Land and Childhood – the narratives that come from it


by Becca Taylor

The Northern Alberta landscape has always been a comforting place for me. Growing up, I spent my summers with my family out on the land, exploring and enjoying the openness and the familiarity nature had to offer me. My father, Swampy Cree, grew up hunting, and passed down the knowledge, and skills, he learnt from nimoshom. When my siblings and I walked through the bush, he would teach us how to track animals: to look and see if they were running or walking, where they slept, if they had been through the area recently, to look for signs of water so we could find the paths the animals were most likely to travel. My father would also share stories of his childhood learning to hunt, and times spent with his brothers and nephews who would bring home the animal to nohkom to be prepared to feed their family. When I was first introduced to Brittney Bear Hat’s practice, I was brought back to this familiar land: to stories and memories of a childhood amongst the trees in Alberta.

At the time I was living in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and was unaware—until that moment—how much I missed and longed for the diverse terrains of Alberta.

The archival family images of rural Alberta, which are similar and hold resemblance to my own, belong to Brittney Bear Hat, a Blackfoot/Cree artist from Calgary, Alberta. Her practice investigates the lineage and personal narratives of her childhood, often referencing time spent on the land and with her family. Bear Hat uses her family’s archival images from her childhood, and simple hand written narratives to allude to memories that had taken place at some point during that time exploring her identity, and what makes her an Indigenous person. A large body of her work references time she had spent with her father. Raised away from her indigenous community, understanding her Indigeneity as a child came from the trips to the land with her father: learning to hunt, fish and “be” in the bush.

My dad told me once there’s no crying in the bush.1

A common belief most Indigenous peoples share is that our culture and way of life are connected with the land: “we work towards a pedagogy of the land where teachings are never merely didactic, but most often expressed in relation.”2 It is our experiences that create the narratives, which we base our lessons upon. Margo Greenwoods and Sarah de Leeuw state in their text, Teachings from the Land: Indigenous People, Our Health, Our Land and Our Children that we as Indigenous people, “have no ownership over the land. We are simply a part… a very small part… And if (we) listened to, these stories tell the truth of connectivity to the land and of interconnectedness with the earth.”3 Brittney Bear Hat uses her holistic and dynamic experience of being on the land to examine her personal narratives, and histories; using these moments of experience to build upon her relationships with the land, with relatives and with herself, the artist expands the ever-growing exploration of her understandings of Indigeneity. Her use of images of her family trips into the bush—as in her work Dad Lessons, where her father is seen skinning a deer amongst the shrubs—further shares and broadens her experience to the viewer, providing a visual understanding of her narratives.

The first time I shot a gun, my dad made us drink so many cans of coke. Just so we could have something to shoot at. 4

In each of her works, Bear Hat thinks through a particular narrative, and uses text that references a very specific memory related to the photo she is using. The artist makes the text as minimal as possible; just enough to convey information and build the viewer’s sense of connection to a story without giving the whole story away. The moments she shares with us are moments that have informed her notions and practice surrounding Indigenous identity, where the story of life experience becomes the teacher.5 These memories are not contained to those moments, but are heightened, broadened and shared between land and generations, allowing the next generation to learn from the stories of those before.

This is my home, he is going to pass this on to us… I will wait.6

Telling and listening to stories have a potential for learning. A fluidity of knowledge, through generations, passing down through the narratives we share with our kin. Bear Hat’s father is the story keeper, sharing the stories that need to be shared: passing on histories, traditions, and “knowledge (that) has been refined over the years and down the generations.” 7 The stories shared with her, are her father’s stories and of those before him, but each of her texts are of her own making—her memories of the learnings shared with her. In the installation Home (2015), the viewer is presented with images of landscapes and Bear Hat’s moments with her father. While some of these images have been presented in previous exhibitions, in this iteration This is my home, he is going to pass this on to us… is written in large letters across three 24 by 36 inch photographs. Below this, a smaller text reads, I will wait, which recognizes that she must inherit it, gaining the knowledge of the place first before she can pass it on. These stories the artist shares are not used without permission of her family: an important part of Bear Hat’s process is including her family, by discussing the narratives she uses. Calling her father for his input and often collaborating with her older sister, artist Richelle Bear Hat, to share a dialogue that only sisters would truly understand. Brittney Bear Hat’s narratives and images are familiar to my own understanding of being on the land. We never knew each other as children—our fathers are from different tribal affiliations and regions—yet when I talk with her, and look at her work I feel as if we had come from a shared childhood experience. Bear Hat uses these moments and narratives to help her connect to her own personal history, and understanding of her identity; which, in turn, has come to help me remember the stories, when I’m away, shared to me by my father in the lands of Alberta.


Brittney Bear Hat is a graduate from the Alberta College of Art and Design in 2011, where she majored in painting with an interest in collage and drawing. Based in Calgary, her work focuses on identity and belonging. Half Blackfoot and half Cree, Bear Hat makes work about memory and how her personal history is what makes her Native. Her work involves the process of taking her own family photos or personal items and combining them with text, retelling stories and memories. With each piece, Bear Hat is trying to figure out what is hers and what she can call home. Bear Hat has exhibited her work at such venues as Latitude 53, Edmonton, Art Gallery of Alberta and Alternator Centre for Contemporary Art, Kelowna.


1 A narrative from Brittney Bear Hat’s work, Dad Lessons (2014).

2 Celia Haig-Brown and Kaaren Dannenmann, “The Land is the First Teacher: The Indigenous Knowledge Instructors’ Program” in Cultural Education-Cultural Sustainability: Minority, Diaspora, Indigenous, and Ethno-Religious Groups in Multicultural Societies (2008), 245–266.

3 Maro Greenwood and Sarah de Leeuw, “Teaching from the Land: Indigenous People, Our Health, Our Land and Our Children,” Canadian Journal of Native Education 30, no. 1 (2007): 48–53.

4 A narrative from Brittney Bear Hat’s work, Remember (2014).

5 Jo-Ann Archibald, Indigenous Storywork: Educating the Heart, Mind, Body and Spirit (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008), ix–xi.

6 A narrative from Brittney Bear Hat’s work, Home (2015).

7 Celia Haig-Brown and Kaaren Dannenmann, “The Land is the First Teacher: The Indigenous Knowledge Instructors’ Program” in Cultural Education-Cultural Sustainability: Minority, Diaspora, Indigenous, and Ethno-Religious Groups in Multicultural Societies (2008), 245–266.