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Making stories (artist's statement).

As both artist and cultural historian, I am drawn to the stories and artistic legacy of Indigenous women, particularly those I am descended from. I have always liked stories, and as long as I can remember they took visual form as I listened, sometimes half asleep and on the verge of dreaming. Two incidents triggered the female-centered direction my artwork has taken. One motivated me to pick up my paintbrushes after a long hiatus. As a working single mother, I had stopped making art. I was teaching at the Gabriel Dumont Institute in Regina, Saskatchewan, at the Saskatchewan Urban Native Teacher Education Program. The students had organized a conference, and one of the presenters was Shannon Two Feathers. I snuck into the back of the classroom and listened to Shannon share the stories he had collected from elders at Batoche. (1) Shannon was a professional entertainer and one hell of a story teller. One particular story, of women and children hiding in caves along the Saskatchewan River while a Gatling gun peppered the shoreline with bullets, transported me to another time and place. I went home, dug around in a box in the basement for a box of watercolors, and painted. I have painted that story four times. From that time until the present I have worked with Metis, Cree, and Anishnabe authors and painted their stories. I try to communicate my love and respect through the images. Stories of the Road Allowance, collected and translated by Maria Campbell, is a project that I was very proud to illustrate. (2) Alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, these are true life stories collected from male elders. "Good Dog Bob" tells the tale of a young man's first sexual experience. To illustrate a critical moment in the story, I painted a woman looking at a teenage boy. With her back to him, she looks over her shoulder, a wordless seduction as she beckons him to follow. I tried to capture the magic of a northern night, when the stars and the snow shine like diamonds and anything seems possible.

In Fiddle Dancer, a grandfather tells his grandson how he learned to be such a good dancer. (3) The Red River Jig is the most loved and recognized fiddle tune and dance in the Metis world. Here a baby, upon hearing the tune, cries until his mother picks him up and dances with him in her arms. As I painted Wilfred Burton's story, I also thought of dancing with my own daughter when she was a baby.

Some time after I began painting again, another gathering set me on a search for women's stories. The World Council of Indigenous People's Conference on Education was held in Vancouver in 1987. The Enowkiin Centre and Theytus Press had organized a parallel conference on writing and publication. Joy Harjo, Anna Walters, and Patricia Grace were among the Indigenous authors who kept me spellbound for three days, but it was a project that Patricia Grace described that set me on a project I am still working on. Patricia spoke about the loss of women's stories from Maori mythology--the cumulative result of generations of male anthropologists focusing on male stories and storytellers. With Maori painter Robyn Kahukiwa, she had embarked on a research project to find and retell women's stories. (4) I was inspired to do the same. Since then, I am always looking for specific women's stories or the women's story in larger narratives, both historic and mythological. Of course the fact that I am a woman and experience the world through a woman's eyes and body is also an important factor. In many ways the women in my paintings are a strategy to insert myself into historic and mythological narratives, claiming them as my own. Sometimes I create my own stories, but most often the stories come to me through historical sources and storytellers.

Apparition, October 3,1885 (1992) (cover image) and Riel's Vision of Death, 1885 (1992) were created as visual responses to the symbolic and ghostly Metis women that occur in Louis Riel's writing. Riel was the leader of Metis resistance to Canada's expansion into the northwest (Manitoba 1869-70; Saskatchewan 1885). Resistance failed, the Metis were defeated, and Riel was tried for treason and executed. Apparition is based on a vision he had while imprisoned in Regina awaiting his execution. A beautiful, pregnant Metis woman appeared to him, bringing comfort and reassurance. "It will soon be over," she told him. Riel had frequent premonitions of his death, and he envisioned Death as a beautiful woman, a seductress. The role of Metis women in resistance and nationalism is totally overshadowed by the men on the front lines, yet Riel's own writings give evidence to their importance.

Swept Away: The Story of a Fur Trade Bride is another work inspired by historic sources. This is an installation of three dolls posed in front of a fresco painting of a river. The dolls represent three moments in the life of a real woman--Nancy "Matooskie" McKenzie (1790-1851), the country wife of John George McTavish, a prominent nineteenth-century fur trader.3 Nancy became McTavish's wife at a very young age. The first doll represents a young girl dressed in her best at a trading post "ball," presented as a potential wife. The second doll shows Nancy as the wife of the Chief Factor, the most important woman at a fur trade post, enjoying the privileges of her husband's rank and influence. Nancy was one of many women cast aside by their husbands. Her marriage was not legally recognized, and when McTavish married an English woman, Nancy was forced to marry a tradesman against her protestations. Her second marriage removed her from her former husband's social circles, but the family was further removed when her husband was transferred to Oregon territory. They traveled by York boat brigade on a transcontinental water system that included the Saskatchewan, Athabasca, and Columbia rivers. During the arduous journey, three of her children and her husband were swept overboard in two tragic accidents. The third doll prostrated with grief, covered with a shawl, represents her arrival at her destination. Swept Away references specific historic incidents, but also the rivers and events that swept her and thousands of women like her away from their families and home communities into relationships that crossed cultural boundaries and into a world that was continually shifting under their feet.

Ancestral Women Taking Back Their Dresses is a fantasy narrative. After a trip to perform research in European museum collections, I sat in my rocking chair and dreamt of repatriation. Frustrated, I thought, if only those women could just go there and bring it home. In my painting, the spirits of our female ancestors have flown across the ocean and blown open the doors of a museum. They have discarded their cloth dresses, and have reclaimed their own dresses that through various means and complex stories had ended up in the museum. Each dress in the painting is in a museum collection. The purple dress with ribbonwork in the foreground is in the collection of the McCord museum. It was identified as Mohawk/Algonquin when it was exhibited in The Spirit Sings exhibition, and as such is one of the few surviving dresses of my own ancestral women. I have painted it three times, and every time I paint it I feel as though I'm taking it back. It is a therapeutic act but also an act of resistance.

Our Grandmothers Loved to Trade is a celebratory painted blanket work. The top of the blanket is a painted map of the Kitchizibi (Great River), the Mahamouzibi, River of Trade. Anishnabek traders traveled up and down that river, now known as the Ottawa River, for millennia and welcomed those who paddled up to trade with them (providing they brought gifts). Archaeological discoveries, such as fourteenth-century Venetian beads, bone and copper needles, and carved pendants, are evidence of the female in what is generally assumed to be a male endeavor. In the central portion of the blanket, I have surrounded a photograph of three young women wrapped in tartan shawls, with pieces of beadwork, fabric, and transcribed trade lists from the Hudson's Bay Company archives. I have beaded, embroidered, painted, and sewn on this piece. Through subject and process, I am emulating the actions of my female ancestors. This is the artistic component of my current research, which is an exploration of the role of women in the construction of new knowledge, literally stitching disparate elements into integrated wholes, creating and recreating their world. (6) In my own way, with each stitch of the needle and every brush stroke, I insert myself into my own history--a history that has been eroded, suppressed, and forgotten--as an act of reclamation and celebration and as a means to connect myself to the generations of women who have gone before me.


(1.) The Gabriel Dumont Institute is a postsecondary institute governed by the Metis Nation of Saskatchewan. One of their mandates is to develop historical and cultural resources for the Metis and educational communities. The late Shannon Two Feathers was a musician and cultural worker who was contracted to interview Metis elders at Batoche, Saskatchewan, the site of the last Metis resistance in 1885.

(2.) Maria Campbell, Stories of the Road Alowance (Penticton, British Columbia: Theytus Press, 1994).

(3.) Wilfred Burton and Anne Patton, Fiddle Dancer (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: Gabriel Dumont Institute, 2007).

(4.) The result of this project was Wahine Toa: Women of Maori Myth (Aukland, New Zealand: Collins, 1984).

(5.) Two prominent Canadian female historians brought First Nations and Metis women into fur trade history with the publication of two seminal works and were my first introduction to this story: Jennifer S. H. Brown, Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in Indian Country (University of British Columbia Press, 1980) and Sylvia Van Kirk, Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870) (Watson & Dwyer Publishing, 1980).

(6.) Preliminary results of this study were presented at the Museum Ethnographers Group Annual Conference in 2007 and published as "My Grandmothers Loved to Trade: The Indigenization of European Trade Goods in Historic and Contemporary Canada," Journal of Museum Ethnography 20 (March 2008): 69-81.
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Author:Racette, Sherry Farrell
Publication:Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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