Saskatoon, SK – In the summer of 2019, Kwakwaka’wakw artist Mary Anne Barkhouse made the trip from Minden, Ontario, to the Wanuskewin Heritage Park to visit the Opimihaw Valley. She walked the trails with Dr. Ernie Walker, who was instrumental in founding the park and the lead archaeologist during the longest-running research dig in Canada in the valley. They talked with staff about all the components of Wanuskewin that make the site so special. And there are many things that make Wanuskewin special.
With archaeological evidence dating back at least 6,400 years, Wanuskewin has been recognized as a gathering place for many of the Indigenous peoples of the Great Plains. The park has 19 precontact sites, including two buffalo jumps, a bison pound, and the most northerly documented medicine wheel in the Great Plains.
Before European contact, roughly 25 to 30 million bison roamed the Great Plains, before they were almost hunted to extinction in the late 19th century. In the winter of 2019, six female bison from Grasslands National Park became the first bison on the land in 150 years. A few weeks later, four pregnant females and one male from South Dakota joined the herd. The Wanuskewin herd is now up to 17 bison, after two seasons of calves.
Barkhouse’s residency culminated in an exhibition Opimihaw, organized by Olivia Kristoff, Wanuskewin’s curator. Touching on themes of restoration, resilience, reconciliation, and the integrity and strength in the human and natural ecosystems, this exhibition came at a very relevant time. The centerpiece, a table installation, Opimihaw, resides right in the middle of the gallery and welcomes all into the space.
The tabletop is crafted from maple boards sourced from the Haliburton Highlands, where Barkhouse lives. The path the Opimihaw Valley runs was routed into the curves of the maple, then hot glass was poured into the groove. For legs, the table has the silhouettes of bison legs, a reference to their significant role in driving the Great Plains ecosystem. Placed along the tabletop are stoneware plates, carvings of insects, and animal prints showing the variety of life that coexists in the valley.
The artist modeled the table’s layout, with serving platters and folded napkins decorated with dried sage, after aristocratic European dinner parties, a theme she carries over into the portraits. Alpha I, Alpha II, Omega, and Dominion are beautiful prints of wolves surrounded by gilded gold frames, placed in the corner of the gallery. Styled in a way to communicate the respect of a prominent member of a family or clan, these works represent sovereignty and the role of nature.
The titles of the first three portraits reference the hierarchies of power that exist within the wolf packs themselves, while Dominion features a quote from the Book of Genesis, as Barkhouse questions by whose authority humans received the right to dominion over the earth and all of the animal kingdom. Here, a female wolf becomes the embodiment of the strength and resilience of Indigenous knowledge, worldviews, and relationships with nature.
These images of aristocracy and European contact are seen in the tapestries shown throughout the exhibition, as well. In Et in Arcadia Ego, we see images in the Baroque style of art and design history, a time when significant events were unfolding between the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. The title of the piece is Latin, roughly translating to “Even in Paradise, I am here…”, referring to the Europeans and bison being confronted with one another, both claiming the land for their own.
One of the longer tapestries, Bison/Gate, features a panorama image of the Opimihaw Valley, with depictions of bison taken from different eras. Surrounding are images of cave paintings from France, native plants in the valley, small creatures one would find walking the trails, and historical imagery. In the left-hand corner, 1997’s Stargate portal is shown releasing the bison back into the land, with the bison manager Craig Thoms and Dr. Walker standing by to give them guidance. Something Dr. Walker said to Barkhouse on her walk in 2019 inspired this image – that Wanuskewin was truly a portal in time, and that one can step onto the land and see how people lived thousands of years before. Visitors feel a connection, a link to their ancestors, a thread of history weaving them with the inhabitants who used to walk and hunt this land.
Yet, the struggles are not all in the past. In Tapestry I, Barkhouse featured the entirety of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Executive Summary, 536 pages total, printed on linen. Poised at the end of the tapestry is a beaver, perched on an antique wooden chair. Commemorated as a worker and builder, beavers are often considered a nuisance, something to deal with, often attempting to destroy them completely, a sentiment Indigenous peoples can relate to all too well.
Indigenous people have been battling that war since first contact with settlers. As we saw with the decimation of the bison, the Great Plains suffered greatly without these important animals to drive the ecosystem. Had anyone considered what society would be without the knowledge and strength of Indigenous peoples?
As we emerge from a global pandemic, we can learn a lot from the Indigenous cultures who have made it part of daily life to survive – humor, compassion, acceptance, and perseverance are all things we have had no choice but to learn, often the hard way. Maybe the rest of the world can take a cue from the animal kingdom; survive through the worst, and you will only emerge stronger.
On view through October 29, 2021.