Artistic Empowerment | The star
Mistissini was selected as the site for the Mikw Chiyâm pilot project seven years ago due to Voyageur Memorial High School’s eagerness and willingness to implement all of the music, visual arts, drama/multimedia and dance components of the program.
This early introduction resulted in an enviable collection of equipment and materials that students are free to use, including digital animation tools and frames for screen printing. It’s safe to say that not every school is fortunate enough to have a professional recording studio like Voyageur Memorial has.
“Parents say I wish I had had this in school,” said Marcela Henriquez, the local program’s teacher. “Mistissini was lucky. For each residency we have a budget for ordering materials depending on the project we are going to do with the artist.”
After hearing about Mikw Chiyâm from friends who helped found the program, Henriquez resigned from her permanent position in Montreal and moved to Mistissini in 2016. As she encouraged students to take ownership of the program, its success has been shaped by an openness to continuous development.
“We’re trying to make it how they see it,” Henriquez told the Nation. “Every year we adapt, see what works and what doesn’t. Seeing how empowered students are through self-expression is inspiring not only as a teacher but also as an artist and pushes me to learn new things. I tell the students that I may be your teacher, but I’m still learning.”
Out of seven first-year mikw-chiyâm students, Mistissini currently has 118 enrolled in all five grades of secondary school – far more than any other school. This stems from a pandemic-driven decision to allocate participants based on their expected suitability for the program, an imperfect system but preferable to previous pandemic years when only high school and high school students were admitted.
As not all participants share artistic motivations, Henriquez hopes to return to an open application process with interested students divided into junior and senior cycles. While managing five large classes is challenging, working online has been even more difficult since schools closed ahead of Christmas.
“It’s really difficult to find classes or activities that are accessible to everyone,” Henriquez admitted. “Not everyone has colored pencils or even paper at home. As teenagers, they won’t necessarily say it, but I can tell they miss being at school.”
The Omicron eruption has delayed the next artist residency involving textile techniques and beadwork, to be led by Melanie Garcia and possibly local bead artists. Before the holidays, Alberta Cree/Métis artist Cindy Paul guided the students in free-writing, beat-making and mixing exercises to develop two songs that ended up being played on local radio.
Prior to each artist’s arrival, a guiding question such as “What stories are you wearing?” is established with input from the Artist and Youth Artist Assistants (YAA) hired by the program’s most recent graduates. Last year’s YAA, Sara Gunner, is now working with the organization as the YAA leader for all Cree communities, demonstrating the opportunities Mikw Chiyâm is creating for youth.
“You can see them being inspired to take their place in the education of our youth in the Cree Nation,” explained Henriquez. “Angel Baribeau has completed the program and is now an artist for Mikw Chiyâm working with different communities. The students see that you can really achieve your dreams. It’s possible to build a life with the skills you learn – Angel is a clear example of that.”
While Baribeau, the artist who now uses the name Siibii Petawabano, has always had a passion for singing and songwriting, they were initially reluctant to take part in the music workshop that became Mikw Chiyâm. As they gained skills and confidence over the first three years of the program, Petawabano gradually adjusted to being an artist and became the first former student to become an artist-in-residence.
“Before the program, I didn’t see any pursuit of a career in the arts as viable,” Petawabano told the Nation. “It wasn’t until I started meeting people in these classrooms who have made art their life that I began to understand that it was legitimate. They helped me get out of my comfort zone and understand that I loved doing certain things that I would never have realized otherwise.”
Already a gifted singer, Mikw Chiyâm taught Petawabano the importance of equipment and meticulous production as they assembled the layers of their first self-produced song. Equally valuable were the unexpected connections formed with both older and younger artists.
“InPath and Mikw Chiyâm have created a network of artists that goes beyond Eeyou Istchee,” Petawabano claimed. “I’ll always be grateful for that. I would see them on Facebook and wish I lived in this community because [they’re] so cool I’ve had the privilege of working with some of my heroes.”
Working with youth as an artist-in-residence is a natural fit for Petawabano, whose mother is a teacher. They clearly remember their struggles with mental health as a student just a few years ago and can now deliver lessons in technique and self-acceptance from across the classroom.
“I was like, ‘Guys, I’m from here just like you guys,'” Petawabano recalled. “I went somewhere and you will go somewhere too. You have alternative paths in life. Go to college, if you see your future there or if you see yourself wasting away in a small studio doing something you love, you can do that too.”
As the recent winner of Canada’s Walk of Fame RBC Emerging Musician Program grand prize and with over 200,000 streams of her most recent EP, Petawabano is taking a break from residencies this year to focus on her next project. They encourage all to support children in the celebrations of Mikw Chiyâm with an accurate knowledge of the profound impact they can produce.
“Having community members see this amazing art helps deconstruct the narrative that art is not a career or a lifestyle,” Petawabano said. “We are a nation of artists. Building snowshoes, even hunting – that is an integral part of our culture.”
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