A 'Digital Wigwam' Explores the Trauma of Indian Boarding Schools at the Family Level
In the fall, journalist and ICTMN contributor Mary Annette Pember displayed an installation called Digital Wigwam at Thunder-Sky, Inc., a gallery specializing in outsider art in Cincinnati. She wrote the following essay about her motivation for making the multimedia piece. To learn about and see works by the man for whom Thunder-Sky, Inc. is named, see Pember's story "Remembering Raymond Thundersky, Roving Artist-Clown of Cincinnati".
Sometimes I wonder if I have much to do with the work I create. If I’m lucky and manage to keep myself out of the way, I am guided toward creations that inform and surprise me as much as my audience. This has been the way of Digital Wigwam, an installation of story, photographs and sculpture that I put together in the Thundersky inc gallery here in Cincinnati. Digital Wigwam tells the story of my mother Bernice Rabideaux Pember’s life at the Sister School, a catholic boarding school on the Bad River Rez in Wisconsin and the impact of her experience on my family and me.
At Sister School in the 1920’s and 30’s the nuns created a lesson in the longevity of trauma and its power to infect subsequent generations. The nuns called her “dirty Indian” and taught her the importance of cleanliness, an obsession that haunted her life. Stubbornly proud of her heritage, she carried her pride like a hundred pound chip on her shoulder. Secretly lurking under the surface, however, was the lingering fear that the “dirty Indian” was right around the corner.
My mother was born in old Odanah to one of those back woods Ojibwe. She later succumbed to one of the same, one of those boys from the “C.” family, a sorcerer who witched her, but that all came later on.
Before that they took her to the Sister School where it all happened. It all got handed on to me. Prickly and unfolding its exquisite fascinating pain, it finally broke open like a milkweed pod, disarmed at last.
Digital Wigwam began with a dream in which my Uncle Hashie (Hudson) who passed on long ago sang a one word traveling song for me. Since my Ojibwemowin skills are pretty limited, I asked a friend who is a scholar of the language for a definition of the word. “Wabinong,” means to travel in an eastern direction. It sounded like excellent advice, so I continued to journey forward, paying attention along the way.
Although I’ve written extensively about the impact of my mother’s boarding school experience on me and my family, Digital Wigwam seems to tell the story in a genuinely Ojibwe manner, immersive and experiential, the small lodge draws people inside and encourages them to wait for the stories to emerge.
The idea for Digital Wigwam came to me as a complete vision while I was driving down Columbia Parkway here in Cincinnati. As directed, I gathered some willow poles and twisted them into a frame for the lodge, covering it with sheer white cloth. In the center, I placed two flat screen televisions back to back, with their screens facing outward. On the floor, I placed 8 pillows, four on each side of the circle for people to sit on and hear my story that I recorded on a DVD. People enter through the eastern door, sit and hear the story then exit through the western door, thus completing a circle.
The vision for Digital Wigwam my have been influenced by Raymond Thunder sky, for whom Thunder-Sky, inc. is named. Raymond was an enigmatic, mysterious figure around whom a fantastic urban legend has emerged here in Cincinnati. The son of a Mohawk man who traveled here as an ironworker, Raymond was autistic. Like many autistic people, Raymond had a savant, a prodigious ability beyond what is considered normal. Raymond’s gift was drawing. When he died in 2004, he left behind thousands of elaborately detailed drawings of construction sites, his great obsession. This little gallery was created by his former social workers as homage to him and his spirit and has become a refuge and source of inspiration for other “outsider artists” like Raymond. I stumbled across the little gallery here on the northside of Cincinnati last year and was asked by the owners Bill Ross and Keith Banner to do a “show” of my work.
Digital Wigwam speaks to a strange personal quirk that prevents me from looking away from emotional pain. I am compelled to look at my pain until I know it and understand it. For me this knowing and understanding has helped diffuse the power of my mother’s pain over my life. Without forgiveness, however, Digital Wigwam would not have been possible. It has only after I forgave my mother that I was given the gifts presented in Digital Wigwam.
Fittingly my installation ends with a “deus ex machina,” a plot device used in medieval theater to resolve a seemingly unsolvable problem that could only be explained by the Divine. Roughly translated, it means “God made it happen.”
My deus ex machina for this raw and personal narrative is my mom’s Singer sewing machine upon which she fixated during the remaining months of her life in the nursing home. Given to her by my father, it was her prized possession, forever assuring her she could cloth herself and her family.
Unable to part with it, I let the little machine languish in my garage where I saw it daily. It stood as still life testament to my mother’s survival spirit. Brave and small next to its little can of oil and box of bobbins, it tugged as my heart whenever I let myself see it. For some months, I wondered what its message could be.
The little machine begged to be in the Digital Wigwam show. I am convinced that somewhere along the way, Raymond Thundersky’s trickster spirit helped me see the machine as a plot resolution from God, a deus Singer sewing machina,
Since Digital Wigwam has always been guided by something bigger than myself, I think the ending is fitting. It speaks to the ways in which the Creator is slowly and in his own way resolving the seemingly endless power of historical trauma in our lives.