Tamara Lee-Anne Cardinal: Mekinawewin, to give a gift
by Steph Wong Ken
I participated in Mekinawewin, to give a gift (2019) by Tamara Lee-Anne Cardinal during a sudden snowstorm. As thick flakes fell outside the window of Untitled Art Society, Cardinal welcomed me into the space. A timeline surrounded us on the walls, broken into three sections: “Dog Days,” “Horse Days” and “Days of Industry.” In the centre of the room, tables were arranged for paper-making, with plastic containers of pulp and water, wooden frames to form the paper and flat panels for drying. Dried pieces of blank paper, marked by the hands of participants, had been placed onto the timeline by Cardinal beneath broad headings that trace the history of Indigenous peoples in Canada. On the window, Cardinal had included translations of the word “giving” in Cree, Tsuut’ina, Blackfoot, Stoney Nakoda, Inuvialuktun and the Sallirmiutun dialect, some of which translate back into English as: “I’m giving you this” and “showing respect.” Cardinal walked me through the seemingly simple steps of making paper: stir the pulp until it mixes with the water; sieve the pulp and water through the wooden frames to form the paper; lay the paper on a flat surface to dry.
Cardinal’s show is many things at once: a workshop, a performance, a reclamation of Indigenous history and an offering to the public. Mekinawewin is a Cree word that embodies the practice of gifting a new skill to others and acknowledging the labour and time of its creation. Paper-making is tactile and accessible, easy to do by anyone who follows the steps. But paper also holds a deeper meaning as a representation of colonial authority, recalling the treaties signed between Indigenous peoples and settlers, as well as the long history of the erasure of Indigenous culture in the printed histories of the Western world. The pulp used by Cardinal and participants contains plant matter as well as scholarly documents about Canadian history Cardinal referenced to create the show, effectively remaking a historical text. Participants contribute one sheet to the timeline and take one sheet home with them – kiwetata, “to take it home,” and meki, “to give it away.”
By incorporating a physical timeline, Cardinal sets out to reframe historical knowledge about Indigenous life by creating space for events left out of Eurocentric history. She was inspired by a timeline she found in an underground bunker in Calgary that was meant to represent major Canadian historical events, but which excluded many Indigenous moments. The lack of dates on Cardinal’s timeline centres an Indigenous understanding of history, a shift from dog days to horse days to industrial times that does not reflect the hierarchical, Eurocentric understanding of time. Cardinal has also hand-written historical moments above each piece of handmade paper: “origin stories,” “Indian Act,” “small pox blankets,” “creation of bow and arrow,” “missing and murdered Indigenous women panel,” “anti-Chinese riots,” “Ku Klux Klan branches established in Canada.” These markers, representing important, and often traumatic events, exemplify how historical erasure has affected many marginalized communities in Canada. The cold, objective language of historical timelines here becomes intimate and alive, framed by paper made by the hands of others and by Cardinal as she extends the timeline during her three months in the gallery.
A hand-built wooden chest in the centre of the space prompts another opportunity for gift-giving: items deposited in the chest are donated to Inn from the Cold, which gives support and shelter to the homeless, and the Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge, which provides housing and guidance to incarcerated Indigenous women, respectively. Above the chest are two structures suspended from the ceiling, bundles of organic material used to make the paper, one containing garden materials, and the other, a mixture of red cedar and spruce stump lines acquired through a partnership with St. Mary’s University. Both bundles reinforce the importance of natural materials, ornamental and utilitarian.
As I stirred the pulp, I brought up the power of creating something by hand in my family, whether it be food or medicine, and Cardinal mentioned how much she’s learned about her culture from elders in the Indigenous community. We talk about the value of listening to their stories of the past to inform our present. By learning directly from them, Cardinal reclaims lost knowledge, informing her understanding of her culture in real time from the voices of those who lived it. She often finds herself talking to people as they pull paper, everyone from a group of Indigenous youths to curious passers-by who wander into the gallery. This openness is intentional. Rather than present artwork in a static way, only to be looked at, Cardinal invites participants into the meditative process of art-making, centring the role of the public in the work. In doing so, Cardinal moves away from the abstract and stresses the physical presence of history, writ large on the walls of the gallery and on pieces of paper. It’s a form of teaching that reflects life before contact and layers traditional practices with our current understanding, and misunderstanding, of Indigenous history.
“These are my tools for the revolution,” Cardinal tells me, pointing at the drying pieces of paper, stacked against the walls of the gallery. Though she may be half joking, her statement feels accurate. She will close the show at UAS with a final offering ceremony using tobacco, a sacred material in Indigenous culture. However, Cardinal’s project will likely go on for much longer, branching off into other forgotten moments on the timeline, a never-ending retelling. For the next iteration, she plans to use collage and visual representations of Indigenous history, including the handmade paper she has made with the public here, either as a background, an inspiration or, perhaps, as pulp once again.
With Mekinawewin, to give a gift, Cardinal continues her exploration of traditional Indigenous practices involving materials from the earth and creating room for reclamation through giving. And by implicating participants in her work, Cardinal provides a space for processing the trauma of history, exploring it as a tool, rather than a weapon.