A palm-sized piece of bark is embedded in the canvas of Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel’s The Siege of Kanehsatà:ke, set as if it’s a peep of a tree trunk growing out of the painting.
“We just really wanted peace, and when your home is invaded and attacked, the only way that you’re going to get out of the mindset that people are trying to kill you is to walk in a forest where there is peace, and where the trees don’t expect anything from you,” Gabriel said. “You can get a lot from them just by being in their presence.
Gabriel’s work was on display as part of the Gallery of Contemporary Art’s “Truths That Remain” exhibit, featuring work from Gabriel, Jeneen Frei Njootli, tīná gúyáńí (seth cardinal dodginghorse and Glenna Cardinal), and Crystal Z Campbell. The exhibit, curated by Sarah Nesbitt, opened its doors for a guided tour on May 19, the eve of its final weekend in Montreal.
“It’s a really great honour to be here and to be included in the work that is in the gallery for the show. It’s been a while since I’ve been sharing art, so it’s nice to get back to my original goal,” Gabriel said.
Alongside The Siege of Kanehsatà:ke, Gabriel displayed War Club, an oil pastel piece painted 10 years after the so-called Oka Crisis, featuring the Pines once more, with a poem written across the work. She explained how the piece was inspired by another walk through the trees.
“I wanted to say something, but I needed the trees to talk to us, to tell us what they’re thinking, to tell us what they see, so I did five pieces each with a poem, and this is the last one that I have of this series,” Gabriel explained.
The poem reads as follows:
“With a lump in my throat, I feel as if there are hot coals beneath my feet. I gasp for air, forgetting to breathe. I watch as the legacy of our knowledge dwindles down to a spark ignited only by my breath.”
For Gabriel, these words are truer than ever. She said that the poem personifies what Kanesatake is experiencing today – but she explained that the imagery of a spark that can be ignited demonstrates the possibility of a way forward.
“As long as there’s a little spark, you can ignite the fire again with the right materials,” Gabriel said. “And that’s what I’m hoping to get in my community, for all communities to have one day.”
During the tour, Gabriel expanded extensively on how the current social and political state in Kanesatake is reflected in her older works, as well as how it will be referenced in her future projects.
“There are times when it’s still triggering to see or hear the gunshots, which we hear on a daily basis now. It’s become the norm, because we never settled amongst ourselves. It’s become a lawless place,” she said.
She explained how The Siege of Kanehsatà:ke, which was painted at the end of the Resistance, now is a memorial to a time before.
“When I look at this painting now, it was the end of the innocence for us. What we saw as being the law or the norm has completely unravelled,” she said. “And I’m not sure our ancestors would recognize us.”
Coming up next for Gabriel will be work in a different medium: film. She plans to release a documentary about Kahnawake’s role in supporting Kanesatake, particularly the efforts of the 207 Longhouse.
“It’s about why they felt it was so important to support us, and also about what sovereignty means, which is a big question that you can’t necessarily say in a two-dimensional piece of work,” Gabriel explained. “For Indigenous people, sovereignty means having that language that your ancestors spoke, and that evolution of us as a people, our culture, our values. I try to put that in my documentaries.”
Gabriel noted that she has several ideas in the works, but that she has to focus on one project at a time, given her busy schedule as an activist. Between parliamentary sessions, local activism, and speaking engagements, Gabriel has barely any time to catch her breath. The one thing that will always help her breathe, though, is the trees.
“There is so much peace when you put your back against the trees, and feel their energy. All the struggles you’re having just go away. It’s those things you can take for granted if you don’t stop to notice,” she said.