Let us first consider this basic fact – ‘Art’ was a definite part of the daily lives of the First Nations people. This could be the heart of the exhibit and it could lead us on the path of what we are trying to do. I would like to have an exhibit with the idea that art was very important to the First Nations people; they wore art, they lived with it and they used it to explore the world of the ‘ancestors’ and the ‘spiritual realm’ they now belong to. With art they were able to connect with the ‘Great Spirit’ in many different and distinct ways. Art was a part of their everyday and there are many examples of it tucked away in the archives of the Glenbow Museum.
Where does a person who is asked to put on an exhibit with such a large collection of treasures from the past, start? There are many items, which cover a whole spectrum of daily life, and which look at special ceremonies with sacred connections to the other world. I find it unequivocally overwhelming that we have a short time to narrow down the vast variety of materials that has been collected. I am also amazed and wonder-filled that I am able to come into contact with so many special things that were made from ‘our’ collective past. When I refer to ‘our’ I mean those people of First Nations ancestry as I am from the Woodland Cree people in northern-Alberta – as I am a member of the Fort McKay First Nation.
As I began looking in the cabinets I began to think about what has transpired in the ‘Canadian Art Scene’ in the past while, especially since 1992. This was a very important year and time for First Nations all across this great land of ours as it was 500 years of contact with the ‘White’ race. I also had to consider that in order to break things down into a manageable exhibit that I have to drop a few Nations. This is not to say that I negate their importance, this is only to say that it is imperative that we give some other Nations exposure and bring a little light to other ways of life. I am basically saying that we need to look at the sub-Arctic peoples and to those First Nations who lived, worked, hunted, played and died here in Western Canada. These groups of First Nations peoples have generally been overlooked in their art, their literature, or lack there of, and as Nations which are distinct in their own rights.
So now that we’ve narrowed down where we need to look to explore the world of these marvelous First Nations people, it is now necessary to consider the things that brought something special to their lives. I have always considered that what First Nations people did to adorn their clothes, their hunting implements, their tools, their ceremonial items and regalia and their items of sacred occupation as a form of ‘fine art.’ As a child I was given many fine pieces of clothing made mostly by my Grandmother, Victoria McDonald, and though I did not understand their importance at that time; I really do now. I was wearing the love that my Grandmother had for me and for the spirit of her family that she put into each and every piece of clothing that she made for my brothers and sister, my mom and dad, and for myself. We didn’t just wear these pieces of fine art and clothing to special occasions; we wore them everyday, everywhere and whenever we needed to keep ourselves warm. The clothes were meant to be worn and that is all there is to that!
So where next do we go from here? As I look at all these pieces of fine art, made with the loving hands of someone’s Grandmother, wife, daughter, or sister, it is like walking through time and it is very important to tread lightly. I know one thing for sure that we need to respect the people and honour the community and the past. I also know that it is vitally important not to disrespect the First Nation people and the items that were made for each and every person who at one time or another wore them, no matter what they were doing.
All at once we begin to think in terms of what was and what is and that these pieces of fine art should still be held in highest of regards, just as the masters of art from Europe. I think this way because ‘my’ ancestors were masters in their own right and who should say, one way or another, that the European masters or the North-American masters were better than the other. If you consider them equal then you begin to look at nations of people who were not and are not primitive. Then, time and place have really no significance and all that is really left is to accept people just for who they are. I think that with this exhibit, though my thoughts are grand and perhaps a bit far fetched, wouldn’t it be great if the art, that we put on display, be considered ‘fine’ in their own terms. Maybe, just maybe, all ‘other’ people will see the First Nations people as people, with an equal share in the world and with a right to a distinct identity. But, then I am just dreaming!
Next I couldn’t help think about things that were made to honour those individuals who were held in high esteem in any community. And, let me tell you, there were many – all the way from the Elders, to the chiefs and warriors, to the patriarchs and matriarchs, to the great hunters and to the children. I can honestly say that the children were held in the highest regard; they were and still are considered a gift from the ‘Creator.’ I should know I have three special gifts myself. So we begin by seeing that without really trying, the ‘art’ifacts are beginning to narrow themselves down. And when I begin to see all the art that has been done I begin to see patterns in where the exhibit is leading us. This brings me around to where we are now – looking for art that is as special as each and every day. Isn’t this really all about life?
As hunting was very important to me as a young man I easily gravitated to the art that was portrayed on any item that had to do with hunting, trapping and fishing. Then there are the clothes, like jackets, shirts, leggings, vests, dresses and headgear, that people wore for doing those day-to-day tasks. Did I miss anything? To be adorned by art that was made specifically for you was a very special thing. I know because my grandmother made a vest and a pair of moccasins for me when I started university. What she was doing was giving me her blessing and also giving me a part of her spirit. So in this respect clothing was very important and any and all art carried a special importance for the wearer.
At this time in our search for just the right thing to put on display we have been in conversation with not only each other, but with the spirit of the ancestors. When we open up cabinets that have not been opened for either a very long or short time, we are giving these items that are hidden away, a chance to breathe. A chance to be seen and admired. Admired for the work, spirit and art that was put into them. In our day and age of mass production it is a very special treat to see things that were lovingly made, one little piece at a time. Things that were made specifically for one person. Symbols and art that were used to portray stories, thoughts, ideas, ceremonies, special moments and just about anything of importance to both the maker and the wearer. Art tells a story of the artist or of the artist’s community through the use of symbols. All these pieces tell a story and it is our duty as curators and keepers of the past to let the items tell their own story. We then are only a contemporary tool and the art – is the living past!
I know that I’ve not really made a case for all the artifacts bearing what I would consider a fine art, but as a viewer you have to let go of old, ingrained traditions of what is primitive and what is looked at as an ‘artifact.’ You have to look beyond and through the ‘stained’ glass of the old ways of the museum. The viewer has to understand that because the institutions house all these treasures that they belong to cultures and nations of people who come from another time and so they belong to an-‘other’ ideology and tradition. These people who collected these fine works of art and daily life thought that they were made by a people who were considered at one time in the history of north-America, as a ‘Vanishing Race.’ So what does this tell us other than the fact that what comes from a time of long ago or not so long ago, belongs to an era that believed in the Darwinian theory of ‘survival of the fittest.’ The collectors of these artifacts never thought that the ‘Indian’ people would survive the coming of the White man.
I can debate the notion of primitive and artifact, but I don’t think this is a necessary step at this time. What I will say is necessary is to have a discourse on the history of the First Nations people and if I am allowed to do so, then I must ask the Ancestors to give me a hand and allow me an opportunity to work on behalf of them and on behalf of the many Nations that have been forgotten – especially those who were considered primitive. If people can see that the art in the ‘art’ifact has been diligently and delicately beaded, weaved, embroidered, etched, carved, drawn and painted as a dedication of love for someone special, then perhaps the viewer will begin to understand that these First Nations people were just that – people! As the curators and protectors of all these fine pieces of art, it is our duty to the past, the present and the future, to make damn sure that we do the best job of sharing the thoughts, feelings, and stories of the First Nations people. It is up to us to allow a discourse on the traditional life of many First Nations, but doing so in a contemporary perspective.