Art of The Shepherd: An Interview with Christine Sioui-Wawanoloath
At first glance, the casual observer might not realize just how profoundly The Shepherd, Volume 2: The Path of Souls is shaped by the belief structures of a First Nations people, the Wendat. In particular, the story of Sondaqua, a young warrior, affords us the opportunity to explore Wendat beliefs in the afterlife.
To begin, the Wendat, also known as Wyandot or Huron, a less than complimentary name given to them by the French in the 17th century, are an Iroquoian-speaking people whose homeland, the Wendake, was located in what is now Ontario, Canada, between Lake Ontario and Lake Huron.
Note: This map was sourced at: https://firstnations.innisfillibrary.ca/
The subtitle “the Path of Souls” itself is a direct reference to the Wendat concept of how the souls of the dead travelled from their world. When the Wendat looked up into the night sky, they saw the Milky Way and identified it as The Path of Souls. This spiritual trail led to The Village, a place in the sky inhabited by the Wendat sun god Iouskeha and his grandmother Aataentsic, associated with the moon. This was envisioned as a village of longhouses surrounded by cornfields in a land filled with game and bodies of water where the fish were plentiful. Unlike the Wendat villages that needed to be defended by palisade walls, The Village had no need of such things. It was characterized by peace and happy reunions with family and tribe.
Note: The above depiction of the Village of Souls was drawn by Spanish artist Joe Bocardo and colored by Italian colorist Lorenzo Palombo.
As a writer, I “encountered” the Wendat people through the work of the French missionary Brother Gabriel Sagard. Sagard wrote on “New France” and the Wendat (aka Hurons), Le grand voyage au pays des Hurons (Paris, 1632). He also wrote a dictionary of the Wendat language with French translations of the Wendat words. These two works are of course biased. They show us the Wendat culture and language through white/European/ Christian/religious lenses. That said, even filtered through these lenses, Sagard’s 17th century Wendat people cannot help but shine through.
Sadly, Sagard’s Wendats would endure much in the years to come following his visit. In the mid- to late-1630s the Wendat suffered through a series of epidemics, caused by interaction with Europeans, who carried with them diseases never before encountered by the clans (e.g., smallpox). Later, in 1649, the Wendake was attacked by the Iroquois, resulting in great loss of life as well as the dispersal of the few remaining survivors, a fact that is reflected today in the several geographical centers of the Wendat people (e.g., Wyandotte, Oklahoma and Wendake, Quebec). Despite a rough journey since the time presented in the story of Sondaqua in The Shepherd: The Path of Souls, the Wendat people are alive and well.
Note: The above depiction of the sufferings of the Wendat people was drawn by Spanish artist Joe Bocardo and colored by Italian colorist Lorenzo Palombo.
As I researched the Wendat people of today, I stumbled across the artwork of Christine Sioui-Wawanoloath. The first thing that caught my eye was her use of color. There was a sense of joy, an almost musical quality to her art. I loved it at first sight. As I began to read about her, I noted that she was a storyteller—so I felt an immediate kinship. In particular, I learned that she loved to share tradition folklore of her people. I have always loved folklore and mythology, regardless of the ethnic group being represented. This was a “You had me at ‘Hello’” moment.
I quickly decided to reach out to her and ask her about doing artwork for The Shepherd, with particular focus on the Sondaqua story. Of course, Christine was amazing and, I was impressed with her immediately. She created the B Variant Cover for The Shepherd: The Path of Souls TPB. Now that it is about to come out, I thought this was a perfect time for an interview…
YOUR ORIGINS: You are well-known as an artist and writer (including books, poetry, and plays). However, you also have background in photography and I have also read that you do sculpture! How did all this creative expression get started? Were you always creative or was there a particular event that opened the door for such an incredible outpouring of creative energy?
CHRISTINE: As a child I wanted to be an artist. I don’t know why. I had a certain talent for drawing and I imagined that it could be a way of earning a living. My brother was also a natural artist. He was older and I admired him tremendously. He went to art school, but I didn’t. I was not good at regular school and I thought that that I could be an artist without formal training. So I entered adulthood and the working world with that idea. I am now 69 years old. I worked as a florist, a photographer, a graphic technician, a printer, a reporter, a writer, an animator, a coordinator of social projects for various native organisms. All through the fifty odd years since I first started to work, I kept that dream alive by making art works and illustrations on the side. My reputation as an artist grew from mouth to ear over the years until now.
ARTIST AS REPRESENTATIVE: You are a First Nations artist, of both Wendat and Abenaki descent. Clearly, your ethnicity is reflected in your work. As an artist you are in a very interesting position, you simultaneously present your Wendat and Abenaki traditions to the world AND at the same time remind and (perhaps) re-present your traditions to your own people(s). Do you think of it this way? Can you comment on how you understand your role as a First Nations artist?
CHRISTINE: It is clear to me that as a First Nation artist it is my duty to represent Abenaki and Wendat cultures as best as I can for First Nations viewers as well as the general public. When accurate depictions of artifacts, persons, sceneries or motifs are required I make a lot of research both in written and illustrated documents. Other than that, I take great pleasure in illustrating texts, books, posters, web sites, museum exhibitions or any other projects with my contemporary style and by including specific cultural elements if need be. I always keep in mind to represent our First Nations worlds with respect and pride.
COLORS: I have to comment on this. Your use of color is amazing. I see it playing a major role in all your graphic art. It is clear that this is no accent. How do think about colors when you sit down to create your art? What role do they play in the final product?
CHRISTINE: When I first started to make illustrations, it was with black ink on white paper. I think it was due to the fact that the publications were printed in black and white. It was too costly otherwise. As the years went by, I was asked to make some illustrations in color. I went ahead and enjoyed it greatly. I realized that color was a way of making an image more alive. Besides, I always choose to show a positive and joyful side of the world. Colors are crucial tools in doing so.
SONDAQUA’S STORY AND YOUR ARTWORK: Based on my survey of your artwork, I see it as very upbeat and positive. On the other hand, the story of Sondaqua reflects arguably the darkest chapter in the history of the Wendat people—the loss of the original homeland, the Wendake, and the tremendous loss of life that came with that. Certainly, I would like to think that Sondaqua’s story ends on a hopeful note, I am curious to know what you thought of Sondaqua’s story.
CHRISTINE: I think of it as a human story. Humans are complex creatures. They can develop high standards of philosophy and ethical rules. On the other hand, they can conduct themselves as true barbarians when it comes to possess larger piece of territory or to avenge themselves of some wrong. It is for such reasons that Sondaqua’s story happens. First, his people’s population is severely reduced due to epidemics. Their spiritual and material worlds are jeopardized by the arrival of missionaries and traders. Then they are pursued and killed because of their alliance with the French. They are driven away from their land. No wonder they want to defend themselves against the invaders.
In the story, Sondaqua’s family is attacked by Seneca warriors. Sondaqua decides to avenge the death of his father, mother and brother and to take back his sister who has been taken away by the Seneca people. He is killed soon after and joins an afterlife state where soldiers and warriors suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder are sent to. I believe that Sondaqua had a very bad deal living in that period of time. This is why I wished for him that he could be reunited with his family and cultural spiritual identity. This would enable him to make spiritual progress.
THE SHEPHERD COVER: Could you walk our readers through the symbolism in the cover you created for The Shepherd: The Path of Souls?
CHRISTINE: First of all, Sondaqua belongs to the bear clan. So I had to show that with a strong symbol. That is why a bear paw is represented on his armor. There is a bear claw hanging from a wampum necklace around his neck. Same with the mother’s necklace. Wampum beads were of very important value and were prized as attractive objects such as necklaces and earrings.
White is not a color as such. White light contains all wavelengths of visible light. Black, on the other hand, is the absence of visible light. White symbolizes purity. In this particular scene Sondaqua’s mother and sister wear white dresses because they have become spirits. They invite Sondaqua to join them in the Wendat spiritual longhouse that we see in the background among the spiritual forest. There they will finally rest in peace freed from mortal and material consideration. But first Sondaqua will have to cross a river. Although crossing a river is not a specific Wendat symbolism, I drew a water current to signify Sondaqua being entwined with the desire of resolving unfinished businesses (on one side of the shore) and the other shore representing spiritual freedom.
For more examples of Christine’s artwork see: http://www.nativelynx.qc.ca/en/visual-arts/first-nations-artists/christine-sioui-wawanoloath/ and, of course, her website: https://iosazaso.wixsite.com/sioui-wawanoloath