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Spirit of First Nations’ history wrapped in Witness Blanket

From doorknobs to bricks to severed braids of hair, First Nations artist Carey Newman’s sculptural work, the Witness Blanket, contains more than 600 evocative pieces.
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Carey Newman stands in front of his new work the Witness Blanket. The piece is on display at the University of Victoria's University Centre until June 8.

From doorknobs to bricks to severed braids of hair, First Nations artist Carey Newman’s sculptural work, the Witness Blanket, contains more than 600 evocative pieces.

But a child’s leather boot — battered, decayed and spotted with mould — collected from the remnants of an old Indian Residential School near Carcross, Yukon, seemed to demand a cultural tenderness, Newman said.

After it was collected, people who fell asleep in the same room woke screaming with nightmares or just couldn’t sleep at all, he said.

Newman said he has felt moved by something within the shoe. It’s like a presence that seemed to speak and was sometimes powerful enough to make him talk back.

“It sounds crazy,” Newman said. “But it was one of my first experiences where I came to understand the energy that something like this [boot] can carry.”

To use the boot in the Witness Blanket, Newman mounted it with healing symbols and herbs, coiled sweetgrass and burned sage, placed in a cedar box, a First Nations artifact long used on the West Coast.

“It was a way to settle the spirit within it and give it back some peace,” said Newman, 39, whose background is Vancouver Island Kwagiulth and Coast Salish.

The boot is just one of the artifacts mounted in Newman’s sculptural piece that was unveiled Tuesday at the University of Victoria to mark the opening of a three-day international conference, CUVic 2014, to discuss community and university collaboration and co-operation.

Newman’s Witness Blanket, two metres high and 12 metres wide, is composed of 13 panels, all evoking the First Nations experience of Indian Residential Schools in Canada.

The schools first opened in the 19th century when governments decided the best way to make aboriginals part of Canada was to educate and assimilate the children.

First Nations children were removed from their families and sent to boarding schools, usually run by churches. Conditions were grim and physical and sexual abuse widespread. The last closed in 1996.

In 2008, the federal government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has explored the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools. It also sponsored the creation of Newman’s piece.

Newman said the Witness Blanket was also inspired by the First Nations cultural attachment to blankets, their protective warmth, comfort and ceremony, like the adorned button blankets of West Coast First Nations. So the panels in Newman’s sculpture, with all their attached artifacts, flex and move, like a blanket.

To collect the artifacts, Newman and assistants criss-crossed Canada, visiting the sites of residential schools and talking with people who attended.

Many schools are now boarded up or demolished, but they have often yielded up bricks, mortar or bits and pieces of discarded tools, kitchenware or flooring.

After meeting with former students, many of them now elderly, small pieces were turned over to be included in the work: photos, art, moccasins, tea towels, a Métis sash.

They weren’t all unpleasant. A pair of boy’s old-fashioned tube skates collected in Saskatchewan is a reminder of outdoor hockey fun in a Prairie winter.

Each piece has been catalogued and its story recorded for a website.

“I kind of took my own voice out of the work and left it for other people to tell the stories through their own pieces,” Newman said.

The Witness Blanket will be on display, open to the public, in the University Centre until June 8.

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