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Healing Through Art: Regalia Confronts Boarding School Fallout in Thunder Bay Exhibit

Two Anishinabe artists confront boarding school fallout with art that melds photographs, regalia and family stories in Thunder Bay Art Gallery, Canada
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The idea came together, as all good ideas should, in the kitchen.

“How it came about was around Leanna’s kitchen table,” recalled Celeste Pedri-Spade.

At that table, Pedri-Spade and Leanna Marshall, two working mothers and artists, discovered they both were developing art linked to family and community history.

From that table, they merged their work into a two-month-long exhibition at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery that opened on June 24 and runs through early September.

Photo: Courtesy Celeste Pedri-Spade

Always With Me, beaded powwow choker with photograph findings by Celeste Pedri-Spade.

Photographs and family histories inspired these Anishinabekwe, Ojibwe women, to create The Teaching is in The Making: Re(Store)ied Memories of Anishinabeg.

Marshall uses family stories to inspire her special collection of jingle dresses, plus one set of jingle pants and a button-up-shirt created as a playful way to encourage culture to adapt as well as honor the past.

“I made eight jingle dresses, and each of those jingle dresses tells a story that was told mostly from my mom, from my aunties—most of the dresses are honoring tradition in our family,” Marshall said.

“I’ll give you a history of how my project came to be,” Marshall continued. “My mom’s a residential school survivor, and she and I have had a really tumultuous relationship. That always had really perplexed me.”

It wasn’t until Marshall’s mother, Charlotte Childforever Marten, spoke before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Alberta that the “why” came out for her daughter. Half a country away, she watched online as her mother described her trauma in the residential school.

“That had a deep, deep impact on me,” Marshall said. “It was amazing for me to witness, being a young mother and going through some of my own stuff. The majority of my life, I’ve been carrying this anger inside, wondering, ‘Where does it come from? Who can I blame?’ When I heard her story, that’s when I realized that I needed to do something about that anger. I needed to make something, and that was the jingle dress. When I’m in it, it heals me; I’m in a space that I’m at peace. It’s like you’re a living prayer, almost.”

Photo: Nadya Kwandibens

Artist Leanna Marshall walks on a frozen Lake Superior wearing her jingle dress creation “She Swims with Fishes,” memorializing the missing and murdered indigenous women. "My friend's father wondered how many women have been dumped overboard into Lake Superior from the ships."

For Pedri-Spade, a relationship with a photograph of her grandmother inspired her current art.

“It started with a photograph of my grandmother taken back in 1962,” she said. “It was taken of her in Kashabowie, and she was pregnant with my mother in the photograph. I hadn’t seen her at that age before. When I was gifted this photo years back, it was like someone gave me a bar of gold.”

A residential school experience colored her grandmother’s life as well, Pedri-Spade said.

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“My grandmother didn’t go to residential school, but her father did,” she said. “Literally, he was a survivor of residential school, and when he got out, he kept his family away. He protected them. He lived with his children and wife on an island.”

He kept Pedri-Spade’s grandmother out of school, she said, “because I think he knew firsthand the violence that took place within these schools.”

Photographs have always brought a missing piece of family history to Pedri-Spade. Soon she discovered other old photographs, of her family and of others.

“For me, these photos taught me so much,” she said. “They helped me to learn about people.”

In a dream, Pedri-Spade received a vision to create regalia items out of photographs of her family and ancestors. As she carried out this work, she found her relationship to her ancestors grow stronger.

“With hundreds of years of that colonial violence, we sometimes don’t have those intergenerational connections that we need to be strong,” she said.

Photo: Courtesy Celeste Pedri-Spade

Detail of the Celeste Pedri-Spade dress titled “Roses,” with the bag titled “Shirley’s Tobacco Bag.”

Calling on the help of her Anishinabe family and friends, Celeste also created a set of “repeat” photographs based on the historical photographs of other Anishinabeg. She took photographs of the descendants in similar poses or places, and the results of “Then and Now” are powerful and uplifting.

All of these works are represented at the exhibition, which both artists viewed with joy and trepidation.

“I think that it’s hard, when moving from the personal to the public,” Pedri-Spade said.

These personal stories, though, have a communal resonance.

“Both of our collections are very deeply personal, and for me, personally, it’s nerve-wracking being vulnerable,” Marshall said. “Some of the stories are very painful, some of them are funny, some of them are wise—but they all are healing. Across Turtle Island, there is a collective grief and trauma that we, as indigenous people, all carry. For me, creating these dresses is a way to heal and to create change within myself, my family and my community. It is my hope that the dresses will affect others in a good way.”

Photo: Courtesy Celeste Pedri-Spade

Jean Tenniscoe embraces her son Louis somewhere on the family trapline circa early 1950s.

Photo: Courtesy Celeste Pedri-Spade

Dawn Sawdo-Aho, granddaughter of Jean Tenniscoe, embraces her son Reid on Lac des Mille Lacs First Nation territory, 2014.