainai (Blood Band) Reserve in Alberta. It unexpectedly came through the form of running – across open prairie.

Although this post may seem a bit dated, reflecting back on a particular day under the Albertan sun in October, 2012, I thought to write about how it stands so strongly in my memory – as a form of learning with my body.  Writing now as I am several months later, in South America, where I am far from fluent in Spanish or Portuguese, I have been forced to rely on learning beyond language.  I will be writing much more about this in coming posts, but first I thought to write about the day I remember the most vividly of all the days spent in southern Canada – the day I ran and walked alongside hundreds of children and adults across the open prairie on the Blood Reserve.  When I started writing this post, it came out in a fast flowing rush (and it is therefore longer than planned).  The memories of that day are so sharp – the bluest of blue skies, my skin pulsing from the heat of the hot dry sun, the sounds of the wheat-coloured grasses crunching beneath my feet,  of increasingly heavy and laboured breathing the further we got into the race – and of the excitement of voices, young and old, encouraging the completion of a physically demanding challenge…  I think the clarity of that day has something to do with feeling really alive – with feeling free… with engaging together in activity that defies age, background, gender…

A couple of days before the race, we met Narcisse Blood and his wife Alvine Mountain Horse for dinner in Fort MacLeod.  Alvine, a middle school teacher at the Kainai Middle School on the reserve, and PhD student at the University of Calgary, is a mother of four, grandmother of many.  She is also a long distance runner and has been since she was a girl.  Alvine seemed tired during our dinner, unsurprisingly, as she is busy doing so many things.  However, after I mentioned something about my decision to attend university on the east coast of the US because of being recruited at that time for running (and high jumping), her energy returned and we were suddenly very engaged in an animated conversation – stories about running, about racing, about coaching.  Alvine told us of her most recent 10km race (just three days before) where she had fallen badly, injuring her knee and her face. She was concerned about her ability to do well at the upcoming annual race celebrating the signing of the Treaty – two days later.  Her knee was still swollen and there was still bruising on her face.  Yet, I could very clearly see the fire in her to run, to compete, to participate.

Alvine Mountain Horse and Kelly at the start of the race, photo by Udi

I think once someone becomes a runner, develops a love for running, it is somehow always there, seeping into the core of your being.  So far on this journey, I have done far less running than I would have liked, I not only miss it, often I long for it.  I see someone running on the edges of a park, or alongside the sea, and I wish I was there, feeling the air on my skin, seeing the ground blur beneath my feet, wanting to experience the tiredness and the simultaneous satisfaction that comes with running.  This passion for running is not universally shared, but between those that do share it, there is an immediate connection.  I found this connection with Alvine.  At the end of our lovely meal together, I also found myself signing up for the annual cross-country race taking place in two days.  The 3-mile or 5-mile race (we could choose) was to be across prairie, finishing on the grounds of the Kainai primary, middle and secondary schools on the Blood Reserve.  This particular day of the annual run was to be held on the 125th anniversary of Treaty Seven which signed the reservation territory, amongst other laws and regulations, to the Blackfoot.

I was really nervous arriving to the Kainai Middle School that Friday morning and timidly asked for directions to find Alvine.  There was chaotic and nervous energy that always comes with organizing so many children and teenagers.  At least 10 buses were parked outside from different schools in the area – members of other Blackfoot bands and non-Blackfoot schools as well.  Teachers were trying to organize the hundreds of school-aged children and young people who were excitedly putting on their running shoes, trying to find out where to pin on their numbers.

The dry, open sky and vast horizon of southern Alberta reminded me very much of Klamath Falls, Oregon where I grew up, and I was suddenly feeling the nervousness I would have felt over 20 years ago, competing as I once did in high school, for the cross-country running team.  Only now, I was not very fit – an obvious outsider – joining hundreds of children, young people and adults from the area who participate in this annual event.  Udi was taking it all in as someone who has not only ever run a cross-country race, but has also never witnessed such an event.

After asking several teachers, I eventually found Alvine in her classroom.  She was hurriedly trying to gather her own belongings for the race – numbers to pin on our tops, lists of student names, her tee-shirt.  I noticed many different Blackfoot words written neatly on the blackboard.  She walked with me out of the school and the three of us climbed into our car.  She directed us for a few miles, from paved to unpaved road and finally to a field where there was no road at all.  I looked around to see hundreds of school-aged children, from what I guessed were 6 years old, through the end of secondary school (18 years old) and many adults (teachers).  It was the first time in my life I had ever run with such a diverse and disparate group, all associated with schools in the area.  Any school-related running race in my time was always separated quite rigidly into different age groups.  I do not remember ever running alongside any of my teachers.

photo by Udi

We all gathered together, finding a place to stand where we could.  One of the teachers from the high school gave us all directions, to run alongside the flags he had just stuck into the ground early that morning.  He told us to be careful of the uneven surface.  Alvine looked at me and said not to wait for her, that I should try to win, that she was still injured and not sure how fast she would run.  I told her I was completely out of shape anyway and happy to run with her.

photo by Udi

The gun went off, many children took off fast, excited about what it was that we were doing.  I noticed that many of them looked completely unprepared to run – some in jeans, shoes that we clearly not made for running.  Yet they all seemed very happy about running several miles in the hot sun on unknown terrain.  There was no one whining, which I would have expected from some of the children and teenagers. I ran alongside Alvine for about a half mile or so and noticed I was still feeling surprising fine.  I also noticed that I wanted to run ahead and try and catch a couple of the female adults who were not so far ahead.  The competitive streak in me came right back and was strongly encouraged by Alvine.  She kept whispering between laboured breaths – “go ahead, try to catch them, try to win”.  I laughed with her encouragement and decided to, although I also felt a pull to stay with her and run alongside for the duration.

Half mile or so into the race, photo by Udi

I ran ahead at the top of a small hill coming out of the coulee.  I noticed two women in front of me and set out to catch them.  One of my favourite training activities during my cross-country high school days was when my coach would start us all separately – one minute or so apart.  The goal was to try and catch as many people as you could over a 3 mile course.  It was the same here, only 20 years later.

photo by Udi

I picked up speed for the rest of the race.  I chatted to many children and teenagers along the way.  Many of them would walk and then sprint, rather than running continuously.  I encouraged them to run slowly – to run with me, and a couple girls (I guessed were about 13) did.  We made light conversation that got increasingly more difficult as we all approached the school.  I noticed another adult female runner in front of me, nearing the school and I decided to catch up with her before the finish line, which I did (just barely).  Udi was at the finish line, clapping, yelling and filming.

Finishing the race, photo by Udi

One of the top finishers of the race, photo by Udi

I was exhausted – but felt exhilarated as I often do after a challenging run.  I ran back to find Alvine, to encourage her and run with her the rest of the way.  She was happy that she finished, her knee really hurting her.  After the race we walked around the school buildings, chatting with Alvine and some of the other teachers – Alvine was proudly introducing us to people, saying that the race had become ‘international’ with us being there.  A warmth and joy pervaded the environment through vocal encouragement and generosity of food and care.  It was important to all the teachers there that everyone who participated in and witnessed the race be provided a full meal.  Everything was free.  Several of the students came to speak with Alvine.  It was clear how very loved and admired she is by students of all ages and teachers.

The entire event contrasted strongly with running events (races) that I participated in – in the past.  The diversity of ages running alongside one another was very powerful, particularly as there was so much encouragement – from young to old and old to young.  Although there was a competitive air, it was friendly.  I wondered how much of this conviviality had to do with the very reason we were all there running and connecting with the ground beneath our feet –– in celebration of the sovereignty that exists on this part of the land, the Blackfoot territory.

Overall winner of the race, photo by Udi

An awards ceremony began soon after in the high school gym with a Blackfoot prayer being spoken by one of the Blackfoot Elders in the community.  Udi and I were both inspired to see the hand-made spears (rather than trophies) that were given to the top male and female (of all ages) finishers of the 3-mile and 5-mile races.  The spears were about 2 meters long, hand-carved, with leather straps and fathers wrapped around them at three different sections.  The end of the spear looked as if it had been carved from obsidian.  I received a medal for being a top-3 female finisher in the over-29 age group, which I was rather pleased about (perfect souvenir!).

After the race, Udi and I explored the schools and talked with more teachers and students.  The insides of the school buildings were beautifully constructed and decorated, mixing the functionality of a standard North American high school with Blackfoot structures and designs. Central in the building is the library which has a large steel teepee emerging from its center forming and ceremonial space for lectures, events and reading.  Alvine introduced us to Olivia Tailfeathers, the music teacher for all three schools.  She writes her own music as well.  She gave us one of her CDs and we are hoping to use a couple of the tracks as music for the film we will be editing on Red Crow Community College.

Kainai Middle School library, photo by Udi

Interior of teepee in Kainai Middle School library, photo by Udi

Alvine is fluent in the Blackfoot language and is committed to the teaching that she is able to do, in spite of how busy she is. When we left the Kainai Middle School that day, we drove Alvine to Lethbridge to meet with Narcisse and Ryan Heavy Head.  Along the way, Alvine told us more about her own learning of Blackfoot and the ways in which she has been teaching the language to children and adults.  She herself had learned from her grandmother who did not speak any English.  Alvine’s grandmother had taken her outside on long walks, teaching her words with the land.  The Blackfoot language emerged through the land, and this was how Alvine was taught the Blackfoot language.  She discovered that it was also the best way for her to teach the language.

In the school where Alvine taught we were especially excited about the project she told us about which brought the knowledge of local plants and their uses into the school. In this language teaching/learning approach, students had to discover the plants growing around the school area, find out their Blackfoot names and their traditional use.  Alongside Blackfoot language teaching, Alvine coaches running.  Being outside, on and with the land is a deep significance that crosses both of these very different reasons for and approaches to, learning.

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Discussing art and identity with emerging Northwest coast artists

Discussing art and identity with emerging Northwest coast artists

Posted by on Dec 7, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art | 0 comments

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.

Photo taken by Udi of students’ morning practice art at the Freda Diesing school

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.

Photo taken by Udi of students at the Freda Diesing school

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.

Photo taken by Kelly of photos of bent-wood boxes re-enhanced photographically by Bill McLennan

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.

Photo taken by Kelly of the interior of the Long House on the Freda Diesing school campus

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.

Photo taken by Udi of students doing morning ovoid drawings at the Freda Diesing school

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Learning from Museums

Learning from Museums

Posted by on Dec 2, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Vancouver | 0 comments

 

‘First Nations of British Columbia’ map from Museum of Anthropology, photo by Kelly

We were nearly an hour late for our appointment with Bill McLennan, head of Northwest coast art at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, yet he still gave us a warm welcome, and a generous and intimate tour of the museum. Bill has for many years been researching the art of this region and getting to know the communities who make it. When we were at the Freda Diesing School, multiple copies of Bill’s book The Transforming Image: Painted Arts of Northwest Coast First Nations could be seen across the desks and were constantly used by students. This book was affectionately, and mischievously, called ‘the bible’ of the course by Dempsey. The black and white photographs of the bentwood boxes whose designs the students meticulously copied in their drawing exercises also came from Bill and his work. Bill stumbled upon this technique of photographing these old pieces with infrared film so as to bring out more the faded designs. Bill also sits on the advisory board of the School and is a regular lecturer there.

Museum of Anthropology, main hall, photo by Kelly

The Museum of Anthropology sits at the far end of the leafy campus of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The modern concrete building perched on a hill overlooks the Bay that edges the city. Through the museum window we see the cold waters of the Bay glistening in the light of the setting sun – the contours of hills and small islands engulfed by evergreen trees that thrive down to the water’s edge. This was like no other anthropology museum I ever saw. You walk through the entrance into a large hall with a number of different totem poles from this region, both old and some contemporary. Bill guided us through the museum which was about to shut, taking us through the main hall, the contemporary exhibits, the new wing which displays the art of this region in an innovative way and other various rooms.

Restoration and infrared photography, photo by Kelly

In the new wing, in a section entitled ‘multiverse’, objects are displayed in glass cabinets as well as drawing on an interactive online set of catalogues. The notion of ‘multiverse’ As the panel introducing this wing explains provides an explicit valuing of different worldviews, cultural practices and ways of knowing without valuing one over another. The panel also explains the role that First Nations groups have had in helping to curate and tell the stories of the objects displayed. We were thrilled to see this perspective of a ‘multiversity’ so explicitly stated and practiced in the museum. This resonates with the idea of the ‘multiversity’ found in higher education which similarly acknowledges that there are diverse knowledges, ways of learning, teaching, engaging, relating and living. The Multiversity movement internationally rejects that there is and can be a single definition of a ‘Uni’ -versity that, in the movement’s perspective has been colonised by ‘Western’ notions of Higher Education. The multiple ways of valuing in the ‘multi-verse’ section of the museum reflects how Bill and the museum have put into practice this pluralistic valuing of cultural objects as objects to learn from in museums and as artefacts part of living cultures.

Museum practice has come a long way from earlier museum attitudes whereby indigenous artefacts were often seen as ‘deadened’ fossilised cultures, as remnants from a previous age. As Bill explained, here the attitude of the museum is instead one in which it sees its role as that of a caretaker of objects that are part of living cultures. The Anthropology Museum has long running relationships with many of the communities from across Canada where these objects come from. There is an acknowledgement that although they are stored and displayed here for the general public, many of these objects still belong to these communities and that they are entitled to use them when required, such as for certain ceremonies.

Bill Reed Rotunda, photo by Kely

I ask Bill how the curators at the museum, those responsible for the preservation of these objects across time, responded to these changes in practice. Bill replied that they have come around over time. The approach taken is then a pragmatic one acknowledging that the museum is split between two not altogether unreconcilable positions; first, that of a publicly and government funded institution with a role of displaying these objects so that people can learn more about them and the cultures that made them. Secondly; museums also have the role of being the guardians of these objects for the communities that have made them and opening the doors of the museum so that these cultures can tell their stories too.

As we have seen, some Nations such as the Haida and the Nisga’a already have their own museum or heritage centre, whilst others do not have the facility or prefer to house their artefacts in museums and make use of them when needed. The Anthropology Museum also has a number of outreach and participatory projects with First Nations communities such as community arts projects or housing visiting artists who make their art in the museum. Bill told us how sometimes carvers would carve a pole or sculpture in the main hall for the public to see them at work and people describe this as their most memorable experience of the museum.

Museums have come to play an important role in our ‘enlivened learning’ journey, providing us with a multi-sensory learning environment through which we have walked and traced our own paths of discovery. The stories woven together in these places have been significant additions to the other places of learning we have written about such as historical or sacred sites or landscapes. Museums have also provided a historical grounding or context to the various conversations we had and stories we heard across Canada. Adding to the written sources we have consulted, and our own experiences across places, museums have provided further threads through which the mesh of our learning has taken place.

From Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, to Writing-on-Stone, from the Nisga’a museum to the Blackfoot exhibition at the Glenbow museum, these are all examples of museums and displays designed, curated and run by First Nations peoples to tell their stories to their own communities and to others. We learnt much from these exhibitions, from the objects displayed, to the labels and narratives surrounding them, to the total experience they were trying to create. We have over our blog postings used a number of photos from these exhibits to try to convey a sense of the stories and histories being told.

In our travels we also went to several national museums, the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, the Royal Museum of British Columbia in Victoria, the Northern British Columbia Museum in Prince Rupert and the Fort Museum in Fort MacLoud. In many of these cases we also saw how national museums are trying to deal with and navigate the turbulent history of colonialism in Canada and the complex relationship between settler society and First Nations groups. Here we could see an attempt to represent the dark past of Canadian history, the oppressive Indian Laws, the broken and unjust treaties, the missionary conversions, the spread of disease, residential schools, the destruction of cultures and ways of life. We also saw attempts in these museums to show the cultural resurgence occurring since the 1960s, the contemporary artistic, educational, political and spiritual life of these communities. Many of these exhibitions were also curated in partnership with First Nations peoples.

Museums are an important source of authoritative knowledge in our society and increasingly for First Nations too. They are spaces of learning where this occurs in a multi-sensory way, not only through text, but also through objects, and increasingly through audio-visual and various digital media (see for instance my most recent film for the Pitt Rivers museum, Artisans of Memory). Museums are spaces where stories can be brought alive, that is why they are so popular especially with schools and parents. Behind these multi-sensory environments there are multiple designs, narratives and stories of how the world makes sense as well as through sets of implicit values.

Taking a slight detour and speaking about the use of museum in another context. We had wanted to go up to the Tar Sands region in northern Alberta to see for ourselves this place that is often talked about by First Nations peoples with much concern for the destruction it is causing to the water systems (not only immediately within this region but to much wider areas to connected watersheds across Canada and beyond) and the adverse health effects on neighbouring communities. We wanted to see this region as its development is proving to be the engine of the growth of Canadian economy and also because of its role as an increasingly important source of oil for the US and China. The region is then highly strategic for the oil economy but also of insurmountable significance in the costs to the environment and the process of climate change. I bring this up here because the corporations developing the Tar Sands also have their own museum in Fort McMurray designed to show the public their activities funded by private companies and the Alberta government. We wanted to see what this museum, the Oil Sands Information Center looked like and to experience its narratives and sets of values, but the journey north proved too far for our limited time.

Museums are then important sites of storytelling and conveying certain views of the world. They are also powerful institutions, closely tied with the world of academia and the sciences, which have come to have an authoritative aura for providing a legitimate description of the world. It is heartening to see that some of these institutions are now working much more closely with First Nations to not only include but voice their own view of the world, narratives of their histories, their ways of living, their spirituality and values. It is also significant how First Nations are appropriating and engaging with the institution of the museum, just as they are also doing with the institution of the university, as sites for the communication of their worlds and values, both for themselves and for others.

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The totem poles watch over the forest and Gitsaex village at Kitselas Canyon once again…

The totem poles watch over the forest and Gitsaex village at Kitselas Canyon once again…

Posted by on Nov 26, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art | 0 comments

During our second day visiting the Freda Diesing school, the topic of ‘Kitselas Canyon’ kept emerging.  I wondered about what this place was, why it was so important, if and when I would understand more about the uniqueness that this place seemed to hold for not only the artists – learners and teachers – at the school, but also for many First nations communities beyond.

Photo taken by Kelly during presentation given by Stan and Ken on carving the community totem pole at Kitselas Canyon

Dean Heron (current teacher and former student) and Latham Mack (former student and apprentice artist of Dempsey Bob — see ‘voices of former students’ post for more information) each spoke about the importance of their experiences working on the painting of longhouses and carving of totem poles at Kitselas Canyon.  Closer to the end of the day, Rocque, Ken and Stan spoke about Kitselas Canyon, providing a brief historical overview of the place, stories about what happened as part of European conquest and colonization and what was being done now as part of a long-term cultural reclamation project at Kitselas Canyon that each of them (Dempsey, Ken and Stan) and students were deeply involved in, as well as people from Gitsxan and Tsimshian communities.

Photo by Udi – presentation of Kitselas Canyon and the process of totem poles being carved

After all of the presentations were finished for the day, Dempsey hurried us to gather our things so that we could visit Kitselas Canyon before dark.  I had not realized we were going on that day and I was very moved at Dempsey’s insistence and energy to take us there and show us around.  We drove the 20 minutes or so with Dempsey to the site.  Stan and his cousin, Brian, were there waiting for us in front of a huge totem pole that looked recently carved.  The ‘community totem pole’ as it is fondly and proudly referred to, offers a richness of stories that are literally embedded into the cedar tree that was carved into being.  I cannot tell the particular story of this totem pole unless I am explicitly given permission to do so – it is not my story to tell, it belongs to the community.  Stories are protected by communities and transferred as forms of knowledge when it is decided by a member of the community that the timing is appropriate.  Needless to say, there are multiple clans represented within the community totem pole (raven and bear) and a conflict that involved an arrow and a chief…

Photo taken by Kelly of the Kitselas community totem pole, Kitselas Canyon

Totems poles are stories.  The most important figure on the totem pole is on the bottom rather than the top.  This was significant to me as I was reminded of the oft used phrase – ‘low man on the totem pole’ — who would according to the design and carving of stories embedded within a totem pole – be the most revered!  This particular totem pole is really impressive, the more you look at it, the more you see.  The details are exquisite.  Dempsey, Stan, Ken, Dean and Latham were all involved in the carving of this pole. The community pole was the first one to be raised in over 150 years and there was a community ceremony of dancing and singing before it was raised.  The main motivation of this ceremony was so that the community felt it belonged to them, in spite of the fact that multiple people, from multiple First Nations communities, were involved in its design and carving.

After we marveled at and learned more about the community totem pole, Dempsey directed us down to the Kitselas Canyon, a short 5 –minute drive down a hill.  We met Brian, Stan’s cousin at the entrance to Kitselas Canyon.  Brian spoke to us of the importance of this place to him personally as a renewing of their culture and community.  In front of us were 4 longhouses and 5 totem poles – each one placed on one side of a longhouse.  Another longhouse and totem pole were on the right side of the 4 longhouses.

Photo taken by Kelly of Brian explaining the longhouses and totem poles to us at Kitselas Canyon

Rocque had explained during that afternoon in a photographic presentation to all of the students about the tragic history of the area.  Using maps and old photographs we learned that Gitsaex Village was between 5,000 to 6,000 years old.

Historical overview of the Kitselas Canyon area borrowed from the Kitselas website – http://www.kitselas.com/about-kitselas/history/village-history/ (accessed 3rd December 2012)

The last people to leave the village was in 1912 and we saw them, in an old photo from that time, dressed in their Sunday best, rather than clothing they might have worn before European contact. Where the new longhouses and totem poles were being built at the current Kitselas Canyon National Historic Site, was about a mile or so above the Skeena river.  The reason for the new construction being at this higher site was that the area next to the river, the site of the original village, were now gravesites where nearly the entire village died due to Smallpox. Families who had perished were left as they were in their longhouses to prevent further spread of the disease. There were also many fallen totem poles amidst the gravesites.  The last totem pole fell down in that area in 2001 and is now nearly impossible to discern from the fauna that has grown around and through it, decaying it beyond recognition.

The construction of the longhouses and the totem poles involved a multitude of people, the majority of which work or learn at the Freda Diesing school. Dempsey, Ken and Stan designed the longhouse fronts and the totem poles in a 13 week project.  Dean described how the students were responsible for sketching out the designs using projectors and painting the designs onto the longhouse fronts using the original drawings by Dempsey, Stan and Ken.  Dean told us how they worked on their hands and knees those 13 weeks – all of the painting had to be done on the floor as painting vertically was much more difficult.  He said that this was a tremendous opportunity for them as students, to be so closely involved in such a significant cultural reclamation project.  Ken described the project as ‘an artist’s dream’ to bring out their culture and that the project had been excellent overall.

Photo taken by Udi of a longhouse front at Kitselas Canyon

The longhouses all began in 2007 (although the project had been discussed for at least 25 years) and are now used as a museum; a gathering space for ceremonies or weddings; a studio space and a shop for selling objects.  The totem poles next to the longhouses represent 4 different clan crests – wolf, bear, raven and beaver.  There is also a salmon totem.  Similar to the community totem pole, there was a ceremony and Elders came to bless the longhouses and totem poles once they were built and raised.

After viewing and learning about the longhouses and totem poles, Dempsey said that we should hurry through the forest before dark.  The walk through the forest down to view the river was about twenty minutes.  The forest was carpeted in moss with glowing shades of green.  There was still a good deal of light on the way down.  Stands of evergreen trees emerged sharply, perpendicular from the bright green moss.  The trees are second growth (possibly third) and are about a meter in diameter.  There are odd areas that are sunken in and it is difficult to perceive why and how these were formed as the moss disguises well.

Photo taken by Udi of the forest down to Skeena River, Kitselas Canyon

We suddenly came upon four totem poles, formed in a line, all facing toward the river.  Stan, Brian and Ken had designed and carved the totem poles.  One is of a Raven and is a replica of a fallen totem.  Brian told us that participating in the design and carving of these totem poles for Kitselas Canyon had pulled him out of a deep depression that had taken over him after the death of a family member due to suicide.  We had learned (previously through conversations we had with Blackfoot community members) that this happens often within First Nations communities.  I was moved by Brian’s openness and could feel his emotional connection with the carved beings that were now storied into the landscape at Kitselas Canyon – providing a renewal of wisdom and watchfulness.

Photo taken by Kelly of the 4 totem poles facing the Skeena River and the ancient village, Kitselas Canyon

The color of the totem poles had become a silvery color due to weather and aging.  Brian spoke of a calm that has ensued since the totems were raised – within the community and within the forest.  Udi and I both felt a sense that these totems belonged to the place, that a gentle eye was keeping watch on the beings that have lived and continue to live in this place.  The light of the last rays of that day’s sun created an intensity of strength emanating from these beings watching over the gravesites in the ancient village, the fallen totem poles and the Skeena river.

The Skeena River is deceptively dangerous.  The current is wild and dangerous.  There are upswells and a place in the middle is known as the ‘shaman’s whirlpool’ which has taken people and canoes under on many occasions.  The river is a turquoise color, the rocks covered with shades of lichens (blacks, greens, yellows).

Photo taken by Udi of the view of Skeena River and mountains beyond, Kitselas Canyon

Beyond the river, mountains raise and there are evergreen trees and aspens yellowing in the decreasing Autumn daylight hours.  On the other side of the river, the train runs straight through where the Gitsxan once had their fortress – a large longhouse to which villagers would escape to during times of siege.

Photo taken by Udi – Dempsey Bob looking into the currents of the Skeena River, Kitselas Canyon

Brian and Dempsey decided to take us all the way down to the river’s edge.  We had to walk through brush and on a muddy path.  There was an eerie feeling here and we were told half-way down that we were in the middle of the old village, the longhouses and gravesites and that old totem poles were decomposing amidst the vines and brush.

Photo taken by Udi – Dempsey helping us to see a petroglyph carved onto a rock o the banks of the Skeena River, Kitselas Canyon

We walked slowly on the small rocks along the river’s edge and then towards the larger rocks where Dempsey found a petroglyph and poured some water on it so that we could see it more closely.   On the rocks next to and on the river, there are highly intricate petroglyphs of spirit beings (this is obvious as the beings look like they are being x-rayed, you can see their bones) amongst other animal forms and symbols.  There is still a great deal of speculation as to what these mean.

After walking, observing, feeling, breathing it was time to leave.  There was barely any light left.  Dempsey handed us a perfectly round stone as we begun to walk back up through the brush.  We thanked him for the beautiful stone and he said that it was not him that we should thank.  He had asked Brian’s permission for us to be given the stone because afterall, it was a stone that was not from his territory, but rather from that of Brian’s.  Dempsey could not have given us the stone without either putting another one in its place or without permission from a community member of that First Nations territory.  It was then we really began to further understand this notion of reciprocity and how it is practiced.

Walking through the forest out of the canyon, it was nearly dark.  I kept thinking I saw shadows of different animals.  Brian told us stories of playing in these woods as a boy and encountering bears and wolves.

The longhouses were striking under the dim lights as we emerged from the forest.  I felt I understood more about the importance of these reconstructed longhouses, the cultural connections for artists such as Stan, Dempsey, Brian and Ken – and for the students to have the opportunity to engage so intimately with repatriating space and culture through their art.  There was a strong sense of healing in this place – for Brian, for the forest, the river and the ancestors.

I was also understanding more about the stories and symbols represented in totem poles and designs.  Like Udi, I was starting to see ovoid shapes and animals within the rocks and the forests.  I could only imagine what it must be like for these artists to live in such a wondrous storied landscape with the stories echoing through the ages.

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Voices of former students (now current teachers and up-and-coming artists)

Voices of former students (now current teachers and up-and-coming artists)

Posted by on Nov 25, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art | 0 comments

Two former students – Dean Heron and Latham Mack – each gave a talk to all current students while we were there about their experiences as students.  This posting summarizes the stories provided by Dean and Latham.  These talks were recorded (filmed) as part of the second day visiting the Freda Diesing school.

Photo taken by Udi of Dean Heron (left) and Latham Mack (right)

The full versions of this footage will be sent to the school for their own use and sections of it will be integrated into a shorter film we will be editing on our experiences at the school while other sections will be integrated into a longer full-length documentary that will be representing the places we have visited and will be visited during the course of this year.  The learners and teachers at the school were each inspiring in their own way.  I learned a huge amount about the power of art, particularly within a context that provides such a warm and disciplined environment that the Freda Diesing school nurtures.

Photo taken by Udi of Dean Heron teaching the first-year students about ovoids as shown in a drawing of an eagle. All students have to draw an ovoid repetitively each day to learn the skills and techniques of drawing this essential component of Northern First Nations art.

The first person to speak was Dean Heron.  Dean is currently a teacher at the Freda Diesing school and is actively involved in the development of his own art (which we saw in the longhouse on campus, in the designs on the longhouses at Kitselas Canyon and also in some of his carved objects selling at the Spirit Gallery in Vancouver).

Photo taken by Udi of Dean Heron inside the campus longhouse. Dean helped to paint the design behind him.

Dean didn’t grow up in a First Nations cultural community – he grew up in a White family.  His adoptive parents always had encouraged him to connect with his culture which is Kaska/Tlinglit in the Yukon Territory.  He studied anthropology and political science down in Victoria which is where he met his wife.  She clearly has had a tremendous influence as to where he is now and he spoke of her with a deep appreciation, tenderness and love. Dean told us how his wife would always push him to learn more about what his heritage meant.  He admitted that when he met her he “didn’t know anything about his culture”.  His parents had bought him lots of books as a kid growing up, but he said that he did not really spend much time learning about his ancestral heritage.  He told us that after he was first married and money was low, that his wife urged him to create paintings that could be given as gifts rather than buying things.  He told us how he found that idea as a joke, that he did not feel that he had any talent artistically.  However, through his wife’s encouragement, he taught himself how to paint through a book – painting by doing.  He surprised himself by his interests in learning more and that he was not as bad as previously thought.  He began looking more into First Nations art on his own.  Eventually he found that he wanted to study Northern art – but, that it is very difficult to study Northern art in the ‘South’ down in Victoria.  One day he happened to go into a gallery in Victoria and saw carvings by Ken McNeil and Stan Bevan (two of the founders of the Freda Diesing school).  He was in awe – their work, to him, captured the essence of art.  At an event he met Dempsey Bob very briefly and they met again, by chance, at a house party event in Victoria (at one of Dempsey’s children).   He was invited by Dempsey to an event in Vancouver – and was then invited to come up to study at Freda Diesing for their first inaugural year as a school.  As an artist, Dean felt he needed much more guidance and mentoring to understand the “old art” – to understand the nuances of what he was looking at.  The school helped break it down to the fundamentals.  It changed his life completely.  He worked in Kitselas Canyon at the end of his first year – drawing, painting and carving.   He created a sculpture for the 2010 Olympics that was exhibited in Vancouver.  During the Olympics he ended up finding some of this relatives up in the Yukon territory.  He spoke passionately how art came full circle for him – he started doing it to understand more about where he was from.  It helped then to bring him back to his roots and since 2010 he has been up to the Yukon several times to meet and get to know his relatives.  He was also told right from the beginning of the first year of the importance to teach as an artist.  He started teaching immediately.  Teaching up in the Yukon – especially with young kids which he told us he has learned alot from, especially a particular 5-year old about drawing salmon!  Dean spoke for nearly 20 minutes with a tremendous passion and openness that was captivating.  Everyone in the room was very moved.

Photo taken by Udi of Latham Mack during his presentation

Latham Mack spoke after Dean for about 10 minutes.  A recent graduate from the Freda Deising school, Latham grew up in Bellacoola within his own Nuxalk community.  He told us that different to Dean, he learned his culture from a young age – through school.  His school is run completely by his First Nations Nuxalk community.  He told us that he participated in Potlatches from when he was young.  He first started carving with his uncle.  Latham told us that he used to just watch them carve – for many years.  Then one day, his uncle said, “You are here every day, you might as well start carving”.  In grade 10 he told us that a non-native guy came back and he tried to get some totem poles going.  This particular non-native guy started teaching art and Latham took the course.  Latham carved a raven which he thought was good but his grandfather didn’t like that a non-native was teaching him.  So then his grandfather taught him and Latham carved under him.  In 2008, he applied to study at Freda Diesing and was accepted as a student.  He told us that had he not been accepted into the program, he would have worked in the diamond mines which many young people go to work in because of difficulties in locating work and the decent pay that such work offers.  Latham told us that the school opened up many doors for him – he had his work displayed at the Vancouver airport in 2009/2010 (by winning the scholarship twice for his work to be displayed).  He is currently an apprentice of Dempsey, who mentors him.  Latham’s work is also on display at the museum at Vancouver.  He was also able to participation in work in Kitselas Canyon with Dean and other students.  Latham has travelled to New Zealand to give carving workshops to Maori artists.

Killer Whale, by Latham Mack

Latham told us that now he can look at any design and understand the shapes and the forms.  Before he did not understand these – the school helped him to learn this.  Udi and I bought one of Latham’s prints – of a killer whale.  The colours, style and presentation of the print are stunning.   It is his first print that he is selling publicly.

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