Art and the Art of Making Meaning

Suzanne  -  Sep 27, 2013  -  ,  - 

The Ontario Native Studies Grade 10 curriculum “Expressing Aboriginal Cultures” was revised in 1999 and has been in use in the Toronto Catholic District School Board and in various Aboriginal secondary schools – such as the Keewaytinook Internet High School – since the early 2000s. This year, having finally received dedicated funding and attention, it’s being rolled out in various schools within the Toronto District School Board.

Nanabush Pictograph, Mazinaw Rock, Bon Echo Provincial Park, Ontario

Since time immemorial, Aboriginal beliefs, perspectives, and histories have been embodied in story. These stories connect us to the land and shape an identity that informs our connections to other people and to all of creation. Creation stories connect us to our geography, model cooperation and healthy relationships, and illustrate what it means to live in a world where good and evil exist in equal balance and where our choices enact that balance. Trickster stories – the ones where Raven, Coyote, Weesageechuk, Nanabush, or Gluskap is forever trying to trick people and getting into trouble as a result – give us lessons about what it means to use our skills wisely for the benefit of the collective. Some stories transmit customs and skills from one generation to another. Other stories preserve history and experience.

Art has always held an esteemed position within these vast libraries of spiritual and material knowledge. Across the Americas, Aboriginal peoples from diverse nations have created painted tipi covers, beaded moccasins, petroglyphs, pictographs, carvings, masks, buffalo robes, button blankets, winter counts, ledger drawings, pipe stems and bowls, rattles, clubs, pottery, beaded or painted bags, totem poles, scrolls, and various other functional-artistic pieces that embody and transmit this knowledge.

Mandan Buffalo Robe

Some of these artistic traditions are pre-contact traditions, some are post-contact, but they all document Aboriginal experiences, perspectives, and vision. Some items were intended for everyday use, such as beaded carrying straps and birchbark water containers, while other items were intended for ceremonial use, such as rattles and shamanic amulets, but all spoke of personal and cultural identity, challenges, and relationships. Today, contemporary artists from Aboriginal backgrounds are using these art forms and European art forms to make further contributions to these libraries of knowledge.

Most educators are aware of the most famous artists to emerge from Aboriginal communities – Norval Morrisseau (Anishinabe), Bill Reid (Haida), Kenojuak Ashevak (Inuk), Daphne Odjig (Odawa), Alex Janvier (Dene Suline/Saulteaux), Benjamin Chee Chee (Ojibwe/Algonquin), and Allen Sapp (Cree) – and are perhaps aware of the “Indian Group of Seven,” which included Odjig, Janvier, Morrisseau, and artists Jackson Beardy (Anishinabe), Eddy Cobiness (Anishinabe), Carl Ray (Cree), and Joseph Sanchez (born Taos Pueblo, raised by Ojibwes in Canada). The works of these artists are excellent places to start when examining art forms of Aboriginal peoples in Canada and the relationships between those art forms and Aboriginal traditions, philosophies, and cultures. However, these artists are representative of a certain time period in Canadian and Aboriginal history and art history.

"Morning Star" by Alex Janvier

There are numerous artists of Aboriginal background who are creating art today and responding to historical and contemporary issues that affect the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and Canadian governments. These artists are engaging with legal, political, social, and economic issues; with the Indian Act and its effects on the daily lives of many Aboriginal peoples; and with relationships among Aboriginal peoples and other peoples and nations throughout history. For students to obtain a full sense of Aboriginal experiences, perspectives, and histories, they must engage with contemporary art created by artists from Aboriginal backgrounds.

To assist educators in this task, Dragonfly has created a list of contemporary artists working and exhibiting in Canada – just scroll down this post to see the list of names (in no particular order), web links, and thumbnails of their art. These artists work in diverse genres including experimental film, painting, sculpture, photography, performance art, installations, printmaking, and more. They are diverse in age, geographic/cultural origin, and sexual identity, and they are creating some of the best and most thought-provoking art in Canada today.

To avoid appropriating Aboriginal art forms, engage students in activities that make meaningful connections between Aboriginal objects/ideas and events in the students’ own lives. When students copy Aboriginal art forms or styles – when they create a painting in the Woodland style, for example – they are merely replicating someone else’s way of demonstrating connections, relationships, challenges, and identity. Use the work of artists from Aboriginal backgrounds to deconstruct Aboriginal experiences, perspectives, and histories, but have students demonstrate their knowledge of those experiences, perspectives, and histories by using their own set of visual markers and their own schema.

"Cosmo Squaw" by Lori Blondeau

Lori Blondeau



"Shapeshifter" by Brian Jungen

Brian Jungen




"Copper from the Hood" by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas





"The Container for Souls" by Marianne Nicholson

Marianne Nicholson (includes interview)




"The Curious One" by Jim Logan

Jim Logan





"Generic Guide" by Ryan Rice

Ryan Rice





"Trading Smallpox" by Ruth Cuthand

Ruth Cuthand





"The Mountain, The Night" by Bob Boyer

Bob Boyer




"Sandy Bay" by Robert Houle

Robert Houle





"Aapaskaiyaawa" by Faye HeavyShield

Faye HeavyShield




"Shield for a Modern Warrior, Or Concession to Beads and Feathers in Indian Art" by Ron Noganosh

Ron Noganosh






"13 Coyotes" by Edward Poitras

Edward Poitras (includes interview)




"Ancestor" by Shelley Niro

Shelley Niro





"Indian on Bank" by Jeff Thomas

Jeff Thomas





"The Four Horses of the Apocalypse and the Donkey of Eternal Salvation" by Mary Anne Barkhouse

Mary Anne Barkhouse






"Our Mother's Journey (The Convent Series)" by Joane Cardinal-Schubert

Joane Cardinal-Schubert






"Never Again" by George Littlechild

George Littlechild





"Baagitchigawag Manitou - Honouring My Spirit Helpers" by Christi Belcourt

Christi Belcourt






"Artist and Model" by Kent Monkman

Kent Monkman (CBC interview)



"Ghostkeeper" by Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew

Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew




"Live Biennale" by Cheryl L'Hirondelle

Cheryl L’Hirondelle





"Cultural Briefs" by Teresa Marshall

Teresa Marshall





"Screaming Shaman #4" by Jane Ash Poitras

Jane Ash Poitras





"Buffalo Boy's Battle of Little Bighorny" by Adrian Stimson

Adrian Stimson






"Nimosomipan II - My Late Grandfather" by Neal McLeod

Neal McLeod





"The Named and the Unnamed" by Rebecca Belmore

Rebecca Belmore






"Totem Cafe" by Arthur Renwick

Arthur Renwick




"Puskwa Moostoos Washikun" by Jude Norris

Jude Norris






"Tahltan Tea Party" by Peter Morin

Peter Morin




"Land. Listen" by Kenny & Rebecca Baird

Kenny & Rebecca Baird





Untitled mural by Rebecca Baird

Rebecca Baird




Still from "Mayasitiw" by Gabriel Yahyahkeekoot

Gabriel Yahyahkeekoot (short film “Mayasitiw”)





"Urban Indian" by Terrance Houle

Terrance Houle





"My Grandmother's Home" by Maria Hupfield

Maria Hupfield (National Museum of the American Indian video)




"Resisting Distillation" by Tanis Maria S'eiltin

Tanis Maria S’eiltin




"Indian Act" (detail) by Nadia Myre

Nadia Myre





"Landing" by Michael Belmore

Michael Belmore (OAC video) (Station Gallery interview)




"Making Sense of Things" by Frank Shebageget

Frank Shebageget






Photos by Greg Staats

Greg Staats





"Buffalo Bone China" by Dana Claxton

Dana Claxton

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