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Stories of This Place: Indigenous Public Art Connects Culture and Place

Updated: Aug 1

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By Kate Riordon, Collections Processor

Brand new pieces of art have graced the grounds of the Whyte Museum and Cave & Basin National Historic Site for the summer of 2023. From mid-June to early July, nine Indigenous artists were hard at work painting the four new mural boxes and seven picnic tables on display in beautiful outdoor spaces of significance to Indigenous peoples.

Bird Box Murals

Artists Tiffany Wollman (Métis) of Calgary and Hali Heavy Shield (Blackfoot-Kainai southern Alberta) began their collaboration on what became known as the Bird Box in the Whyte Museum board room.

Keeping warm and dry inside amongst the early June rainstorms, the two artists, along with mentor AJA Louden of Edmonton, worked on wooden cut-outs of birds to be attached to the 8x8' cube located between the Sinclair Cabin and the Whyte Home on the museum grounds. In addition to the cut-outs, both artists worked on two sidespainting details on the backgrounds as well as a Canada Goose in beautifully reflective water (Woolman) and a reference to the Seven Brothers/Big Dipper (Heavy Shield).

Bird box artwork by Tiffany Wollman (Cree & Métis) and Hali Heavy Shield (Blackfoot). Photo by Katie Goldie.
Bird box artwork by Tiffany Wollman (Métis) and Hali Heavy Shield (Blackfoot). Photo by Katie Goldie.

The birds chosen to be included all hold significance to the artists, whether that be to their nations, their homes, or the environment. The sharp-tailed grouse for example is at risk of extinction due to rapid loss of habitat throughout the prairie lands they call home. Both artists commented that they enjoyed listening to the various birds that flit around the museum grounds and along the Bow River as they worked. The Bird Box was also designed with the exhibit For the Birds in mind – once you’ve identified all the birds Wollman and Heavy Shield painted, head inside for round two!

Picnic Table Paintings

Back again after their inaugural painting session in 2021, Bruno Canadien (Dene) and Cheyenne Bearspaw (Iyethka - Stoney) revisited their picnic tables. Swapping his original pastel pallet for brighter hues this time around, Canadien, originally from Fort Providence and now based out of Diamond Valley, took inspiration from the floral motifs often found in Dene bead and quill work.

Gently rounded and fitting together perfectly, it’s easy to picture his painted flowers as 3D moose hair tufted or embroidered ones the women of his family often include in their work.

Bearspaw, of Calgary, also went for a bolder colour pallet this time around. Touching up one of their original designs, Bearspaw also incorporated geometric designs inspired by Iyethka moccasin designs they researched in the museum collection, as well as a celebration of the LGBTQ2S+ community by way of a table completely covered in the Pride flag. A riot of colour easily spotted from sidewalks and pathways around the Museum, these tables were popular spots amongst families looking for outdoor lunch spots, places to read and to chat, or even just a moment of rest even before the paint was dry!

Cave and Basin Mural Project

Over at the Cave & Basin National Historic Site, intermittent rain made things interesting for artists Brandon Atkinson (Métis), Lillian Rose (Ktunaxa), Tania Willard (Secwépemc), their assistants and mentor AJA Louden, as they each worked on their own Mural Boxes alongside the old swimming pool. Working with paint and brushes, paint pens, and spray paint, it was an ongoing battle to make sure the works – and the artists – stayed dry. Broadly speaking, each Mural Box features two panels of original art, a panel of text, and a panel featuring the piece’s name.

Brandon Atkinson (Métis)

Atkinson, originally from Edmonton and now based in Buffalo Lake, took inspiration both from his home and the area known as Banff National Park for his panels.

Mural artist Brandon Atkinson (Métis) working on his piece at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site. Photo by Katie Goldie.
Mural artist Brandon Atkinson (Métis) working on his piece at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site. Photo by Katie Goldie.

Mural artist Brandon Atkinson (Métis) alongside his work at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site. Photo by Katie Goldie.
Mural artist Brandon Atkinson (Métis) alongside his work at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site. Photo by Katie Goldie.

Working for the first time on this scale, his intricately hand-painted panels feature the Park’s two most famous bears – nicknamed The Boss and Split Lip – as well as wolves, eagles, trapper cabins, lakeshores, mountains, forests, and so much more. A visual puzzle in black and white, it’svery easy to lose time working out all the details.

Of his work, Brandon writes:

We all share the land.

During the workshop to research this project, I listened to stories that the Whyte Museum and the Cave and Basin staff shared about what represents this area. I heard about the plants, the invasive species, the animals and the healing properties that are here that connect everyone who visits, to spirituality. This is a sacred place.

I wanted to include my specific interest in Metis history and the coming together of Indigenous and settler communities to survive this climate and place. I heard about mountains and ranges being named after Metis men – Piche, Norquay and Howse – names that are of great importance to the Metis Nation. Images of these places are reflected in this mural, my way of paying respect to those who were here. I spoke to other Metis Elders who talked about the importance of the Metis being the first entrepreneurs on this land, inventors of the York boat and the Red River cart. Without these inventions travel would have been almost impossible.

I also heard about the local celebrity bears, Split Lip and the Boss, and I wanted to recognize the contributions Parks Canada staff have made to protect the parks, the animals and plants. I am grateful for the staffs’ respect for all the animals, especially the grizzlies who call this place home. Grizzlies represent strong medicine for many Indigenous cultures and are important to me.

I grew up in Edmonton and I did not get a lot of chances to be native and learn about my native side of the family. Slowly I was able to learn about Metis and Cree culture by helping with sweats and ceremonies, as well as listening to my relatives. The native faces I have drawn in this mural reflect another way of showing who I am. I am honored to have been selected for this project, to create artworks that reflect Metis connection to Banff and the Mountains. I strive to ensure that Metis artists continue to be supported and inspired by my artwork. It is my hope that young artists see this mural and feel encouraged to make and tell their stories.

Lillian Rose (Ktuanxa)

Rose, from the Akisqnuk First Nation (Ktunaxa/Kootenay) near Invermere, traditionally works with fibre. However, along with her assistant Elisha Jimmy, she has created stunning depictions of bison, berries, and salmon eggs in vibrant paints. Exploring themes of loss and renewal, the pair have dedicated a panel to a bison, alone in a yellow field, gazing out at the viewer.

Lillian Rose and her assistant Elisha Kootais alongside Rose's mural artwork at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site. Photo by Katie Goldie.
Lillian Rose and her assistant Elisha Jimmy alongside Rose's mural artwork at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site. Photo by Katie Goldie.

Using the size of the panels to their advantage, Rose has created a piece that forces the viewer to contemplate not only the physical scale of what’s being depicted, but also the scale of loss suffered by bison, salmon, and bears due to habitat destruction. Intrinsically linked to that are also the losses suffered by Indigenous Peoples under a colonial system that still works against them more often than not.

Rose explains her work further:

We lost access and connection to Banff and the hot springs due to the Parks and pass systems.

We lost the connection to the buffalo due to the fur trade.

We lost the connection to the salmon due to river dams.

Prior to the decimation of the buffalo, the translocation of Indigenous tribes was as a result of the westward expansion of colonization and the beginning of the provincial and international boundary lines and in turn, the establishment of Treaty Areas. The Ktunaxa are trans mountain buffalo and salmon people that have successfully lived and thrived in this region. Banff and the Bow Valley is known as Qatmuk. Banff Indian Days is important to the Ktunaxa as it offered a space to gather, connect and trade with Stoney and Blackfoot relatives and friends.

This mural reflects the loss felt by Ktunaxa Indians. Images of buffalo, salmon, flowers and petroglyphs (located in Canal Flats, BC) are depicted in this mural to tell traditional stories to the mountains and connections to this place. The bison, the salmon, access to traditional lands and the hot springs have been lost.

The large image of the Prairie Rose and salmon eggs tell the story of the signs of Swagmus (Salmon) return. The worms in rosehips are a sign for the Ktunaxa to leave the mountains and head home, as the salmon were on their way to the headwaters of the Columbia river.

It is important to recognize this loss of connection to the land, and find ways to tell our stories and encourage the establishment of future cultural spaces to access traditional lands. The Ktunaxa are now leading efforts to educate and restore the buffalo and salmon to the mountain areas.

Tania Willard (Secwépemc)

Willard, from the Neskonlith Reserve (Secwépemc – Shuswap), with help from her assistant Anita Rose (Snutetkwe Manuel), took inspiration for her Mural Box from a beautifully woven cedar root basket on display in the Moore Home. Working from detailed photographs of the box’s panels, Willard recreated each stitch, so to speak, by hand in order to create a template – thereby copying the exact pattern and texture of the original box onto the 8x8' panels using spray paint.

Photos by mural artist Tania Willard (Secwépemc).

Often overlooked as artistic items and instead more often viewed as household items, it was Willard’s desire to draw attention to woven baskets by utilizing the large scale of the Mural Box. By doing so, she also creates a celebration of labour and the ecological aesthetics of natural materials like the cedar root – the harvesting of which is a time-consuming and delicate form of living forestry that has been practiced by Indigenous Peoples since time immemorial.

Willard writes of her work:

This work is based on a cedar root basket in the collection of the Whyte Museum labelled ‘storage basket’ (1870-1900). I am often thinking about ancestor artworks in basketry and I have been learning cedar root basketry with Secwepemc Elder artist Delores Purdaby, I wanted to elevate, amplify and really value this art work. I traced each stitch of this basket and made that into a stencil and spray painted the 4 sides of the mural at Cave and Basin historic site. Despite dislocation of many Indigenous groups from Canada’s first park which meant dispossession of the land, Secwepemc people have a connection today and historically to this area and I think about travel, migration and exchange and how we might carry our goods to share and trade across territories in baskets like this one.

This basket is not labeled Secwepemc in the museum but this type of basketry is common throughout the Interior and I am interested in awakening these art forms. Stitch by stitch these baskets are art, philosophy, history, ecology, relationality and more. When I read ̓storage basket on the museum label I think about the knowledge, relations, gratitude and beauty these baskets hold. I am downloading the data from this storage basket to share with this land and to awaken these ancestor artists, Kukwstsemc to Snutetkwe for all her assistance, and to the ancestor artists, once known, who made this basket. I loved having a chance to connect Secwepemc art and relations here and I do so in deep respect for all Indigenous Nations who use this area and to claim and assert a future of our ongoing connections to this place.

Like the works of Wollman and Heavy Shield seen over at the Whyte Museum grounds, Atkinson, Rose, and Willard were working alongside a public path often frequented by pedestrians, cyclists, and the occasional horse-drawn wagon. Chatting with the public passing by, Parks Canada employees manning the site, and listening to the wildlife in the nearby marshland filled the days, rain or shine.

Check out these vibrant, informative, and beautiful pieces of public art at the Whyte Museum and the Cave & Basin National Historic Site until October!


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