James Nicholas & Sandra Semchuk
Co-operative self-portraits with Madelon Hooykaas
James Nicholas was a full blood Rock Cree from Nelson House, Manitoba. His great grandfather was medicine man Pierre Moose. Both of his parents, Lionel and Sarah, used traditional medicines to help their community. James grew up traditionally on the trapline. At the age of eight he was sent to residential school. In the ‘70s he studied in British Columbia working with and exchanging ideas with Bob Manuel, son of native strategist George Manuel, while continuing his dialogues with political activists Rodney Spence and Phil Fontaine from Manitoba. When he returned to Nelson House, he provided leadership to his community in education, economic development and government-to-government liaison. In the ‘90s James relocated to Vancouver where he engaged the arts of acting, writing, photographic installations and videography. He made many collaborative works with his wife, Sandra Semchuk, that challenge the known history of relations between First Nations and settler cultures, nation making, and assumptions in identity politics. James died Oct. 15, 2007 when he accidentally slipped and fell 30 meters at a fishing camp on the Fraser River.
Co-operative self-portraits with Madelon Hooykaas
Sandra Semchuk grew up in a grocery store in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan. Her father, Martin Semchuk, was a socialist who helped bring in medicare to Saskatchewan. Sandra's photographic collaborations and video works use autobiography and dialogue as the basis for recognition and identity. She collaborated with her father through four near death experiences. As a partner in Treaties (where there are Treaties in Canada), member of the settler culture and widow of a traditional Cree speaker, James Nicholas, Semchuk tries to disrupt myths that historically have shaped settler relations to First Nations, using personal experience as a basis for storytelling. A number of collaborations with her deceased husband are still in production after his death. Semchuk teaches at Emily Carr University of Art, Media and Design.
36 silver gelatin prints laminated on acrylic
26 x 34 cm each
transferred text on canvas
overall size 215 cm x 495 cm
Viewing this artwork (104K) requires the free Flash Player, which may be downloaded from this link.
Click thumbnails to view larger image. Click image to dismiss.
Here's the story.
James and I went to Prince Rupert that spring. The new grasses were just coming up. While we were at the Friendship Center a phone call came to the administrator saying that a bear had been killed on the road... did the elders want to skin it for the hide? James said that he would skin the bear for the elders. While I went to the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary to make a video portrait of a five-year-old grizzly James stayed in town so he could prepare himself to skin the bear. When I returned to town, James and I walked into the bush straight to where the bear had died from its wounds. James and his friend skinned the bear traditionally taking care to honor the bear. I photographed the skinning.
James made a necklace from the claws of that bear for himself.
It was that necklace that precipitated the performance on Kitsilano Beach. James went to the beach dressed like an Indian who did liaison work between his Band Council and the federal government, a role that he had played for years. There, while I photographed, he took off his tie, his jacket, his shirt, and his pants... he put on the bear claw necklace and the red blanket that I handed him. He walked into the ocean, cleansing himself.
Together we edited the work and James wrote the text from his experiences going to residential school from the age of eight. He said the bear salved his urban savage soul.
James died October 15, 2007 when he fell 30 meters at a fishing camp on the Fraser River. He would be honoured that this installation is being shown as medicine while residential school settlements are being made and much pain is coming to the surface.
THE SUPERIOR COMES TO CUT MY
COARSE BLACK HAIR AND IT DIES UPON
THE CEMENT MATTED IN VENGEANCE
BECAUSE THE HOT BLOOD OF WARRIORS
STILL RUNS THROUGH THE
ANCESTRAL RIVERS OF MY DNA
THAT NIGHT A BEAR CAME TO SALVE
THEIR SACRED SECRETIONS UPON MY
PAGAN SOUL WHILE THE BODY OF
CHRIST SIZZLED ON THE SAVAGE
TONGUES OF HOLY SHAMAN
LUNGING AT MY THROAT THE BLACK
ROBE TORE OFF THE BEAR CLAWS FROM
MY CHEST AND HIS MISTRESS TIED THE
BRITISH SCARF OF TYRANNY ABOUT MY NECK
ADORNED IN THE FINEST GARMENT OF
SHEEPSKIN AND THE SCARLET EMBROIDERY
OF COLONIAL AUTHORITY I STOOD
WATCHING FROM THE IVORY TOWER OF
CIVILITY WHILE THE GOVERNMENT
STOLE ALL THE GODS AND HID THEM IN
THE SANCTUARY OF ITS OWN TERROR
AND FOR SEVEN GENERATIONS THE
SHAKING TENT STOOD STILL
IN THE NIGHT A BEAR CAME TO SUCK
THE DEFILED MARROW FROM MY BONES
WHERE THE FOREIGNERS OF MADNESS
HAD DEPOSITED A CANCER LIKE NEW
VESTMENTS UPON MY DESICCATED SOUL
NOW FIVE HUNDRED AND TWO YEARS
HAVE EATEN THEMSELVES RAW INSIDE
THE PSYCHE OF YOUR SUBTLE AND
POLITE MADNESS LIKE A WHEY-DI-GO
WHO LEAVES DISCOMFORTED BY THE
PRESENCE OF POWER WHILE YOUR LITTLE
TURTLE BOAT WAITS PATIENTLY
UPON THE SHORE OF TURTLE ISLAND
BECAUSE I AM OF THE SEVENTH GENERATION