By Mari-Louise RowleyEarly settlers of the Prairies saw stones as debris to be cleared from the land to make way for farming. For Indigenous peoples who have lived on the Great Plains for centuries, stones are imbued with power, purpose and meaning.
First Nations artist and art history professor Mary Longman uses the traditional Plains culture medium of stone to create sculptures that interweave the past and present, mythology and history.
“I believe the natural power of the stone will invite the viewer to share the experience of First Nations today and will open the door for communication and connection,” says Longman, whose work has been displayed at prominent galleries that include the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Smithsonian.
For Longman, stones are a connecting link to the past and present, tracing the history and cultural practices of Plains people through time.
Stones served practical purposes in tipi rings, fire pits, burial sites, tools and weapons, as well as in historical markers to commemorate and document important places, events or people. Stone was used as a medium for communication with the spiritual realm. Art intertwined with spirituality in the form of medicine wheels, pictographs, petroglyphs, sacred boulders, amulets and pipes.
“Indigenous peoples believe that everything in existence, whether animate or inanimate, has spirit and energy,” Longman explains. “People are still intuitively drawn to the energy of a stone. We observe them, appreciate them, assemble them, give them a special place in our home, or give them to someone special in our life.”
Of Saulteaux ancestry, Longman grew up on the Gordon First Nation near Punnichy, Saskatchewan. When she was only five, she was taken from her family and placed under foster care. “In the ’60s, if you weren’t taken from your family to be sent to residential schools, you were sent to foster homes. I didn’t see my mother for 11 years. I was fortunate to find my family again while I was in my teens. Many others are still searching.”
Longman’s ancestry and personal experiences inform the political and personal narratives in her work—stories that she believes are important to share. “I have had the challenges of a dual existence—living in two vastly different worlds that often have cultural collisions. I have had to walk both sides of the Canadian and First Nations cultural fence in order to speak to both audiences through my work.”
Her stone, wood and mixed media sculpture Thunderbird Nest has a personal connection to her own family name, Aski-piyesiwiskwew, which was given to her by her great-grandmother and means Earth Thunderbird Woman. In First Nations mythology, the Thunderbird was a powerful protector and also brought life-giving rains.
“The Thunderbird Nest is my imagining of what the nest of this old and mysterious bird looked like long ago. I wanted to revive the stories of the Thunderbird and the power and possibilities that it represents,” says Longman.
Ancestors Rising, a permanent installation in Wascana Park, was commissioned by Regina’s MacKenzie Art Gallery. This site-specific sculpture speaks to the history of the area and acknowledges a critical time of intersection between First Nations and early settlers. The bison were a key symbol of this history.
The work symbolizes the strength of the bison and its importance as a source of food, clothing, shelter and cultural artifacts for First Nations people. It also reflects a darker side of Plains history—the systematic buffalo slaughter by European colonists.