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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Art as Intervention in a Time of Reconciliation [by Tasha Henry]

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[Ed. note]  The following post is a report by educator Tasha Henry, discussing a recent partnership between the Art Gallery of Victoria, and students in three schools.   The work here, which was done with Grade 3 and 4 students, is a very interesting model of the kind of work one might consider when thinking about Art as intervention in the TRC Calls to Action (and indeed, art as intervention within a law school context).   We thought folks would find it thought-provoking (and a bit inspiring!) Here, then, is  the post by Tasha [and she has permission from the students and families to use the photos appearing in this post]

 

Taking a place at the table:

Art as Intervention in a Time of Reconciliation

By Tasha Henry

In collaboration with several artists of a recent exhibit at the Greater Victoria Art Gallery, entitled “It’s in the Making”, Selkirk Montessori students, were initiated into the world of art installation with contemporary artists who challenge the notion of art as product. The students met with Nicholas Galanin, Tlingit/Aleut artist and Cedric, Nate and Jim Bomford while they constructed their installations in the gallery. The grade 3-4 students interviewed the artists with questions such as:

  • “Why is art installation important?
  • When do you know when your art is finished?
  • How is art an intervention?”

The students then attempted their own installation work in the gallery mansion as a response to their ongoing work with Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “Calls to Action”.

IMG_5782Art installation as social intervention felt like the appropriate vehicle to explore the children’s emerging awareness and questions around the devastating history of Residential Schooling in Canada. As teachers, we are in the unique position to respond to the TRC’s Calls to Action in ways that model sensitive and historically respectful approaches to Canada’s shameful investment in Residential Schooling. Rather than approach this work as a prescriptive curriculum, we approached the concept of reconciliation as a process of responding to the ongoing impacts of colonialism on Indigenous communities. It was important to us that the children’s work around redress be responsive, multi-voiced and open ended.

To prepare for the day of the installation, for months, the children studied and learned from the Lkwungen First Peoples’ history and the traditional territories on which our school stands, known today as the Esquimalt and Songees Nations. The children were honoured to receive teachings by such highly esteemed and beloved artists and elders such as Richard Hunt (Kwakwaka’wakw), Butch Dick (Songhees), Monique Gray Smith (Lakota/Cree), and Ron George, Heredity Chief Tsaskiy (Wet’suwet’en).

They studied the cultural traditions of the Coast Salish First Peoples by attempting artistic forms such as beading, sewing button “blankets” on felt, and by constructing their own cardboard “cedar bentwood boxes”. They expanded their learning to conceptual art by analyzing the work of two contemporary Tlingit artists, Nicholas Galanin and Blake Lepine. The students were also introduced to the history of Residential Schooling through Nicola Campbell and Kim La Fave’s acclaimed children’s books, Shi-Shi-etko and Shin-chi’s Canoe.

IMG_5635 2The students were then given a white ceramic plate (bought from The Salvation Army) where they created their own free hand drawings using only red and black Sharpie markers. On the day of the installation, the students brought their ceramic white plates with their drawings carefully illustrated through a mix of personal designs and traditionally influenced images.

IMG_5636With the guidance of elder and artist, Butch Dick, the children were taught the importance of ceremony and the symbolism of laying a table in the Songhees tradition. They were asked to place their plates in the dining room area in a spot that meant something to them in relation to their understanding of the history of Residential Schooling in Canada.

With reverent gestures and words, the students spoke to their installation choices. They had been particularly struck by the descriptions of malnourishment from the testimonies of Residential School Survivors. Many of the children hid their plates under the large oak table, or under the chairs to represent the starvation of Indigenous children while at school. As the installation took its living form, the children chose to turn the chairs on their side, and to cluster their plates in the corners of the room to represent the upheaval of home and culture due to mandated schooling for Indigenous children.

IMG_5678Shion: “We put our plate above the fireplace so that people could remember the children that didn’t get to have these plates in Residential School. The fireplace is a symbol of First Nations hope”

James: “I put my plate away from everyone else’s because people were trying to destroy their culture and keep it away from them. Our plate represents the culture that was taken away from the kids.”

Maciah: “We put our plate on a shelf on a smaller table because maybe not all kids got to sit at the table and maybe had to sit on the floor. It was meaningful because we are bringing back the memory of First Nations kids who were forced to go to Residential Schools.”

IMG_5749 2By inserting their voices through the act of installation the students experienced a powerful social intervention. They were called to speak to their intentions to disturb the establishment of the Greater Victoria Art Gallery, on their own terms, in their own words. As Layla, a grade 3 student said, “When I made the drawing I felt I was learning about the culture and also doing something kind for the children by drawing their designs”. The children realized quickly that their art work was not for them; it was not a product to take home or display on the wall. As Adison said, “I like that some people learned that not everything is for yourself you have to make things for others, as well and learn about other cultures”.

In the collective experience of installing their art work as a social intervention, witnessed by their teachers and Butch Dick, who himself is a Survivor of Residential Schooling, the children experienced the importance of standing up for those who have been silenced. Jamie, a new student from Japan, reflected on the experience with poignant simplicity, “the kids couldn’t see their parents for a long time. So, we honour them.”.

After the children installed their work and spoke to their choices, we circled the installation and read this quote out loud:

IMG_5780 2“We are thankful for these and all the good things of life. We recognize that they are part of our common heritage and come to us through the efforts of our brothers and sisters the world over. What we desire for ourselves, we wish for all. To this end, may we take our place in the world’s work and the world’s struggle.” (J.S. Woodsworth)

When teaching a response to the Calls to Action, we can only hope that we are able to model what social justice learning looks like within the various institutions that frame social thought. This is not work that can rely on detached lessons within the confines of a classroom. The work of reconciliation must be work with the First Peoples of the land from which we learn, through meaningful, conscious and open ended forms that refrain from a settler agenda, or desired outcome. By precisely not desiring an outcome or a finished product, the children’s temporary installation became a visual testament to the missing and unaccounted for children due to Residential Schooling. On that day, it wasn’t our words that filled the space, it was the sound of children moving with intention, fuelled by a quiet collective heat burning within each of them, to seek retribution for children they had never met. Their innate desire for reparation permeated the space, and moved them to set a place at the table for the Indigenous children who were not permitted their rightful place in Canadian society.

Photo credits:  Tasha Henry

[Ed. Note:] A truncated version of this discussion can be found on the Victoria Art Gallery’s website (http://emagazine.aggv.ca/partner-school-inquiry/)

 

 

Our Voices, Our Stories

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“I want to get rid of the Indian problem… Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department…”

Deputy Superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs (1913-1932), Duncan Campbell Scott

My grandmother, Jean Jones/Borrows, ran away from home so she would not have to attend residential school in Ontario. Her siblings did not run away, and were taken to residential school. My grandma still expresses guilt that she could not help her siblings. She says, “sometimes there are things in life you can’t get over, but I believe you can get through them”.

From 1929-1975, an estimated 9,200 Indigenous children attended St. Michael’s Residential School in Alert Bay, BC.

One week ago I watched a film by renowned director Barbara Cranmer (‘Namgis First Nation) entitled, Our Voice, Our Stories. It told Truth. It showed Reconciliation. It illustrated Indigenous law in action—ceremony, mending harms, decision-makers coming together in deliberation, and the ongoing obligations to share stories.

The film was a story of people tending to a wound that they might not get over, but that they are getting through. The film showed residential school survivors coming together along with their descendants and allies from across British Columbia to watch the demolition of St. Michael’s Residential School. It was inspiring to see people together again to continue their healing.

One does not usually think of a demolition as a ceremony. For those who attended St. Michael’s Residential School, the school’s destruction was a form of emotional, intellectual, cultural and spiritual reconstruction. People wore button blankets, cedar woven hats, smudged with medicinal plants, sang, cried, embraced, told stories, and came together. The crumbling of the red brick school building lined with narrow rectangular windows stood in stark contrast to the strength of the people who participated in the ceremony. The sparkling blue ocean, surrounding forests and distant mountains also witnessed the ceremony.

What stood out to me the most out of the dialogue in the film was a young girl who said she saw a little boy’s spirit leave the residential school during the demolition. She said he looked happy to be leaving. To hear that acknowledgement of freedom coming from such a young voice gave me shivers and hope.

During the question and answer session filmmaker Cranmer said there are no plans yet as to what will replace the demolished school in that now empty space. While law schools will likely not physically build anything in that empty physical place, the spaces in people’s minds can be filled with knowledge and discussion about how to heal and learn moving forward. Barbara has not yet made any specific plans about teaching curriculum to share the film but she is very open to being contacted to allow people access to the film and to use it as a teaching resource. Her band office can be contacted. It is an informative and affective resource for bringing Our Voice to Our Stories.

The trailer can be watched at: https://vimeo.com/141833166