Artist incorporates Indian Act into jingle dress regalia

A Wolastoqew artist has made a jingle dress adorned with shreds of the Indian Act to honour the women from her community who fought to preserve their culture.

Regalia part of Aboriginal Visual Arts Exhibition in Fredericton

Emma Hassencahl-Perley said she was inspired to make the jingle dress by the women in her community who fought to preserve their culture. (Oscar Baker III/CBC)

A Wolastoqew artist has made a jingle dress adorned with shreds of the Indian Act to honour the women from her community who fought to preserve their culture.

The regalia is titled Ahtolimiye (she keeps praying.)

"I have the freedom to practise my culture anytime and in any place that I want to," said Emma Hassencahl-Perley.

"It's a privilege that I carry every single day and it's for the people that have come before me that fought for me to be able to do that."

The Indian Act put restrictions on wearing traditional clothing and on Indigenous cultural and spiritual practices. Though some nations practised their ceremonies in secret, the ban lasted 75 years until the restrictions were lifted in 1951.

Hassencahl-Perley, 24, said she grew up with her culture. She went to powwows in Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick, her home community, and her mother smudged with her and smudged the house.

The dress is adorned with shreds of the Indian Act. (Oscar Baker III/CBC)

Hassencahl-Perley said her great-grandmother Marjorie Perley was instrumental in bringing back songs, dances and ceremonies. She said her great-grandmother worked with the Union of New Brunswick Indians and spent time researching Wolastoqey culture, while Marjorie's sister became a medicine woman.

Inspired by great-grandmother's dress

"I'm very inspired by these women in my family who made space for themselves and have done this research to connect better with themselves," said Hassencahl-Perley.

She used her great-grandmother's ribbon dress as inspiration for Ahtolimiye, mimicking her great-grandmother's ribbon work on the sleeves and along the collar.

Hassencahl-Perley said she was also inspired by an artwork by Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun that features a copy of the Indian Act that the artist shot with a gun.

She said she hopes her work raises awareness and gets people thinking about the Indian Act and how it still affects people's everyday lives.

Emma Hassencahl-Perley said she looked to her great-grandmother's ribbon dress for inspiration. (Oscar Baker III/CBC)

"It's still used to control a demographic in a discriminatory fashion…. [It] targets a certain ethnicity of people and has tried to use it assimilate them into the Canadian body of politic," she said.

Hassencahl-Perley said for her the Indian Act is a form of legislated identity but Indigenous people should be free to define themselves and free to govern themselves.

Reclaiming culture

The regalia is on display at the George Fry Gallery in Fredericton as part of the Aboriginal Visual Arts Exhibition. The showcase features more than 40 pieces of artwork from Indigenous New Brunswick Craft College students and guest artists they brought in to host workshops throughout the year.

Dan Robichaud, the co-ordinating instructor in the Aboriginal Visual Arts program, said the showcase is about taking pride.

It's about hope- Dan Robichaud

"There's Elders who have had part of their culture ripped away and they come in and see that the young people have their culture proudly on display," said Robichaud.

Robichaud said Indigenous students are reclaiming aspects of their culture they may have lost because of the Indian Act.

He's heard students say their great-grandparents were once basket makers, but that the tradition was lost in the generations. Now those students are picking up those traditional skills, and want to bring that back to their community.

"It's about hope," said Robichaud.

The showcase runs till Feb. 13.