The Witness Blanket travelling exhibit has arrived at Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in Williams Lake and features over 800 reclaimed items from residential schools.
Inspired by the woven blanket, the Witness Blanket was made by Indigenous artist Hayalthkin’geme (Carey Newman) to honour residential school survivors. For Indigenous people across Canada, blankets symbolize protection and comfort and are worn in ceremonies and given as gifts, according to the Witness Blanket’s website.
“As the son of a residential school survivor, I wanted to make something that would honour not only his experience, but the experience of survivors across the country,” said Newman.
The Witness Blanket took Newman nearly two years to complete, gathering objects from 77 sites nationwide. Items on the Witness Blanket include braids of hair, a symbol of both mourning and respect for the Indigenous children whose hair was forcibly cut off; hockey skates, instilling Western values; the shoe of a small child; tree branches from the former St. Mary’s Residential School; and the boys’ infirmary door from St. Michael’s Residential School.
The idea came about when Newman asked himself how he could respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call for commemoration initiatives in 2010, he said. After sending in his application for the project in 2011, it was approved in 2012.
Initially, Newman was only going to gather items from residential schools; however, with time, it also included items from churches, government buildings and cultural structures.
In 2014, the Witness Blanket began touring across the country and, in 2019, was acquired by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in a stewardship agreement with Newman.
“When four and a half years of tour began to take a toll on the blanket, we made the decision to end the tour and reached out to the CMHR,” said Newman. CMHR’s interest in the blanket came after being exhibited there for six months in 2015.
The stewardship agreement ensures the collective responsibility to care for the blanket and the stories it carries, as well as share it through travelling exhibitions, the digital Witness Blanket, free access to the documentary film and supporting future projects, such as virtual reality versions, Newman explained.
Newman is surprised that almost 10 years later, the Witness Blanket continues to make an impact through exhibitions and educational platforms, a transformative experience, he said, especially considering how much work it took to complete the blanket.
“I am really happy that the Witness Blanket will be exhibited in the hometown and traditional territories of my friend Phyllis Webstad, the inspirational founder and ambassador of Orange Shirt Day.”
The travelling exhibit will remain at TRU until Jan. 8 and can be viewed Monday to Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Sunday, noon until 5:30 p.m.
Kim Kimberlin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Williams Lake Tribune