By Malcolm McColl
When I called Angelique Merasty Levac to interview her after the award ceremony in Vancouver, she was feeling a bit under the weather, perhaps from a lot of excitement. “I made myself some Indian medicine,” she said. “It’s a tea made from muskrat roots, peppermint leaves, and a green leaf from the muskeg. You drink this stuff and you sleep all night. I learned that from my Grandmother.”
Angelique won the Individual Achievement Award for her 15-year operation of Angelique’s Native Arts in Prince George, B.C. She opened the store after migrating from northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan where she learned the art of birch bark biting in the tradition of Northern woodland Cree women. She is one of the very few who practice birch bark biting anymore.
In 1994, Angelique began selling her own art and the work of other Native artists at her downtown store. Most recently, Angelique has sold a book entitled Kisemanitow Peyohtena Iskwahtem: God Opens Doors to a well-established publisher. Her story is about growing up in the Manitoba wilderness speaking only Cree until the age of 15. The publisher has committed to printing it for Canada and the USA in Spring 2009.
At the B.C. Achievement Foundation award ceremony held at the Pan-Pacific Hotel on January 27th this year, Angelique began her speech in Cree, explaining to the audience that birch bark biting changed her life and she credits her faith in God for the entire experience. “I flew up there and they paid all my expenses. Me and [my sister] Marie went. She was my helper, and we flew in there, and they booked us at the Pan-Pacific Hotel. It was the most beautiful place I ever stayed. I felt like a princess,” she laughs.
Angelique admitted that the event was “really stressful for a while until I did my speech. They said I had two minutes to deliver my speech. I really wanted to reach these people. It’s not all my doing.” In the end she credits the Creator. “I had a standing ovation. They clapped for one minute . . . You could hear a pin-drop while I told my story.”
Angelique was born at Midnight Lake, Manitoba in the far Northern reaches of central Canada. She says, “It is bush and nobody lives there.” Yet, Angelique’s story resonates because she holds close to her memories of this place where she lived with her grandparents during the 1950s and 1960s. They held to the old way of connecting with the land, which meant her grandpa always found it necessary to break camp and find a different place every few weeks, for he was a trapper, hunter, and fisherman.
“There was nothing to play with when I was a child,” she said, a fact she once pointed out to her grandma. She said she wanted a doll, so her grandma made one. “We had a flour sack and she tied up the bag into a rag doll, eyes made from the soot of the fire. That was my doll.”
At 9 years of age, Angie began to spend more time with her mother and less time with her grandparents. She remembers watching others do birch bark biting when she went out with ladies on berry picking sojourns. On the cranberry picking trips, she saw the women conduct little competitions. They would peel birch bark and make pieces of art with their teeth, but Angie was too young to think much about it. It was her first impression of the way the ladies had social exchanges and created exquisite artistic impressions by biting birch bark. She remembers some of the art simply got tossed away. It was not until much later that she herself would learn and help to preserve a fast disappearing cultural practice. It was her destiny to become a Cree cultural icon and reigning expert of a disappearing art form important to First Nation culture.
Over the past three decades, Angie garnered a lot of attention for her artistic skill at birch bark biting. Her beautiful straight teeth still take on the task of this ancient artistic craft (she flosses regularly).
You can reach Angelique by email (email@example.com).