Cover Photo: Centre, black and white drawing by Rene Meshake
Narrative by Kim Anderson
Artwork, word bundles and poetry by Rene Meshake
“In 1492, Columbus set sail from Spain. In 2014, Rene took a flight to Spain. In between my name was changed to number 23 at the Indian Residential School. I didn’t know how significant 23 would become. Psalm 23 had become my Spirit Guide. My 23rd year of happy, sober married life was coming up. Then I got an e-mail from Kim, my friend inviting me to a Memory and Testimony in the 21st Century Conference, Catalonia, Spain. A lot of thoughts went through my brain, my bones, my spirit. What better way to celebrate my 23rd wedding anniversary! Barcelona! Here we come! I told her yes.”
Bonendamowin – Bone (stop or end), endam (indignant mind), damaw (towards another)
It’s an Anishnaabemowin word bundle; an offering from Rene Meshake, friend, teacher, artist, storyteller.
Bonendamowin. Stopping and ending, Indignant minds, Towards, and Eachother.
It’s 2014 and Rene and I are in La Jonquera, on the border of France and Spain in Catalunya. We’ve come to the Museu Memorial de L’Exili (Exile Memorial Museum) to present at a conference called “Memory and Testimony in the 21st Century.” The job is to dig into the border of memory and memory at the border and the conference is populated by European scholars who speak mostly of atrocities committed in their territories. People are speaking Catalan, Spanish, French and English interchangeably as we learn about dispossession from these and other lands.
My presentation is on “Storytelling and Canadian Aboriginal Memory” but when I get to it on the last day of the conference I am unable to speak. After stumbling through some introductory remarks about my work as a historian/story gatherer, I am stopped by the unleashing of tears brought on by something Rene spoke of earlier in the trip: Forgiveness. Bonendamowin.
Reconciling and Truth.
I can’t stop crying now and so I stand in front of the crowd in what becomes a long silence, supported by a fellow presenter who rises to stand with me.
As Trickster would have it, Rene isn’t there to witness this outpouring or the silence that follows—he and his wife Joan are off in search of bacon and eggs, a fitting Mishomis response to culture shock after a week or so of continental breakfasts. But Rene had presented his truths the night before, framed for this audience by my introductory remarks about colonization in Canada. He had played the traditional flute, told stories and read poetry to an enraptured crowd as they learned about Indigenous recovery; his personal reconciliation after removal and loss of home territory, sexual abuse, residential school trauma, alcoholism and six years of living homeless under the Bathurst St. Bridge in Toronto. Rene knows a lot about Bonendamowin.
I am intimately familiar this story; it is part of the collective story of Turtle Island’s peoples, but this time it shakes me. I’m worn and weary from spending these days immersed in stories about the exile of Spanish and Catalonian republicans, about the holocaust, migrants and refugees in Italy, closed borders, human rights. We’d visited the internment camp across the French border at Rivesaltes, which housed Spanish and Catalan refugees, Jews, and, most recently, unwanted migrants. And as we walked around the dusty camp, Rene had revisited his own experiences of internment as an Indigenous child in Canada. The terra cotta shades that were so cheerful on the rooftops in Barcelona suddenly felt like bloodshed under our feet. And through all of this, I had been struggling most to reconcile what Rene had said to me on the afternoon we’d arrived.
“Four-teen nine-t-y two! It all started here. And here I am, in 2014.
This trip is about forgiveness.”
It’s 2014, Rene is in his late 60s and it’s the first time he has been out of Canada. Until recently he has not been ready to cross the Atlantic; that border between Turtle Island and the shores of early colonial imaginings. We have lived for many years as neighbors in Guelph, but Rene comes from Treaty 3 Area in Northwestern Ontario, raised by his grandmother off reserve in Pagwashing, land of the underground rivers. It was Rene’s Nokomis and these territories that provided his foundations until the age of ten, when he was scooped into the Indian residential school system.
We’ve arrived in Barcelona and I am perched beside Rene on an old couch in our rented apartment, a place of high ceilings, long corridors and tiled floors. Even though it’s 35 degrees outside, we don’t need a fan as the wind blows gently and steadily through the wooden windows that flank the wall of the adjoining sun room. Rene’s wife Joan and my son Rajan recover from jet lag with a siesta while Rene and I record an interview, part of our ongoing work toward his memoir. Rene has a quiet manner of speaking so I place my phone on the back of the leather couch to catch our recording.
“They are telling me stories,” he says, referring to the architecture we had been craning our necks to see in our exploratory trip around the neighbourhood. “The language. I may not speak Catalan, but I understand the buildings. They are speaking to me, they are telling me a story.”
I’ve been to Europe several times, but I’ve never toured with an artist, and certainly not an Anishinaabe artist who is seeing the so-called “old world” for the first time. Rene talks about the excitement of coming across his first palm tree and the haunting splendor of churches built by black robes, birthplace of those dark missions. He’s fascinated by all the doors, everywhere, huge wooden portals with arched entranceways. “Some doors you are forbidden to enter,” he says, “And some gates are open…Just like when I’m sketching, there are lines I don’t want to go over, there are lines where I can explore.”
Borders and memories.
There are no empty lands. For Rene it’s about multiple old worlds and stories and the places where they are lodged. “It’s hard to imagine the Catalan people understanding us,” he muses. “When they go to the rez, go to the forests and lakes and rivers and islands and pine trees and all this nature, you know, vast! They will see no buildings–there is just flat line of muskeg.”
He continues, “If I took somebody from Catalonia–an artist, a writer, to my country and go out there and fish for our supper, I wonder what kind of story they would tell me? You see what I mean by the language in the land? Every rock out there, every island, the mouths and bends in the rivers, every one has a story–they have a history. Some say most of our elders are dead –the language, our history is dead. There is nobody there to tell me a story. But it’s still the land that tells me a story.”
Rene talks further about the stories within Anishnaabemowin – Ojibway language and word bundles, “If you break every word down, you get an expression, you see the worldview. It just opens my eyes and heart. Connection to the land, yes, yes, I’m saying Yes, this is it!”
This discussion moves into an expression of gratitude for being in Europe for the first time, and then Rene arrives at that word, forgiveness. That’s when I feel spontaneous tears roll down my face, a surprise visit with what sits below my own indignant mind.
“You’ve gotta be tough” my father once told me. That was the night he punched
the wall in our bathroom, little indented knuckle marks on the drywall. Those surprises arrived in drunken moments of release, versions I recognize in other Indigenous men; in Rene, releasing thirty years of rage, repeatedly punching a pillow at Pedauhbun Lodge, the Indigenous treatment Centre where he finally found healing. My dad went there too, but he never made it. He drank himself to death over that long terrible year that preceded his passing. I still grieve for him at that border, for he will always be in exile from the old man he could have been. But I give thanks that Rene and others are able to tell a story that has choked too many of our relations. This is the sadness in my bones that sometimes seeps out through the rolling tear, or the flood of unexpected emotion.
“Forgiveness is the job of the Creator” another residential school survivor and friend replies when I send her an email trying to sort through my struggle at the conference. I don’t question her and I am mindful of the significant critiques of reconciliation that position us to do the hard work of healing without reconciling stolen lands and resources. But what about these shifting moments, the glimpses where we reconcile through eachother?
In his presentation, Rene had talked about exile of the self and returning. He’d read a poem.
By Rene Meshake
March 19th, 1967.
I checked the article again.
March 19th, 1967,
The year the school burnt down.
For me, McIntosh never burnt down.
Brother J, my Supervisor’s
petting impaled my body
to the dormitory bed.
Disembowelled, I died.
Old J had a little lamb
Branded it Twenty-Three
Old J sheared its wool and skin
Its fleece grew filthily
Twenty-Three won’t graze no more
Graze no more along the stream
Twenty-Three was unworthy to dream
From the article,
I clipped the picture
of the white, 3 story residence.
I ran outside, broke a cedar branch,
and set the bough and clipping ablaze.
As I stoked the fire,
my body emerged from the burning page
to reunite with me.
Art and creativity offer one way through that long Indigenous path of leaving and then finding truths, as I have discovered in the memory work I do with Rene. His story begins in that land of underground rivers, off-reserve and in a community run by grandmothers. This was the foundation of his artistic practice, where, as he says “The old ladies used to sit around and tell stories. And then us kids would go out and play in the dirt – draw them. That was woodlands art – we all did it. The girls would make little communities out of mud. They would invite us in for play – but they were always in charge. They made tea. I drank so much tea!”
A violent, colonial shift happened when his community was moved onto a reserve in the early 1960s. The old ladies died off, their governing authority lost. The uncles began to drink. Violence set in. And Rene was sent to residential school. There were no grandmothers or woodland stories then; only nuns who insisted on a different kind of art.
“We were not allowed to draw anything with animals. It had to be all these boxy things – crosses and churches and Santa Claus…I liked doing Christmas trees because at least you could put an owl in there or something.”
Rene did his best to resist, but the owls couldn’t perch on Santa’s shoulder or the roof of the church. That was pagan. Evil. And this sentiment, combined with the sexual and other abuses endured in residential school led to years of self-doubt and feelings of inferiority, stifling artistic expression. It took decades to return, it took Indigenous healing, land, language, and moving into spaces where Rene found other artists who had pushed beyond boundaries.
“I went to Sheridan College, and before that I was painting classical. You know, still life, you know, an orange? Every pore of that orange I had to paint. It became boring to see my art: photographic. I thought that was art – just painting candles, Christmas trees and light bulbs and crosses. Everything is realistic, that’s when you get an A+ ¾ that’s what got me to Sheridan eventually. But when I went there, all that classical way of painting just went.”
For Rene, discovering Salvador Dali in art school launched a transition back into his own work. And now, magically, we sit in Dali’s home territory, Catalunya, where I listen to Rene talk about cycles and border busting and coming home.
“Dali just blew it all away–It’s just like he came there and messed up my art. Took an apple, orange right out and drew a peeling, you know, that peeling grew up into a candle or.. [laughter]. There’s those half circles with an orange, you know? Cut it up, quarter it, peel it and throw away the flesh, squeeze it – let water come out of it. That freed my ideas, that’s when my ideas and his ideas kind of merged, and I started painting surrealism. That’s my way of understanding the merging of cultures, or ideas. You know what I mean? Because Ojibway art is mostly symbolic, eh? Circles, quarters and arcs and all… and they start to tell a story. And I could see that in the architecture here.”
On this trip about borders and exile, we will also make visits to Guell Park, sit among mosaic and swirls and feel gratitude for the whimsical. We will visit the Dali museum and pay homage to the old man. And as Rene anticipates our visit, he says “I will read his original, his handprints, his hand. It seems like my soul just travels ahead of me, thinking of that.”
One thing that Rene has often told me is “I always believe that art has legs. One foot tells the story – the other one heals. It’s got to heal too.” And now he tells me “I think my healing here has been the forgiveness. 1492. Forgive. It was very hard for me to do, but now I’m beginning to relax in my forgiveness and sobriety and journey.”
I can feel a personal realigning, a giant, slow shifting with this generous arrival. For this.
“It’s these people I must forgive. If you can see that connection with history. So there’s layers to this. Art. Language. Forgiveness.”
There are lessons about how I’m still young on the trail to reconciliation and forgiveness. But there is healing too. During the break after my tearful, silent presentation, one of the community activists comes up to me, an elderly Catalonian man who has lived through war, totalitarian regimes and exile. He has a present. He tells me I am strong. And then he carefully hands me two folded Catalan flags. One for me and one for Rene.
I take this precious gift and thank him – and then I thank the old man spirit, the land, and the territories that have brought me to this place of Bonendamowin – or at least the border of it.
Cover Photo Description:
“Making art is not just easel painting. It is a process. Somewhere in my journey, a truth and reconciliation quest began. I accepted to go to Barcelona, Spain — to forgive. I immediately saw flags on the balconies. They were not the Spanish flags. What’s going on here? Someone told me they were Catalonia flags! Later on I learned that Catalonia was colonized like us. It was during our tour of the historic Internment Camps that I recognized my Rez. I felt numb! The grounds were red. To this day, I don’t know whether it was the sunstroke or the impressions that I had at the Internment Camps that made me sick. It is a process. After the conference, I was presented with a Catalonia flag! My forgiveness was acknowledged. It was surreal. Imagine the years: 1492 to 2014.”
It’s November 2016 and I am feeling devastated by the Trump election. I write to Rene to arrange time to work on his memoir and in my opening salutation I say:
Hi Rene and Joan. A quick check in today from my stupor today – I actually feel sick and disoriented… this election is bad and I fear for what is to come.
Rene response is quick and concise:
Bozho cheers! Nii’chi:
Onzaam! Chum. As my people would say.
This election has taught me about what has ALWAYS been there.
It’s a Time of Shaking for our people! Wake us up from the colonial slumber
even for the Settlers.
Our work in Truth and Reconciliation
will not be diverted and wasted on being sick and disoriented.
A new Vision has been given to us. Humanity does not care
about the colour of your skin and when we are shaken:
we will rake the leaves to the streets and patiently wait for it to be collected.
by Kim Anderson
A digital postcard of a trip to Anishinaabe homelands
Kim Anderson (Metis), writer, researcher and educator, is a Co-Director for the Centre of Memory and Testimony Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University and an Associate Professor at the University of Guelph. Kim is the author of A Recognition of Being: Reconstructing Native Womanhood (Canadian Scholars’ Press 2016) and Life Stages and Native Women: Memory, Teachings and Story Medicine, (University of Manitoba Press, 2011).
Rene Meshake (Anishinaabe) is a multi-disciplinary artist (visual art, spoken word, poetry, children’s books, music and film) who has an active on-line and performing presence as a “funky elder.” Rene’s book “Mocassin Creek” was shortlisted for the 2014-2015 First Nations Communities Read selection. Rene is a recipient of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal.
Together, Kim and Rene are working on his memoir. This April, they will travel to Ozhaawashko’o Minis: An Island that Wears Green with other Indigenous storytellers to present at the “Untold Stories of the Past 150 Years” conference at University College, Dublin. More stories will follow.