Slow Enough to Watch the Ptarmigan Eating Willow Buds on Tundra: A Conversation with Maureen Gruben
by Kyra Kordoski
“Home, for much of the Arctic year, is a dazzling layer—equally harsh and fragile—that exists between stars and ice.” I wrote a version of this sentence last year for a text on Maureen Gruben’s then newly completed Aidainnaqduanni (2020), a documented sculptural installation on the frozen Beaufort Sea featuring polar bear rugs. The work, which is one of many we discuss below, offers a concise glimpse into a beautiful specificity of place. This is a perspective I’ve had the privilege of experiencing first-hand, having been welcomed to Maureen’s home in Tuktoyaktuk in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region of the western Arctic regularly since 2016 after meeting on a ferry crossing from Tsawwassen to W̱ SÁNEĆ. It has been by far the richest art-writing experience of my life to write not about someone, but with them, particularly over this long period of time. Much of Maureen’s practice is derived from attentiveness to the unpredictable encounters with diverse materials that occur throughout the course of her days. This disparate matter often becomes the physical basis of her works, in striking and uninhibited combinations. The result is a material intelligence that enriches theoretical discourses without becoming subsumed in them; that offers an embedded index of place while holding expansive potential for personal resonances. The following is a collaboratively edited text based on our conversations.
Kyra Kordoski: When thinking about your practice in relation to mapping, one of the first pieces that came to mind was We all have to go someday. Do the best you can. Love one another (2019). The work traces an angiogram of your father’s heart onto tanned deer hide using a series of punched-out holes and embroidered knots, creating branching trails that evoke caribou migration patterns over the land. The original medical image you used is essentially a map of your father’s heart, which provides doctors with information that can help them save a life. But in We all have to go, the angiogram’s pattern seems more to map what makes a life worth living.
Maureen Gruben: When we were in the hospital with my dad, I looked at the angiogram on the computer with the doctors. They showed me exactly the part that was calcified, and right away I asked if I could have a printout so I could show it to my dad, and say to him, “Look, this is the part they are going to remove and replace.” But when we talk about his heart, his heart was here in the North, in the Arctic. He was in every community in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region; he and my mom lived a nomadic lifestyle. They followed the animals. So, I think when we talk about his life, we’re talking about this land. He believed this was the best place on Earth, that we have everything that we need to live a good life here in Tuk. We have caribou, we have geese, we have all the fish we want. And he was also very realistic about life. The title of that work is something he wrote himself on a piece of paper, and I framed that paper.
The angiogram’s paths go in many different directions but in a set pattern, similar to how the caribou migrate. I created a set of works for an exhibition titled “TUKTUUYAQTUUQ (Caribou Crossing)” (2020) at UVic Legacy Art Gallery and I just immersed myself in the caribou, right from the hooves to the heart to the antlers. I was trying to work with the whole caribou. And it was working with the hooves—specifically, when I found the scent gland at the bottom—that things really started to become clear about how when they move and migrate, they leave their scent in the tundra. So much has to do with smell in life, you know, how we relate to each other. The smoked smell of traditionally tanned hide is a very specific smell that brings you back to Indigenous ways of knowing and making. It’s a very specific, grounding smell, so in putting the angiogram pattern onto the hide, it’s everything. It’s from the land, the animals, and us humans, right? We’re all in this together.
KK: It was a really powerful experience travelling with skidoos and sleds to your spring ice-fishing camp at Husky Lakes, to see how much responsibility you had in keeping everyone in our group safe out on the ice as the spring melt slowly began. We made a few multi-day trips and every time we relied on your ability to work with a sort of living map, a navigation system based on memories of your family taking you out, on finding recent trails in the remaining snow made by other travellers, and on talking to other people at their cabins and out fishing about the ice conditions. Moving with joy across the ice while my face turns brown from the sun (2019) seems to reflect the communal navigation that comes from many individualized experiences—it’s a grouping of 14 borrowed sleds installed on the ice surrounding Tuk, with each one handmade by a different local family.
MG: Sleds are all different sizes and builds for different reasons. It’s like having different vehicles—you have vans for a specific purpose, or buses, or little cars. Sleds work the same way.
There are so many Indigenous trails all over the world. They’re like animal trails, like how when you’re picking berries, you run into the trails made by caribou to go down to the water. We’re the same way. We know the most accessible ways to get from A to B. Over years, those trails just become the way to go; they’re the smartest way to get to where you need to be. Certain times of the year you have to shift your path a little, you have to know where to get off the main trail.
Travelling with my dad, he really didn’t need a map, but he always had this beautiful one you could fold up that was so worn. I wish I had kept that. It had this film on it and it just lasted for so long, and he had added his own marks. Finding your own landmarks is a huge part of how you get to where you’re going without maps; the land itself marks your way. I heard a story from my dad and another elder: when you’re out on the ice at Husky Lakes and you line yourself up right in the centre of a certain pingo, straight out from Saunaqtuuq, that’s a good fishing spot.
KK: One of the great parts of spontaneously doing a pop-up gallery at Husky Lakes this spring was how it engaged with that kind of navigation. We installed Big Hello (2021)—that pairs over a hundred second-hand cell-phone cases found in thrift stores with “uppers,” the beaded tops of moccasins and mukluks, that had been found at the dump or gifted to you—in your old canvas-wall tent. We were joking that the gallery was elite in a different way, accessible only by skidoo and to people who knew you and where your camp was, and who had the ability to get there, because Google Maps was not going to help you find it. Your niece Shaylene made it, and she commented on how much history and knowledge was embedded in each piece of beadwork, saying, “If these beads could talk…” In taking the place of phones, the beads create a counterpoint to the immediate data the phones’ map apps would have provided.
MG: Beadwork operates on slow time. And that relates to the moccasin telegraph, too, which was how people used to get in touch with each other in my dad’s time, when everybody was apart. We all didn’t live in the same place then because the land doesn’t really allow for that in terms of resources. You have to kind of spread yourselves out. So, if you needed to communicate with someone you had to send people out to them with a dog team or on foot. My dad witnessed the last chief of Tuktoyaktuk, Mangilaluk, sending a runner with a dog team out to get his good friend Dowlana to come for a drum dance.
Nowadays, Google Maps is instant and people want to get from A to B as quickly as possible. But here, it’s still a little slower. You’ve seen how slow we have to go—slow enough to watch the ptarmigan eating willow buds on tundra. Even when you go with a boat, you’re not speeding. So, I think maybe you take in things more internally, feel things more, understand a little bit more each time you go by a trail, because it changes all the time and it’s never the same. It’s such a slow mapping process. You notice each and every shift in the land. Some places are receding, but others are building up. It becomes more personal every time. More like home.
KK: The fact that some of the uppers for Big Hello were sourced from the Tuk dump indexes your relationship to home, too. It’s been a great resource for your artistic practice; you’ve talked in the past about how the dump always has so many objects in it that clearly locate your community, like sealskin mitts, antlers, even that ookpik you found that one time. If you think of all these little material bits almost as reference points from people’s lives, the dump maybe becomes like a huge crumpled map, with all these life paths tangled together. A lot of the time the materials in your pieces are, in way, redirecting these paths, giving them new trajectories and relationships.
MG: I’ve been reading these stories that were gifted to me, a huge set of transcribed interviews the community did with elders in the ’80s, about their lives and memories. You just see the humongous gap from how they lived these very clean, resourceful lives where nothing was wasted, to now. And there’s almost no in-between. It’s almost like we just suddenly got dumped on with all this stuff. And we don’t even know how to handle it, what to do with it—including how to recycle it. But if you see it as a resource, the dump is wealthy. Some hunters use oven racks they find there to make the rods on their harpoons. It’s amazing how much metal is there. I’d like to see a sculptor work with it some time.
KK: Your 2020 land installation, Aidainnaqduanni (“we are finally home”), really delves into how these sorts of encountered materials can generate insights into a sense of place. You took three old polar-bear rugs that were gifted to you by the Museum of Anthropology at UBC and draped each one over a found survey tripod, and then brought the pieces onto the ice which had just started to form on the ocean outside your home. So, the bears were essentially back out on the sea ice again after spending a long time indoors in the South. We documented them surrounded by stars, and again in the morning when they were covered with frost.
MG: We had to walk out over that freshly frozen shallow water to document the installation at night and had to use flashlights because it was completely dark except for all those lights from the stars. And we were trying not to break the thin ice that was building up around the bears, as if that was their space. So, we really thought about every step. When you look at the image, there are white frost flowers scattered across the dark ice; the stars are reflected. But when it was time to bring them in again a few days later, oh my god, they had really frozen in there. There were layers upon layers of ice. It took four of us with axes and chisels to get them out. We even broke a chisel! And we were dealing with the cold the whole time.
KK: It was like extreme art handling! They really did not want to leave the ice again. There are so many themes running through Aidainnaqduanni; stars have been used to navigate for millennia, and survey tripods are used for mapping the land, too, though differently. The ones used for this project were probably abandoned in Tuk by oil companies in the ’80s or ’90s, and in the piece, they do allude to the fact that we are dependent on the land for resources in one form or another. At the same time, the work emphasizes that every part of the land is also home for someone, for some kind of life.
MG: For me the piece is mostly about being able to come home. I think your body will recognize home. And it may not be just one place. Sometimes it’s beyond your control, the way life kind of leads you, and you end up in a place you’re supposed to be. You have that feeling, “I know this place. This is like home to me.” I mean, just look at the way the frost accumulated on the polar bears. Ice crystals were inside their mouths, on their eyes, everywhere. It wouldn’t have seemed right if they were in a desert or among trees. The ice flowers on the polar bear fur, it was part of who they were, like they were connected back to home. The piece is almost like a memorial. And it’s a celebration.
Disclosure: Kordoski has been working closely with Gruben since 2015 as a writer, photographer, studio manager, and artist assistant. This conversation is one of many iterations of C Magazine’s commitment to interrogate, challenge, and play with hard-coded journalistic standards around “objectivity,” including considering the rich (if unconventional) potentials that arise when writers and subjects have existing relationships.