The Witness Blanket

Jennefer J. Nepinak

My name is Animikiiyashik. I am an Anishinaabe Kwe of the Minegoziibe Anishinaabe First Nation. Makwa Dodem. My identity is embedded in the intricacies of where I come from a space where land, resources, culture, community, language and politics come together. I come from a long line of strong, kind and loving matriarchs. My grandmother’s love and guidance has shaped my worldview and as a result my life’s work and purpose is an extension of who I am. Because of who I am and where I come from, I often say that I was born into politics.

The principles of justice, fairness and equity have served as the foundation to my personal constitution for as long as I can remember. So it is no surprise that I chose to become a lawyer by way of western legal training. More importantly, however, I have always been eagerly immersed in traditional learnings with many Elders across Turtle Island throughout my lifetime. The benefit of my experience has helped me to understand and to conduct myself in a way that seeks to ensure that Indigenous ways of knowing and being are applied and honoured within my work. My recent role with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) was an incredible opportunity for me to apply these principles in a way I had never done to that point.

The agreement between the CMHR and artist Carey Newman related to the protection and use of The Witness Blanket was a new direction for the Museum. It is an example of the opportunities that exist to create new relationships that can unite Indigenous traditions and western legal concepts. This agreement, which was created through signed document as well as a traditional ceremony at Kumugwe, the K’ómoks First Nation Bighouse on Vancouver Island, marks the first time in Canadian history that a federal Crown Corporation has ratified a legally binding contract through Indigenous traditions.

The Witness Blanket is a powerful piece of art, made with over 800 items collected from the sites and survivors of Indian residential schools, government offices and churches across Canada. Each piece of the blanket tells a story: of loss, strength, resilience and pride. The braids of hair donated by Carey’s sisters, honouring their father and the children who had their hair cut when they arrived at the schools. A child’s shoe from Carcross Residential School, wrapped in sweetgrass, surrounded by sage and wrapped in red cloth. A door to the infirmary of St. Michaels Residential School, collected before the school was torn down in 2014.

It is vitally important not only because it shines a light on this dark chapter of Canada’s human rights history and the genocide committed by Canada against Indigenous Peoples, but also for the opportunity it offers to advance dialogue and action about genocide and reconciliation. The stories told through the objects help people better understand the impact of residential schools in terms of human realities and consequences; it bears witness to the lived experiences of people who attended residential schools, and the multi-generational legacy of the residential school system.

The relationship that was built between the CMHR and Carey Newman developed out of a shared commitment to honour the stories that are told in the Blanket and preserve those stories for future generations. The agreement between the Museum and Carey Newman is unique because it vests legal rights with the artwork itself as a living entity. The stories that are included in the Blanket were given to Carey by survivors, and it is this collection of stories – the blanket itself – with which the rights are vested. The agreement does not transfer legal ownership of the Witness Blanket to the Museum but creates shared responsibility for its physical and spiritual care and for making decisions in its best interests. The relationship between Carey and the Museum is one of collaboration, built on a strong relationship of shared understanding and respect.

Kwakwaka’wakw traditions and governance and Western contract law were given equal weight in this agreement. The written agreement was signed at an event at the CMHR in April 2019, followed by a ceremony near Carey’s traditional territory at Kumugwe in October 2019. The ceremony was facilitated by chief and spiritual leader Wedlidi Speck, head of the Gixsam namima (clan) of the Kwagul people.

The Witness Blanket agreement is important because it emphasizes that Indigenous worldviews do not exist solely in the past, separate from the contemporary world.

The ceremony included song and dance and the presence of an ancestors’ mask, with Carey and Museum president and CEO John Young each stating their purpose and intentions for the stewardship of the Witness Blanket. Respected witnesses from the Kwakaka’wakw community, youth, elders and people with connections to the project then reflected on their responsibilities as storykeepers and memory holders. This was followed by a feast in the tradition of potlatch, acknowledging the gift of the agreement and the deep relationship that has been forged.

The Witness Blanket agreement is important because it emphasizes that Indigenous worldviews do not exist solely in the past, separate from the contemporary world. Indigenous people have rich, complex and layered processes and systems that are very much in force and utilized today. This experience has created ownership and responsibility, in a good way, for everyone involved in the relationship.

Museums have an opportunity to serve as a catalyst in reframing this understanding. To allow for flexible and fluid partnerships with Indigenous Peoples and communities in our work inclusion has to be step number one of the process to ensure that privilege does not lead. We need to look beyond western frameworks and definitions. Meaningful and respectful exploration of the collaboration processes is the key. We have been confined to historical frameworks that do not always work and we must consider who decides what experiences fall under the larger accepted umbrella of ‘understanding’.

The onus is on leadership within institutions to support this tone at the top to further create an internal understanding on how to move forward with these collaborations, in a good way. Further, these relationships require meaningful engagement, time and resources while recognizing the need for diverse approaches and a move away from the ‘one size fits all model’. By envisioning and supporting meaningful and respectful partnerships with Indigenous Peoples and communities we can find ourselves in culturally competent spaces. In the end, that is a benefit to us all.

Jennefer J. Nepinak

Jennefer is Anishinaabe from Treaty 4 territory and a member of the Minegozhiibe Anishinaabe Nation (Pine Creek First Nation). Jennefer is fluent in Ojibwe and is a strong and passionate leader firmly rooted in the Indigenous community. Jennefer’s approach works to ensure that Indigenous ways of knowing and being are recognized and incorporated in all that she does.

Jennefer is an experienced lawyer and advisor and is currently serving as the Associate Vice President, Indigenous Engagement at the University of Winnipeg. She has over 25 years of political, government and business experience and is skilled at initiating collaborative processes that involve numerous cross sector partners and stakeholders. Her past roles include Senior Advisor, Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Executive Director of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba. She had also held several leadership positions within both federal and provincial government departments, First Nations governments and in house counsel for the West Region Tribal Council.

Jennefer holds a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Justice (1997), a Bachelor of Laws (2000), a Certificate in the Directors Education Program (2018) and is in the process of completing a Master’s Degree in Indigenous Governance. She also sits on and chairs various boards and committees and is an active member of the Manitoba Law Society.

The terminology and definitions of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit do not capture all Indigenous people; they are colonial terms. There is a major challenge in defining who is Indigenous.

Tony Belcourt