The emotionally loaded topic of ‘Home’ runs through the story of homesteading the west. Home is defined by belonging, were the mutual exchange between us and others and the landscape, the territory, the neighourhood, is for the most part, a positive experience. To be ‘at home’ means being at ease, comfortable in one’s own skin. When we feel at home with others and ourselves, we feel free to be simply present, free from explaining or defending our right, or need or reason for being in the room.
Conversely, when that ‘at home’ feeling is absent, we feel we don’t belong. And either we try to do what we can to belong, or we get used to our sense of isolation, and make do, hoping the belonging will come over time. Or we pick up and move on. Some call this former behaviour “the geographical cure”, which can be interpreted as the reaction of the restless to difficult terrain, or a fruitless search for inner peace in the outer world. It’s contemporary phenomenon, for the most part. In the 1800’s life seemed to be a bland of: “I’m not going anywhere. But I can leave in a moment’s notice.”
But for every story of restless wanderer there are dozens more of “the displaced” and the “driven out”. Sometimes I try to imagine the bewilderment of families experiencing displacement from their homes, again and again. I think of the constant and consistent driving of indigenous tribes, and with them their means of living and ways of being in the world. I am reminded of the stories of the Acadian “Derangement”, when the Brits deported the French from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, the ‘homeless’ ending up in Lousiana, to become known as the Cajuns.
Last week I traveled between Val Marie, Swift Current, Maple Creek and Medicine Hat, telling the stories behind my art. The recurring theme emerged as: how did- and do- people adapt to the changing forces of their environment and still maintain as sense of self? One of my favourite collages looks at the meeting of European and Native cultures through simple shapes. “Proving up”, is a term most of us know who have had family come to farm the land. Our grandparents had to ‘prove up’, work and live on the land for seven years before it could legitimately belong to them. Some never lasted that long.
In the collage “The Burden of Proving Up” the township grid serves as the background. The patchwork image is a township and section template produced by the department of the interior in 1881. The system was used to divide prairie land for settlement. Each township was divided into thirty-six sections, and then divided into quarter sections. The different coloured sections represent the ones set aside to pay for the school. The Hudson’s Bay Company also received two sections.
Atop the template I lay a circle of stones, placed in a tepee ring or medicine wheel formation. The two shapes: circle and square, say plenty about the world-view of two cultures. The circle represents the continuum of seasons, the life cycle of renewal, replenishment, relinquishment, and dormancy. The square is the frame, through which most of the ‘civilized’ and urbanized world views reality, represent ‘the window’, ‘the house’, ‘the paper’ and ‘the page’, the ‘plot of land’, clear cut boundaries that keep the wild at bay.
At first I considered ‘Circle-Square’ as a title, because I love that it’s the name of a square dance, like the box dance, an entertainment brought to the continent by world traveling farmers and ranchers, looking for a fresh start, settlers we called them, eager to begin again, to create a home more authentic, less constraining or brutal than the one they left behind.
The collage “From Femmes Sauvage” to “Sage Femmes”plays with white shifting perspectives on the wisdom of the “savage”, or “wild”, world was bred in the bones and lives of indigenous women, a world now craved by the ‘re-wilding’ movement. “Les Sages Femmes”, also known as midwives, “wise women”, and Medicine Women, were what we would call herbalists, gifted with the ability to apply the healing properties of the plants at hand to every ailment and physical challenge. While native women were held in high regard, women in Europe displaying similar powers, performing healing ‘miracles’ on their own steam,were being burned at the stake as witches. (Some of my own French-Canadian ancestors became nursing nuns and instead of being accused of casting spells and mixing potions, were supplied with their own hospital apothecaries to develop tinctures and balms for their patients, some of whom were Iroquois warriors with severe head wounds.)
Pages of history books have been dedicated to the wisdom of the medicine women, but for the most part, they remain nameless. Native sculptor Michael Belmore, over coffee last summer, reminded me that women were mentioned in neither of our cultures. But of course, they were there: healing. skinning, carrying, feeding, singing, and yes, fighting. We talked about a new book that claims that, after more than a hundred years of silence, the Cheyenne openly credit Buffalo Calf Woman with striking the blow that knocked Custer off his horse before he died. She was defending her brother at the time. Who wouldn’t defend their brother- or child or parent, if a soldier came rushing at you? Micheal pointed out. “I mean, like anybody else, those women weren’t just standing around watching from the sidelines.”
Keeping in mind the lack of names and information about women’s presence and contributions to their larger communities makes being given the role of Crow Mary in Stew Tasche’s “The Cypress Hills Would Never Be the Same” not just an honour, but a responsibility. Becoming Crow Mary meant learning more about my own native blood, as well as learning how to hover in the in-between space that was life for women in the end of the 1800’s. It means finding and giving a voice to someone about whom we knew very little, except that she was brave, persevering and generous, as was the code of her tribe. And very proud.
I can become ‘at home’ with the stories of different cultures when I find an entry point in our shared humanity. And then, having entered, I can hopefully create a space I like to call a ‘zone of empathy’. Empathy creates the greatest potential for dynamic curiosity, and less self-flagellating shame. It’s risky, plumbing the depths of a family history, you never know what you’ll come up with. Shame gives risk a bad name. But I find if I proactively decide to approach history with compassion for all our familiar shared human traits, all the miserable and noble hits and misses, I have a chance at widening the scope of perspective on history. If I widen it – wide – enough, I can widen it right into and up to Now.
Seated in the centre of “The Burden of Proving Up” is an unknown Blood woman. I found her picture in the Medicine Woman section of a book called “ Her Story II.” The author, Susan Merritt, writes in her introduction: “Whenever you read a history book ask yourself, ‘Where are the women?’ ”, because “whether you are male or female, half of your ancestors were female.” There is nobility in the Blood woman’s stature, in its ease and fullness of presence.
I hesitated to using the word nobility, because of the cliched phrase “ noble savage”. But I think of noble in Buddhist terms, as in: the ‘first noble truth’ that “life is suffering”. I read in her eyes and solid stance an awareness not only of suffering, but of the subsequent noble truth that it is “attachment” that causes suffering, and that cessation of “attachment”, the third truth, is what stops the suffering.
Turning the page I found Metis and White women healers, looking as noble in their resignation and determination.
Later, that same evening I picked up my uncle Philippe’s Christmas circular letters, which are full of family history. I came to a 1993 letter about a visit to Val Marie, his childhood home. He mentions Mrs. Carlier, Ervin’s great grandmother, that she was a midwife, a ‘sage femmes’. He goes on to mention that she delivered my own mother. I immediately phoned Ervin, excitedly reading him what I found. Of course, it makes sense to him, seeing that she was the local midwife. But for me it adds to the sense of connection still new to me, what I hoped to find. It also confirms the shared experience of all the “sages femmes sauvages”: Blood women, pioneer women, of whom I know so little. Wild, sage, steely-eyed buddhas in the midst of a rapidly changing world. Looking solid, yet calmly detached. Ready to move. Not going anywhere.
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.