The third painting is a portrait of three brothers participating in
a Sundance. In the centre of the painting is a pole representing the tree
of life, to which are attached thongs that are embedded in the skin of
the dancers. One of the brothers has just pulled himself free from the
thongs and is on his knees in a state of exhaustion. The dancers in the
Sundance ceremony have previously made a vow to honour the Great Spirit
and to walk in the way of their ancestors; the Sundance is a cleansing
and healing ceremony to make atonement for deviations from the path and
to give them strength to renew their vows. The dancers will usually fast
for four days, and on the last day will attach ropes to their chests as
reflected in the painting. Some Sundancers remain tied in this way for
the whole four days, but it takes a very strong man and a very strong
spirit to do this.
The last painting on this side of the wall is of a death lodge in which,
atop a wooden platform, is the body of a departed elder wrapped in hides,
awaiting his passage on the great journey. On one side of the lodge are
the heads of his two favourite horses, who will accompany him on that
final journey. This is the ceremony of the dead as practised in olden
times, but its message in the sequence of paintings is that if you respect
the rhythms of birth and life and practise the spiritual ways of your
people, then the ultimate journey is nothing to be feared.
On the left side of the room is a beautiful landscape depicting a mountain,
tall evergreen trees, and a circling bald eagle. The colours are calm
and muted and are meant to give Brothers a sense of peace and tranquillity.
Next to this landscape is a painting of the double-headed sea serpent
celebrated in West-Coast Salish and Kwakgiulth masks and dances.
The next painting, in the style of the Ojibway peoples of the East,
depicts a man transforming into a wolf, reflecting the interconnections
between human beings and animals. It also symbolizes the transformation
Brothers can make from their previous lives of abuse and violence to a
life in which they are at peace with themselves and with the communities
to which they return. The final painting draws upon the history of the
Iroquois Confederacy, the Haudenausaunee, showing the great fire which
in Iroquois symbolism is rekindled on the occasion of any important meeting.
The mural also shows a series of masks used by members of the Iroquois
"False Face" societies. Like the Koshare clowns of the Navajo Nation in
the United States, the false faces of the Iroquois mock the foolishness
of humankind. The Brothers, in their talking circles, look up to these
images and reflect upon the false faces which have brought them to prison.
By continuing their journey along the "Red Road," they can return to their
As I listened in the talking circle, surrounded by these murals, Brothers
retraced the violent upbringings which had resulted in their coming to
prison and searched for a pathway back to their spiritual centre and away
from the life of imprisonment. The energy, although charged with pain
and suffering, was essentially positive and full of promise for these
Although they were separated by no more than a few hundred feet, there
was a vast conceptual and emotional distance between the Brotherhood's
meeting place and the segregation unit. In that unit, which constitutes
the darkest place in the "Iron House," prisoners are literally "boxed"
in cells that distort their vision of the outside world. Men's minds are
also distorted here by the negative energy which characterizes what passes
for communication between the keeper and the kept. If the segregation
unit can be seen as representing the poison of bitterness which the prison
can inject into a human being, the Aboriginal structures and the talking
circle represent the antidote, which can make that same human being whole.
During my first weeks at Matsqui, the Aboriginal Elder Pat Henrickson,
who like me had just begun his work there, commented that Matsqui was
"a powerful and forceful place." There are powerful people who work and
live within the prison, with attitudes about crime and punishment, criminals
and corrections, expressed in forceful language; there are also powerful
spaces within the prison, which in very different ways seek to change
the minds and bodies of the prisoners who enter them. Embedded in the
prison regime are well-trodden pathways calculated to strengthen only
negative attitudes towards lawful authority. However, there are also avenues
through which prisoners, with the support of prison staff and members
of the community, can develop the strength to live within the lawful boundaries
of civil society. The law, also a powerful force, has an important strategic
role to play in providing the framework to support the positive elements
of corrections and to protect against the abuse that flows from negative
ones. In my first month at Matsqui, I participated in and observed events
which highlighted these competing elements. In the next two chapters,
I trace the paths of two very different journeys.
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