Star blanket mural will help Indigenous people reclaim urban space

In Indigenous traditions, being gifted with a star blanket is a high honour.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/08/2018 (1504 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In Indigenous traditions, being gifted with a star blanket is a high honour.

Sewn or stitched in the middle with a morning star, the brightest light in the dawn sky, the blanket is given to leaders and wrapped around their shoulders in ceremony.

It’s intended to protect, honour, and — most importantly — recognize the work an individual does to forge a path to the future. Most of this involves taking the brave step of bringing light in the darkest of times.

Supplied An artist's conception of what the Helen Betty Osborne building on Ellice Avenue will look like after mural artist Kenneth Lavallee completes the project.

Just like the morning star.

This week, a building in Winnipeg is being recognized as doing this work.

Métis mural artist Kenneth Lavallee is leading a project to cover the entirety of the Helen Betty Osborne building, located at 511 Ellice Avenue, with a star blanket.

“I want to wrap this place,” Lavallee said on the first day of work and covered in primer, “and recognize the hope that’s here.”

Located at the University of Winnipeg, the building houses Education programs and the Wii Chii Waakanak Learning Centre, where Indigenous education and cultural programming take place.

Painting four sides of a two-storey building is a huge project but one Lavallee has experience in. It’s the fourth installation of his Star Blanket Project series, with sister sites located at Edge Gallery, the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, and the Red Road Lodge.

Still, this is the biggest project Lavallee has undertaken. Partnering with Synonym Art Consultation, he is being assisted by seven artists working around the clock to be finished this week. The mural will be unveiled Saturday at noon with a BBQ and DJ music to follow.

“I not only wanted to give jobs to artists but activate this space, recognizing the jobs people do and can do to grow a community,” Lavallee said.

The mural embodies Lavallee’s belief that people must reclaim spaces where they live, particularly in cities, where Indigenous peoples have endured violence and marginalization.

The mural therefore is dedicated to murdered and missing Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit peoples, an issue deeply felt in the neighbourhood where the mural is located.

This is also why the Helen Betty Osborne Building was chosen for the project. Osborne, a Cree woman from Norway House, was abducted and murdered near the Pas in 1971. Four years ago, Lavallee was speaking to his mother about Osborne’s story and realized he had to do something to honour her. Approached by the University of Winnipeg last year, he received his chance.

Constructing the mural is as complicated as stitching a star blanket itself. Creators have to perform a delicate balance between mathematics and art, focusing on precision and creativity while ensuring nothing is out of sync.

A typical star blanket has 288 small diamonds woven into sets of 25, 36, and 200 larger diamonds – combining eventually into an geometrically-even eight-pointed star. One mistake can destabilize the entire project, so an incredible amount of attention is necessary at all times.

“I’ve got a lot of math this week,” laughed Lavallee, “but there are lines already in the cement and that helps.”

Star Blankets are not given just to honour work but to encourage it to continue. This is the message the University of Winnipeg wanted to share when contacting Lavallee and Synonym Art to do the mural.

“We wanted something that exemplifies our message that Indigenous education is inclusive and accessible here,” said Jarita Greyeyes, Director of Community Learning and Engagement, “and demonstrates our commitment to making Indigenous space here.”

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Kenneth Lavallee prepares to paint a mural on the Wii Chiiwaakanak Learning Centre at the Helen Betty Osborne Building.

It’s hard to imagine physical Indigenous spaces at the University of Winnipeg, a place full of modern, block-style architecture and high rises. While new buildings and spaces have been built or renovated recently, few embody Indigenous principles.

“We hope this will be a bold statement and an anchor to our Indigenous programming on campus,” said Greyeyes, “We are experiencing a transformation on campus with our Indigenous course requirement but now people can see it in the physical spaces we work in.”

The University of Winnipeg requires that all students enrolled in programs on campus take a course with primarily Indigenous content in order to understand the knowledge, history and relationships that embody Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Canada. It’s one of only two universities to take this step.

And now the campus has a centrepiece for this learning.

I spent the morning at the Helen Betty Osborne Centre. I remarked to Lavallee and Greyeyes how much the place has changed since I attended as an undergraduate in the 1990s.

While there, I never read a book written by an Indigenous person. There were no courses taught by Indigenous peoples, never mind an Indigenous Studies Department.

There was one Indigenous faculty member, the late Dr. Mary Young, but her office and the Indigenous student lounge was housed physically underneath the Theology department.

When I hung out with my friends, we were literally located underneath people studying Christianity. Nothing triggering there.

Now, the Helen Betty Osborne Building is bustling, full to the brim with Indigenous students and families working with Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff to make paths for themselves. I also noticed many non-Indigenous students studying and a large contingent of new Canadians working on computers. Most of all, people were visiting, talking, laughing.

The last time I was in the building was a few years ago, taking free Indigenous language classes with my daughter. We even learned how to sing Frère Jacques in Ojibway.

Now, as I return to the university where I began, I see a Star Blanket wrapping itself around a campus and community trying to make a place where a future can thrive.

Where light can shine.

Wrapped in warmth.

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

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