Friday, October 24, 2008
memory box for Alice
[click on the image to enlarge]
When RedShoes, my writing group, had a prompt on mapping this summer, I decided to put together a series of visual representations to map the spaces I walk in the morning. As usual, my creative imagination was bigger than my practical application. I started by drawing a map to McVicar's Creek from my house. My clumsy attempts frustrated me as my hand wasn't able to translate the vision in my mind. I hadn't done much in the way of drawing for years. What was I thinking, anyway? You can't just leave something unattended and then expect to take it up where you left off.
So, next I decided to forget trying to capture a linear, accurate-to-scale map, which at the rate I was going would take days, and many sheets of paper and much re-drawing and starting anew, for me to draw all the way to the Wilson St. headland, never mind beyond. I thought of some of the ideas of bio-regional mapping that I'd read in Boundaries of Home: Mapping for Local Empowerment, a book edited by Doug Aberley that Michele had lent me, so I decided to list all the birds and wildflowers that I have seen on my walks along the creek and shoreline and put those names on the map, rather than street names. After all, aren't the beings that inhabit the place more significant than the frame provided by the manly mapmakers of municipalities who named the streets after themselves and their stories?
My work was taking too long and I was getting clumsier and more frustrated, realizing that what I had behind my eyes was a project that rightfully would need weeks, if not months, of careful sketching and colouring and .... So, I decided, I'll get to Lake Superior and then do something else. So, I collected flowers that I found on the ground by my feet.
At the same time, I had been asked by some of the women at Anishnawbi Mushkiki to join them in making quill boxes. Pauline, an Elder from up Timmins way, was coming in to teach how to make quill boxes. I decided on the spot, Yes! I would love to learn how to make a quill box. Little did I know....but, I digress. The story of my quill box is coming; this is not that story.
I somehow ended up with 2 circular pieces of birch bark meant for the cover of my quill box. Once at home I thought, hmmm. What to do with this pretty circle of birch bark? Alice Quoquat Netemegeesic's name came to my mind. I had found her name earlier by chance when I had been searching history about McVicar's Creek for my bio-regional mapping; I found her name on a list of murdered and missing First Nations women of Ontario. Other women from the NWO region are noted on the same webpage. Alice had been murdered along the path of the creek back in the 70s, the same path that I love, that is such a peaceful haven, that is an oasis, a creative wellspring, a sanctuary...well, it might have been those for Alice, too, but it was also a place of death for her. It really bothered me that she was murdered there and that no one was ever convicted. I decided to pay my respects to Alice by including her somehow in my bioregional map. Her history is there where I walk, although it had been unknown to me; indeed her invisible death is part of many. I decided to make a small plaque for Alice from the birch bark circle. So, I wrote her name and the few details that I knew about her, marked the circle into quadrants to symbolize the 4 directions, and stitched fresh sweet grass around the edge with red wool, red wool that I'd gotten from Alli, my elderly Finnish lady friend, who had knit me a pair of red wool socks. It took me all night to make the circle.
After making the circle for Alice, I wondered, how should I incorporate it with my other pieces? At the same time, the Walk4Justice group had arrived in Thunder Bay from the West Coast and held a commemorative ceremony for First Nations women at the lake front. I was going to bring what I made for Alice there but I decided against it. I decided instead to go and listen to what they had to say. After the ceremony, I thought, I should place Alice's circle in its own safe sacred space, in my own small way grant her the dignity she had been denied and acknowledge her death, so I decided to make her a memory box. I needed a special box. I ransacked my cupboards and closets looking, then, I thought of the cedar box my dad had given me years ago, probably 20 years ago. It had held salmon from the West Coast. The box was so nice that I'd kept it, although it was only ever empty; forgotten at the bottom of a box in my garage where I eventually found it.
The artist's name is in the corner, but I can't make it out.
Inside the box, I placed the birch bark circle, rose petals and sage from my garden (they filled the box like a cushion, but now are paper dry morsels!), sewed a small butterscotch square stuffed with tobacco, organic tobacco from Lebanon, and wrote down some words onto a small card. I felt that another First Nations woman's words would have the healing power to talk to Alice's spirit.
I searched through Jeannette Armstrong's poetry book, BreathTracks, for the words. This slim book of poetry was one of the first poetry books I read cover to cover. The first poetry book I ever bought. Jeannette Armstrong's words are very powerful and healing. I knew I would find a poem for Alice, and sure enough, I found it: Sahapxenelks Our Matriarch.
When I opened the box today, the scent of cedar, sage, rose, and sweetgrass slipped out to caress my nose. I made the memory box early in the summer, and what a surprise today greeted me: today I received an email from a woman who had come across the photo of the birch back circle I had made for Alice as I had posted it on the Facebook group, Full Moon Memory Walk. Her words are the postscript:
"I just saw the photo of the circle you made for Alice for your memory box ...
it is so beautiful ...
her children were all put in CAS/adoptions ... 4 or 5 sons, 1 daughter who lives somewhere in Vancouver The last # I have for one of the sons was a Native men's residence in Toronto ... I will try and find him so he can see what you did for his mother"