Piitwewetam: Making is Medicine exhibit honors Jesse Gustafson

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Jingle dresses. (All photos by Dan Ninham.)

By Dan Ninham

While passing through the American Indian Cultural Corridor in Minneapolis one can stop at a gathering place on “The Avenue” known as “Pow Wow Grounds”, a coffee shop and one of a number of locally Native-owned businesses up and down Franklin Avenue and next to the renovated Minneapolis American Indian Center. According to its website, the “Pow Wow Grounds has been caffeinating and feeding the American Indian community in Minneapolis since 2010” and also is the home of the North American Community Development Institute (NACDI) and the All My Relations Gallery.

According to the All My Relations Gallery website with support from the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, Piitwewetam: Making is Medicine is a commemorative art exhibition presenting artwork by the Gustafson family: mom and dad Shannon and Ryan, and daughters Justine, and Jade are members of the Whitesands First Nation and residents of Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. The exhibition honors their son and brother, Piitwewetam (Rolling Thunder), also known as Jesse Gustafson, who traveled to the spirit world after a car accident in 2015.

Piitwewetam: Making is Medicine is an offering from the Gustafson family to each of us, according to the All My Relations Gallery website. As an Anishnaabe family the act of giving is an integral part of their life. Gifts are offered out of kindness, out of love. To give is to simply offer without the expectation of receiving something in return. When we give, we are enacting a sacred law that acknowledges life.

With Anishnaabe tradition, a part of the grief ceremony is gifting. This beautiful exhibition acknowledges all aspects of the good life, including relationships, teachings, singing, and dancing that Jesse experienced when he was here on Earth. Each piece in this exhibition will be gifted to friends and family. These gifts come from kindness, from a deep love that honors Piitwewetam.

The exhibit is co-curated by Jean and Leanna Marshall and organized and circulated by the Thunder Bay Art Gallery with support from the Ontario Arts Council.

Piitwewetam is an offering from the Gustafson family to each of us. Through their grief, each family member received messages from Piitwewetam to attend ceremony. Some were led to the Midewin lodge and its spiritual teachings, which provided sustenance and grounding. For others, these messages meant thriving at school. It is a humble reminder that healing can find us anywhere, including beading around the kitchen table. The Gustafson’s show us that beading has a way of soothing a wounded spirit. One family’s way of coming together, to make is the essence of this exhibition.

Justine Gustafson, First Portrait, 2020. Velveteen, felt, seed beads.

About the Nurturer: “Our teachings are the foundation of our ability to heal,” said Shannon Gustafson. “As living beings, we honor our loved ones by feasting and that’s how we continue to care for and acknowledge them. As Jesse’s mother, I continue to feed his spirit which also feeds mine as well.”

“The act of doing this reassures me that he is somewhere, that he exists somewhere and that he still needs to eat. I often cook his favorites foods and I always be sure include his Pepsi. This red skirt is adorned with a floral appliqué velvet apron which represents a ‘cooking apron’. If I were a good cook, I would definitely wear an apron like this.”

Shannon created 13 skirts and 13 letters to her son. The collection of skirts is bound to the moon cycle, cycle of motherhood, the land, the water, and a mother’s body. Velveteen, satin, cotton.

About the star quilt: “We come from the stars, we are star people,” said Shannon. “When we arrive we are wrapped in a star quilt, when we die, again we are wrapped in a star quilt. These quilts have become a special way in which we honour one another. Star Quilts represent love, warmth and protection.”

About the jingle dress: “A gift bestowed upon our people within our lodges during challenging times has continued to represent medicine and healing for our people,” said Shannon. “A dress so beautiful, it has been adopted by all tribes of North America. I wanted nothing more for this dress to heal me, to ease my pain, my grief (and) they danced for me, they prayed for me. Chi Miigwetch Creator, Chi Miigwetch my jingle dress sisters.”

My Grandmother’s Shoes. Smoked hide, velveteen, melton, seed beads, brass sequins, brass beads, brass.

About the Split Toe Moccasins: “Grief has guided me in learning about our past through ceremonies and through art,” said Shannon. “These moccasins represent the journey our family now walks. This style of moccasin holds a special place in my heart.”

Tikinagaans (cradleboards) made of pine, black ash, sinew, melton wool, leather, seed beads.

About the Tikinaagans: “When our loss was fresh and the grief still so raw, we were blessed with an opportunity to learn how to create cradleboards,” said Shannon. “The process was healing, so much teachings within the work. Essentially the tikinaagan teaches about celebrating and honoring life. Our children are gifts and should always be treated as such, never take them for granted, love them, honor them, (and) care from them. They are simply on ‘loan’ to us, they are not promised to us. Every tomorrow with your child is a gift.”

Shannon and Ryan Gustafson have since played a role in revitalizing the use of the tikinaagan within their families. They have traveled to over 50 First Nation communities helping create the beautiful cradleboards.
Viewing of the All My Relations Gallery exhibit goes until the closing reception on June 10.

The artists and curator profiles can be viewed online at: https://allmyrelationsarts.com/piitwewetam-making-is-medicine.