Haunting relics from the native land

JOHN HOWSE January 25 1988

Haunting relics from the native land

JOHN HOWSE January 25 1988

Haunting relics from the native land


The showpiece of Calgary’s Olympic Arts Festival, an astonishing curatorial achievement, celebrates the rich artistry of Canada’s aborigi-

nal people at the time of their early contact with Europeans. But ironically, some native Indians are using the historic exhibition, which inaugurates the festival, to draw attention to a bitter dispute over a long-unsettled land claim. And others are claiming that artifacts in The Spirit Sings: Artistic Traditions of Canada's First Peoples, which opened last week at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, should be returned to native people. In fact, the day after the opening, an Alberta judge ruled that a mask—said by a Quebec Mohawk group to have enormous spiritual significance—be removed at least temporarily from the exhibition.

The show opened amid continuing demonstrations in support of Alberta’s Lubicon Lake Indians. Outside the building, 120 protesters—including native leaders from across Canada and such luminaries as former Olympic distance runner Bruce Kidd—joined the Lubicons. Said band Chief Bernard

Ominayak: “We don’t have the money or expertise to continue our battle in the courts. We must use whatever forum exists, and it happens to be this exhibition.”

The Cree band, whose leaders say that it has 457 members, has been locked in land-claims battles with the federal and provincial governments for the past halfcentury. Almost two years ago the Lubi-

cons—based 260 km northeast of Edmonton—began urging institutions and private lenders to boycott The Spirit Sings. The band says that about 30 lenders agreed to support them. But spokesmen for the Glenbow counter that only 12 refused to participate, while 90—including the Vatican and Leningrad’s Ethnographic Museum—agreed to take part.

Caught in the middle of the political

dispute that emerged when plans for the show were well underway, members of the Glenbow staff have steadfastly focused on their institution’s artistic mandate. Still, museum director Duncan Cameron told Maclean's that the Glenbow has “no lack of sympathy for the Lubicon cause.” He added, “We could have done the great boring Canadian modern-art exhibition, but we wanted something with social justification.” However, some native people say that the show desecrates their traditions. And last week a Quebec-based Mohawk group succeeded in obtaining an interim injunction preventing the Glenbow from displaying a mask depicting a spiritual figure called the Great Protector. Mr.

Justice Melvin Shannon of Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench ruled that the museum can argue against the injunction on Jan. 28, but a Glenbow official told Maclean 's that the institution will likely appeal the matter in court this week. The mask was lent by the Royal Ontario Museum, which obtained it in the early 1920s from the daughter of a Mohawk chief, and which displayed it from the 1930s until 1980.

Through more than 650 artifacts— from ceremonial masks to moccasins, canoes and clubs— The Spirit Sings illustrates the historic attachment to the land shared by Canada’s diverse aboriginal peoples. The $2.6-million show, which will leave Calgary on May 1 to be exhibited in Ottawa by the Canadian Museum of Civilization in July, spans the period from the early 16th century, when Europeans began settling amid the now-extinct Beothuk peoples of Newfoundland, to the early 1900s, when hardy traders established posts in Canada’s North.

More than two-thirds of the artifacts have never been displayed in Canada. During the past four centuries, colonizers obtained them through trade, commissions or purchases, taking many of those treasures back to the Old World. To assemble The Spirit Sings, six curators spent five years travelling to 20 countries and sifting through a previously unmined mother lode of native Canadian artifacts. They examined 10,000 artifacts in private and public collections throughout the world.

In assembling the exhibition, the curators had to overcome numerous obstacles. Some museums were reluctant to lend particularly fragile objects. A more

unusual problem arose over the transportation of a wooden Iroquois war club with a feathered, carved head at one end. Its owner, Scotland’s Earl of Elgin and Kincardine, brought it to Toronto and presented it to a Glenbow employee—who then had to get special security clearance at Toronto Pearson International Airport to carry it on board to

Calgary, because it was technically a weapon.

The curators’ marathon efforts yielded an unprecedented sampling of Canadian native art from the period of contact—before the creations of Indian artisans became the stuff of souvenir shops. Ottawa art historian Ruth Phillips writes in the exhibition’s companion volume, also called The Spirit Sings, that the aboriginal peoples’ artmaking “was neither the specialization of a small group of people within society, nor was it separable from function and ritual activity.” The bulk of the show comprises day-to-day objects including an Athapascan sheephorn ladle and a Beothuk woman’s legging made of five pieces of leather stitched together with sinew and spruce root.

But some of the exhibition’s most striking items are from the ceremonial realm. Particularly haunting is the Ojibwa shaman’s drum that provided the inspiration for the exhibition’s logo—and which Italian explorer Giacomo Beltrami collected sometime before 1829. It depicts a spirit, vigorously outlined in red ochre, that seems to crackle with psychic energy. By contrast, a few of the artifacts are curiosities straddling two cultures—jearly versions of the tourist handicrafts that most native artisans now produce. They include a 19th-century Micmac tea cozy

decorated with porcupine quills.

Many of the objects arrived with their own fascinating histories. Around 1760 a group of St. Lawrence Indians gave French missionary Père Bovart an intricate model canoe constructed of painted birchbark and wax as an offering to his church, the cathedral at Chartres. The piece is on loan from the Chartres Fine Arts Museum. The show also includes objects collected on James Cook’s third voyage to the New World in 1778.

The pieces make the exhibition a striking prelude to the Games— and an important step toward filling in the gaps in the esthetic past 2 of Canada’s aboriginal ¡2 peoples. Meanwhile, the i show’s accompanying y three-month celebra| tion of native cultures— I with demonstrations of S everything from native \ storytelling to Inuit soapstone carving—will g demonstrate how those I traditions have survived. The Spirit Sings stands as a tribute to native Canadians’ illustrious past. But outside the museum doors, the native peoples’ protests temper that celebratory mood with a reminder of unhealed wounds.

—JOHN HOWSE in Calgary

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