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[Eric Napier Strong]
This project that we were working on. I’m going to give you the full title because I think it’s important that it is in multiple languages. So we often use the English one for convenience, but the whole title would be mámawihitowin | Ganaagishkwadaadiwin | Rencontre | Asenbli | Gathering. So we tried to use Ininímowin, Michif, Anishinaabemowin, French, and also English as sort of the primary languages spoken here around Red River.
The project was sort of our attempt at doing something with Indigenous cultural materials in our collections and in the collections of small museums across Manitoba. We really wanted to sort of make a contribution both through an exhibit and a reconciliation based project.
But you know, as a settler person and in the context of my museum is in, it was really important for us to think about what does that mean and what’s the right way of doing a project like that. So for us, it had to be more than just an exhibit. We tried to do something sort of comprehensive. So, we know, just like our museums, there are small museums across Manitoba, across Canada really that have collections of Indigenous cultural heritage and materials. And very often they don’t have the resources, the knowledge or the connections, the relationships really to care for these materials properly, to interpret them properly.
And so we saw an opportunity to sort of be connectors to sort of create a bridge between these institutions and some of these communities that they don’t really have close relationships with each other necessarily. So we tried to basically identify beadwork, quill work, Indigenous embroidery that were spread throughout small museum collections across Manitoba. We brought these works, over 100 of them to Winnipeg, and we sort of gathered groups of Indigenous folks of a wide variety of sorts, you know, artists, curators, academics, collectors, Elders, people who had different relationships with these items.
And we brought them here to sort of meet them basically in Winnipeg, to have open sessions, to get to know them, to study them, and to share their sort of oral histories and remembrances. And we sort of put all this material together to create an exhibit here that featured almost 100 historical pieces and work by five contemporary artists.
So the long term component of the project, which I thought was really important, was gathering all of the information, all of the research and high quality photos of all of these all these artworks, and putting them together into a database that’s available through our website so that artists, curators, researchers, really everyone can access these materials going forward. They know where they are.
They’re not hidden in remote vaults. You don’t have to go to Flin Flon. And if you know where that is, it’s a real drive from most of Manitoba. And so people can identify these things and they can do sort of take the work forward from here. And we also provided the museums with information that they can move forward with.
Recognizing my place as sort of a person of settler ancestry who is in charge of these collections and these museums, it was really important for us to find ways of, I think, centring the voices of Indigenous communities in this project. And so just doing an exhibit where we talk about what we know about these things was not appropriate. It really didn’t work for us. And so we had to ask ourselves, how can we do more?
You know, we tried to identify, I think, some of the barriers that are in our museums for access. We like to think of museums as you know, welcoming and spaces without barriers. That’s really not the case. You know, we tried to step outside that traditional exhibit format where we could to make pieces available to people in an environment that could be comfortable, that was, uncurated, that they could have a close access and experiences with their own cultural heritage surrounded by sort of community that they can be comfortable with, and that we could just converse and get to know each other and sort of learn about this history and this heritage together.
And we recognized that our role, the probably the best role we could play was to be connectors between people who have relationships and knowledge and experience and these institutions, these small museums that I think would like to sincerely tackle issues like reconciliation, but often see barriers in the way (we don’t know people, we don’t have money, we don’t have time, what do we do?).
And so in some ways, I think we were hoping that this project would provide a bit of an example for people and also provide them with the information that they can sort of go further into their own journey about how do we deal with these collections appropriately, how do we decolonize our museums in a meaningful way?
We approached these pieces and we kind of decided as a team to call them grandmother pieces because they’re made by by these women, by these artists who sometimes get forgotten in history.
And so we really wanted to honour these artists because these are the artists who are keeping these traditions and cultures alive. And with that idea to showcase these kind of historic pieces, we also wanted to bring in contemporary works to showcase that these art forms aren’t in the past. They are currently still being done. These mediums are thriving here in Winnipeg, in Manitoba, and our artists who still practising them.
So we wanted to kind of honour both our ancestors and our grandmothers of the past and our kind of more modern and contemporary artists who are still practising these mediums. And so in the space we had both of them on kind of display. We wanted to honour. We really wanted to honour them and celebrate them. We also wanted to make a lot of just a lot of the project accessible to community.
And so for us, that looks like hosting informal review sessions. So these sessions, we just put a notice out to the community if anyone was interested in coming and viewing our pieces kind of more closely and more intimately without the glass surrounding these pieces, and you could kind of even look to see the stitches of all the pieces.
So we kind of put that call out and we received a really positive feedback. A lot of our informal sessions were full and so they could come to the space. The project kind of wasn’t set up yet, but they could. We had all the pieces on tables and any questions that people had about specific pieces we tried to answer just whether that be or do you have information on who the artist is?
Which museum did this one come from? Do you kind of know which region that the beadwork or the artist was from? Can you kind of pinpoint that? And the other thing as an artist myself, when you’re making beadwork or quilled pieces, it’s not it doesn’t end just at the beaded piece. You also want to see how the whole piece was made.
So these informal sessions was a really great way for other artists or other community members to come and see the stitches, the backing, the up, the moccasins, the bottom of them to see kind of how each stitch was done, if sinew was used, if cloth was used and just kind of compare what they had seen or what they knew about other works.
And that was another really great part about these informal sessions was it was reciprocal in the sense that we were providing information that had been passed along to us, and they were also providing their stories and their traditions that had been passed down to them. And what they also had learned in art throughout their life.
And then we also did public programming. So we had offered two workshops. We did a quillwork workshop with Mona McKay, who’s a Metis artist who lives in Winnipeg. And then we did a moccasin making workshop to learn how to make pointed toe moccasins with Cynthia Boehm, who is a First Nations artist from Norway House. So we want to create a space where community members not only felt like they could come and access the project, but also that they felt safe, comfortable and welcomed here.
So with those informal sessions, we made sure to have tea and bannock available just so that if you’re hungry because a lot of the times it was right after work. We also had a space dedicated for we called it a safe room, but in the sense that if someone’s looking at these pieces and they’re they start grieving while looking at these pieces, there’s a space for them to go smudge and have bannock.
So feeling safe and comfortable while looking at these pieces was kind of our priority. And that really kind of spoke to how we felt we could reconcile this relationship between museum and Indigenous community. And then I wanted to touch on another protocol that we kind of incorporated into the space was once the the pieces were on display in the project was in the space, and it started, we included a birch bark basket right at the other end of the door and we encouraged visitors and participants to leave sacred medicines if they if they wanted to, just as a way to thank those grandmothers that have done all these pieces and that their pieces have been protected.
And just as a way to thank those grandmother pieces for their knowledge and their time. And so we after the exhibit at the end of the summer, I burned all of the medicines we received in a kind of, my own private fire. But I’ve talked to other museum representatives about that idea, and because we received really positive feedback about that basket.
So if your community feels like that aligns with them in their teachings, then I would encourage that as well. Just because it’s a great way to continue celebrating and honouring those grandmothers.