Shirley (Minqwôn-Minqwôn) Bear was a multi-media artist, writer, political activist, feminist, traditional native herbalist, and respected elder. A member of the Maliseet Negootook (Tobique) First Nation and the Wabanaki language group of New Brunswick, she was a leader in advocating for Indigenous and women’s rights in Canada.
As part of the extraordinary Tobique Women’s Group, Shirley Bear was at the forefront of a long campaign that eventually resulted in an amendment to the Indian Act in 1985, ending over one hundred years of legislated sexual discrimination against Indigenous women.
In 1980, she spearheaded a protest for the improvement of the housing situation for women at Big Cove Reserve; in 1981, she was appointed to the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women; in 1983, she lobbied at the First Ministers’ Conference on Constitutional Aboriginal Matters in Ottawa; and in 1989, she curated the ground-breaking national touring exhibition “Changers – a Spiritual Renaissance,” which was the first exhibition of First Nations women artists to have been curated by a First Nations woman.
In 2009, I had the very special honour of interviewing Shirley and curating her major retrospective exhibition “Nekt wikuhpon ehpit — Once there lived a woman, The Painting, Poetry and Politics of Shirley Bear” for the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. The exhibition chronicled the sources, inspiration, and personal circumstances that shaped Shirley’s visual art, poetry, and political activism, and examined the integral relationship amongst these important activities in her life. Deriving from a deeply lived experience at the intersection of Indigenous and female identities, it featured a variety of images of women, some of which were symbolic, some archetypal, and some representative of actual women.
Powerfully countering the invisible silent status typically ascribed to Indigenous women, Shirley’s abiding preoccupation was the recovery of the essential feminine role and wisdom in the ancestral life of First Nations culture, and as a central part of the human story. As she explained, “being Wabanagi allows me to carry the knowledge of the land and stories that were entrusted to me by my ancestors, my grandmothers and grandfathers and those who went before them. This is what validates me, always”.
Challenging the self-preserving machinations of patriarchy and colonization that have served to diminish the political, economic, and social roles of Indigenous women, her work offers a source of wisdom for human communities based on matriarchal values of non-violence, consensus-based decision making, gender balance, and respect for nature.
Over several visits to Tobique, Shirley told me her life’s story, beginning with how close she was to her mother Susie Bear, a strong female role model in her early years who had a lasting effect on the course of her life, one that reverberates throughout her visual art, poetry, and political activism. She spoke of her mother’s engagement with community and remembered how she took an active interest in local politics, and never hesitated to lobby the Indian Agent for improvements on the reserve. She also witnessed firsthand how her mother took in young girls who were being abused, clothed them, and took care of them.
As a child, Shirley attended the Maliseet Indian Day School, which was run by the Roman Catholic Church. Although her first language was Maliseet or Wolastoqiyik, she was expected to speak English. As she remembers it, Day School was “a place controlled by nuns who couldn’t speak our language, only the language of a white god.” Her early memories of this time are of drawing with crayons on Manila paper. She recalled: “My mother let me draw on the walls of our home . . . I grew up drawing and never thought of it as art . . . I drew at an age before recollections and wrote before I knew what ‘poetry’ meant.” To feed her passion for art, she would make paper dolls and trade them with the other girls in her class for their booklets of Manila paper, which she would quickly fill with colourful drawings. While it was typical for the children at the school to endure verbal abuse from the nuns, Shirley was fortunate to have received encouragement from Sister Annette, who taught an art class once a week. Recognizing her artistic talent, Sister Annette enlisted the young artist to help her paint thematic pictures on windows that reflected the changing seasons.
Shirley grew up experiencing the detrimental effects of colonization and racialization on her culture. “I remember . . . being called dirty Indian kids, and not understanding it. They would say “dirty brown” or “dirty black” – “there go the dirty Indian kids.” . . . I don’t remember doing much about it because I didn’t have a name for it.” From the very beginning, making art and writing poetry offered “a place to take myself to instead of getting depressed.”
After grade school, Shirley attended a French convent boarding school in Edmundston, New Brunswick, where she met a nun who was also an artist, and who gave her a studio and taught her how to use watercolours. She wanted to go to art school, but her career choice was frowned upon by the local priest, and each student’s educational path was determined by his recommendation. It’s not surprising then that, by age 18, she had had enough of convent school, and moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where she got a job as a waitress, then in a department store as a Christmas gift-wrapper, and later as a clerk in ladies’ wear. In 1955, at age 19, she married a non-Indigenous American in Massachusetts and, at age 20, had the first of her three children. She didn’t paint or study art again until her oldest child was six years old.
To earn a living, Shirley worked for Raytheon Company, which manufactured radio and television transmitters and related equipment for the commercial market in the United States during the post-war years, and then for a research lab at Sylvania, which had just developed integrated circuits. Later, when she returned to her art, she drew people’s portraits at Canobie Lake Park in Salem, New Hampshire, for $5 a sitting ($10 for colour), and was commissioned to paint cartoons on a wall mural for Dodge’em bumper cars. She also wove baskets and sold them. In 1971, she was employed by T.R.I.B.E. (Teaching and Research in Bicultural Education) in Bar Harbor, Maine, where she developed a study program for high school and college drop-outs. At T.R.I.B.E., she met Anna Mae Pictou Aquash (Naguset Eask), who was from the Mi’kmaq reserve near Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, and who was one of the most active and prominent female activists of the American Indian Movement (AIM). In 1982, she created a painting and drawing that graphically depicts the brutal murder of her friend in South Dakota in 1975.
Shirley learned how to paint in oils as a result of marrying into an artist family. For the most part, her education in the visual arts was sporadic, involving workshops in painting, screenprinting, Japanese woodblock printing, lithography, and photography at different periods in her life. She first exhibited her work in 1964 in public parks and in the hallways of theatres with fellow art students of Ann Schecter, a resident instructor at the Whistler House Gallery in Lowell, Massachusetts. In 1969, she won a $15,000 leadership development grant from the Ford Foundation, which enabled her to travel across Canada and the United States to meet other Indigenous artists. Having long abandoned the Catholic church, this pan-continent art trek became a personal spiritual quest.
Shirley first began to identify herself as a feminist when her first marriage ended in New Hampshire after nine years. She realized that the abuse she had suffered in her relationship with her husband was not a normal experience, and that she should and could expect better for herself. Her journal entry in 1968 states: “Take back your life, take back your name, reclaim, reclaim. March 2, today I signed my painting with my birth name.” Much needed support came from other women, and she recognized that Indigenous women’s struggle could not be isolated from other women’s concerns, that it is part of a global movement for liberation. While employed by T.R.I.B.E, she met many women on their way out of bad relationships, and attended meetings in Boston that made her aware that her experience wasn’t unique. “I’d learned about the women’s movement in the States. I knew some women who went through horrendous experiences with backroom abortions; women dying with cancer in the womb – due I think to the kind of birth control things they were taking.”
Shirley was never interested in creating art that reduces content to a simple dialectic between colour and form, and that allows the “art” to usurp personal meaning. For her, “real” and valued lessons do not grow out of academic work, but out of the actual substance of one’s own life. She stated: “When I look at a work, I look number one for content before I even look at the quality. . . I do art from my heart and soul and I strive for quality as I know it. . . . A lot of art-world people have a particular point of view and a base for judging art because of their training. When they look at art done by other people, they continue to judge it by their own standards. . . . For us to understand each other, the first thing is to unlearn the training and find a place in your heart and mind to respect how other people do things. And, I think, to listen – not just with your head, but with your whole being.”
Shirley drew on her personal experiences. A series of early works feature portraits of her three children, Stephanie, Lance, and Ramona. On the surface there is nothing seemingly political about such imagery. However, upon a closer reading within the context of Bear’s political activism, it poses a challenge to the modernist aversion to domestic themes in the visual arts, to male-dominated conventions that have served to neglect or disparage categories of culture associated with women and the everyday caretaking of children. Far from being subordinate or marginal to the public realm, such imagery takes on new meaning in light of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s and its popular dictum “the personal is political”, and of Bear’s reclamation of ancient matriarchal wisdom and values of Indigenous culture. It is through this same lens that she responded to global events and expressed antiwar sentiments about the Gulf War and the Oka Crisis in her prints (“Fire Words – Gulf War,” 1991; “Wikisi Golf,” 1991; and “Fragile Freedoms #1 – Kanasatake– Oka Warrior,” 1991).
After fifteen years of living in the United States, Bear moved back to the reserve in Tobique with her two children. But upon returning home, she was forced to confront Section 12 (1) (b) of the Indian Act, the discriminatory law that decreed that she had lost her First Nations status because she had married a non-Indigenous man. Bear recounted: “the first thing my father said to me was ‘you can’t live here because you’re a white woman.’ It was a real strange thing for me to look in a mirror and call myself a white woman.”
Like other women from the Tobique reserve, she understood firsthand the impact of government policy on Indigenous women, how forcing women to live off reserve meant the loss of ties with their families and communities. They understood that it meant the destruction of their culture, as it was the women who traditionally passed on cultural knowledge to the next generation in Indigenous society. Her painting 12 (1) (b), 1975, powerfully expresses this understanding in its depiction of a landscape of aborted fetuses of women who have lost their identity. In 1985, as a result of the tireless efforts of the women of Tobique, bill C-31 was repealed and the women regained their status.
In the early 1970s, Shirley met the Mi’kmaq writer and basket weaver, Peter J. Clair. They were married in 1975 and, in 1977, she gave birth to her third child, a daughter, Ramona. They built a studio on their property in Tobique, and collaborated on printing original designs on t-shirts and sweatshirts that they sold at various arts and craft fairs. Shirley also made and sold greeting cards that used woodcut and screenprinting techniques, as well as painted portraits for the chiefs who would reproduce many of her images. It was at that time that she joined CARFAC to become more informed about the legal rights of visual artists.
Through her political actions, together with her visual art and poetry, Shirley communicated an alternative way of being for both men and women, which is represented by her paintings “Man and Woman,” 1973, and “One,” 1974. By visualizing the original Wolastoqiyik way of life before colonization through a feminist interpretation of the meaning of ancient petroglyphs, she did not aim to recreate First Nations communities as they once existed prior to contact with European culture in 1492, but to remind us that our present-day political system is not inevitable, and that society without structures of oppression is possible. For her, cultural tradition was not only something that needs to be preserved, but something that also needs to be continually negotiated in new and challenging ways.
Stereotypical images of Indigenous women in the media have served to distort reality by rarely showing them in leading roles or living lives that afford them a voice. Shirley’s art reminds us that such portrayals are far removed from the actual status women were accorded in traditional Indigenous communities.
Shirley questioned the validity of most interpretations of petroglyphs, which usually derive from a non-Indigenous, male point of view. For example, her painting “Women’s Sweat Lodge,” 1988, evolved from her reading of a particular petroglyph that was thought to be a chief’s symbol. Shirley reclaimed this iconography as representative of a women’s sacred sweat lodge ceremony, from which today women are often excluded because of the patriarchal legacy of colonization. In her poem, “Birthing Myself,” she challenges such sexist attitudes and misogynist beliefs that have infiltrated her culture: “Don’t tell me that I may not do spiritual ceremony on my moon time.”
The artist identified strongly with the petroglyph image of an Abenaki woman, which appears in many of her works and was used as her signature. “My first introduction to petroglyphs in the 1960s was a revelation. I found in these images, a history, an ancient story which continues to be my strength and a sense of foreverness on this continent. It’s this fortitude that has been a lifeline for me throughout the battle to change the discriminatory set of laws in the Canadian Indian Act.”
Shirley reclaimed women’s ancient spirituality in paintings and poetry that eloquently and poignantly communicate the wisdom, strength, and beauty of the soul that characterize traditional Indigenous women. Her work celebrates women’s sacred connection to nature in works such as “Fiddlehead Woman,” 1976; “Corn Woman,” 1979; “Crane Woman,” 1983-1988; “Prairie Grandmothers,” 1993, and “Medicine Woman,” 1974, which depicts woman as a great healer in the form of a Calamus root. Her painting Cohoba Ritual, 1988, which references the Divine Feminine in traditional Taino culture in the Dominican Republic, depicts a group of women inhaling hallucinogenic dust from the cohoba tree to communicate with their ancestors. By drawing attention to traditional Indigenous cultures where women are key figures in the creation and maintenance of society, her work reinforces how culture-specific empowerment can be translated to other women across cultures.
In 1996, on the day she turned 60 years of age, Shirley moved to Vancouver, where she lived for ten years and served as Cultural Advisor to the British Columbia Institute of Technology, First Nations Advisor at Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, and Resident Elder for First Nations House of Learning at UBC. She also produced an extensive series of paintings on paper and canvas that give expression to feminine identity and power in a variety of multi-cultural female figures that she observed on Commercial Drive and other of the city’s busy urban environment.
The works on paper range from immediate expressive sketches in acrylic, such as “Commercial Drive,” 1988, and “Balaclava St. Vancouver, BC,” 1998, to ones where she employed her trademark technique using oils over dry pigment, such as “Family on Commercial,” 2000; “Staples,” 2000; and “Robin on Hastings,” 2000. Together with the larger canvases, such as “Odessa,” 2004-2006, they encourage rumination on the present-day condition of various actual women’s lives.
Shirley’s art has been featured in several one-person and group exhibitions throughout Canada and the United States and is included in numerous private and public collections. She has been profiled for film and television by the CBC, the National Film Board, and independent producers, and her writing is featured in several anthologies, such as “Kelusultiek: original women’s voices of Atlantic Canada” (Mount St. Vincent University, 1994) and “The Colour of Resistance” (Sister Vision Press, 1993); in catalogues for the exhibitions she curated, “Kospenay” (1991) and “Changers–A Spiritual Renaissance” (1989); and in her book of poems titled “Virgin Bones” (McGilligan Press, 2007). In 2002, she received the Excellence in the Arts Award from the New Brunswick Arts Board, and in 2011, she was named to the Order of Canada.
The exhibition catalogue for Nekt wikuhpon ehpit — Once there lived a woman, The Painting, Poetry and Politics of Shirley Bear with essays by writer, cultural critic, and activist Susan Crean, artist and Shirley’s good friend Carol Taylor, and me, provides the most comprehensive overview of Shirley’s life’s work to date.
Shirley Bear lived an extraordinary life, one that inspired many other artists, poets, and political activists by her example. The Mi’kmaq artist Alan Syliboy credits Shirley with giving him his first painting lesson.
Shirley Bear took on the responsibility for her part in the co-creation of the world around her, and so her work teaches us many things. It teaches about the vital link between art and life, about the importance of claiming the power of one’s own mind, and about the necessity of remembering the ancient knowledge of the land and one’s ancestors.
In the midst of all of the complexities and contradictions, the suffering and pain facing Indigenous communities in contemporary times, her work illuminates a space for healing and empowerment, for the rebuilding of narratives in Western society, for imagining a better world in which to live. As such, it offers great hope and potential for positive change.
Sincere condolences are extended to Shirley’s family and friends, and to the many lives she touched, mine included.
Multimedia artist Terry Graff lives and works in Island View, New Brunswick. He is the former Executive Director of the Beaverbrook Gallery. This piece was first published on Facebook on Nov. 23, 2022.