Montreal·Twisted Histories

Mi'kmaw artist Robin Paul is on a healing journey to return to painting

It was Paul's uncle who pushed her to pursue art and writing, but when he passed away two years ago she found it hard to pick up a pen or brush.

Paul created graphic art for 4 episodes of Telling Our Twisted Histories

Robin Paul's artwork for the episode 'Family Names' depicts a hand reaching out for the hair of Mother Earth, sprawled across the land. (Artwork by Robin Paul)

Robin Paul is working her way back to being a painter.

Her uncle was a driving force in pushing her to pursue art, but when he passed away two years ago, she found it hard to pick up a pen or brush.

"He's the one that opened that world to me. That's how I can express my emotions, that's how I can talk to people, through my artwork," said Paul, who is from Newfoundland but now lives in the Welamoktok First Nation in New Brunswick.

"Unfortunately I just can't pick up a paintbrush yet."

She started painting and drawing 20 years ago and has been doing beadwork for the last decade.

Growing up, she said she had trouble communicating how she felt and fell into self-destructive behaviour.

Art has been used as part of her healing journey. Beadwork, in particular, has a sort of therapeutic quality for her.

"I used to have tremors a lot and the only way they would stop is if I had a needle and beads in my hands," she said. "I try to bead as much as I can. I bead to make people happy."

She is mostly self-taught in beadwork but learned more about its traditional significance when she was pregnant with her second son. That's when she made pieces for his moss bag, a snug, warm environment for a baby to sleep in.

Paul is one of three artists who created original pieces for the CBC podcast Telling Our Twisted Histories.

Listen to: Family Names

In her piece for the Family Names episode, Mother Earth's hair sprawls across the land, children seen in her face and Indigenous names in her wavy black locks.

"These are our ancestors and they hold all our traditional names," she said.

A hand reaches out over the hair, symbolizing how Indigenous names were swapped in for Western and biblical names through colonial projects — including the residential school system.

"You can take the land away, you can take the children away," she said. "No matter what you try to take, it's still within our blood."

Listen to: Savage

The word "savage" is one Paul never uses, and one of the words used against her in her life by bullies.

"That word is one of my most hated words and I refuse to have it within my vocabulary," she says.

Her artwork instead evokes feelings of pride on the left side, and then the word "savage" is forcibly placed onto Indigenous children on the right side.

As more evidence of hundreds of Indigenous children who died in residential schools is uncovered, she wants the viewer to ask: "Who are the real savages?"

Listen to: Pocahontas

"I really didn't know the actual story of her," says Paul of Pocahontas. Instead of a Disney princess, Paul said she should be remembered as "the first documented missing and murdered Indigenous woman," for being stolen away from her people and forced into marriage.

In her artwork, she recreates the familiar image of Pocahontas from the children's film, but places a bloody hand print on her face, symbolizing a stolen identity, with words like "deception" and "betrayal" in her hair.

"When there was nothing left to take from her, she was murdered," said Paul.

Listen to: Indian Time

Paul's art for the episode "Indian Time" contrasts the Western clock with the medicine wheel, which breaks up a day into four quadrants.

The cage symbolizes the feeling of always being rushed — something that is often unnecessary, she says.

"Instead of being stressed out, open it up. Whatever you need to get done, you will get to it," she said.

For her, Indian time means "things get done when they're meant to get done, and there's always another day."

Telling Our Twisted Histories is an 11-episode podcast series that reclaims Indigenous history by exploring 11 words whose meanings have been warped by centuries of colonization. In it, host Kaniehti:io Horn (Letterkenny, The Man in the High Castle) guides listeners through conversations with more than 70 people from 15 Indigenous communities whose lands now make up Quebec, New Brunswick and Labrador. All episodes are now available at CBC Listen.