Dibaajimowin, Stories from this Land
Indigenous-Settler Museum Collaboration, Decolonizing Local History Narratives, and the Power of Art

Eyewitness Canada invites professional authors to explore their distinct research and experiences across a diverse range of government, military, Indigenous, educational and heritage backgrounds. It invites readers to reflect on how the lessons and challenges of the past shaped the present and impact decisions made today. Series editor: Kyle Pritchard.

The main exhibition space for Dibaajimowin, showing the digital projections taken from Dewdney’s murals and repurposed to tell other stories of Indigenous resiliency and continuities in the Waterloo region. Curator Emma Rain Smith (L) and artist Alanah Jewell (R) are featured in the life-sized kiosks in looped video-recordings. An original painting by Norval Morrisseau hangs on the wall. [Author’s photo]

In this article, Susan Neylan describes Dibaajimowin: Stories from this Land, a collaborative exhibit between Wilfrid Laurier University, the University of Waterloo, the urban Indigenous community and the Ken Seiling Waterloo Region Museum. The exhibit was initiated in response to the removal of Canadian-born Selwyn Dewdney’s murals titled, “The History of Waterloo County,” which he been painted in 1950. These murals presented an industrial and capitalist interpretation of the region’s history, emphasizing the settler experience while marginalizing Indigenous perspectives. By engaging with Indigenous perspectives and employing methodologies aligned with Indigenizing, decolonizing, and collaborative practices, the exhibit explores how artistic expression can counter Settler-centric narratives, contributing to a more inclusive understanding of Canadian history amidst ongoing discussions on the politics of historical commemoration of public art.

DIBAAJIMOWIN is the Anishinaabemowin (Ojibway language) word meaning stories and storytelling, encapsulating both the product of the action and the process itself when orally transmitting narratives. When you think of it, it is also a decolonization tool, when those stories, tellers, and recollections are Indigenous ones. This name was chosen by Emma Rain Smith, our Anishinaabe (Bkejwanong/Walpole Island First Nation) curator and researcher of the museum exhibit Dibaajimowin: Stories from This Land, at the Ken Seiling Waterloo Region Museum in Kitchener, Ontario, from September 23rd 2022 to April 16th 2023, and as a visiting exhibit at the Woodland Cultural Centre, in Brantford, Ontario, from April 29th to July 8th 2023, done in collaboration with local Indigenous community members, and researchers and student assistants from Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo.

The removal of history-themed public artwork provided the opportunity to create a museum exhibit that might reframe the region’s history and better engage with Indigenous perspectives and historical representations. Guided by an Indigenous curator and methodologically responsive to Indigenizing, decolonizing, and collaborative practices, our sense of history in this project was not determined through a linear practice of what happens year by year, but rather in how relationships with the land have been transformed and how contemporary urban Indigeneity has been reshaped by this history. Before any planning about what it might look like, Emma and myself entered into a series of conversations with Indigenous community members, leaders, and knowledge keepers asking them how they might conceive of the history of this place. The answers they gave us guided our interpretations. Moreover, artwork itself and Indigenous cultural resurgence and land activism figured prominently in how history was reframed. In light of recent discussions around the politics of historical commemoration through public art and statues, this paper contemplates how artistic expression can be mobilized to create more inclusive understandings of histories, peoples, and places.

Canadian-born Selwyn Dewdney had been commissioned by the Waterloo Trust and Savings Company to paint a series of murals depicting the history of Waterloo County, which were completed in 1950. The mural series was to hang in the bank itself, installed behind the tellers in the most public portions of the financial institution. Hence, their subject matter is not all that surprising: stories of capitalism, urbanization, and social transformation.

Emma Rain Smith (Bkejwanong First Nation/University of Waterloo) stands at the centre of the room in the exhibit she conceived and curated at the Ken Seiling Region of Waterloo Museum, Kitchener, ON [Author’s photo]

The murals were later donated the Region of Waterloo and for many years publicly exhibited in the main administrative offices’ cafeteria. When this artwork was removed in order to undertake some minor renovation work, it coincided when the regional administration was embarking on its own Indigenizing and equity, diversity, and inclusiveness initiatives. Maybe some public conversations about them might be in order? How could we reconcile the historical narrative illustrated in these murals with not merely what had been left out, but with what needs to be included in order to better appreciate the Waterloo region as a contemporary place with a continued Indigenous presence?

The murals reflect popular, settler-centric conceptions of the history of Waterloo region, namely the story of Indigenous disappearance, immigration and resettlement, and a celebration of industry. The six History of Waterloo County murals are included in the Dibaajimowin exhibit, displayed in their own room, apart from the rest of the exhibit. They are positioned so they are either the first or last thing visitors experience as they move through the space. But here our curator chose not to place the murals in their original sequential order, so they interrupt the chronology of the Settler historical narrative being presented.

Selwyn Dewdney’s Mural #1 entitled “Indian Times,” part of the “History of Waterloo County” murals, painted in 1950 for Waterloo Trust and Savings Company [Author’s photo]

Dewdney’s mural entitled “Indian Times,” however, does depict an Indigenous presence in this region, albeit in static way that minimizes the long and complex histories of Indigenous peoples who have always lived here. Dewdney painted two Indigenous men in a birch bark canoe moving along a river running through a heavily wooded environment. The scene is devoid of any other signs of human occupation and, unlike nearly every other figure or overall composition for the other murals in the series, these two are oriented as moving from right to left, seemingly leaving the narrative to disappear into the past itself.

Using a multimedia intervention, the Indigenous figures in the canoe just passing through, have been excised from this ahistorical setting, reversed in the direction they travel, and projected on a wall in the main exhibition space. This reclamation of the image depicts the individuals now moving with time into the future, and reunites them with the path of the Grand River itself, which has been projected onto the floor of the main room. These projections alternate with historic maps of the county that recall a shared space between Indigenous and Settler residents.

The use of media projection to relocate discrete elements from the Dewdney murals into other elements within the main display space is a recurrent technique used to reclaim, reorient, and re-centre the narrative as an Indigenous-centric vision of history, one that is in relationship with the land and waters. This technique also illustrates how Indigenous understandings of history itself as cyclical might be effectively conveyed to museum visitors who may be more familiar with linear chronologies and unidirectional change. The murals’ horse and plough reappear, projected onto a series of photographs of participants in the Wisahkotewinowak Garden Initiative, which is an urban Indigenous garden collective, building Land-based relationships across the region.

The mural and these media projections express the message imparted to us by several of our interviewees, namely the importance of returning to the land in order to reconnect urban Indigenous individuals with gardening, food sovereignty, and agriculture. Indigenous figures are not just canoeing through an unpeopled place into history, but are now represented in continuity with their historical practices and in relationship with all of creation, continuing to thrive in the same lands where they have always been.

If Western institutions like museums want to start to embrace an approach to knowledge mobilization that recentres both content and method firmly on Indigenous perspectives, where does one begin? You start by listening to what history might mean to Indigenous activists, leaders, and community members. This is no easy task, and one must be mindful, as Indigenous scholar Amy Lonetree reminds us, because “Museums can be very painful sites for Native people, as they are intimately tied to the colonization process.”[1]

There are no historical material belongings and few material objects aside from artwork, which is a bit of a departure from many of the permanent galleries in this community museum. Instead, life-sized video kiosks of Indigenous participants are the primary sources that speak to visitors in short looped and captioned discussions. Soundscapes featured prominently in this project, whether tethered to individuals at the kiosks, or disembodied voices in the Kitchen Space, or Kelly Fran Davis’ explanation and English translation of the Thanksgiving Address which is given in the Cayuga language. Here the message we learn about history is a direct one: the need to know these other local stories as being central to understanding the history of the region, but that the present and the future are all aspects of that history too.

Indigenous artwork also abounds throughout the exhibit, from the loaned painting by the Woodland School of Art creator Norval Morriseau (Anishinaabe, from Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinabek, formerly Sand Point Ojibwe First Nation), to a picnic table painted by August Swinson (Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation), or the exhibit’s art design by Design de Plume Inc., an inclusive design circle that is women-led and Indigenous-owned.

Dibaajimowin grapples with the very question: how do communities build public memory and how can art contribute to that? Whose art is privileged? No one we interviewed told us that the murals should be destroyed, when we asked them their opinion on the fate of the Dewdney murals. The exhibit itself became a way for art to re-align local history from an Indigenous vantage point, and in this way became a kind of artistic intervention. Certainly, having Indigenous artists “talk back to” through their own creative projects has been a tact taken in other venues to decolonize and indigenize historical narratives in terms of public art.[2] Art can set the story, but it is can also disrupt it.

 

[1] Amy Lonetree, Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 1.
[2] Simon Fraser Galleries, “Charles Comfort Mural removal” [online]; see also the video-recording of Dana Claxton, Richard William Hill, and John O’Brian, Panel on “Why Art Matters,” Simon Fraser Galleries [online].

Looking towards The Kitchen Space and featuring the projected image of Willow River/Grand River on the floor [Author’s photo]

One of the most personal spaces, The Kitchen Space, is a physical manifestation of Dibaajimowin as a methodology in such a relatable way. It is a reproduction of a contemporary kitchen, with which many Canadians might easily associate as part of their own family histories, complete with dishes, children’s artwork on the fridge, and tea towels on the oven handle. Emma’s voice plays on a looped recording, telling us how she learned from her grandmother in a kitchen very much like this.

Books of paper and pencil crayons were placed on the table to encourage museum visitors to leave their feedback and so some decided to draw pictures. Indeed, many of these were put up on the fridge—the feedback literally as artwork expressing what visitors learned and, in turn, becoming part of the exhibit itself. Art holds power here in other words.

Decolonial practices can confront the lack of consultation or inclusion of Indigenous ways of knowing by engaging in collaborative projects that give Indigenous peoples space. However, if we want to truly facilitate decolonization in more than representation and voice, exhibits such as this encourage visitors to do more to make Indigenous space; we need to give space back for Indigenous resurgence to happen.

One sizeable component of Dibaajimowin was decided to a modern day urban initiative O:se Kenhionhata:tie (meaning Willow River)/Land Back Camp. It has its origins in the summer of 2020 with a reclamation and occupation of Victoria Park, and urban park in downtown Kitchener, and was especially welcoming to two-spirit, Indigi-queer, and trans young people to reconnect with their cultures and learn about their Indigeneity. Its leaders have been instrumental in local Indigenous resurgence projects and calling out local municipalities in the region to combat racism, colonialism, and failure to act upon the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action in meaningful ways.

In the Dibaajimowin exhibit, visitors see photographs of the camp, read quotations from its leaders and participants, and hear Land Back Camp co-founder Amy Smoke share their words about the meaning of Indigenous histories, identities, and continuities. Museum goers can watch a documentary film on Land Back Camp. There is even a digital ceremonial fire, surrounded by words, teachings and self-designations written in several Indigenous languages reminding us of the scope of Indigenous diversity in this place. This explicit linkage of the past to the present and, with activist resurgent initiatives like the camp, highlights how Indigenous peoples will continue to thrive into the future.

The Digital Ceremonial Fire in the Dibaajimowin exhibit. [Author’s photo]

Can art be a way forward to educate people about history? Contemporary Indigenous artists often subvert history through art (Kent Monkman’s paintings for instance, easily come to mind). Artwork conveys Indigenous perspectives on the contemporaneity of history, and in this way, art-inspired historical interpretations are always a product of their times, just as written interpretations are. Returning to the murals which sparked this exhibit. Could Selwyn Dewdney have painted something different? Could he have told another historical narrative about the history of the Waterloo region? What if?

Given a bank was his client for paintings, Dewdney may not have had a lot of choice in terms of the message of resettlement, industry, economic growth, financial stability for Settler populations he was tasked to communicate through his artwork.  However, among his papers, donated by his family after his death, are a series of sketches for History of Waterloo County murals, including what appears to be an alternative to that first mural “Indian Times.”

The main exhibition space for Dibaajimowin, showing the digital projections taken from Dewdney’s murals and repurposed to tell other stories of Indigenous resiliency and continuities in the Waterloo region. Curator Emma Rain Smith (L) and artist Alanah Jewell (R) are featured in the life-sized kiosks in looped video-recordings. An original painting by Norval Morrisseau hangs on the wall. [Author’s photo]

This earlier idea not used offers us a tantalizing glimpse of what could have been, capturing some of the things that several Indigenous contributors to Dibaajimowin told us they noticed were missing in the first mural panel, notably the need to view Indigenous peoples actively living within their homelands not just passing through the forest in a canoe. This sketch depicts relational themes that echo Indigenous understandings of the region: an active and industrious Indigenous community, humans interacting with their environment, each other, and the flora and fauna within;  and a vision that stressed both continuities with Indigenous ways of living and historic change. Hence, even in the early 1950s, Dewdney was open to ideas that may be more compatible with an Indigenous sensibility about history of this area than we maybe initially believed.

But, this “what if?” never happened. Dewdney’s murals have been permanently removed from public display and are in storage. By problematizing Dewdney’s murals, I do not wish apologize for them. The truth is, public art has the power to harm in its depictions of history—who we honour, commemorate, name our roads and parks after, or locate as “historically significant,” has recently come under scrutiny, as we are all too aware of across this country: through the removals of statues of John A. Macdonald or Governor Edward Cornwallis to the renaming of public universities.

Whose history do we have on display and whose stories are ignored by telling only certain histories or formats of history? How can we create historical narratives that reflect contemporary values, not to erase the past but to engage with it, something particularly salient when discussing Indigenous histories and geographies. How do we publicly recognize, to quote Métis scholar, Brenda MacDougall, the extent to which “Canada is one long renaming project”?[3] We call it Grand River today in the Waterloo region, not Willow River as Indigenous peoples have long referred to it. Public art can be significant to the reconciliation paths we might take when it comes to understanding and communicating Indigenous and Settler histories in these lands. As Alanah Jewell (Oneida Nation/French-First Nations ancestry) told us, “Art is a perfect way to be able to tell those stories… art is powerful.” Thus, art and storytelling also can be meaningful ways to communicate Indigenous perspectives on history, and on the present we share in this region.

 

[3] Brenda MacDougall, “Naming and Renaming: Confronting Canada’s Past,” Shekon Neechie: An Indigenous History site [online] published 1 Aug 2018; accessed 19 Sept 2023.

Susan Neylan is an Associate Professor in History at Wilfrid Laurier University. She is received her PhD in History from the University of British Columbia in 1999. Neylan has a particular interest in Indigenous-non-Indigenous relations and specializes in the Indigenous-Church encounter on Northwest Coast of North America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. More recently she is exploring Indigenous-Settler histories in the Waterloo region.

The project gratefully acknowledges the time and knowledge shared by Indigenous leaders, knowledge holders, artists, and community members. Other members of the Dibaajimowin research team include Anishinaabe curator, artist, and student of the University of Waterloo, Emma Rain Smith, Assistant Professor of the University of British Columbia, Aynur Kadir, Helen Chimirri-Russell of the Region of Waterloo, and former Copp scholar Callie Hernandez of the Laurier Centre for the Study of Canada. Others include Keri Solomon, M. Sam Cronk, Charlotte Woodley, and Claire Meagher from the Ken Seiling Region of Waterloo Museum and student Research Asistants Sid Heeg, Shayla Rose, Graeme Taylor, and Jacquelyn Yu.

Funding supporting the Dibaajimowin exhibition came from a Partnership Engage Grant by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Copp Scholar student research assistantship support from the Laurier Centre for the Study of Canada, the Ken Seiling Region of Waterloo Museum, the University of Waterloo, and Wilfrid Laurier University. All photographs of the exhibit taken by the author.