Mary Caesar

Artist Spotlight: A Kaska Dena artist on art’s role in her healing journey. 

ᓄᓇᖃᖅᑳᖅᓯᒪᔪᑦ ᐱᒋᔭᖏᑦ ᓴᖅᑭᑎᑦᑎᓂᖅ ᑭᒡᒐᖅᑐᐃᔩᑦ
A painting with expressive brushstrokes shows an Arctic landscape with sunlight reflecting off a lake in hues of purple, pink, blue, and yellow.

This article contains content that may distress some readers, especially those who have experienced harm, abuse and/or intergenerational trauma due to historic and ongoing colonial practices.

Support is available 24 hours a day for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and for those who may be triggered by content dealing with residential schools. The national crisis line for residential school survivors is 1-866-925-4419. Survivors and their families can also contact the Hope for Wellness Help Line toll-free at 1-855-242-3310.

A painting with expressive brushstrokes shows an Arctic landscape with sunlight reflecting off a lake in hues of purple, pink, blue, and yellow.

Mary Caesar has always been an artist.  “My art started when I was a young girl in Lower Post Residential School. That’s where I started drawing and sketching the landscapes around the school. I used to sketch in my scribblers when I was in class. I watched the boys in the classrooms do their drawing and sketching and I thought, ‘If the boys can do it so can I.’” 

Mary is Kaska Dena, Wolf Clan, living in Upper Liard near Watson Lake, Yukon. Her traditional name is Łᾳge Deni Netsēt Ahōl, which translates to Strong Woman Walking. As well as practicing visual art, Mary is a poet and a writer, with a published book of poetry titled My Healing Journey. She is a cultural presenter and storyteller and residential school Survivor.

In residential school, Mary knew she was going to survive to tell her story. She spent her teenage years reading as much as she could. She read about other women artists like Emily Carr, Grandma Moses and Frida Kahlo. “I was always inspired by the women artists. I started sketching again when I was a teenager. Portraits. Oil pastels of my family and friends.” 

A painting depicts a large blue institutional building in the background, with the same figure shown in the foreground. At left, she scrubs the floor; at centre, she cries; and at left, she shields herself from a nun threatening to hit her.

As a young girl, Mary lived with the trauma of forced assimilation. It is these experiences, and her healing from them, which inform Mary’s work today. 

“I went through a lot. A lot of hardships, a lot of trauma. It wasn’t until 1990/91, I sobered up and started on my healing journey. I believe it was the Creator that helped me all these years. He orchestrated my art career and my life. I always believed that I have to follow my heart. My calling. 

“I always believed that I had to tell my story. And I’m telling my story about my experience at Lower Post Residential School through my art, through my life. When I exhibit my art in Europe, I tell my story over there. I feel it’s important for me to tell my story about my experience in Lower Post Residential School because it’s part of my life, it’s part of my history, and it’s part of Canada’s history, and should never be forgotten. That’s why art is so important to me.”

As an Indigenous woman artist, Mary brings awareness to the issues impacting Indigenous communities. “I feel strongly about that. I feel strongly about violence towards Aboriginal women. I feel strongly about the contaminated water issue in the Watson Lake area. As an artist I feel I have a responsibility to bring awareness to the issues that affect First Nation People.”

A painted portrait of Sitting Bull, with expressive light and shadow playing across his face.

While much of Mary’s work reflects her experiences in residential school, it is balanced with reflections of her Kaska Dena identity and culture. “My parents helped me a lot. After I left residential school, my parents took my family out to Frances Lake, that’s where we would spend the summer. That’s my Mom and Dad’s traditional land. That’s where they were born and raised. We camped there every summer. I stayed with my parents out in the cabin on the trapline. It was there where I learned about my culture. I learned the teachings from my parents, and the traditional skills of my people from my Mom and Dad. My Mom taught me how to sew. I watched my Mom sewing. That’s how I was taught. I sewed traditional garments. I learned other skills like how to make moose hide, go hunting and fishing with my parents. Go up into the mountains. I have a strong sense about being Kaska. My Dad was a master storyteller. I learned from my Dad about the stories.”

As with other Indigenous children subjected to residential school, one of the treasures stripped from Mary was her language. She is now on a journey of reclaiming her birthright to the Kaska language. “I’m learning to speak my language now after all these years. Language is the heart of our culture. For a long time, I was almost ashamed to speak my language because of my experience in Lower Post residential School. We were punished for speaking our language. We went through a lot of abuse and trauma in residential school, and it’s an experience I’m still healing from.”

A painted portrait of Geronimo, with a bright blue tone in the background.

It is an experience that Mary uses to educate not only settlers to this land and those abroad, but the youth who must now live with the reality of colonization. For these youth, the intergenerational survivors of residential school and genocidal policy, Mary describes what has worked for her healing journey.  

“It’s important to talk about your feelings, don’t keep it inside. Talk to an Elder or someone you trust. Work on yourself. Go out on the land. Pray to the Creator for healthy guidance. You are not alone. We are all going through a lot of healing right now. We have to try to help each other through all this. It’s sometimes overwhelming. For me, I try to go out on the land as much as I can and reconnect with the Ancestors. To feel one with nature to try and help myself. 

There are still a lot of young people affected by residential school. They are intergenerational, and they need a lot of help. A lot of healing.”

Author biography

Christine Genier is a woman of the Wolf Clan and a citizen of the Ta’an Kwäch’än Council. She is a broadcaster, journalist, writer, poet, performer, language keeper, culture keeper, aspiring matriarch, mother, daughter, sister and wife. Since 1995 Christine has been navigating a career that spans northern theatre, journalism, broadcasting, writing and public speaking. In her work, Christine shares a lived experience that spans over four decades of bridging culture and recovering the Indigenous space with those prepared to engage. She is a gatherer of stories and moderator of talks. Her focus is on solutions-based and action-oriented dialogue. Christine Genier is a contributing editor to the Arctic Arts Summit platform.