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  • Re- Framing, De-Framing, and Shattering the FramesIndigenous Writers and Artists on Representing Residential School Narratives
  • Sophie McCall (bio)

During a panel session titled "Best Practices in Indigenous Publishing" in 2017, the late Cree author Gregory Younging1 talked about the tension between what he calls the "Extraction and reclamation of Indigenous cultural expressions."2 He argues that much of the history and practice of publishing Indigenous literatures in Canada has been about extraction. In referring to extraction he is invoking not only the appropriation of Indigenous stories, but also the mining of resources from the land and the taking of children from their families and communities (Taylor, Gathering 24).3 Younging goes on to describe how Indigenous writers are now turning toward "reclamation," taking back what's been taken, and asserting belonging on Indigenous people's own terms. In this era of Indigenous resurgence,4 characterized in part by Survivor5-led acts of breaking generations of silences around Residential Schools and rejecting federally-imposed models of recognition, there is a tremendous momentum for reclaiming stories, knowledges, lifeways, languages, and cultural forms of expression.

An extraordinary example of the tension between extraction and reclamation that Younging names is The Witness Blanket (2012–2014) by Kwakwaka'wakw Master Carver and installation artist Carey Newman (Hayalthkin'geme). Newman—whose father Victor, great-great grandfather Charlie James, and great aunt Ellen Neel are all renowned wood carvers—is also an intergenerational Survivor of residential schools. Over the course of twelve months, Newman hired three people—Rosy Hartman, Jamie Elizabeth Lewis, and Marek Tyler6—to travel 204,762 kilometers to sites of former residential schools, the vast majority of which are falling down, have burned down, have been demolished, or in some cases have been transformed to serve another [End Page 1] purpose.7 At these sites, as well as at churches, government buildings, and cultural structures,8 the team gathered 887 objects that Newman calls "pieces of history." Newman embedded into large cedar frame each of these pieces of history—including an old door, stained glass, a child's shoe, a hockey skate, a doorknob, a brick, his sisters' braids of hair, a photograph of a child, a letter from parents asking that their children come home—Newman embedded into large cedar frame. On the accompanying website, each belonging is attributed to its donor, and many are accompanied by short personal statements or testimonies. One of the most important pieces is a door reclaimed from St. Michael's Residential School in Alert Bay, BC. This building was demolished in February 2015 after a ceremony hosted by the 'Namgis First Nation and attended by former students (Hyslop). The door itself frames many individual belongings. It remains open to let visitors walk through to the other side. In his documentary film (codirected by Cody Graham), Picking Up the Pieces: The Making of the Witness Blanket (2018), Newman tells the story of his father's first visit back to the residential school that he had attended as a young boy. As if walking through a door, Victor establishes a new relationship with the place. Carey states, "For most of his life my father locked his childhood away in darkness. But visiting what remains of St. Mary's Residential School [in Mission, BC] he walked amongst memories, reclaiming the space" (Graham and Newman, dirs.).

This paper examines how Indigenous writers and artists have approached the representation of residential school history and the ethical challenges this works poses to settler scholars addressing this subject. The Witness Blanket is a visual manifestation of a larger movement or impulse in artistic and cultural work by Survivors and intergenerational Survivors: the intensity of a desire to re-frame, deframe, or shatter the frames of residential school narratives. The strategies of re-and de-framing fulfill many purposes, including to challenge the forces of erasure, appropriation, and extraction; to assert the forces of reclamation; to proclaim sovereignty over stories; and to imagine testimony outside of the framework of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). Writers and artists shift the frame to make stories more legible—or in some cases to deliberately foreground silence and what is not...


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