Shirley Bear

What follows are the words, reflections, and artworks of Shirley Bear who, as a creator and a cultural activist, has inspired so many through her care, her compassion, and her ability to see beyond the immediate. Through her career, her life, Shirley has had a passion for creative practice that is equalled only by her passion for justice. With these dual energies as her guide, she has treaded into difficult territories, never fearful, but often fearsome, refusing to abide by wrong-headed values or to be swayed by unjust causes. Rather, she has walked her own walk, and those fortunate on occasion to walk alongside have learned together, laughed together, and grown to see the world as a place that might pose immense challenges, but also one where anything is possible.

“I learned today the world is round, like a big rubber ball—”

A child’s memory, but why did that stay in my memory?

Other things are just as memorable.

Like what did my brother look like?

What did he like to talk about, to eat, to drink, to wear?

He liked keeping my mother’s house clean.

He liked to cook. He loved his little sister, called her “B”—

“Queen Bee,” he’d say.

I grew up with five brothers and one sister. I got married and my mother had another boy.

A year later I had my first child, Lance, followed by my daughter, Stephanie.

We moved around a lot, travelled down south to the US because the man I had married never had a well-paid job. I had to work to compensate for what he couldn’t earn.

Those early years were difficult, but I was young and had a lot of energy. I knew how to draw and made extra money doing portraits. I was also very social, so my friends were people who enjoyed art, and soon I worked my way to a better job and a higher pay scale. Most of the friends that I had were socially conscious, and we used to spend hours discoursing about issues not always discussed by my husband or his family, who chastised me for my loftiness. Following many major marital differences and racism from my first husband’s family, I found my way back north, to Canada.

When talking to Shirley, it becomes apparent that family is of incredible value to her. But before long, it becomes further evident that Shirley’s concept of family is expansive and inclusive, certainly not contained by bloodlines, and not by community or nation. Rather, she surrounds herself—is surrounded by—a vast network of people, some of whom could not be more different than her. What binds them together, however, is the common trust in fairness, in making things right, and in exploring creativity as far as it will go. When I first met Shirley, she was part of an incisive and culturally diverse group of artists who came together to challenge the racially homogeneous and exclusionary practices of artist-run centres in the early 1990?s.1 This group was called the Minquon Panchayat, itself a blend of unlikely cultures. Traditionally, in South Asia, a panchayat is a village council of elders that makes decisions for the benefit of its community. The name “Minqwôn Minqwôn” is actually Shirley’s spirit name in Wabnaki, translated as, “Double Rainbow,”2 and she loaned this special name to the coalition. Thus, the Minquon Panchayat was a type of rainbow coalition, charged in 1992 with changing the face and direction of a network then known as the Association of National Non-Profit Artists Centres/Regroupement d’artistes des centres alternatifs (ANNPAC/RACA), whose membership attempted to recognize that for historical, colonial, and political reasons, the organization was unable to exercise the inclusivity that so many within its ranks desired. Shirley bestowed this name upon the group of First Nations artists and artists of colour who began the long road of making radical shifts to provide this necessary shift.

I learned today the world is round, like a big rubber ball, with China on the other side down there below us all, and so I went and dug a hole, beside the garden gate, and dug and dug and dug and dug and thought, “what fun it will be to get a ladder tall, and climb down to China, to that land below us all.”

Life isn’t always as we imagine it to be, not so precise, easy, or magical. Somewhere in the journey of “finding out,” something resembling magic does happen, and it was on this journey that I found a soulmate, Peter, got married, had another girl, and named her Ramona. Peter and I decided to home-school her. When Ramona was seven years old we settled in Negootkook, New Brunswick.

It was then that I started to realize that I had a keen understanding of injustice and that I was basically fearless, which helped in making decisions and addressing the government of Canada on their treatment of the First Nations’ women in my community.

Sandra Lovelace-Nicholas was testing the government of Canada for the sexist clause 12(1)b within the Indian Act, a law that governed the daily lives of First Nations who lived on reserve land.

In 1985, the women from Negootkook (Tobique) celebrated the elimination of 12(1)b from the Indian Act of Canada. The publication of a book titled Enough is Enough: Aboriginal Women Speak Out, which chronicles the adult lives of thirteen women from Negootkook, told our stories.3

I was not privy to Shirley’s years prior to Enough is Enough, but her rallying cry behind the Minquon Panchayat made it clear she had come to such cultural activism with the depth and wisdom of experience. The Minquon Panchayat worked with ANNPAC for that first year, bringing its energy and dedication to an incredible showcase of talent and potential to the It’s a Cultural Thing gathering in Calgary in 1993. But it was here many of us realized that progressive action does not win over conservative histories easily. During a formational meeting at the Native Friendship Centre where ANNPAC was discussing the Minquon Panchayat’s provisional plan for realignment, some felt the prescribed action of moving quickly to bring in new member organizations was far too swift, an affront to those, I suggest, who wanted change to be more cosmetic than radical. At one point, a frustrated ANNPAC executive member voiced dissent at the proposed changes, saying that the organization was already making progressive moves as it had allowed the Minquon Panchayat to present this prospectus. I can still hear Shirley’s voice as she raised first her eyebrows, and then her entire body from the seated circle. “Allow?” she asked. “You allowed us?” And without another word, Shirley slowly walked along the outside of the circle, with no more than a glance to her colleagues, enough to have us all rise as one and follow her upstairs. There, she led us in a healing circle, and when some of our number wondered whether we could still reconcile and salvage something from this situation, Shirley, so calmly smudging with sweetgrass, shook her head. No, she told us, this was not the time. Only that. And that was all she needed to say for the rest to understand.

When Annie Mae Pictou-Aquash was killed at Pine Ridge, it was an assault to all the women of the world. She had always been very outspoken for the rights of women; and to have this happen to her in Pine Ridge, the home (temple) of the some of the most male-dominated spiritualists in the First Nations community, was an outright insult to womanhood.

In the years of the Native Women’s Rights battle, many changes developed in me through art. It was reconfirmed by past teachings that women, as life-givers, had a special place in the community, and, in my case, as decision-makers within the family, community, and country.

In my forties, I went on a spiritual quest and found more insidious rules and sexist activities against women. All supposedly because of the laws of Kisiulinaqô (in the name of god), and because my language is not written, I had never read or heard of such rules. I fasted for several years and prayed to be given the truth, but as each year went by I was more convinced that there were no such rules and that they were pretty much a warped creation of men who did not want women to attain a spiritual understanding. These men were brainwashed by the Catholic Church.

My art speaks the truth of its creator.

Years later, I saw Shirley Bear on stage engaged in dialogue with writer Susan Crean. They were playing out a biography of Emily Carr (ironically enough, in the lecture theatre of the Vancouver art school named for that artist) that Crean had written. It explored various lesser documented elements, most notably Carr’s friendship with Aboriginal artist Sophie Frank from whom, Crean argued, Carr had learned a great deal about Aboriginal people of the West Coast. Here, Susan Crean played Emily Carr, Shirley Bear played Sophie Frank, and the retelling spoke volumes about the relationships among women, art, and culture, across land and across time. I remember Shirley telling me soon after that she thoroughly enjoyed reading the creative works of younger women of colour in Canada, for they spoke of what was possible. It brought to mind the healing circle of all those years before when Shirley rightly reminded us that change can and must happen, but we had to listen to our hearts as much as to our heads.

Circle around,

beautiful          brown women

Beautiful brown                     women

Drum singing for the women

Owl eyes hey ye           hey ya

Red tablecloth

yellow lamp burning.

Red mind singing,

yellow love burning


                                                                   brown women4


Shirley Bear is a multimedia artist, writer, and traditional First Nation herbalist and Elder. Born on the Tobique First Nation, she is an original member of the Wabnaki language group of New Brunswick. Shirley studied art in New Brunswick, New Hampshire, Boston, and Vancouver. As an artist, poet, and activist she has played a crucial role in First Nation women’s creative and cultural communities. In 1989, she curated Changers: A Spiritual Renaissance, a national show of work by Aboriginal women artists that toured all major galleries across Canada. She has worked extensively as a lecturer, performer, activist, and curator including serving as Cultural Advisor to the British Columbia Institute of Technology, First Nations Education Advisor at Emily Carr Institute of Art & Design, and Resident Elder for First Nations House of Learning at University of British Columbia. Shirley has exhibited internationally, and her work has been purchased by collections across Canada, including the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the National Arts Centre, the New Brunswick Art Bank, First Nations House of Learning at UBC, and the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. Shirley was the 2002 recipient of the New Brunswick Arts Board’s Excellence in the Arts Award. Her writing has been included in several anthologies including Kelusultiek (Mount St. Vincent University, 1994) and The Colour of Resistance (Sister Vision Press, 1993), as well as the catalogues for the exhibits Kospenay (1991) and Changers: A Spiritual Renaissance (1989). She has been profiled for film and television, by CBC, the National Film Board, and independent producers in such films as Minquon, Minquon: Wosqotmn Elsonwagon?/?Shirley Bear: Reclaiming the Balance of Power (1990) and Kwa’Nu’Te (1991) by Cathy Martin, Keepers of the Fire (1994) by Christine Welsh, and The Sacred Feminine (1995). She has published a book of poetry, Virgin Bones (McGilligan Books, 2006).

  1. See Gagnon, Monika Kin (2000:63). Other Conundrums: Race, Culture, and Canadian Art. Vancouver and Kamloops, BC: Arsenal Pulp Press, Artspeak Gallery, and the Kamloops Art Gallery.
  2. Crean, Susan (2009: 37). N’tow’wik’hegat (She Who Knows How to Make Pictures). In T. Graff (curator), Nekt wikuhpon ehpit (Once there lived a woman): The Painting, Poetry, and Politics of Shirley Bear. Fredericton, NB: Beaverbrook Art Gallery.
  3. Silman, Janet (ed.) (1987). Enough is Enough: Aboriginal Women Speak Out. Toronto, ON: The Women’s Press.
  4. Excerpted from the poem, “Dawn.” In Shirley Bear (2006:20–21). Virgin Bones: Belayak Kcikug’nas’ikn’ug. Toronto, ON: McGilligan Books