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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.Read More
Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art sits on the outskirts of Terrace, population 11,000, in the far North of British Columbia. The town is crossed by the Transcanada highway which connects the country from Winnipeg on the East to Prince Rupert on the west coast. The town, surrounded by mountains and forests, is also home to large lumber yards and number of motels housing the temporary workers labouring on various construction projects in the energy industry. The School is part of Northwest Community College and is housed in a large converted workshop building on campus. As we go in early in the morning, students are arriving and settling in their desks and earnestly busying themselves with their drawings. Inside a large banner hangs with the School’s logo and First Nations designs decorate the walls. We are received at the school by Stan Bevan (Tahltan/Tlingit /Tsimshian) and Ken McNeil (Tahltan/Tlingit/Nisga’a) Dean Heron (Kaska/Tlingit). The School was set up in 2006 by Dempsey and his nephews Stan and Ken with the help of Rocque Berthiaume an anthropologist and art historian already working in the Northwest Community College.
The School runs a traditional Northwest coast art two-year programme, with an intake of around 25 each year. The students come from a range of First Nations across British Columbia (B.C.) which presents some challenges for the instructors because of the diversity of language communities represented and the range of stories and styles from the communities people come from. The Northwest Community College website states that students in the College as a whole come from 27 out of the 197 different nations in B.C.
In the School the students get a thorough training in drawing and carving, learning the grammar of Northwest coast art, its forms and transformations and the iconic representations of the important animals of this region. Over our time here we saw the students meticulously drawing, copying the traditional designs from old bentwood boxes from large photo reproductions spread across the desks. Those in their second year were creating their own compositions in different colored ink. Students also learn to carve masks, spoons, bigger sculptures and are often invited to help the instructors working on larger commissions and totem poles. The course also teaches the students how to make their own tools, how to source and treat the wood for their carvings, and how to engage with the art market. At the end of their second year the students exhibit their work in the prestigious Spirit Whistler Gallery in Vancouver (more on this later).
The teaching occurs through the examples of the ‘old pieces’, high quality work done in the past by these communities and now found mainly in museums across the world. Teaching also occurs through the examples and instructions of Dempsey, Ken, Stan and Dean who offer constant feedback to the students. Students also learn from each other, showing and commenting on each others work and creating a supportive environment that I did not encounter in the art college I went to. With Rocque students have classes in the history of Northwest coast art which takes place through lectures and visits to significant sites such as the Nisga’a museum, the Kitsela Canyon, and elsewhere, where students can learn from the pieces and from others practitioners.
Also significant at the school are the guest lecturers who include those involved in the art market, in museums (see the entry on our conversation with Bill McLennan from the anthropology museum in Vancouver), as well as artists from abroad. A group of Maori artists, with whom the instructors have had a long working relationship, are regular lecturers in the course.
An important element of the school for us was also the role of stories and their connection to this art form. Whereas the art from the Northwest coast has its particular grammar of forms, it is also embedded in a larger web of stories concerning the various animals represented and their relationships to humans and the land. This rich and diverse web of stories permeates the lives of the various Nations of this region. Yet we do not pretend to understand but the very basics of this highly intricate and complex cosmology and the role of stories within it which involves such things as clan and family affiliations, kinship rules, origin stories, history, ecological and spiritual knowledge, rights to land and cultural property.
What was significant for us, in our enquiry upon enlivened forms of learning, was to see how art served as a conduit to reconnect with these ways of knowing embedded in these communities. As such students were encouraged, through their art practice, to learn these stories and the ways of knowing and being expressed in them. As narrated to us by the instructors and students we talked to, this process of reconnecting with the stories, art forms and cultural practices also led to a rekindled sense of identity, cultural pride and feeling of belonging.
As noted in a previous entry on Kainai Studies, a key aspect of the learning has to do with ‘becoming Blackfoot’. As Narcisse and Cynthia put it in the course outline of their Blackfoot Pedagogy class, quoted previously:
As “coming to be human” is considered one of the aims of Western humanist education, becoming Blackfoot maybe the central aim of Blackfoot pedagogy. Just as Western derived curriculum is about “what knowledge is of most worth,” Blackfoot pedagogy is about what knowledge matters (both in Blackfoot territory and more globally). It is about what the young need know to become Blackfoot, to become human and to fulfil their responsibilities, living in this place, at this time.
What ‘coming to be human’ or ‘coming to be Blackfoot’ is in practice then depends on the particular values, priorities and cosmologies that are held dear. In the previous blogs we tried to give a bit of a flavour of what we experienced some of these values and priorities to be through our time around Red Crow and by our conversations with people there.
Over this time we had the chance to talk to a number of students and also to gauge from the teachers some of the effects of being part of Red Crow, and especially the Kainai Studies course. Succinctly put this can be summarised as a coming to be re-embedded in that mesh of knowledge, identity and connection to place and community which was taken away by a century of policies of assimilation.
Speaking to students there is a palpable sense of a re-awakened pride at being Blackfoot, an aspiration to learn more about what this means, by learning their language, history, ecological knowledge and spiritual values. This is a considerable feat given the indoctrination perpetrated through residential schools and the de-legitimising of Blackfoot ways which has persisted over the century. Almost all the students I interviewed for the documentary introduced themselves by speaking in Blackfoot first. And this was a generation which did not have, for the most part, their parents speaking the language. All students mentioned how they are studying so as to learn more about being Blackfoot to better serve their community, whether as social worker, teacher or healer.
Ryan related to us how some of their graduates have gone on to take positions of power within the Tribal council or else in teaching positions elsewhere in Alberta and have been using the knowledge they acquired through the course, such as in implementing policies that ensure greater protection of the plants and animals in the Blood reserve. In conversation with Cynthia we also heard of the success of the Blackfoot Pedagogy course, for both Blackfoot and non-Blackfoot graduate teachers, in reconnecting to the historical landscape of Alberta. Teachers have gone on to take their students to the sites visited during the course, introducing a new generation to the power of learning from place and the sense of the historical continuity of habitation in this landscape.
Given the serious problems concerning the unabated extraction of natural resources (mines, oil and gas extraction, the tar sands) in this region of Canada we left Alberta with a sense of a quiet revolution happening in education. The scale of this is still relatively small but the effects of Kainai Studies have been communicated to other First Nations groups across Canada and have been very well received (see the report and project on Aboriginal Learning Knowledge Centre in Canada).
Other challenges still remain for Kainai Studies. There is still some resistance internally amongst some in the Blackfoot community of the merit of educating a new generation to ‘become Blackfoot’. Whether because of Christian values (many Christian Blackfoot live in the reserve), or else because of an aspiration to further integrate the Blackfoot into the capitalist economy by training them for the workforce, Kainai Studies continues to have to make its case to the Tribal Council which helps fund it. Externally, Kainai Studies is challenging other universities to accept its Kainai Studies degree as a valid transfer to the second or third year of their own degrees. Ryan, Cynthia and Narcisse are hopeful that a new generation of educators will emerge that will take this work of the deepening and dissemination of Blackfoot pedagogy and ways of being forward as teachers, carers, researchers and decision makers. This will be a generation that integrates, as Narcisse, Ryan, Cynthia and others have attempted to, Blackfoot ways of knowing with ‘global’ science and epistemology.