Powerful reflections on the Oka Crisis at Red Post Art Exhibit

Here is an article I wrote for Rabble.ca on the exhibit that took place in Kanehsatake earlier this month. I made the trip out and visited the exhibit at the elementary school in Kanehsatake. I chatted with Ellen Gabriel, the show’s curator as well.

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Onekwenhtara Kanehtsote – the Red Post Art Exhibit, curated by Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel of Kanehsatà:ke and Jolene Rickard of Tuscarora, commemorates the 25th anniversary of the Crisis of 1990, also known as the Oka Crisis, by demonstrating its impacts through art.

This exhibit brings together the work of 16 artists, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who have reflected on their experience of the Crisis of 1990. In some cases, artworks reflect first-hand experiences of Kanehsatà:ke residents, and in other cases artworks reflect on the long-term impacts of the Crisis.

The Crisis of 1990 began with a peaceful protest against plans by the town of Oka, Quebec to expand a private nine-hole golf course. The expansion would destroy part of a mature pine forest in Kanehsatà:ke and required the destruction of the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) community graveyard. The peaceful protest escalated when the Kanien’kehá:ka people of Kanehsatà:ke were surrounded by the Quebec provincial police on July 11, 1990.

Many of the artists represented in the exhibit are Kanien’kehá:ka from Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnawake, a Kanien’kehá:ka community which was also involved in the Crisis.

The exhibit offers visitors an opportunity to reflect on the effects of the conflict on the people who were personally involved, as well as the impact on Indigenous and non-Indigenous societies and politics across the continent.

In the centre of the exhibit is the red post itself, an installation piece created by Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel. The red post refers to the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse) practice of erecting a red post in communities during times of conflict or war.

Gabriel’s installation, a post painted red, a colour signifying power and war, reminds us of the Kanien’kehá:ka people’s long history, one that began long before European settlement and continues into the present. The symbols depicted on the post include wampum beads, corn, a war club and the tree of life.

At the top is a circle of people holding hands, united in protecting the land. These symbols emphasize the richness and longevity of Kanien’kehá:ka culture and calls into question the settler notion that Indigenous people belong only to the past, or that their cultures and political systems have no role to play in the modern world.

The red post also reminds those entering the exhibit of the long-standing and unresolved conflict over land rights that grew into the Crisis of 1990 and remains unresolved today. The pine forest where the conflict took place is considered by the municipality of Oka to belong to the town. However, the Kanien’kehá:ka never ceded the land that is now Kanehsatà:ke (includes the Pines).

Photos used with permission from the artists

Among the artworks contributed by artists from Kanehsatà:ke is Douglas Tehonietathe Beaver’s  backpack called “Pelt and Pine, Armed with Healing.” This work alludes to a soldier’s pack, and reminds viewers of the Canadian Army soldiers who surrounded Kanien’kehá:ka s in 1990. But instead of being filled with ammunition, grenades and guns, this backpack is “armed” with an eagle feather, a sweet grass braid, a cedar smudge stick and pot, and other items related to spiritual healing, presenting an alternative response to land conflict both in Kanehsatà:ke and elsewhere.

Another artwork emphasizing the importance of Haudenosaunee culture is a quilt called “Sky Woman’s Descent” by Carla Hemlock, a Kanien’kehá:ka of Kahnawake. The story of Sky Woman is the creation story of the Haudenosaunee people — Sky Woman descends into our world and lands on the back of a turtle that transforms, with the help of various animals, into North America. In this blue, gold and black beaded quilt, we see the back of the turtle from the perspective of Sky Woman as she descends.

Elizabeth Saccà, a non-Indigenous artist and retired Concordia University professor who lives near Kanehsatà:ke, contributed an abstract monotype called “Maelstrom.” For this viewer, this print evokes the confusion and disorientation that must have reigned in the Pines when the Quebec police first attacked Kanehsatà:ke with tear gas and smoke bombs. It also represents the ever-present potential for violence that Indigenous people face when they protest land development on their territories.

Nadia Myre, an Algonquin artist based in Montreal, contributed “Still Life,” an ink print depicting two protesters in silhouette with flags. The image connects the Red Post exhibit to the broader history of Indigenous social and land justice issues and brings to life the widespread support for Indigenous sovereignty manifested nation-wide in the form of demonstrations, blockades and flash mobs, as well as Idle No More.

Photos used with permission from the artists

Along with these artworks, pieces include Patrycja Walton‘s “Dress for Amicee,” a sculpture of a dress made of animal hide, wire and stain glass, and dedicated to missing Aboriginal women and girls, including her friend Amicee. Julie Otsi’tsaonwe Gaspé’s created her untitled graphite drawing of the Pines before the protests against development turned into an armed conflict. Her prophetic drawing depicts a conflict between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the Pines, while above them in the trees, faces look down, watching the conflict unfold.

Onekwenhtara Kanehtsote – The Red Post exhibit moves from Kanehsatà:ke to Kahnawake, Quebec. Visitors are invited to reflect on these works and on the impact of the Crisis of 1990 at the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Centre from August 24 to September 4. The Vernissage is on August 24 at 6 PM.

To learn more about the impacts of the Oka Crisis, and to hear a discussion by the exhibit’s curators and some of its featured artists, check out the webinar: 25 Years Later, Impacts of the Oka Crisis.

Mohawk/Kanien’kéha word of the week

This week’s word is Shé:kon: Hello. I have probably done this word before, but I thought I would post it again, because it is the one Mohawk word that I actually use on a regular basis. At work, I greet my Mohawk colleague this way almost every day, and it has become a natural part of my vocabulary, much like “Hi” or “Salut.”

I am now working on getting Carmen to reply to the question “Skennenkó:wa ken?” with  “Ianerátie’.”

That is, “How are you?” “It’s going well.”

But it hasn’t yet become a natural part of daily speech.

I think simple words like “Hello” are really important, because if we can learn each other’s words for this simple greeting, we can come closer together in friendship and show that we care about each other’s way of seeing the world.

In light of the 25,000-strong climate change demonstration in Quebec City this past weekend, and the major impact of Bill C-51, the Anti-Terrorism Act, will have on our civil liberties, using words that bring us closer together is more important than ever.

I first learned this word when I was a student in Montreal. I was helping to organize a fund-raiser for the Mohawk warriors who had been arrested during the Oka Crisis. We had invited a Mohawk rock band to perform, and one of the band members wrote the word on the wall in the dressing room. I asked what it meant, and ever since, it’s stayed with me.

Hello! Shé :kon!

Indian Country

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Kanehsatake traditional pow-wow in  1991, the year following the Oka Crisis.

When I was younger, I was involved with people who were part of the Oka Crisis. At my university, I met ‪‎Indigenous people from every part of Canada, and many of them told me their stories. Many were too angry for story-telling, or too traumatized. They were veterans of the siege at Kanehsatake: survivors who spent two-and-a-half months surrounded by the Canadian Army, razor wire, military helicopters, soldiers, and the constant threat of imminent death.

During the winter following the Oka Crisis, I travelled with friends to northern Quebec and visited ‪‎Cree‬, ‪‎Innu, Abenaki and Huron communities – stood in a chief’s house in the middle in winter. It was the size of my kitchen and was heated by an oil barrel in the middle of the room. I also sat with friends in a wigwam, eating beaver, ptarmigan and bannock, passing around the salt and a tub of grease – ptarmigan is a dry meat.

Kanehsatake Spiritual Gathering, early nineties
Kanehsatake traditional pow-wow, 1991. Rebecca Belmore’s art piece,  Speaking to their Mother, is pictured. © Jennifer Dales

Then, just last summer, I sat by the blazing hot sacred fire in Kanehsatake‬, and said a prayer for my friend’s son, sending it up to God with tobacco and cedar. I walked around greeting old friends, fingering jewellery and beadwork, doing the round dance, sitting in the shade of the Pines, cooling down after the heat. 

Being in Indian‬ country gets into your blood. When I meet people who have been there, I can feel it, the way I feel the cold on a person’s skin when they come inside on a winter’s day. Indian country’s such a big place; it’s as powerful as an earthquake, strong as a hurricane. From out of nowhere, it changes everything; it rearranges the earth and stirs up the winds. It doesn’t need anything from you. There is nothing you can do for Indian country. It flows on, day and night, under stars and the sun. I hear it asking me how it can help me. Where is my heart? Do I hear it beating? You won’t ever put it behind you now.

In the country

I got lost in Indian country. Don’t know when, exactly. Maybe a few weeks after traditional people walked out of the treatment centre in Kanehsatake, holding up sacred masks. Could have been on a trip up north in the middle of winter, riding in a cold van, sipping my NDN friend’s twist shandy, listening to him strum guitar. We got out along the way. Looked up at the stars. They were so bright. Like somebody plugged them into a socket on overload. I could feel the shock. Somebody picked me up out of the snow where I was lying, gazing skyward. Brushed off the ice. We got back in the van and drove north. Once I went out to Kanehsatake and sat in the Pines by myself. Walked a road for a long time, looking for my friend’s place. Somebody stopped, gave me a lift to his tiny house among hay fields. I was definitely in Indian country then. Full of memories and desire. I buried a silver bracelet under a pine tree and said a prayer for the stand of trees. That was years ago. Surely an animal has made off with it by now. And the friend is dead, shot in the back. He helped carry masks from the treatment centre; walked into the army’s perimeter. Climbed into a waiting bus and was driven to prison. We used to talk on the phone sometimes, about the Lord of the Rings, and how anxious he was—didn’t want to come out of the house some days. I sat with him on his front steps, drinking grape juice. Watched the sun shimmer over the fields as he raked grass. Had dinner with him and his girlfriend in the yard, back of his place. I don’t know where this is going, or where it’s from, and I didn’t know then, sitting in his yard, under the maple tree. I can’t get in and out of Indian country at will. Maybe it’s an illusion as deep as corn fields in summer. There might be only one country. I don’t know how it came to be, or how it’s growing through me, filled with electric shock and pine roots; the dust of old friends.

 

Photo of Joe David, taken in Kanehsatake, courtesy of Elizabeth Sacca

Cathy Mattes: Art as engagement

It is Feb. 15th, Louis Riel Day in Manitoba, and Métis curator and writer Cathy Mattes is talking about two of her favourite subjects — art and Louis Riel. She is telling a story about two very different monuments to Louis Riel that were created for the Manitoba Legislature.

“In 1971, a statue depicting Louis Riel as a naked, tormented figure was erected on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature as part of Manitoba’s centennial celebrations,” Mattes explains.

“This original monument was created in the late 60s. Métis people found it offensive and for many years there was a lot of debate and anger about the statue. In the early 90s it was finally removed and relocated. Some non-Aboriginal people objected to it as well, because it portrayed Riel as a Native hero.”

The public reaction to the Riel monument controversy was complex. While many Métis people objected to the portrayal of Riel as tormented, when the original monument was finally removed, Jean Allard, a Métis leader and former MLA, along with the artist who created the statue, chained themselves to the monument in protest.

“The decision to replace the original Riel statue with a monument that depicts Riel as a statesman epitomizes changing attitudes towards public art,” said Mattes.

An event like the conflict over the removal of the Riel monument from the legislature is the sort of art as engagement that inspires Cathy Mattes. In fact, she even wrote her Master’s thesis on the subject at Concordia University in Montreal.

Mattes is an independent curator who is now based in rural southwest Manitoba. She has curated exhibitions at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Southwest Manitoba, and the Urban Shaman Gallery, a Winnipeg-based artist-run Aboriginal art centre.

Although Mattes now makes her home in Spruce Woods, Manitoba, near the Shilo Canadian Forces Base, she spent most of her childhood on the move, living on bases across Canada and at a base in Germany because her father was in the military.

Mattes loves creating exhibits that get audiences to interact with artworks. According to Mattes, “engagement with art is a conversation. The engagement continues beyond the time you are at an art exhibit.”

Mattes continued her exploration of Riel as an historical and mythical figure by mounting an exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 2001 called Rielisms.

The show asked “just whose hero Louis Riel was” and addressed how Riel is depicted in history, myth and culture. A central feature of the exhibit was a scale model of the controversial Riel monument, and it included the work of 10 artists, who engaged the history and myths of Riel through their art.

Another example of how Mattes’ curatorial practice offers audiences the chance to be engaged by art was the 2005 exhibition Super Phat Nish.

The exhibition, at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba, featured the work of Anishinaabe artist Barry Ace. The show presented artworks depicting Super Phat Nish, an iconic character developed by Ace.

Super Phat Nish represents the longstanding fusion of Aboriginal and African-American pop culture that emerged from inner-city neighbourhoods and Indian reservations in the 1960s and developed into vibrant urban-Aboriginal pop culture.

The show opened to a full house, with a DJ providing entertainment, allowing the audience to participate in some of the urban culture represented by the exhibit.

Mattes not only encourages audiences to think about art, she also encourages them to talk about it. Mattes often incorporates chalkboards or paper into her exhibits so audience members can write comments about the art. At Ace’s show, audience members wrote comments and drew graffiti on paper she put up for that purpose.

“Because Barry Ace’s show was held at a public gallery, the audience who came to see the show was really diverse, and even included people from a Hutterite community.”

Besides working as a freelance contemporary art curator, Mattes also teaches African, European, Aboriginal and contemporary art history at Brandon University.
As a teacher, Mattes explores how art is affected by social and political events, while at the same time artists themselves are often agents of social change through their work.

“In my Aboriginal art history class I teach a section called ‘Art after Oka.’ In the years immediately following the Oka Crisis, a lot of important art shows took place, and the Aboriginal art world really evolved.”

The Oka Crisis, a 78-day armed stand-off between the Mohawk people of Kanehsatake in Quebec and the Canadian army, took place in 1990. The conflict started when the town council attempted to expand a golf course onto Mohawk burial grounds.

“To help my students understand how artists can be agents of social change, I talk about the idea of artists as warriors, because many of those behind the barricades in 1990 were artists and warriors, including Ellen Gabriel and Joe David.”

In her class, Mattes talks to students about some of the important art shows that took place in the years following Oka. These include Indigena (1992, Canadian Museum of Civilization), which marked the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landfall in the Americas, and included artwork by Joe David.

Another important show was Solidarity: Art after Oka at the Saw Gallery in 1991. It also included Joe David’s work, as well as the work of Carl Beam (the first indigenous artist to sell contemporary art to the National Gallery of Canada), Arthur Renwick and David Neel, among others.

Mattes’ next project is called Frontrunners, and will explore the impact of Professional National Indian Artists Inc. on the Winnipeg art scene. This organization, which was founded in the 70s, became known as the “Indian Group of Seven,” a term coined by the media, and its membership included Norval Morrisseau, Daphne Odjig and Alex Janvier. Professional National Indian Artists Inc. helped to create the Canadian woodland art style.

“The Indian Group of Seven had a big impact on contemporary Aboriginal art practice in Winnipeg, and laid a foundation for Urban Shaman Gallery to exist,” said Mattes. “They were our frontrunners here in Manitoba.”

The exhibition will be a collaboration between the Urban Shaman Gallery and Plug-In Institute of Contemporary Art, and will recognize their contributions, with a particular emphasis on artists who produced work that is overtly political.

This article appears in Rabble.ca