Changing Relationships

Carey Newman
Witness Blanket Ceremony.
Witness Blanket Ceremony. Photo by Jessica Sigurdson, Canadian Museum of Human Rights.

My name is Carey Newman. My traditional name is Hayalthkin’geme. On my father’s side, my ancestors are from the Kwakwaka’wakw and Sto:lo First Nations. On my mother’s side, they are English, Irish and Scottish. Growing up, this multitude often made me question my cultural identity,but over time it became clear that my experience growing up as a First Nations person in a country founded by colonialism has had the greatest influence on defining both my artistry and my world view. It is from this place of understanding that I made the Witness Blanket. It is also where I write from now.

In the summer of 2017, the impact of more than 4 years of travel had begun to trace its way onto varied surfaces of the Witness Blanket. Until then, I regarded each scuff and dent as part of its unique collection of histories; evidence of the many hands that helped to uncrate, install and bless this installation by the ceremonial ways of each traditional territory it visited. Along the way the Blanket gathered experiences, stories, offerings of medicine and new objects, growing figuratively and literally over many stops and uncounted kilometers. Eventually, the weight of it all began to strain ever so slightly on the structure and, with the best interest of the artwork in mind, it became apparent that the time had arrived to call it in from the road.

Even though I knew that the day would inevitably come, with the tour booked well into 2021 I had not yet made plans for a long-term installation. However, I had thought of several possible locations, one of which was the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR). Besides the allure of the building itself and the opportunity to place residential school history and colonial genocide amongst other global human rights abuses and atrocities, the CMHR sits at the fork of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers in Winnipeg, the cross-roads of Indigenous trade routes that predate Canada. This makes it a powerful symbolic location for a collection of pieces and stories about the concentric trauma of colonialism to live out its life. This, combined with the relationships formed when CMHR hosted the Witness Blanket during the initial tour, made the museum my first call.

Growing up, this multitude often made me question my cultural identity, but over time it became clear that my experience growing up as a First Nations person in a country founded by colonialism has had the greatest influence on defining both my artistry and my world view.

At our first meeting to discuss the possibility of the CMHR acquiring the Witness Blanket for their permanent collection, the only thing that I knew for certain was that I didn’t want this
to become a normal transaction, where I sold ownership of my artwork as I had done so many times before. From the initial idea, through the collection of pieces and eventual building
of the work, my understanding of and relationship with the Witness Blanket has changed. As a carver, I have been taught to respect the materials I use, a concept embedded within the traditional teachings of respecting the past, honouring the present and taking responsibility for the future. It is also related to the Kwakwaka’wakw ways of a̱wi’nakola – being one with the land, air, waters, heaven and everything within these realms. But as residential school Survivors and community members entrusted me with their personal keepsakes and memories, I could see that by changing my medium from raw material to gathered objects, and my process from solitary carving to community engaged assemblage, I had taken on a different level of responsibility. Each object had a unique history that carried many meanings and relationships. I was no longer responsible only to the tree I carved, or animal whose body I incorporated into my work; I was responsible to each of the multiple stories held within each piece gathered, to the people who entrusted them to me, and also to the collective truth that together they would represent.

This wasn’t something that was mine to own. I was part of a larger narrative, and although I felt ownership of my creative process, I never thought of the Witness Blanket as a piece of property. This meant that it was not mine to sell, but in transferring the artwork into the care of the museum, I wanted to ensure that its inherent value was acknowledged. So how do you sell something that isn’t yours? You don’t. Instead of treating it as an inanimate asset, I took inspiration from the way Kwakwaka’wakw think of our sacred masks as living ancestors – singing them awake from slumber when it is time for ceremony, and asked that we place all the legal rights associated with the agreement upon the Witness Blanket, as an entity unto itself. Instead of setting a transaction price, I asked if the museum would invest into the blanket, the same amount of money that went into building it in the first place. This meant that we could do things like pay to restore and conserve the original blanket, make a replica to travel in its place, make freely available the documentary that tells some of the story of the blanket’s meaning, creation and inspiration, and eventually establish a legacy project.

I could no more give up responsibility than I could sell the Witness Blanket, so instead, we became partners in stewardship. Because we agreed that all rights rest with the Blanket, rather than negotiating to protect and indemnify ourselves from every conceivable contingency, we were able to focus on shared responsibilities. By making the small change of focusing responsibility instead of rights, the negotiation became less positional and we developed a collaborative method for making decisions in the best interest of the artwork and the stories it carries. This was an agreement based in relationship, not only with each other, but also with the Witness Blanket.

Working together we were able to articulate our visions for the future of the Blanket and our relationships into words and write them onto paper in the form of a legal contract. Yet, once written on paper, language has a way of changing its meaning when read by a different person, in a different context or time. I knew that not all of those who were part of establishing this agreement would be around to uphold our intentions in the future, so for a solution I turned to my traditions once again. This time taking up the practice of passing our ways through generations by the oral telling and retelling of stories. In ceremonies we call witnesses and pay them to remember and share the things that they saw. So, we agreed that once we came to terms in a written contract, we would enact it through traditional ceremony.

On October 16th, 2019, in a Bighouse named Kumugwe on the K’omoks First Nation, a ceremony was held to uplift the stewardship agreement between me and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. The words spoken there by me and former CMHR CEO John Young were reflected upon by the witnesses called. We danced, we feasted, and together we now share the responsibility of looking after the Witness Blanket.

I am a sculptor of the tangible and intangible. To transform wood, stone and steel, and to arrange and connect the pieces that make up the Witness Blanket, my hands and my tools are the same as any. But the tools that shape the intangible are an array of inspirations and ideas that join forces with my labour and the thoughts of others to push against, however imperceptibly, the edges of the realities we know, shaping and reshaping our relationships with the world around us. I am, in turn, transformed by the process itself. In the same way that my people believe we are the land and the land is us, I am both the maker and the medium, a tool that shapes and is reshaped itself by the process of creating and by the reflections and thoughts of others. This is an evolution that continues time over time and it led me to making this agreement in this way.

Relationships can be considered on multiple levels. Like my relationship with my artwork, the significance of this agreement and the relationship that it governs will transform over time. But for the moment, it is an example of a museum and crown corporation, that carries the fraught histories of both institutions, changing their relationship with an artist and a work of art. It is an example of decolonizing a legal process by imagining and approaching things differently. It is the acceptance of differences and finding a way to uplift the good in both perspectives. Hemaas – that is everything. Gilakasla.

Carey Newman

Carey Newman, whose traditional name is Hayalthkin’geme, is a multi-disciplinary Indigenous artist, master carver, filmmaker, author and public speaker. Through his father he is Kwakwak’awakw from the Kukwekum, Giiksam, and WaWalaby’ie clans of northern Vancouver Island, and Coast Salish from Cheam of the Sto:lo Nation along the upper Fraser Valley. Through his mother his ancestors are Settlers of English, Irish, and Scottish heritage. In his artistic practice he strives to highlight Indigenous, social, and environmental issues as he examines the impacts of colonialism and capitalism, harnessing the power of material truth to unearth memory and trigger the necessary emotion to drive positive change. He is also interested in engaging with community and incorporating innovative methods derived from traditional teachings and Indigenous worldviews into his process.

Highlights from his career include being selected as the master carver of the Cowichan 2008 Spirit Pole, a journey that saw him travel the province of BC sharing the carving experience of carving a 20’ totem with over 11,000 people, a major commission entitled “Dancing Wind” installed at the 2010 Olympic Games, Athlete’s Village in Whistler, premiering the documentary he wrote and co-directed at the Vancouver International Film Festival as well as publishing his first book. He also continues to create for and consult with corporations, government agencies, collectors and museums around the world.

Perhaps his most influential work, The Witness Blanket, made of items collected from residential schools, government buildings and churches across Canada, deals with the subject of Truth and Reconciliation. It is now part of the collection at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Carey was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal in 2017 and was named to the Order of British Columbia in 2018 and he is the current Audain Professor of Contemporary Art Practice of the Pacific Northwest at the University of Victoria.