A Boreal Home

Axenet’i Th’al shows how landscape and culture are intertwined

Art | by Gregory Beatty

photo by Danlee Mispounas

Axenet’i Th’al
Wanuskewin Heritage Park
Until Oct. 6

Wanuskewin Heritage Park focuses on the history and culture of Northern Plains First Nations. But that’s not the extent of Saskatchewan’s Indigenous population — First Nations also inhabit the province’s northern boreal forest.

Obviously, different habitat translates over thousands of years into different history and culture. And until Oct. 6, some of that culture is on display in Axenet’i th’al.

The title, pronounced “Aah-hen-neh tithul”, means “fringe”. Axenet’i th’al consists of crafted materials, trees and landscape, and audio/video elements installed in Wanuskewin Park’s galleries. It’s a collaborative work by artist Michèle Mackasey and the English River First Nation Dene, created in a Common Weal Community Arts residency. It’s also an immersive snapshot of the Northern Denesuline aesthetic that shows how culture and a specific environment are inextricably connected.

I recently spoke with Mackasey about the residency and installation.

There are lots of complexities when the artist and host community have different cultural backgrounds. How did this residency come about?

My history with English River First Nation is that both my kids are band members. I used to be married into the community, and was also widowed. My first time going there was in 1989, and I’ve lived there, and always kept those ties with the community. It would be a lot harder to go in there as an artist without those ties.

With Common Weal, I did a residency at the YWCA in Saskatoon in 2009. Then I did another project with them in 2014 at English River, where we brought in Montreal video/audio artist Manuel Chantre and did an outdoor version of the installation.

How would you describe English River?

It’s in the boreal forest, and is situated between two lakes: Shagwenaw and Île-à-la-Cross. The hamlet of Patuanak is on the non-treaty side, maybe 60 people live there. Then there’s the reserve with an arena, school, a store and gas bar. Most people who live there moved from communities that are no longer inhabited. Patuanak was essentially the trading post, and families started moving there so their kids could go to school.

What traditional lifestyle would’ve existed? Hunting, trapping, fishing, maybe forestry?

Not forestry. But most people in the community, I would say, still live off the land. There are people who are always hunting and fishing, and bringing home food. And depending on the season, they also collect berries. But it’s a traditional diet with moose meat, whitefish, duck that they dry and smoke.

With the residency, there was an opportunity to have elders share their skills and knowledge?

I’d heard from the time I started going to Patuanak about the basket-making, quill-work and tufting. Nobody does that any more, but I resourced some people who still knew how and organized some workshops so they could teach youth and other community members. It was a way of validating those traditions because sometimes people don’t always appreciate what they have in a community.

The youth were out actually collecting the materials as opposed to just working with stuff that had been collected. They really enjoyed themselves. Just having the elders there teaching brought other elders in who had either done it, or seen it done, as a child. So it was really nice to see youth and elders sitting and making things together.

What process led to you creating this indoor version of the installation you did during your 2014 residency?

I knew when we were doing that installation it would be temporary. There were elements of it, such as the sound of the sticks clacking or the movement, that you couldn’t capture with photo documentation. With a grant from Canada Council we were able to bring Manuel Chantre back. Video was the way to take it to another level, and the idea occurred to me of maybe doing an indoor version. I thought, “Well, we’ll need trees. But we can’t do that in a gallery.” But when I consulted with people, they said, “You need the trees.”

I had an elder who worked with the school, Michael Wolverine, who is 86, and a real bush man. We used a school van and went out with him. There’s a reference in the installation to a traditional form of lynx trap. For that, we needed a specific type of stick, and he’d show the students what they needed to get. They’d collect a bunch of sticks, and we went on rotation like that. There are 36 sections in the installation, there’s probably 40 to 50 sticks in each section, so do the math. I wouldn’t have been able to do all that myself. So anyone who participated can take a sense of ownership.

Publicity for the installation compares it to a maze?

The trees are black spruce, so they’re muskeg trees with old man’s beard on them. You walk in and there are four bunches of sticks hanging. When you bump them, they trigger video projections. There’s also audio that plays with ambient sounds from the forest. So every sound, image, stick, piece of moss, even the hide we used to tie the sticks, is all from Patuanak. I didn’t want to have any needles falling, or kill any living trees, so they’re trees that have long been dead. They’re still standing, and it just went with the whole theme of a mysterious look.

How challenging was it to install all that material in the gallery?

My son is pretty good with 3-D rendering so he came up with a plan on where to install everything. That was quite a concern, because we only had six days to put everything up, so we needed to know exactly what we were doing. We also had two guys and some kids come down from English River to help out. So they got to see the whole process, from collecting materials to the installation going up.

When we had the opening on July 15, there was a washout on the last stretch of road from Beauval to Patuanak where water was gushing through. One of the kids was crying because she thought her parents wouldn’t be able to come any more. There was a line of vehicles waiting to get out, and they pressured whoever was in charge of highways to fix the road. We also had the drum group come out for the opening ceremony. We had really great attendance

There’s a real ambience to being there with the sticks and moss and smell. With the lights down low, people were saying, “Oh, I feel like I’m home. We could just pitch a tent here.” ❧