Chief Earl Commanda of the Serpent River First Nation in northern Ontario opens the First Annual New Sun Symposium with a purifying smudging ceremony to establish receptivity and cleanse the hearts and minds of the participants. Drawing participants from diverse locations and organizations, the symposium focuses on healing through the arts, which New Sun Chair in Aboriginal Art and Culture and symposium organizer Dr. Allan J. Ryan describes as the reclamation of personal and cultural identity. Participation in the event also contributes to the reparation of cross-cultural relations, as a complement to the healing initiatives already established within Indigenous communities.
In observance of traditional Haida protocols, John Medicine Horse Kelly begins his welcoming presentation by honouring the women, chiefs, and friends of his community, reclaiming his traditions as an act of healing and recovery. Kelly trains members of Indigenous communities in the use of recording equipment to document and preserve traditional knowledge and language held by elders. Through cultural revival, Indigenous people are rediscovering wholeness of identity, but the barrier of divisive racial essentialism of the colonial mentality remains, forcing Indigenous peoples into the disempowering and reactionary position of the colonized and encouraging division and separation between individuals. Healing, however, is not exclusive to Indigenous communities, but must be enacted by the oppressed through the transcendence of anger into a state of honouring all beings, lifting the weight of history from Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples alike.
Drew Hayden Taylor
Ojibwa playwright, filmmaker, and writer Drew Hayden Taylor has become in his own words “married to the theatre” for its tremendous capacity for healing, and through which he explores issues ranging from interracial dating to erotica to land claims. Frequently invited to lecture at scholarly functions, Taylor pokes fun at his lack of academic credentials in calling himself the “Grey Owl of academic conferences.” Observing that early Indigenous theatre was predominantly dark, accusatory, and depressing, Taylor balances depictions of Indigenous experience using humour. In his National Film Board production Redskins, Tricksters, and Puppy Stew, Taylor documents several Indigenous comedians whose humour heals by diffusing painful histories and providing emotional support for communities. As a columnist, Taylor writes darkly satirical articles such as “The Bomb Waiting,” which shatters the silence surrounding the diabetes epidemic within Indigenous communities. In “White May Not Be Right,” he subverts notions of inherently positive Whiteness by highlighting the health dangers of ‘pale’ foods such as sugar and salt. Similarly, his comedy sketches “Lone Inuit” and “Seeing Red” critique the modern diet through parodies of traditional hunting. His comedic plays include the Bootlegger Blues, in which a Christian Ojibwa woman bootlegs one hundred and forty-three cases of alcohol to purchase an organ for the church, and alterNATIVES, which satirizes political correctness. Similarly, in his dramatic works, such as Someday and Only Drunks and Children Tell the Truth, Taylor makes critical issues more palatable and realistic by including humour. In his approach to comedy, Taylor affirms the maxim “amuse not abuse,” creating a climate of receptivity through laughter to stimulate new perspectives on critical issues.
Dr. Robert Kavanagh and Chief Earl Commanda
Ojibwa Chief Earl Commanda and Dr. Robert Kavanagh collaborated to form the White Mountain Academy of the Arts, a cross-cultural post-secondary institution which combines fine arts training with traditional Indigenous practices. Commanda addresses the formation of the Academy, beginning with effects of the closures of the Elliot Lake uranium mine and school on his nearby Serpent River community. One of the positive results of the closures was a Provincial Economic Diversification Strategy Fund, from which $10 million was used to create White Mountain. Consultation with elders demonstrated an increased desire to revive and share traditions with the non-Indigenous population, and discussions of implementing the program were inclusive of Indigenous perspectives. As director of the Academy, Dr. Kavanagh stresses the strength, confidence, and improved health established through the practice of traditional arts, which combines spiritual teachings and ceremonies with hands-on pedagogy. Non-Indigenous students are also exposed to Indigenous worldviews, histories, and visual arts. Complementing traditional arts, instruction in applied art history, foundations in media, and the business of art allow students to develop self-reliance and succeed financially upon graduation. For graduates and other regional artists, the Art Business Incubator Program provides marketing and promotional abilities remotely to allow artists to remain in communities while pursuing careers. The school also encourages learning in a natural setting, which reinforces traditional Indigenous connections to the land. Working intimately with professors and fellow artists, students are given the opportunity to share thoughts and collaborate creatively for improved psychological and spiritual health, a process that Commanda and Dr. Kavanagh hope to combine with traditional medicine to address health issues on a regional and national scale.
Ojibwa comedian and communications officer for the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Don Kelly keeps the audience laughing as he muses over cross-cultural relations, politics, and traditions. Opening his performance with a light-hearted jab at Ottawa’s ‘restrained’ character, Kelly explores and diffuses racial tensions with his comedy. Originally from Winnipeg, Kelly points to the benefits of travel in his career, taking him to exotic locations such as Timmins, Ontario: a marker that his “career is on fire,” he laughs. Drawing friend and fellow comedian Drew Hayden Taylor into banter, they joke over the Indian Act’s racist blood quantum, with Kelly remarking that having only one Indigenous parent each, together they form “one complete Ojibwa.” Kelly then humorously critiques the expectations of being a spokesperson for his First Nation, while at the same time being criticized for not meeting people’s expectations of ‘Indianness’ in appearance and in name. Rather than use his Indian name, “Runs Like a Girl,” for the stage, he chooses to deny expectations and play with stereotypes: in his version of an Indigenous hair care commercial, he includes the tagline, “Dry, itchy, flaky scalp? Throw it away!” Kelly contributes to the Association for Native Development in the Performing and Visual Arts, a non-profit organization that supports Indigenous artists in all fields. He is also the recipient of a Canada Council grant for his performance work. In his political career, he contributed to the landmark Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and like Taylor, Kelly emphasizes that humour opens up discussions on serious issues. Whether in comedy or politics, Kelly affirms, “It’s all in the delivery.”
Onondaga photographer and curator Jeffrey Thomas addresses colonial relationships to the land, while negotiating the complexities of contemporary Indigenous experience in an urban landscape. Born in Buffalo, New York, Thomas moved back and forth between the Six Nations reserve and the city, retaining access to traditions through community elders, while forging his urban path alone. While undergoing extensive physiotherapy following a 1979 car accident, Thomas employed photography to re-orient his own life as he learned to walk again. In a selection of slides, Thomas explores the Indigenous presence in the city using images from his childhood neighbourhood in Shoe Shine Parlour, as well as the importance of ritual and ceremony in his Photograph of Corn. Invited to curate Photographs from the National Archives of Canada, Thomas reframed more than 150 historical photographs to include an Indigenous narrative. The show was remounted in the Byward Market and the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. Thomas curated the Canadian Museum of Civilization exhibition entitled Emergence From the Shadows: First Peoples’ Photographic Perspectives, which humanizes anthropological photographs while initiating dialogue through the inclusion of six contemporary Indigenous artists’ work. In his Scouting for Indians exhibit, he addresses the subservient and scantily clad Indigenous scout of the Samuel de Champlain monument in Ottawa. His residential school exhibition for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and the National Archives, Where are the Children?, explores the process of assimilation, which included the replacement of role models and the breaking of ties with communities. In his documentary Shooting Indians, East Indian filmmaker Ali Kazimi explores Thomas’ life and work in the context of the filmmaker’s expectations of Indigenousness.
Evie Mark and Roberta Stout
Produced for the Inuit Women’s Association Pauktuutit, the video Before I was Born is part of an initiative focused on promoting awareness of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAE) within Northern communities. As the video’s director, host, and co-producer, Inuit throat-singer Evie Mark collaborated with Kehewin project director Roberta Stout, who produced the corresponding educational media kit. Mark highlights the lack of sexual education and resources to diagnose FAS/FAE in the North, combined with alcoholism. In designing the program, Stout consulted a committee of nine Inuit representatives, including youth, elders, and health professionals, regarding video content, script location, and presentation of material. Central areas of concern included the cultural appropriateness of material, production in Inuit languages, and a non-judgmental approach to the issue. After fundraising for five years, the project began in April 2000. Stout contracted Mark through the Nunavik radio and television network Taqramiut, and they traveled to Iqaluit for sixteen days of filming, scouting locations upon arrival and casting students from local schools. They produced a video, CD with radio play, a poster designed in a youth contest, and an accompanying viewing guide illustrated by Inuit artists and written in plain language. Chosen for their accessibility and popularity especially among youth, the video and radio projects tell the story of a young girl discovering that she is pregnant after drinking in the early stages of her pregnancy. They explore how she and her partner inform and are supported by parents and health professionals, imparting information on the prevention of FAS/FAE. In conjunction with CBC Radio North, the package was recorded in local dialects and sent to 53 communities across the North.
In the closing discussion of the symposium, questions range from role modeling to tradition, activism to non-Indigenous involvement in the healing process. Regarding the feasibility of implementing the FAS/FAE initiative in Southern communities, Mark and Stout affirm the project’s universality provided culturally specific material is included. Responding to the label of ‘role model,’ the presenters emphasize the responsibility entailed by public positions, suggesting that everyone is a role model to someone, and stress that individuals have an obligation to family and community to live well and maintain integrity. Dr. Allan J. Ryan proposes that role models are those who offer individuals new possibilities and options for the future. In defining ‘tradition,’ presenters put forward the notion of core values surrounded by changing and fluctuating traditions, as well as highlighting the importance of individual or familial traditions. In broader terms, tradition is a collective memory which reaches into the past and provides direction for the future. For Indigenous peoples, there is also a larger tradition of survival with honour and dignity despite formidable odds. As well, in their work at the community level and roles in preserving culture, Mark and Stout accept the title of activist. Regarding the nature of healing, Kelly underscores the necessity of letting go of colonial racial boundaries to recognize goodness in all people. By maintaining an ethic of caring and focusing on that which is within one’s sphere of influence, inner strength is established and colonialism ends. The presenters universally affirm that it is quality of heart that determines an individual’s role in healing Indigenous communities, not race or ethnicity, presenting an inclusive and optimistic vision of future relationships: the very basis of healing.
Synopses by Anna Eyler