Jaime Koebel: Artist, Educator and Founder of Indigenous Walks
"I like looking at trees. I think they're beautiful, important and strong. Their patterns are so diverse and their spirit is amazing." Cree/Métis Artist and Educator, Jaime Koebel, shares her appreciation for trees and describes the traditional and current uses of trees for everyday life and art.
Photos: Jana Dybinski and Christine Earnshaw
Q.1. From your perspective, what are the contributions made by trees that make them so important?
They provide food, shelter and medicines. Trees are important to helping human beings live.
Q.2. Where did your interest in trees come from?
I like looking at trees. I think they're beautiful, important and strong. Their patterns are so diverse and their spirit is amazing.
Q.3. You are Nehiyaw/Otipemisiwak (Cree/Métis) from Lac La Biche, Alberta. How were trees used traditionally by the Nehiyaw and Otipemisiwak?
We used trees mostly for shelter, medicines, food, tools and warmth. Back when Métis communities travelled a lot by horse, we had Giving Trees that were important for sharing and helping each other out when on the trails. A Giving Tree was a big hollowed oak tree. Inside, there would be materials or goods that travellers could use along the way. They also became our postal system and a way to deliver important messages. Even engagement rings!
Q.4. From your perspective, are traditional practices and uses of wood still the same today?
I think that the traditional practices have changed a lot. There are more processed woods that are used, although we use wood for many of the same things as before but in different ways. We still use it for shelter, for instance, it's just transformed from tipi poles to 2x4's.
Q.5. As an artist, you create works using different materials, one of which is birch bark. Can you describe what this specific type of art form is and how it is made?
Birch Bark Biting is a way to create artwork based on the inspiration from your environment, not just with the replicated imagery but with the materials itself. There are only certain times in the year that harvesting birch bark should be done. It's collected in a respectful way. The layers are peeled back to expose very thin sheets of paper. The paper is then cut to a desired size, folded and then chewed in a design that the artist aims for. It's always a bit of a surprise to see what image will come from the completed piece because you can’t actually see what you're working on - the art piece is inside your mouth and being imprinted by your teeth, plus it's folded into many sections so you don't always know what the end result will be. When people make deliberate images of insects, it's really quite a skill and a great testament to the time they contribute to their practice. Not very many people do this anymore. It's a beautiful art form that also keeps a person healthy because of the vitamins in the bark and the spiritual teachings behind the practice.
Q.6. How does nature, particularly plants and trees, feature in your artwork?
Plants and tree life are an important part of what I draw. I was first inspired by the traditional arts created by Nehiyaw/Apeetagosan (Cree/Métis), which are mostly floral images. Then I realized that they were inspired by the plants around them - their environment. I started to go straight to the plants themselves and enjoy their details and tiny spirits. It's so much more satisfying to draw those kinds of portraits.
Q.7. What message(s) do you convey through your artwork on humans' relationship to nature?
The main message is that plants are beautiful, alive and have a spirit. Above all, we are the same as the plants. We come from the same place as all living things. We are all related. I also sometimes think about the medicinal qualities of plants and trees, and, when I'm making an art piece for someone, I look at ways to transfer those qualities into human qualities so they can relate to the image and draw strength and get reminders from it.
Q.8. You started a walking tour called ‘Indigenous Walks’ that guide people through downtown Ottawa with an Indigenous perspective on the social, political and cultural spaces. Why is it important to you to present an Indigenous perspective?
Reconciliation has become a familiar word to many Canadians and doing this walk not only helps me to provide opportunities to build bridges of understanding through knowledge but the walks also build confidence in how that knowledge can be used. Mostly, doing the walks is important for me because it fits with the philosophy of balancing the physical, mental, spiritual and emotional aspects of our being. The walk touches on all those parts, and, for me, my only purpose in life is to keep balanced. Everything else around me just falls into place after that. I also like the flexibility of hours and self-employment as a parent to a shared parenting relationship; I'm sometimes on my own, so I try to make sure as much as possible to be home for my kids whenever they're with me.
Q.9. From your perspective, would you say that there is a growing movement of people interested in Indigenous traditional knowledge? If yes, why? If not, why not?
I do see a growing movement of people who are interested in Indigenous traditional knowledge (ITK) but also of Indigenous people in general. As a nation, we are learning together of past injustices, and people are starting to see that we have to clean up our own backyard, and they want to know more about the mess but also about how to clean it up. With ITK, it is a bit of a slippery slope, because we deal with appropriation of that knowledge or exploitation of it. So sometimes we can be a bit tight with sharing, and it takes building trust and education about staying respectful when gifted that knowledge.
Q.10. Finally, do you have a favourite tree in Ottawa? If so, what kind of tree is it and where is it located?
Yes! There's a huge black walnut tree that is just off of Elgin street near Somerset. I love that tree. Its presence is so grand, and it's an Indigenous tree although its medicinal and food qualities go largely undetected. The walnut direct from this tree tastes different than what we buy in the stores - it's sweeter and actually more fragrant. A nut is smaller in size, but the health benefits for your brain are immense.