The Witness Blanket is a 12-metre-wide art installation made from hundreds of artifacts reclaimed from residential schools, churches, government buildings, and traditional and cultural structures across Canada.
Clothing, photographs, blooks, and structural material are among more than 800 artifacts that make up the Witness Blanket.
Artist Carey Newman created this monument to explore truth, and represented the strength of Indigenous peoples, who survived the Indian residential school system.
Here, Newman talks about truth, strength, loss, and inspiration.
Why weave this part of our history into a blanket?
Specifically a blanket because of a lot of the things you heard tonight, about when you wrap somebody in a blanket and what that means. Here it was honouring with a blanket, but if someone needs to be uplifted, if they’re in grief or if they’re in loss, we have different reasons for them.
My thought was, a blanket is something we wrap our babies in when they’re born, and we wrap our loved ones in when they go on to the next world, and it means a lot of different things in a lot of different cultures, and most of them have to do with protection. So, I thought that the symbolism of a blanket would be a good way to acknowledge the truth about residential schools, partly to try and symbolically blanket survivors, but also because it’s a different language; it’s a good way to relate to people who might not understand something like a totem.
When you were putting this together, how did you get through all the negativity and weight that you probably experienced?
There was a boot there, it’s got medicine cloth binding it, and when that piece came in it was really early on in the process, and it came to me with a story from the person who collected it. She had picked it up in the forest at the side of a burned down residential school in Carcross. When she had it back at the bed and breakfast, that night, she woke up having a nightmare.
She got home the next day, and she put her bags down, and went to spend some time with her husband. That night, he woke up in the middle of the night with a nightmare. So she showed up at my house first thing Friday morning, eight o’clock in the morning, and she knocked on the door and was like, “I have to bring this to you now, but I want to tell you why I’m bringing it to you at eight o’clock in the morning, and I want to give you a little bit of a heads up.”
So she told me this story of how she woke up, he woke up. She said, “If you’re going to bring it into your house, I want you to know that.”
So I brought it in, and I brought it downstairs, and every night before I went to bed for about a week, I would take it out of its box and talk to it. You could really sense that sort of anger or fear. I would tell this shoe the story of what I was trying to do, and it helped articulate it for me. But I could feel the mood around it change from anger to sort of slowly shifting to sadness.
The whole piece or the shoe itself?
Just the shoe. It taught me how I was going to have to approach it. I was going to have to look at every piece like a being, and then I was going to have to pay respect to them in a way that was deeper than I think I would have initially thought. And I guess my point is, when you shift it into personal stories, and you recognize that’s what the weight is, then you take it on as responsibility, and you don’t feel it as hurt or blame, you feel it as responsibility.
That’s not to say you can just flick a switch and take the weight away, because there were lots of really difficult times when I had to look after the spiritual side of myself a lot more through this project than any other project I’ve done. It’s because you hear things, and you know things that you didn’t know before that sort of unsettle your world.
That’s how I would sort of deal with that weight, and try to pay each piece that same kind of respect as I would pay to a human who was in front of me talking.
That’s a very personal approach.
For me it has to be, otherwise I don’t think it has meaning.
Would you consider your work and the witness blanket a political piece?
I don’t think so. I think that it may become that for some people, but the message isn’t meant to be political. The message is meant to be collective truth, and not to try to set policy or direction, but just to acknowledge that these things happen, and that a lot of the ongoing impacts that we see in Indigenous communities across this country have direct ties back to what happened there.
When you think about the loss of the family nucleus, that’s a huge thing for people to lose, and you see it ongoing today in the social welfare system where children are still having their families disrupted, and it’s in part because of the loss we incurred from residential schools.
We haven’t relearned how to hold onto that, how to be that family again. I think there are political threads to it, but the message is truth. The message is to try and make those truths personal to people. I always said throughout the process, when we were starting it, that I didn’t have a message, that the message was going to be the pieces that people gave me. I think that when you take it that way, I kind of saw it more like trying to be a journalist, trying to remove my own opinion, and I did. I didn’t tell anybody what I thought reconciliation was, what I think people should do, or what I thought the solutions were. I saved that for now, where I feel like I’ve learned enough that I’ve started to form my own sense of what that means. So I have political messages today, but the piece didn’t come with those intentions.
What were some of the emotions you experienced during the process of creating it?
All kinds. Because there were so many things going on, when it came to family, there was joy, and there was pain or anguish. When it comes to the telling of other people’s stories or taking on those pieces, there’s that responsibility. The weight of that responsibility, I don’t know if that’s really an emotion, but it certainly steadies your hand, so to speak.
It means that when I’m representing the Witness Blanket, I’m representing everybody who put their trust into me. Therefore I have to be careful to be true to the message that I’ve learned. I’m not saying I’m guarded, I’m just saying that I asked for people to put their trust in me, and if I turned it against their interest, I think that would be pretty disrespectful.
Who inspires you right now?
Where did you learn to carve?
From my dad.
Would he have learned carving from his father?
No. He got to learn a little bit from his aunt, Ellen Neel, who was the first female carver, she carved some of the totems in Stanley Park. She learned from Mungo Martin and Charlie James, who are part of our family also.
So I think that we can trace back five generations of carvers in my family, but my father ended up learning his carving ability up in Kasan, in 1975, the year I was born.
In your speech, you talked about how there’s equal importance in protesting in front of buildings as much as there is in policy making and firekeeping. Do you think all different realms of activism are important?
Yeah. I get involved in these debates about what’s right, who’s doing it the right way, and there’ll be some academics saying “people who celebrate too much or bring a soft message are doing it wrong,” and people who are trying to create inspiration will say about people who are really hard with their words that they’re doing it wrong.
But I’ve seen both ways work, which means in my mind that we need all of them. Some people need to hear those hard words. Some people need to be inspired to action. Some people need to be pushed to action. Some people just need the example. That’s why I say we need the warriors, we need the firekeepers, we need the inspirational figures, and we need the artists, and we need the academics.
At the end of the day, we need people who are going to think through all the potential problems. It doesn’t mean we can’t have those conversations about which ways are right or what’s working, what isn’t working, but if we change the nature of the conversation from trying to figure out who’s right, then we start figuring out what’s working.
I truly believe that it’s going to take all of us. It’s going to take the people who scare me when they stand up and speak hard truth. It’s going to take people like me, who have a softer approach, it’s going to take the people who are just out there maintaining the day to day sustenance of getting by, of keeping our communities running. All of that is part of it.
What will it take?
I hear some people say we’ve got to stop accepting this incremental progress, and that we have to have instantaneous change, and sure, I’d love to have instantaneous change, but I’m not going to thumb my nose at the progress that’s been made by the people whose shoulders I stand on because the life my father was born into was far different from the life I was born into.
I hope that my daughter is born into a different life than I was born into, and that means that incremental progress works. It might not be fast enough. There might be ways to get there quicker, but we certainly can’t reject it because it still represents a positive change.