George Littlechild, one of Canada’s most accomplished artists, says that blood memory – that innate sense of identity, of place and purpose, that ties Aboriginal peoples to their ancestors – drives him to paint. He paints with a passion for truth, reclaiming Aboriginal history and transforming a bitter legacy of oppression into a story of redemption.
Educated at several schools including the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, and exhibited in Europe, the United States, and Japan, Littlechild’s works are bold, vibrant, and colourful. He uses mixed media and collage, incorporating photographs and representations of Plains Cree culture – horses, buffalo, tipis – to create art that doesn’t separate the personal from the political. The result is autobiography, history – and magic.
Born in 1958 in Edmonton, Alberta, to a Scottish father and Cree mother, Littlechild was apprehended at infancy by “the welfare,” who shuttled young George around to five different foster homes by the age of four. At one foster home, he was savagely beaten, confined to the basement, and forced to scavenge for food. After being removed on the advice of a doctor, he was placed with a family in suburban Edmonton, where he endured racism and retreated into daydreams.
“I’ve always been aware of who I am and what system was enveloping me,” Littlechild says by telephone from Vancouver. “Through it all, I knew that things would someday be different. It gave me the strength to continue.”
As a young adult, Littlechild discovered that his mother, Rachel Littlechild, was originally from the Ermineskin band at Hobbema, Alberta. Through painstaking research at provincial archives and museums, Littlechild eventually discovered his family history – and 12 photos of his family, including an 1898 photo of his great-great-grandfather Natuasis. Littlechild uses these images in his work, paying homage to his ancestors and bringing their stories to the next generation of Aboriginal people.
“If we learn about our history,” Littlechild says, “we learn who we are.”
Identity is a central theme in Littlechild’s work. The theft of his identity – and his mother’s, and his grandparents before that – by a colonial government bent on assimilating Aboriginal peoples has turned his personal search for belonging and desire for reclamation into a much larger responsibility. Frustrated by the lack of resources available for First Nations youth, and by the general lack of information available about Aboriginal peoples, Littlechild has lately turned to the publishing world, creating lavish books suitable for all ages but aimed especially at children and youth.
This Land Is My Land is a collection of 17 of his works with accompanying large-print descriptions that detail his art but also tell, in plain language, the history of the Plains Cree people.
“First Nations people have different heroes than Canadian people,” Littlechild says. “And our heroes are never as visible. I feel it is my responsibility as a human being to re-educate both Canadian children and First Nations kids.”
He has also illustrated two story books written by Dogrib writer Richard Van Camp, and sees the work as a “joyful experience.”
“Illustrating is different,” he says. “It’s more specific, and I’m dealing with someone else’s ideas. It can be a constraint; there’s not total freedom. But I’m working with great writers. There’s a lot of playfulness in Richard’s work, and a lot of nation-to-nation fence building.
“We have to respect one another. No matter what nation we’re from, we have to build one another up, not tear each other down. Young people, especially, must encourage each other, especially if they don’t have parents or other role models. If you see a friend who has a skill, or a certain way of being, nurture that talent, and help them get on the right path. And it will come back to you. It’s really tough out there, so believe in yourself – and help each other along.”
Littlechild, once a youth with no family, is now a man with a mother and father. His parents are dead – both died before their son could find them – but Littlechild has remembered their names, contextualized their lives, and, in the process, reclaimed his own legacy. In so doing, he has gained wisdom.
“I try to do the best I can,” Littlechild says. “I try to live by example. I try to have consideration for other people. If I can help people get in touch with themselves, with their history, then I’m satisfied. It’s about reconnecting – taking back what belongs to us.”