Thursday, 21 June 2012

Parks Canada- wherefore art thou?

I just had the most amazing day! About a year ago, I was contacted by Rob Ferguson who had received one of my petroglyph quill pieces as a gift. Rob worked for Parks Canada and was involved in documenting the petroglyphs during the 80's. He offered to show me the full collection if I was interested. How could I turn down an offer like that?

Unfortunately, we were not able to schedule anything right away. Rob was in the process of retiring and I was having a baby. I reconnected with him a couple of weeks ago and finally, yesterday, I was able to go to the Parks Canada Lab here in Dartmouth.

I headed over after lunch and was surprised to discover the lab was only a few minutes from my home. Rob showed me around and I was impressed to see where the archaeologists and conservationists do their work. But I guess I should say where they USE to do their work. There have been a lot of funding cuts to Parks Canada lately and the emptiness of the building certainly reflected that.

I was in awe of the storage was huge and had row upon row of movable shelving. Rob took me straight over to where the artifacts from Kejimkujik National Park are kept. The petroglyphs are carvings in the slate located along the lakes and waterways of the park and a lot of them are eroding. In an effort to preserve the carvings, Park staff have made tracings on clear plastic, chalk was used to photograph the lines, different paper copies have been made which are scaled to size, silicone molds have been made as well as copper castings.

I was the most impressed with the copper castings. They are a perfect copy of the rock face so every little line and scratch are captured the process. It's like looking at the rock face itself. I had been to Kejimkujik and seen some of the actual carvings, but this was the first time I'd been able to see castings of the images not available on the tour or in other locations. I've since gotten to know the images through my quillwork so it was pretty exciting. The first thing to strike me was the scale!!! Some of them are HUGE and for some reason I was not expecting that.

Rob walked me through the works of different people to capture the images. There was an old Smithsonian publication that contained clear gaps in the information being recorded. For instance, Mi'kmaq women wore peaked caps with ribbon applique and bead work, and many carvings depict these caps. The authors didn't know what they images were which makes it obvious that they were not dealing directly with Mi'kmaq people when conducting their research.

The Parks records contain the works of individuals who documented the petroglyphs along with their field notes. Rob explained the differences in the methodologies and what to be careful of if I was to use their images. For instance, one man sketched the petroglyphs would not give me the accuracy I'm looking for in my art.

The full collection was a little overwhelming. The images were so inspiring and I find myself wanting to make pieces that are true to size. The next step is to sort through the images, identify which ones I'd like to make and then hopefully go back to see the copper castings to ensure I'm as accurate as possible.

Rob also showed me other artifacts in the collection: there was pottery that was several thousand years old, spear points of all different types, and tools that were absolutely incredible. I can't begin to tell you what it feels like to hold things in my hands that were created by the ancestors so long ago. It was amazing to watch my son listen to Rob and try and grab what he could. He's only seven months old but it was amazing to think that he's learning about things already.

Unfortunately, I'm dealing with a relatively small window of opportunity if I want to expand my knowledge. The federal government has decided to close the lab and move the collection to Ottawa!!!! I was dumbfounded when I heard that. The reason I'm so concerned is that if the lab, which the public can access, is closed it's going to be EXTREMELY difficult to see any artifacts let alone the collection of petroglyphs. The carvings themselves are eroding and a lot of sights are either not open to the public or easily accessible. If people in Nova Scotia wish to learn about their history and culture they're not going to be able to do it at home.

So far, in an effort to expand my knowledge of quillwork I, along with my son, have been to the Nova Scotia museum to view their collection of quill boxes; it was really cool to put on the little white gloves and actually handle the pieces. I've been out to Kejimkujik National Park to see the petroglyphs carved in slate along the lakes. I've been to the DesBrisay museum in Bridgewater to see the famous quilled cradle made by Christina Morris. I've also viewed the collections in the various Mi'kmaq communities, such as that at the Glooscap Heritage Centre and the collection on display at the Confederacy of Mainland Mi'kmaq office in Millbrook, the collection at the Membertou Trade and Convention Centre in Membertou, and the Heritage Park in Metepenagiag, New Brunswick.

What I've come to learn is that these fantastic collections are a compliment to the living culture/history of Mi'kmaq people. The most amazing experiences have come with all the people I've met, talked to and worked with who have tied the past to the present. In order to put these "things" in context, you need to see the land which inspired them and provided the resources to make them, you need to talk to the people who live on the land and share the knowledge which has been passed down to them about how to make them. It is the people and the land which breathe life into the collections. You can have one without the other, but you're losing out.

Now that I've been to the Parks Canada lab to view the petroglyphs I'm getting really worried about what is at stake by the moving the collection. When people see my work and I say it is a depiction of the petroglyphs, the most common response is "Where are they? Can I see them?" It's scary to think my response to this question may be, "well the park is closed for the season and there are no more Aboriginal liaison positions if you want someone with Parks Canada to speak with you....and if you want to see the documented collection you'll have to go to Ottawa."

Given that Canadians have been taught a history through a lens that did not recognize the rich Aboriginal history in Canada, it scares me that the ability to share and teach is going to be that much harder. By far, the largest collection of Mi'kmaq artifacts are held by the government. Yes, they may save a few million dollars by consolidating the Parks Collection in Ottawa, but I truly believe that Canadians will be missing out by moving them out of the territory which gave birth to them.

Here is the link to the story as reported by Global's Ross Lord:
The following pictures of the Keji petroglyphs are of a peaked cap and Kulloo and hunter which were taken from the website, I met the author Jean when she was conducting the petroglyph tours at Keji.

Monday, 11 June 2012

The great outdoors

I'm home from the Abegweit Mawio'mi and instead of facing the piles of laundry, I thought I'd blog about it!

The Mawio'mi was held over Saturday and Sunday on the Scotchfort reserve of Abegweit First Nation. I may be biased because some of my earliest memories are of my grandparents house which used to overlook the Hillsboro River, but I think it's a beautiful reserve.

A Mawiomi (gathering) building was built several years ago, which is where the pow wow grounds are located. There is a permanent arbour built for the drummers, and it's covered by fresh tree boughs every year. The pow wow committee did a great job organizing the host drums, lead dancers, emcee, food and all those other details which make for a great event. Unfortunately, the one thing they couldn't control was the weather, and it rained all day Saturday. And by "rain", I mean "poured buckets!!!!"

I had a screen tent which I had planned on putting up with a table underneath to sell my work. While it may be a simple, practical solution to the question of how to sell, it wasn't exactly weather proof. So while the drummers and dancing was moved inside the big white event tent, I headed into the Mawiomi building and a table in the corner.

I had a great time because I was able to sit in comfort and chat with everyone who wandered in. Luckily, most people wandered in to eat their Indian tacos and to visit the facilities so I actually had quite a bit of traffic.

I had a mix of hieroglyph and petroglyph work with only a few pieces based on the old quill baskets. In addition to the quillwork, I had also done some paintings using petroglyphs that I hadn't quilled before. Seeing those paintings in colour has inspired me to get right back to work because I can now imagine what the finished pieces will look like. I used to use only natural coloured quills (white) for the petroglyphs and it's taking some time to get used to seeing them with dyed quills. I had also made an eight-pointed star to raffle that proved to be a great success.

Sunday dawned bright and sunny, which was a relief for everyone involved. My mom headed off to ceremony in the morning which was great, but I forgot to take my things out of her car. Grand entry was at 1:00 but I was a bit late setting up because I had to wait for her to arrive. On the plus side, my husband and I were able to enjoy our Indian tacos at my table and watch a bit of the dancing.

The dancing was really great, and a big shout out goes to all the dancers and in particular Dion Bernard for his portrayal of the Glooscap legend via dance. It was amazing!

When it was time for the raffle, I had the emcee do the "last call" on tickets. The last one to be sold also proved to be the winner! Congrats to Barbara Bernard on her win...she said it was worth going to get her money for the ticket. lol.

I was also happy to finally be able to settle a debt. When my cousin Ashley was in nursing school I made a deal with her: when she graduated, I would give her some quillwork. I was finally able to settle up and I'm so proud of her!!!!

All said and done, it was a great weekend and I can't wait until next year!

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Gearing Up

I've been working on getting quillwork finished for the upcoming Abegweit Mawiomi. I've been making a lot of cards and plan on having a larger piece for raffle. 

I decided to use more Hieroglyphs (symbols for words) as opposed to just the petroglyphs (rock carvings). One of the reasons is that each hieroglyph has a clear meaning and people really like to know what their piece means. Plus, it's a great way to learn more of the symbols.

From what I've read, the hieroglyphs were a writing system that was used by the Mi'kmaq. There's been some discussion around whether the symbols were a true writing system or just used as memory devices. The early French missionaries adopted the system for religious purposes so a lot of prayers have been "translated".

Mikmaq sample (ave Maria).jpg

There is even one guy who claimed that the writing system came from the Egyptians...but he's been widely discredited. I think the same thing was said about the pyramids in Mexico. I'm trying to imagine ancient Egyptians coming over to teach us how to write and heading off to Central America to teach them how to build pyramids.

Anyway, I look for symbols that look nice but also have a good meaning. The symbol below means "L'nu" which is the name we have for ourselves. It means "the people". There is debate about where "Mi'kmaq" came from and there are different spellings based on French, English or Mi'kmaw usage, ie Micmac. While I find it interesting, I don't get too hung up over it, because I'm L'nu and proud of it!!!

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Bark, Bark, Bark

My husband and I took our baby camping this past weekend in Fundy National Park, New Brunswick. May-long is always a great time to get out and celebrate the start of summer and this year the weather actually co-operated.

We did a fair bit of hiking and because I harvest my bark in early summer, I'm constantly keeping an eye on the trees to see if they're close to being ready.  I was really excited to see the state of the birch throughout the park; they're starting to shed which means it's almost harvest time!

In the old days, it was time to harvest when the fireflies came out. These days, it's not quite that straight forward. The weather patterns have changed quite a lot and as a result, I find that harvest times fluctuate. Last year, our spring in Nova Scotia was cool and wet so the trees weren't ready until July; the previous year, I was out in June.

This year, we've had a warm spring so I'm hoping that I'll get out early. I'll be over in PEI in a few weeks and it would be great to harvest while I'm there. My mom usually comes with me and it's great to get out and exercise our Aboriginal rights together. Last year we harvested on Lennox Island First Nation, which is where my grandmother was from and where my mom lived when she was little.  There is nothing quite like the feeling of being out on the land doing something that Mi'kmaq have done for centuries to give you a sense of the strength of our culture.

I've not always been able to time things as well as I did last year. The window of opportunity is quite small and I have to harvest when the trees are ready regardless of what's going on with life.  I'll never forget the year my mom and I were helping my sister with her new baby and had to head out to the woods because the trees were ready.

Fortunately, I still have enough bark from last year to see me through the next couple of months. When I first started, I didn't know how much to get and I ran out in February. I called around to the few people I could think of who harvest bark and might have some stored mid-winter. Luckily, work took me to Miawpukek First Nation in Newfoundland. The Chief had just made a birch bark sweat lodge and let me help myself to the leftover bark. I'll always be grateful for that and hope he enjoyed the quillwork I sent him in exchange.

Keep your fingers crossed for me that the trees are ready when I'm on the island!

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Homeward Bound

I'll be heading over to PEI for Abegweit First Nation's 14th Annual Mawiomi (Pow Wow) on June 9 and 10. I don't attend a lot of Mawiomi's but I'm really looking forward to this one. Abegweit is my community and it will be nice to visit family and watch the dancing.

I used to sell my work at the Alderney Landing Farmers Market in Dartmouth and later at the Historic Farmers Market in Halifax. However, ever since my son was born last year I haven't been selling in person. I miss speaking to people about quillwork and explaining my designs and how I gather the materials.

The #1 question I hear is: "Where do you get your quills?" In case you're wondering, I get my quills primarily from roadkill...and yes, there is what I refer to as the "yick factor". However, I'm a firm believer that if you can't handle where the quills come from, you shouldn't be doing quillwork. That being said, on the rare occasion when a live porcupine does waddle by, a blanket thrown and then pulled off will leave you with a blanket of quills and the porcupine with slightly less than the 30,000 it started out with. A much cleaner option but not always as convenient.

At a Mi'kmaq event like the upcoming Mawiomi what I really look forward to is chatting with other Mi'kmaw. I find it a great way to learn about designs and hear stories from other people who know about quillwork. I usually have a display of quills, birch bark, sweet grass and spruce root: all materials I use in my art but which have an incredible array of uses within our culture. You would be surprised what I hear with such fantastic conversation pieces!

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

After talking about it for far too long, I finally launched my etsy shop last night!

Up to this point, I've been selling my work at the Nova Scotia Art Gallery Shop and various forums around Halifax. That's been great, but I didn't have a website or a way for people to see what I've been working on. I've taken commissions in the past but have found that my job hindered how many projects I could take on. Ironically, I find that having my son has increased my time-management skills and I'm actually producing more quillwork!

This year, I've decided to expand my business and to try reaching new markets. I added a page on Facebook!/MikmaqQuillArt and am going to start a Twitter account as well. Quillwork meets the technological age!!

I'll be blogging regularily to keep people updated on what I'm working on and where I'll be selling this summer.

Stay tuned!