A lot has been said and written recently about Canada’s First Nations people and the suffering they’ve endured in residential schools, but there’s a lot about our indigenous folks that doesn’t always get the focus it deserves. Even though the recent tragic story of Moses Amik Beaver, an indigenous artist who was found dead in a Thunder Bay jail highlights the problems in the community, the art these people produce speaks to their joys and aspirations.
First of all, it’s important to understand our contact with them and their place in European-based history in North America. There are records of indigenous art from the early Europeans who came to Canada and North America like fur traders and early explorers that dates back over 500 years.
Here’s another example. In the Arctic, people lived and sustained a lifestyle for 5000 years before they were discovered by the Europeans. They had few possessions and spent most of their time hacking out a meager existence, but they took the time to express themselves artistically by carving antlers, stone and walrus ivory into art.
Closer to home, the Southern Great Lakes Region has pockets of native art that was influenced by early trading with European explorers. Because the weather was more hospitable further south, the tribes who lived there weren’t as nomadic as their Arctic cousins. Being able to live in permanent shelters meant the artisans in any tribe had more time to share their craft and hone their visions.
For these First Nations people in Canada, art and commerce began to mesh together by the 19th century when birch bark canoes, feathered headbands, dreamcatchers and beaded necklaces were sold to tourists and other people from outside the tribes.
Presently, the Canadian government supports native art through the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) department.