Chippewar’s massive installation reflects on Indigenous genocide in Canada

The Anishinaabe artist cast 1,250 replicas of bison skulls for his Luminato Festival monument to the country's violent history

BUILT ON GENOCIDE Ontario Square at Harbourfront Centre, 235 Queens Quay West. To October 24. Free.

This Thanksgiving weekend, consider pairing your turkey dinner with a visit to Built On Genocide, a Luminato Festival installation by Anishinaabe artist Jay Soule, aka Chippewar, depicting bison skulls in a heaping mound surrounded by imagery of all the ways Canada continues its violence against Indigenous people.

The mound of skulls standing 14 feet high is meant to reflect traumatic archival photos of Bison remains reaching 10 storeys after settlers slaughtered them to starve Indigenous people off their lands.

And though the installation is on display well beyond Thanksgiving weekend, which celebrates some fabricated story about positive relations between settlers and the Wampanoag people at Plymouth Rock, Soule agrees it’s a good time to visit and confront the real and traumatic history of these lands. This is his monument to Canadian history, erected just as all those John A. Macdonald statues upholding a false narrative are being defaced or torn down.

A closer look at the Bison skull replicas from Chippewar's installation depicting the genocide of Indigenous people in Canada
Cassandra Popescu

Soule began conceiving the installation a few years ago when there was discussion about Canada’s first prime minister appearing on currency or having buildings, streets and parks named after him. He went down a rabbit hole of research, learning about Macdonald’s role in the clearing of the plains and the decimation of the buffalo.

“Within the Canadian history context, it’s presented in a different way,” Soule tells NOW over Zoom. He explains that textbooks written by colonizers suggest buffalo were slaughtered to clear a path for the railroad, when in reality the violence contracted to men like Mississauga-raised Buffalo Bill was a means to dispossess Indigenous people of their land, resources and livelihood.

“For the peoples of the plains and Indigenous people, the buffalo was a very sacred animal. It fed them. It clothed them. It housed them. On executive order of John A. Macdonald, [settlers] would shoot the buffalo. Skin it. The pelts could be sold. The meat was discarded. The bones were piled into these massive mounds. They say at the time of European contact, there was anywhere from 60 to 100 million bison that roamed North America from Canada all the way down to Mexico. And they were decimated to 400-600 left in the wild, purely as a means of starving Indigenous people off their land.”

Soule adds that the mounds of bison bones and skulls, which his installation depicts in miniature, would be shipped by rail and water to England, where it was crushed and refined into bone china.

“A lot of people don’t understand that the idea of giving bone china as a wedding gift is a by-product of genocide. A lot of people within Canada and the United States have a collection of bone china, not even understanding that true history of it.”

Built On Genocide confronts the history of how Canada starved the Indigenous people off their land
Cassandra Popescu

While Soule had conceived the installation years before, the museums, galleries and various funders he initially pitched it at dragged their heels. He finally presented it to Luminato. After some delay securing financing, the multidisciplinary arts festival commissioned the massive undertaking.

After sourcing a real bison skull to create the mould, Soule and three helpful hands worked 26 eight-hour days casting more than 1,250 replica skulls in assembly-line fashion. Soule says he developed carpal tunnel syndrome from that labour before even having to sand, refine and paint the skulls.

“I never realized during that whole process how it’s affecting my mental health,” says Soule. “You’re surrounded by a big pile of death on a daily basis.”

The mound of bison skulls at Harbourfront Centre is surrounded by 20 posters: 19 images and an info sheet reflecting all the different ways Canada has and continues to commit genocide against Indigenous people, as defined by the United Nations. The posters have that bitter and confrontational sense of humour we expect from Chippewar, while grappling with the missing and murdered, Sixties Scoop, residential school, mass incarceration, the lack of clean water and forced sterilization.

“Canada presents itself internationally as this peace-loving nation,” says Soule, adding that he wanted to counter that narrative with posters that mimic Soviet and Nazi propaganda. “Canada presents its relationship with Indigenous people as a harmonious one, when in fact we know it’s not the truth. I thought to do my posters in a propaganda style to flip the narrative. Here’s my true narration of where we are today in Canada.”


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6 responses to “Chippewar’s massive installation reflects on Indigenous genocide in Canada”

  1. The religious-order residential schools were about precious young souls being treated as though disposable, including after many perished in the institutions’ often-horrible conditions. (Jesus must have been spinning in heaven.) When they take note of this, tragically, they’re vulnerable to begin perceiving themselves as beings without value. I’ve observed this especially with indigenous-nation people living with substance abuse/addiction related to residential school trauma, including the indigenous children’s unmarked graves in Canada. It all was a serious attempt at annihilating native culture.

  2. The following poem was penned with genuine consideration for the countless people for whom there’s nothing to be thankful on Thanksgiving Day—nor any other day of the year, for that matter—COVID-19 crisis or not …

    GRACE Pass me the holiday turkey, peas / and the delicious stuffing flanked / by buttered potatoes with gravy / since I’ve said grace with plenty ease / for the good food received I’ve thanked / my Maker who’s found me worthy. // It seems that unlike the many of those / in the unlucky Third World nation / I’ve been found by God deserving / to not have to endure the awful woes / and the stomach wrenching starvation / suffered by them with no dinner serving. // Therefore hand over to me the corn / the cranberry sauce, fresh baked bread / since for my grub I’ve praised the Lord / yet I need not hear about those born / whose meal I’ve been granted instead / as they receive / naught of the grand hoard.

  3. My daughter was reading about the peace tower on parliament hill in Ottawa. It has a book for each war Canada was involved in. Each book lists the name of the soldiers that died in those wars. She asked why the government doesn’t include a book for the war on Canada’s Indigenous people. They could include the names of all the children who died in residential schools. This recognition would be a step in the healing process. Our family are Mohawk and live on the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory.

  4. My view of religion (Christianity) took a dive after seeing the film “The Royal Hunt of the Sun” 1969 then reading about the history of Christianity via Man, Myth & Magic where I learned of persecutions of “heretics” like the Cathari followed by the burning of women as witches. The Inquisition was something new to me. At the time, I was a closeted Gay person who witnessed the negative rhetoric from various religious (right-wing) leaders and the like. I knew of the decimation of buffalo after reading books that covered Native Americans leaving me aghast even before becoming a animal rights person. Today I view all religions negatively especially where the LGBTQ are persecuted. Animal sacrifices horrify me.

  5. I am speechless at the ongoing revelations. Lets start repairing….the revelations are too painful to reflect on.

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