Friday, March 2, 2012

Wanuskewin Stories

In Saskatchewan February is Aboriginal Storytelling month.

On Saturday the 25th a small but enthusiastic crowd braved a nasty storm to get themselves to the Wanuskewin Heritage Park (found here)This is the striking entrance to the building.

As one enters the main section another buffalo, surrounded by hangings, stands out.

We all had the chance to wander round the gallery and admire the fascinating collection of materials dedicated to the horse. There was a full-sized horse front and centre, and some forty paintings, many by Allan Sapp, of scenes depicting the use of the horse in (relatively) modern times. The most striking items were five beautifully decorated elk hides, each one depicting scenes of some brutality, with horse-mounted cavalry and aboriginal peoples at war. It was not until I leaned over and took a close look at the work under the glass covers that I realized that every item in the entire series, containing hundreds of figures in excruciating detail, down to pistols, head dresses and the caps of the cavalry, was created with beads, thousand of tiny beads.  It would have been great to be able to show you a picture of at least one of the hides, but of course galleries do not allow one to take them, and I could not get hold of one electronically. If I get the chance I will post again, as they are truly stunning.

Andrew McDonald, the marketing and sales manager of the centre, had organized the evening’s events and it was he who told me, in an email, that these beaded elk hides were given to the Wanuskewin Heritage Park by George Pekwawa for the Mistatim Exhibit. The hides depict the Battle of Little Bighorn, where Chief Sitting Bull defeated General Custer. It is thought that descendants of Sitting Bull, who fought in the battle, created the works. Following the battle Sitting Bull found asylum here in Saskatchewan where he stayed at Ft Walsh. The hides are thought to be based on a series of drawings that Chief Red Cloud was later commissioned for.

Before the main event we had a chance to sample Chef Kevin Merasty's delicious berry crumble, mostly Saskatoon berries, as you might expect, and everyone who had braved the winds had a bowl of his creation and a dollop of ice cream. Hot chocolate optional. Not too shabby!

Lamarr Oksasikewiyin of the Traditional Native Games Organization (found here) led off the activities, focusing on the children who had come out on a stormy night. He first got everyone involved in one of the oldest indoor games, which most of us learned at a very early age. Here you can see one of the parents about to pass on her start to the string game. 

Lamarr then began with children’s games that were originally designed as preparation for the vital art of hunting or for learning patience in the harsh dark days of winter. He told us that the storm was a hidden blessing as it was on nights like this that games and storytelling became important because it mirrors the winter camp and times in the tipi. He had the youngsters playing a game we all recognized. Today we can purchase a fancy version called pick-up sticks. The old version involved willow twigs, and Lamarr selected a marker that was the key to unlocking the fallen sticks. The kids were quickly involved.

Then he called for volunteers, who promptly stood and started to try and hit a ten centimetre toy bison with a weighted turkey feather from a range of about two paces. Of course the two paces varied with the size of the child. It is not as easy as it sounds. You can see the bison (pale brown, hanging on a string) right of centre about 1/3 of the way from the top, level with the top of the window. No wonder there were no hits.

While the other adults visited the gallery I stayed to watch the puppet show being put on by Cheryl Hoftyzer. I've been trying to post a short clip here for the last 45 minutes, but the Blogger program is having a hissy fit. It is defintely home movie stuff as the lighting was not the best, so perhaps it doesn't matter. Cheryl ran the puppets as we learned the entrancing the story of the beaver and his tail with its moral issues about pride.

Alex Ahenakew gave us part of his family history after explaining the importance of the smudge. As he performed this ancient ceremony his grandson joined him and then a little girl who could not have been more than about two, left her father’s lap in the story circle, crossed the floor and went over to lean into the smoke spiral. She has obviously been shown the ropes. Alex wound up with a delightful explanation of his maternal grandfather’s name, which is Atimoyoo, or in English, dog’s tail. It involved shape shifting and the acquisition of a beautiful horse.

Darryl Chamakese, seen here in the checked shirt beyond his audience is the Cree language developer at of the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural Centre (found here). It was he who gave me two fascinating stories for my book Of Moose and Men (publishers web info here). Darryl did a wonderful job with one of the many Wesakechak stories, this one about the time that the hero of that long-running saga fooled a bunch of waterfowl into giving up their lives for his meal, only to be outwitted by that cunning carnivore, the fox. Of course in the end Wesakechak got his revenge and forever changed the coat colour of the wily beast.

Finally Lisa Wilson gave us a brief reading from her history of the Gabriel Dumont Institute. You can find out more about the institute here.

Then it was time to head home. Luckily the storm had abated, but we did hear that further south it had been severe enough to lead to closure of some highways. A good evening to be indoors with like-minded people and out of the cold.

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