Indigenous art is beautiful and rich in culture and diversity. It comes in many forms, like paintings, sculptures, music, and dance, and is critical in preserving Indigenous heritage and cultural identity.
While some of us may not be familiar with Indigenous art, now is a great time to get better acquainted with the amazing masterpieces from First Nations, Inuit, and Metis communities.
Read on to learn more about Indigenous art, the artist behind these beautiful works, and how you can help preserve Indigenous cultures.
What we’ll discuss:
• Indigenous art in Canada.
• Indigenous artists in Canada and their artwork.
• Help preserve Indigenous Culture.
Indigenous art in Canada stretches back to the last Ice Age. There are records of Indigenous Peoples creating art as far back as 80,000 years ago on Turtle Island. However, the oldest surviving artworks that we have to date are about 5,000 years old.
From stone carvings and paintings to beadwork and throat games, artistic expression is at the heart of Indigenous Peoples. It is a way of acknowledging their ancestors, spirituality, and heritage.
However, Indigenous artistic expression was banned for many years due to government-led assimilation practices like residential schools. “The Indian residential school [system] did a lot of damage to Indigenous art practice [and] ideas of art expression,” states Cree knowledge keeper, Albert McLeod. “It was intentional to invalidate that as a cultural or historic expression of Indigenous Peoples.”
Today, many Indigenous artists are revitalizing Indigenous art forms, adding a modern twist by incorporating mainstream pop culture references and highlighting the injustices Indigenous Peoples face. To McLeod, this innovation reflects the ingenuity, resilience, and brilliance of Indigenous Peoples who are reconciling the past while charting a new future.
Daphne Odjig was born in 1919 on Manitoulin Island’s Wiikwemkoong reserve. Her father and grandfather, both stone carvers, began to nurture her talent for drawing and painting at age 13 when she spent a significant amount of time at home recuperating from rheumatic fever.
Early in her career, Daphne Odjig studied art in Ottawa and Sweden. She also spent a lot of time at the Art Gallery of Ontario, which was a significant source of inspiration for her bold, colorful style. During these formative years, Odjig disconnected from her Indigenous heritage — in an attempt to avoid racism and discrimination.
However, in 1964 Odjig attended the 4th annual Wiikwemkoong Pow Wow, where she reconnected her Indigenous identity. This led to a shift in her art style to represent more Indigenous themes starting with her paintings of the old tales of Nanabush (a spirit in Ojibwe heritage).
She often combined mixing traditional Indigenous styles with Cubist and Surrealist influences commonly known as the “Woodland” art style.
Daphne Odjig’s masterpieces depicted many issues Indigenous Peoples have and continue to face. This includes colonization and the displacement of Indigenous Peoples.
What’s more, she co-founded the Professional Native Indian Artists Inc in 1971, one of the first self-managed Indigenous artists’ collectives and cultural advocacy groups, also known as the Indigenous Group of 7. The collective advocated for inclusion, recognition, and access to funding for Indigenous contemporary art.
Through her artwork and advocacy, Odjig is responsible for bringing Indigenous voices to the forefront in the Canadian art sector.
Her works can be seen in the University of Lethbridge Art Collection, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, and the Nickle Arts Museum at the University of Calgary.
Tanya Tagaq-Gillis was born in Ikaluktutiak (Cambridge Bay, Nunavut) and is an Inuk throat singer, rapper, experimental musician, painter and author.
Known primarily for her throat singing, Tagaq-Gillis is self-taught. Although the art is typically practiced in pairs, but since she didn’t have a partner, she learned it on her own.
Tanya Tagaq-Gillis became internationally recognized for her collaboration with Bjork on her album Medúlla, released in 2004. She has since won a Juno and become a member of the Order of Canada and a Polaris Music Prize winner. Tanya Tagaq-Gillis has also received numerous honourary doctorates
Tanya Tagaq-Gillis’ music is often improvisational when performed live. However, she does have several recorded albums available for purchase and streaming. Through her music, she advocates for social justice and human rights. Many of her songs discuss the injustices faced by Indigenous Peoples, gender-based violence, and climate change.
Norval Morriseau was born in 1932. Most of his early childhood was spent learning sacred cultural traditions from his grandfather, which later influenced his art style. At the age of six, Morriseau was forced by the Canadian government to attend a Catholic residential school and was banned from practicing the traditions of his culture. When he returned home, he spent most of his time making art.
At the age of 19, he became very ill, and during a healing ceremony, he was given the name Miskwaabik Animiiki (Copper Thunderbird). After that, he began painting more.
Norval Morrisseau became a national success in 1962 when he held an exhibition at the Pollock Gallery in Toronto. It was the first time in Canadian history that an Indigenous artist showed work at a major contemporary art gallery.
As his notoriety grew, he used his platform to advocate for other emerging artists. So in 1971, he co-founded the Professional Native Indian Artists Inc along with Daphne Odjig.
Norval Morrisseau is often considered the grandfather of contemporary Indigenous art in Canada. He is the first Eastern Woodlands artist to translate his culture — Anishnaabe and Ojibway — visually through different mediums like acrylic paintings, prints and drawing, making it accessible for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples.
Norval Morrisseau used his well-known and unique artistic style to portray traditional stories, spiritual themes, and political messages in his work. Three generations of Indigenous artists now use his pictographic style.
While most of his art is in private collections, he does have works on display around the world and in the National Gallery of Canada.
Maxine Noel was born in Manitoba of Santee Oglala Sioux. At the age of six, she was forced to attend a residential school.
Maxine’s early career started as a legal secretary, but she soon turned to painting and drawing – and never looked back. Her artwork is most recognizable for its expressive line work, fluid images, and subtle colours.
To date, she signs her name as IOYAN MANI, her Sioux name that translates to “Walk Beyond.”
Maxine Noel’s artwork presents the true spirit of Indigenous Peoples: their sensibilities, generosity and loving nature. It also raises awareness about the many atrocities and injustices inflicted on Indigenous Peoples. For example, her piece Not Forgotten raised awareness about the high rate of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada.
In 2016, Noel was recognized by First Nations leaders and federal cabinets for her advocacy. And in 2019, Maxine was appointed to the Order of Canada for her “unique work in visual arts and for her advocacy of the creative expression of Indigenous communities.“
Noel and other First Nations artists are also working with an organization called Artists Against Racism, creating their EAGLES RISING project to raise awareness of the systemic racism Indigenous Peoples are subjected to.
James Jones, better known as Notorious Cree, is an Indigenous educator and hoop dancer. Hoop dancing is an Indigenous form of dance that uses hoops to create static and dynamic shapes, representing different animals, symbols and various storytelling elements.
James Jones appeared as a finalist on So You Think You Can Dance Canada and is ranked as one of the top five hoop dancers in the world. Some of his most notable performances include Vancouver Olympics, JUNO awards, Pan Am Games, and Coachella. He also worked with artists such as K-OS and Snoop Lion.
James Jones has created a powerful way of sharing his hoop dancing through social media platforms like TikTok. His videos reach a broad audience, raising awareness about Indigenous cultures and histories, suppressed by the Canadian government for many years. In doing so, James Jones revitalizes Indigenous cultural practices while educating non-Indigenous Peoples.
Christi Belcourt was born in Scarborough, Ontario, in 1966. During a dark period in her life, when she stopped going to school and was doing drugs, the sister of an Indigenous Elder introduced her to traditional beadwork. From then on, she embarked on a journey of learning and discovery related to her Metis culture.
She has since been commissioned to do various art installations by institutions such as the Gabriel Dumont Institute in Saskatoon, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, the Centre for Traditional Knowledge, and the Canadian Museum of Nature. She also had the opportunity to design the medals for the 2015 Pan Am and Parapan Am Games.
Christi Belcourt’s art is extremely impactful. Her touring art installation, Walking with our Sisters, uses beadwork and moccasin vamps to highlight the many missing and murdered Indigenous women. And in partnership with fellow Indigenous artists, she created #Resistance150, a project that directly responded to the 150th anniversary of Canada – #Canada150, which did not address the Indigenous Peoples who have been here for more than 15,000 years. The project also highlighted the many ways Indigenous Peoples continue to resist the government-led discriminatory practices. For example, the allowance of pipeline construction on unceded Indigenous land despite Indigenous opposition.
Christi Belcourt has received multiple awards for her work, including the Governor General’s Innovation Award and the Premier’s Award of the Arts. She is also an Aboriginal Arts Laureate.
Her work can be found in the National Gallery of Canada, the Gabriel Dumont Institute, the Art Gallery of Ontario, Parliament Hill, the Indian and Inuit Art Collection, and First People’s Hall.
Jeremy Dutcher is a classically trained operatic tenor, pianist, composer, musicologist, performer, and activist with his roots in the Tobique First Nation (one of six Wolastoqiyik or Maliseet Nation reserves).
He studied music in Halifax before working in the archives at the Canadian Museum of History. There, he transcribed Wolastoq songs from wax cylinders, dating back to 1907. “Many of the songs I’d never heard before because our musical tradition on the East Coast was suppressed by the Canadian Government’s Indian Act,” explains Dutcher.
Although he is classically trained in Western music, Jeremy Dutcher has reached a unique intersection between the original music and language of the Wolastoq people and the Western influences he was exposed to.
By composing many of his songs in Wolsatq, Jeremy preserves the culture and heritage that has been torn away from Indigenous Peoples through years of systematic discrimination and government-led assimilation. The Wolastoq language is severely endangered. Only about 100 individuals still speak Wolstaq.
“It’s crucial for us to make sure that we’re using our language and passing it on to the next generation. If you lose the language, you’re not just losing words; you’re losing an entire way of seeing and experiencing the world from a distinctly Indigenous perspective,” continues Jeremy Dutcher.
In 2018, Jeremy Dutcher won the Polaris Music Prize, an incredible achievement that honours the music he creates and the work he does in preserving his language and culture.
Nathalie Bertin is a multidisciplinary artist from Toronto with roots in Michilimackinac and Nipissing. She is of Metis, French, and Algonquin ancestry.
Nathalie Bertin’s art is known for its bold, energetic, and bright energy. She is a self-described “colour junkie” and loves adding luminescence and coloured layers to her works.
Her work includes mediums like beadwork, printing, and embroidery. They combine classical art techniques with designs from her ancestry, allowing her to develop a unique style reminiscent of her own identity.
Previously, the Royal Canadian Mint reproduced some of Bertin’s story illustrations of the northern lights on collector coins in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
Nathalie Bertin has spent many years developing community-based projects that raise awareness about Indigenous Peoples and offer healing. She does this by portraying her people in a positive light, rather than their usual romanticized depictions as seen throughout art history.
For example, she created and curated an exhibition entitled, This is My Song: Perspectives from Contemporary Native Women, which highlighted contemporary Indigenous artists and was used as a forum for discussion to bridge the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples. She also curated Indigenesse, which, as she states, aimed to “offer healing, education, and to inform all communities.”
Kiki Harper, better known as, Anachnid, is an Oji-Cree and Mi’kmaq electronic musician based in Montreal, Quebec. Her name is a mix between her Indigenous name and her spirit totem animal: spider (arachnid). Anachnid claims that the spider energy in her is what brought her to music.
Anachnid’s music weaves together electro-pop and her Indigenous roots. Her soft voice and varied musical influences like trap, indie, soul, and hip-hop help create the unique sound of her music.
Anachnid went to predominantly non-Indigenous schools, often feeling like her heritage, history, and culture were not recognized in the curriculum. In the same vein, she feels the human rights of Indigenous Peoples have continued to be ignored by the Canadian government. “It makes no sense to me that the government has all the funding to help everyone, but all this time, they didn’t help Indigenous communities have running water. It’s a basic human right,” states Anachnid.
Through, as she describes, her “creative anger,” Anachnid uses her music to shed light on the systemic racism Indigenous Peoples experience. For instance, in her song Windigo, she creatively discusses the impact of colonialism on ancestral territories.
Anachnid has been nominated for a Polaris Music Award and won the Indigenous Songwriter of the Year award at the Indigenous Music Awards in 2019.
Indigenous art encompasses paintings, dance, music, beadwork, sculptures, and so much more. It is at the core of Indigenous ways of life and a means of honouring their ancestors, spirituality, and heritage. It’s also a way of preserving traditional practices and languages, which the Canadian government has suppressed for many years.
Although there is now a resurgence of Indigenous cultures – thanks in part to Indigenous artists, more support is needed to ensure Indigenous cultures do not disappear forever. That’s why it’s important to donate to organizations that preserve and revitalize Indigenous culture and languages.
You can support these vital organizations by donating to the Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Fund. It supports over 40 Indigenous-led organizations that help heal the physical and emotional traumas of the Indian Act, colonialism, and other injustices. They also help rebuild traditional cultures and languages that were passed from generation to generation but lost or damaged by government-led assimilation practices.
Stand in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples by donating today. Your gift will help ensure Indigenous cultures thrive.
You can also donate to the Indigenous Culture and Language Resurgence in the Canadian North Fund. It supports various community-led programs that are revitalizing Indigenous cultures in the North. Your donation will assist in amplifying Indigenous leadership, accelerating Indigenous culture, and furthering Indigenous governance and stewardship of homelands. Donate today!