“We are in the time of prophecy: the youth are going to take Indigenous wisdom and resurrect it through their art and their stories because they are going to inherit what we leave behind.”
These were the words of Ka’nahsóhon Kevin Deer, the Kahnawake Elder who introduced a powerful new Cree artistic exhibition at Montreal’s Ashukan Cultural Space November 5. It was the culmination of “NISK and stories from the land” – a cultural revitalization project which began as an intergenerational residency in Ouje-Bougoumou this past summer.
Geese (nisk) are prominent in Tim Whiskeychan’s art, and he often paints with goose feathers for both their particular texture and the connection to his culture. Entering the exhibition, viewers are immediately drawn to the vivid three-panel painting that Whiskeychan created with the help of young artist Vanessa Stephen. He would wake before dawn, feeling the land, taking pictures and reminiscing about his father’s teachings before going to paint each day. Whiskeychan credits Stephen with painting the bear and other elements, and was impressed with her texturing.
“To have that opportunity is a real honour,” said Stephen, who joined the residency after a last-minute cancellation. “To learn from the Elders was a real present for me because I’ve never had that before. It deepened my connection to my identity – I cherish those moments.”
The Elder in the painting is Mary Jane Kitchen Saganash, Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash’s grandmother, who was a family friend of Whiskeychan and passed away just before the summer residency. Swimming caribou were the work’s serendipitous final touch – Whiskeychan intuited something else was needed and only learned at the launch party of their greater significance.
“Last winter, she was in hospital already,” recalled Labrecque-Saganash. “She said, ‘I was dreaming of caribou – I don’t know what it means yet.’ I was really moved. With the organization of this project, these people helped me with my grief.”
Labrecque-Saganash spoke candidly at the launch about how the project pulled her out of a dark place, helping her reconnect with her culture and community. Five young women answered her call for volunteers; she finds it is predominantly women taking action to break cycles of violence and give back to their communities.
“People really opened up during the process and it sparked motivation for them to keep on doing that kind of work,” Labrecque-Saganash told the Nation. “I’m happy to see people who attended now participating more in these kinds of initiatives. It’s like we found strength to be vocal about certain issues in the communities. I’m glad if we managed to create that space for them to feel empowered.”
“[NISK] represents a profound contribution to the preservation and promotion of stories and practices that reflect the richness of the Cree cultural heritage,” Grand Chief Abel Bosum said at the event. “Whenever an organization is established which encourages the public exhibition of Indigenous cultures and cultural exchanges, this is truly worth celebrating as an important contribution to the mission of reconciliation.”
Bosum acknowledged the “pioneering work” of Nadine St-Louis on behalf of the Cree Nation in establishing Sacred Fire Productions and Ashukan, a unique cultural incubator and fair-trade market for Indigenous arts in the city. St-Louis also organized this project and was clearly touched by Bosum’s words.
“I kept [the speech] because I really felt this was from Chief Bosum’s heart,” St-Louis told the Nation. “He was proud of the youth, of the initiative. There was a lot of love, hope and acknowledgement. Every single participant had tears in their eyes.”
During tours of First Nations communities before launching her gallery seven years ago, St-Louis realized that all Indigenous art stems from traditional practices. The land directly inspires the art, which in turn breathes life into the stories. This NISK project represents another realization – exhibitions can become more compelling when focused on one nation’s unique cultural iconography.
“We’ve come to the decision that we need to work with nations individually to help empower smaller groups,” explained St-Louis. “That’s going to have a ripple effect. We chose to work with the Cree Nation because of my inspiration with the story Tim [Whiskeychan] shared about the great goose migration 7,000 years ago and how people honoured the goose from that day on.”
While Whiskeychan has worked with St-Louis for 15 years, this exhibition felt especially important for him.
“It’s opening a door for our people on the national level,” Whiskeychan told the Nation. “With this collaboration, I always say it’s not about me. I create the channel between past and future and contribute the best of my abilities as an artist. It’s an honour to be given this gift and use it well, guide our young people to a better life.”
Following the launch, most of the group sat around a hotel room “like aunties” to Emma Trapper’s baby, who was born since the residency. All participants spoke glowingly of the special bond made during that time with Elders Thomas and Josephine Coon, the fascinating workshops at Anna and David Bosum’s cultural camp, and the sense of an extended family being created.
“Everyone got teary-eyed because they recognized the strength and resilience of their ancestors,” asserted St-Louis. “When you go back to the roots, it creates a different understanding of the world we come from. It’s conscious awareness of your existence and the legacy you are responsible for carrying on.”
Nadya Kwandibens created the catalogue’s photographs and three-screen multimedia installation that so evocatively transports Eeyou Istchee into the urban gallery. Featuring this technology alongside traditional crafts positions the exhibition in an impressive contemporary context.
After NISK winds up at Ashukan on January 29, St-Louis hopes to tour the exhibition nationally, inspiring other Indigenous communities to produce similar cultural legacies.
“Putting Indigenous culture on a global radar screen for those looking for guidance is a welcome thing,” stated Bosum. “Indigenous cultures may become the well that humankind must draw from to find a path to our collective survival. It is for these reasons that exhibits such as this one are so important.”