How an unlikely individual brought a spark to Indigenous art

Art | by Gregory Beatty

Mixing Stars and Sand
MacKenzie Gallery
Until June 24

During a curatorial tour for Mixing Stars and Sand: The Art and Legacy of Sarain Stump, Anthony Kiendl, who co-curated the exhibition with Indigenous curator/educator Gerald McMaster, described Stump as a “fascinating character.”

That’s an understatement.

According to the online Canadian Encyclopedia, Stump was born in Fremont, Wyoming in 1945. He had little formal education, but instead learned from his Shosone-Cree elders. Taking a job at an Alberta ranch in 1964, he began work on the poems and drawings that would become There is My People Sleeping. The 1969 book is regarded as a seminal work in contemporary Indigenous literature and influenced a generation of Indigenous artists and writers.

From there, Stump moved into teaching, becoming the art co-ordinator at Saskatchewan Indian Cultural College in 1972. He continued to write, draw and paint prolifically, and even found time to act in the 1974 feature film Alien Thunder. Set in the Battleford area during the North-West Resistance, the film was directed by Claude Fournier, and stars Donald Sutherland, Chief Dan George and Gordon Tootoosis — with Stump playing Métis guide Napoleon Royal.

While strongly influenced by Plains Indigenous history and culture, Stump also studied Mezo-American Indigenous cultures such as the Aztecs and Maya, and even travelled down to Central and South America.

In fact, it was during just such a trip to the Chiapas region of Mexico that Stump tragically drowned while swimming in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 20, 1974.

Those are just some of the highlights of his life, of course. But overall, pretty fascinating, right?

I haven’t come to the best part yet.

Stump wasn’t actually born in Wyoming. Instead, he was born in Venice, Italy on Oct. 16, 1945. And his birth name wasn’t Sarain Stump, it was Mario Sarain.

Between ages 16–18, Mario Sarain studied draftsmanship and design at a Venice technical institute. He also learned English, and developed an interest in American Indian history, art and culture. How that happened, the show doesn’t say, but from the early days of colonization through the late 19th century adventure novels of German writer Karl May to so-called “Eurowesterns” in more recent times, Europeans have had a tradition of romanticizing, and even fetishizing, Indigenous peoples.

For whatever reason, Mario become enthralled, to the point that he emigrated to Canada in 1966. While working on an Alberta ranch, his artistic talent was recognized by one employer who introduced him to a Victoria publisher. From there his career took off.

He changed his name to Sarain Stump and married an Indigenous woman with whom he had a son (and possibly a daughter, though that’s inconclusive). He also forged connections with other Indigenous artists, and was invited to participate in major conferences, exhibitions and publications on Indigenous art.

During the curatorial tour, McMaster recalled how he met Stump in 1972.

“I had a job in Saskatoon right after high school, they said there was a young man who was going to be coming to work with me, so just hang around until he shows up,” McMaster recalls. “A month later, in October, Sarain arrived in his little Toyota pick-up truck.

“Sarain was tremendous to look at and even more tremendous to work alongside,” says McMaster. “We travelled throughout Saskatchewan, visiting First Nations communities and talking with K to 12 students about Indigenous art.

“Nobody, it seemed, knew anything about Indigenous art. I certainly didn’t. He really inspired me, and gave me pride in who I was.”

This was the heyday of the civil rights movement, remember, and Indigenous activism was on the rise.

“It was a time when we were searching for a spark,” says McMaster. “Certainly, there were people who were leading us on a political edge and representing us in Ottawa. On the cultural side, there was this man named Sarain Stump.”

Gallery Guide

Mixing Sand and Stars is a major retrospective celebrating Stump’s art and legacy. Once it closes at the MacKenzie, it will tour nationally, and a catalogue with critical essays, colour reproductions and poetry is being published.

The show contains over 300 works, including thematic groupings of ink drawings and paintings, two sections devoted to There is My People Sleeping and a second suite of previously unpublished poems that will be in the catalogue, select scenes from Alien Thunder featuring Stump, an excerpt from a 1974 Alanis Obomsawin film on a benefit concert for the James Bay Cree in their struggle against a massive Quebec hydro project where Stump plays the flute, and more.

Stump wasn’t just a multi-disciplinary wonder as an artist, he also incorporated many different influences into his practice. Most were tied to Indigenous history and culture, but during the talk McMaster pointed to two European influences — a Picasso Guernica-inspired horse in a poster, and a Chagall “floating couple” in a painting.

But Indigenous influences — from 19th century Plains Indian ledger drawings to Aztec/Maya line drawings to hide paintings and even a few carved masks — abound.

In keeping with the “legacy” part of the exhibition, there are two works by Edward Poitras, who was one of a group of young Indigenous artists along with William Ermine, Ray McCallum, Dennis Morrison and others, who studied under Stump at Saskatchewan Indian Cultural College.

One work dates back to 1995, when Poitras, in a show curated by McMaster, became the first Indigenous artist to represent Canada at the prestigious Venice Biennale. Venice, as noted, was Stump’s birthplace, and as a homage to his mentor, Poitras presented a photograph of a prominent rock that marked Stump’s grave on the Sweetgrass First Nation near Battleford.

The second work is a new installation called Chinvat Bridge. It’s styled as an airport lounge, and memorializes Stump’s last fatal trip to Mexico.

The title is derived from the Zoroastrian concept of a bridge that souls cross when passing from life to death. In 1974, the year Stump drowned, Dec. 20 was the Winter Solstice. So Poitras has installed two monitors, one near the gallery’s east wall, the other near the west wall, that show video of the Sun rising and setting over the ocean. There’s also a shed snakeskin, which embodies the idea of how Stump successively reinvented himself.

Grey Area

That very success, though, raises a sensitive question. In presenting himself as Indigenous, did Stump perpetuate an artistic fraud?

An obvious parallel is Archie Delaney — an Englishman born in 1888, who emigrated to Canada in 1906 and reinvented himself as the iconic Indigenous conservationist Grey Owl.

In addressing the issue at the talk, McMaster framed it in the form of Indigenous sovereignty. These days, when accusations of cultural appropriation are made, it’s often when non-Indigenous artists take from Indigenous cultures without any consultation or engagement with them.

“To me, it’s about Indigenous people having the authority to decide who becomes them,” says McMaster. “If we think of blood quantum, that’s a whole different issue. Indian Affairs has relied so much on that standard for identifying people.

“We, as a community, give each other identity,” McMaster adds. “So Indigenous people have the authority to decide who becomes part of their community. Sarain was accepted and adopted into the Cree community. So in the same way as it’s okay for someone to be Italian-Canadian, it’s okay for Sarain to be Italian-Cree.”

Summing up his thoughts as the curatorial tour ended, McMaster said: “I didn’t know Sarain was born in Italy. But that didn’t matter to us.

“What mattered was the kind of person he was, and what he brought to us, and how he inspired us in the way we thought about ourselves and where we came from.”

This story has been updated since publication.