By Seth DuChene
Over the course of several weeks last year, a number of NDSS students worked alongside Indigenous artists and knowledge keepers to create a series of murals honouring Indigenous tradition and culture. On Friday, they came together to celebrate that effort.
The murals — which depict Indigenous legends and history — are now installed on the walls of the school’s circular library. They’re the main (though not only) product of the school’s Encircling our Indigenous Culture project.
According to NDSS native studies teacher Karen Randall Blancher, the project began a few years ago when the school surveyed its Indigenous students to determine what they’d like to see in the school. One of the answers that came back was that they’d like to see a vlsual display “that recognizes the background of the Indigenous people within the school,” said Blancher.
From there, Blancher said that she consulted with students and other groups outside the school to determine the best way to achieve that goal. While she said students got involved with other projects involving Indigenous issues along the way, the concept of a mural project emerged.
“From there, I had to search for funding, because this was not an inexpensive venture,” she continued. “We first got funding from the Limestone Learning Foundation; we then got funding from the Limestone District School Board along with the Ministry of Education through different initiatives. The next funder was the Napanee Alumni Association, (with money raised during) their last event… Then, at the very end of the year, we got a large grant from the Napanee District Community Foundation, in association with Canada 150.”
Blancher enlisted the support of Indigenous artists Maureen Walton, Kirk Brant, Onagottay, Rick Revelle and others to assist with the project. “The students and artists worked side-by-side. They drew, the designed and they painted,” said Blancher.
She also said that, as the project went along, more and more students got involved. “Some (of the students) were in my class; some of them were Indigenous, some were non-Indigenous, and some were just learning that they were Indigenous. What we did was offer it to the school, because it can’t just be a small, segregated section… as students became more comfortable, they would bring somebody else in with them. We had a large group of students to be able to participate,” she said.
One of those artists, Brant, said he noted that initial reluctance, as well as how it eventually faded away. “Every school is different, and here the students were a little shy,” he said. “We wanted them to get working the mural; some of them did and had no problem with it, (but) it’s like they almost thought they were going to break it or something. They were a little shy about it. There was a little bit of hand-holding that went on, (letting them know) that they’re not going to hurt anything and they’re not going to do anything wrong. But, it’s always a great experience to interact with the students in that way. Painting is fun, and that’s the way it should be. It’s nice to get them doing that.”
Brant also said that given the work is both artistic and cultural in nature, it made for an intriguing dynamic. “Since it’s Indigenous art, there’s a practical part of it and of course a cultural part of it, and you can’t really separate the two. It’s an interesting experience that way. I kind of like the fact that it’s practical and cultural at the same time,” he said.
He notes that these students were getting an opportunity that he didn’t really have as a student, where he grew up in a predominantly non-Indigenous setting. “It was extremely difficult for me in a lot of different ways. But even at a young age, I was an artist and I knew I was going to be doing this full time. There was no Indigenous art around me. I had to find it on my own, and I became sort of self-educated that way. Today, I’m doing a lot of these types of things, murals in school and teaching art in school, and I wish I had that (growing up),” he said.
“For me, looking back, I’m able to give something to the younger generation that I wish I had. It’s inextricably part of my journey that I would have to give back,” Brant continued.
He says he’s impressed with the finished product, too. “It looks spectacular — I’m blown away by the scale of it,” he said.
Blancher says there are still some elements of the project yet to be completed, including plaques to accompany the murals to acknowledge the artists and the students as well as a new plaque to be set in a rock in the school’s front garden. That marker will be designed by Brant. She says that the murals will be on display for the public during Culture Days in Napanee on Sept. 30. Students from The Prince Charles School will be invited to view and learn about the murals in the future as well.
“Hopefully we continue to have students come in and learn and recognize and appreciate in this pathway for reconciliation,” she said.