By Madonna Hamel
Another season has begun at Prairie Wind & Silver Sage in Val Marie. We have fluffed up the stuffed critters, dusted off the bookshelves and stocked them with new titles from a growing list of internationally revered prairie authors. The espresso machine is fired up, the t-shirts folded and the brownies baked. A new exhibit hangs in the cloakroom gallery and thanks to the curators, I’ve been allowed to plumb the depths of apron pockets for yet another collage exhibition. To me, PWSS serves as a kind of decompression-preparation chamber, a place where busy travelers can slow down to “Prairie Time” pace, as one local describes it. The effect of this place on one’s body, I believe, can be as profound as the deep sea on a diver or outer space on an astronaut. So folks need a place to prepare for entry into the silence, space, and rawness of the grasslands, as well as a place to prepare for re-entry into the work world.
My friend Avril was back between film shoots to oversee the building of her new home away from home. I watched her cram a dozen appointments into her three days. But I also saw her body take over, as it will when your brain’s agenda says you will do all the best hikes over a long weekend in the dead heat of the day. I used to have the same determination to get it all in, but the urgency of the goal somehow lost its potency in the heat and pace of the day. I’ve learned that every day has its rhythm and it will dictate what that is according to weather, wind, barometric pressure and a whole other variety of territorial subtleties. Urban life subjugates or nullifies the reality of Nature with its air conditioned or heated rooms to duck into when the climate is merciless. It also expects us to arrive at work at the same time come hell or high water, whereas out here, both hell and high water necessitate adjusting ones chores on a daily basis.
My recent residency in Regina afforded me lots of time to focus purely on art-making, reading and writing. I had brought my boxes of collected aprons and sat with them and my notes and my songs and hoped the stories would unfold themselves, like the fabric before me. I was back to my old style of art-making: performing in a space where I orchestrated the elements of light, sound and space as well as song and story. It had been a while, but the old habits kicked in: slip into the rhythm of the day, like a leaf floats on water, and let the day and the mystery of the piece reveal itself.
The natural rhythms of a rural day seem to readily facilitate connection with deep-seated mystery. Rather than stimulated by the rush of traffic, the glitter of lights, the seductions of billboards, the sensation seems to arise from within. I experience this first hand, and also through books by writers who have, in a variety of ways, faced, observed, even understood nature, their own and the world’s. Through the years writers like Tom Brown, Annie Dillard, Kathleen Norris, Thomas King, Barry Lopez, Black Elk (via John Neidhart), Richard Wagamese, Wendell Berry, Trevor Herriot, Wallace Stegner, Vine Deloria and Winona LaDuke continue to aid me in my observations.
And so, in the heart of a city, alone in preparation, I sat on a stage and began to ‘plant seeds’. I arranged chick peas and small vegetables until, in the steady rhythm of planting, I’d arranged two shapes and themes: one meant to resemble an embroidered table cloth, the other a beaded moccasin. By mimicking the motion of planting I’d discovered that my new level of apron pocket exploration has moved into the seams that serve as the stitches between surface and vessel, and, taken further, metaphorically serve excellently to ponder on other intersections: between indigenous and settler, between adventure and survival, between the first and the last.
The central image of the new collage show is of ‘The Gleaners’, that iconic image painted in 1857 by the French artist Millet. My pal Page took a photograph of me in a similar pose, gleaning from the land just outside the Grasslands gate. I then pasted us beside each other. In researching Millet’s painting I learned that he was actually reviled for giving central stage to “ugly” and “brutish peasants” gleaning the scraps of a bountiful harvest. Gleaners were considered the lowest, the least of the last. They were scavengers, foragers, or, as in my case, as an artist who uses found and rejected objects, dumpster divers. Critics were concerned the painting, coming hot on the heels of the French Revolution, might incite another revolt. In the collage seeds and coins fall from gleaners pockets, as do the words: “The first are still first, the last are still last, so what have we gleaned from the past?”
Through making collages, I have gleaned stories of contact between human and animal, land and sky, indoor and outdoor, men and women, farmers and ranchers, adults and children and even war and peace times. But the lack of information about contact between indigenous and settler women is frustrating to say the least. What did stick in my mind were those gleaners. To “glean” is to extract something, even if it is just a random scrap or seed or piece of information. By digging deeper into the apron pockets and discovering the forgotten seeds, feathers, pebbles, scraps of letters, disintegrating tissues, is my way of tracing or tracking stories of contact. The seam itself is a point of contact, an abutment, a inter-stitch, or interstitial space.
In Val Marie, on my neighbour’s front porch one warm night, watching a giant moon rising behind the horses in the field, I mused aloud about the lack of stories of exchange between indigenous and settler people.
“I wonder if it’s fear or pride, or guilt, that stopped our ancestors from asking about how to survive out here. Or just… asking them about themselves. Like a new neighbour… like you and me.”
“Oh I don’t think they could have cared less. They definitely wouldn’t have felt guilty. I’m sure the ‘Indian’ was so ‘savage’ and ‘beneath’ them that they had absolutely no interest in any contact whatsoever.”
“But surely some of the settlers were genuinely curious?”
What about the woman who was thrilled to start fresh in a “new and naked land”? Her sense of infinite possibility and curiosity compelled Ronald Rees to entitle his book about turning the prairies into ‘home’ after her description of it? There were settlers who stood in awe of the “craft” and “prescience” of “Indian Culture”, writes Rees. But, for the most part “there was no question of savage instinct being able to stand in the way of material progress.” In fact, Indian culture was considered an “anachronism”. It’s takes a gargantuan ego to proclaim someone an anachronism in their own home. Forget “when in Rome”; settlers, apparently, did not ask about local customs or culture. They assumed there was none. Writes Rees: “The contrast between the Indian’s knowledge of the prairie and his consummate ability to survive, and the ignorance and capacity of the homesteader, is a striking discontinuity in Western Canadian history.”
I’ve been sitting with that word “discontinuity”. I assume Rees is bemoaning the lack of a hand-off of valuable information and wisdom. But what about contiguous shared knowledge, parallel universes that touch each other, even intersect enthusiastically, every once in awhile? He doesn’t go so far as to ask why we settled in someone else’s yard without discussion. Ours is a culture based on ownership rather than shared tools. We invented the term “Indian giver” because we could not understand the concept of: “If you’re not using that knife can I please have it back because I’ve got some filleting to do?”
Nonetheless, I continue to search for stories of those who caught on to native life and culture readily and with good intention, who were open, honest and willing to let the territory and its creatures speak to them. No doubt the Metis will emerge in the foreground, my own Metis ancestors among them. The Metis are after-all, seam people, they stitched parts of both worlds together to create a new one. Theirs are among the stories of people with a spirit and consciousness ahead of their time. Perhaps we can call them old souls with an eye to a better future. I’ve taken it upon myself to tell their stories in collages which tell of Minnie Caudle, a “white” child who, after being captured by “Indians” and then returned to her family, fell into a deep depression. Or Captain Palliser, who, in warning settlers not to inhabit the area where I now live, was also trying to protect the home of his Blackfoot friends. But these are just a few. Please, come tell me more.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.