Standing tall at the Kelowna Art Gallery is an intricately woven blanket representing Canada’s dark past. It’s a visual representation of residential schools and the atrocities afflicted on students, called the Witness Blanket.
Indigenous artist and master carver, Carey Newman, who also goes by his traditional name of Hayalthkin’geme, created the 40 foot-long blanket made from western red cedar and various objects as a way of sharing what happened to survivors and their families, and to bring awareness of it to the country and the world.
“I landed on making a blanket out of solid objects gathered from residential school sites and eventually, that idea expanded out to include objects from the churches, and the government buildings and finally from cultural buildings — from places where we see the resurgence of Indigenous culture. That is what makes up the 886 plus pieces that we gathered,” said Hayalthkin’geme.
The original blanket resides in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, MB, where it is being restored. However, the touring replica is at the Kelowna Art Gallery. Visitors can download a free app on their smartphones called ‘Witness Blanket’ to learn about each part of the installation.
The Witness Blanket features braids of hair, hockey skates, moccasins, a drum, a Métis sash and the door to the infirmary of St. Michael’s Residential School in Alert Bay.
“The nature of those pieces being everyday objects that we all encounter. We all have doorknobs, we all have hair, so many of us have memories that are attached to hockey skates or piano keys or moccasins,” said Hayalthkin’geme.
“The objects that are on the blanket aren’t mysteries. They are things that we know and that we might have our own sentimental ideas about. And when those two things converge, when our feelings about time converge with the reality of some of the terrible stories and atrocities … attached to some of those objects on the witness blanket, that creates a connection.”
The Witness Blanket: Touring Reproduction will be at the Kelowna Art Gallery from Jan. 15 to April 10.