This project is an exemplification of the reading Poetic observations: Jane Fulton Suri’s chapter in the book Design Anthropology (2011).
There are a few takeaways from Suri’s writing:
- Beauty and poetry in things that are not seen by others
- Cultural immersion
- Make concrete what is seen in the abstract
- Step away from ethnographic approach
- A percolation period is required for the ideation period
An unexpected journey: visiting Fisher River
A few days prior to the assignment, I had the opportunity to visit my reservation for the first time. It was an impromtu visit with my sister. For me, it was no other reason than to be present and get to know the space where my great-grandmother once lived.
It was, needless to say, a period where I was present and observant of my environment. I didn’t enter into the experience with anything other than the intention to observe the significance of time here, and take notes of personal reflection.
It was the weekend of September 30th. A day of remembrance in Canada known as orange shirt day. It’s a defined date to remember indigenous children of Turtle island who were either taken from their homes or left our world too soon. Some were sent to residential schools, others were forcefully sent to foster homes during the ‘60s scoop. Many continue to be sent away from their communities through foster care.
My sister and I fell on some unforeseen luck. A distant family friend, whose name has been changed to Ellie, offered to drive up with us to Fisher River, calling in sick from work on the same day. We weren’t aware at the time, but Ellie became a central figure in our story.
Over the weekend, we met with our distant family relative Josephine and Darryl Thaddeus, as well as members of the community who’ve taken up the role of knowledge keepers and community builders.
A constant period of reflection
I thought about what my relationship is with Fisher River, dating back to my grandfather.
It’s never been clear to me why my grandfather didn’t to residential school. His mother died when he was two, shortly after giving birth to her 12th child. His was also of Irish/Scottish descent.
With his brothers, they moved from Manitoba to Northern Ontario. The government might of lost track, or perhaps left it at that because my grandfather lost his enough of his tradition by working for his father on the farm.
He was a tall, strong man. Along with his siblings, they were known in town to fight their way into dancehalls and into the arms of women who knew full-well about the reputation of the McIntosh brothers: a band of boxers and principled men who wouldn’t be stopped by any ill-willed catholic, perspiration or other envious Anglo-Saxonite. those who tried to boost their ego ended up harming theirs pride.
My father experienced an adjacent force to live in pride and strength with a bit of a stiff upper lip. The first to attend college on his block, and the first to graduate from medical school in his neighbourhood, stoicism and being in charge inadvertently became two of his values.
My father came out as gay when he was 55, almost 20 years after my grandfather died. It was a shock to my family, particularly my mom, but I remembered something he once said to me: “If my dad knew I was gay when I was a kid, he would’ve killed me.”
I didn’t grow up on the reserve, and I didn’t know my grandfather. But the generational effect of disenfranchisement is real, and I hope that the buck stops here – the complete removal of any association with a cultural and true identity.
I am keenly aware that my identity is not solely a culmination of my ancestry or my parent’s trauma. My interests are varied, and I let those guide me, particularly during my intuitive observation period at Fisher River.
Intuitive ideation process
That weekend, one of the longstanding residents and knowledge keepers, Stan, drove my sister and I around Fisher River. I perked up; my curious journalistic mindset kicked into gear and started taking notes on my very non-traditional Google phone while my sister and I asked questions.
Among those notes, how the fishermen enjoy driving out to lake Winnipeg so much that they volunteer their free time to travel to fishing derbies. The river cuts through the res, but doesn’t needlessy devide it. A bit like Tolkinen’s Hobbitton village in Lord of the Rings, the Cochranes, Thaddieus and Murdocs live in pockets near one another, and periodically gather to chatter about family and odd-ball relatives.
The next day, Darryl, am elected Chief in Fisher River, gave us a tour of the traditional and old treaty grounds.
For this project, what I considered a research period was a series of photos and conversations with people in the community: rivers in autumn leaves, old boats, misplaced suburban-designed homes, wide landscapes of trees no taller than a two-story houses (due to the high water line), and green lawns. Many green lawns.
The conversations with Stan, our family relative Darryl, during ad-hock women’s talking circle and even the overheard conversations during crafting was considered research to me. It’s all part of Suri’s description of intuitive learning.
Ideation: post-visit reflections
I incorporated what Suri explains as a period of rest, or percolation period (p.29). A time to let the observations settle in.
It was important for me that the ideation process was as unstructured as the research period: Free-form writing, free-form sketches of boats and landscapes to find the hidden lines and shapes and the balance between it all. These were one aspect of the process.
Part of Suri’s process for poetic observation is to include a discussion with co-workers who experienced the environment with you. I spoke with my sister, Andrea, to understand her vision of her time at Fisher River.
Granted, it was difficult for her to separate the poetic observational exercise I was conducting from her pre-planned construction to build a memorial park on the old treaty grounds. But there were key things we observed:
There exists competing elements in Fisher River. The poverty mixed with strong compassion and leadership to evoke pride and ignite a communal identity. Home, in terms of space (houses were far and wide, pristine lawns, and how houses are not typically physically built by first having a discussion with the Nation. People are isolated to their homes, and don’t often congregate outside.
My sister noted how much they were symbol oriented; ribbons skirts stood out as much as the scattered children shoes, orange shirts and plastered numerical signs of the total number of uncovered children remains.
In this same discussion, my sister and I noticed a metaphorical bridge being built between the intergenerational divide.
What does fun, informed play look like? How do we include a younger generation in the conversation of identity and cultural pride – without inadvertently teaching them to associate their budding identities with those of the lost children.
We recalled seeing children hanging out by the river, leaning against trees, fishing where the old united church once beamed with methodist missionaries. Surrounded by nature once more, does space play a bigger role in informed play as much as the material used?
Tactile learning, home, symbols, play, youth engagement, space.
A few days later, I wrote down free-form words about Fisher River that stuck out to me. Words that represented my feeling and patterns during my visit. Ribbon skirts, bright sunsets, home, sharing ourselves, river, coming home, even res dogs, and how they hold so much of the spirit and interlinkage between homes. They protect children from bears, and are sometimes seen as the guardians of a more sacred area.
It was around this time that I decided to create my final piece using wood. It’s involves engagement and play, that involves conversation with you, pride, colours of joyful ribbon skirts, water, and of the wide-spanning land.
Woodworking also falls within craft-making wheelhouse.
I wanted to craft something that reprisented support, home and a connection of what I perceived to be elements of Fisher River. I decided a puzzle design would be a clever approach, given the three-week turnaround time. Plus, puzzles are fun!
I made numerous iterations of the puzzle design to make sure that each piece represented something on their own. I completed basic wood shop training at Emily Carr and used the bandsaw to cut larger pieces of my Aspen 1.5” thick wood, and the scroll-saw to cut the tighter corners.
(Above) draft if my design, and more shape drawing of the environment.
I chose to include the rising and setting sun, since it touches so much of Fisher River’s wide landscape. the three purple shades of the sky reprisent what Donna, Derryl’s wife, and who was present at the circle, described to me as healing colours (and the colour of my gifted ribbon skirt).
It also represent medicine in the form of three braids, like the sweetgrass that Pauline gifted to me.
The boat and water is such a central part of Fisher River’s identity. I took my long-standing muse, the York Boat (I carved out an 12ft York Boat oar in 2021) and fused my version of it with a modern fishing boat design. Fishing is an act that brings life to Fisher River. it’s the lifeline to Lake Winnipeg, it’s a source of food, and it’s an excuse to gather. Men take pride in fishing.
Fisher River, along with it’s sister nation Norway House, also hosts annual York Boat races during treaty days. It encourages people to learn about the epic strength and agility that the boat required during the hight of Canada’s fur trade.
Lastly, Two figures are central in the puzzle design. A small child painted in brunt orange or red hue looks up from its supported boat, hugging the large figure, painted in green.
The latter represents women, especially women who shared in the talking circle. They offered knowledge as nourishing as the medicine in front of us. This can also be interpreted as a male figure expressing affection and support towards a child, or inner child.
The latter is a child, the child in all of us, as much the children in the community as those who left home. It’s supported in the centre by everything that makes us strong and whole. The boat acts as a vessel, carrying it home, towards the nuturing figure.
An intentional act, the figure reachers for support, knowing that care is not something that just happens to you, but something you seek out. I intentionally didn’t want to paint it a traditional orange colour in an attempt to encourage the idea that children today should develop an identity with an awareness of, but separate from the children lost to colonialism.
I also created a second piece that displays the wood, unpainted but stained with Dutch oil, to give the Aspen a warmer look.
These colours were chosen to reprisent the environment, but I can hardly separate the people from it.
Ellie, she wore blue the entire weekend. The earrings she made were blue, too. To me, she is the child travelling back to home, traversing freely in her car to spend time with her cousin, snickering and running off together for a smoke and laughing along the way, sleeping in her crowded house, and staying cozy.
She was a child of the ‘60s scoop, and her sister was taken in Vancouver. She learned about her mother a few years ago, and has been liberally returning to Fisher River to learn more from passing stories of people who knew her.
Ellie is also a caretaker. She works for the cemetery, sometimes standing at the graves of souls who have no one to be by their side as they enter the earth. She worked in care homes, and freely offers her service to help, say, when I forget my passport at the Human Rights museum downtown, and need it brought to me at the airport.
She found a way to manifest compassion, real strength, hope and a desire to give in her life.
To me, she is the story. She represents every element I tried to embue in my design.
I believe all in all, each piece took me four hours to make. This doesn’t account for the acrylic and oil drying period.
I chose colours that reprisent pride, hope, the people of Fisher River.
It’s an opportunity for users to practice non-linear storytelling, and to use these colours and prompts to tell their own stories.
Member of Fisher River are encourage to use individual pieces as prompts for their stories, display the piece as a point of discussion, or a point of reflection.
Deeper reflections, the side effects of poetic obervations
I hope this puzzle piece can be used as a vehicle for storytelling. Though specific to the elements that makeup Fisher River, individually, they act as prompts for teachers, parents, and elders to share any story around knowledge of home, nature, medicine, youth, love, their reservation, or even a broader basic human needs.
More young people are returning to Fisher River, building homes an teaching at the local high school. Kaitlyn, the jeweller who taught my sister and I how to make earrings, is teaching a hybrid land-based class at school. Darryl’s daughter just happily moved into her newly-built house not far from home, after living in Winnipeg for a few years.
Truth be told, I liked the environment so much because I miss my own home. As of late, home is transient for me. I only lived in New Brunswick for two years and Montreal for four, prior to that.
Home, in this case, isn’t a physical environment. It’s the feeling you have with the people who make you feel whole.
Coming to Vancouver, I knew there would be a “pause” on what I consider to be home. I am grateful when I get to experience those feelings of love, intention, welcoming and sharing when I come across them. I now intentionally look to built community at school and in my neighbourhood while I live here on west coast.
During this prompt, I thought about my grandfather’s vehement denial of his identity. How he fought back physically and with strength. And for Ellie, how she fought back, what strength really represents.
I wonder what he would have thought of my puzzle.
I am grateful that I got to know everyone, their idiosyncratic ways and their unbridled kindness towards my sister and I. This is why I came back to school, to find opportunities and continue my education in learning, understanding and seeing the world. Both a person’s intent and what they’re conveying through sharing their time with us.
This was a severe process of personal reflection, but a tremendous growth of my compassion and empathy. Compassion for Vera, for Josephine, for Dona, for my family and myself.
Initially, I was worried about creating a simplified caricature of indigenous culture. But I practiced what my sister called informed intuition. A designer is a vessel for expressing their environment. They are not – nor should the claim – to be speak on someone’s behalf.
Perhaps in a form of happy irony, or some might call it coincidence, during presentation day, the class was shaped as a circle as they tried their hands at completing my puzzle.
That’s truly what I would call… coming full circle.
(a little corny? Sure.)