By Jeff Holubitsky
Visitors to the Alberta Aviation Museum, usually expecting to find vintage planes and the stories of the men and women behind them, are now in for an interesting and long-overdue addition to their experience.
The bush planes, bombers and jets are still there, of course, but a circular display called ê-pimihâyahk (we are all flying together) at the centre of the museum features 12 colourful works of art created by young artists at a pioneering school for Indigenous students located a few blocks up Kingsway Avenue.
High school and junior high students come to Edmonton from communities throughout the province and across Canada to attend the Edmonton public school amiskwaciy Academy where they learn Indigenous languages, study Indigenous cultures, and listen to the teachings of their elders alongside regular classes in a respectful, safe environment.
About 26 of those students are also keen artists and willing to stay after school for an extra hour every Friday for the art club run by teachers Stephanie Sakkab and kanihtâwisimot maskwa onîmihitow, who will be called kani for the purposes of this article.
“(Museum curator) Ryan Lee reached out to our principals and the criteria he wanted Indigenous perspectives on flight and aviation and some type of art exhibit to be integrated,” kani says. “Through brainstorming with students and teachers, we came up with how the cycles of the moon are integrated, not only with the language and the transitions of the land, but also with birds and flight.”
In tune with Indigenous culture, the art club sessions are conducted in a big circle where everyone is equal, and nobody is left out. The teachers tried to start the project last fall, but with Covid restrictions the going was slow.
“Once things started to open up in the last three months this really took off,” Sakkab says. As the June deadline approached students worked almost every day after classes, often several on each painting.”
“Some paintings had some students who drew it, other students who painted it and others who beaded it,” Sakkab says.
Each of the young artists brought their own strengths to the table.
“One is a deadly beader,” kani says. “Another really crucial point, is that when we learn something our job is to share it, so that is one of our wisdom teachings. A lot of our students became the mentors as well. If someone was having trouble with beading, someone was right there to help.”
The art also helps students deal with troubles in their own lives and provides comfort in these uncertain times.
“I think a lot of us have experienced trauma,” kani says. “When you do something repetitively and find success, that is healing. Because trauma is the repetition of negative patterns — negative, negative, negative.
“When you can have surprise and success in a positive way, that is really healing. It is so cool, and you can see it in the kids, too.”
Here are comments from some of the students:
“For Indigenous people, every month is its own moon, for Frog Moon, the whole reason it’s called Frog Moon is because in April you can hear the frogs croaking in the background.” — C.G.
“It feels amazing. I would never have thought in a million years that I would have my art in a museum.” — K.B.
“It was so incredible to connect to my culture. It was an amazing opportunity to connect with so many people in the community, and so many other students who I would not have known otherwise. I feel so honoured just to be a part of this.” — H.N.W.
Be sure to purchase tickets to see this engaging new exhibit this summer!