Blackfoot mural unveiled on Main Street
Meet the artist behind MRU’s new artwork
By Nina Grossman, Layout Editor
On Sept. 22, the same day Treaty 7 was signed 139 years ago, Main Street lit up with indigenous drums, songs and dancing to celebrate the unveiling of Blackfoot artist Ryan Jason Allen Willert HeavyShield’s mural located between Tim Hortons and the library.
After speeches from involved faculty and student volunteers, traditional chicken dancer Yancy EagleSpeaker and fancy dancer Nikkole HeavyShield performed for students and faculty who had gathered to watch.
The celebration was the fruition of the “Campus Transformation Challenge,” a social innovation tournament co-sponsored by the Institute for Community Prosperity. Student groups competed with creative solution proposals for some of MRU’s challenges and in February, Human Resources Coordinator and Business Student Ravi Chung and his team won the challenge with a proposal to revitalize MRU’s campus using indigenous art.
Chung chose the Treaty 7 anniversary for the mural unveiling because of the document’s historical significance in Southern Alberta.
Treaty 7 was signed by the Blackfoot Nations Kainai, Piikani and Siksika, the Stoney Nakoda Nation, the Tsuu T’ina Nation and the federal government. The intent of the treaty was to allow Europeans to settle on indigenous land, offering an assortment of benefits in return like healthcare, education and economic development.
Longstanding issues and injustices have arisen as a result of competing interpretations over the treaty, with many feeling the Canadian government has not held up their side of the agreement. Despite failings since, the treaty is still widely regarded as a historical document promising peaceful coexistence and prosperity for everyone living in Treaty 7 territory.
Because MRU is on traditional Niitsitapi territory, or traditional Blackfoot land, Chung put out a call for artists with Blackfoot backgrounds. Ryan Jason Allen Willert HeavyShield from the Siksika nation answered that call and spent weeks at the end of summer crafting the mural now displayed on Main Street.
“It is really reflective of Mount Royal’s heritage and who we really are,” Chung says of the artwork. “It’s incredible; the art, the history and the culture that existed before (European settlement) and it’s imperative that students understand that.”
HeavyShield was born in Olds and raised in Red Deer and Innisfail before ending up in Calgary in his late teens. He says art has always been a part of his life, but he became more engaged as an artist when he lived on the streets with his father, cousin and uncles, who panhandled and sold their original indigenous artwork around the city.
“My dad, he called himself the president of the panhandlers association,” HeavyShield says, adding alcoholism played a large part in the street life they lived.
HeavyShield helped his family sell their art on the streets until he was 19 and decided to sell his own work.
“I started to feel a bit guilty about selling their artwork, so I worked on making my own,” he says. “I went all over the city. I would take the bus to different spots. I would sell (art) in front of stores like Staples, Michaels, and Safeway…”
Creating art became a mode of survival for HeavyShield.
“I got into artwork to survive, to eat, to get my tobaccos, to go and do things with people,” he says. “I needed a little bit of support still, but eventually, by doing that, art took me off the streets.”
As HeavyShield began growing as an artist, taking classes and displaying his work in shows around the city, he also started learning more about his indigenous roots.
Today HeavyShield teaches art at the Native Friendship Centre in Red Deer. He has joined a Sun Dance society, The Path of the Buffalo, and has changed his way of life.
HeavyShield says the art he creates now comes from Naato’si; the Sun, which traditional Blackfoots regard as one of the creator’s most powerful beings.
“I can’t take ownership of the art now,” he says. “I’m just a tool, I work for Naato’si.”
All of the family that HeavyShield used to live with on the streets has passed away.
The artist says he will continue to sell his art on the street, and has no plans to stop. He enjoys making connections with people and feels strongly about helping people understand indigenous culture and history.
“I don’t know a lot, but I know enough that when I speak to people and they ask questions, I can answer them and help build awareness within their spirits and themselves,” he says. “I help (people) see our culture in a better way and (learn) the significance of Treaty 7.”
HeavyShield’s art has been showcased at the Glenbow Museum. He has done a number of live performance storytelling and art installations in Calgary and Victoria. He currently lives in Red Deer working as a full-time artist.
HeavyShield says he invokes the gratefulness of the Sun Dancer in his everyday life.
“Whatever I create and whatever work I do for the community is from my heart.”
To check out more of HeavyShield’s art, visit stonegrowth.yolasite.com.