Hollee drove down last evening so that we could head out early for a road trip to Blackfoot Crossing. Recently, she was able to view Elder in the Making, a movie that I have not yet seen. This movie really impacted her and Hollee asked if I would be up to a road trip to this beautiful place, a place where we are all reminded of our obligation to be treaty people. I love Blackfoot Crossing and if my readers have not yet journeyed there, please do. Episode 1.
Early this morning, I went out in bedroom slippers and fed the birds. (The sparrows are all raising their young and they congregate each morning, just like the wee pigs that they are. Oh my. They are messy!) There in the back gardens, I found my first Oriental Poppy blooming and my first open Peony. I love the lush green surrounding these highly saturated blossoms and thought about the next bush painting that is already living inside my head.
There was no shortage of conversation as we took 22X and steered ourselves east. There was a powerful sky and a big whoosh of wind as various systems of weather were moving through the province. We stopped at the landmark for Blackfoot Crossing shortly after Hollee noticed the graveyard from the road. I felt determined to find Jordan’s resting place. The wind was so strong and carried a bit of a bite. The two of us took in the remarkable vistas. It was an awesome first glance of the panoramic view of the valley and treaty lands.
Next, we visited Chief Crowfoot’s last camping place.
We enjoyed the brilliant colour of wild flowers throughout our times wandering. So beautiful.
We had a magic-filled walk and went to the site where the museum has documented an earthen village. However, the archaeologists that were working on site today walked us through some of the more current discoveries and that was super exciting.
Mushroom burgers and homemade fries were enjoyed at Pete’s Bakery in Cluny. We ended up giving Morris a ride into Strathmore after that. He showed us a buffalo jump. He showed us Hammer Hill. He told us about making head dresses and about his early sketching as a young boy. He showed us his high school. It was lovely.
Peter’s daughter told us the story of her father. She was such a beautiful person. I so wish that I had asked her her name. Eat at Peter’s Bakery in Cluny! So good!!
I’m grateful for this day. I’m grateful for what nature teaches us.
Safe and sound and rested, at home, Hollee headed north on the highway and Max and I went to the river. My day began with flowers and ended with birds…and all else, made for a beautiful middle.
When the auction was over, Dylan stepped over to me and said, “Was the painting sold? I put my hand up.” I smiled at him…
…and then we began to talk.
Asked if I would paint his grandfather, Gordon Tootoosis and further back, Poundmaker, Dylan began to draw out his family tree in my journal. It’s such an amazing thing when I am so intensely involved with discovering my own family tree, to encounter Dylan’s family tree.
When I came home, I looked for a book on my shelf about Chief Poundmaker, but found nothing and so yesterday, I purchased this after sharing coffee with my sister friends, the only book on the Chapters book shelf with a chapter written about the great chief of the Cree/Stoney Nation. What was particularly unique about Pitikwahanapiwiyin (Poundmaker) was that he was adopted by his Blackfoot contemporary, Chief Crowfoot, at a great time of struggle for their people. A brief history may be read on Wikipedia.
Native Chiefs, And Famous Metis: Leadership and Bravery in the Canadian West by Holly Quan
It is important not to pull history out of a complete context, so I encourage my readers to explore the background of Treaty 6 and 7 and the Northwest Rebellion…but out of it, I want to pull a few words that touched me.
With the news of Louis Riel‘s actions and defeat at Batoche, Poundmaker went there to surrender. On the basis of a letter written by Louis Riel bearing his name, Poundmaker was convicted of treason in 1885 and sentenced to three years in Stony Mountain Penitentiary. He said to Riel “You did not catch me, I gave myself up. I wanted peace.”  At his trial, he is reported to have said:
“Everything that is bad has been laid against me this summer, there is nothing of it true. … Had I wanted war, I would not be here now. I should be on the prairie. You did not catch me. I gave myself up. You have got me because I wanted justice.”
Because of the power of his adopted father, Crowfoot, Poundmaker’s hair was not cut in prison, and he served only seven months. Nonetheless, his stay there devastated his health and led to his death (from a lung hemorrhage) in 1886, at the age of 44. He was buried at Blackfoot Crossing near Gleichen, Alberta, but his remains were exhumed in 1967, and reburied on the Poundmaker Reservation (Cut Knife), Saskatchewan.
^Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online (2000). “Poundmaker”. Retrieved January 8, 2007.
Chief Poundmaker’s older brother was Yellow Mud Blanket. He also had a young sister. Orphaned young, the three were adopted, likely by their mother’s Cree relations. Yellow Mud Blanket was the father to John Tootoosis and so the story goes. John’s son, John, founded and led the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians circa 1958. An excellent time line of events significant to the Cree Nation can be read here.
Continuing on the line, we find Gordon Tootoosis, Dylan’s Maternal Grandfather,who is known for his many roles in International film and for his strong presence in Canadian culture. Born in 1914, he just recently passed in 2011. From Wikipedia…
Gordon Tootoosis was a First Nations actor. He was of Cree and Stoney descent. Tootoosis was a descendant of Yellow Mud Blanket, brother of the famous Cree leader Pitikwahanapiwiyin. He was acclaimed for his commitment to preserving his culture and to telling his people’s stories. He served as a founding member of the board of directors of the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company. Tootoosis offered encouragement, support and training to aspiring Aboriginal actors. He served as a leading Cree activist both as a social worker and as a band chief. In Open Season and Boog and Elliot’s Midnight Bun Run, Tootoosis was the voice of Sheriff Gordy.
It was a blessing to have time outside of the Gorilla House, Wednesday night, speaking with Dylan and having him share, in part, his family story. I am honoured to have the chance to paint Dylan’s grandfather and his ancestor, the great Chief Poundmaker. May their family be richly blessed, with well-being and peace.
To conclude, some Lakota words that my cousin shared with me today. Because she is such a true and beautiful sister-friend, I must also share a photograph that she captured as she was driving in to work at Stand Off this morning. We ARE truly blessed.
Photo Credit: Margy Witbeck
Lakota Sioux Prayer
Aho, Mitakuye Oyasin…. All my relations. I honor you in this circle of life with me today. I am grateful for this opportunity to acknowledge you in this prayer….
To the Creator, for the ultimate gift of life, I thank you.
To the mineral nation that has built and maintained my bones and all foundations of life experience, I thank you.
To the plant nation that sustains my organs and body and gives me healing herbs for sickness, I thank you.
To the animal nation that feeds me from your own flesh and offers your loyal companionship in this walk of life, I thank you.
To the human nation that shares my path as a soul upon the sacred wheel of Earthly life, I thank you.
To the Spirit nation that guides me invisibly through the ups and downs of life and for carrying the torch of light through the Ages, I thank you.
To the Four Winds of Change and Growth, I thank you.
You are all my relations, my relatives, without whom I would not live. We are in the circle of life together, co-existing, co-dependent, co-creating our destiny. One, not more important than the other. One nation evolving from the other and yet each dependent upon the one above and the one below. All of us a part of the Great Mystery.
Thank you for this Life.
There’s just something about making the anonymous – known. There’s a lot to be said, also, for seeing the ‘special’ in the minute, seemingly-insignificant flotsam of life. Minutia is interesting to me…and I like the process of returning minutia to families who have long forgotten the connection they have with those particular objects. All of a sudden, the object has tremendous meaning and represents something more.
Recently, I’ve located Jordan Bearshirt. I began looking for Jordan in January of 2012, when I decided to put a new professional frame on his graphite drawing. I commissioned Jordan when he was my grade nine student at Holy Cross School. This was some thirty years ago. I had read a stack of books about the great chiefs of the plains…and couldn’t stop thinking about the life of Chief Crowfoot. My gaggle of Junior High art students were typical…but Jordan sat to the side at his art table…silent and absorbed…but, forever-drawing. He told me that to draw Crowfoot, he would have to work at home, so one day after school, he left my classroom with a large piece of white bond paper.
A few days later, he came into the art room with the meticulous drawing completed, but it was rolled and its edges, tattered. When he unrolled the piece, Crowfoot was impaled with a hole. I looked at Jordan and back down at the detailed drawing. “What happened, Jordan?”
“My young sister/brother (I forget this detail) poked it with a pencil.”
“Where were you working, Jordan?”
“On the carpet.”
So, there followed a chat with Jordan about quality and care. I talked to him about mark making/surface/edges/ and paper. When I think about the Gorilla House-experience, this actually brings a smile to my face…but, I’ll continue…and yes, I WILL eventually get back to the titled post, the subject being LIVE ART at the Gorilla House.
A few days later, I bought a piece of arches heavy weight paper…something I purchased at an art supply store and I drove over to Jordan’s house. As I passed the paper to Jordan, I asked him to work at a desk or table as this piece would be really really important to me. The piece that was completed was exceptional.
Chief Crowfoot by Jordan Bearshirt
Upon my return to Calgary end of July, I learned that Jordan passed away just two days before my beautiful mother, on May 29. It was three days after his 45th birthday. From the moment I learned of this news, I knew that I must return the treasured drawing to his family. This would be an object of great affection for them, as it has been for me all of these years. On September 4, I was contacted after what seemed an epic search, by Jordan’s father, J. Bernard Bearshirt. I need to express gratitude to Morley Redwood for assisting in my search. On September 5, I would have opportunity to meet Bernard and give Jordan’s gift to his father. I will write about that meeting another time…for now, the motivation for the painting I produced in two hours on Wednesday evening.
Somehow my work would be a testament to Jordan’s life. I decided to paint an unknown/little-known Blackfoot man. I found an archive of museum-grade studio photographs and chose a man with strong features and dark beautiful eyes, Kat-O-Capee of 1900. I printed off a quick reference at home, packed up my gear and off I headed for the Gorilla House.
I began by creating a fairly dramatic and monochrome background for the piece, using black and silver acrylic and allowing the paint to drip freely into the white gessoed surface of the bottom third. I spent the last hour watching the portrait emerge. I thank Rebecca and Dylan for bidding on the piece and thank Rebecca for purchasing the piece at auction.
Art/writing/music/dance/theater provide the human spirit a way of exploring the notion of and illusion of permanence. We learn, however, that the creation, itself, is ephemeral. The dance ends.
“It’s no great secret we’re built to attach to things. But at least part of the strength with which we form attachments is mediated by the mistaken belief that we’ll always have the things to which we’re attached just as they are, supported by the additional mistaken belief that our ability to keep them as they are is also within our control.”
The painting of Kat-O-Capee represents everything I am trying to say…about Jordan…about my mother…about the family bible and the letters left behind by students. Here was a man posing in a studio for a photographer in the day…a man pulled out from his familial environment, cultural practice, family, life’s work…to sit for a formal photograph. And here…over one hundred years later, an artist has explored that face again and caused a whole number of people to feel ‘something’ about that face. The painting can not last. But what is ‘forever’ about everything is the ‘fire’ of creation…that moment of awakening…the spirit of interaction and of crossed paths…the circle that connects us. God…Divine Creator…
I didn’t publish a post yesterday. I’ve been trying, interspersed with the organizing of our household, to create a reading list of my favourite writers under the heading, I Read This. It was while publishing a page about Hugh Dempsey’s writing this morning, that I thought of Jordan Bearshirt. I would love to meet him again.
After teaching in Medicine Hat for a couple of years, I managed to snapple a job teaching junior high art at Holy Cross Catholic School here in Calgary. It was during my first couple of years that I met Jordan Bearshirt in my grade nine art class. He had a profound sense of line and a meticulous way of rendering his world. He was a quiet boy and while so many other students were performing for attention, he was in a world of his own, using every moment of time in class to draw. After learning that his ancestors were Blackfoot, I asked him if he would do a drawing of the great Chief Crowfoot for me. I would provide him the best of papers and would pay him as a commission for his work. He set about the task at home and brought the first of two drawings back to me, with disappointment. After investing hours of labour, some damage had happened to the piece.
I asked Jordan if he had a desk to work on at home and he explained that “No, I am working on the floor”. As I recall, I had a feeling that I needed to bring this young man under my wing. He was such a meticulous artist and such a gentle spirit.
In the end, this is the beautiful piece that Jordan Bearshirt completed in graphite on arches paper. It has been a family treasure ever since. I hope and pray that this young man is well and that he continued with his art. You are in my heart, Jordan.