Power in Fire: A Discussion with Elder Amanda Wallin

It is a sunny day when I meet Elder Amanda Wallin at her home in the country. I intend to speak with her about her experiences with the program Circles for Reconciliation and about Indigenous organizing that has been done around the discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves of children who died while attending residential schools. In front of Wallin’s home is a large hardwood table which she later calls her “Jesus table,” capable of fitting twelve or more. Her lab, Bruno, eagerly greets me on the porch, and I see that behind the large table is an equally large dog house with a medicine wheel prominently painted on its front.

My visit is abounding in hospitality from Elder Amanda Wallin. She refers to me as “my dear” and immediately offers me a choice between two walking sticks made of smoothed, stained driftwood she collects. As I choose one, she hands it to me and advises me to “walk with God.” Soon after she lays out a tray of food which reminds me of Mennonite potlucks I attended as a child, holding cheese and kielbasa, and individual slices of rolled meat. On her living room walls there is a long string holding numerous bundles of sage. There are also paintings done by Wallin, one with the silhouette of a bear against a night sky that says “Courage.” There are also familiar Christian prints with images of Jesus.

A painting with the word "Courage" written in yellow, capital letters across the bottom. The background of the painting consists of a black, to purple, to pink gradient, indicating a night sky. There is a full moon in the top centre of the painting and a spattering of stars surrounding it. In the foreground is the silhouettes of two pine trees on either side of the painting and a raised surface in the center. Atop the raised surface is the silhouette of a bear, prominently outlined in white red and black, and coloured internally with large, straight horizontal bands of black yellow and red. The painting is signed "Amanda Wallin 2022"
Painting by Elder Amanda Wallin

This amalgamation of identities apparent in Elder Amanda Wallin’s home carries through our conversation. Wallin is a member of Peter Ballantyne Cree First Nation (Treaty 6 territory), and grew up going back and forth between Kinoosoa/Co-op Point, Saskatchewan and Lynn Lake, Manitoba.. Her grandmother was a devout Anglican, while her father was a traditional dancer and her mother a medicine woman who “knew her stuff.” Wallin spent part of her childhood at Marymound, in Winnipeg. She says “I am who I am today as a part of the nuns, as a part of myself, as a part of my teaching, as a part of learning my culture and living my culture… without being an Anglican and without my traditions that I have as a Cree traditional person, I wouldn’t be who I am today. And I like me.” She explains that her Cree name means Black Cloud Woman, a name she was hesitant about until the positive connotations were explained to her: her name represents a rain cloud which nourishes the earth wherever it goes.

I ask Elder Amanda Wallin how she would describe Circles for Reconciliation, a program which she took part in during the pandemic lockdown. She says it is “a teaching process that you enter into which you will walk away from with valuable learning lessons that we can pass down to our people, our brothers, and sisters, and eventually our children.”

Circles for Reconciliation describes itself as aiming “to establish trusting, meaningful relationships between Indigenous and non- Indigenous peoples as part of the 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” It does this through the creation of small discussion groups made up of equal numbers of Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants. Themes and topics discussed week-to-week in the program include residential schools, the meaning of land for Indigenous peoples, histories of the Treaties, and the implementation of the Indian Act and the Pass System, etc.

The material is difficult, especially for Indigenous participants who are immediately impacted by the histories considered. Wallin tells me that the content was challenging. She says “You have to walk with humility when you go in there… because you’re going to hear some things… It comes back to you like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to pray about this one, because this one is really affecting me.’” Wallin also articulates that discussing the material, which unpacked different elements of settler-Indigenous history on Turtle Island, was a learning experience for both non- Indigenous and Indigenous group members.

A particularly profound moment for Elder Amanda Wallin was when she began to express her anger with what they were reading to the group. She says she was surprised by the response from other participants: “I was received with open arms.” The experience for her was valuable. “It was just like somebody had opened the floodgates to our heart, the tears that we shared, the tears like so many tears that, you know, there were some sessions and we just sat in silence, and we could just look at each other.” She said that towards the end of the group’s time together: “we would tell each other, ‘We love you.’ That’s how wonderful that group was.”

A photo of Elder Amanda Wallin set outside. She is wearing a purple, collared top with prominent bands of ribbon ordered in colour: magenta, white, yellow, red, and black. She is also wearing a necklace featuring a shell. Wallin is smiling. She wears glasses. Her hair is black and grey and braided into a long braid which falls over her right shoulder.
Elder Amanda Wallin

She has stayed connected with many of the group’s participants. She says of Circles for Reconciliation “Maybe I just got lucky. But from everyone I’ve heard from, it sounds like it’s been a real success.”

One of the topics covered in the Circles for Reconciliation is the history of residential schools. I ask Elder Amanda Wallin about the hundreds of unmarked graves found at Kamloops and other residential school locations. She says, “You look at that and you think Canada has woken up to everything that we’ve kept hidden…. everything we were told not to talk about.”

We discuss the encampment at the Legislative building in Winnipeg where various Indigenous organizers have kept a sacred fire going since June 2021 and intend to keep the fire alight until all former residential school grounds have been searched. Wallin is clear that her personal politics do not align with everyone’s at the camp, which has recently seen a turnover in members, but she speaks to the importance of the sacred fire. She tells me she has brought firewood to the camp numerous times after seeing on Facebook that camp members had been wandering the city looking for pieces of refuse to burn.

She walks me through important elements of traditional practices involving sacred fires. “We continually burn the sacred fire because we believe it’s through light and fire, that we get to the spiritual realm where there’s more power…. we pray and pray and pray to the east, to the south, to the west, to the north. We pray for our brothers and sisters, and we pray for all our ancestors. And we pray and ask for protection. And we use the four sacred medicines.”

She talks about the spiritual importance of the fire. “You’re talking to the Creator, but it’s also a place to take all your hurt, your resentment and all your anger and put it in the fire. Fire can handle It.” Speaking of the fire at the Legislature she says “I’ve been to the Ledge many times. They have tobacco—tobacco on the fire. And you’re praying for all those hurting in the world with an intent, and that tobacco rises up, and the smoke rises to the Creator… There is so much power in fire.”

Wallin recounts that at one point when she attempted to deliver wood to the encampment, she was met with resistance from the Legislature’s security guards, but she found a way around the restriction. “We went around the side. I said ‘Park the truck’… I went to the encampment, and I said… ‘Grab your bags, grab everything, because we’re not allowed on the ground’” She said the guards could not tell camp members not to carry the wood from off the grounds: “I’m not breaking any laws. Yeah, I will keep this sacred fire open.”

Elder Amanda Wallin is also a talented artist. In her basement she shows me her artist’s workshop. Photos of loved ones, including her father in traditional dress, hang around her workspace. Elsewhere there are art supplies which have been knocked over by her visiting grandson. Wallin shows me a beautiful, large, blue acrylic painting which features white lines receding up into sky. She explains:

“When the news broke…” (about the discovered unmarked graves) “we were driving home and I looked up in the sky and I thought ‘Why, God, why?’” At that time the image of Jacob’s ladder came to Wallin’s mind. “It was just so beautiful, and when I came home, I seen they were putting shoes on the stairs of the Ledge, and then the two just came together in my head. I’m going to make a Jacob’s Ladder with 215 pairs of children’s moccasins.”

A painting with a solid orange backdrop. In the four corners of the painting single leaves are presented in black. A large circle of green sweet grass, with ends overlapping is displayed in the center of the painting, and within the sweet grass are the words "Every Child Matters" displayed in capital letters. Below the words are two small hand prints in black. The painting is signed "Amanda Wallin."
Painting by Elder Amanda Wallin

Elder Amanda Wallin had already begun painting the moccasins but covered over her first efforts. “They were too close together, and I went right over every little pair of moccasins.” She explains her purpose in attending so closely to each and every pair of moccasins she paints: “I will honour and pray for every child’s grave that they found.”

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