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Nurturing Connections to Nature, Culture, and Community Through Indigenous Art

By Dawn Saunders-Dahl, Manager of Indigenous Relationships and Programs, and Tera Swanson, Marketing and Communications Specialist

Back to The Cairn

Tucked behind the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies is a quiet natural space that has served many purposes, both since time immemorial and the more recent colonial history. It has served as a modern trading route during Banff Indian Days, a gathering location for celebrations and Indigenous ceremonies, as the horse corrals for Bill Peyto, and a place to sit quietly and gather one’s thoughts.

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With the bustle of Bear Street just beyond the building and the glacial waters flowing past the nearby Bow River banks, this natural area also serves as a bridge. It is an opportunity for visitors and locals to find their own moments of connection to nature and to one another. While Banff National Park is world-renowned for the vast outdoor opportunities it offers, connection to nature can happen anywhere – from a backyard to a city playground to a walk along the river. It is moments like these that can spark a deeper, lifelong relationship with the outdoors and with one another.

Recently, art initiatives led by local Indigenous artists partnering with the Whyte Museum have helped nurture these connections to nature, culture, and community.

Art in Nature

During the summer of 2021, Indigenous artists Bruno Canadien (Dene), Jarron Poucette (Stoney Nakoda), and Cheyenne Bearspaw (Stoney Nakoda) painted seven picnic tables brought to the Whyte Museum grounds. Canadien’s designs focused on floral motifs – a predominant feature in traditional and contemporary Dene and Metis art, which he says symbolizes his love for family and a close connection to the land.

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“While the Dene don't claim a connection to the Bow Valley, my family has enjoyed this area for many years,” says Canadien. “I'm happy to be able to share my work with the community in this small way.”

Cheyenne Bearspaw drew from their favourite colours for when they wanted to dance traditional, as Pow Wow regalia reflects the individuality of the dancer.

Jarron Poucette drew inspiration for his artwork from the traditional fancy dance or war dance.

“I painted the fancy dancer because I like the different colours it has, you need speed and agility in order to dance fancy,” he says. “Back then, our people called it the war dance. In battle, they carry a stick ‘coup’ and the warrior would have a lot of speed and agility to run up to their enemies and touch them with the coup without getting killed. It’s quite fascinating.”

Celebrating Indigenous Culture

Poucette also worked on a mural project on the Whyte Museum grounds the summer previously. Alongside artists Kyle Kaquitts (Stoney Nakoda) and Chris Morin (Maskwacis) and led by Edmonton-based mural artist AJA Louden, the group researched and found inspiration for the mural in the Whyte Museum collections, historic homes, and archives. Here, they chose their preferred items to depict in the mural, including paintings by Sitting Wind (Frank Kaquitts).

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Sitting Wind (1925-2002) is the grandfather of Poucette, Kaquitts, and Morin, and was born Frank Morin on February 28, 1925. He was given the name Sitting Wind from a Medicine Man when he was a baby. Born a Cree, he was raised a Stoney and grew up near Morley, later going to a residential school. He was a soldier, a boxer, an actor, a landscape artist who attended the Banff School of Fine Arts, and a politician. He was first elected to serve on the Bearspaw Band Council in 1957, then elected Chief in 1961. When the Stoney Nakoda voted in favour of merging the Bearspaw, Chiniki, and Wesley First Nations in 1974, Sitting Wind was the first-ever grand Chief of the briefly united Stoney Tribe. Following the return to the three-band system, Sitting Wind served as Chief of the Chiniki First Nation.

The trio chose to paint their grandfather’s image for the mural to honour him and as a gift for their family and community. Additional sides of the mural depicted a trade route theme reflective of the area, including the names of the four cardinal directions in Stoney Nakoda language, a medicine wheel, and a collage of items that were traded in this area.

The Whyte Museum is home to 22 paintings by Frank (Sitting Wind) Kaquitts with all but four donated by the Catharine Robb Whyte estate. Sitting Wind was a student of Peter Whyte from about 1969 to 1971 and the paintings in the collection are representative of their time together.*

Sitting Wind’s artwork also inspired an additional mural project entitled “Ma Kochi Wastay” created by artists Gordon Wesley, Jarron Poucette, and AJA Louden in September of 2021.

Reciprocity in Sharing Knowledge

Each of these art initiatives has inherently contained elements of knowledge sharing, exploring relationships, and reciprocity.

After meeting through the picnic table project in the summer of 2021, Bearspaw and Canadien collaborated on the Source of Life mural in Black Diamond, Alberta, under the mentorship of Whyte Museum Manager of Indigenous Programs and Relations, Dawn Saunders Dahl. Cheyenne expressed an interest in learning more about the Administration side of Murals and was hired in September as the Indigenous Research Assistant at the Whyte Museum.

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Canadien extended an invitation to continue to mentor and pass on information about mural logistics, idea development, and creation to Bearspaw. Canadien also worked with local youth and organizations in Black Diamond. He writes:

“…Source of Life celebrates the interconnectedness of the pre-settlement foothills landscape when buffalo fulfilled their role as a keystone species and supported a vast web of life on the North American plains, including thriving Indigenous societies.

Local youth contributed their handprints in orange paint, in solidarity with the survivors and victims of Canada’s Residential School System, and to signify a future filled with positive relationships.”

Canadien created the mural as part of the STEPS 2021 – 2022 CreateSpace BIPOC Public Art Residency.

Multiple temporary mural projects on the Whyte Museum grounds were led by the late Stoney Nakoda historian and Knowledge Keeper Lloyd (Buddy) Wesley – an important link between the artists and the projects developed at the Whyte Museum. For the mural of Sitting Wind, he provided background information about the living objects in the museum collections and exploring the trade route theme.

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For “Ma Kochi Wastay,” the inspiration for this mural was based on conversations between artists and Whyte Museum staff exploring the collections, talking about the land with each other, and developing new friendships. The artists wanted to express a connection to the land, river, Bow Falls, and wildlife, and for visitors to learn Stoney language about this place. The project started with the artists looking at paintings in the Museum vault from artists Carl Rungius (a favourite of Gordon Wesley) and Sitting Wind. The artists also explored the Museum Archives, where they found maps and photographs of fossils, events, and relatives, providing inspiration for the mural and future projects.

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Exploring their ideas, the discussion turned to the trade routes and the importance of Banff with Elder Phillomene Stevens, where she described this place as being a nice spot in every season. The artists wanted to incorporate the Stoney language into the mural, to also find a connection to the late Buddy Wesley. The artists had an opportunity to also speak with the Museum CEO, Donna Livingstone about projects like this, that connect the museum to this special place of healing that we now call Banff.

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As the project progressed, the artists considered the site lines of where the temporary mural is located, being close to the mural created in 2020, to bring in new colours and energy to the space so the pair of mural boxes can work in concert.

Cave and Basin Public Art Call

The mural projects are continuing on to new locations, with an opportunity for emerging Indigenous artists coming in the summer of 2022 at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site.

Parks Canada Agency and the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies seek up to three Indigenous Artists to create temporary mural paintings, to be displayed prominently on the grounds at Cave and Basin National Historic Site. This call is open in 2022 to all Indigenous Artists 18 years of age and older from Îyârhe Nakoda (Stoney), Niitsitapi (Blackfoot)