How an Italian immigrant’s spark helped ignite Indigenous art

Art | by Gregory Beatty

MEET NAPOLEON ROYAL • Sarain Stump played a Métis guide in the 1974 Donald Sutherland-led film Alien Thunder.

Mixing Stars and Sand: The Art and Legacy of Sarain Stump starts a two-month run at the Kenderdine Gallery this month so I thought I’d revisit a story our sister magazine Prairie Dog ran during the show’s Regina run.

Hey, Planet S readers deserve to hear Stump’s fascinating story, damn it. And it is fascinating.

The online Canadian Encyclopedia reports Stump was born in Fremont, Wyoming in 1945. He had little formal education, instead learning from his Shosone-Cree elders. After taking a job at an Alberta ranch in 1964 Stump began work on the poems and drawings that would become There is My People Sleeping. Regarded as a seminal work in contemporary Indigenous literature, the 1969 book influenced a generation of Indigenous artists and writers.

From there, Stump moved into teaching — he became the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural College’s art coordinator in 1972. He continued to write, draw and paint prolifically, and even acted in the 1974 feature film Alien Thunder. Set in the The Battlefords area during the North-West Resistance, Alien Thunder  was directed by Claude Fournier, and starred Donald Sutherland, Chief Dan George and Gordon Tootoosis — with Stump playing Métis guide Napoleon Royal.

Stump was strongly influenced by Plains Indigenous history and culture but he also studied Mezo-American Indigenous cultures such as the Aztecs and Maya. He even travelled down to Central and South America.

It was during just such a trip — specifically, to Mexico’s Chiapas region — that Stump tragically drowned while swimming in the Pacific Ocean. He died on Dec. 20, 1974.

Those are just some of the highlights of his life, of course. But overall, pretty fascinating, right? And I haven’t come to the best part yet.

Stump wasn’t actually born in Wyoming. He was born in Venice, Italy on Oct. 16, 1945.

And his birth name wasn’t Sarain Stump — it was Mario Sarain.

From Venetian To Indigenous

Unlike his fictional biography, Mario Sarain spent  his youth studying draftsmanship and design at a Venice technical institute. He also learned English and developed an interest in American Indian history, art and culture.

How that happened, the show doesn’t say — but from the early days of colonization through the late-19th century novels of German writer Karl May right up to so-called “Eurowesterns”, Europeans have romanticized Indigenous peoples.

For whatever reason, Mario became so enthralled that he emigrated to Canada in 1966. While working as a ranch hand in Alberta — that part of the story is true — his artistic talent was recognized by an employer who introduced him to a Victoria publisher.

From there his career took off.

By that point, he’d changed his name to Sarain Stump, married an Indigenous woman and had  a son. He’d also forged connections with Indigenous artists, and was invited to participate in major conferences and exhibitions, as well as contribute to Indigenous art publications.

During the show’s opening tour at the MacKenzie Gallery in Regina, co-curator Gerald McMaster recalled meeting Stump in 1972.

“I had a job in Saskatoon right after high school,” said McMaster. ”They said there was a young man who was going to be coming to work with me, so just hang around until he shows up. A month later, in October, Sarain arrived in his little Toyota pick-up truck.

“Sarain was tremendous to look at and even more tremendous to work alongside,” McMaster said. “We travelled throughout Saskatchewan, visiting First Nations communities and talking with K–12 students about Indigenous art.

“Nobody, it seemed, knew anything about Indigenous art. I certainly didn’t. He really inspired me, and gave me pride in who I was.”

This was the heyday of the civil rights movement and Indigenous activism was on the rise.

“It was a time when we were searching for a spark,” said McMaster. “Certainly, there were people who were leading us on a political edge and representing us in Ottawa. On the cultural side, there was this man named Sarain Stump.”

Gallery Guide

Mixing Sand and Stars is a major retrospective celebrating Stump’s art and legacy. It will tour nationally, and a catalogue with critical essays, colour reproductions and poetry is being published. McMaster co-curated the show with MacKenzie Gallery director Anthony Kiendl.

The show contains over 300 works, including thematic groupings of ink drawings and paintings, two sections devoted to There is My People Sleeping and a second suite of previously unpublished poems that will be in the catalogue.

It’s also got select Alien Thunder scenes featuring Stump, an excerpt from a 1974 Alanis Obomsawin film on a benefit concert for the James Bay Cree in their struggle against a massive Quebec hydro project where Stump plays the flute, and more.

Stump was a multi-disciplinary wonder as an artist. He also incorporated different influences into his practice. Most came from Indigenous history and culture but during the talk McMaster mentioned two European influences — a horse inspired by Picasso’s Guernica and a Chagall-style “floating couple”.

But Indigenous influences — from 19th century Plains Indian ledger drawings to Aztec/Maya line drawings to hide paintings and even a few carved masks — abound.

In keeping with the “legacy” part of the exhibition, there are two works by Edward Poitras, who, along with William Ermine, Ray McCallum, Dennis Morrison and others, was one of a group of young Indigenous artists who studied under Stump at Saskatchewan Indian Cultural College.

One work dates back to 1995, when Poitras, in a show curated by McMaster, became the first Indigenous artist to represent Canada at the prestigious Venice Biennale. As a homage to his mentor in Stump’s birthplace, Poitras presented a photograph of a prominent rock that marked Stump’s grave on the Sweetgrass First Nation near Battleford.

The second work is a new installation called Chinvat Bridge. It’s styled as an airport lounge, and memorializes Stump’s fatal trip to Mexico. The title comes from the Zoroastrian concept of a bridge that souls cross when they pass from life to death. In 1974, the year Stump drowned, Dec. 20 was the Winter Solstice. So Poitras has installed two monitors — one near the gallery’s east wall, the other near the west — that show video of the Sun rising and setting over the ocean.

There’s also a shed snakeskin, which embodies Stump’s reinventions of himself.

Grey Areas

That very success, though, raises a sensitive question. Did Stump perpetuate an artistic fraud by presenting himself as Indigenous? An obvious parallel, of course, is Archie Belaney, an Englishman born in 1888 who emigrated to Canada in 1906 and reinvented himself as the iconic Indigenous conservationist Grey Owl.

McMaster  approached the tricky issue of Stump’s identity by describing it as a matter of Indigenous sovereignty. He makes a distinction between what Stump did, and non-Indigenous artists swiping things from Indigenous cultures without any consultation or engagement with them.

“To me, it’s about Indigenous people having the authority to decide who becomes them,” said McMaster. “If we think of blood quantum, that’s a whole different issue. Indian Affairs has relied so much on that standard for identifying people.

“We, as a community, give each other identity, so Indigenous people have the authority to decide who becomes part of their community,” McMaster said. “Sarain was accepted and adopted into the Cree community. So in the same way as it’s okay for someone to be Italian-Canadian, it’s okay for Sarain to be Italian-Cree.

“I didn’t know Sarain was born in Italy,” said McMaster as he wrapped up his tour. “But that didn’t matter to us. What mattered was the kind of person he was and what he brought to us.”

“And how he inspired us in the way we thought about ourselves and where we came from.”