Writer, humorist, and New Sun Conference alumni Don Kelly is the host of the award-winning Aboriginal People’s Television Network series Fish Out of Water. Born to a Swedish mother and an Anishnaabe father, Kelly grew up in a largely Euro-Canadian community in Winnipeg and was often thought to not look ‘Indian’ enough. Speaking to the theme of the conference, Kelly affirms that “culture isn’t just political correctness or a warm fuzzy feeling,” referring to his father’s reclamation of identity after surviving residential schools. Katery Legault of InterINDigital Entertainment approached Kelly to be the host of Fish Out of Water, on which he learns traditional skills as well as teachings from different Indigenous communities. His lack of experience is humorous to those viewers who possess the traditional skills, and those who do not can learn alongside Kelly. With the exception of the opening, the show is entirely unscripted. In an episode from the first season, Kelly visits the Stoney First Nation in Alberta, providing a good example of Indigenous systems of pedagogy, which include learning from mistakes and tactile learning. Visiting the Dene people in northern Saskatchewan, Kelly was shown how to build a bear trap, illustrating the humorous dynamic that often exists between Kelly and the instructors. In each episode there is a guide, typically an elder, who possesses not only traditional skills but also the values and worldview of the community. Upon visiting the Shuswap First Nation, elder Ernie Phillips described the return of his identity after learning his traditional dances. Another episode has Kelly visit the Siksika First Nation, where he learned to put up a tipi, providing a good example of traditional and contemporary Indigenous humour. Kelly emphasizes the importance of building bridges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, urban and rural, and traditional and contemporary. Those who practice these living skills also engage with the modern world, as Indigenous peoples have always been “early adapters and early adopters.” This is not being caught between two worlds, Kelly says, but deriving the best of both.
Mohawk video artist, curator, and writer Steven Loft is the Curator-in-Residence, Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) and former curator of the Urban Shaman Gallery in Winnipeg. Drawing on an essay he wrote for a presentation ten years ago, Loft reflects on past areas of concern and the progress that has been made in the treatment of Indigenous art and artists. Issues have included the ethnographic assessments of work, a lack of integration into institutions, evaluation according to Eurocentric art historical discourse, systemic barriers for Indigenous artists, and a lack of inclusion into universities. Demonstrating grounds for optimism, Loft brings attention to the Governor General Michaëlle Jean’s bold decision to include Norval Morrisseau’s Androgyny in the foyer of Rideau Hall. Scholars such as Allan J. Ryan are changing the way that Canadian art is taught, and Indigenous curators Gerald McMaster, Tom Hill, Le-Ann Martin, and Greg Hill are contributing to a new art historical discourse. Artist Alex Janvier spoke out about the exclusion of world class Indigenous artists such as Daphne Odjig, Jackson Beardy, and Norval Morrisseau, after which a major exhibition of Morrisseau’s work was mounted by the NGC. Individual artists are also being honoured by the greater artistic community: Rebecca Belmore, Annie Pootoogoook, Brian Jungen, Alex Janvier, and Kenojuak Ashevak have all received national recognition. Past landmark group exhibitions have included Land Spirit Power and Steeling the Gaze, with major upcoming solo exhibitions slated for artists Daphne Odjig, Carl Beam, and Bob Boyer. Specific galleries have also done substantial work in including Indigenous artists, including the Mackenzie Gallery and the Urban Shaman Gallery, as well as the NGC, which established the first Indigenous art department and is currently in the process of purchasing new work by Indigenous artists. There needs to be significantly more scholarly writing by Indigenous academics as well as more Indigenous people in chief curatorial positions. Loft characterizes the power of Indigenous art as articulate resistance, as an identifier of Indigenous presence and contester of dominant modes of presentation. In individual exhibitions of Indigenous art, Loft suggests curators adopt a principle of translation over imposition. On an institutional level, Loft emphasizes that Indigenous art should be represented in both a culturally specific environment as well as being disseminated in the larger collection of Canadian art.
Cree writer and broadcaster Shaneen Robinson is a reporter for CTV Winnipeg and the winner of the Canadian Aboriginal Writing Challenge for her play Notay Kiskintamowin, which in Cree means “Wanting to Know.” Of Cree and Gitxsan descent, Robinson grew up immersed in her culture. She has enjoyed writing and poetry since childhood, and in the fourth year of her BA in Communications at the University of Winnipeg, she took a playwriting course that resulted in the creation of Notay Kiskintamowin. The play follows the return of a Cree woman named Della Rose to her community after being adopted out during the Sixties Scoop. Living in Guelph, Ontario, Rose decides to quit her job and write a play, and in the process, questions regarding her Indigenous heritage make her aware that she is missing something in her life. She gets on a Greyhound bus to northern Manitoba and encounters a young Indigenous woman named Pixie, who is travelling with her daughter Delaney. After admitting to Pixie that she at one time thought she was of Mexican descent, Rose is playfully told to “trade in those tortillas for bannock, baby.” Eventually learning that Pixie is in fact her sister, she is welcomed back into her birth family and learns the family’s stories. In creating the play, Robinson wove together events from her work as a reporter as well as names and stories from her family and friends. She has also incorporated music and photography into the play. Notay Kiskintamowin addresses a wide ranges of issues including alcoholism, sexual abuse, diabetes, foster care, incarceration, the treatment of Indigenous veterans, child abuse, and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome / Fetal Alcohol Effects, while remaining true to the spirit of humour and perseverance that pervades Indigenous communities. Living in the city, Robinson emphasizes that although it is sometimes hard to stay true to one’s roots, it is possible for individuals to evolve with the world while remaining grounded in their cultures. Robinson has worked on a few documentaries, and she plans to learn the stories of her ancestors for her next project.
Silversmith and sculptor Michael Massie combines traditional Inuit themes with contemporary techniques in his work, which is found in private collections across the world as well as several major institutions. Massie has also offered instruction in jewellery and stone-carving workshops in the North. Of Inuit, Métis, and Scottish descent, Massie grew up in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador, leaving for school in 1986 to complete a Certificate in Commercial Art, a Diploma in Visual Arts at the College of the North Atlantic, and a BA in Fine Arts from the Nova Scotia College of Arts and Design (NASCAD). Originally focusing on painting and printmaking, Massie became fascinated with silversmithing. In his fourth semester at NASCAD, Massie was instructed to make a vessel, and as his grandmother (an avid tea drinker) had recently passed away, he decided to create his first teapot. Nearly twenty years later, Massie has recently completed his eightieth teapot for a show put together by Lois Betteridge. When titling his work, Massie is fond of puns such as ‘unit-tea,’ ‘may-tea,’ or ‘puber-tea.’ Massie works in a variety of materials, often combining a silver teapot base with exotic woods and antler. Unit-tea is an etched teapot with a narwhal’s tusk made out of ebony, while Puber-tea is a teapot which includes male genitalia, sperm, and an egg, having been inspired by his ten-year-old daughter’s first sex-education class. In Tea and Pie Symbol, Massie has etched the numerical value of pi as well as the dimensional calculations of the sculpture onto the surface of the teapot. Interested in motion, Massie has also included wheels on some of his teapots, which are functional when they have not been etched. Fringing on Contemporary draws on traditional Inuit culture for inspiration, specifically the ulu shape, which has been a strong reference for Massie. Massie’s Enigmas of a Teapot draws on the work of Surrealists such as Salvador Dali, while Wonders of a Song is inspired by Pablo Picasso’s famous painting Guernica. In his other work in silver, Massie has explored the bridging of cultures, family, traditional narratives, self-portraiture, and geometric forms. In his stone work, Massie became interested in inlay early on, favouring simple forms with fine detailing. His stone sculpture The Storyteller is inspired by his grandfather’s stories, while Grandfather I Have Something to Tell You is a token of forgiveness for accidentally killing a small bird in childhood. In Speaking in Tongues, Massie explores transformation and adaptation to one’s environment. Massie enjoys elaborating on the shape of the stone and is currently focusing his energy on stone carving.
Singer, actor, and humanitarian Tom Jackson is an Officer of the Order of Canada and the recipient of eight honorary doctorates. As a musician, Jackson has recorded fourteen albums, while his acting career has included roles on the television series North of 60 as well as several movies for television. Jackson’s annual Huron Carole Benefit Concert Series has raised more than $100 million for the Canadian Association of Food Banks. In 2004, Jackson launched the Singing for Supper concert series in place of the Huron Carole, playing small community venues across Canada to raise money for food banks, ministries and food programs. Similarly, his Swinging for Supper series raises money for food banks through the combination of golf and live music. Jackson was born to a Cree mother and an English father, attributing all of his good works to the values his parents instilled in him. Indigenous peoples are filled with generosity and love, Jackson stresses, reflecting on his time spent in communities in the North. Living on the streets for several years in his youth, Jackson decided to bring the Huron Carole to the stage with his brother Bernie in 1971. In 1973, Jackson and Bernie participated in the American Indian Movement’s occupation of Wounded Knee, and after experiencing the violence of that event, came to the conclusion that ballads were better than bullets. Jackson began song-writing, but by 1988, he had become addicted to drugs and was on the verge of death. The turning point came when Jackson watched passers-by ignore an unconscious homeless man lying on the street, recognizing that this person could have just as easily been him. He contacted emergency services and became “addicted to saving lives,” further developing his acting and singing skills as a compassionate act to help others. Jackson stresses that people must see the commonalities between cultures while at the same time acknowledging diversity. Among several other projects, Jackson is currently working on affordable housing issues.
Synopses by Anna Eyler