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June 18, 2019

Conversation Piece: “Mother Bears Pray for Earth Healing”

If you’re near the Campus Saint-Jean, take a moment to check out this stunning sculpture.

The green space on the Northeast corner of the University of Alberta’s Campus Saint-Jean is a great place for students and staff to come together to talk about classes, relax and collect their thoughts, or even just kill time. But, ever since the summer of 2017, thanks to a beautifully carved stone sculpture, it’s also become
a place for students to reflect on the impact their lives, and our species, have on the Earth.

Once he saw the mother bears in his imagination, artist Stewart Steinhauer says he knew he had to carve the piece, and he spent the next 13 months raising funds to buy enough granite, which is the only material he works with. After two public displays in British Columbia, “Mother Bears Pray For Earth Healing” found its home on the French campus’s grounds. For Steinhauer, who hails from Saddle Lake Cree Nation, all creations come from the Indigenous worldview that there is a mysterious creative force driving through everything — and occasionally, Steinhauer happens to get caught up in that creative energy and “inadvertently makes stuff.”

The material comes from somewhere less mysterious, but equally spiritual. “Granite is the primary stone that the skin of Mother Earth is made out of. That’s why I choose to work with granite,” he says. “In Cree culture, the rock under the soil is a spiritual entity, and it has a task to help humans with communication.”

The two, four-foot tall bears stand mounted on an 11-foot long bench, looking downward at the prayer-offering space where stressed-out students and passersby alike can calm down, clear their minds and even smudge, should they choose. At its core, the sculpture speaks to the notion that everyone belongs to the human family and must come together, with no exclusions, to focus on Mother Earth’s well-being. It’s based largely on teachings from the late Veronica Morin, a beloved member of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation and Enoch communities, who was a leader in keeping women’s teachings alive.

“I work primarily creating images of bears, but I’m not a wildlife carver,” Steinhauer says. “The bear that I’m carving is a spiritual being, like the Rock Grandfather. And you could say the Rock Grandfather has figured out a way to use me to combine these layers of spiritual beings.”

This article appears in the January 2019 issue of Avenue Edmonton.

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