Staring up from the foyer of the old court house in Grand Forks, now Gallery 2, it’s tough to see the new exhibitions on display – but you’ll certainly hear all three.
From the left, smooth voices speak traditional stories of the Sinixt people, only to be interrupted by the crack of electrical switches and high-pitched organ notes when the visitor’s attention turns to “Sanguine Through the Storm” in the utility pail-filled main gallery. From the right-hand gallery, with a tuned ear, you can hear the silence, a crack of a pistol and screams. Get close and slap on the in-exhibit headphones and you’ll hear your disembodied movie theatre seat neighbours crunching on popcorn while you try and make sense of the film unfolding before your eyes and the soundscape around your head in “The Muriel Lake Incident.”
Experiencing Sinixt stories
In large, grey letters, the opening line of one of the new exhibits at Gallery 2 holds no suspense about its point for being.
“The truth is that we, the Sinixt, exist. And that here, there is no reconciliation possible without recognition of the Sinixt.”
In 1956, the Sinixt people, who have traditionally lived in the Arrow Lakes and West Kootenay regions of B.C. and down south into what is now Washington State, were declared legally extinct by the Canadian government. Now, in the latest wave of decades of effort to reverse the decision, a collaboration between Sinixt people and settlers is aiming to bring the cause to the top of minds again.
“Not Extinct: Keeping the Sinixt Way” is a book, art gallery installation, collection of recordings and curriculum materials created by Sinixt elder Marilyn James, Sinixt storyteller Taress Alexis and the Blood of Life Collective, a group of settler and Sinixt activists working to support Sinixt resurgence.
Despite early pessimism about the project, which features James and Alexis recounting traditional Sinixt stories and accompanying artworks created by collaborators, Alexis said that she’s been impressed with its pickup.
“I’m happy with just letting it evolve and take on a life of its own,” Alexis said. “That’s what the stories are – they have their own life and they just keep going and evolving as well.”
At Gallery 2, the project takes the form of a handful of paintings, sketches and stencils that illustrate how the project’s artists, many of whom are settlers, interpreted the stories told by James and Alexis.
“There was no discussion or limitations to what the artist thought,” explained project collaborator KL Kivi. “This just tells the story through settler perspectives.”
“I don’t think that any single one of them would have been what I imagined,” Alexis said of the art pieces.
“We share the land – we all live here now and we all share this space – so to have the responsibility to tell the stories to the land you live on and to the water that you utilize, they all got a deeper understanding after being involved in the project,” Alexis said of the artists’ participation.
“It’s given [the cause of ending the Sinixt legal extinction] a lot of life and legitimacy and attention that it deserves – it deserved it before any of this happened, but to be able to create that ambiance where people are actually paying attention is great,” said Kivi.
There is no irony lost in understanding that the sounds of “Not Extinct” echo through an old court house – a brick-and-mortar representation of the colonial power that condemned the nation’s rights above the 49th parallel.
Audio downloads and curriculum materials for teachers are available at Maapress.ca, with the purchase of the book, Not Extinct: Keeping the Sinixt Way.