There is no one word for “artist” in the Indigenous languages from across Canada. The closest phrase might be to describe “People who work with their hands and minds to create and make things”. This type of intuitive art practice requires the ingenuity of an artists’ mind, which was traditionally driven by their sense of knowing their greater responsibility for the survival and well being of their community.
“Making something you need, out of nothing!” (Ellen Profeit)
In my mind’s eye I envision a small herd of Muskox, their hair blowing in the wind in the Eastern Arctic. They have formed a circle around their young ones and now facing out, stand with heads bent, in a protection stance, ready to defend them against any danger outside of this sacred circle.
Training within an interdependent, intergenerational community was a continual process from birth to death. It required an understanding of the mores and traditions of that community’s culture and the sole purpose of this stance was ensuring a greater ability to survive within their homelands.
Education of children began at conception. Many Indigenous people had special ceremonies to ensure the health and well being of the mother and for the future of the unborn child. Her safety and protection was always paramount. Another tradition was the bonding of the father with that baby. This was carried out by holding the mother’s abdomen each evening, and telling the baby how he/she would be in the future. Within the fortress of parents and extended family, each child would be guided throughout their childhood and adolescence to be the best they could be as adults. Adults who could contribute to the well-being and wholeness of their community,
“You will be a good person, a kind person, a good hunter and make great dried meat and fish. You will be a happy person and will love your life”
Today, however there is an ever-increasing chasm in the Indigenous population of Canada between the younger and the older generations. There are many reasons for this, but the most outstanding, from my point of view, is the over use of technologies. Technologies are good in many ways, but for many it has become an addiction, which has not helped to remedy this separation within families. In fact, it has made it more difficult to bridge this gap, particularly for those who live in urban areas, those who are away from grandparents and older relatives, attending school, and having to live in cities. Today it is common practice for many of the younger generation to simply go to “Gramma Google” to learn things related to their culture.
The following commentary is to share what was, what is, and what the future might hold, and why it is so imperative to develop programs which may sew these two solitudes back together to ensure a stronger future for everyone. Isolation and loneliness is rampant in many communities amongst Elders and Indigenous youth who live in a cyber space for most of their waking hours.
The most important tool, which has begun to make a difference in closing this gap, is founded in cultural practices where art and languages are at its centre. Art, which is multi-disciplined, in all its magnificent array! Art has always been part of traditional life, unseparated from all other aspects of life. Artistic practice evolved amongst the hunters/gatherers of this land, according to their needs. When times were difficult and animals scarce, new technologies were adopted as a means of pursuing animals for food.
“From snowshoes to satellites. From bows and arrows to high powered rifles. From dug outs to powered motor boats!”
In such a short space of time this new phenomena has caused us to work harder to detach ourselves from technologies and pay attention to what is real and focus on that, which allows us to become the best human beings we can be.
“People need other people to stay in balance. We must forever be thankful to the Creator”
Traditionally, people living on the land were all imbued with an artistic ability to make their own hunting tools, implements, shelter, and clothing. This inherent ingenuity of our ancestors still lies in the genes and blood memory of our children. By restoration of cultural artistic practices there has been a great surge towards strengthening and unifying communities that were almost decimated through colonialism and the imposition of residential schools. Parents and their children are now relearning their languages, dances and songs. This in turn has created strong families releasing a potent creative power amongst the people. The desire to help each other is coming back and with this non-western way of looking at our artistic endeavours. We have begun to nourish the people with their rich heritage through stories of a great people, and moulding and training the next generation to stand on the shoulders of the Elders of today.
We must now learn a new form of art, based on the same traditions that ensured our unity and sustained our people. This process must be carried out with love, respect and reverence for our ancestors who have brought us to this place we now occupy, despite the hardships placed upon them in the past with colonization and residential school systems.
“They took away our land, our children, and our language, but they cannot take away our spirit!”
Whole communities are beginning to take an interest in language retention, which provides a better understanding of the aesthetics of our original and unique art practices. The inherent and somewhat egotistical and self centeredness of the western world cannot dominate or fool the present generation of what art is truly about, that of giving thanks to the Creator for gifting us with our talents and sense of creativity. Our art must continue to strive to be a light, to guide all of us on this earth to our spiritual destiny as a people.
Indigenous art is uniquely bound to this land. It is reflective of our nobility to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization. Original art was not about competing, but was created to improve the comfort and sustenance of the people. Ancient artists knew the spiritual law of sharing and generosity. Today this sense of competitiveness prevalent amongst those in the non-Indigenous art world is now affecting Indigenous artists who find themselves also engulfed in this same practice. This stands to reason, as the art world is very demanding with so many attempting to simply make a living from their art.
Knowledge was a gift not only for the benefit of the individual but was to be shared with others in the community. Every person who was endowed with these abilities had the responsibility to pass on their talents to the next generation and to teach them. This increased the strength of the whole community and created a respect for the mentors who always encouraged their understudies by praising their potential in reaching higher levels of mastery; in whatever genre they found their calling. In other words the Elders who were raised in residential schools, with a totally opposite educational curricula, are now in the forefront of determining a wholesome and stronger future. They are like a rudder on a boat, holding up the next generation and enabling them to determine where they will take their intelligence to improve the plight of their people.
Each Indigenous nation developed their own distinctive culture, which included a variety of teachings related to the arts. There were certain protocols set for accessing this knowledge in a good way. It is important for those exploring these art forms to become familiar with the protocols of each region of the country. By doing so, the budding artist will show forth the respect and spiritual conditioning necessary to move in the traditional art world. It brings a sort of protection to both the student and the teacher by observing these laws.
Remnants of traditional art practices developed over centuries, now lay buried in the earth across this continent. Many of these renderings have been unearthed from their “subterranean galleries” with pieces dating back to the Pleistocene era. These collections continue to inform us of the greatness of our ancestral intelligence and abilities, and give us a clue into what their mythologies and spiritual practices were. These exhibitions include carved stone implements, arrow and spearheads, fishing hooks, stone axes, baskets, stone bowls, amulets, stone knives etc. These finds are like voices of the past, and definite evidence of the strength of our Nations whose art enabled them to survive in some of the most challenging and harsh environments in the world.
Buried for centuries, here now was an exhibition waiting patiently for future generations to marvel at this evidence left behind by our ancestors who were amazingly talented “creators of things”, and who ensured our survival. These articles have made themselves visible, to remind us of this ancestral memory and strength that we as descendants can now tap into. We can also pose the question, “who better to interpret these findings for the younger generation than our Elders”? Those who have been told since they were children of what and how these implements were made. Younger artists need to be shown these collections in museums across the country to be inspired by artists of the past and what they were able to make. I believe that our ancestors wanted us to see these findings so we can interpret them within our own practice.
Every person in the Indigenous community was an artist in the traditional sense. Our people had to be! Each one of us has been given a gift by the Creator. These gifts were not only given for creating things of beauty and function, but also served as a constant reminder to honour the land, the water, the plants, the animals, the fish and the birds, most of which were hunted and ensured our survival.
These teachings and values were all taught from an early age and practised throughout our entire lives. When one excelled at their craft, the ability to make something perfect, beautiful and practical was honoured and respected. Those who possessed these talents and faculties, their main responsibility was to share them with the next generation. Elders from each territory recognized and remembered these stories of old, when bravery and valour of living off the land was a given. They need to be honoured for their knowledge and included in all aspects of our training programs so that they can fulfil their duty and responsibilities as our ancestors did. By doing so, we will be assured of their gentle guidance and constant encouragement as our mentors.
“The honour of one was the honour of all”
Most transference of knowledge from our Elders was done quietly, with the learners simply “watching” how things are done, and then later doing what they saw or repeating what they have heard in a song, a prayer, or a story.
Learning through doing. Learning through listening, to be able to hear the language of the birds, the wind, the ice, the temperature, and weather, and by hearing stories and songs of old. These stories provided the narrative documentation of the people, which had and still has the power to encourage and instruct each of us to be better human beings, by knowing the strength of our ancestors.
Using traditional methodologies to create new art practices, can be looked upon as paying homage to our ancestors and bringing them back into our lives. Elders were, and continue to be, the spiritual and mental bridge to do this important task. Their stories must be heard for they will instil within all of us the hope and understanding that this world is a good place. It is a place for creators of art, of all artistic genres. Stories help us to celebrate and restore our strength and our confidence by retrieving all the other life lessons being taught, which can be learned through this process. It is a holistic process of learning.
Traditional art forms and practices of the past were primarily related to tool-making and ceremonial practices for healing through prayer and songs and requesting the blessings of the Creator. Tools for hunting, fishing, and trapping animals were fashioned, and when one looks closer at these items, we realize that our ancestors knew a lot about the science for the making of their art. These two bodies of knowledge were like the sun and the moon, married one to the other. Both sets of knowledge have to be considered if the maker was to make a perfect hunting implement, as anything else would result in a shoddy implement and not guarantee a successful hunt. An arrowhead and shaft had to be absolutely straight to be able to project properly with the power necessary to penetrate the thick hide of the animal being hunted. This was not a plaything, but was a tool for survival, one to be respected and cared for.
“Arrows found were arrows lost” and no doubt caused great anxiety for the original fashioner. A deadfall trap had to be “wolverine-proof”. A fish net had to be woven into perfection so that while floating, would be almost invisible to the unassuming fish swimming towards it. A hand-crafted willow fish trap only has one way in, and no way out, similarly to the hunting techniques utilizing Caribou corrals, which might take up to two years to build. They were built strong so they would last for years to ensure the entrapment of caribou on their annual migration. There are wonderful stories and related songs honouring this process, giving the reason for why these northern creatures travel north in late spring at the full moon, and south during the full autumn moon. History is what gives us strength and hope for the future and there is no better way to access this knowledge than through the voicing of it by our Elders, as their Elders did with them. The world is in need of strong role models.
In the sub-arctic, this ingenuity to capture multiple numbers of animals at a time, for slaughter is no longer part of the body of knowledge of northern youth. It would benefit this next generation greatly to know the strength and ingenuity of their ancestors. It could serve as a role model for their own personal development, by making them much more able to contribute to the betterment of their communities.
The earth gives us the raw material to make our tools for carving, axes, knives (obsidian) weights for our fishing nets, clubs, building materials, glue, insulation, cooking rocks, spruce boughs for our shelters and floors, roots for making rope. Our source of food and clothing comes from the earth, our sense of belonging comes from the earth. How we treat the earth, is how it treats and provides for us.
The earth teaches us patience, faith, generosity, courage, humility, trust, love, respect, honesty, and wisdom. The land and all that exists on the land, teaches us, and provides us, with understanding and wisdom. Survival requires interdependence and sharing our knowledge from one generation to the other to ensure the strength, and to survive hardship. In the day we now live in, it is even more imperative that we seek out the wisdom and knowledge of the Elders who have experienced and know this law of survival. They need the younger generation in order for their lives to be fulfilled.
Sharing and “Giveaways“ are still being practiced in many communities across this vast land and art is being created to honour this practice. The young and the old working together have made this possible and the memory of our ancestors has infused their love into all of us to continue to make this possible.
Fire is necessary for our existence. For warmth, cooking, and for heating rocks for sweat lodges. Our ancestors perfected their use of fire using long torches for catching fish at night, scaring off animals from attacking, for lighting the dark at night. It was of paramount importance to know where flint deposits were and to learn how to make a bow drill to make fire. There is an art to making a fire.
Air is necessary for our existence and for drying meat in the fall. A good warm dry wind is what the meat cutters pray for. The smoke house has to be an architecturally sound dwelling capable of holding up multiple drying racks for meat, or fish, or fowl. Again ventilation and the understanding and knowledge of “dry air” for this process is an art.
Water is necessary for tanning hides, for keeping things clean, for making steam to soften and bend wood into snowshoe frames, bows or ribs for building canoes and boats. Water was necessary for travelling to places to gather our food and art supplies such as birch bark, plants or berries for making dyes, gathering medicinal plants and stones, for making arrowheads and knives. Water held the fish and other animals, which gave us our sustenance. Many of these images were revered and honoured by our artists who would render these images onto their art pieces.
“Everything we need, is around us” (Ellen Profeit circa 1960)
Interruptions in traditional knowledge has occurred in the Indigenous communities over the centuries including residential schools which destroyed the original educational system of mentorship within the traditional community. Loss of land, loss of language, loss of identity and self esteem has made it very difficult for those who wished to evolve and develop their latent capacities. Who do we go to for information with so many Elders having never being taught their traditional art forms? They too are relearning in order to preserve these art forms for the next generation.
How can we utilize these technologies which we now have, to ensure those knowledge keepers are able to be recorded for the benefit of the next generations? Time is of the essence with the loss of many Elders each year. The language associated with many of the traditional art forms has to be captured during the teaching of skills even if the younger artist might never be a fisherman or a hunter. There is a spirit captured in the language and instruction that inspires and encourages the younger people to become the best that they can. The original art form encapsulates and encodes ways of being in the world. Each expression and creation, taught us how to be with ourselves and with one other. Art taught us how to how to care and love each other and how to survive.
Learning the language
There is a special language used to speak to the Creator and another to speak to each other, and to sing the ancient songs. Indigenous language is a soft and kind language where one feels the love of our ancestors coming through old words being spoken again. For many young artists today, there is a movement towards utilizing Indigenous languages in order to keep them from becoming extinct. There is a great urgency to this process. With Elders and youth working together in whatever genre these precious languages will be retained.
I can already see how the youth are sharing it in all facets of their work; in music, rap, writing, dance and theatre. I am sure that this is most pleasing to our ancestors and to the Elders who now have an important role to play in this regard. It will fulfil their longing to speak to someone in their mother tongue. This age will be a win-win situation! By bringing Indigenous languages to their rightful place of honour, it will become a strength and something to be proud of, not ashamed of and a marker of our resilience. Language Nests are springing up across this country. Whole communities and families are taking part in indigenous language instruction, from pre-school to high school and into post-secondary institutions. Books now being published in several Indigenous languages. There is a flourishing, and what was held down for many years is now beginning to be respected and held in high esteem.
We are beginning to “Have our Voice” again!
Learning the stories
Storytelling is an art that occurs throughout our lives everyday. Telling the ancient stories was a way in which our people brought our ancestors back into the family dwelling by sharing our memories of them. Stories were shared in order to make people think about them and decipher their abstract, hidden meanings. Stories were told to make us laugh, cry and become emotionally more intelligent, by being in story. Stories were also a way of learning the oral history of our people through the narrative. It was a very effective training technique to help us to be still and listen with our heart and ears, and was not simply for entertainment. Stories are educational tools necessary for us to learn how to think on all levels, spiritual, physical, mental and in the more abstract mythological sense. Stories are a source of great inspiration as well as a way to sharpen our memory. The most effective way for these stories to be passed along is face to face but if recorded properly, with the consent of the original teller, they could serve to educate the whole arts community.
“Our Stories are our Wealth” (Angela Sidney)
Learning the origins of dances and songs.
We continue to be blessed with the help of our ancestors from the spirit world in assisting us to bring back our dances and songs. Full body learning through dance requires the spiritual, the mental and the physical. It requires all of our intelligence to make and create something useful, to be used as a teaching agent to mold us into better human beings, who deserve to have the earth as our home, the place to dance upon.
Through the arts we create a stronger community, one which requires the teachings of perseverance, patience, perfection, creativity, sharing and generosity; the importance of respect for materials, our mentors and teachers and every living thing on earth. It is about the ebb and flow of our oceans, river ways and lakes and all creatures within them. It also encompasses learning about the universe and how we are part of that Great Mystery.
With the utilization of all of our tools for the survival, both social and cultural, through our association with the arts, this guarantees our strength and unity as a people. Through our cultural practices we will become the people whom the Creator has chosen to be the caretakers of the earth. By doing so, we are giving back the gifts we have been blessed with to serve all of humanity. And, as was said at the beginning; we are being driven by our sense of knowing our greater responsibility for our survival and the well being of our community.
By Louise Profeit-LeBlanc - Nacho Ny’ak Dâ First Nation
Louise Profeit-Leblanc is an internationally renown, traditional Storyteller from theNacho Nyak Dun First Nationof Mayo, in northeast Yukon. For well over 35 years she has been committed to the cultural and artistic heritage of Yukon First Nations people. Prior to her move to Ottawa where she served as the Aboriginal Arts Coordinator for the Canada Council for the Arts for 11 years, she was employed by the Heritage Branch of the Yukon Government. It was during this tenure that she was introduced to the traditional stories of the Yukon, which ultimately inspired the founding of theYukon International Storytelling Festivaland theSociety of Yukon Artists of Native Ancestry,both germane to the evolution of public presentation of Yukon First Nation cultural practices that we see flourishing in the Yukon today.
Her association with many Yukon Elders resulted in her role as a “Story Keeper,” a responsibility and honour which she does not take lightly being constantly reminded by the wise words of her mentor/teacher, Tagish Elder, Angela Sidney-“Live your life like a story!”; a practice she attempts to uphold throughout her everyday life. She has a strong belief that through this process of sharing stories, humanity will right itself and come to a better understanding about the “sacred space” of reconciliation.
Banner image: provided by Louise Profeit-Leblanc