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Indigenous Resilience the Center of Art Exhibition

Biting Back: Our Cultural Resilience is an exhibition at Urban Shaman in Winnipeg’s Exchange district that displays works of birch bark-biting created by Pat Bruderer, The Halfmoon Woman. 

Birch bark-biting is the creation of a kaleidoscopic effect by folding over a cut of birch bark in a particular way and leaving impressions by biting it. Once unfolded, the bark will display a beautiful series of images if done correctly. Historically, birch bark-biting has been used to document songs or ceremonies but was also used as a casual art form. 

The work in Bruderer’s exhibition was backlit to emphasize the patterns, none of which she sees until she has finished biting. She does not unfold the piece as she works to see how it’s coming along. Rather, she only sees the result at the end. The birch bark-biting work put on display is described by Bruderer as being a “kaleidoscope of the impressions from my life.” 

Born in Churchill, Manitoba, in the 1950s, Bruderer is a member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation with maternal roots in Southern Reindeer Lake, Saskatchewan. The resilience of her mother inspires her work, and Burderer believes her mother’s spirit is woven into everything she creates. A self-taught artist with over 30 years of practice in birch bark-biting, Bruderer’s work is in museums and galleries across the world. 

“As First Nations people, we are very resilient. No matter what situations we’re in, we’ll… keep moving forward. That’s what I’ve done in my life. Keep moving forward no matter what and keep passing things on for the next generation.” 

Bruderer teaches classes in birch bark-biting, a key component of her work. It is crucially important to Bruderer that these lessons are passed to the next generations. In a year, she might teach as many as 5000 people.  

“I feel a great responsibility as a carrier of this traditional art form as well as for the teachings it holds, which are many.” 

Bruderer says she was not taught by a tangible person but instead feels as though she was guided by ancestors from the other side. She believes the talent seen in her work comes from her DNA, and by continual practice, the ability was pulled forward from deep within her. Her ventures as a bark-biting artist began when a student at a Moose Lake school where she taught asked if she knew how to do it. 

“I started to play around with it and soon started getting better at it.” 

After a while, people started contacting her and taking an interest in her work. While Bruderer makes her living as an artist, the original pieces in her collection are not for sale but will instead be passed on.  

“It feels good as a First Nations person to say my work is not for sale. These pieces will go on to future generations and my family.” 

Bruderer mentioned how she was not lucky enough to have elders to teach her such traditional ways of creating because of residential schools and the disruption of Indigenous communities across Canada.  

“It wasn’t taught. It wasn’t passed down. I was told it was passed down in families, but once you take the child away, there’s a breakdown in the family.” 

Indigenous Art in Canadian Museums 

In a Toronto museum, there are over 800 works created by women from Pat Bruderer’s nation. Few members of the community are aware of this, and therefore, the disconnection from the creations of their ancestors continues. 

“There’s so much of our stuff that’s locked in the archives that our people don’t know about,” Bruderer said. “Hidden away behind doors. It’s pretty crazy.” 

For as long as settler colonies have been established on this side of the world, the creations of Indigenous people have amazed those who came across them. As a result, and with the increase of European influence in North America, much of this work was discovered, traded for, or stolen from First Nations communities and artists and sold to collectors.

Many of these Indigenous artifacts are displayed in museums and art galleries across Canada and the world. Often, the actuality of what the items represent or their intended use is misunderstood by Westerners. Many of these items are based in spirituality, while others act as contracts describing treaties or stories.

As part of the efforts of the Canadian government to steer toward Truth and Reconciliation, many of these artifacts are slowly being returned to the nations to which they belong. When these items remain behind museum glass, new generations are missing lessons from their past. Thousands upon thousands of Indigenous artifacts are kept in museums and archives in Canada with access limited to academics and the like, while the true owners of the works, the members of the nations these artifacts were created within, have no idea these artifacts even exist. 

The Process of Birch Bark-Biting 

The first step in creating birch bark-biting work begins with finding a piece of bark to work with. While she currently lives in BC, Bruderer only takes from birch trees in Manitoba, which she still calls home. She goes in the spring because that is when the tree first has water running through it. Looking for the right tree with no knots or imperfections might take as much as three hours. She will make a shallow cut into the tree and begin peeling healthy, useful layers of bark off the birch trees. She leaves tobacco as a token of her appreciation.

After finding a good piece, she will sit in the forest and visualize what she seeks to create and then take to it. After biting what she feels is exactly what she wants, she unfolds the bark to see the result. Every bite, she says, represents a spirit, and the process of creation is a channelling of intention to create a specific image.

“I don’t take it out of my mouth and look at it [while creating]. I wait until it’s complete, and then I look at it.” 

She further said, “I was told that each bite mark represents a spirit. It’s all folded and is all symmetrical but when I open it, it isn’t symmetrical. It’s like someone else has done it.” 

Upon completion, she will singe the edges of the bark, completing the work. This will take place at home and is the most difficult part of the process. On one occasion, while singeing the edge, one of her children came home and caused the whole piece to burn up after slamming the door. 

A common theme in much of her birch bark-biting is bees, which she does to reflect the necessity for bees in pollinating wild plants and crops. 

“If it wasn’t for bees, we wouldn’t have the food we have today… If there were no bees, we wouldn’t survive on this planet.” 

Biting Back: Our Cultural Resilience will run until March 16 at Urban Shaman in Winnipeg’s Exchange district. The exhibition has been touring galleries since 2022. Her birch bark-biting is accompanied by other works she has created and organized to tell the history of the experiences Indigenous people in Canada are forced to live. 

“Through cultural resilience, I bite back.” 

– Matthew Harrison, U Multicultural

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