Artist Shane Perley-Dutcher weaves the strands of modern Indigenous identity

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Shane-perley-dutcher-Messenger 2Shane Perley-Dutcher weaves things together. As a Maliseet man who grew up largely off the Nekootkook (Tobique) First Nation to which he belongs, Perley-Dutcher has woven strands of his ancestral identity with experiences of present-day Maliseet culture, as well as European settler culture. As an artist, he has interlaced traditional and modern materials and styles, but has also woven together different mediums – precious metals, wood, drawings – into a distinct artistic texture. And in his remarkable jewellery, he has replicated traditional weaving styles in tiny patterns made of threads and bands of silver, gold and copper.

Even the title of Perley-Dutcher’s first Montreal exhibition (at the Canadian Guild of Crafts until August 29, as part of the First People’s Festival) is a kind of weaving: Likcihikon Tisserand Weaver is the same word in the three languages he grew up hearing in the Wolastoqiyik territory along the St. John River in New Brunswick.

“I grew up some part of my life on the reservation, but I spent most of my life and did my schooling off-reserve,” said Perley-Dutcher at the opening of his exhibition. “That really adds an element to what I do. Through small pieces of exposure to different artists, different Elders, different people with traditional knowledge, I’ve had to start to understand who I am, my culture, where I come from, my worldview.”

Trained as a silversmith at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design in Fredericton, Perley-Dutcher has made a respected name for himself in artistic circles. However, more people will widely recognize his work than his name.

Perley-Dutcher was the artist former AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine called on to make the pin commemorating the Canadian government’s official Residential Schools apology in 2008. (He says designing and making the 500 pins that were distributed to survivors across Canada was one of his proudest moments.) The next year, he made the crucifix that combined traditional and European materials and styles that Fontaine presented to Pope Benedict XIV at the Vatican in 2009 on the occasion of the Catholic Church’s official apology for Residential Schools.

Shane Perley-Dutcher Speaking 2If people aren’t more familiar with his work, it’s because Perley-Dutcher doesn’t go in for self-promotion, choosing instead to let his work sell itself. He makes that easier by keeping his prices strikingly low – enough so that he sold out of his entire stock at a recent juried exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City. Yet he seemed just as excited about having an exhibition at a smaller gallery in Montreal.

“I’ve always been of the opinion that when opportunity shows itself, you go for it,” he said. “There’s only one answer. This is a great opportunity to showcase my work in a circle where I haven’t exhibited before, so I worked basically around the clock to finish limited production of one-of-a-kind of jewellery and sculpture for the show.”

The show mixes both mediums, but though the sculpture is large and prominent, the jewellery is worthy of close study. Perley-Dutcher’s tiny details of woven metal aren’t immediately obvious until you look closely, but then you wonder how he managed to pull it off. Much of the jewellery looks more as though it’s been etched than pieced together carefully. For the artist, it’s all the product of a state of flow.

“I always trust in the creative process. It’s frustrating, but I allow emotion to happen,” he said. “When I’m creating, I don’t try to depict how everything’s going to go. I try to let it happen naturally. I’m always open to the fact that I’m going to make mistakes, and it’s not going to work out – and that’s okay.”

Not knowing what the end product of his work will look like – or even what it will be – gives Perley-Dutcher energy and inspiration.

“One piece leads to another, and inspires another piece,” he said. “When I’m not doing silverwork, I work with traditional materials. So I’ll be working on one piece in one form, and I’ll start to see ideas for another piece in another form. Creativity is transferable into a lot of different mediums.”

All of the work, however, springs from the interwoven fibres of culture and experience that Perley-Dutcher encountered growing up between the white world and the reserve. His mother graduated high school and left the rez to pursue university in the city, taking young Perley-Dutcher with her. The experience marked him.

“You’re already a minority,” he observed. “But when you get off-reserve and move into an urban centre, you’re an even smaller minority. You’re an urban Aboriginal person now. You’re not surrounded by the comfort of having your family right next to you. It’s another barrier that she had to overcome.”

It was through a Native friendship centre that Perley-Dutcher and his mother remained connected to their culture and traditions. In the same way, the friendship centre helped him develop a sense of himself as a product of his ancestry.

“Those are great resources for people moving off reserve whether you’re status or not,” he said. “There have to be bigger questions than whether you have a number. How do we identify who we are – and what does that mean, when we identify ourselves as a certain culture? For me, it was going to the friendship centre, meeting Elders, becoming part of drum groups – becoming a citizen, someone who commits to that culture. I’m talking about helping each other, helping other people like you who are facing a lot of barriers. It’s about that communal way of thinking.”

Through the influence of those he encountered, he learned traditional craft styles. But he also learned about his ancestry – perhaps surprisingly – from his non-Native stepfather.

“I got my culture through my parents,” he explained. “My stepfather was one of the first ones to bring me to a sweat lodge. He knew the importance of having that identity. Not everybody gets that.”

How to weave different strands of identity are issues that Perley-Dutcher thinks will become more important in the coming years as Indigenous populations continue to grow, Indigenous cultures adapt and change.

“We really have to start asking serious questions as a lot of people are moving off-reserve and that identity’s changing. It’s going to continue to happen as people get more educated.”

He noted that his mother was the first one in her family to graduate from high school, but today high school graduation is so common that it would be unheard of not to graduate – a big change from attitudes that were common as recently as the early 1990s.

“There’s been a real shift in how we learn and how we survive,” said Perley-Dutcher. “It’s important to know that it’s okay to be proud of who you are, even though you did not grow up Native on-reserve. I think that’s going to continue to happen and we’re going to have to come to terms with being proud of your culture, whether you’re from on-reserve or off-reserve. It’s just as important whichever perspective you come from.”

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