Truth, Art and Reconciliation
Review posted March 5, 2023.
Orca Books, Canada, 2022. 92 pages.
Review written January 31, 2023, from a library book.
The Witness Blanket is a powerful book about a stunning and beautiful, but hard-hitting work of art. The Witness Blanket itself isn't what I think of as a blanket -- but it's a sort of solid patchwork quilt, with panels fastened together so that the exhibit can travel.
The Witness Blanket was assembled from thousands of objects, photographs and letters that all bear witness to Indigenous people's experiences in the residential schools of Canada, which operated from the mid-1800s to the late 1990s.
Author Carey Newman tells about how he is an intergenerational survivor, with trauma passed down from his father.
My father was born in 1937 in the remote town of Alert Bay, British Columbia. At age seven he was taken from his parents and sent to a residential school far away from home. Residential schools were started by the Canadian government and run by churches. The goal was to erase Indigenous cultures by making children like my father think, speak and behave less like their own people and more like European settlers. At residential school my father wasn't allowed to speak Kwak'wala, the language of his people. He couldn't learn about their traditional ways of living or cultural ceremonies. School authorities wouldn't even let him talk with his siblings. Losing these experiences hurt his connection to family and culture. It also changed how he thought of himself and altered who he grew up to be.
The idea Carey Newman got for making the Witness Blanket came from the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, who were looking for a way to document and commemorate the experiences of Survivors of the residential schools.
This book takes a gentle approach to documenting those experiences as well, gently showing the reader different objects that people sent in to include in the blanket and explaining their stories -- thus casting light on the experiences of many people. It also tells of the thought and care that went into putting the pieces together into the finished exhibit.
All along the way, we get detailed photos and explanations of individual pieces that went into the Witness Blanket. This makes it all the more moving to see the full-spread photographs of the completed project at the back.
I was surprised by how much this book affected me. Some day I would like to see this work of art and testimony in person. But in the meantime, I highly recommend this book.