Medicine Bear Arts Interview

Posted on January 10, 2023 by Dannika Soukoroff

Gaia: Which traditional indigenous styles of art influenced your work?

Medicine Bear: Now we're gonna go back to the story of my life at the beginning. I was disconnected from my indigenous family at a very young age. I was involved in powwow dancing and being around my culture, etc, at a young age but at about seven, I was disconnected. At sixteen years old, I was lured into a gang. We had a very big problem with First Nations gangs in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. I'm not going to get into much detail about that aspect, but the nightmare lasted thirteen years of my life. An incident had happened, and I did not want to hurt anybody, and I had called my mom and said, "Mom, I need help." At the time, I was a drug addict, involved in gang and drug activity, and I just wanted to get out. I had had enough. So I contacted my mom in British Columbia and asked her if I could come to her home. She told me as long as you don't bring any of your activity or drinking and drugs to my home, I was welcome. So I had reunited with my First Nations family at 28 years old. They took me to a sweat lodge and then to another ceremony.

At that ceremony, I met one of my carving teachers. He said, "I know of your mom's artwork, and you have this inside of you. So I'd like you to come and start carving with me at my house. You're going to move in with me." And I thought, well, this is crazy. I told him I failed all my art classes. I never could draw a stick man. So he told me, like I said, "You have this inside of you. I know of your mother's artwork." So I went to his house and he was a nuu-cha-nulth man. So again, my carving teacher was nuu-cha-nulth and from Squamish Nation. I'm not going to get too much into his history, but he's a Pacific Northwest Coast carver/designer, and he took me under his wing and I started sanding. The first step was sanding. And then when I talked to one of my teachers later and told him about this, he told, he says, "This is exactly what a master would do when they teach you." So it's sanding first. You got to learn and know the grain of the wood. So I first started off as a wood carver. So, it was sanding, lots of sanding. And then the next step was painting. I didn't start carving for quite some time. It was probably about four or five months before I started carving. So it was sanding and painting, sanding and painting. And then I started to carve and I sold my first couple of wood carvings pretty quickly after I first started carving. So about five months in, I sold my first pieces, and I thought, "Oh my god, this is my ticket to a new world." Because all I knew previous to that--I didn't have an education, I had a grade nine education--was the world of hustling and that's the only world that I had known, and I always thought that that was the only path that was chosen for me. So I was really grateful to have this opportunity and a new shot at life. 

My daughter's name is Desiree, and her Turtle Island name is Dances With The Butterflies. I forgot to mention my Turtle Island name. I carry two of them. It's Medicine Bear and the other one is Speaks The Truth. 

During that time I was hanging out with my uncle as well, his name is John Boncore, and he goes by Splitting The Sky or Dac. His Turtle Island name is Dacajaweiah, very famous environmental and social justice activist. And I actually just watched a documentary last night and it was one of the most horrifying things that I've ever witnessed. It was the Attica prison revolt. I couldn't finish watching the last fifteen minutes of it. It was so horrifying, but my uncle was was one of the people who who started the Attica prison revolt because, the stories he told me is, they were taking black men and hispanic men and indigenous men and making them fight to the death in the basements, and they were betting on these fights and it was like a Fight Club. And there's a whole bunch of different horrifying things that my uncle had shared with me but my uncle was highly instrumental in the American Indian Movement in the late 1970s. And he was involved in the anti-nuclear movement. He was the one who attempted a citizen's arrest on George Bush. He had evidence showing that the whole Bush administration was involved in war crimes, leaving depleted uranium bullets all over Iraq after the first Gulf War. He was part of the 911 truth movement. So my uncle was very instrumental in sharing with me about the geopolitics that are happening all around the globe. And so what I had done is I decided that I was going to use my artwork. 

I went to the Northwest Coast Jewelry Arts program at the Native Education College in Vancouver. At the time I was carving with legendary master carver Norman Tait. He's from the Nisga'a territory and what he used to say to me was, "You better start doing jewelry. If you don't, you're gonna end up starving, because you're so slow of a woodcarver." It was taking me 200 hours to carve a mask. So what I did is I had my four year old daughter with me at the time. I was a single parent and I was raising her and I was staying with my auntie in in Abbotsford. I carved my first six pairs of copper earrings, and I went to the Indian Residential School Survivors Society. When I went there, one of the elders, she said, "How much do you want for those earrings?" and I said, "I'll take $20 a pair," and she goes, "I'll buy them all." 

When she bought them all, it was $120, and I was living in poverty at the time. A light bulb went off in my head, and I was like, "Oh, my God, I can go and get groceries." So I went and I bought half worth of groceries and half worth of copper and a couple pieces of silver, and I went home and I was like, "Oh, my God, this is my ticket. This is my real ticket to a new life." Because prior to that, I was carving a totem pole, and I had $0, and I was very close to going back to drug dealing. I told myself, I was like, "I can't do this no more. We don't have no money. We're living in poverty. And I was planning on setting up a marijuana phone to sell marijuana in Vancouver because I knew how to set up these lines previously, and I thought, "You know what? That's what I know. I have to go back to it." And thank God, I didn't end up falling prey to it, and actually, to this day, I've been drug and alcohol-free for about 12 years straight, but pretty much 15 years. When I found out about my daughter, I knew that there was no other option for me because we ended up losing her mom and I raised Desiree by myself, and I knew that there wasn't another option, that I had to stay sober for my daughter. 

So what ended up happening is after I sold those pieces of jewelry, I would go into the parks every day in Abbotsford and I would carve, and I remember I would lift my head up and see what Desiree was doing and make sure she was okay. There was a water park and there was a playground that she would play in, and I would set up all my carving stuff on a picnic table in the park. And I would just sit there and carve all day long, all day long, and then I would do my polishing at my auntie's in the backyard. And I also had a bunch of high-end wood carvings at that point that I wasn't able to sell, and then I ended up selling the high-end wood carvings. We moved to Lytton, British Columbia where we made our home. I didn't want Desiree to go to school in the Lower Mainland because I knew that it wouldn't be a good atmosphere. I wanted to take her to a First Nations school and just move to a smaller community. So we moved to Lytton, BC. 

During that time, I had been involved in different activism. In 2010, prior to the Winter Olympics, we had a show called Make It Real, and we were trying to share with the world what was happening to the Turtle Island people here, with the third world conditions across the country, boil water advisories, housing conditions, etc. We figured that the media of the world would be in Vancouver at that time, so it was a perfect opportunity for us to share with the world what was really happening here on Turtle Island. We refer to North America and Mexico as Turtle Island, but we were focusing on the northern region, on Canada. And so what happened was the art show was called "Make It Real," the fake vs the real. One of the nights we had was the "Five Ring Circus," we called it. It was the way the Olympics were portraying the indigenous people by dancing them on stage, showing to the world that everything was fine and rosy over here, when in all reality it's not. So we wanted to share the conditions that were happening. Then we had a night of talking about the fake vs the real in regards to art, how we're having knockoff First Nations Turtle Island art forms being made in China, knocked off from all around the world, beadwork coming in from Eastern Europe, etc., and how it's greatly affecting our economy as First Nations artists because one of our last resources that we have left is our artwork. So we wanted to share with the world that. We had a night talking about the fraudulent issues in regards to the Norval Morrisseau paintings, then another night we had talking about environmental and social justice issues. So at a very young age, when I started off my art career, I was involved in environmental and social justice issues. 

After that show, I just continued trying to bring attention to the the world about these issues that we face as Turtle Island people, and I use the sale of my artwork to travel back and forth from Europe, and all across Canada to pipeline protests. We did a t-shirt line one time. We were called the Peaceful Warriors Unite. And we did a collaboration with a European street artist that I had teamed up with, who was also an environmental, social justice peaceful warrior. So what we did is we teamed up and we made these t-shirts, and we pitched in $6,000 each, and we agreed with each other that we didn't want money connected to the t-shirts, so we were giving them away for free or by donation to help with gas because I was traveling at the time, trying to bring attention to Bill C-51, and the overreach of the Canadian government, issues that the First Nations people were facing in regards to resource development and extraction in their lands. 

We had this one t-shirt, it was called "shellfish." It had a shell emblem on it with a man fishing, and the fish that he caught had a shell emblem in the eye. And on the back of the t-shirt, it said "No Enbridge Pipeline," so we were bringing attention to oil spills and how the leaking into the environment was devastating our watersheds, etc. We were talking about mining in our territories. In my traditional territory, we have the best yellowcake on the planet, which is used to make nuclear bombs and nuclear reactors. And those mining companies are owned by foreign multinationals. And what happens is they a lot of times these mining companies will set up, they'll leave a barren wasteland, they'll claim bankruptcy, and they'll leave tailing ponds in our territory to leak till the end of time. It goes into our watersheds. In my territory, we also have major hydro development, when they're flooding out the lands, when the water recedes is leaching mercury into the water which goes into the fish, then moves up the food chain into the humans. So in a lot of our First Nations communities, we have elders who are shaking uncontrollably from mercury contamination, because that's our food supply. So really, even up till present day, I have been strongly involved in social justice and environmental law activism, and I will never stop until we complete the Medicine Wheel. That's a prophecy that we have talked about in different people around Turtle Island. We were given the original instructions, all the races of Mother Earth, on how to live in unison with all living beings who walk on Mother Earth.

There's these four tablets and on these tablets, like I said, were the original instructions from Creator, which I believe are people from Star Nation. So they left the instructions on how we were to live in harmony with all living beings, and we forgot our way. So the prophecy is very long, but just to make it a short and sweet version, what we are trying to do is now we must complete this medicine wheel. We must bring the races of Mother Earth back together to work in unison, to break down religious barriers and borders, to implement technologies that have been buried by the elite who want to be greedy, to extract all the oil and different resources that they've already begun. And they've buried these patents. In my view, we must hold them accountable immediately. And we must begin to implement these technologies, both old and new, so we can reverse the devastating effects that we have caused on Mother Earth. I strongly believe with these technologies that we can remove all the excess carbon that they claim is in the atmosphere. We can remove all of the excess carbon in five to ten years by implementing these new technologies. We are starting a talk show. It's called "Completing the Medicine Wheel with Grandma and Speaks The Truth," and we are going to be talking about solutions that we can come up with in regards to these technologies and how we must implement them now to save our future generations and all living beings that walk on Mother Earth from a mass extinction, because we are on the verge of it now. 

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