by Kinnukana, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
(ANNews) – Métis Leader Louis Riel once said, “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” Mary Jane Houle, artist and teacher, is one of those artists that is playing an important role in reviving the spirit of Indigenous people through her art and cultural teachings.
Mary Jane Houle has been working as a Plain’s Cree Teacher for the past seven years at École Racette Junior High School in St. Paul, Alberta, where she teaches language, culture and identity. She is appreciative that the French Catholic school hired her to offer Cree education in Grades six to nine, especially when it is connected to a past of residential schools with horrifying stories. Mary Jane is also an artist – birch bark biter and painter and has been developing her techniques since she was seven years old. She is a mother of five beautiful children and a Kokum to fifteen cherished grand babies. She is originally from Good Fish Lake, but now resides in St. Paul, Alberta.
Mary Jane is the daughter of Charles and Martha Houle of Good Fish Lake Band 128 in Alberta. Her father was a musician and a hunter, and her mother was an artist. Mary Jane’s parents had twelve children and she grew up with them. Her father told her that where they come from is on sacred ground because everything they have in the community is used for something.
Both Charles and Martha were residential school survivors. Mary Jane said that this did not stop them from giving her and her siblings a strong upbringing and better insight and focus on healing. Because they both attended residential school, her parents made sure that Mary Jane and her siblings never once felt unloved. Her parents taught them forgiveness, love, peace, understanding and to always be there for each other. Her father emphasized that they should speak to their kids about the natural laws as he believed strongly in them. Mary Jane’s parents also taught them their culture and language, how to hunt, harvest and pick medicines.
Mary Jane’s late mom, Martha, taught her the techniques of birch bark biting. It is an Indigenous art form where artists bite on small pieces of folded birch bark to form intricate designs, which were traditionally used for entertaining in storytelling. In Martha’s stories she would create birds and flowers by folding and biting birch bark. Mary Jane is also a biter, and she does a lot of etching and sketching on birch bark, and she creates birch bark baskets. Before she creates, she likes to pray, sing and smudge. Mary Jane made her own birch bark song.
Mary Jane is also a painter. She focuses on depicting native women in the spirit world to honour their spirits. Mary Jane said, “When I started painting about the spirit world, it just came out. I started painting and I looked at it, and I saw these figures and my spirit just came alive.” Mary Jane paints faceless women in the spirit world because it is so powerful for her in healing. She leads workshops with women, and she said they are so proud of themselves afterwards because they don’t think they can create anything.
Mary Jane is not only a teacher, but she also loves to learn and is a lifetime learner. At 35 years old, she returned to school and completed her Grade 12 education. She then decided to leave her homeland to pursue a post-secondary education. Mary Jane grew up speaking Cree but never learned how to read and write it. She decided to study the Cree Language at Blue Quills University and she absolutely loved it. She worked on and off throughout her schooling and completed a Bachelor of Cree. While at Blue Quills, she also studied art for a year. Mary Jane also made a promise to herself that she would complete a Masters program by 56 years of age, and she accomplished it. She now has a Masters of Indigenous Languages, is determined to complete her doctorial studies and wants to be referred to as Dr. Mary Jane Houle one day soon.
Mary Jane said, “Long before our time, our ancestors created and made things for survival and that is why we are still here and never give up. I believe in Truth and Reconciliation because I know somewhere out there creator has a plan for us to build a bridge, come together, and it starts in the school, and it starts at home.”
Mary Jane’s advice to young people is to “keep moving forward, don’t forget who you are, learn about your family, your Kokums (grandfathers) and Moosums (grandmothers) and where they came from. Even if you say one Cree word, that’s a lot. Even if you learn one natural law in Cree, that’s a lot. Know your identity, your culture, pray, smudge, laugh and do art. Those are all good things to heal you.”
Mary Jane is thankful for her parents, her siblings and Dr. Kevin Lewis. She also thanks Councillor James Jackson for his ongoing support and for buying her paintings and showcasing them, and her Cousin Muskwa Houle. If anyone is interested in purchasing Mary Jane’s art, you can reach her at [email protected]