Challenging the Historical Narrative /// 2017

This sign was commissioned by Conrad Grebel Univeristy College in the fall of 2017 in an effort to address problematic colonial narratives held by the Mennonite communities in the Region of Waterloo. 

 Image by Dave Regalsky

Image by Dave Regalsky

"In 2005 the College created a garden beneath a black walnut tree that marked the 200th anniversary of a land purchase along the Grand River by Mennonite settlers from Pennsylvania. As we continue to educate ourselves about injustice towards Indigenous peoples and recognize their history on this land where Conrad Grebel now sits, we acknowledge the need to change the historical narratives of Mennonite settlement in the region." - Conrad Grebel University College Press Release

The aesthetic of this sign is inspired by “fraktur”, a Germanic-American folk art found in the bibles, family trees, birth, baptism, and marriage certificates carried by early Mennonite settlers from Pennsylvania to the land we call Ontario. While some of the symbols are said to be imbued with particular meaning, much of fraktur is just adornment for important text and its symbolic meaning is as varied as the imaginations and tastes of it makers. I have chosen the symbols for this sign with some intention. The two crossed birds, often seen on barn “hex signs” in Pensylvania, is considered to be a sign of friendship. The three flowers are representative of the “three enduring principles of peace, friendship, and respect” noted in the text.

The naturalized, but non-native, plantain plant is a symbolic "role-model" for settlers offered by Indigenous author and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Kimmerer explains: “Our people have a name for this round-leafed plant: White Man’s Footstep....It arrived with the first settlers and followed them everywhere the went....At first Native people were distrustful of a plant that came with so much trouble trailing behind but.... they began to learn about its [medicinal] gifts.... [and it] became an honoured member of the plant community.... It’s strategy is to be useful, to fit in small places, to coexist with others around the dooryard, to heal wounds... It’s a foreigner an immigrant, but after five hundred years of living as a good neighbour, people forget that kind of thing.”


The text on the sign reads:

Conrad Grebel University College sits on the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishnaabeg, and Haudenosaunee peoples. Mennonites from Pennsylvania began migrating to this area in 1800. In 1805, they purchased land that was part of the Haldimand Tract given in treaty to the Six Nations, which included 6 miles on either side of the Grand River. As buyers and settlers, Mennonites were, and are, implicated in a larger process of Indigenous dispossession. This garden is under construction as Conrad Grebel, and Mennonites more generally, work on building a new covenant relationship with our Indigenous hosts, neighbours, and friends, and seek to embody the enduring principles of peace, friendship, and respect.