In this exhibition, Cayuga beadwork artist Sam Thomas examines the dark legacy of the Canadian Indian residential school system. Working alongside 120 survivors and their families, Thomas sheds light on what happened behind the doors of these church-run, government-funded institutions. When Thomas envisioned the exhibition only twenty-eight of Canada’s original 140 residential schools remained. Less than one year later, after funding had been secured and the work had begun, just eleven schools were left standing.
This project saw Thomas travel across the country to host forty-two sessions where survivors came together to transform the six institutional doors featured in this exhibition into monumental works of art. The beadwork created together in these sessions was a conduit for healing, a common focus within a safe space to share experiences, concerns, inner-feelings, tears and laughter, all while being listened to. Church representatives that attended each of these sessions offered their heart-felt responses to the eye-opening experiences they heard, without prejudice. Thomas calls these doors “striking reminders not only of the Indian residential school system legacy, but also of the beauty, strength, and resilience of the survivors themselves”.
The Niagara Falls History Museum is proud to host Opening the Doors to Dialogue. It is our hope that visitors will seize the opportunity to learn more about the 165 years (1831-1996) when the residential school system operated across Canada.
“The exhibit does more than highlight the residential school system. Through the art of beadwork the exhibit speaks of the indigenous cultures and histories the imposed school system sought to erase.”
Dr. Trudy Nicks
Senior Curator (retired)
World Cultures Department
Royal Ontario Museum.