MAKING OF A MONUMENT
Sculpture honours First Nations’ contribution to War of 1812
Earlier this month, the skeleton of a teepee appeared as a new permanent monument on the Saskatoon horizon. Though not as tall as the downtown skyscrapers, it’s a striking addition to the skyline.
The Spirit of Alliance — Promises was created by three Saskatoon artists to commemorate the First Nations’ contribution to the War of 1812. A few days after the bronze poles were installed, artist Adrian Stimson was thrilled to see it as part of the cityscape.
“We spent so long dreaming and imagining what it would be, but there’s nothing like the actuality of it being in the space,” he said.
Stimson, Jean-Sebastien Gauthier and Ian “Happy” Grove were chosen by the Dakota Whitecap First Nation and the City of Saskatoon to create the piece. In addition to the teepee, the sculpture features four key characters: Chief Wabasha IV, Col. Robert Dickson, Dickson’s wife Totowin and their daughter Helen. Wabasha and Dickson appear in a pose of exchange. The trader passes the chief gifts of a flag, blanket and three King George medals. “This sculpture honours the moment where new alliances are made, existing alliances are reconfirmed and honoured, all for the mutual benefit of each,” the artists say in an overview of the piece.
Wabasha played an important role as an ally to the British, raising many Oyate supporters for the War of 1812 and participating in key battles. Dickson was a Scottish trader who became a liaison between the First Nations and the British. He generated the majority of the Western Nations support for the British. He also had a great love for the Dakota people, working alongside them, rather than against them.
Though they had ideas going into the project, the creative team wanted to make sure Dakota Whitecap had input on the design. The artists consulted with the First Nation and incorporated their ideas. Petroglyphs drawn by children from the First Nation are incorporated into the medicine line, which Wabasha and Dickson straddle.
Dickson married his wife Ista Totowin, sister of the Dakota chief Red Thunder, after a 10-year courtship. The Dakota Whitecap First Nation placed a high importance on highlighting the role women played in supporting, and sometimes fighting alongside, their male counterparts.
The British didn’t have anyone to fight for them in the War of 1812 because their troops were occupied in the Napoleonic Wars.
“They called on First Nations, mercenaries and a number of other people to create a sizable army of about 10,000 plus First Nations people and the Dakota were a big part of that,” said Stimson.
The medicine line represents the 49th Parallel. The border between Canada and the U.S., confirmed by the 1814 Treaty of Ghent, displaced many First Nations people when treaties weren’t honoured. Large numbers of Dakota moved north to Saskatchewan to avoid persecution in the U.S.
Gauthier said creating the piece has been a really satisfying process. “The things we thought were meaningful still feel meaningful. It’s rare to do a collaborative process where the work turns out how you want, you haven’t made any creative compromises and it looks really good,” he said.
Gauthier is a grandson of the prominent, late sculptor Bill Epp, who created pieces like the Gabriel Dumont statue near the Broadway Bridge and Tribute to Youth, between the University Bridge and the Bessborough. The Spirit of Alliance now dots the riverbank, just like Epp’s work.
The artists hope the piece educates people and gives them a place to gather and reflect.
“People will be able to go over there and have some fun. It’s accessible, you can touch it. And through all of that we come to know our history,” said Grove, who added he knew very little of the history before working on the sculpture.
The piece will be unveiled today near the roundabout at Avenue A and Spadina Crescent. Prince Edward, in Saskatchewan for a threeday visit, will participate in the unveiling. The British royal will arrive at the site at 9:45 a.m. and be greeted by Chief Darcy Bear and two council members from Whitecap Dakota First Nation.
In Stimson’s experience, projects like this often take two to three years complete. The Spirit Alliance was created right on schedule, taking one year to complete. Though the process was fast-tracked, it was still extremely involved.
“Making public art is not for the faint of heart,” said Stimson.
SEPTEMBER 2013 The Whitecap Dakota First Nation and City of Saskatoon put out an international, public request for design teams for a new sculpture at River Landing, which will commemorate the War of 1812. OCTOBER 2013 Saskatoon artists Jean-Sebastien Gauthier, Adrian Stimson and Ian (Happy) Grove (an interior designer by trade) submit a proposal and make the short list. Eventually, their submission is accepted. NOVEMBER 2013 The creative team starts researching. During that process, they meet with the elders, chief and council of Whitecap Dakota First Nation. They also consult with Grade 4, 5 and 6 students. JANUARY Contracts are signed. FEBRUARY The artists start sculpting halfscale models of the pieces and send those to Portland to get them 3D scanned, where they create a full-sized model (the statues are slightly larger than human scale) out of Styrofoam, which is then covered in several layers of Plasticine clay. MARCH The artists spend two weeks painstakingly recreating detail on the full-sized model. It’s almost like starting from scratch, with the group adding texture to hair and even cameos on the small King George medals. These models are destroyed less than 48 hours after they were completed. APRIL Enlarging facility scans the model and the foundry moulds the final statue, which is made out of bronze. MAY The team keeps researching and tracks all the work they’ve done so far. They also start on the writings for the didactic panels. Each panel represents something different: One explains the monument, one decodes the medicine line, one talks about Dakota Oyate history and the final one highlights the history of the War of 1812. EARLY AUGUST Gauthier travels to Portland to pick up the finished pieces and transports them back to Saskatoon in the back of a truck. Wabasha and Dickson are bolted to the truck. People assume the sculpture is about different things depending on which part of the country Gauthier drove through. The rest of the team begins groundwork at the River Landing site. EARLY SEPTEMBER The bronze teepee is installed. Each pole weighs more than 200 pounds. SEPTEMBER 15 Installation is finished. SEPTEMBER 19 The statue will be blessed and unveiled at River Landing.