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God Opened Doors
God’s call has garnered international recognition for a Canadian Cree artist who saved the ancient art of birch bark biting from extinction.

A Cree story about a young girl, her encounter with her Saviour, and the unfolding of God’s plan for her life.

"I was born at Midnight Lake, Manitoba," explained Angelique Merasty Levac, discussing a remote place found in the far northern reaches of Central Canada. "It is bush and nobody lives there. Once in a while a few of my siblings, or family, traps there."

Angelique Merasty Levac
Photo courtesy Malcolm McColl.

Angie holds closely her memories of a distant place spent with her grandparents in the decades of the 1950s and 1960s. It was a Cree people's playground and belonged to no one else.

"I lived beside a nice lake, enjoying the company of loons going `co-co-op' in the morning hours. My playground was beside the lake, in a pristine wilderness that I remember so clearly."

It is like she could transport herself back in time, "except I guess it is pretty hard to go back into childhood."

"My grandparents tried to teach me how to trap when I was six years old." It was a tiny squirrel trap set under a bundle of roots at the base of a tree near the lakeside, not far from the family dwelling, which was a large canvas tent. Her grandmother, she recalls, provided clear instructions about the patience of trapping, the facts about leaving the site alone to permit the process to take its course.

Little Angie waited until her grandparents went to sleep and then approached her fledgling trapline to see if she was enriched. She stuck her six-year-old hand into the squirrel-sized cubby hole and trapped herself, snap. Ouch. She hollered with a likeness to the squirrel that wasn't there, and recalls the next few painful minutes.

It was the end of Angelique Merasty Levac's life as a trapper. She never set another trap in her life. A few families of bushy tailed squirrels probably have reason to chatter in gratitude.

"My grandpa never lived in one place," and broke camp, packing the large tent and barrel stove and setting off in canoe from place to place looking to camp at the right spot. It was lean existence, sometimes even a hungry existence according to Angie.

"I used to help my grandmother gather the branches of the trees she used to make the floor inside the tent," the mobile home. "There was nothing to play with," when she was this child in the remotest wilderness of the world. "Do you know what my toy was?" Angie told her grandmother she wanted a doll. "We had a flour sack and she tied up the bag into a rag doll, eyes made from the soot of the fire, which was my doll. I had no children around me to play with."

When she was nine, she began to spend more time with her mother and less with the grandparents, because she was more help to her mother raising 12 children on the Lynn Lake railroad line in northern Manitoba.

Angie was raised in the Cree culture and berry picking was customary for families in the summer. She went with the ladies on the berry picking sojourns, blueberries found in burned out areas, cranberries found in forested places. It was the cranberry picking trips where she saw the women take a rest and conduct little competitions while resting. 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 a first impression of the way the ladies made social exchanges while causing artistic impressions on birth bark.

The coincidence

Since then Angie has become a Cree cultural icon and reigning queen of a disappearing form of First Nations' culture in Canada. Over the past three decades she has garnered a lot of attention for birch bark biting.

In an oddly important coincidence, her teacher of the ancient art was also named Angelique Merasty. It was such an odd coincidence that they, teacher and student, shared the same name, because it is likely that without the similarity of names she might never have learned the art of birch bark biting.

The elder Angelique Merasty, teacher of the art form, has now passed away, but she almost miraculously passed the legacy torch to Angelique Merasty Levac under the most difficult conditions imaginable. Only someone with an extraordinary level of determination could carry this invaluable torch.

Angie meets her Saviour

Before she met her mentor, when she was 19, Angie met a couple of Native women at a restaurant. In their conversation, Angie expressed how she was lonely. "One of them I found to be really nice. I knew there was something different about her and soon, she became a good friend of mine."

The girl was a Christian but she never preached to Angie. In fact, Angie didn't even know she was a Christian but could tell that she was different.

"One day she invited me to a coffee house. I thought, 'this is going to be real boring.' I never drank coffee, so the thought of going to a place to drink the stuff was a real turnoff."

Angie went and was quite surprised. "I never met so many friendly people who really cared about me."

Photo courtesy National Forest Diversification Centre

Later her friend invited her to a meeting at a local church. "At the end of the program, they gave an invitation for people to accept Jesus into their lives. I started getting up and moving toward the front. My legs were really shaking."

Her friend came over and hugged her saying, "Do you want to accept the Lord?"

"What's that?" Angie answered. "I'd never heard anyone say that before. I knew how to pray in my own way."

That night Angie prayed with her friend, repeating what she prayed. "I know something happened that night. I didn't really understand it all, but everyone was so happy for me."

Angie started going to a Bible study. "There was a definite change in my life. The more I studied the Bible, the more I changed."

Angie meets her mentor

Now remember where Angie grew up.  She did not speak English until she was about 12 to 15 years of age, and only spoke Cree. Our Angie did not read English until she taught herself to read by reading the Bible.  By the time she was 24, she was able to read and stood amazed to see “her name” described in a magazine at a store. 

In the magazine article, “Angelique Merasty” described how she, "would like to pass this Native art form on to another."

Angie decided then and there the passing ought to be to herself. She had those recollections of the ladies in the berry patches taking a break to bite into the birch bark and competing to make a better, more interesting piece of art, although she'd never given it much thought as a young girl.

Angie was living in Uranium City, Saskatchewan, raising a family at the time. It was an extremely remote place from which to be launching a quest, but Angie said, "Something happened in 1980 and this thing started, it was like a mission, and I wanted to do it."

Her husband who was anything but encouraging, said, "You are not going to learn birch bark biting . . . ."

Angie perseveres

The amazing transformation of becoming a birch bark biter didn't happen overnight. Angie traveled from Uranium City to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, then by bus to Flin Flon, Manitoba, and then by taxi to Beaver Lake, Saskatchewan" which was just across the border from Manitoba.

She was informed that the mentor with the same name lived with her husband on a tiny island offshore. But it was “‘freeze-up,’ and I couldn't get across the lake!  Anyway, we walked along and came to a large metal sign on the shore, and we yelled across to the island" banging on the tin sign to attract the attention of those in the cabin on the island. "I yelled my name to her in Cree, and said I was there to learn birch bark biting."

The mentor, Angelique Merasty, yelled back, "You're lying!"

Angie laughs about it today, and it’s funny as can be, but she wasn't about to be stopped by a doubting mentor.

Unfortunately, there was no way to cross the partially frozen lake. So Angie retreated to Uranium City. Her husband said, "I told you you wouldn't learn birch bark biting."

Photo courtesy Photo courtesy National Forest Diversification Centre

"That magazine article haunted me though," and by January of the same winter, after a lot of thought, she returned to Beaver Lake.

This time the folks on the shore told her, "They have a mean dog." She replied, "I'm not going to be stopped by no dog!" and gladly accepted a warm bundle of clothes and boots and trekked by herself across the ice-covered lake, breaking her own trail through packed snow.

It was a 30-minute walk to the island and the Merastys had mercifully restrained their dog. "When I got there my teacher opened the door. She had only two teeth left."  Angie recalls that she had noted it aloud, in Cree, and this too remains a source of amusement. How was a nearly toothless woman going to teach her anything about biting into birch bark? But she did.

She made several such treks over the next week or thereabouts. She went each day, and Angelique "showed me how to peel it. It must be free of knots, with no blemishes."

"Every year I went back to visit her and we became good friends," Angie recalls.

Angie went back to Uranium City and continued to raise her family, but with a new purpose, "My front room was filled with birch bark and birch bark trees."  She picked away at those sickly trees and filled plastic bags with the birch bark.

"Every morning I would gather my kids off to school and then turn on the TV to watch a Christian program, which helped me grow in my Christian walk."

God opens doors

She took her newest designs to the Uranium City Native Friendship Centre and asked the manager, "Can we put them here to show people?"

A few days later she went back and the manager asked her how much she charged for the birch bark bitings, "because people want to buy them," much to her surprise. She suggested, "Five dollars?" in an inquisitive way. They began to sell. Bigger ones went for $10.

Angie credits God for giving her this gift. "The Lord put that in my heart. Since I did it, it opened doors that I never dreamed of," including a visit to see Bill Cosby in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a guest appearance on the TV classic You Bet Your Life.  Because she was interviewed by Keith Morrison on CTV, she also appeared on BCTV, APTN, the Knowledge Network, and in numerous print articles.

"The Lord has been good to me. I have been able to support myself and to give toward the Lord's work."

Malcolm McColl has a 30 year career in journalism and communications in Canada. He has lived and worked from coast to coast in the nation, and continues to write on his specialties of Indian Canada and crime in Canada. Current print articles are found online at two websites under his direction, www.firstnationscanada.com and www.crimewatchcanada.com.

Originally published in Indian Life, March/April, 2008.

 

 
 
 
 

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