Trauma as Monument
by Elwood Jimmy
I was very young when I heard about the death of Neil Stonechild, but I remember the story well and I remember how it unravelled for years after. I did not know Neil, but we were both from Treaty 6 territory. We were only a few years apart in age and living in urban centres, with roots in rural First Nations within the territory. There is no doubt in my core that we encountered the same systemic and structural barriers imposed upon Indigenous people that, with age, I have had the opportunity to name and frame. He did not have that opportunity.
Almost 30 years later, in March 2019, I read an article on the CBC website1 reporting the vandalism of Freeze: Stonechild Memorial (2019), a sculptural installation by Rebecca Belmore and Osvaldo Yero. The sculptural installation, made of ice, is in memory of Neil Stonechild. Accompanying the installation is a text:
last seen alive in police custody under the influence
found 5 days later frozen to death in a field
wearing one shoe
marks on his body likely caused by handcuffs
aboriginal teenage boy
dropped off and walking to where?
In memory of Neil Stonechild (1973–1990))
This was the fourth time Freeze had been mounted, but the first time being mounted in Saskatoon, where Stonechild lived and died. It was mounted outside the Remai Modern, an art museum situated on the banks of the Saskatchewan River. The Remai Modern was hosting Freeze as part of Facing the Monumental, a retrospective exhibition of the work of Belmore, curated by Wanda Nanibush and organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario. In the CBC article I read, scarce information was given on the vandalism of the work, apart from an assertion that “it’s believed the sculpture was pushed down and broken” and “out of respect to the family, the artists and the museum have decided to remove the work.”
I have never seen Freeze in person at any of the sites where it has been mounted. I have only seen images of it online and in print. I might never have the opportunity to see an iteration of it in person. In spite of not having experienced the work firsthand, there is a resonance with the complexity of intentions and its execution that I feel is compelling: Freeze gestures towards a humble honouring and remembering of a young Indigenous life lost through the violence of the colonial project. But is it enough when the work is situated in the city where many of the elements of this narrative remain unresolved? Does it have to be enough? After reading the original CBC article reporting on the vandalism of the installation, I listened to an audio statement on the CBC website2 from Jeff Crowe, the childhood best friend of Neil Stonechild. He expressed his disappointment in the work because the installation did not explicitly and legibly present Stonechild’s last name, and he interpreted this particular aspect of the work as “hiding the truth.” Within the same statement, he said that Belmore had reached out to him to talk about the work as well as to listen to his perspective.
While I do not agree that Belmore’s intention was to hide the truth, I can understand where the apprehension and suspicion comes from. Stonechild’s life was extinguished by the colonial continuum that drives this place we now call Canada. The narrow, pervasive colonial narrative that Canadians are indoctrinated into is not truthful. It is an exclusionary tale that upholds colonial entitlements and colonial habits of being. Nations and its people kill when those colonial entitlements and habits are interrupted. This place, like many other places around the world, was built upon the assimilation and genocide (or “cultural” genocide, as this country calls it because it cannot sit with its own truth) of Indigenous people. That Indigenous people still exist here is a living, breathing interruption of colonial entitlement. And that is still unacceptable to many Canadians. This plays itself out in a nation where the numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women is at an epidemic stage, and where there is no justice for the killing of young Indigenous people like Neil Stonechild and Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine—and countless others who do not capture national attention.
Indigenous people’s lives have value. Neil Stonechild’s life had value. By living, breathing and being, he intrinsically contributed to our world, to the water, to the land, to the sky, to a larger metabolism that we are all a part of and connected to. Almost 30 years after his death, his life, his spirit, his story will always have value. But within a colonial narrative, Indigenous people do not have value. How does one interrupt a historical and embedded colonial belief that Indigenous people are not people and are not valuable?
How do you address the trauma that we all hold—Indigenous and non-Indigenous—from the overarching narrative that underwrites all of our lives? This is not to say that all trauma is equal. It is not. All Indigenous people and Canadians hold trauma from this colonial narrative, but it has been unequally distributed, and the trauma is sourced from different parts of the narrative. But we have to address this trauma. We need to restore our connection with our own exiled capacities to sit with the trauma, and to let the wounds from this narrative heal and scar before we can move in a more generative calibration. Right now, the wounds are still open, and are far from healed, far from scarring. If we look at this within a linear frame, we are not even at zero yet. So, would a tangible, legible, physical monument gesture towards something more generative within this narrative in which we are all entangled? What is the role of the artist in holding space for generative relationship building? What is the role of the museum? Can a museum structure that very often replicates colonial habits and entitlements hold space for trauma and for difficult conversations, learning, unlearning in enlivened and embodied ways? It is hard to say. I think part of the answer is in the chain of events that happened in Saskatoon at the Remai Modern. There is something very intriguing and very revelatory in that story, about how even an ephemeral work needed to be interrupted.