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Culture and Spirit

by Dave Yanko

Sally Milne.

LA RONGE -- In the early 1990s, Cree Elder Sally Milne decided she was going to become the best in the world at something. Precisely what that something was going to be, she didn't know. In fact at the time, she didn't know why she felt so compelled to excel.

Milne first considered cross-country skiing. She had very little experience with the winter sport. But the date of a popular, all-abilities competition was approaching and she thought the event might be a good opportunity to measure her potential. Before it arrived, however, event organizers asked her to provide some prizes in the form of birch bark bitings she'd just recently begun to create.

"I'm now one of the four most renowned bark biters in the world,'' Milne proclaims, her small smile growing into a hearty laugh as she adds: "There's a total of four of us in the world!''

Of course the last part is not true -- Milne's humor is often self-deprecating and seldom far from the surface during a chat at the La Ronge Band RCMP office where she works as an aboriginal resource person. The truth is that in less than 10 years, her exquisite designs have found their way into homes in Germany, Austria, England, Scotland, China, Australia and New Zealand. Here in North America, Canadian Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson and Hollywood movie star Bruce Willis are among those who own and admire her birch bark bitings.

Dragonflies, a common theme.

Sally Milne has become the best at something. She's an aboriginal artist with a global reputation. And she now believes she understands why she felt moved to attain her high standing.

"Society has to have a wider picture of who you are. It's like: Sally Milne is a well-known artist so, okay, we can take her seriously. That's what it's for. It's to gain credibility in the mainstream society.''

Milne needs this credibility to maximize her reach and effectiveness as a teacher of traditional Native culture. And while she searched for it "out there'', she now sees clearly that the means to achieve it were inside of her all the time.

She believes her path was set out for her by the "Seven Grandfathers", spiritual keepers of the traditional Native principles of love, respect, honesty, peace, patience, courage and wisdom. She likens these laws to Christianity's Ten Commandments, except Native culture focuses on the 'shalts' rather than the 'shalt nots'. And each tenet must be accepted as second nature before the next one can be learned.

Beautiful detail.

"When the Grandfathers look at you they can see where your heart is at,'' says Milne. "You have to love yourself before you can love others. You have to respect yourself before you can respect others.''

Aside from the public recognition it's given her, Milne's art plays an important role in her personal life. She says it gives her strength by connecting her to the beauty and tranquillity she knew as a young girl growing up on the trap line in the boreal forest of northern Saskatchewan. Yet she's disarmingly matter-of-fact about bark biting and the amount of effort involved in its creation.

It takes three or four weekends each summer to collect most of the bark required for a year's worth of bitings, she says. The most difficult and time-consuming aspect of the entire process is not the actual biting, but rather the peeling of thin layers of bark used for the designs.

"Once I've got the bark (prepared), then every once in a while I'll sit down to watch a movie and I'll make these bitings,'' says Milne. "Then I just stick them in books and forget about them.''

Each biting is produced in a matter of minutes. She once created 83 or 84 -- she wasn't sure of the precise number -- in one sitting. She has hundreds of the bitings, which she sells for as little as $15, filed in books throughout her home.

The intricate, symmetrical patterns are created by folding a segment of bark and "bruising" it with her teeth. Milne's designs typically depict butterflies, bees or dragonflies in a forest setting.

"I used to do a lot of spiders, too, but it seems nobody except me liked them.''

Traditional Woodland Cree used bark bitings as templates for decorating baskets with quills. There was no "art for art's sake" in the nomadic lives of the Cree, according to Milne. Arts and crafts were used as decoration for necessities such as clothing, tools and utensils. The bitings were discarded after serving their purpose.

Milne credits her traditional upbringing on the trap line and her late entry into the infamous residential school system -- she was 12 before she went to school in Prince Albert -- with helping her to value the goals of balance and harmony in her adult life.

She says much Cree culture and spirituality was lost over the past century as traditional knowledge normally passed down by Elders was replaced by an alien culture imposed by Euro-Canadian schools and churches.

So well removed was the Lac La Ronge band from its roots, says Milne, that she and others interested in spiritual renewal were forced to go to Manitoba and Alberta to relearn much of the traditional knowledge and understanding behind Woodland Cree ceremonies and traditional spiritual practices.

Milne, who in 1984 began teaching Cree culture at the band school in La Ronge, reflects on the trials facing many Aboriginal peoples in a teacher's guide she wrote called Living in a Good Way. In it, she asks readers to imagine someone stripping them naked and permanently removing them from their homes and from everything they own.

"And then after a time, when your dignity, self-respect and pride are gone, this same someone comes and says: 'Come, from now on I'll look after you, your every need will depend on how I feel at the moment.''

The guide goes on to show how an understanding of traditional culture can help give Aboriginal youth the tools they need to lead balanced and fulfilling lives in modern times.

Today, in addition to her nine-to-five job, Milne is a medicine woman who specializes in the treatment of people suffering emotional problems, especially children.

She teaches a university extension class in Cree culture -- she's the first person in Saskatchewan to teach a university class without having a university degree. And she's helped five young people earn their Master's degrees by being their source of information on traditional aspects of Aboriginal knowledge.

"I tell the kids 'find out who you are and you can take it with you anywhere you go. It doesn't matter where you live or what you do -- you can be a rocket scientist. But you still have to have this knowledge about yourself'.''

There was a point in Milne's young adult life when she began to doubt her traditional beliefs. She recalls thinking that maybe she'd been wrong all along. Maybe the people whose values she held dear really were as backwards as some suggested.

"I thought the best thing to do was to go back (to the trapline) and see for myself,'' she said. "So I went back home and, by gawd, they were great!"

And with that, Sally Milne laughed heartily.

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