I felt a twinge as Susan and I folded the last apron and stuffed it away with the others into the straw bag my parents brought home from a Hawaii vacation decades ago. These objects of tender regard have been travelling with me from museum to gallery to closet for three years now. These are not simply lovely protective coverings of matrons in kitchens, they are repositories of secrets, keepers of stories, there is gold in them thar pockets.
The exhibit ‘Apron Pocket Archives’ opened on a hot day in October. I wasn’t sure what excited me more: a month-long exhibit of my beloved collages and the chance to perform the stories of the women behind them, or the promise of a coming storm. The sky was dark, the clouds heavy. Maybe this time something moist would come of them. But nothing more than a few drops fell from the sky.
The show ended Sunday. And despite a snowstorm the night before, there was a cozy crowd in attendance. Driving along the TransCan, sticking mostly to the only plowed lane for miles, heater blasting, listening to the soundtrack to “The Cypress Hills Would Never Be the Same”, singing along to the parts I’ve come to know by heart after a handful of rehearsals, I tried to wrap my brain around the fact of my ancestors, travelling by horse and buggy in weather worse than this. They were made of sturdier material than us, we all say. But, seriously, their DNA had to resemble that of the bison, and not my house cat variety.
The cell biologist Lewis Thomas writes about ancestral DNA in “Lives of the Cell”. Yes, he reminds us, we carry their DNA with us, and hints of their person get revealed in our laughter, our mannerisms, and even our mean streaks or soft touches. But, that being the case, then bits of us were also there, back there with them, when they landed on this continent, or when they set up home on the plain. I love that it goes both ways, that we’re still all in this together, but I find it hard to believe. Because, I just ran outside to get a book from my car and I’m stomping around the room like I came this close to frostbite.
The stories of our homesteading ancestors are stories of bravery, perseverance and generosity. This is what I want to talk about and honour through my collages, my monologue and my ‘artist talks’. The semi-circle of smiling and attentive listeners in the Jasper Centre Museum gallery forms a hearth of warmth as I recall the people and books that inspired my art.
I point to my most recent piece, hanging on the wall directly behind me and over my head. “ The background is a grid, a template I’m sure you all recognize, “ I say. “ It’s a series of thirty-six squares, a township template. You will notice how every six squares there’s a square of a different colour, one for the schools, the other for the Hudson’s Bay Co. Over top the square is a circle of stones, a shape more indicative of the indigenous life outdoors, reflected in tepee rings and medicine wheels, and the changing of the seasons. In the centre sits this stunning, solid woman. She is Blood Indian, and that’s all I know about her. I have resisted calling her noble because of the cliché, ‘noble savage’. And yet, her stance, the throne –like chair she has been asked to inhabit, the beads and necklaces that hang in two diagonal strands from her neck and shoulders to her lap, give her a regalness I only see in most western women once they’ve reached their eighties, having faced suffering silently but squarely, they’ve finally sloughed off their culture’s many expectations to be anything other than what they always were!
And then it occurs to me where my urge to acknowledge her nobility comes from. I’ve been reading about the Four Noble Truths. They comprise the essence of Buddhist teachings. They are: the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering. The Blood woman has seen her share of suffering. But through qualities encouraged by her own people: among them bravery, perseverance, generosity, but no doubt, also a raw and intimate connection with the reality of her immediate surroundings, she has learned to face suffering early in life. That’s what her demeanor says to me.
“My desire is not to make one culture better than the other,” I continue. “My interest is to point out that ‘bravery, perseverance and generosity’ show up in all the stories I find in all these books I read and re-read.” I wave my hand over just a small sample of my home library, to make my point. I also hope to set cultural shame aside for a moment so that we can allow to consider other perspectives. I’m not suggesting we eradicate accountability or culpability, but I am saying that shame is useless, no motivator at all. Shame seems to generate defensiveness and suck creativity from the body. Even the anticipation of shame – and its variations: ridicule, embarrassment, humiliation – is enough to keep most of us from risking anything new or allowing for alternate perspectives.
“I’m not denigrating the grid or the square, either. Just to set the record straight. Although I’m a big fan of circles- orbs, spheres, spirals, eternal returns, the birth and death cycle, the stained glass window in Chartres, the old fashioned clock face in my kitchen- I am thankful for square frames, the book and the page, the map, the building block and the ice cube. In fact, I initially wanted to call the collage ‘Circle-Square’, after the name of a dance. But in the end I called it ‘Proving Up’, to honour the people who stayed and worked the land for six years and more. But also to question how we use the words “proof” and “evidence” and “ownership”, and how do they fit in the bigger picture of continental inhabitation?
When I first arrived in Val Marie I would hear sounds that would send me searching the ground for the creatures emitting them. And I never could find them. Because I was looking in the wrong place. They were all coming from up high: the winnowing snipe, the nighthawk and the sand-hill crane. It never occurred to me to look so high for something that sounded like a sproinging bedspring, a kid in the grass, insects disturbed by my presence, or a loose chorus of little sisters calling you home.
I think about those first birds whenever I go looking for solutions in the wrong places. Or overlook, entirely, the wisdom of those in front of me. Even now I wish I’d had a chance to hear more about the lives of people sitting before me, smiling, nodding, many knowing far more about the territory than I do, who, without naming it as such, have persevered bravely through acts of generosity. People with wonderful names like Ruby Weatherall coming from places like Moose Jaw. Or Ken Ferguson, born on the prairie but who swears he drove here from Vancouver, with his son to meet me, and hear me talk.
As I reluctantly packed away the last apron and tucked the last collage into the back seat of my car, the sky began turning that mysterious winter double hue of blue and pink. I turned off the music and let the afternoon sink in. There is something undeniably spirited about new encounters, be they with people, works of art, places, animals….I thought about those first encounters between indigenous and white folk. What on earth do you do when you both look so different and neither of you speak the others’ language? According some reports: “you sing”. You dress in our best. You turn instantly to ritual gestures and lift ritual cups. You offer, if warily, some kind of sign of reciprocity. Initial greetings were, according to research, more about a heightened spirit of reciprocity than Hollywood westerns would have us believe.
First meetings were brimming with danger and possibility, writes the author of “First Contact as Spiritual Performance” in the book “Myth and Memory”. Indigenous people made less a distinction between the sacred and the profane. Spiritual power animated the whole world and every act had a spiritual component, he wrote.
I cannot speak the language of my indigenous ancestors, although I know they are there, their DNA lives inside me. So I sing. And make collages. And tell the stories I do know, in a language I do speak. And I hope the universal traits that belong to every noble tribe, clan, fellowship, community, order, and family- perseverance, bravery, and generosity- will develop in my own being, so that I will look in the most unlikely of places and find the authentic, the noble spirit in us all.
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.