Native artist makes it real

by Jadeon Rathgeber



At age 16, I started dealing drugs and running with gangs. My very first night I made $1,800 profit and thought, “I’m making more than a doctor and a lawyer.” So much money went through my hands over these years, all squandered and wasted. My mom continuously told me that nothing would come of these ways, and she was right. After being stabbed five times, shot and spending nearly five years in the prison system – with the rest of my adult life on parole – December 11, 2009 marked an end to my life of being under the thumb of the Canadian justice system. Seventeen years!

INDN Arts ‘N Action 
January 7-30

Make it Real
January 19-30

An art show presented by indigenous artists Jadeon Rathgeber, Pat Bruderer and family. This event includes panel discussions, carvings, Birch Bark Biting artwork, indigenous-inspired fashion and more. At Interurban: Gallery & Community Art Space, 1 East Hastings Street, Vancouver.

My name is Jadeon Rathgeber. I was born and raised in a small northern Manitoba town and I am of mixed Cree and German descent. I am now the father of a beautiful little girl named Desiree.

Four years ago, I went to my first Native American Church meeting. I reunited with a carver who knew my mother, Pat Bruderer, Half Moon Woman, who is one of the last practitioners of the ancient First Nations art of Birch Bark Biting. His name is Whey-hey-ukt-chuk. He is hereditary and he asked me to start carving with him, saying it was in my blood. Since then, carving, culture and my family have been my passion. It saved my life.

I also began realizing how much trouble our cultures and the environment are in, and how a high percentage of people don’t realize how bad it really is.

So I began a great new mission in life. I wanted to be an advocate for the original people of North America and the world. I wanted to help the youth – by my own story – to make different choices. I wanted to help my family and to heal and repair the damage I had caused. Everybody had written me off. Even now, I know that my Grandma, sisters and other relatives view me with mistrust. It is a long road out.

The reality and consequence of my choices, however, were still playing out.

At the intake assessment for this last sentence I just finished, I was honest and informed the officer that I had reconnected to my indigenous roots and expressed the positive changes happening to me. I was so inspired and was having beautiful and grand visions of what I could do. I was going to be a great carver. I was going to help my family and put my mom’s artwork on the map, helping her out of poverty. I was going to help youth, create art camps, set up a foundation and tour the Birch Bark Bitings in museums and in the really good galleries, sharing the teachings and the stories. I had just met my daughter for the first time at seven-months-old and I wanted to be a real father and raise her well. I wanted to be able to sit with my Grandma and have her feel good about me.

The officer discussed the situation with another lady at Correction Services Canada and they decided I’m having delusional thoughts and creating goals way too big for reality and determined that I needed a psychiatric assessment. To my utter horror, they added time to my mandatory incarceration. An elder told me later that the CSC criterion designates that if you are First Nations you are a higher risk to re-offend. You are treated differently. More programming is placed upon us. At least, I can be so deeply grateful to the elders and brothers that worked so hard to ensure that my time was immersed in spirituality and in building pride and esteem. I was very fortunate to be able to continue carving in prison. The elders and some lifers were very good and helpful to me. I went to over 50 strong sweats while I was in there, getting deeper into my heart and my truth and learning countless important teachings.

During this lengthened time, however, I was almost killed in prison several times. One time, I thought the guy broke my back with a steel pipe wood clamp. I almost lost my life half a dozen times during this sentence and I realized, just as with the lifestyle that got me there, it could happen just like that.

But I’ve also come to realize that, for First Nations people, it is most often like that every day anyway. Part of what got me into the criminal lifestyle was that in the remote reality of most indigenous people’s lives, there is not much left, not much else. This is something that upsets me so much with how Canada portrays how great things are, the wonderful partnership, and even so many people who think they are helping, but do it from this place of looking down their nose and not coming to grips with how this all got so messed up.

The fish are gone, the Caribou, the trap line – now the ice is melting and the polar bears are dying and eating their young. Bees are disappearing. Well, so are we, but it hasn’t quite reached us in the food chain yet. But it has on the reserve.

Where my sisters were raised on the Moose Lake reservation in Northern Manitoba, babies are now born addicted, drinking by age five, sniffing gas or glue to stem the hunger pains by eight or nine and now crack is everywhere before you are even a teen. So then enter the predators, abusers and pushers. Many of my sister’s friends are dead or addicted or abused and have as many as five kids by the time they’re 19-years-old. My sister Sheena is working on a documentary about it seen through her 19 year-old eyes.

And so, what has come of my dreams that needed a psychiatric assessment?

I finally got out on parole and got straight to my new life and my vision. It has been crazy. I have met so many people. I walked, hitchhiked and bussed carrying all this art and stuff. I wore out shoes while dripping sweat in the summer heat, meeting, talking about my mom and the art. And, of course, carving.

Everything is coming along. Some museums are interested in sponsoring a tour. My mom’s art is now at the Bill Reid Gallery (639 Hornby Street,Vancouver).

My mom and my relatives and I are having an art show in January, which we are calling Make it Real. It is part of INDN Arts ‘N Action at the Interurban Art Gallery in the Vancouver Downtown Eastside at 1 East Hastings Street, which is the transition point from wealth and power to one of the poorest neighbourhoods in North America. It’s great for the art show because the true reality is right outside the door and there are people from all over the globe trying to survive on that street.

My mom will be showcasing her ancient and threatened artwork and doing demonstrations. My carvings will be there, as well as some collaborative pieces with other artists and ones my mom and I have done together with the Birch Bark Biting put into carving designs. Also, my mom and aunties’ high-end, indigenous inspired fashions designs will be there, and lots more from my family.

In the evenings, we will have several presentations and conversations on many issues focusing on the difference between the fake and the real covering art, literature and history, governments and culture and survival. It is happening right before the Olympics and even this is an example of misrepresentation for indigenous peoples. I found out that everyone putting on a show there has to sign a contract saying they will not say anything negative about the government, the committee or the corporate sponsors so the aboriginals putting on a show there are being used to make it look like Canada and First Nations people are doing really great with each other, and it just is not true.

Also, my family lineage happens to be part of the stories of Farley Mowat. It was my family that took him in, guided him and then had our stories told and twisted to create Farley’s fame. It caused a lot of hurt and damage to us and many people and it has never been resolved. In the north, he is often called Hardly Knows-it. We will be discussing how the portrayal of indigenous people is so often distorted in literature and history. The real people of the deer will be there and we can all talk about it together. Maybe Farley Mowat will come and it can be a really good and healing opportunity.

An elder told me you can’t go to university to learn your life experiences and you didn’t survive being stabbed five times and shot for nothing; your purpose in life is now to help other people with the wisdom you have from living through that.

Come and see if I am delusional. Meet my family and see our art. Join in the discussions; many traditional and hereditary people will be there from here and from where my family comes from. Let us see if things can really change. If we can change ourselves, we can change everything. We can Make it Real! Who knows, my grandmother might even be there.

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