Câhcacêp Art & Tea House: A Conversation with Jerry Saddleback and Jo-Ann Saddleback
by Dawn Saunders Dahl
Câhcacêp: a Cree word that means a little bit of everything. When elders speak with us, even when telling specific stories, it is also about everything. In this conversation, Jerry Saddleback and Jo-Ann Saddleback tell us about Câhcacêp Art & Tea House, the space they recently opened in Edmonton wherein they host exhibitions, bow-making workshops, Cree language classes, and more. Here, they generously share their thinking about how to cultivate gathering spaces that are meaningful, educational, self-determined, and grounding for a wide variety of participants, focusing on the activities in and around this new space that’s been in the making for several decades. The Saddlebacks elegantly illuminate the importance of intentionality in all aspects of life, including artistic practice, and how the pandemic generatively reframes, renews, and refreshes intent in many different contexts.
Dawn Saunders Dahl: I thought we could start off by you telling me a little bit about the tea house.
Jo-Ann Saddleback: We opened up last August but, in our hearts, for the last 25–30 years, we thought that we would like to do something like this. It’s not exactly as we planned but what we had wanted to do is to fulfill ourselves—both my husband and I are artists—and to be able to promote, help, establish, and give other artists a [space] to show their art. So, we have a space big enough and beautiful enough that we’re able to exhibit other people’s art as well as have workshops in the space to work on our own.
The whole idea of the tea house is that you just don’t stop by. It’s about Indigenous approaches of: you come and eat, you come and drink tea, you come and visit. You come to get to know us and the artists that we exhibit here and who make some of the crafts that we also sell here, and to help bring a community together. Before COVID, I’d often have other artists say, “Can I come and work in your workshop with you?” Of course! Of course you can. We wanted to… help give other artisans and artists a space to work. Câhcacêp itself is a sacred word that means a little bit of everything—so, that was the idea in our hearts and in our minds when we fulfilled this rather lifelong dream.
Jerry Saddleback: Yeah, [we try to] highlight all of the different things that exist out there. It makes me think about the four main types of bow-making within [our] culture. Back in the day, prior to contact, they all had to be Buffalo killers. All the science and physics that go into [a] bow made it the hunting weapon it that was; there’s a very specific reasoning [for] its form, and why it’s so fast. To make a long story short, the four types are kind of like your high school degree, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and doctoral degree. And that’s kind of how we’re trying to do it with [Câhcacêp]— we’re trying to give people a little taste of everything.
JAS: It’s not just about visual arts; we wanted to be able to enhance the community’s knowledge. We saw all of these knowledge-keepers as artists, as fantastic orators, [and wanted them] to be able to do that [at] Câhcacêp.
JS: Our long story, or History of Creation Story, is in four versions: an intro version, general version, recited version, and ceremonial version. The intro version was four days, four nights long, and the ceremonial version was four months long. Câhcacêp is what they call the intro version—the highlights of that whole entire history of creation story. Anytime Treaty 6 reservation schools come in, they really want information like that. So that’s when we would provide a Câhcacêp —not really the four-day, four-night version, what with their time allotments, but an intro to the intro version. An extremely, even further, highlighted version, so that at least they’ll be able to have something that they can stand on: a stable thing, a foundational base that would hold them together as far as their history.
JAS: So, we try to just make it all around. Before COVID hit, [Jerry] was teaching Cree language classes here and drumming, too.
JS: There’s multiple levels. We do a kind of intro Cree; it’s how we communicated for centuries and since time immemorial, just one- or two-syllable words, kind of like really basic communication skills. And then we have regular conversation, and high or holy Cree—the sacred Cree.
DSD: I think it’s absolutely crucial that spaces like this survive, because you’re about educating the community as well as supporting your artists. You’re affecting people, and [promoting] a greater understanding about our history, so thank you. Considering all this connective work, I’m wondering how you’ve been adapting how you gather over the last few months?
JS: I was in sessions with the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations; they set up some elder-only telephone sessions related to COVID-19. They had me [tell] stories I know from the different pandemics from the past, like the infested blankets pandemics, and in pre-contact circular encampments. What happened? What did people do that time? That kind of thing. When the infested blanket came in as a present… they were caught off guard. Some of them died the same night. It was so fast and so rampant that as soon as they found out there was something wrong with their bedding, they did what they needed to do to start alleviating the stuff that otherwise would have just totally wiped them out… Talk about resilience! As soon as they detected [it], they had things in place—preventative things, and medicinal healing things that were already available that they were able to spontaneously administer, to hit that thing right there on the spot. Therefore, they were able to stop a lot of that.
Now, I know with the changes [brought on as a result of] the colonized society over several generations, a lot of our people converted into that colonized way of thinking. Some of the older elders that I knew said that most of [their] people had been really subjected to colonization to a point where they almost lost everything within their culture, and those are the ones that were the most vulnerable to disease, ’cause they weren’t ready. Whole households full of people got wiped out. In fact, they say that some of the chiefs called, for the very first time in history, for mass cremations; they were forced to. That’s the kind of stories these elders were talking about. And distinctively spelling out who made it and what they were using, what they were doing, and what the ones that didn’t make it were using and doing. They were trying to give us teachings like that.
JAS: When HIV/AIDS hit the world, our Old People said that it was the first of 10 new diseases coming to us. They called HIV a shape-shifter because of the way it worked in our bodies, and they called AIDS the great teacher. They said: it’s here to teach us how to respect ourselves and how to respect each other, because it comes into where people are most vulnerable, and that’s the intimacy that they share with one another. They said: if we don’t learn from this disease, then when those nine other diseases [come], they’ll have no compassion for humankind. With COVID comes the hardest lesson that we could possibly learn: that we have to earn the right again to gather. And when I see people carelessly gathering, with no respect for this disease and what it can do to us, then I think that we haven’t learned. But for those people who respect the disease, it’s teaching us how to respect that space between us. We have to learn again: how is it we gather?
Our ability to continue that flow of art to the community is what we’re figuring out with all of these [online platforms], to keep that human relationship going. [But] we can’t keep going if we do not keep that physical contact with one another; we can’t all just live on the computer. So, when we’re in each other’s space, [we need] to really think about our immune systems, and respect them. We have deities that are specific to the immune system. How do we recognize them again in our space? How do we talk to them again and ask for their help? We can’t stop our ceremonies— the very things we go to for health, for help. So, make that circle, yes, but respect that virus, and the space between us, and recognize what lives between us. As Indigenous people, [we believe that] when there is a crisis, there’s either great danger or great opportunity, and I think we have a great opportunity to really pay attention to the space that we’re occupying, especially the space between us. Like our Old People say, there are a million deities that we can’t even see between you and me.
JS: With that one art class that I’ve been running, we tell [the students] certain Cree words for the types of media that they’re using. When we say things in the Cree language and interpret [them], translate [them], we do a little etymological breakdown afterwards to [figure out] why that was the closest translation. And they get a lot out of that—it hits home in a certain way—because of how we [are] one with the Earth, with everything. And [as a result], even though they use innovative new concepts of creativity and interpretation, they still have a certain kind of a foundational base. And that’s [important] to be able to articulate to whoever in the future, as they get into that more professional field. It gives a well-rounded educational approach to their specialization.
DSD: I think that’s interesting—that people are diving deeper into their cultures, and that’s coming out in the artwork they’re making now. Speaking of which, I’ve been thinking a lot about how people seem to be taking this time, while we’re precluded from travelling, to grow roots, ground themselves in their local communities, and connect with the land.
JAS: We were actually discussing this quite a bit at breakfast this morning, and one of the things that I had noted was that we were more focused on the actual ground that we walk on. There’s more gardening going on. When I was a little girl, everybody had a garden and we used to garden; people have gone back to that. Even if it’s a balcony, people are working more outside, just to be outside. And you know, banging pots and pans, or, going outside and singing, starting the whole neighbourhood chorus.
A lot of Indigenous people have opted to go [out to] their land. Like we have 160 acres, in Maskwacîs on Samson [Cree Nation], and [it’s incredible] to be able to take our grandsons, our granddaughters, out on that land to learn what’s actually on that land, the medicines that grow on that land. For them to have their rites of passage on that land, for them to have a relationship [with it]. And there’s lots of people who have taken their school-age children and done land-based teachings. If you’re on a reserve or on a Métis settlement or Métis community, you don’t have to go far. We’re a land-based people, so I think it’s much, much easier for us.
JS: Just last week, my daughter went over to my son’s house and [brought] two students, wanting [them] to see what you can actually find inside of the yard. I showed them over 50 different types of plants inside my son’s yard. We taught them about medicinal and edible [plants], though the edible plants can be considered as medicinal, too. [We] have words for each one: a descriptive word of the functionality of that medicine, or the parts of the medicine. We went through a lot of stuff like that, just in that yard, just like… freaking out. There it goes, just the whole day inside the yard.
JAS: I just wanted to leave you with one last thing about [not] being able to travel, and things like that. My old uncle, he was a powerful, powerful healer, at Saddle Lake Cree First Nation. His name was Ralph Cardinal. And he used to say [that] the human being is so powerful that, if you think of [a place], you close your eyes and your mind is there. So, you can travel anywhere you want. All you have to do is think of it. You concentrate on it and you’re there.
Dawn Saunders Dahl has been actively working with Indigenous arts communities in Alberta through public art opportunities, art exhibitions, projects, and events, since 2008. The responsibility to understand her ancestry, to care for the land, and to share are teachings that are repeated in her everyday conversations with communities that influence her work and perspectives. Dawn is of Métis (Red River Ojibway) and European (English, Scottish, Irish, Norwegian, Swedish, French) ancestry. She is honoured to have been gifted the Stoney Nakoda name Âba Thâ Wîyâ.
Jo-Ann Saddleback is Elder Advisor for the Edmonton Public Library, City of Edmonton on various levels, Canadian Research Initiative in Substance Misuse (CRISM), Dreamspeakers Festival Society, and many others. She is asked to many reserves and organizations to share her teachings.
Jerry Saddleback is the Elder-in-Residence for Maskwacîs Cultural College, where he was Dean of Cultural Studies on and off for decades. He was Spiritual Advisor to Truth and Reconciliation Commission and is Elder for many organizations including City of Edmonton. He works with reserves and organizations across Treaty 6 territory.
Together they work on their art, and own and operate Câhcacêp Art & Tea House in Edmonton, Alberta.