As an artist-in-residence at Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park in 2016, Michelle Wilson was drawn to the calls of bison.
What drew her back to the park a year later, were the lesser-known stories of the bison’s eradication, and its links to colonialism and the oppression of Indigenous Peoples. Those themes became the basis of her graduate thesis exhibition, Remnants, Outlaws, and Wallows: Practices for Understanding Bison now on display at Western’s McIntosh Gallery.
“Going to Riding Mountain the first time and being with the bison was such a moving experience,” Wilson said. “But in listening to the people telling me stories of the bison, what they weren’t saying was so loud to me that I needed to know more. The more I became attuned to the stories, the more they branched out into these different directions.”
As Wilson continued to witness and lead discussions around conservation, land use and Indigenous culture, she explored the parallels between the abolition of the bison with that of the First Nations people who occupied the land.
In her artist statement, Wilson writes: “The bison’s near extinction was a tool of assimilation. The famine that resulted from their loss drove many to sign treaties and accept reserves. The attempted erasure of bison and Indigenous Peoples resonate with one another because both have been treated as a wild ‘other’ to be conquered and brought into proper white human society. It was at the tipping point of bison extinction that the Canadian government swooped in to ‘save them.’”
By using textiles, ceramics, printmaking, audio recordings, video and live insects, Wilson questions Canadians’ collective past, present and future with the bison.
In the artist walk-through of the exhibit below, Wilson explains how the bison’s own bodies have been used to tell the story of their own eradication, from bone-black ink to taxidermy.
As Canadians work toward reconciliation, Wilson’s study represents the larger challenge facing many institutions.
“Riding Mountain is a park with a really difficult history,” Wilson said. “There were members of the Keeseekoowenin band who had homes on one side of the lake in the park and Parks Canada illegally kicked them off the land and burned down their houses in the middle of the night.
“The park is working very hard to deal with that past and are working with the communities to harvest bison and give those hides and meat to the communities in respectful and meaningful ways. But it is a small gesture, given the bison were brought there as a display herd, as an attraction, at the same time people were being expelled from the land.”
Wilson is hoping her work will cause others to pause and consider the lens through which they understand the present and the past.
“It’s part of our privilege that we can go to places like Riding Mountain and hear stories of conservation and think those are benevolent stories,” Wilson said. “We don’t see how they’re connected to white supremacy and colonization. These stories are so much more complex. Parks Canada has a mandate to exist for the enjoyment of Canadians, but we don’t ask, ‘Whose enjoyment? And at what cost?’ If we could, how could things be different?”
This Friday, Sept. 10, at 2 p.m. on Zoom, Wilson will moderate a virtual roundtable discussion on the interconnectedness of bison, settler colonialism, conservation and Indigenous Peoples. Elders Mary Lou and Dan Smoke will present a greeting and musical performance. Guest panelists include Wes Olson, Bison specialist and retired park warden at Elk Island National Park, Les Campbell, Indigenous affairs manager at Riding Mountain National Park, and KC Adams, a Nêhiyaw, Anishinaabe, and British social practice artist and educator from Winnipeg. Those wishing to attend are required to register in advance.
The Remnants, Outlaws, and Wallows: Practices for Understanding Bison exhibit at McIntosh Gallery runs from Aug. 5 – Sept. 11.