Joseph Sagaj is Anishinaabe, a residential school survivor, and an artist. A few years ago, he took up gardening as well and joined a group of Indigenous tradespeople and Elders known as the Earth Helpers who made it their mission to bring biodiversity and native species back to Paul Martel Park in Toronto. As Sagaj weeded and put plants in the ground, he would look up at the bare wall of the TTC station that bordered the park and conjured scenes of what could be there.
“I had the idea of doing something on creation stories because we all have creation stories,” he says.
“And I heard this Elder Jim Dupont say, ‘In the beginning, before the beginning,’ and I kept thinking about that. I thought about something totally pitch black—something darker than a thousand midnights—and it triggered a sort of big bang in my process.”
Fortunately, that big bang of creativity came with permission to get to work.
A juried committee selected his proposal to create a mural with the theme of “Indigenous Storytelling.” Creation stories would be the starting point, but Sagaj said there was a line in the Bible he needed clarification on first.
“I have never felt too connected to the story of Genesis,” he says. “But in that story, there was one line that nagged at me. It’s the line that says, ‘And God moved over the surface of the waters.’ I kept wondering what it meant. So, when I saw a Pastor that I knew walking across the street, I caught up to him and asked him about it. He said to me, ‘As an artist, you’ll get this. He’s watching how it’s coming along, this work he’s started. He’s in process.’ I thought, that’s where I’m at! And I knew I needed to just keep going and keep listening to the Elders.”
And so, for every day of painting, which started in August 2021, Sagaj was joined by Elders of various backgrounds who would sit nearby and tell stories.
“There are so many stories intertwined that show our various ways and knowledge in there. While all our cultures are different, the Indigenous people of this land have a shared history.”
And while the stories are different, there’s a commonality in how the stories are told.
“Our stories are told through metaphor, and when I was a kid, my cousins and I would race for the rocking chair, as it was the best seat in the house, and gather around and wait for the Elder to begin telling stories. You had to figure the stories out. But when Europeans landed on these shores and started hearing these stories, they dismissed them and said they were ridiculous. Then, when Charles Darwin or Carl Sagan told the same stories in a different way, they said, ‘Hey, that really makes sense.’ Our stories have been disregarded, but now I have the chance to share them on a wall and people really want to hear them.”
Joseph says he has spoken with locals about the mural (the response has been positive, and they’ve bought him a few coffees) and with people from all over the world.
“I hope people see a little of themselves in this mural no matter where they come from,” he adds. “And I hope that they see that we are all here for the same purpose whether you are two-legged or four-legged, one of our winged brothers and sisters, whether you are fire, water or air, and they understand that we will not exist without each other. By sharing our stories—whether we choose to do so from an ecological perspective, a cosmological perspective, a mythological perspective—there’s so much in there about how we can and should relate to one another.”
A version of this article was originally published in The Annex Gleaner.