Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The Witness Blanket

The Witness Blanket, by Kwagiulth / Salish Artist Carey Newman, is comprised of hundreds of artifacts, each with its own story, from and relating to Canada’s residential schools. The pieces are mounted on cedar panels and are ‘woven’ together to create a blanket of shared memories.

How did a small, rural museum like the Peace River Museum, Archives, and Mackenzie Centre (PRMA) become a host venue for the nationally-acclaimed exhibit The Witness Blanket? It was all due to the collective resourcing of three partners: Sagitawa Friendship Society, Peace River Correctional Centre, and the PRMA. By building on existing relationships and acknowledging the diversity each partner brought to achieving this goal, we were able to accomplish something that just one could not. We began in January 2015, and over the next 18 months prepared to receive ‘the Ancestors’, the Witness Blanket, on June 28, 2016.

Dave Matilpi, Aboriginal Elder, artist and teacher, mentored us at our meetings and through cultural teachings and a workshop he calls My Broken Journey. We learned of his life experiences, including as a residential school student. Most importantly, he shared the optimism he holds today for the healing and reconciliation that began across Canada.

The artist, Carey Newman, requests of each host venue that admission fees be waived to ensure there are no barriers to anyone wishing to view the Blanket. With this in mind, we thought of the Aboriginal inmates at the Peace River Correctional Centre and asked Carey whether two of the thirteen exhibit panels could be installed at the PRCC. The exhibit was a natural complement to I Am A Kind Man, a program Sagitawa delivers to the inmates. It was an opportunity that could not be missed. The artist agreed.

Museum staff researched and created text panels about residential schools in northern Alberta featuring the two residential schools in our immediate area. As staff, we felt it was important to learn the historical context of the residential school system, so that we could better present our visitors with a full opportunity to think about the missing, forgotten, and edited voices and perspectives of this era.

Together, Sagitawa and the PRMA identified key organizations which have influence and opportunity to shift attitudes and understanding about Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal relations in our regions. Politicians, school personnel, social agencies, Aboriginal Bands and religious leaders were invited to attend an opening reception at Sagitawa Friendship Centre followed by the exhibit viewing at the museum. A sacred Pipe Ceremony, honouring the elements of the Universe, was smoked and shared by all to ensure a strong and successful exhibit. In the ways of local cultural practices, a feast was held with elk and saskatoons on bannock, smoked moose stew, rice pudding with cranberries, and bannock with wild berry jams.

Through the historical memory captured and preserved in the Witness Blanket, artist Carey Newman articulates the need to challenge long held beliefs and perceptions about the residential school system. We have been honoured to engage, along with our visitors, in this national conversation.

Laura Gloor
Peace River Museum, Archives, and Mackenzie Centre

For more information on the Witness Blanket, please visit http://witnessblanket.ca.

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