Ashley Rabbitskin, whose mother is a healer, took us on a walk pointing out the medicinal uses of various plants. She sees herself as their advocate. “I think of plants as family,” she said. “We rely on the plants and the animals to survive. So in order for our relationship to continue, we have to acknowledge the plants in the way that we acknowledge each other.”
Felicia Gay, the half-Swampy-Cree curator of Wanuskewin’s art gallery, showed us around an exhibit from Allen Sapp, an extraordinary, pioneering Cree contemporary painter who likely wouldn’t get this kind of exhibition elsewhere. “In the media, indigenous people are often relegated to the past,” she said. “Or if they are brought into the contemporary, it’s in feathers and powwow gear, so we are again relegated to the past. What we do with the galleries is provide a space for indigenous contemporary artists to be seen in a contemporary worldview.”
And Randi Lynn Nanemahoo-Candline, whose Cree name is Morningstar Dancing Deer Woman, gave us a vast and fascinating cultural overview, ranging from how indigenous people hunted through buffalo jumps (luring bison into stampeding off cliffs) to the native practice of men battling to disgrace one another (to let another man get close enough to touch you was a great shame) rather than to kill.
She also spoke powerfully about her mother’s history as a residential school survivor who had been taken away from her family and sent to a boarding school run by nuns and paid for by the government as part of a forced assimilation program that lasted 100 years, until the last one closed in 1996. “My auntie told us that if you tried to speak Cree they would stick a needle in your tongue,” Ms. Nanemahoo-Candline said. Atoning for those wrongs was the mandate for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 2008.
Ms. Nanemahoo-Candline, a dancer, also showed us the red dress she uses to symbolize the fact that indigenous women are victims of violent crimes at a far higher rate than women of other ethnic groups. She believes the problem traces directly from the inherited trauma of residential schools. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau started a national inquiry on it in 2016, that has since come under fire from indigenous groups who question its effectiveness.
“Many powwows I attend now,” she said, “they’ve stopped the powwow and said, ‘We’re going to have a jingle dress healing ceremony, and we’ll side step in our red dresses and pray for missing and murdered indigenous women.” (An estimated 4,000 over the past three decades.)
‘You Have to Go to the Remai!’
I couldn’t leave town without spending a time at the Remai Modern, a newly opened museum that is fast putting Saskatoon on the international art map. It is one of the largest museums in Canada dedicated to modern and contemporary art and owes its existence to an astounding pledge of 103 million Canadian dollars from Ellen Remai (pronounced REY-me), a local patron. That donation also includes a Picasso collection worth 20 million dollars.