A story for our modern times arrives to Manitoba Museum in November

Jackson Beardy poses with his painting of the Loon.

By Trevor Greyeyes

Jackson Beardy’s talents, in both artistic and cultural keeper of knowledge, comes to the Manitoba Museum in early November 2019.

The new display will see the digital restoration of a Wesakejak story in Jackson Beardy’s voice that he collected on behalf of the Manitoba Museum in the later 1970’s.

In a story in Cree legend, Wesakejak and the Loon illustrates why one should always be on guard for false promises and story tellers.

In one sentence, Wesakejak convinces a bunch of birds to lie down after a dance he concocts because he is hungry but the loon keeps one eye open and with a call warns the other birds of his nefarious intentions to kill and eat them.

Rather appropriate, I think, for this post-truth politics philosophy in the age of Trump.

While some racists may dismiss the idea of learning or preserving Indigenous languages, Dr. Maureen Matthews, Manitoba Museum Curator of Cultural Anthropology, said that Jackson Beardy’s personal story and the collection he brought together for the museum should be a testament to the importance of language.

Beardy was born in 1944 on Garden Hill First Nation. He was raised by his grandmother but sent to residential school in Portage LaPraire where he lost connection to his cultural roots and language.

Beardy lived a life of desperation after getting out of residential school but gave up alcohol in 1974 after developing physical problems from its over consumption.

Though he is recognized as an important artist, there was a widespread mainstream notion in the late 1960’s and early 70’s that Indigenous art was not considered a valued or respected art form.

Along with Daphne Odjig and Alex Janvier in 1972, they staged an exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery called Treaty Numbers 23, 287, 1171. Each number refers to the number given to their respective home First Nations.

During this time period, Beardy had also reclaimed the language that was lost to him in residential school.

In the mid 1970’s, Beardy went to work for the museum, then known as the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature, to work on a project collecting the spoken word stories of his ancestors and from surrounding communities in Northern Manitoba.

He travelled to Garden Hill First Nation where he recorded stories in his people’s language. Later, Beardy also visited the other First Nations in his area to also collect their stories.

In 1984, Beardy passed away at the young age of 40.

The stories that he recorded were lost later in a flood that damaged the basement in the building where his recordings were stored.

Fortunately though, a written text of many stories that he recorded survived.

In addition, a Beardy story that he voiced personally that was used in an earlier exhibit also survived.

Matthews said, “We were able to take the old tape and remaster it digitally. Then we added sound effects to his story. It’s simply marvellous.”