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  • Kay Miller

IOH 2: Surprising, Intimate, Groundbreaking, Emotional

But There's No Scar II, 2017 (detail) • Catherine Blackburn, English River First Nation Dene/European Glass beads, deer hide, wood, leather, canvas and nylon thread Courtesy of National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, CAN ©Catherine Blackburn Photo by Tenille Campbell

It speaks volumes when a critic like Minnesota Public Radio’s Alex Cipolle entreats listeners to make a return visit to a museum exhibition. Go again, she urged on Jan. 11’s All Things Considered. See In Our Hands one more time, before it closes. This groundbreaking show is one, she said, that hit a nerve, a heartstring, that filled a void with its “astounding array of images that are full of love, history, play, community, resilience, protest and aching.” 


It is all that and more.


Those of us touring IOH found an exhibition embedded with stories that will never leave us.


On a tour in early January, Catherine Blackburn’s work pulls visitors from the opposite side of Gallery 3. The piece is physically alluring: An animal skin, alabaster white, stretched taut across a frame. At its center, an explosion of color: red, pink, black, blue.

But There's No Scar II, 2019 • Catherine Blackburn, English River First Nation Dene/European Glass beads, deer hide, wood, leather, canvas and nylon thread Courtesy of Kenderdine Art Gallery ©Catherine Blackburn Photo by Tenille Campbell

Twenty visitors form a semi-circle around the work. “It’s a galaxy,” one says tentatively. “No, a nebula, I think,” offers another. More descriptions follow: A spiraling Fibonacci! A fingerprint, one that identifies, but leaves its name unspoken. In a sense all those descriptions are spot on. The work is cosmic, spiraling, and profoundly identifying.


The visitors draw closer still. “Oh! It’s beads!” A long pause. “This must have taken forever.”


Not forever. But a lifetime. Longer even: Generations.


“It’s a bruise,” I say. But one not visible on the outside. Internal, unseen, insidious. The result of traumatic generational harm done to Blackburn’s Cold Lake First Nations Dene Suline people. Blackburn calls it, But There’s No Scar II. As if we expect wounds that deep to be visible.


In the early 1950s, the Canadian government turned traditional Dene Suline territory into an air weapons range. Once nomadic, the Dene lost access to their lands and were relocated to three small reserves near Cold Lake, Alberta. Most of their children were sent away to Catholic residential schools far from the reserve, with only brief visits home. Those schools had a devastating impact on the Dene language and way of life. Poet Robert Bly says that a boy needs a man to take him to his heart. In truth, all children need that, but especially to learn language, culture, lifeways, and values at the sides of elders who take them to their hearts.


Blackburn’s mother was one of those sent-away children. And Catherine grew up not knowing her Native tongue or ways. So much was lost. “Speaking to my grandma, as our conversation gets skewed and distorted with our language barriers, now makes me smile,” Blackburn wrote in an essay.  “Like the other day when we were somehow talking about my struggle with shingles. (I don’t have shingles.) I’ve grown to not be ashamed of how I don’t speak or understand the Dene language.”

A friend taught Blackburn the beading skills that she wished she could have learned from her grandmother, Christine George.


“Not so long ago, this very art form was banned by missionaries and the federal government as a tactic of assimilation — just as all other art forms of song and dance, along with prayer and language were,” Blackburn has said. “Indigenous identity was affected to its very core.”


Through that era, Catherine Blackburn’s grandmother beaded. The ban forbade it. So, she beaded flowers secretly. Her personal form of resistance.


In homage to her grandmother, Blackburn has taken on beading as her own art, a mirror of resistance, but more, as a means of reclaiming her own identity and Dene sovereignty. Tattooed on either side of her eyes, Blackburn now carries traditional markings in Dene syllabics, a floral pattern from her grandmother, who has passed on. As she beads, Blackburn often thinks of her and of the others who persevered to save their culture.


Visitors listen as the story of Blackburn’s art unfolds. One quietly says, “This is timeless. It is today, and yesterday, and tomorrow.”

It is but one story of hundreds embedded in the 160 works that Native artists shared with us through In Our Hands. True histories, long suppressed or erased.  Stories that are touching, edgy, sly, ironic, and so very intimate. Timeless stories that go back a thousand years and more. Stories that tell us who the teller is, and leave lingering images that make us question who we are and who we have taken to our own hearts.


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1 Comment

Maria Eggemeyer
Maria Eggemeyer
Apr 16

Kay, your piece is moving; it cuts right to the heart. You paint the whole picture with words. Thank you. María

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