One dimensional, black and white photographs represent much of the aboriginal history we know. While serving adequately as depictions of an era, they hardly tell a story or set a scene.
Linda Many Guns of the University of Lethbridge's Native American Studies (NAS) department is trying to fill in those gaps, reconstructing a rich history one bead at a time. By crafting traditional aboriginal clothing such as dresses, war shirts and moccasins using actual trade cloth and intricate glass beads of a bygone time, she is using colour to recreate history and help it leap off the page.
"For me it's a source of pride," says Many Guns, who is in her second semester of teaching at the U of L. "I don't want to see just black and white pictures of our people keeping the memory alive. By creating these items, you see the incredible colour and beauty of that time, and it's awesome. You get a sense of how dynamic and incredible meeting our people must have been."
Born in southern Alberta into the Blackfoot tribe, she was registered at the Tsuu T'ina Reserve, later transferred to Siksika Nation. Now an educator completing a doctorate degree, Many Guns has worked in a variety of fields, from being a chef to a high-steel construction worker.
What has always resonated with her is the history of her people.
"I've always been proud of my culture and my heritage and like so many of the students I teach here, have spent a good part of my lifetime reconstructing what I know since so much of that was fragmented growing up," she says. "I've never seen myself as assimilated, I see myself as indigenous and am very proud of that."
While working as a chef in the Banff Springs Hotel, Many Guns often visited local museums and was intrigued by the visual history of aboriginal people. She recognized that the clothes they crafted spoke volumes about the lives they lived.
"These pieces could not have been produced by a society that had no structure or no intellectual capital," she says. "Beauty comes from its environment and you must have a peaceful environment and some sense of identity. It spurred these questions in me about my background."
In her quest for knowledge, Many Guns encountered all manner of persons that helped her reconstruct the past. From 90-year-old women with stashes of highly prized, trade-route beads to a society of mountain men who literally experienced life of a bygone era, she unearthed the tales and symbols of her ancestors.
As she learned to create clothing in the traditional way, she gained an understanding of the trade route system, the value of the beads in aboriginal society and the symbols of the past.
"Aboriginal people were no different than any other people, they were always looking for ways to demonstrate status in a community. Having trade cloth was a demonstration of status, as were the beads," she says. "It was truly a sign of wealth to have any number of those beads."
She worked with an experienced group of beaders to craft her first dress, before tackling the challenge of a second by herself. Currently, she's creating the dress she'll wear when she receives her doctorate at Trent University in the spring.
The current display at the front entrance to the University Library depicts beads and pieces created over various eras of aboriginal history. The breathtaking colours and intricate craftsmanship create a whole new representation of history. It's that dynamic cultural past she strives to rekindle and introduce to her students.
"I believe that this is just one small example of what the NAS department offers, not just to aboriginal students but to all people," Many Guns says. "We're bringing an awareness and understanding to aboriginal people's lives and their culture, how rich and beautiful it was, to validate the complexity of the nations. We're here, we're still here, still creating these items, and we don't want the culture to die."
GET THE FACTS
• Many Guns has a BA from St. Thomas University (Fredericton, N.B.), a master's degree from Carleton University (Ottawa, Ont.), a law degree from University of Ottawa and will complete her doctorate from Trent University (Peterborough, Ont.) this spring.
• A mother of two, she is also a grandmother of three.
• Many Guns credits Dr. Leroy Little Bear for the support he's shown in allowing her to "open new doors of discovery" in the NAS department.
• The beads featured in the University Library display date all the way back to the 1800s. Examples of their value include the largest blue beads that could fetch up to 10 buffalo hides per bead in trade.
• One of Many Guns' greatest sources of beads is a woman in Blackfoot, Idaho who has rows upon rows of cases of beads that she'll sell in large quantities.
• Each dress that Many Guns makes takes over a year to construct. "One of the things you learn is the meaning of patience because sometimes you can't get enough product (leather, hides, beads) to put it all together, but I think that is very similar to the way it was back then."