Feature image: this photo was taken on the south eastern tip of Manitoulin island and was selected because the landscape is representative of many parts of Northern Ontario. The image of the owl was chosen because we are taught that owls are messengers between the spirit world and the physical world, so owls represent our ancestors and those who went before us and paved the way for the opportunities we have now - context provided by Joahnna Berti. photo credit: Felix Hossel
In order to explore two questions, the role of Indigenous artists in community and how this role impacts training, I have traced the foundations of our current training ecology in the Indigenous Arts Sector to the early explosion of Indigenous consciousness that emerged in the 1960s. This period of cultural re-emergence laid the Indigenous foundations and building blocks that support the established and emerging artists in the sector today. During the 1960s, Indigenous visual artists such as Bill Reid, Daphne Odjig, Norval Morrisseau and Alex Janvier, advanced their work by engaging in the professional art world. In so doing, they opened up the pathway for all of the community and cultural capital that both supported them and gave them the vision to make way for those that would follow. Visioning, creating, and sharing with those emerging and following, is organically built along a continuum of sustainability that enables intergenerational transmission of cultural knowledge and utilizes the strength of the established artists as a platform for the emerging ones to come.
During this era of social change in the 1960s, Indigenous Canadians would have the right to vote, to gather together and celebrate their cultural identity, and to freely share knowledge, engage in their cultural and ceremonial practices and speak their national languages freely. Long standing policies of cultural assimilation remained covertly embedded in education and social welfare practices and legislation. There was little by way of a vehicle of expression for Indigenous people to share the definition of themselves, according to their own identity and context. The moccasin telegraph allowed Indigenous people to express this to each other, but there was no reciprocal pathway to non- Indigenous Canadians. Overt controls over Indigenous lives both on and off reserve, were loosened and their futures as living dynamic and distinct peoples were assumed to be lost by non-Indigenous scholars, intellectuals and Government officials. In Canada by the early 1960s, the need for Indigenous people to show Canadians that they were living here now, and the experience of being Indigenous in Canada from their own perspective, burst forth.
One significant galvanizing point occurred at Expo ’67 which featured the Indians of Canada Pavilion.
Following is an extract from a CBC broadcast from August 4, 1967: From the outside, it has all the benign symbols of the traditional North American Indian: a teepee, a totem pole, pounding drums and chanting. But inside, the Indians of Canada pavilion at Expo 67 tells a different story: one of poverty, unfulfilled treaties, forced religion and the unhappy experiences of children in residential schools. As a young hostess conducts a tour, a reporter from Expodition remarks on a tone of bitterness in the pavilion’s exhibits. “Expodition: Expo 67’s Indians of Canada,” CBC Digital Archives, http://www.cbc.ca/archives/discover/programs/e/expodition/expoditionjuly-7-1967
The artists included in the pavilion were Tony and Henry Hunt (totem pole), George Clutesi, Noel Wuttunee, Gerald Tailfeathers, Ross Woods, Alex Janvier, Tom Hill, Norval Morrisseau, Francis Kagige, Jean-Marie Gros-Louis, Duke Redbird, and Robert Davidson. They were frontrunners and visionaries. Indigenous artists converged around the Pavilion and watered the seed of a powerful movement, reigniting Indigenous consciousness and raising awareness across Canada and on a global stage. There was also a beacon for connection among Indigenous artists and the communities they came from across Canada, which spurred the Canadian Government to view Indigenous cultures in a new way. Daphne Odjig and her contemporaries helped shape Canadian history by bringing First Nations voices and political issues into the mainstream. During this same period Norval Morrisseau had exploded onto the Toronto art scene. His success inspired other artists to look to their native origins for inspiration to paint memories and imagery that represented their own culture.
"The doors weren't open to us," Odjig once said in a CBC interview, describing what it was like as an Indigenous artist starting out. "So we had a reason to tell the people who we are and what we can do.”
In 1973 Jackson Beardy, Alex Janvier, and Daphne Odjig had a group show at the Winnipeg Art Gallery called Treaty Numbers 23, 287, 1171. The numerals were a reference to the numbers given to their respective bands when treaties had been signed with the Canadian government.
The exhibition was groundbreaking. For the first time those in the mainstream art world recognized that Indigenous modern art was more than primitive and archaic. To follow up their success, the idea came to formalize a group of Native artists that would spread the word about Native art and assist up and coming younger Native artists. Daphne and Jackson Beardy were the main instigators. Jackson Beardy, Eddy Cobiness, Alex Janvier, Norval Morrisseau, Carl Ray and Joe Sanchez met in Daphne Odjig's Winnipeg home and discussed common concerns and possibilities for the future. The Professional National Indian Artists Inc., funded by Indian Affairs, grew out of the meeting. Bill Reid of the Haida Nation didn't officially sign on at the time, but participated in some group shows later. The gallery in Winnipeg became the place of convergence for Indigenous artists from across Canada and some from the United States.
These artists worked in a variety of mediums. The one for which they all became known initially was their work on canvas. For Norval Morrisseau, the purpose of depicting the foundations of Ojibway cosmology in his work was to ensure that future generations of Ojibway would have symbols that would allow them access to their traditional stories, legends and cultural roots. For Daphne Odjig, the intent was similar. She appreciated that the mainstream art establishment had accepted her work, but she depicted the images and stories that she chose throughout her various periods, so that Aboriginal youth would recognize this work as a depiction of part of their own unique and specific roots. In those ancient stories, a language, a way of thinking, being and knowing is encased. When we tell those stories, we animate the belief systems and gain insight into the perceptual positions and intentions of the ancestors who created them. In many ways the stories represent the Indigenous understanding of how to be a good and effective human being in this specific natural environment in this part of the world. Until Morrisseau, the world did not know the rich cosmology of Ojibway Legends and Traditions. When his images began to surface in the mainstream art world in the early 1960s, they were interpreted through the lens of Primitive Art. Morrisseau was criticized in his own community because he made the stories and some of the knowledge accessible, outside the world of the Woodlands Ojibway. He and his contemporaries were early bridge builders who began the dialogue between Indigenous artistic expression and the mainstream.
By the early 1970s, Indigenous arts practices were seeking a foundation of infrastructure that could expand their modern expression and provide the opportunity to support the emergence of new Indigenous artists. Between 1967 and 1974, early modern Indigenous cultural institutions were established to provide vehicles of opportunity to share, evolve and relate intergenerationally, using the lived experience, knowledge, images, legends and stories of Canada’s First Peoples. The early 1970s saw the establishment of early schools of performance and visual arts, as well as associations for the advancement of Indigenous artists and art forms. These developments were led by established artists who used their profile to advocate for more growth. They were not concerned with only their own reputation, they understood that they came from something more than their own representations, and they had a deeper responsibility as a result. While most Canadian art institutions were acknowledged and established through the establishment of National and Provincial Arts Councils throughout the sixties, Indigenous art institutions had to advocate and lobby to begin in the seventies when none of the arts establishment had seen them coming or made space for them, in terms of budgets and other practical allocations.
In Toronto, in the early seventies, The Native Theatre School was established by James Buller, and Tom Peltier started The Manitou Arts Foundation, establishing The Schriber Island School on Manitoulin Island. The Woodlands Cultural Centre was opened in 1972 upon the closure of the former residential school in Brantford, Ontario. The Ojibway Cultural Foundation was established in M’Chigeeng to provide resources, a place for Elders to share and proliferate Anishnabek art forms. Both were art galleries, museums and fosterers of emerging Indigenous talent as well as important cultural resources for Indigenous creators in performance. There were several other initiatives across the country and the interconnected relationship and dynamic between the established artists and those emerging, was common to all.
The First Nations Technical Institute was established in 1985 through a unique partnership with levels of government and the Tyendinaga Mohawk Council. This was an early post-secondary institution dedicated to media and arts training in addition to other academic correlates, from an Indigenous cultural perspective and based on Indigenous knowledge. At the same time, Spirit Song was forming in Vancouver, led by Margot Kane following a similar model of experience-based performance training with cultural foundations based on Indigenous knowledge from the Western Nations. Native Earth for the Performing Arts was established in Toronto by Bunny Sicard and Denis Lacroix in 1982, as an Indigenous creation company that could advance the work of Indigenous emerging artists with a focus on those from The Native Theatre School. Native Earth was visioned as a place of convergence that was bound by Indigenous principals and cultural values that fostered the interrelated fusion of artists working in movement, storytelling, visual arts relating to production design, music, and theatre performance. The performance was the celebration of creative exploration where artists were both making and evolving the work, while training emerging artists alongside.
Debajehmujig Theatre Group was established by Shirley Cheechoo in 1984 in M’Chigeeng and later moved to Wikwemikong. When Debajehmujig Theatre began in 1984, founding artist Shirley Cheechoo, had a firm sense of artistic identity, honed through summers at the Manitou Arts Foundation. The Art School was a multidisciplinary art program that facilitated Aboriginal art students in exploring their cultural foundations and traditional practices through modern artistic expression. The Indigenous feature of the school was its program design and delivery. It was located on an Island off Manitoulin. Much of the exploration work and instruction was held outdoors. There was no formal teaching schedule or curriculum. Students directed themselves and accessed their mentors as their explorations required. The school was founded on Aboriginal principles of teaching and learning. The creative explorations were led by established Aboriginal Artists, Norval Morrisseau, Daphne Odjig, Carl Beam, and Alex Genviere. Their students were later to become some of Canada’s leading Aboriginal Artists whose works are known Internationally; Leland Bell, James Mishibinijima, Blake Debassige, David Miigwans and Randy Trudeau.
From 1984 – 1988 the new project based companies explored creative expression through playwriting and dramaturgy. The Indigenous People’s Theatre Alliance was established, later to become the Native Theatre Alliance and finally in its present form, The Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance. This provided a focus of providing service for performance and theatre training and touring, that differentiated itself from the earlier Association for Native Visual and Performing Arts, a service organization established in Toronto to promote Indigenous Artists, many of whom were recognized in the visual arts field. Established mainstream Theatre Designers and Directors joined the companies in mentorship roles over project seasons, and the play making tradition began to take shape in a way that would enable the stories from the communities to be brought to life, in the communities and in urban centres.
During the 1980s, every production was a theatre and playwriting workshop of sorts with emerging artists and people in the communities learning how to fulfill the roles that would maintain a structure and allow a connection to the wider National theatre community. The lively medium of theatre was an ideal collecting place for Indigenous artists of all disciplines to share their creative sensibilities and their synergistic processes in a non-hierarchical framework of sharing. Indigenous artists are multi artists by nature. The work itself relied on engaging with the identity based impulses of the creators in a synergistic fusion. This was sharply contrasted with the western hierarchical model of achieving individual excellence in specific mediums within the genre, costume, lighting and set design, dance, acting, music and mask. All of these were separate from the playwright, the actors, the designers and the Director.
Creatively, like Native Earth, Debajehmujig was a place where young emerging Aboriginal writers, painters, story tellers, dancers and musicians, could practice and hone their skills by creating work together in an Indigenous community context. The outside mentorship by established professionals provided structure to the collaborative creation and development of the artists. They were exploring a new medium with their Indigenous sensibilities. They were learning the mainstream language of the medium, and learning how to express themselves within it and its structures. This was followed by the emergence of Indigenous creation and storytelling practices which find their roots in the pre-contact roles and responsibilities that storytellers and artists had to their communities.
The framework for emerging Aboriginal Artists was unique at Debajehmujig when it began because it originated in M’Chigeeng, and later the Wikwemikong Unceded Reserve, rather than elsewhere. In order for professional productions to be produced and presented in urban and rural reserve communities, the problem solving and resource acquisition inherent in every production had to work in this parallel context. Indigenous culture and community lifeways were the dominant context in which the creative work took place.
For Native Earth and other urban-based companies, Indigenous artists found the companies to be a beacon around which to converge, relate, and evolve new ways of bringing stories to the stage. Their overall meta-context was far more European in roots and sensibility, making the companies an oasis of Indigenous values and lifeways in an otherwise foreign environment. Unique to Québec’s Indigenous arts training development is the pioneering work of Ondinnok, founded by John Blondin, Yves Sioui Durand, and Catherine Joncas in 1985. A member of the Huron-Wendat Nation, Yves Sioui Durand is a performer, actor, dramaturge, director, and filmmaker. Since 1984, with his colleagues, he created a body of theatre work unique in Québec. It is founded on the quest for a truly Aboriginal theatre rooted in the myths and history of First Nations in Québec and elsewhere around the world. Theatre became the medium of his personal ceremony and of his accomplishment as a dramaturge. Yves, like many of his contemporaries, envisions an Aboriginal cultural reconstruction through art. He conceives the artist as a living bridge between traditions expressed through archaic ritual, and the new First Nations identity. An important and influential creator at the heart of the emergence of Aboriginal theatre in Canada, he has opened the way for a whole generation of indigenous artists and creators.
My theater seeks to provide access to the imaginary land of my people, which was obscured but persists in us. It is for white, and for Aboriginal audiences, who often have lost touch with their past. – Yves Sioui Durand
By the early 1990s, the early training programs, often operating seasonally in 6–12 week cycles, gave way to more established ongoing training programs. Margot Kane’s, Full Circle Ensemble, En’owkin training for Indigenous writers and playwrights, Debajehmujig’s Aboriginal Arts Animator Training, Centre for Indigenous Theatre, (formerly The Native Theatre School) Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company in Saskatoon, were among the companies established with a specific mandate to train professional Indigenous artists for careers nationally and internationally in the arts, according to an alternative pathway. All of the training programs were conceived and developed from the exploratory work of the Indigenous artists in the 1970s and 80s.
We can see a clear pathway of development for Indigenous arts infrastructure that was born out of the Indigenous “spring” that occurred in the 1960s. The spring happened in urban centres. The unseen precursor was the mentorship and tutelage that occurred in the Territorial communities, prior to the emergence of the spring - that made the mainstream aware. Norval Morrisseau developed his early work from his time out on the water with his uncle in North Western Ontario. Daphne Odjig learned from her Grandfather and her father, both carvers and painters. The teachers of our modern sectoral grandmothers and grandfathers saw the opportunity that artistic expression offered for their people.
The original visionaries who taught the artists of the sixties, did their teaching with faith that what they were sharing, would find a way to endure. It was the Indigenous artists who picked up the call to advance the cultural knowledge and understanding, first through visual arts, and then later through the various forms of performance that we see today. It is important to understand that throughout these earlier years, the tools of communication were limited compared to the resources we have today. Aboriginal artists had very narrow pathways with which to collaborate, advance, explore, create and then share.
The role of the Indigenous artist in community has been to experience, and then reflect, not only the lived experience of being Indigenous in Canada, but also the rich heritage and cosmology from which they come. It is this unique understanding with all of its interconnectedness, that an outside perspective cannot clearly see. As a result, mainstream Canada has struggled to support a foundation and direction that was first dismissed and later acknowledged with increasing clarity and positive intent.
The work of reflecting and expressing goes into two different views of the same world, even today. Each gives the work their own meaning, according to their heritage and the history of their lived experience. One is rooted in the non-Indigenous communities with one set of values, and the other in the Indigenous communities across the country with a different set of values. What each understands from what is reflected is often vastly different. The impact on training is connected to and informed by the wider impacts on the Indigenous artists and their teachers.
It is the work of the professional artists and their mentorship, that populate our training programs and supports the emergence of new Indigenous voices across Canada. Their stability and availability is critical to high quality innovative and expressive new works that will inform training curriculums and programs across the country. At this point in time we are at a critical juncture of recognizing that Indigenous arts are a complete form unto themselves and they require the cultural specificity, practices, and processes that will allow them to reach their full potential, without interruption or interference from a well-meaning mainstream who wants to collaborate often by taking the lead.
We must understand at the National level, Indigenous artists already have their own ways of doing things that will teach both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people new approaches, that put respect and the identity of the creation team, both individual and collective, at the core of the processes and the objects of their creation. Indigenous arts are based on a different model of achieving artistic excellence. This model reflects the community values, languages and lifeways that originate in their cosmologies and understandings of the world. Indigenous artists in creation are part of an ongoing dynamic continuum that is constantly adapting, changing, and expressing the lived experience of being Indigenous now. They bring with them all of their experience and heritage. It is all of these things, rooted in the core of their Indigeneity that form the foundation of our curriculums for teachings students.
Joahnna Berti graduated from Queen’s University in honours Psychology in 1984. She started working in arts administration at The Limelight Dinner Theatre in Toronto in 1986 and joined The Second City in Toronto in 1987. In 1989, she began studies at The Georgian Bay Institute for Neuro Linguistic Programming and opened a private practice in Toronto from 1990 – 1992 specializing in NLP counselling support to sexually abused gay youth and young men. She qualified as Master Trainer in 1993 while working at The Wassa Naabin Community Youth Centre in Wikwemikong, The Wikwemikong Family Centre, Kina Gbezhgomi Child and Family Services, The Wikwemikong Health Centre and The Wikwemikong Board of Education. In each organization she offered administrative services, proposal writing and policy and procedure documents as requested by the Directors of each organization. She joined Debajehmujig Theatre Group in the fall of 1993. Her first roles were in arts administration, marketing and community outreach. She began an improvisational theatre group with young members of the company at Debajehmujig, from the summer of 1994.
The Best Medicine Troupe, became a improvisation training and art education team that worked within First Nation communities across Canada, created custom shows for First Nations organizations, at gatherings, conferences and community consultations. The program evolved throughout the north, establishing a practice in Northern hub communities, Thunder Bay, Sault Lookout, Red lake, Sault Ste Marie, Sudbury and North Bay. Interns were accepted into the Troupe in 1997;, allowing the company to develop and offer a full three year program of arts education, professional community based training and original creation for emerging Aboriginal artists.
Debajehmujig Outreach has worked with Northern communities from Manitoulin Island to the Arctic, in three year cycles, advancing youth and emerging artists, supporting local arts infrastructure development and advocating for sustainable supports for local artists.
She began Baby Clown Training through the Arts Animator Training Program at Debajehmujig in 2008. She worked with John Turner to deliver the Clown training in Moosonee- Moose Factory to James Bay Coastal youth and young adults. She completed her training and proceeded to intern at MCCP, completing Boot Camp and Neo Bouffant, and finally Teaching Perspectives in 2012.
She continues to work with Debajehmujig Storytellers, supporting program development in training and land/community based performance art practices, utilizing arts animators to facilitate community cohesion and community development.