Kaitlyn Charlie helps with the final touches of Lianne Charlie’s pink moose installation piece at the Yukon Arts Centre in Whitehorse on Dec. 3. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

“To Talk With Others” gives Yukon First Nations artists a chance to reflect on old conversations

Show inspired by the minutes of a meeting between Yukon First Nations leaders and Pierre Trudeau

The bull moose stands in the middle of the gallery space, towering over the comparatively tiny humans scurrying by.

In shape, it is unmistakable — a proud rack perched on top of a long face, a dewlap hanging from its thick neck, a shoulder hump breaking up the smooth curve of the creature’s back.

In appearance, though, it is unmissable — for starters, it’s hot pink, and its antlers, covered in gold, are life-size, though not necessarily life-like. The papier-mâché sculpture is made out of pages of the Umbrella Final Agreement.

The unique sight is one of several pieces that make up the newest show at the Yukon Arts Centre. Entitled “To Talk With Others”, it features the work of five Yukon artists who were asked to create art inspired by, or in response to, the minutes of a 1977 meeting between then-prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau and five Yukon First Nations leaders on the then-approved Mackenzie Pipeline.

The project was the brainchild of Valerie Salez, the only non-Indigenous artist in the show, who came across the meeting minutes in the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in archives about a decade ago.

“It was almost just like a fantasy or a funny idea that we could make a project out of these minutes of a meeting, what happened for First Nations people in the Yukon between that time, the early ‘70s, up until now, and it never felt like it was going to get done,” Salez said in an interview Dec. 3, three days before the show’s opening.

But two years ago, Salez continued, cultural context, along with funding and artistic will, all aligned. Pierre Elliott Trudeau speaking to First Nations leaders about the Mackenzie pipelines mirrors Justin Trudeau today speaking to First Nations about the Trans Mountain Pipeline, she explained, and in the North, the threat of industrial activity in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge against the wishes of First Nations looms ever large.

The show serves as both a reflection on the past, Salez said, as well as an analysis of the present and future, and how the government’s relationships with Indigenous peoples have — or haven’t — changed since the ‘70s, using the minutes as a launching point.

For that reason, Salez said, it was a natural choice for her to invite Indigenous artists to participate in the show, their only instructions being that their pieces be a response in some way to the meeting minutes.

“It just made sense — of course they should be responding to that. That’s been about their grandparents and their great-grandparents and their mothers and fathers, their aunties and uncles,” she said.

For her contribution, Salez brought a custom-made wooden board table across the territory and asked First Nations people what they thought should no longer be up for negotiation anymore — and then to take the table wherever they saw fit to perform the non-negotiable practice on it.

The table, once pristine and varnished, now carries the evidence of its travels: an elder in Teslin scraped moose hide on it, leaving tufts of the animals fur stuck in the cracks; the Selkirk Spirit Dancers danced on it; participants in the Carcross Single Track to Success put the table on their trails and jumped it with their bikes, leaving skid marks; it is also stained with caribou blood and cranberry juice.

Salez filmed all the activities with a drone; the video footage will play on a wall behind the table in the gallery.

Ken Anderson, a Tlingit/Scandinavian artist from Teslin, made two sculptures for the show inspired by the minutes, both prominently featuring large pieces of black pipe. One is them is called “The Mosquito Becomes Me,” which sees a carved mosquito mask mounted on a stand made of pipe. It’s meant to be an interactive piece, where attendees can step behind the mask and look through the eyes, and references a common story, Anderson said.

“It sort of starts with … the Cannibal Man, and then they take him and they capture him and they burn him up, and the smoke and the ashes turn into the mosquito,” Anderson explained. “And so (the piece is) sort of meant to reference just the newcomers to the land and things like that, (they were) almost like mosquitos, right? So one came and then more came and more came… So you are meant to stand behind the mask and become the mosquito.”

Lianne Charlie is the artist behind the show’s most eye-grabbing piece, the papier-mâché pink moose. She created it with the help of volunteers, and, among other things, has also made a paper “moose hide” out of Yukon First Nations settlement land maps and a paper baby belt, too.

“One of the questions I’m asking (is about) this reliance on paper that we have that I see sort of happening in our politics … we go to these laws, these policies, we go to regulations, it’s all on paper, and we go to these things to determine how we interact with each other, how we make decisions, what we do or not do,” she said.

“And we, as Indigenous people, we would have gone to the land to do all these things … All our decisions, all our governance, would have been being made in relationship with and in response to the land. And here, it’s paper that now does that, so paper is across all my projects, and one of the fundamental questions I’m asking is, can a paper baby belt hold a baby? Can we make the things that we need out of a paper hide, that will allow us to be out on the land and survive and get food and look after each other and be who we are?”

Besides the stunning end results, Charlie said the process of creating the paper moose was “incredibly revealing” too, both for the youth that helped in its creation and had never interacted with a document like the Umbrella Final Agreement before, and herself.

“(There were) lots of parallel metaphors and parallel stories, like, what does it mean that I’ve grown up a way and I don’t know how to hunt a moose, but I’ve made one? I don’t know how to tan hide, but I’ve made one,” she said.

“And I’m thinking about researching the shape (of a moose), spending so much time feeling that body, thinking about how things should look, getting so intimate with this being, I think, in a way that mirrors the intimacy like cultural practitioners that know about hunting and know about tanning hide …

“This is emotional for me because as Indigenous people, we are having to navigate a lot of disconnection and we have to work so hard to start bringing all these pieces back together. So I think right now, I’m sad that I don’t know how to tan hide and I don’t have the skillset to hunt with a bow and arrow, to be out on the land in that way, to do things that our ancestors would recognize.

“But the skills that have come through working with people to make these things are valuable too, and that they count and they are moving us towards reconnection, whatever that’s going to look like, but the values are there, the intentions are always present.”

“To Talk With Others,” which also features the work of artists Doug Smarch Jr. and Joseph Tisiga, is at the Yukon Arts Centre until Feb. 23, 2019.

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

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The pink moose installation piece by Lianne Charlie at the Yukon Arts Centre is covered in bits of the Umbrella Final Agreement in Whitehorse on Dec. 3. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Artist Lianne Charlie show part of “With a Bow and Arrow” to family friend Courtney Terriah during installation day at the Yukon Arts Centre in Whitehorse on Dec. 3. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

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