Editor’s note: For our first in a series of posts recognizing June as National Indigenous History Month, take a look at how the Provincial Archives of Alberta assisted a local artist with her newest project. The banner image above photographed by Erin Sekulich.
Written by: Erin Sekulich, Provincial Archives of Alberta
Artist Heather Shillinglaw is a bubbly woman who immediately makes you feel special. Her passion is evident in her work and it is exciting to see that some of the inspiration for her artistic pieces was taken from the Provincial Archives. Heather explains that Miyotamon Nananis – it is a good road in all directions – is the second project she has created that references archival records. Her inspiration is drawn from familial oral history, but the archival resources help fill the gaps in the story. She has gathered research from Library and Archives Canada, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives and the Provincial Archives of Alberta.
White bodies of water that she calls ‘ghosts in the land’ show the lakes and rivers that are no longer there, gone from the manipulation of the land due to colonization and manipulation of nature to fit human desires. When you look at it, you cannot help but feel nostalgic for something you never knew.
Heather explains that using elk hide as the foundational base for her pieces was a conscious choice. She knows the hide to be strong enough to support the story of Turtle Island that she is telling. As an animal that does not move across the land as it once did, with environments changing and being forced to change paths, it is an appropriate base of the piece representing the traditional movements of her ancestors and the changing world. For fun, Heather says a small animal charm is incorporated into each piece, and she encourages anyone to see if you can find them all.
Shillinglaw also worked through oral histories of her mother and her mother’s mother – going as far back as they could remember. One such story was that of her matrilineal ancestor, Mary Kawotte. Heather discovered through the archives that her legal name was Mary Pelltier, and she showed John Norris the way to travel by red river cart from Fort Gary to Fort Edmonton. This was the first time they had traveled that distance by waterlines. To find these paths and trails, Heather’s own journey led her to the Provincial Archives of Alberta to view maps of the aerial landscape and photos of trails throughout the years.
These oral histories, combined with archival records, formed the visual representation of the land through the years, showing its present form and that of its history. Red ribbon trails were the traditional paths walked by Indigenous people, now manicured and paved roadways or walking paths along the bodies of water. One piece has no red ribbon. Heather explains how this piece is about her own childhood memories of picking Saskatoon berries at Cooking Lake with her mother. Her mother coveted the spot for berry picking, thinking it to be all her own until a fellow picker came along one day and she realized it was not as secret as she once believed. However, to honour her mother, Heather refrained from putting in the red ribbon path to keep her mother’s berry picking spot a secret, at least from those who do not already know it is there.
Heather Shillinglaw’s exhibit “ᒥᔪᑕᒧᐣ ᓇᓇᓂᐢ miyotamon nananis – it is a good road in all directions” will be at the Alberta Craft Council (Edmonton location) until June 21, 2022, then it will be shown at the Centre of Contemporary Craft at the Mary Black Gallery in Halifax, Nova Scotia for Quilt Canada. It will then be returning to Alberta, with more pieces added, in late summer 2023 to the art gallery in St. Albert. Keep an eye on Heather’s website for more details.