Projects of the heart at PNE give expression to Indian residential school tragedies

“We live here. We need to know the honest history of our country," one of the artists interviewed for this story told the Vancouver Observer.

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The children drew colourful images with felt pens on little wooden tiles after they went through the program. The designs ranged from whales, medicine wheels, rainbows, hearts and flamingos to words such as "peace", "hope" and "warrior", to messages such as “love until it hurts.”

Around 9,000 tiles were pasted onto a Musqueam racing canoe.

Project of Heart also asks children to write cards for survivors after they learn about residential schools. 

“We live here. We need to know the honest history of our country,” Bearhead said.

Carey Newman, a master carver based in Sooke, B.C., says he was moved to create an art piece that honours his father’s experience in residential school because he knew so little about it.

“We had three stories told over and over in our house. One was that he really didn’t like rice pudding and he couldn’t stand scalloped potatoes. And they were both because he ate them all the time at residential school. And then the other one was that one time he stole the holy wine. So those were the only things that we knew. And I have two sisters and it was the same for all of us. He just wanted to protect us from those things,” Newman said.

No totem pole or sculpture was large enough for him to encompass the impact he wanted to create, he says. Instead, he decided to create a wooden "blanket," which consists of cedar blocks that depict a piece of memorabilia associated with a residential school, strung together by metal rods. 

A blanket was chosen because it is a symbol of protection. "For many of us, it identifies who we are and where we’re from – we wear them in ceremony and give them as gifts. Blankets protect our young and comfort our elders," Newman's website, states.

Entitled "The Witness Blanket", Newman envisions the whole piece will be seven feet by 30 feet, with 10 panels measuring three feet wide. He is still working through the details of how to incorporate some of the items that he has received from survivors, as some of them cannot be placed on wood.

For example, he received two woven cloths  patched together by students who attended the girls’ section of the Carcross Indian Residential School in the Yukon. One of the most powerful pieces  came from the same school. It is a shoe worn by one of the students – now deep green, molded and crumbling with mud.

Carey Newman holding a residential school survivor's old shoe. Other memorabilia are placed on the a panel of the wooden blanket. 

Some of the pieces Newman received didn’t make sense to him, such as a metal square with a hole in the middle. Perplexed, he only knew what it was when a survivor explained its significance.

The elder told him it was a base for a post. “I ran into that post so many times when I was in residential school I could never forget what it looks like,” she told him.

Newman works with a team of “community champions” who help in collecting the items. To date, they have received over 200 pieces. 

Newman has sent a documentary crew to interview survivors to create a short film about residential schools on his website.  “I’m building a legacy website to preserve all those stories.   I don’t want the spirit of them to dissipate over time."

One piece – a doorknob from the boys’ residence on the Blood Reserve in southern Alberta- is particularly powerful, he says.

“For me, I think about all the little hands that turned that doorknob every night they went to bed and every morning they woke up. But  if you didn't know its history, it’s just another doorknob."

 

 

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