For last year’s Canadian book challenge, I chose to read on a theme: indigenous authors, inspired by some past favourites.
But I neglected the northern natives. This reading trio will serve as a bridge into this year’s Canadian book challenge. And, hey, it’s not too late to join!
The Shanawdithit spread in The Artist Herself was a highlight for me; the art exhibit toured in 2015 and 2016, but the accompanying volume of images and essays can be pulled from the shelf at any time.
It was, in turn, inspired by an earlier touring exhibit “From Women’s Eyes: Women Painters in Canada in 1975”. This updated tour includes other art forms and focuses specifically on self-portraits while encouraging viewers to expand their understanding of them.
Even the opening work, by Mary Ann Scrimes Graham is not a traditional self-portrait but a work which invites questioning about “the complexities of knowing and presenting the self”.
The opening essay by Alicia Boutilier and Tobi Bruce suggests other interesting ideas. Those familiar with the art world will appreciate it most dramatically, with single sentence references to works and exhibitions which illuminate other possibilities, though an attempt is made to situate less familiar viewers. It is not easy to summarize hundeds of years of history in a few pages.
Students of women’s history will have another avenue of entry, and here too, some context is offered. “When a woman artist created a work of art where maker and model are one, she navigated a field of contradictory Western historical constructs. A genre that is, by its very nature, self-assertive – ‘a declaration of achievement, an occasion for showing off’ – is incompatible with the cultural expectations of femininity.”
There are thirty-five shorter pieces (about a page long) about the artists, both settler and indigenous creators.
One has the sense that the earlier exhibit – as ground-breaking as it would have been for its time – was less inclusive, limited to the colonial gaze.
Shanawdithit ‘s sketches are spare and strange. They depict Shanawdithit’s House in St. John’s and Alleged Totems and were drawn for William Eppes Cormack, an explorer who founded the Boeothick Institution and brought Shanawdithit out of her servitud in central Newfoundland, intending to gather historical and ethnographic information from her about her people.
Her drawings were supposedly ‘collaborations’ but they were made when she was terminally ill and when she knew she was the last of her kind, although Shanawdithit did genuinely enjoy art. When she first encountered paper and pencils, she expressed “great delight” and immediately drew “a deer perfectly, and what is most surprising, she began at the tip of the tail”.
In Fiona Polack’s essay, she observes that the “Beothuk culture was not static. Indeed its members were highly skilled at such tasks as recasting the materials French and English colonists brought to Newfoundland – iron nails, watches, canvas, sails – for their own purpose.
She cites historical publications by Ralph Pastore and Donald Holly, but the novel by Métis author, Bernard Assiniwi (translated by Wayne Grady), The Beothuk Saga, illustrates that brilliantly.
The interplay between the cultures is described so naturally and expansively in this novel that I could hardly stop talking about it. It challenges binary thinking about belonging and identity in terms of indigenous and colonized peoples and asks questions about boundaries and exclusion, illustrates the complications which arise when members of a group disagree about how to face significant life changes.
When it comes to individuals, sometimes devastation comes from within their community and the “foreign” influence within their culture is a positive element. But the systemic impact, the practice of cultural genocide, was obviously perpetrated from without: devastating and immoral. (There is no spoiler here: the third and final section is called Genocide.)
The Beothuk Saga begins hundreds of years ago, however, in a time which seems ageless because it is measured in suns and moons and seasons.
It begins as the story of one man, who last left his people behind in order to explore the extent of their homeland. Another member of the community left to complete this goal but returned suspiciously soon (the winter was tough!) and the traveller’s journey too much longer than he expected (even though he knew it wasn’t going to be a matter of months).
His solitary existence remains of considerable interest as he engages with the landscape and works to survive on his journey so he can bring back his findings to his people. (I was reminded of the thrill of my first discovery of Jean Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear, with talk of berries and medicine and roaming the land alone.)
But, before long, there are other people on the page. Some other indigenous people and some people from away. There is conflict and if one reads primarily for plot this is where things would get interesting. And, unfortunately, the conflicts continue until Shanawdithit is the only one left alive.
Were it not for works like this, the culture of the Beothuk could be forgotten. Invisible. Which is unacceptable. Yet, surviving indigenous communities continue to struggle against injustice and inequity, continue to struggle to remain visible.
The term ‘SakKijâjuk‘ means “to be visible” in the Labrador dialect of Inuktitut. It’s an apt title for an impressive volume edited by Heather Igloliorte, which gathers together the work of artists from four generations: the Elders and the Trailblazers, the Fire Keepers and the Next Generation.
She explains the challenges these indigenous peoples – the Nunatsiavummiut – have faced, in an effort to be visible on their own terms. Even within the indigenous community, they have struggled, because they are sometimes viewed as less authentic than other Inuit who lived further north in remote Arctic communities with little contact with outside communities.
The Nunatsiavummiut have had contact with the Norse, Basque, Dutch, Spanish, Greenlandic, English and French who came to these shores; this contact could be viewed as interesting but sometimes it has been used to dismiss the community as having been acculturated. In fact, it wasn’t until 1990 that Inuit artisans from this region were allowed to use the same designation for their works as the more northerly Inuit (the “igloo tag”).
Contact is interesting when viewed through the Inuit language, which uses the term ‘Kallunât’ or ‘Qallunaat’ for Europeans (later, Euro-Canadians and other non-natives), which one might guess at meaning “light-skinned individuals”, but which actually means either “people with beautiful eyebrows” or “people with beautiful manufactured material”.
The Inuit Elders have been responsible for sharing knowledge of the practice of making kamek (skin boots), amautilt (mother’s parkas), uluit (women’s traditional kniives), komatiit (dog sleds), kilaut (Eastern Arctic drums), grass baskets, carvings and songs. Not only beautiful, but useful, these traditional elements continue to be essential for survival.
The Trailblazers, who emerged in the 1970s through the 1990s, often created overtly political work, which also plays a necessary role in cultural survival.
The Fire Keepers, who produced their works after the community was allowed to use the “igloo tag” like other Inuit artists, were also creating in an era of self governance. The question of “authenticity” wasn’t such an overwhelming issue, so there was room to experiment and allow some less traditional aspects of the culture to exist alongside traditional art forms.
The Next Generation continues to push boundaries and incorporate traditional elements alongside innovative developments.
For those who cannot visibly attend the gallery exhibition, SakKijâjuk is a treat to behold and could certainly inspire a number of new reading projects all on its own.
This is my first bundle of books for the 11th Canadian book challenge, hosted by The Indextrious Reader. I think the next will be a bundle of biographies, but I’m still deciding.
What Canadian books have you reading lately?