Ancestors Rising (2006)
18’ circumference. Horns H: 6’
Bronze and rocks
Commission McKenzie Art Gallery
Outdoor sculpture for the Mackenzie Art gallery, Regina, Saskatchewan. Unveiling: June 21st, 2006
Description of Work:
The sculptural work, Ancestors Rising, speaks to the shared history of the Wascana Park area with the Indigenous people and the bison. Indigenous people have lived in this territory for approximately 27,000 to 11,200 years ago, depending on whose theory you read. Since the beginning of human existence in Canada, Indigenous people have always co-existed with the bison. Their ancestors, the Paleo-Indians, hunted mammoths and giant bison, and then in later years survived off of the bison we know today. The bison not only contributed to the survival of the people, their hides, bones, horns and hooves contributed to many aspects of cultural production such ceremonial items like headdresses and Sundance items to utilitarian items such as clothing, blankets, implements and tipis to historical and personalized narrative drawings.
This history is central to the site of Wascana Park. The term, ‘Wascana’ is a variation of a Cree word translating to, “pile of bones” which refers to the piles of bison bones that were placed by Indigenous people in the Wascana river area. It was their belief that the bison would return to the bones of their dead ancestors.
When Colonel Palliser arrived in 1857, he named the settlement Pile-o-Bone. Shortly there after, new piles of bison bones were made by the settlement of colonists, but for a different purpose. At this time, colonization brought the bison to near extinction on the plains for the purposes of export industries and colonial government take over. Massive piles of bison bones were sold for fertilizer and chinaware, colonial sport safaris killed off large numbers via trains, and the United States government policy encouraged the death of all bison in order to starve Indigenous people, whom they viewed as a hindrance to their colonial expansion. Archival photographs reveal early settlers posing beside massive pile of bones ready for manufacturing and export. This new bison industry of bison bones combined with sport hunting of bison when the national rail way went through, eventually culminated in the extermination of wild bison from the prairie landscape. This extermination marked a significant change of life for Plains Indigenous people and ceased a long history of cultural production associated with the bison.
Today, ‘pile of bones’ has a different meaning to the people of Regina, it marks the annual celebration of colonial settlement. This celebration recreates early settlement days through historical costumes and entertainment. I hope that one day, ‘Pile of Bones Day’ will reflect more of the Indigenous history and honour the ancestor’s bones that reside beneath the soil.
The work, Ancestors Rising, is a symbolic metaphor for Indigenous people and the bison that once lived on this land. The human scale bison horns are the metaphor for the First Nation ancestors and bison, whose bones lay beneath the soil and are rising from the earth as a reminder to their presence. The bison horn was a powerful symbol for Plains Indigenous people, its symbology referenced respect, strength and courage. In the old days bison horns could be seen on prestigious head regalia that symbolized the wearer’s status, of a respected leader.
The four horns stand in a circle, each in the position of the exact direction of north, south, east and west, referencing Indigenous philosophy of balance of all life. From each of the tips of the horns flows a braided rope, which all meet in the center of the circle to suspend, and cradle a net of rocks, that hovers just above the ground. These braided ropes of copper patina, refers to the ancestor’s power as conduits of energy that combine their energies to help heal the people.
The stones in the net reference a long history of the use of stones in Plains culture. The permanence of stones traced the history and cultural practices, and documented important places, events, commemorations and memorials. The stone was used for its practical physical properties and for its spiritual and metaphysical properties. The dense, physical properties of the stone served well for utilitarian purposes such tipi rings, fire pits, burial sites, and caches, and in items used for tools and warfare. The metaphysical properties of the stone served as a medium of communication to the spiritual realm, which could be seen in the remnants of medicine wheels, pictographs, petroglyphs, petroforms, sacred boulders, amulets and carved figures and pipes.
In conclusion, the sculpture, Ancestors Rising serves as an urban historical marker that memorializes the Indigenous people and bison that lived off of this very land, only two hundred years ago. I ask the audience to bear witness to this history, to acknowledge it and give this place and its spirits, the respect and commemoration it deserves.
Funding for the sculpture commission includes the Celebrating Community Centennial Grant Program, which is administered by the Community Initiatives and Canada Council for the Arts Acquisition Assistance Program and Mary Longman who donated finances towards the completion of project.
I would like to thank Pyramid Bronze in Kelowna for their many hours of work and technical expertise that led to the realization of the artistic vision of the sculpture.