Ten years ago, Women’s Health Clinic (WHC) started its journey of shedding a colonial history by asking for and receiving a Spirit name for the centre on St. Mary’s and St. Anne’s. But the work to take this early conception of reconciliation to fruition was left undone and that work withered on the vine.
Last year, an Elder was given tobacco and asked for a Spirit name. Following a Fast and Pipe Ceremony, the Elder said a new name came to her and it was up to the organization to decide what to do with it. The organization apologized for the past actions of previous members and the new name was accepted. The ceremony that brings this new name to life is accompanied by the unveiling of a mural that gives expression to the teaching the name bestows.
Artists Jeannie White Bird and Mandy van Leeuwen had the honour of bringing this mural to life. Their collaboration is yet another step in the journey of reconciliation. The artists had previously worked together and became good friends. But this time they had an even higher purpose.
“There was a recognition of the need to open the doors of the birthing centre to the wider community and become more inclusive,” says White Bird. “Dynamic change like that takes a lot of time.”
Over the last few years, WHC began a reconciliation journey by hiring a traditional Elder as part of its management team. This led to many changes, such as including a Grandmother’s Circle in the hiring of their executive director. White Bird was asked to join the Grandmother’s Circle and, upon visiting Ode’imin, immediately recognized the need for a potent visual symbol on the blank façade of the building. The executive committee agreed.
“It was a way to heighten the meaning,” says van Leeuwen. “Art becomes part of the sacred work to breathe new life into this special space. There is ceremony in what we are doing.” Like White Bird, van Leeuwen is an experienced muralist. Both artists have worked on numerous murals throughout Manitoba.
The mural is part of the clinic’s goal of including the community in Ode’imin. Along with its very public presence, the artwork is the product of engagement with community members, who were invited to share their vision of both the centre and the mural. This process reflects the guiding principles of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.
The artists say they became part of something greater than themselves. Their collaboration was a way of lifting many others as well as each other.
Each person can find personal meaning in this special and important project, which reflects many elements of women’s health encompassed by Ode’imin. The offerings of the centre go beyond the services of midwives and include before and after care, education and counselling, and lactation support. Each birthing room bears the Indigenous name of a medicinal flower that has a traditional use in the birth process. Ode’imin welcomes women to engage in their personal, cultural, or traditional practices such as smudging.
Like the space within the walls of Ode’imin, the mural embraces the many spiritual and mystical elements of giving birth. The artists’ use of surrealism allows for depth of meaning through many layers of representation.
The phases of the moon reflect the menstrual cycle, crowned by the fullness of the strawberry moon. From the flesh of a strawberry, the life-giving waters of the river that spill onto mother earth reveal a female profile. Another berry cleaves to release a bear emerging from hibernation, a potent symbol of rebirth and renewal. A dragonfly clings to a tender leaf, evoking the power of transformation, of the nymph compelled to move toward the water’s surface.
“As soon as it breaks the surface, there’s no going back,” reflects White Bird. “It’s like a birthing in and of itself.”
van Leeuwen points to the immature berries on the edges of the ripe fruit. Like breasts swollen with milk, they hold the promise of sustaining life.
“The strawberry allows us to celebrate the feminine in a way that is gentle and loving,” she says.
Every brushstroke was carefully considered, every symbol deliberately placed to honour the teachings of Ode’imin. Both sunrise and sunset can be seen.
“Not all spirits that come through pregnancy stay with us,” White Bird gently points out.
But it is for the beholder to decide which is the sunrise and which the sunset, here captured in the same space. Such is the process of reconciliation, where the sun sets on a painful past just as it rises toward a hopeful future.