A conversation on the collaborative work of Sandra Semchuk
and James Nicholas1
Long before the arrival of the Europeans, papâmihâw asiniy falls to the earth; it is revered as a gift, a sign, a protector, as medicine from the Creator to the First Peoples of the plains.
In 1821, George Millward McDougall is born. In 1860, as the newly appointed Chairman of the Western Methodist Missionary District, McDougall establishes and oversees missions all over the region that we now know as Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, including the Victoria Mission on the north bank of the North Saskatchewan River.
In 1866, McDougall encounters papâmihâw asiniy.
McDougall promptly and boldly steals papâmihâw asiniy from its original site in efforts to strip all vestiges of Aboriginal culture and world view. It is moved to the farmyard of the Victoria Mission. McDougall believes by stealing papâmihâw asiniy, the First Peoples will embrace the church. It has the opposite effect. Fearing more conflict, McDougall has papâmihâw asiniy taken to Winnipeg, where it is taken to Victoria College in Toronto, where it is taken to the Royal Ontario Museum vault.
I do not know the truth of this iron rock, this fallen meteor, as did my late husband, Pau was stik, James Nicholas, or as you, Elwood, do, or as your mother does. I witnessed that James’s prayers were humble. Through them he understood Big Bear’s realization that when papâmihâw asiniy was stolen the newcomers’ intentions were not good. This was a turning point in the relations between those that had inherent rights to the land, your people Elwood, and those that wanted them.
My understanding of how the past is the present, is and is not lived through my late husband’s eyes, or from my awareness of you Elwood, your compassion, your history, and your struggle to help your people. I am not informed by speaking Cree but through dialogue with James, and with you I have learned something of the depth of the language and the laws and wisdom embedded in language that are in resistance to colonization.
I have witnessed icons of cultures and civilizations destroyed in New York and in Baghdad as attempts to break people, but this theft you speak of is different. Papâmihâw asiniy is not an icon?… not a symbol. “It has pim ma tis i win, life itself,” as James would tell me, “It is at once animate and inanimate.” How can I, a granddaughter of Ukrainian and Polish immigrants know this as you do? How do I hear the prophesies without my mind being clouded by guilt? Or denial and skepticism? How do I protect myself from the truth of how white history betrayed me, made me complicit in terrible historical wrongs?
Medicine men and Elders foretell visions of plague, the loss of the buffalo herds, famine, and war with the removal of papâmihâw asiniy.
All the visions of the medicine men and Elders come to fruition within a decade.
Much of the work that James and I did together in dialogue was done here at Murray Lake in Saskatchewan. When the drought came, buffalo bones and teeth revealed a buffalo jump here. James carefully returned the bones to the lake. A dream told him to. This home is across the road from where Big Bear was born on Jackfish Lake. We canoed there to honour him. A great feather rose vertically in the sky. James told me that day that Big Bear, a visionary and an orator and one of the leading chiefs among the buffalo-hunting northern Plains Cree, knew from the prophesies that the buffalo would disappear when papâmihâw asiniy was taken. Big Bear, James said, knew what his people would face. Although the chains were not yet around his feet, around his wrists—although he had not yet been charged with treason against a nation not his own—Big Bear knew that the white man would force his Cree nation off their land. To this day his people have not received even a reserve.
Elwood, I know this has been no peaceful settlement. Prince Rupert’s evocation of “terra nullius” was a sham. Your people were here. Treaties were signed under duress of possible extinction.
Throughout the twentieth century, aggressive Western expansion continues to relocate and dislocate intact collective-based communities of First People and their connection to their land, their spirit, their culture, their power.
The accompanying migration and agricultural practices of non-Indigenous people transform the land and its use.
My Dad, Martin Semchuk, asked me, “Can you imagine what this land would be like if we had not arrived?” He gave a damn and did what he could to subvert colonization even while participating in it. As Ukrainians we came as pawns of the British to occupy the land, to lay the foundation of a nation by breaking the land. We made the land ours, like the old country, rich with agriculture by breaking the prairie wool and clearing the land. We brought our animals, our plants, our beliefs, our fears, and our hopes for a new beginning, a chance to survive, to exist. Ukraine’s existence was denied. We did not see what was here so much as we saw what we had lost and what we had been continually losing for centuries. We attempted to recreate our homeland because that was what we knew, what we desired, and what sustained us, nourished us. It was what we had fought for, lost our lives for, suffered for?… experienced rape, torture, and death. In 1885, when Poundmaker averted the massacre of his people, routed Otters’ militia and forced them to flee, serfdom for Ukrainians was abolished by the Austro–Hungarian Empire. We were yet indentured to the land, pawns of other nations who took the grain we produced as payments for the small bits of land that could not easily sustain our children, our grandchildren, and their grandchildren into the futures. We were still slaves. We had to buy our own land back from the conquerors.
Here we expanded. I was told that your people were forced to contract onto reserves and use passes to go off reserve. On your reserve, given by Treaty 6, Thunderchild Reserve, the land was taken yet again and sold to foreign buyers while your people were yet again forced off, dislocated onto poorer land. How did this affect your mother’s life, your life, Elwood?
There are few ecologies on earth as utterly transformed as Saskatchewan—this time by the plough. We wrote our names on the land with the seeds we brought. Wheat created a monopoly, expanded at the expense of local flora, fauna, and knowledge.
We did not know that like the Scottish who experienced the Clearances in Scotland and came for a new life in Canada, we were complicit in creating the echoes of the old violences here in the new country. We were after all invited, lured to come with promises of free land.
In 1972, papâmihâw asiniy—a connection between earth and sky, between Creator and Creations—makes a return engagement to the Plains region, this time on loan to the Royal Alberta Museum from the United Church of Canada.
I know you liked James, Elwood. You were one of the last people to speak with him while he was alive. He respected you and was grateful for how you treated our work.
James and I witnessed papâmihâw asiniy in forced confinement at the Royal Alberta Museum. Offerings are made there—tobacco and sweetgrass, sage and cloths. First Nations people don’t have to pay. I do. James put his hands on papâmihâw asiniy and held them there for a long time. Did he give or receive? We learned what we could about where papâmihâw asiniy fell. Could we find this sacred place? James was tired, weary from the battle and non-recognition. He collapsed in exhaustion at Rib Rocks. I rested. We found what we think is the site of papâmihâw asiniy’s landing, high on a hill. Prairie sage grows there.
We will not show it in photographs.
James prayed and made offerings. I joined him. We returned to the land at Murray Lake. The plants he has watered, lubestrok, came in small seeds in my great-grandmother’s pocket from Ukraine. It has grown large and strong. We ate from this plant and in the fall seeds are gathered so that it can be planted again. Each seed a choice, an action, a gesture of planting, a bending down to the land. James wrote my great-grandmother’s story. He put the word Ka kiss is kach e whak,2 Saskatchewan, in her mouth, a meal of river moving swiftly around a bend, a meal of land, a province.
I acknowledge to you, Elwood, that my family’s relocation dislocates First Nations just as we had been dislocated from our homes over all of those centuries. I acknowledge that with this awareness comes responsibility. Without taking responsibility for my privilege and for the acts of my grandparents I too become complicit in the ongoing systemic effects of colonization, racism, and non-recognition of the inherent rights and the extraordinary knowledges of First Nations, the laws of being specific to their nations and to the diversity of individuals.
By many accounts spread over centuries, papâmihâw asiniy grows heavier with time—heavier in McDougall’s farmyard, heavier in Winnipeg, heavier in Toronto.
Heavier with the burden of theft by the people who claim to own it and presume they can ‘loan’ it?
Heavier with the power and strength of a people, a power and strength—like papâmihâw asiniy—temporarily on loan and one day restored?
Coming to Canada gave my family possibilities to thrive, to diversify, and become more complex and innovative in the choices each member could make to create their own lives. These possibilities came at a great cost to you from a First Nation as immigration overcame the Indigenous, as plants and animals were destroyed or pushed aside. The choices for First Nations became truncated and limited within paradigms that were not their own. This stole strength. This stole identity. Marshall Forchuk is a descendent of a Ukrainian internee during WWI in Canada. Ukrainians, Serbians, Croatians, and others with Austro–Hungarian or German passports were imprisoned behind barbed wired like animals, called enemy aliens, and forced to labour for no reason other than where they were born. Forchuk said he learned from his father who escaped the camps,“You can steal my house, you can steal my car and you have taken nothing. But if you steal my identity like we did when we put First Nations kids into residential schools then you have really stolen something.” Ukrainians have only recently become white through assimilation, another loss of culture. All those centuries under duress we held our culture sacred. With wealth and security we too are losing culture and language—and, as James would say, our medicine bundles.
Privilege has come at too high a cost. Ukrainians in Canada became respected political leaders and professional in every field. Yet our silence about the injustices done to us re-forms too often in our silence in speaking out against the ongoing effects of colonization against First Nations and Métis. Do we have many of the old terrors of speaking out against authority and abuse? Are we unconsciously afraid of reprisals, being hurt in a less obvious way? Has it become normalized to become perpetrators by denying the truth, creating ongoing suffering? This is not how we think of ourselves. We think of ourselves as good people. Now we think of ourselves as people who have education, power, and authority—not as people who have been made crazy by the violence and abuse of others. Yet we are still in the cycle of violence?… polite and legal violence.
Within a contemporary context, papâmihâw asiniy synthesizes a number of very basic and universal concepts and laws of being. It also magnifies the challenges regarding the navigation and negotiation of the relationship between the Indigenous and the non-Indigenous—the world views, the people, the animals, the minerals, the plants—that define and mark the story of this place.
Elwood, I watch over and over in nature the violence and community building of plant and animal colonization, the unthinking ways in which plants and animals both dominate and cooperate in order to survive, create communities, and create endless adaptations. Can we think, I wonder, about what we are doing and make choices that embrace the richness of the diversity of nations, the deep wealth that creates possibilities for the planet as it has for us?
Can we acknowledge that we are a part of nature, all my relations’ points of views, the knowledges that First Nations have always shared freely with those who were attentive? We are not, as we would believe, the generous ones, although generosity is the basis of many immigrant cultures as much as First Nations cultures.
“You don’t understand,” James said, “Sharing is the law. The Land owns itself.”
Who loans the land? Who will restore the land? The waters?
By working with the land, with our communities, we can work towards spaces of
Are we there yet? No.
James’s best friend, Walter Wastesicoot, visiting now at this home on Murray Lake, was compelled to write the following in response to this text by Elwood and me: As a residential school Survivor, I have learned much of the colonizer’s malice. He offers me reconciliation while I have an outstanding case against him for sexual and physical abuse suffered while resident at one of his institutions of assimilation. He offers my people reconciliation while he holds our lands and resources in abeyance, ensuring our continued survival by his hand only. Reconciliation is said to be a personal privilege, offered to one who has made amends for past wrongs. Something is skewed in the colonizer’s offer of reconciliation. He carries with him centuries of shame, for which I and my people will continue to suffer in a marginalized existence in his hope for reconciliation.
Does taking responsibility for the effects of colonization diminish the shame?
But the seeds are there.
Seeds of Lubestrok and Stolen Strength are two works from a substantial body of work that Sandra and James used to trace and deepen the dialogue between the indigenous and the non-indigenous in Canada. James and Sandra recognized that their intercultural marriage was, in day-to-day life, an opportunity to make political, social, and psychological structures created by histories of colonialism, occupation of the land, and racism visible to themselves and others through their art practices. The late James Nicholas was Rock Cree from Nelson House, Manitoba. His great-grandfather was medicine man Pierre Moose. His parents, Lionel and Sarah, used traditional medicines to help their community. James grew up traditionally on the trapline. At the age of eight he was sent to residential school. In the 1970?s he studied in British Columbia working with Bob Manuel, son of native strategist George Manuel, while continuing his dialogues with political activists Rodney Spence and Phil Fontaine from Manitoba. He provided leadership to his community in education, economic development, and government-to-government liaison. In the 1990?s James relocated to Vancouver where he engaged the arts of acting, writing, and art. He made many collaborative works with his wife, Sandra Semchuk, and these challenge the known history of relations between First Nations and settler cultures. James was killed in 2007 when he fell from a cliff at a fishing camp on the Fraser River. Sandra is Ukrainian Canadian, a photographer and videographer. Sandra grew up in a grocery store in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan. Martin Semchuk was a socialist who helped bring in medicare to Saskatchewan. Her mother ran the grocery store. Sandra’s photographic collaborations and video works use autobiography and dialogue as the basis for recognition and identity. She collaborated with her father through four near-death experiences. As a partner in Treaties (where there are Treaties in Canada), member of the settler culture and widow of James Nicholas, Sandra tries to disrupt myths that historically have shaped settler relations to First Nations, using personal experience as a basis for storytelling. A number of collaborations with James are still in production after his death. Sandra teaches at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver and has recently completed a residency in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, sponsored by the Indigenous Peoples Artists Collective and Common Weal Community Arts. Her collaborations are exhibited nationally and internationally.
Elwood Jimmy is originally from the Thunderchild First Nation in west central Saskatchewan. Currently based in the city of Regina, he is the director of Sâkêwêwak Artists’ Collective, southeastern Saskatchewan’s centre for contemporary Aboriginal art production, presentation, and education. Apart from his work with Sâkêwêwak, Elwood works independently as an artist, curator, and writer. His work has been presented across Canada in several communities from British Columbia to Quebec and the Northwest Territories. ↩
- Elwood Jimmy acknowledges the following resources that were helpful in composing this interaction with Sandra’s and James’s artwork: The Alberta Encyclopedia and the Royal Alberta Museum; Cuthand, Doug (2007). Askiwina—A Cree World. Regina, SK: Coteau Books; the Blue Quills First Nations College website (available at: http://www.bluequills.ca/); and the words and thoughts of others, including my mom, who knew about the stone. ↩
- Ka kiss is kach e whak is the spelling of the Rock Cree word used by the late James Nicholas as he understood to be the basis for the word, Saskatchewan. It is this version of the word that appears in the photographic installation. ↩