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A trip to the Nisga’a museum, our first day in Terrace

A trip to the Nisga’a museum, our first day in Terrace

Posted by on Nov 16, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art | 0 comments

We wake up early in our first morning in Terrace and drive from our motel to meet Dempsey Bob, a leading First Nations artist and co-founder of the Freda Diesling School of Northwest coast Art, at his home in a leafy street of wooden houses near the center of the town. We do not know what to expect but from his brief emails and his phone call to the motel this morning Dempsey seems friendly and welcoming. Arriving at his house we are greeted by a man with a kind, warm smile and creative eyes who accompanies us to the School. We take a short detour for breakfast and then try to catch up with the yellow school bus that is taking the students from the School to the recently opened Nisga’a museum two hours north along route 113.

 

The drive on the 113 is of intense beauty. A Northern landscape of towering mountains thinly covered in snow and vivid yellow autumnal trees draped in morning mist. The mist opens up into a surreal landscape of volcanic rocks, sharp but spherical and covered in bright light-green moss and lichen. An eagle lands on the road ahead of us and Dempsey says it is a good sign. On the drive back two black bears rustle into the trees, also a good sign. We speak to Dempsey for the two hours there and two hours back and he tells us his story. The story is of how he became an artist, how he learnt from others especially Freda Diesing, during a long period of apprenticeship, of how he was then sent north to Alaska to teach art there and also learn more of the art of his people, teaching in many places such as prisons and schools. He also told us more about his culture and its art, of stories from his grandparents. The drive went by quickly and we arrive in Nisga’a territory in no time.

The Nisga’a museum is in the village of Laxgalts’ap, in the territory of the Nisga’a people who have just recently settled their land claim with the Canadian government. With this settlement the Nisga’a have also been awarded the rights to reclaim their cultural property which has been housed in several museums in Canada.

 

The newly constructed museum is a beautiful building combining traditional and contemporary architecture and materials. We arrive with Dempsey just as the museum guide is giving her opening talk to the students. Inside we are guided through the exhibits – wooden masks, shaman regalia, rattles, blankets, spoons and other ceremonial pieces. The group of students respectfully listens and walks through the museum, looking and photographing the artefacts.

 

Nisga’a Museum

At the end of the tour a student eloquently thanks the guide and offers her gifts on behalf of the School, congratulating her Nation on their land settlement on the museum and wishing that his own Nation would also accomplish this someday soon.

 

Why are places like the Nisga’a museum important? In conversations with Rocque, who teaches art history and anthropology at the School, the relationship between the empowerment of a people, especially in terms of the rights to their ancestral land, and the reclaiming of their material culture became more apparent. Reclaiming ones’ material culture, dissipated through the colonial period and beyond, is a sign of strength and of the rejuvenation of cultural practices. This is not just a matter of ownership of artefacts as the objects themselves are considered as powerful items, embodying an energy of a living culture.

 

I also saw this in the documentary I did with the Pitt Rivers museum and the Haida Nation from Haida Gwaii, B.C. In this film, called Everything was Carved, I follow a group of Haida artists, musicians, educators and community leaders during their two week visit to the museum as they interact and learn from the pieces in the Pitt Rivers collection. I could see how the Haida treated the pieces with care and sometimes awe, regarding them as living presences of the culture that made them. The masks themselves are living representations of the animals and beings they depict and need to be danced in ceremonies to satisfy these entities. One of the masks was danced in a ceremony at the Pitt Rivers, it must have been waiting a long time on those museum shelves.

 

The Haida also have their own cultural centre in Haida Gwaii and have managed to repatriate a number of artefacts from museums across the world. Of even more significance though, for the Haida and other First Nations groups, is the repatriation of the bones of their ancestors which were collected at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. Reburying the ancestors in ancestral land, repatriating material culture, reclaiming the knowledge of how to make the art are then all parts of a long process of healing from the trauma of colonialism and state policies and to a strengthening of community.

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Becoming Blackfoot and its challenges

Becoming Blackfoot and its challenges

Posted by on Nov 13, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Red Crow Community College | 0 comments

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.

 

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