August 16, 2010
By Stephen Bede Scharper
Last month, the Grey Roots Museum in Owen Sound unveiled an 11-foot wood carving depicting “Chaos on Turtle Island.”
Ensconced in the centre of the Blessing the Good People Gallery, dedicated to the stories and spiritual worldviews of the Anishinabe people, the sculpture powerfully interweaves visages of aboriginal ancestral anguish in light of contemporary ecological destruction. The artist, Wilmer Nadjiwan, 89, a decorated World War II veteran and former chief at Cape Croker Native Reserve, is described on the plaque as “hunter, fisherman, trapper, renowned carver, and Protector of Native Culture” who is striving “to restore and maintain the beauty, magnificence, and spirit of North American culture.” (www.greyroots.com)
He started carving, however, as he shared with me recently, simply “to make a living.” “I was hungry,” he declared. It is in this intersection of the quest for both subsistence and the sublime that Nadjiwan’s remarkable life has been hewn, and through it winds not only an important strand of First Nations history, but also a disquieting reflection on our present, pernicious ecological path.
I had gotten to know Nadjiwan during summer visits to Tobermory at the tip of the Bruce Peninsula, which divides the crystal cool waters of Georgian Bay from Lake Huron. I would chat with him at his shop, catching bits of his story that flecked out along with wood chips as he worked, a life journey he describes as “uphill both ways.”
After his mother was killed in a car accident, Nadjiwan was sent to a residential school, where tragically, like so many other First Nations youth, he was sexually abused, an experience that he says left him emotionally “crippled,” and has tinctured subsequent family relationships. At 21, he joined his brothers in the army, fighting with the Perth Regiment through Italy and Holland until Nazi Germany’s final gasp in 1945.
Upon his return to Ontario, fresh from the war and still in uniform, Nadjiwan tried to buy a beer for himself and his father, but was told that the bar “did not serve Indians.” A sobering reminder that some things had not changed on the home front.
After witnessing the public burning of handwritten treaty records by the Indian agent in charge of Cape Croker, Nadjiwan publicly challenged a government official on the incident, and was thus encouraged by friends to run for chief in 1964, a position he held for 14 years.
After the dissolution of a successful furniture factory on the reserve by an Indian agent, Nadjiwan worked to end the Indian agent system, which was ultimately abolished not only at Cape Croker but also across the country. He made some serious enemies, however, when he opposed Pierre Trudeau’s decision to fund the tribal band councils, which he claimed would erode native autonomy.
For Nadjiwan, the suppression of aboriginal economic independence is concurrent with the subjugation of aboriginal worldviews, which often accent a holistic integration of all parts of creation. The current ecological and social chaos of our planet, seared by climate change, species extinction, pollution, poverty and cultural suppression, is what Nadjiwan explores in his sculpture and his life story, and his message — tempered by war, want, abuse, broken relationships, courage, creativity and concern for the earth —remains quietly compelling and meaningful.