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Hills Never Lie

Hills Never Lie (2009)
27 x 45″
Lenticular Animation
Mendel Art Gallery solo exhibition: Transposing Perspectives
Collection of Remai Art Gallery

This work was initially inspired by an archival image labelled Graveyard at Fort Qu’Appelle; it depicted an “unidentified Cree man” standing amongst traditional grave houses in the graveyard in Fort Qu’Appelle, a place that saw its first burial in 1614. The photograph was taken in 1885 by O.B. Buell and was published by Edward Cavell in 1984 in a book entitled Sometimes a Great Nation: A Photo Album of Canada, 1850-1925.

When I first saw the photograph I was struck by the power of image, with its depiction of large, ominous clouds and a cool breeze cutting through the man’s blanket and hair. There was also something strangely familiar, which I couldn’t pinpoint, until I realized I had been there before, that this was near where I was born and lived for a period, on the Lebret Métis farm beside Fort Qu’appelle. I had visited this graveyard on a few occasions, next to the Sacred Heart Church. Another familiar sight in this image was the “unidentified Cree man” who bears a striking resemblance to Chief Big Bear (1825–1888). If this is Big Bear, it is quite possible that the photograph was taken just before the Frog Lake Resistance on April 2, 1885, or within Big Bear’s last months of freedom before he surrendered on July 2, 1885, though judging by the apparent coldness and dry, naked trees, the photograph would have been taken in early spring.

The old mortuary practice of building grave houses for the deceased was both practical and spiritual: they kept wild animals and livestock from digging up or trampling graves, and they were also symbolic final resting homes for the deceased. Grave houses were influenced by many peoples, from the English to the Ojibwa, the latter who placed low, rectangular, gabled houses over gravesites. The Wet’suwet’en from Hazelton, and groups around Prince Rupert built grave houses on stilts.

I set out to Fort Qu’Appelle to find the exact spot upon which Big Bear was standing, and after many trips found the mountain range in the background of his photograph. The photograph shows that the grave houses surrounding him are different from the others in the graveyard – they are less elaborate, assembled with older planks of wood, some with dots on them; the dots could very well have been an indication of death by smallpox. The first smallpox epidemic in Saskatchewan was between 1781 and 1782, and in 1881, the Fort Qu’Appelle area had an outbreak of smallpox in which many Aboriginals died. Indeed, Big Bear himself was a survivor of smallpox, which is why he had the scars on his face. Today, stone monuments have replaced all of the grave houses except the ones that surrounded Big Bear in the photograph. I suspected that these may have been Aboriginal graves, as several Métis were buried there.

The irony of this image is the relationship of smallpox to the Hudson’s Bay Company, which had a long history in the Fort Qu’Appelle area. The Hudson’s Bay Company, which is the oldest commercial corporation in North America, started up in Canada in 1670. Fort Qu’Appelle eventually became a central area for trading; even today in Lebret, a Hudson’s Bay Company store from 1897 remains as a designated heritage building. Aboriginal oral accounts tell us that the Hudson’s Bay blankets given to chiefs by government officials to bribe them into treaty signing were infected with the smallpox virus, in acts of purposeful germ warfare. Journalist Stephen Hume of the Globe and Mail reported that historical records show indisputable evidence that these oral accounts are true. By the orders of Lord Jeffrey Amherst of the British Army in 1763, infected smallpox blankets were sent to First Nations settlements in order to bring about “the total extirpation of those Indian Nations.” Hume wrote:

For those who want to go to primary sources, there are the letters from Lord Jeffrey Amherst, commanding general of the British armies in North America during the final stages of what my school texts called the French and Indian Wars. Amherst was attempting to pacify and drive off six tribes just south of the Great Lakes that were resisting incursions into their territory by settlers after assurances to the contrary.

So immense were the casualties from ethnic cleansing through germ warfare, it is difficult to know how many First Nations were eradicated in the second smallpox epidemic, though it is suggested by Hume that approximately half of the West Coast nations perished. Together, from smallpox, measles, and the plague, it is estimated that over a 300-year span 200,000 to 300,000 First Nations people died in Canada.

They say, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ In Hills Never Lie – Lebret Graveyard, the juxtaposition of images reveals the change that has happened on the landscape, including the missing graves. It also shows an important leader at a significant moment in Canadian history. It is probably the last photograph of Mistahimaskwa as a free man, before he was imprisoned in July 1885. My self-portrait, taken 125 years later on the exact spot where Big Bear stood, honours Mistahimaskwa’s legacy and points to the perseverance of today’s First Nations, who survived small pox, residential schools, and dependency on the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Bay blanket, in which I am wrapped, symbolically ties the past to the present and brings full circle my own personal history of the hills that I once played on as a child. While archival descriptions may at times be absent of accurate details, the hills still hold the truth of this particular place and time.