The “Art” of Survival

IndigNation | by Bev Cardinal

From the time of contact with newcomer populations (colonizers, missionaries, government officials and the like) the arts and culture of Indigenous peoples has been stolen, appropriated and even criminalized. No pow-wows. No potlatches. No drumming or singing. No jigging or fiddling. No visual art, storytelling, beading, carving, sculpting or anything remotely related to “artistic expression” was permitted.

This was a pure soul-destroying strategy that, along with residential schools, the Indian Act and other travesties of colonialism, was intended to break and annihilate Indigenous peoples.

But you know what?  Somehow, against all odds, traditional Indigenous artisans of every stripe have survived and thrived! These are our Elders, Knowledge Keepers, language speakers, storytellers, pow-wow dancers, drummers, singers, tipi makers and handcrafters (birch bark bitings, moose hair embroidery, painted hide coats, moccasins, parfleche, porcupine quillwork on birch bark, intricate beadwork, and regalia). A rare and diverse bunch indeed!

Along with our traditionalists, contemporary artists spanning every genre imaginable are emerging in visual arts, dramatic and performing arts, music, filmmaking, fashion design, handcrafts, sculpture and literature. The list is long, but here are a few names to remember.

Visual Art: At Expo ’67 in Montreal, Norval Morrisseau’s art was showcased in the Canadian pavilion. This was the beginning of the era my son describes as “our people coming out of our cultural coma.” Morrisseau went on to become a member of the prolific “Indigenous Group of Seven” with Daphne Odjig, Alex Janvier, Jackson Beardy, Eddy Cobiness, Carl Ray and Joseph Sanchez.

Saskatchewan has many renowned Indigenous visual artists who have enriched Canada’s contemporary art scene. Here are a few: the late Allen Sapp and the late Bob Boyer, Gerald McMaster, Edward Poitras, Michael Lonechild, Sherry Farrell-Racette, Mary Longman, Sheila Orr, Lori Blondeau and David Garneau. Google them up — you’ll be in awe!

Music, Song, Songwriting: Buffy Sainte Marie, Link Wray, Robbie Robertson (as in Bob Dylan and The Band…anyone? anyone?), Jeremy Dutcher, Andrea Menard, John Arcand, Chris Derksen, Armand Duck Chief, Quantum Tangle, The Jerry Cans, Tanya Tagaq, DJ Shrub, Digging Roots, Tribe Called Red, Drezus, Red Bone… blast your eardrums wide open!

Film, Drama, Performing Arts: The late, greats: Gil Cardinal, Gordon Tootoosis and Willie Dunn. The astonishing actors: Tantoo Cardinal, Adam Beach, Michael Greyeyes, Michelle Thrush. The filmmakers: Alanis Obomsawin, Drew Hayden Taylor, Danis Goulet, Christine Welsh, Shane Belcourt. The authors, playwrights and poets: Tomson Highway, Maria Campbell, Eden Robinson, Louise Bernice Halfe, Tanya Talaga. They’ll all take you into worlds you’ve never imagined!

The Prophesy: Before his execution the late, great Métis warrior Louis Riel made an infamous prophecy: “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m ecstatic to say “HE WAS RIGHT!”  This is just a glimpse into the world of Indigenous art and culture and there’s an entire wave of under-the-radar talent just waiting to break out. The common denominator? They’re all sharing what it means to sustain and reclaim Indigenous heritage in 21st century Canada.  As Riel predicted, it’s going to be a great ride!

Miigwetch/Marci!

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