Calgary

Blackfoot artist inspires students with new mural at Calgary's St. John XXIII School

A new mural by a prolific local artist at St. John XIII school is helping to teach students about Indigenous cultures and making Indigenous students at the school feel more welcome. 

Painter Kalum Teke Dan has been teaching students about Indigenous culture

Blackfoot artist Kalum Teke Dan poses for a photo in front of the mural he is painting at St. John XXIII School in Falconridge. (Oseremen Irete/CBC)

A new mural by a prolific local artist at St. John XXIII school is helping to teach students about Indigenous cultures and making Indigenous students at the Calgary school feel more welcome.

Blackfoot artist Kalum Teke Dan was brought in by the school, with grant support from the Calgary Catholic Education Foundation, to highlight Indigenous art and culture to students. 

The artist — who has notable pieces featured at places like City Hall and the Calgary Public Library — has been working on the mural, Water is Life, for the past few weeks. He has set up in a small space in the school gym so that classes can stop in to visit with him while he works. 

"I was explaining to the kids that every living being — plants, animals and everything — needs water. Water is life," he said. 

"The prominent figure is the female in our culture. We were raised to respect our mothers and our grandmothers because they were the givers of life. So that's why we added the woman because women are the givers of life. Her hair is turning into the waters of life that everything feeds off."

Artist Kalum Teke Dan paints a mural at St. John XXIII School on March 8. (Oseremen Irete/CBC)

Grade 6 student Donny Sewall Big Plume said that with only a small population of Indigenous students at the northeast school, having Dan in the school teaching students about Indigenous culture has made him feel understood.

"Some kids used to make fun of me for my braid, for having long hair, because they didn't know what native culture was all about," he said. "But I really love that when Kalum came to our school, he helped other kids know why our hair is important to us … and it really makes me happy now."

Dan said it feels "awesome" to know he's having an impact on kids like Donny. 

"I'm glad that I could be there to help them through. We grow our hair for pride, representing our culture. And, you know, it's just a part of who we are," he said. "There aren't too many native students in the schools, which is what it was like when I went to school in the early '80s. And so I know what the feeling is like to be the only Aboriginal student in the school. It can be scary for kids. There are lots of stereotypes and prejudices."

Grade 7 student Alixus Brant said that when she sees the art at school, and hears her friends taking interest in it, it makes her proud. 

"When I was little, I used to be embarrassed about my culture, and when I saw the art, it made me feel welcome and I wasn't alone with being native," she said. 

Student Donny Sewall Big Plume says having an Indigenous artist at his school has helped him feel better understood by his classmates. (Oseremen Irete/CBC)

The feeling of pride is one that Dan says he hopes to instill in anyone who experiences his art.

"A lot of the students either are from other countries or they're new to Alberta or even Canada. So the questions they ask were a lot about Aboriginal culture, what I was doing and what the painting meant," he said.

"Even kids that aren't Aboriginal, they said that they felt very proud to have the painting in their school."

School principal Brad Sanesh said the mural is a part of the school's efforts to revitalize its learning commons and library area.

"As we were kind of thinking what that could look like and brainstorming, we thought that it could be an excellent opportunity to celebrate and increase Indigenous art and knowledge in our building," he said. 

Sanesh said the school decided to put in a number of Indigenous art instalments in the space to represent different facets of Indigenous culture and different groups of people.

"We really wanted to make sure that whatever was representing Treaty 7 be pretty spectacular because this is the land that we are on, and these are the nations that certainly have the history here and primarily are our students here," he said. 

Dan was an easy choice to help them accomplish that, Sanesh said.

"When we have people using their gifts in ways like this, it's just spectacular to have our students have responses like they have, and hopefully we will have a long legacy from this piece that goes for generations within our community," he said.

Student Donny Sewall Big Plume, Alixus Brant and Kalum Teke Dan pose for a photo in front of the mural at St. John XXIII School. (Oseremen Irete/CBC)

Sanesh said he's been grateful to Dan for his willingness to engage with students throughout this process.

"Every time I bring a class in, he stops and he talks with them, which is such an authentic learning experience," he said. 

It's so important for them to be able to access authentic knowledge and art around different Indigenous communities, as well as they learn about the full experience of Canada and the history and the legacy."

Dan says he hopes to put the finishing touches on the mural next week. The school plans to mount it in the learning commons shortly after. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lucie Edwardson

Journalist

Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson or reach her by email at lucie.edwardson@cbc.ca

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