I drive in to Wanuskewin Heritage Park and feel myself begin to relax. The site encapsulates everything I find beautiful about Saskatchewan. There is just something special about this place. Even the Cree word wānaskēwin means “being at peace with oneself”.
When I enter the gallery the first thing I notice is the familiar fragrance of sweetgrass lingering in the air from a smudge. I am reminded of traditional ceremonies I have attended in my life and the lessons I received from Indigenous elders at these gatherings. I smile at the memory. The gallery is a bright, open space with panoramic views of the snow-covered prairie plains and South Saskatchewan River.
Wanuskewin Park’s curator, Felicia Gay meets with me to discuss the current exhibitions. Together we enter a large room that is entirely devoted to four established local artists, two of whose names I recognize immediately. Tasha Hubbard was my Indigenous Literature professor, a woman whose lectures and involvement in the community inspired me greatly. Tasha’s short film “Buffalo Calling” plays on the wall.
Next to her film is the work of Ruth Cuthand, the other artist whose name I have heard before. Her paintings depict religious narratives Ruth was exposed to as a child, Mormon passages in their original form before they were revised to become more politically correct. The cartoonish style Ruth adapts from Dick and Jane gives the work a chilling power.
Across the space, however, there is a contrasting portrayal of western religion and Indigenous peoples in Sherry Farrell Racette’s work. Racette illustrates the history of Kateri, an Indigenous woman who was one miracle away from being canonized as a saint.
Archer Pechawis is the fourth artist featured in the exhibition. His digital presentation “Horse” is the story of the Battle of Bighorn as told through the perspective of a horse.
Felicia then directs me to the second gallery space that is entirely devoted to emerging artists. The room is filled with the colorful, eye- catching work of Kim Soo Goodtrack, a Lakota woman from Woodmountain Reserve. Felicia tells me that Kim’s great grandmother travelled with Sitting Bull to settle in Saskatchewan.
Next Felicia and I sit down to chat more about the arts scene in Saskatoon. In our conversation, she points out the apprehension felt by Indigenous peoples in visiting art galleries. I ask her to explain more. “Art galleries are very white male-centered spaces,” she says. “And Indigenous people feel uncomfortable about attending them.” Truthfully, this is something I had never thought about, and it hurt to hear. Art should be accessible for everyone.
We talk more about the purpose of Wanuskewin and its relationship to the community. Felicia tells me “it is important that Wanuskewin is not seen as a museum but as an art gallery.” We discuss Indigenous presence in the area that reaches back as far as six thousand years, and how the culture is not lost with the history. It is alive today, and the artistic work of contemporary artists is a reflection of that. For this reason, Wanuskewin
must not be considered a museum but a space for honoring and continuing the present Indigenous conversation.
My visit to Wanuskewin left me with an increased awareness to my community and home here on the Saskatchewan prairies. It is my hope that more people visit this space not only for the peace it brings the mind and renewal to the soul, but for the knowledge it provides.