Sunday, October 27, 2019

The Witness Blanket Ceremony

Indigenous oral ceremony finalizes historic agreement with Museum

Rebecca and I have been discussing how hard it is to write a blog post about the Indigenous oral ceremony that finalized the historic agreement with the Museum of Human Rights. 

We have been talking about this for over a week now. I make some forays into an attempt, but I describe side trips, or a book about the Witness Blanket, or I describe the gifts that I brought home.

Carey Newman and Rebecca Johnson in conversation
But I can’t get at the actual experience with words yet.

I am going to try right now. I think, even with all of my reading about having Indigenous ceremony, I was not prepared for actually being in the Bighouse and witnessing this event.

Women in Kumugwe, 
the Bighouse on the traditional territory 
of the K’omoks First Nation, 
perform the welcoming Kitlala dance 
to open the floor. 
Doug Harrington/Media One
I did do the following when I got there.

I sat on the rising bleachers and gave myself fully to the experience.

Rebecca had to sit elsewhere.

I was close to the top of the bleachers.

They were well filled by the time we arrived. 

So that the invitees were close to each other, we sat on only one side of the building.

While sitting there, I thought about other ceremonies that I have been involved in.

One is when I have gone to watch some of my children graduate from university.

At the University of Calgary, we rise (new graduates and the old) and orally commit ourselves to using the knowledge we have gained to making a better world. I think Alan MacDonald wordsmithed the pledge and it sends chills down my spine and tears down my cheeks when I repeat it with everyone else in the audience.

The second ceremony that is written upon my body is the one I was part of when I was married. There were two parts to the ceremony that day – one an endowment of knowledge and the second, a binding of two people to a common purpose.

My third event at experiencing ceremony was witnessing the oral ceremony between Cary Newman and the Museum. I found this to be as powerful as the other two ceremonies above.

Artist Carey Newman receives a signed agreement from
the Canadian Museum for Human Rights’s Heather Bidzinski.
I can’t say that I was unprepared for the experience. I have been reading a lot of Indigenous literature – some memoir, and some of the reading, academic writing.

I am so grateful for that preparation.

I didn’t have a pencil or paper in my hand, and I didn’t take any pictures.

I just sat there, listening to the singing, watching the dancing, studying the clothing (especially the hat and the blankets that were worn), curious about the art in the architecture of the Bighouse, and listening to the words that were spoken.

Many underlying themes emerged. One was the joy brought to speakers as they heard the sound of a baby expressing discontent over being held in the same position for too long, or wanting some food, or desiring dry clothes, or that little sound of complaint before it falls asleep. I am deep into reading the TRC volume of The Legacy of Canada’s Residential Schools. I am reading many testimonies about the grief of having to send all of the children of communities off to residential schools to be raised. Sometimes the children were as young as four years old. I can’t imagine communities bereft of their little ones and their teen-agers. I try to think of living in a community with that kind of silence.

A dancer wearing the G’ixsam Ancestor bentwood box, 
especially created by artist Carey Newman to hold the agreement. 
 Doug Harrington/MEDIA ONE
Yesterday Duncan had his D &D friends over. 

There were seven teens, gathered around the table, talking to each other and over-talking each other. There were a lot of boys, all talking at once, it seemed.

I was in the kitchen for a few moments with Rebecca and told her that this sound coming from the living room is one of the most powerful pieces of happiness in my own life when I look back and think of hearing similar sounds in my own kitchen.

To return to the Bighouse now, and to remember so many speakers reminding each other of the joy of having their own children near instead of having them off at a residential school was just a powerful part of the ceremony that can’t be reproduce, either here while or I write, nor in books that I read.

An overpowering part of the ceremony was the music, the singing and the dancing, knowing that I was watching embodied ceremonial practise, the origin of which was older than those trees that I saw in the ancient forest at Avatar Grove.

Some of the education that accompanied the ceremony was also a powerful part of the experience. A large fire was kept burning in the centre of the Bighouse by the Fire Keeper. He had left his employment for the day, so that he could act in that position. I thought about fire keeping, about the firesides I have attended where people add logs, push them in position so that they will burn well, and I thought about why we need that warmth, and about how we sometimes use the fire to prepare our food as well. Mostly I thought about a man who gave up his employment for the day so that we could all participate in ceremony.

Professor Rebecca Johnson, Associate Director
of the Indigenous Law Research Unit
offering a blanket, witnessing and acknowledging the work.
The gifting part of the ceremony affected me as well.

Attending an historic event is a gift enough. 

But on top of that was a bag full of items and then a blanket woven in honour of the Witness Blanket.

I come to ceremony fully willing to participate, but one piece of me is always hiding behind a pillar, watching what is going on, but not wanting to have my presence be costly to someone else.

But when it is, there is an overwhelming sense of gratitude in me and responsibility to pass such goodness on.

When I got back to Victoria, I determined to put to use every thing in the bag to use as well as the Witness Blanket. In the past, I might store these items, putting them away because they are too precious to use. So everything has come out of the bag now. The smaller items are being used. And the blanket has gone travelling – gone to the movies, for example, for it gets cold there and I place the blanket on my knees sometimes.

I lay blanket across the bottom of my bed, so that my feet have an extra layer of warmth at night. In the daytime I lay it across the foot of my bed, and think about it whenever I place an object on my bed. I know that not everyone uses their bed in the daytime. I use mine as a big space where I can put things before they get to their actual space in my house, or where I can lay out a number of object that I want to see before I put them in a certain order. Taking an item given to me in what I felt was a sacred ceremony, and bringing into use in the common part of my life feels like the right thing to do.

After the ceremony comes the story about feast which I shall tell on a later day.

I am sure there is more I want to say in total. This is a good beginning. I couldn’t even sort this much out about what had happened to me in the Bighouse until now.


That is what Rebecca calls this.



  1. thanks for recording what has been bumping around in my mind. It was such a powerful day.

  2. And thank you for driving us on one of the most wonderful road trips ever.

  3. Thank you Arta for your beautiful words and insights, and for taking the difficult leap into recording what happened at the ceremony. It is not easy to describe something so powerful. I also find myself reliving the ceremony through reading this. The blanket woven in honour of the witness blanket is continually moving from room to room in our house for the baby. She spends a couple of hours over the course of the day on it. I imagine she will learn to crawl off it soon enough! She received one, and I received one. I imagine that my blanket would be neatly placed on a shelf, for occasional use. With her, the blanket is always out, being used. Another way that the little ones continually put us in ceremony. Much love to you.


  4. I got the idea of using my gifts right away from you, Lindsay. I saw you put the blanket on the floor beside the banquet table and you put her baby on it. I thought then that I would follow your example with all of the gifts I received that day. You made that a lot of fun for me.

    As well, thank you for commenting on the recording of the ceremony. Writing about them is the way that I carry these events with me. Writing. My way of using my hands to enscribe them onto my body.

  5. I'm happy to have your family blog on my radar now. I would be honoured to read it, from time to time. Get a glimpse of what you're thinking.


If you are using a Mac, you cannot comment using Safari. Google Chrome, Explorer or Foxfire seem to work.