Children’s Art and Indian Residential and Day Schools

In between some errands that took me to downtown Victoria this week, I grabbed a few minutes to stop in at the Legacy Art Gallery.  Screenshot 2017-11-25 12.57.31The current exhibit is titled “There is Truth Here: Creativity and Resilience in Children’s Art From Indian Residential and Indian Day Schools”.  I had some expectations of what I might see there:  for the past two years, the UVic Law School has invited Professor Andrea Walsh (the Guest curator of the exhibit) to come and speak to the first year class about a collection of paintings done by children at the Alberni Residential Indian School.

This collection of children’s art, preserved by their extra-curricular art teacher Robert Aller, was gifted to the University after Mr. Aller’s death.  At that point, recognizing that it might be possible to identify the creators of some of that art, steps were taken to locate the now-grown children, and return their art to them.  The story of the Mr. Aller, the students, their art, and its re-patriation is a powerful moment in understanding the Canadian history of Indian Residential Schools and resistance by both children and some settlers to formal and informal policies of assimilation and cultural genocide. [Click here for a link to a short video on the project]

IMG_20171125_115846.jpgWhat was new to me were the pieces of art from the former Inkameep Indian Day School (the Osoyoos Indian Band, in the Okanagan).  I took advantage of a few stolen moments to take a quick stroll through the Gallery to get my eyes familiar with the pieces, knowing that I would be coming back for an extended visit later this month.  I also picked up a copy of a 2005 Gallery Catalogue Guide edited by Andrea Walsh, titled, “Nk’Mip Chronicles: Art from the Inkameep Day School.”

Having finished reading the Guide, I have been reflecting on some of the things that really struck me.  One of these was the reminder that if a person is serious about learning the history of Residential Schools in Canada (and many of us are indeed serious), then there is much to learn: there were many schools, which operated over many years, and there are many stories to be told.

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Nk’Mip Chronicles, p.17

One of these is the story of the Inkmeep Day School.  It is a story that speaks of the important work done by Chief Baptiste George to have a day school built in the community, “to keep his people together and to retain the Okanagan teachings.”  The school opened in 1915, with the Band using their own funds to build the school, and hire and pay the first teacher (an African American man who had married an Okanagan woman and thus knew the language).  The Guide makes visible the real challenges involved for the Band in attracting and keeping long-term experienced teachers (a challenge shared by many Indigenous communities).

The centre of this particular story is the relationship between one settler teacher (Anthony Walsh), and the children and families of the Inkameep community.  During the ten years he taught at the Inkameep Day School (1932-1942), Anthony Walsh worked actively to learn about the people and culture of the place he was living.  He learned to listen, and he valued and honoured the philosophies, stories, and experiences of the children.

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Nk’Mip Chronicles, p.18

During that time he worked with them, the children produced art that Walsh submitted to the Royal Drawing Society of London.  The children produced plays based on Okanagan stories, were invited to perform them for audiences in both Canada and the US, and raised money for charities like the Red Cross.  The children’s art was exhibited across Europe and Canada. Walsh worked with the children and their communities, “using the children’s art to oppose dominant views about aboriginal children and their place in Canada.”

When Walsh finally moved from the community, the teachers that followed did not follow his path: rather than incorporating Okanagan culture into the curriculum, they followed the assimilationist path more common in the rest of Canada (which included the decision by one teacher to burn papier-mache masks that the children had used in their dramas, as well as children’s art which remained at the school).

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Nk’Mip Chronicles, p.23

The story of Anthony Walsh and the children at the Inkameep Day School time thus invites us to both remember and reflect on the efforts of this one community (a First nation and its non-native neighbours) to be involved in the ongoing practices of building relations through cross-cultural exchanges through both visual and performing arts.

This story, and the art and performances it generated, left me thinking about the stories of the past that we choose to draw forward.

It reminded me of the importance of seeing forms of resistance, possibility and respect that were enacted in the past. It left me thinking also about the importance of similar action in the present.  It reminded me of the importance of art in opening up spaces of connection, and spaces of relation.

It also made me think about ways people today might respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission‘s Call to Action #83:

83. We call upon the Canada Council for the Arts to establish, as a funding priority, a strategy for Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists to undertake collaborative projects and produce works that contribute to the reconciliation process.

Perhaps what should interest us is less the call for government to provide funding for such collaborations (though such funding would facilitate this work!) than the call for Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists to undertake such collaborations.  I think the story of Anthony Walsh invites even those of us who are not artists to imagine ourselves as participants in this call to action.  In his work as a teacher, Walsh collaborated with others through his engagement with the space of art, through learning to how listen to what the children’s art (and the children themselves) could teach.  The engagement came even in the context of restricted funds.  As Anthony Walsh himself argued in the 1976 interview above, “we miss opportunities because too often we wait for ‘funding'”.  And so one question is, “what are we waiting for?”

There is much inspiration to be found in this story of the Inkameep Day School.  It sets out for us an example of engagement through the arts.  What we have here is the collaboration of children, their families, a  teacher and the neighbouring community in drawing on the arts to open up space for sharing truths, for listening, for healing, and for learning different (and better) ways of living with each other.   Surely this is a story worth telling, and also one worth trying on for size in our own lives.

If you are in Victoria, head over to the Legacy Art Gallery to check out the show.   If  time or geography makes that impossible, you should still check out the website for the exhibit, content and design by Dr. Jennifer Claire Robinson.   It is rich with resources that can be worked into your own teaching.  You can see pictures of all the works included in the exhibit from the four different schools (along with some discussions of the work from either the curators or the artists themselves):  Alberni Indian Residential School, Inkameep Indian Day School, St. Michael’s Indian Residential and Day School, and Mackay Indian Residential School.  The website (still being updated while the show is on) will also include intergenerational essays by relatives of the child artists.  Plus there is more!:

  •  Click here for the background story to the return of the Alberni Indian Residential School art
  • Click here for RIDSAR (Residential and Indian Day School Art Research) videos, and news media
  • Click here for a list of additional Resources (to both the Exhibition and TRC related links)
  • Witnessing is an important aspect of protocol for many First Nations.  Below are links to four important discussions of what it means to be a witness in the context of Indian Residential Schools:

 

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Author: Rebecca Johnson

I teach Law at the University of Victoria.

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