Voice of the natives

long history

Voice of the natives

The aboriginal art of Canada, known for its skill and craftsmanship, continues to be an inspiration for creative works even to this day. Aruna Chandaraju visits Canada to explore its native traditions and finds it highly rewarding.

The Calgary Stampede of Canada, which is touted as ‘The  Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth’, has more than animals and men competing with each other in fiercely fought races. In between the heat and dust of these battles, we walked over to a corner of the Stampede Park (the venue of the event) to see the heritage of Canada’s First Nations’ people, belonging to the Treaty 7, as they are called. There, at the Calgary Stampede Indian Village, were showcased fabulous specimens of the traditional art and craft of Canada. Tipis (tents), natives dressed in stunningly beautiful traditional attire, colourful and skilfully crafted artefacts and functional objects, jewellery, clothes... there was a very interesting legacy on display.

Whether at this venue, or the Indian Trading Post, or the several museums and art galleries across Canada, you can see fabulous specimens of First Nations’ art, also known as aboriginal art or native art, and get a glimpse of its diversity, depth and richness. Historians say these traditions can be traced back thousands of years, possibly the last Ice Age. There are over 600 such communities whose heritage enriches Canada. Each has a distinct art style.

These legacies of several tribes or groups of original inhabitants across Canada’s different regions have been studied extensively by ethnographers, sociologists, ethnohistorians and historical archaeologists. Not only because they represent a long and fascinating tradition, but because they provide insights into these peoples’ way of life, and their aesthetic values, and throw light on their social and cultural evolution too.

From the Haida of the west coast to the Inuit of the north, or the First Nations of Treaty 7 like the Stoney Nakoda and Kainai, these people create an incredibly vast and amazingly beautiful range of art. We were told that the Micmacs make lovely moosehair embroidery and porcupine quillwork decoration on birchbark and baskets. Also, that the Cree people of Northern Alberta and the Dene people of the Northwest Territory, ages ago, employed moosehair tufting to embellish their attire. We heard  that the sculpture of Arctic Quebec native people was naturalistic, and tending to be narrative in nature, and that Nunavik Inuit are fond of realistic carvings. And so on....
Astounding variety

Whether or not one could remember the names of these communities and their long history, and the technical terms that define and describe their art, and the different theories about their evolution; the one thing that endured in our memory was the astounding variety and beauty of their creations. A visit to Canada to explore its native art traditions can be highly rewarding.

You will find products using several materials like soapstone, wood, leather, feathers (of the blue heron, for example), animal hair, animal hide, beads, shells, lyme grass, straw, etc. You can see woodcarvings, masks, ceremonial bowls, animal figurines, baskets, quillwork-decorated products, utensils, hats, textiles, musical instruments, beaded and stone-studded jewellery, headdresses, wall panels, moccasins, peace pipes, dreamcatchers, and paintings of all sizes and shapes which often use flamboyant colours. Even the tipis and totem poles you see across Canada will have vibrant hues. Eagles, wolves, dogs, hunting scenes and local legends and stories figure prominently in the artworks of many First Nations communities.

It requires a great deal of skill and knowledge to fashion these products. Many of them involve multi-step, time-consuming processes. Especially certain ones like those using hair for ornamentation. Ideally, the moosehair for tufting should come from the winter fur procured between December and March, and has to be of a certain length (six to eight inches long), and also taken from the centre of the animal’s back. Subsequently, it has to be sorted, washed and dyed and the pattern for the picture has to be drawn very painstakingly! A similar attention to detail and aesthetic sense is seen in the regalia of dancers from First Nations. These are handmade and fashioned with meticulous care. Some of these regalia are highly elaborate and intricately detailed. And also designed to last. Some of the outfits worn by them are very old since they have been handed down from generation to generation, we gathered.

Talking of tipis, some of their designs are hundreds of years old, we were told. We also learnt that, traditionally, tipis would have their doors open to the east (as we, vaastu-loving Indians, also love to have in our homes) so as to face the rising sun everyday. The patterns on the tipis have a direct or symbolic significance. Father Heaven is reflected in the design on the top section of the tent, and Mother Earth is represented in the bottom part of the design. Often, you can find representations of animals, clouds, rainbow, boulders, water, spirits, etc.

Inspiring imagery

Totem poles are regarded as monuments and are typically made of red cedar. They are visual — and often richly detailed — representations of kinship and ancestry. They were made to commemorate histories including significant events and people. On these tall, striking poles, you can see stylised and symbolic human, animal and supernatural forms. About the poles in Vancouver, we were informed that they are not idols meant to be worshipped. Each carving on the pole has a meaning. The crests also have a context and there is a wide range of them, like the thunderbird crest, grizzly bear, frog, wolf, eagle, killer whale, raven and salmon. Many of these poles sport vivid colours. You can see some very impressive specimens at Stanley Park and also the Museum of Anthropology (both in Vancouver), and the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, to give a few examples. These poles often form a favourite photo-op for visitors.

Many aboriginal crafts on display today continue to use traditional materials and methods, though several also combine these with some contemporary adaptations, bringing more variety and vitality into the range. Besides the descendants of First Nations’ people, there are many contemporary artists of Canada, including immigrants, who draw on these aboriginal themes since they afford such a wealth of inspiration. You will see these influences in the modern media like photography, ceramics, posters, watercolours, installations, etching, and represented also in the interiors and designs of buildings, including desktop decor items.

There are many, many places across Canada — too long to list in their entirety — featuring historical artefacts related to First Nations’ people. To mention a few places where they are showcased — there are the Metis Native Arts Gallery, the large and well-known Beerclaw Gallery, Indian Trading Post and the Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum. The Glenbow Museum displays items from First Nations across all regions of Canada, including the Blackfoot Nation. A prominent example which is also a World Heritage Site is the sprawling Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump which also has an interpretive centre. Another noteworthy collection is at the Blackfoot Crossing Interpretive Centre.

The Royal Alberta Museum also has an extensive collection of art and history relating to the Cree, Blackfoot, Metis, Dene and Nakoda Nations’ people. At the Royal British Columbia Museum is a First Peoples gallery. It houses a large collection of First Nations’ artefacts, and several of these belong to the traditions of the Haida people. At Toronto, the Bay of Spirits Gallery also offers a fine display of First Nations’ art. The National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and the Inuit Gallery in Vancouver also feature collections that illustrate the rich cultural diversity of Canada and its people.

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