A Feast for the Stewards of the Land: Contemporary Art and Netukulimk on Unama’ki
by Amish Morrell
This past summer’s LandMarks2017/Repères2017, a nation-wide public art program held in 20 national parks and historic sites across Canada as part of reflections on Canada 150, provides a rare opportunity to think about how contemporary art might engage with rural communities and wild places. Including projects by 12 artists, along with corresponding curricula at 16 universities across the country, LandMarks2017/Repères2017 sought to engage a broad public in exploring the meaning and use of Canada’s national parks and historic sites. While we might rely upon an image of these sites as wild places, separate from human activity, and often perceive their surrounding communities as being untouched by the contemporary, this is often far from the case. The creation of the parks system, and the concept of wilderness itself, as Kwantlen writer Robert Jago recently described in an article called “Take Back the Parks,” has involved the appropriation of lands from the Indigenous people who have long occupied these places, as well as the destruction of their livelihoods.1 While this is slowly changing, for a long time the parks system enforced a separation from the land for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, obscuring their own place within systems of survival and sustenance.
This past June, I travelled to Unama’ki, “the land of fog,” otherwise known as Cape Breton Island, to attend Festival of Stewards in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Festival of Stewards was the culminating performance of al-location, a multi-faceted project by artist Ursula Johnson. al-location was a process that began during a Banff residency when Johnson created a foliage pattern textile representing the present-day ecologies of the Highlands. She then used this pattern to structure a series of conversations with sixth-, seventh- and eighth- grade students from Cabot Junior-Senior High School in Neil’s Harbour, who live in the communities near the park. The students, many of them from Acadian and Scottish families whose ancestors had settled there following the expulsion of the Acadians during the 18th century and the Highland clearances of Scotland in the 19th century, discussed their connection to the land of northern Cape Breton. From these conversations, the textile was adapted into a series of costume accessories – capes, masks, bandannas and jumpsuits – transforming the students and others who wore them into superhero-like stewards of the Highlands. They came up with a list of local collaborators who told the stories of this place, and worked with students and faculty from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, artists and musicians from nearby communities, and employees of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park to create Festival of Stewards.
Festival of Stewards was held over the span of an afternoon at MacIntosh Brook Campground, a picnic area and self-service tent site on the northern edge of the park, where the nearest grocery store and gas station is an hour-long drive away. Aside from park visitors, the only people on this part of the Island are those who live in nearby Pleasant Bay, a tiny settlement with a population of 250, consisting mostly of lobster and crab fishers, Buddhist monks who live at the abbey there, and a few others who sustain themselves through subsistence farming, hunting or running one of the few seasonal businesses in town. This provides a challenging context for the presentation and reception of contemporary art, where there are no art organizations and any potential audience is unlikely to be familiar with its language and conventions. It does, however, offer a rich and complex site for thinking about what a critical practice might look like in relation to the systems and practices of survival that shape the reality and imagination of those who live in such places. I’m from a remote rural community on the other side of the Highlands, so I am somewhat familiar with the landscape and cultural histories that Johnson engaged through this project.
In al-location Johnson set out to explore the Mi’kmaq philosophy of Netukulimk,2 a concept that has also informed her past work in sculpture and performance. Explained in the most basic terms, Netukulimk describes the practice of maintaining sustainable relationships to the land, taking only as much as one needs for one’s family and community. But it also encapsulates a worldview, with both sacred and practical forms of knowledge that are embedded in the land, including rules and obligations that ensure the continued regeneration of life. In her project Mi’kwite’tmn (Do You Remember) (2014-ongoing), Johnson learned how to make baskets from her late great-grandmother, renowned basketmaker Caroline Gould. Eschewing the conventional presentation of baskets as artifacts or as collector’s items, and often making baskets that are strange and mutant in their appearance and function, she seeks to understand the essence of the Mi’kmaq basket and how Netukulimk operates through basket making.3 To simply make a basket, even a perfect basket, is not enough. Netukulimk involves a knowledge of the land: where to find the ash trees needed for the basket, when and how to harvest the wood, and how to do this in a sustainable and respectful manner.4 In this example, the basket is an animate object, a body of lived knowledge, inseparable from the ecological and cultural context within which it is made and used.5 In relation to the moose, which has provided food, shelter, clothing, tools, medicine and games for the Mi’kmaq for more than 12,000 years, practising Netukulimk doesn’t merely include sustainable hunting, but re-learning its spiritual and practical significance.6 As a way of exploring these ideas in relation to the Cape Breton Highlands National Park and the varied communities that live on Unama’ki, Johnson planned a feast where guests would reflect on their relation to the land and together eat moose meat that had been harvested in the Highlands.
The day that Festival of Stewards was held was cool and overcast, with light fog and intermittent rain falling in the narrow valley just outside of Pleasant Bay. A crew of volunteers began the day by looking for a place protected from the rain to set up a massive stainless-steel barbecue grill called the Meat/Meet Swing, built by a nearby blacksmith, which looked like one of the jury-rigged stands used to hoist an engine block out of a car or to hang a deer. The grill, which also functioned as a porch swing, required three iron fireboxes and a truckload of firewood. The team of volunteers, consisting mostly of NSCAD students and a few of the artist’s friends, built the fire early to heat up the fireboxes and to dry out the wood. At one point, the fire burned through a base hastily built out of firewood to elevate one of the fireboxes. Wielding a deadfall log, Johnson levered four boulders from the brook, pushed the burning hardwood logs out from under the dangerously hot furnace box and made a new fireproof platform.
As the fire grew hotter, the cloud cover lifted and then set in again, the rain stopped and then started again, as it did throughout the day, and people gathered under a tent to listen to performances by local musicians. They listened to Maxim Cormier, an Acadian-Métis guitarist and songwriter; Jason Roach, a pianist (like Cormier, also from nearby Cheticamp); and Chrissy Crowley, a fiddle player from Margaree. Adrianne Chapman-Gorey and Mike Gorey, Celtic-folk musicians from Ingonish, also performed and Rebecca-Lynne MacDonald-May and Geoffrey May from Margaree Harbour sung Gaelic songs. At the end of the day, Johnson’s 11-year-old niece, Jenessa Paul, gave her debut performance, singing a version of Lukas Graham’s pop hit “7 Years.” As people moved back and forth between the dry cover of the tent and the warming heat of the fire, caterers from Salty Rose’s and the Periwinkle Café in Ingonish served beans and fishcakes, and Parks Canada interpreters led people on walks into the woods to see some of the tiny creatures and plants that live along MacIntosh Brook. At one point in the afternoon, I walked up the brook to a series of waterfalls. Kids were gleefully marching down the stream, knee-deep in the water, and below the falls, people were enjoying the view and playing Waltes, a Mi’kmaq board game that traditionally includes dice made from moose bones. We hung out, we warmed ourselves by the fire, we ate and talked. I spoke to people I hadn’t seen in years– who lived in far-flung communities from Port Hood to Bay St. Lawrence – and met new people, including Ursula’s cousin and Jenessa’s mother, who was 37 weeks pregnant and who had come all the way from the other side of the Island. In the woods along the brook, I found piles of stones from when MacIntosh Farm was cleared, and other signs of its earlier inhabitants. The day was full of catching up, eating, listening, sharing information and telling stories, connecting the many different lives that came together in this misty valley below North Mountain.
The development of Festival of Stewards also included working with other artists from the Highlands to explore their connection to the land. Among them, Angie Arsenault, an artist whose family is from Ingonish, created a commemorative garden installation called Haunting the Valley, referencing her Acadian and Mi’kmaq ancestors who lived in the Clyburn Valley. Near Ingonish, on the eastern side of the National Park, the Clyburn Valley was where Acadians also settled and lived alongside the Mi’kmaq for hundreds of years.7 Arsenault’s grandparents were the last of her family to live in the Clyburn Valley, where they grew vegetables after World War I to sell to supermarkets in Sydney, until their land was expropriated in 1937 in order to create a golf course for the National Park. (Traces of their farm, including an apple tree, can still be found in the woods near the 11th hole.) With her aunt Carol MacLean, who is a gardener at the inn adjacent to the golf course, Arsenault planted a garden made up of the plants her great-grandparents grew – turnips, cabbage, cauliflower, summer savory, parsley and rhubarb.8 Describing this project during her remarks at Festival of Stewards, Johnson contrasted what she referred to as “intangible cultural heritage” and the “permanence and solidity of the land,” where land and memory are both powerful, entwined forces that exist in ongoing dialogue across time on Unama’ki. Through Haunting the Valley, Arsenault conjures the spirits of her ancestors from the Clyburn Valley to help us consider our relationship to the land.
Throughout Festival of Stewards, Johnson’s role was that of host and organizer, introducing the performers, stoking the fire, cajoling and managing the team of volunteers and students. She was a facilitator of what she calls a “co-operative didactic intervention” involving dozens of people from many different communities across the island. While Festival of Stewards had the character of many other community events, with music, food and a raffle (where someone won a bicycle), the culminating feast brought the concept of Netukulimk into sharp focus. At the end of the day, Johnson and her volunteers brought out approximately 1,000 pieces of moose meat, and grilled them on the Meat/Meet Swing. Around the raging fire, guests ate the dark, tender meat, which was full of the rich, complex taste of the Highlands: the young birch and alder shoots, the lake grasses, the spruce and balsam and the clear spring snowmelt. Amidst the conviviality of the event, it was a transgressive gesture that stood the risk of re-igniting volatile exchanges between Mi’kmaq hunters, settler communities and provincial and federal institutions such as the Department of Natural Resources and Parks Canada. These are among the continued obstacles that come into play around the practice of Netukulimk.
There is a long history of conflict between settler and Indigenous hunters around hunting rights. More recently, in the fall of 2015, Parks Canada initiated a controlled hunt, working with Mi’kmaq hunters to reduce the number of moose in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The hunt drew the attention of people who took issue with hunting in National Parks, as well as non-Indigenous hunters from the area who felt they were being unfairly excluded from the hunt. The controversy regarding the moose hunt has not been because moose are endangered, but rather the opposite. After being hunted to near-extinction by the early 20th century, moose were reintroduced in the Park during the 1940s. Protected from hunting over the intervening 75 years, they thrived, radically transformed the landscape and turning vast sections of the boreal forest into grassland. In November 2015, in response to the planned hunt, protestors formed a blockade at the base of North Mountain, and confrontations ensued between white and Mi’kmaq hunters. There were death threats and a temporary shelter erected by a protestor was burned to the ground.9 Two weeks later, Mi’kmaq hunters camped at the top of North Mountain, and with the assistance of Parks Canada, harvested 37 moose.10 The following year, in November and December 2016, they harvested 50 moose, and a third harvest occurred in the fall of 2017.
The moose meat that was served at Festival of Stewards came from the fall 2016 harvest in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, seven kilometres away on the top of North Mountain. It had been provided by the Kwilmu’kw Maw-klusuaqn Negotiation Office (KMKNO), an organization that works to ensure the equitable division of resources between Mi’kmaq and non-Mi’kmaq peoples, which had helped supervise the hunt and distribute the meat. For the Mi’kmaq, the right to hunt and fish for sustenance is legally protected – at least in theory. However, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Department of Natural Resources, and non-Mi’kmaq hunters police this right aggressively. And for non-Mi’kmaq hunters, there are severe consequences for possessing moose meat without a permit or a license. Consequently, fish and game rights are among the most politically volatile issues in rural Nova Scotia. The promotion for Festival of Stewards on the Parks Canada and LandMarks2017/Repères2017 websites advertised “a celebratory feast,” avoiding any potential allusion to these tensions and to the recent controversy around the moose cull. While these controversies and barriers are part of the context that Festival of Stewards engages, the event was more about bringing people together to share the knowledge, practices and memory that constitutes their present and historical relationships to Unama’ki. Around a feast, where everyone ate moose meat that had been har- vested a short distance from where they were gathered, using Mi’kmaq wildlife management techniques, guests were invited to see themselves in relation to a practice of Netukulimk.
Both Festival of Stewards and (re)al-location explored these ideas through a complex – and at times, transgressive – social choreography. Though it was not explicit in the publicity for Festival of Stewards, Johnson’s project engaged two difficult and contentious events centred around the Cape Breton Highlands National Park: the moose culls held in 2015 and 2016 and the expropriation of lands for the creation of the park in 1936.11 Through the public practice of Netukulimk, and through acts of collective commemoration al-location foregrounded the spiritual and practical relationship people have to the land on Unama’ki. While addressing federal and provincial institutional structures that determine wildlife management and how we imagine and interact with wild spaces, (re) al-location served to recuperate the invisible structures that shape our relationship to the land: stories, practices of survival, the land itself and its memories. These stories and practices are not separate from contemporary life, but map a different “contemporary” – one that extends across time and memory, grounded in histories, places and forms of knowledge that survive at the peripheries of a global, neoliberal world order. al-location thus intervened within the very definitions of contemporary art, working with a vocabulary that is specific to Unama’ki and the northern Highlands, that arises from histories of survival and Mi’kmaq philosophy. It was there, beside MacIntosh Brook, in the land of fog, that about 300 people came together on a rainy June afternoon to eat food that came from the surrounding mountains and valleys, and to reflect on their relationship and responsibility towards the land. And these are some of the memories, stories and ideas that brought them together.