Gaia: Tell us a bit about yourself. What's your background?
I was reading on your website that you are Asiniskawiyiniwak (Rocky Cree) First Nations. Can you tell us more about your lineage, your band and what region of Turtle Island you come from?
You also mention that you come from a long line of artists and you mention your Mother, also known as Half Moon Woman as one of them. Can you tell us more about her and her influence on the art that you create now?
Medicine Bear: I am from Thompson, Manitoba, which is very far north of Winnipeg. My ancestry is Cree, and I come from a place called Pukatawagan and a place called South End Reindeer Lake. My grandmother was from the White Bear Clan, and my grandfather was from the Wolf Clan. I am also of German and Swiss descent. My grandparents migrated from Germany in the late 1800s, and they were farmers in Saskatchewan. My other grandfather migrated to Canada. He was Swiss and German and he married a Cree woman.
I was brought up in northern Manitoba, and I was sharing a story with my nephew about how we used to play in the forest all day, every day. We were mischievous boys, like most. We built forts. We made fires, snowboarded, and played hockey. We trapped animals, hunted and fished. I come from a long lineage of First Nations artists. My grandmother, Lady of the Thunderbirds, was a very special lady. I'll share a little bit about her story.
Farley Mowat, the famous Canadian author, decided it would be a good idea to steal my family's stories and tell them in his own light. He answered an ad in the Winnipeg newspaper from a man by the name of Dr. Francis Harper, who worked at the Smithsonian out of Washington, DC. He was traveling on the train from The Pas, Manitoba to Churchill, Manitoba, and he overheard a man talking about his daughter being lost in minus thirty to minus forty conditions for eleven days. That was my grandmother. She was traveling with her brothers on dog sleds. She had her dog team in between their two dog teams because there was a white-out and they wanted her to stay in the middle. But when they arrived home, she was nowhere to be found. They didn't know what to say. They were scared to go in and tell their dad. His name was John Schwader. They finally got the courage to go into the cabin and tell their dad that Ilsa was nowhere to be found, and that they needed to go look for her right now. Their dad said, "You can't go out right now. It's too stormy out there. We gotta wait til the storm clears."
Once the storm cleared they went looking for her but they couldn't find her. Everyone in the neighborhood was searching for my grandmother. What happened was she knew that the caribou were going a certain direction. They lived in a land that they called the Land of the Little Sticks because it was the edge of the treeline on the Northwest Territory-Manitoba border at a place called the Windy River Trading Posts. (First it was Hudson Bay Trading Post, and then it was a Revillon Fur Trading Post, which was a French fur trading company). And so she was separated from them. Now she had to let go of her dogs, because she knew if they got hungry, they would turn on her. And of course they wouldn't listen. So she had to let the dogs go because she had no food to feed them. Farley Mowat in his fantasy-full story said that my grandma had killed the dogs and ate them. That was in his book, People of the Deer. there's also parts of our family story in Never Cry Wolf, Lost in the Barrens, and No Man's River, the last book that he wrote where he used everybody's names, and he slandered my family and told a bunch of fantastical lies that he had spent eighteen days with my family with Dr. Francis Harper, because of what happened on the train after the man had heard the story of my grandma being lost.
By the way, my grandma was found on day eleven by a man named Ragnar Johnson, who was a legendary trapper/hunter in the northern regions of Manitoba. Anyway, if you want more information on it, you can contact me about it (email@example.com).
Farley Mowat and Dr. Francis Harper said to my grandfather, "Would you be able to take us to find some animals?" because they were on an expedition to find animals for examples in the Smithsonian. There's a black wolf in the Smithsonian, probably in the archives now, that my family hunted and sold to the Smithsonian. But what they did is they asked if they could take them up, and my grandfather and my uncle said, "Sure, we can take you up." They were master hunters, so during those eighteen days that Farley Mowat spent with my family, he was taking notes and jotting down different things he was hearing from their stories in his journal. Then he took those notes and he created the stories in his books and stole our family stories and we've never seen a penny.
My grandmother survived that ordeal. They were going to chop her feet off, because her toes were all black from frostbite. And the doctor had said, "We're going to chop her feet off." My grandpa said, "You're not going to chop her feet off," and they use this salve that my great grandmother had--she was a pure Cree woman. She created this salve and put it on her feet, and then my grandmother was able to walk about six months later. My grandfather said, "She'll crawl the rest of her life. We're not taking off her feet." And my grandma drove around in her car till she was 87. She died, I believe it's three years ago now. And she was a legendary elder in northern Manitoba. She was an elder at all of the elementary schools as well as the University of the North and the high school. And they would get her to come and do beadwork with the children and tell stories about her "Farley Mowat adventures" or whatever. They wanted her to tell the true story and set the record straight about what had happened to her when she was lost. And she was also a master seamstress making mukluks and moccasins and gauntlets and all that kind of stuff. And so, each of the children who went to the University of the North, they were able to go with my grandma every Wednesday night and work on their pair of moccasins. They got all the material to make that. So my grandma she sold her wares all around northern Manitoba. Everyone knew of my grandma and her work and her stories.
Her favorite hangout was A&W. She met with her friends every morning for toast. She just had rye toast and coffee and she would save her crust for the ravens and the same pack of ravens followed my grandma for years. And my sister actually just wrote a book, which is going to be published very shortly here, setting the whole story straight with my grandmother.
And my mom, her name is Half Moon Woman. Her English name is Pat Bruderer, and her Turtle Island name is Half Moon Woman. My mom is a famous First Nations artist. She's the caretaker of an ancient art form called birch bark biting. She has taught over 40,000 children to date. She's been teaching in schools for over thirty years. In the history of the Turtle Island people, her art form is the most elaborate of the birch bark biting artists that we've been able to see in archives and museums and modern day birch bark biters. Initially birch bark biting was used for the cultural and historical preservation of historical and cultural events, hunting and fishing maps. They also used it for creating beadwork patterns. And they would have competitions, who could bite the most elaborate birch bark biting. They also used it as a teaching tool. So they would keep the birch bark bitings. Someone would be the caretaker of them in the village and then they'd be using it like a textbook, so they'd be like holding the birch bark bitings because it's one single layer of birch. So they would hold that birch bark biting up to the fire or up to the sun, and then the children would have an easier time to remember the historical document because they would have an image to go along with the oral history in their mind. So it was used as a teaching tool.
My mom is among just a handful of ladies that are left practicing this art form today. In our traditional territory, of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation--that's the nation that I belong to--the ladies in the region were very well known for being birch bark biters. And of course, when contact happened, it started to die out after the effects of the residential school system and colonization. And now my mom says that the reason why no one has contacted her and said, "Hey, they've picked it up" is because children these days. She said, food preservatives, additives, sugar, video games, television have taken away the children's ability to concentrate, and to focus on doing certain tasks because, for instance, peeling the birch to one single layer is very, very tedious, time-consuming and takes a lot of patience. Nevermind the biting process, just the preparation process. So she said the children do not have the attention spans that they did prior to all of these different additives in the foods, and chemical and environmental toxicities.