In 1998 I co-organized a group exhibition of student work and series of talks at Concordia University with Karen Huska and Caroline Alexander (Stevens). The events were called, collectively, AHKSSISSTTSTATOAA, which means “to honour” in Blackfoot language, and coincided with a visit and talk by Blackfood architect Douglas Cardinal. Reporter Debbie Hum summed up my contribution to the exhibition in these words,
“Cynthia Hammond, a PhD student in Humanities, presented a paper on her work-in-progress, The Gathering of Earth: 101 Mountains. In August 1997, the Quebec government’s Commission de toponomie announced plans to name 101 islands created by flooding in the Caniapiscau Reservoir after passages and titles from the works of renowned Quebec authors. Inspired by the efforts of the Cree to retain traditional names for their territory in northern Quebec, Hammond is collecting 101 objects from other people, along with descriptions of cherished and significant places.
‘The onus is now on the Cree to produce evidence of original names of the mountains, names that haven’t been written into any official Quebec map,” Hammond said. “This flagrant appropriation of land and re-naming of territory that has long had traditional names is understood by the Cree as a colonizing manoeuvre.'”
People were generous, and brought me earth, at my request, from all kinds of places that mattered to them. The gifts of earth, in jars, were hung on the wall in an unceremonious fashion.
Some offerings were controversial. The artist Katja Kessin brought earth from the grave of her child, which she had smuggled into the country in two cigar boxes, so that she should always have her child’s resting place near her.
A few visitors to the exhibition complained, but Katja said there was no place in the world more important to her, and in this sense her offering felt particularly powerful as far as my initial premise was concerned: to help people in the “south” to understand, viscerally, the loss of land and names of places that the Cree were at that time fighting in the north.
Most responses to La Commission de toponomie‘s decision to rename these flooded mountain tops tended to focus on the fact that this bestowing of names was in celebration of the 20th anniversary of Bill 101, which attempts to regulate the use of French language in the public spaces of Quebec. Rather than address the loss of ancestral lands, a diverse habitat and delicate ecology, and traditional Cree names for meaningful places, critics of the renaming objected to the exclusion of English authors. I explored these issues in more depth in an article in the Journal of Religion and Culture 10 (Summer 1999): 93-114.