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Indigenous arts: Resources for imagining, thinking, and working toward decolonization
(Originally published in February 2022)
In this issue: Perspectives on Indigenous arts on the territory known as Canada, including information about Indigenous arts and ways of being that might be useful in imagining, thinking, and working toward decolonization. The summaries below provide only very brief synopses of complex and insightful reports, and readers of the Arts Research Monitor are encouraged to consult the full reports if possible. Of note, some of the reports below tend to highlight the situation of contemporary Indigenous performing arts more than traditional performing arts, a distinction that is important in the Indigenous performing arts community.
Looking at Indigenous Performing Arts
on the Territory Known as Canada
Primary Colours / Couleurs primaires, January 2021
Authors and researchers: Sara Roque, France Trépanier, Denise Bolduc, Chris Creighton-Kelly, and Richael Laking
Anchored in research efforts that include “historic key documents, two bibliographies, in-depth interviews with 12 experienced Indigenous theatre practitioners, and a survey questionnaire”, this report provides insights into Indigenous performing arts creation “on the territory known as Canada”. The authors note that “this document comes from and returns to Indigenous arts communities”. As such, the goal is “to document what needs to happen to make Indigenous theatre thrive in these lands now known as Canada”.
As a “point of departure”, the report indicates that “Indigenous performing arts are underfunded, under resourced and under appreciated”. Moving well beyond that starting point, the report offers four “prerequisites for understanding the current situation of Indigenous performing arts”.
● Indigenous worldviews: “All Indigenous art practices are different because of what existed before and what was changed by colonial history…. Almost always, there is a link - direct or indirect - to land…. It is impossible to overstate the importance of Indigenous knowledge – again with roots in the land – to contemporary Indigenous performing arts.”
● Indigenous communities: There is significant diversity between Indigenous Peoples and their arts practices: “… many art practices derive from different roots inherent in the protocols of different First Peoples/Nations.” The performing arts are a part of the significant work underway to revive, renew, and reinvigorate Indigenous languages, many of which were hidden or obliterated by “the cultural genocide produced by colonialism in the territory now called Canada”.
● Indigenous spaces: “Generally, Indigenous arts organizations live in various states of precarity…. Most of the Indigenous arts ecology is fragile and subject to bureaucratic decision making.” In cases where “existing cultural institutions have established ‘Indigenous sections’ within their structures”, these can be “underfunded, misunderstood, ignored - sometimes unwelcome within the institution [and at risk of being] eliminated at a moment’s notice”.
● Indigenous self-determination: “Self-determination is complex, context-specific and essential to the understanding of any way forward…. There is no point in imagining concepts like ‘reconciliation’, without centring self-determination…. decolonizing the arts means questioning colonial assumptions and starting again with different premises, not tinkering with Eurocentric models”. The report argues for “Indigenous community engagement in every aspect of the Canadian arts system, [such as] what qualifies as art; eligibility criteria for applications to arts funding; arts juries; the definition of professional artist; what constitutes a sanctioned venue; what is an accredited degree vs other forms of education/learning; success metrics”. “By incorporating Indigenous worldviews and values, a new path naturally leads to a new destination.”
The report emphasizes that “the practice of Indigenous performing arts in the territory known as Canada is different [from settlers’ arts practices]. It is not a difference of degree, but a significant difference in kind. The round stick cannot fit into the tiny square Euroderivative theatre forms and methods of creation.”
The report highlights the fact that “different First Peoples have different knowledge; different stories; different cultural traditions”, which lead to differences in performing arts creation and practices. Some are “community-based, land-based, Traditional Knowledge-based (TK) or aspiring to a professional, contemporary practice”.
The report concludes with eight “ideas for concrete action … as a way to move forward towards actual initiatives that change the conditions for Indigenous arts creation”:
● A needs assessment
● An Indigenous arts and culture vision
● Scaling up infrastructure
● Indigenous performing arts history
● Critical commentary
● Educating the mainstream
Elwood Jimmy and Vanessa Andreotti, with Sharon Stein
Musagetes Foundation, June 2019
This qualitative, Indigenous-centred book provides an insightful perspective of Indigenous-settler relations, which could be particularly useful for organizations that are working toward decolonization. The book “is based on conversations that have happened during an ongoing collaborative process between Elwood Jimmy and Vanessa Andreotti as part of their work with Musagetes, a foundation with a mandate to make the arts more central and meaningful in peoples’ lives, in our communities and societies.”
The book offers the metaphors of “construction bricks” and “knitting threads” as ways of understanding different perspectives on life. “Brick sense and sensibilities stand for a set of ways of being that emphasize individuality, fixed form and linear time”, while “thread sense and sensibilities stand for a set of ways of being that emphasize inter-wovenness, shape-shifting flexibility and layered time”. The book identifies ways of being, ways of knowing, and communications tendencies associated with each perspective.
Braiding is defined in the book “as a practice yet-to-come located in a space in-between and at the edges of bricks and threads, aiming to calibrate each sensibility towards a generative orientation and inter-weave their strands to create something new and contextually relevant, while not erasing differences, historical and systemic violences, uncertainty, conflict, paradoxes and contradictions”.
Many tips for success in braiding (or decolonization) work are provided, such as:
● Starting from the potentially generative place of not-knowing
● Approaching things differently and engaging based on “the importance of humility, continued learning, and centring relationships”
● Exhibiting patience, generosity, and risk-taking
● Identifying and using “generative” language regarding settler–Indigenous relations, socially engaged art, philanthropy focussed on social transformation, and organizational decision-making.
● Asking key questions regarding “your expectations, your intentions, and the impact of your choices, and [thinking] systemically [about] how these are rooted in a larger social and historical context”.
Necessary conditions for braiding and pitfalls to avoid are also offered in the book. Some of the pitfalls that could even affect organizations with “a genuine yearning for deeper connections and relationships” are:
● Failing “to imagine that other ways of working, collaborating and relating are possible”
● Only incorporating “non-threatening Indigenous content” and implementing superficial changes
● Instrumentalization, tokenism, and unrealistic expectations of Indigenous workers
Recommendations are provided in working toward braiding, i.e., “working towards the possibility of a very different way of being together that requires the interruption of the dominant colonial habits of being”.
The final section of the book identifies areas for further investigation, including “relationships between Indigenous and racialized communities; Indigenous and decolonizing approaches to climate change; and the internal heterogeneity of Indigenous communities. These three intentions remind us of the many complexities that are involved in braiding work, and how these complexities operate in multiple layers simultaneously.”
A Culture of Exploitation: “Reconciliation” and the Institutions of Canadian Art
Yellowhead Institute (Ryerson University), August 2020
Author: Lindsay Nixon
This report is based on “the history of the relationship between Indigenous people in the Arts as well as anonymous interviews completed recently [during the pandemic] with Indigenous cultural workers across Canada, from diverse regions, positions, and backgrounds”. Yellowhead Institute is a First Nations-led research centre based in Toronto that aims to generate "critical policy perspectives in support of First Nation jurisdiction."
The report indicates that “even before COVID-19, the great majority of Indigenous cultural workers were uniquely exploited by Canada’s art industries and were already set up to fail when the pandemic and ongoing economic crisis hit”. Inequities in the arts community that are identified in the report include:
● Tokenism and marginalization
● Reconciliation exploitation
● (Willful) ignorance
● Pandemic precarity
● Online confinement
The report identifies 2017 as a “reconciliation year” (aka Canada 150) that was a culmination of an intense period of activism. The report notes that, “initially, the results of the ‘reconciliation year’ were positive with increased representation and support. However, since then and in the midst of a pandemic, those commitments have begun to evaporate,” which leads the author to wonder if “reconciliation in Canada’s arts and culture sectors was little more than a temporary pre-occupation”.
The report offers “15 Standards of Achievement that can serve as a guide for institutions and governments to begin reversing this [history of] exploitation and renewing the relationship”. Working toward the standards, according to the report, could represent “a helpful re-start of the relationship … with renewed attention to existing recommendations and Calls to Action [of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission], reinforced with listening to the ideas of a contemporary generation of Indigenous cultural workers”. A few examples of the standards include:
● “#ReturnOurAncestors! … museums must repatriate the bodies of Indigenous ancestors” and “digitize and make private archives and holdings accessible for transparency”.
● “Integrate diverse Indigenous peoples and knowledges throughout corporate structures” in the arts community.
● “Put the onus of learning on the actors within cultural institutions”.
● “Ensure the growth of Black and Indigenous cultural workers into senior positions”.
● “Restructure provincial and national arts funding in Canada”, ensuring that initiatives for Indigenous peoples are “managed by Indigenous peoples and redesigned in a way that decentralizes institutional modes of power”.
The Role of Indigenous Artists and the Development of an Indigenous Pedagogy for Modern Artistic Expression
Primary Colours / Couleurs primaires, [no date]
Author: Joahnna Berti
This blog post explores two main questions: “the role of Indigenous artists in community and how this role impacts training”. The report highlights how the historical development of Indigenous arts and arts learning provides the foundation of current arts learning initiatives.
The post offers a brief history of Indigenous artists and arts institutions, especially related to arts learning. According to the author, the history exhibits “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”.
An important conclusion of the post is that Indigenous values, languages and lifeways must anchor an Indigenous arts learning curriculum: “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 [are] critical to high quality innovative and expressive new works that will inform training curriculums and programs across the country.”
The post outlines important challenges in Indigenous arts learning, both currently and historically: “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”. Further, “mainstream Canada has struggled to support a foundation and direction” of Indigenous arts, sometimes interrupting or interfering by “taking the lead” rather than truly collaborating.
This publication was originally funded through a pilot project with the Azrieli Foundation, the Metcalf Foundation, and the Rozsa Foundation. It is reproduced here for ease-of-access only (and without any paywall).