By Janet Jarrell/Quinte Arts Council
David R. Maracle, also known in Mohawk as Tehanenia’kwe:tarons (Cutter of Stone), is a renowned stone carver whose work can be found across Canada and around the world, in prominent collections including those of Dan Ackryod, Loretta Lynn, the estate of the late Nelson Mandela and the Emperor of Japan.
Maracle is also an accomplished musician with over 17 musical compilations and two gold albums. He has performed all over the world, including the opening ceremonies for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Australia. His wife, KimberLee, is the Chief Guidance Officer for Native Expressions, and manages Maracle’s multi-faceted career behind the scenes.
Pre-pandemic, Maracle enjoyed a busy music scene, travelling to Austria, Pakistan and Holland, performing live concerts and traditional teaching workshops using flutes, drums and many other musical instruments.
COVID-19 imposed a particularly difficult adjustment on performing artists prevented from live gigs. This has had significant financial implications and forced Maracle to consider alternative ways to earn a living. In the early days of lockdown, while taking time to recharge and regroup, the Maracles made a plan for a uniquely-designed pod gallery, created by the Algonquin Pod Company and funded by the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada.
The Eagle Pod gallery is situated on the Maracle’s property in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, nestled along the shores of the beautiful Bay of Quinte. Maracle envisioned his stone carvings surrounded by nature and for the gallery to be full of natural and organic elements: wood, stone, bone.
I visited the Eagle Pod gallery to speak with Maracle. Cozy and inviting, this space was filled with the cleansing scent of burning sage set in an abalone shell as we sat, socially distanced, and enjoyed a cup of cedar tea. His carvings are surrounded by many teaching tools – a turtle shell, wooden snow snakes, and ceremonial headdresses, to name a few.
There is a framed photo of the Maracles with Buffy Sainte-Marie and the work of another renowned Mohawk artist, Maureen Greyeyes-Brant. Her beautiful beadwork features prominent Indigenous faces of historic figures, such as Geronimo and Sitting Bull who were warriors of their time. She beaded the Native Expressions logo proudly displayed along with the Geronimo beadwork and a painting of David’s father Karoniaktatsie.
“Why the eagle?” I ask him.
“The eagle is sacred to all Indigenous cultures, and represents the closest bird to the Creator; the messenger bird who carries the prayers of the people. The one who also is on top of the tree of peace for the Haudenosaunee peoples, the Six Nations of the Iroquois people’s that protects and watches for danger,” he says.
Maracle draws inspiration for his carvings from his close relationship with the natural environment, his Indigenous heritage and knowledge from his ancestors and elders. He uses symbolism in the stone carvings, bringing to life the practices, ancestral teachings and expressions of culture in the Haudenosaunee community.
These symbols are diverse, multifaceted and meaningful. At first glance, you will see the main carving, maybe an eagle. Get in closer and the fine details reveal the sky (karonhyà:ke), the water (Ohné:kanos) which is the lifeblood of mother earth, fire (Ó:tsire), the moon (enhnì:ta) and trees (kérhite).
Maracle uses his art as a cultural teaching tool:“ My carvings represent the past, present and future of Turtle Island. Each tells a story full of symbolism used to preserve our culture and traditions,” he says. “When you carve in stone it is like the ancestors are talking to the carver through the stone. The stone tells the carver what story needs to be told. A carver may look at a stone and think ‘I want to carve a bear, ’but that stone tells us what story it holds within and as the carver works on the stone, the story is unveiled.”
His recent sculpture titled Grandmother Moon depicts a grandmother’s kind face coming out of the moonlight, shining through the forest, with the wise old owl behind her. It was completed on the eve of the full moon in late January. Maracle says that to him, and to some of the elders who taught him, the owl is used to symbolize wisdom: it is quietly observing everything and brings a message of warning with its foreboding call in the night. The carving also depicts the swirl patterns of sky woman as she walks and sings, planting seeds on the back of the great turtle. There is balance in nature – one side of the carving is dark symbolizing night and the other side is light, symbolizing day.
“It is important that all people of all colour survive together. We eat, live and breathe together, we are connected to nature. There is symbolism in everything. Our cultural teachings come alive within the stone . The stone tells the story as the carving is in process,” says Maracle.
“These carvings will be around forever to tell our stories,” he says. By promoting the transfer and conservation of cultural knowledge in stone, Maracle is securing the capacity for the next generations to retain and, in turn, cultivate intrinsic cultural connections.
This article was originally printed in the Spring 2021 issue of Umbrella magazine, out now.