Hilton Henhawk was one of many volunteer artists who contributed to a painted teepee as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came to Toronto May 31-June 1. Photo by Michael Swan

Art is part of the healing for residential school survivors

  • June 5, 2012

TORONTO - While residential school survivors told their life stories of trying to piece together family life after childhoods spent in an institution, Hilton Henhawk held a brush above canvass.

As an artist trained at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto and an elder in his own right, Henhawk was seeking a picture of native culture and identity that transcends the residential school experience without forgetting the harm his people have suffered.

"It's got to be representative of the native as a whole," Henhawk told The Catholic Register as he began to paint an ideal chief — a leader who could embody the spirit of his people.

Henhawk was one of a stream of volunteer artists who over the course of the weekend Meeting Place event contributed to a painted teepee. The teepee will  eventually be donated to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's permanent archive.

For Henhawk the continuing creative output of young people is as important to Canada's reconciliation with its past as is carefully preserved memories of a cultural genocide.

"With this you can converse," he said as he painted.

Near the bottom of the teepee Chris Robert painted a cross.

"(It represents) the turmoil of the residential schools. It was the doctrine or the dogma of the Church that overshadowed the native people," Robert said.

As with all TRC events, the Meeting Place made as much space as possible for youth and artists. Dancers, fiddlers, Inuit throat singers and drummers greeted dignitaries and politicians at the opening of the conference. At sunrise ceremonies and opening prayers for workshops, the cultural output of native people took pride of place.

Everything was a mixture of the traditional and the contemporary. Echo Buswa, Shane Cameron, Jay Lomax and Thunder Jack performed the kind of traditional fancy dance that might be seen at any village pow wow in the summer. But their village is Toronto, where 80,000 aboriginal people make up the largest concentration of indigenous Canadians.

The commissioners brought with them the Bentwood Box, carved by Cowichan artist Luke Marston, to sit at the centre of room where residential school survivors gave testimony of their experience.

An essential element of native cultural expression is humour, said Anishnabe elder and former chief Richard Kistabish. While Kistabish starkly warned that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's apology was "only a start," he also had the audience chuckling at a series of quiet jibes — the kind of jokes that have to be heard and not read.

Restoring native pride depends on the future cultural output of young people educated within their own communities, in their own language and their own traditions, Kistabish said.

From the dancing to painting to silver jewelry on sale in the hotel lobby, the native art and culture on display at The Meeting Place is inseparable from native spirituality — which is finding new expression both inside and outside Christianity.

"There may have been nothing as damaging we've done as the breaking of ceremony," Gerry Kelly, Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops aboriginal affairs director, told a workshop on "How Churches can Walk the Talk on Reconciliation."

"Talk helps. Ceremony heals."

"I think it's part of the healing," said Henhawk.

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