by Bruce Mason
Indigenous/Aboriginal /First Nations/Inuit art is one of the most exciting creative forces in Canada and on our endangered Earth. At once a Renaissance Revival and a ‘resistance,’ it’s rising, Phoenix-like, from the still-smouldering ashes of what can only be described as genocide.
Pick a genre – music, visual arts, live theatre, literature, fashion – and you’ll find unique offerings, including the raising of Jim Hart’s Reconciliation Pole at UBC, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s art, Brian Jungen’s life-size dinosaur skeletons, crafted from white plastic lawn chairs, the plays of Tomson Highway, the multidisciplinary Red Sky, A Tribe Called Red, guitar virtuoso Don Ross and some proud, defiant and powerfully feminist voices, including Tanya Tagaq and resurgent Buffy Sainte-Marie (Power in the Blood).
“I continue to keep my nose on the joy trail and if something is missing, I try to create it,” Sainte-Marie told Common Ground magazine in an April 2015 cover story. “It’s pretty much the moneychangers taking over the temple, nothing new, but now everybody can see it. And this is a genuine grassroots response to the realities we all face today – most extremely in the front lines of Indian country – the destruction of the environment and ongoing horror of missing and murdered Indigenous women.”
The summer-long CBC Radio series, Reclaimed, provided a platform to put listeners in touch with the explosive pulse of contemporary Indigenous music, including traditional songs, acoustic sounds, incendiary political hip-hop, R&B and the dance floor-filling beats of electric powwow. Now, in the dog days of a fizzling sesquicentennial – 150 years since Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick confederated – we have blown through a cool half-billion in federal tax dollars to celebrate. First Nations, however, rained on our year-long parade and rightfully so. One highlight: Kent Monkman’s super-imposed nude, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, lounging in the foreground of the 1864 Charlottetown constitutional meetings. “She’s trying to get a seat at the table or she could be a hired entertainer,” the artist explained.
An extraordinary new Canadian documentary, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, uncovers untold stories and missing history. The Sundance-award-winning film takes its title from a 1958 Link Wray recording. The only instrumental ever banned by radio, Rumble unleashed power chords in three growling, fuzzy blasts that inspired a generation to pick up an electric guitar; it still resonates, undiminished by time.
In the film, some three dozen marquee celebrities cite major influences in jazz, blues, rock, folk and heavy metal, including “Father of the Delta Blues” Charley Patton (Choctaw/African-American), “Queen of Swing” Mildred Bailey (Couer d’Alene), Jimi Hendrix (Cherokee/African-American), Wray (Shawnee), Sainte-Marie (Cree) and many more.
Front and centre is The Band’s Robbie Robertson (Mohawk), who says, “From childhood, I was told, ‘Be proud of being Indian; but be careful who you tell.’” Today, he vows, “You wouldn’t let me talk about it before. Well, now I’m going to talk real loud.”
One signpost in reclaiming cultural territory is the Grammy-nominated Native North America (Vol. 1), featured in Common Ground (January, 2015). More than a decade in the making, the package of 34 tracks with 120 pages of liner notes was curated by Kevin Howes, who continues to compile unheard, undocumented and unavailable Indigenous music.
Howes now says, “During our current era of reconciliation, music is an extra-special connector, teacher, and healer. It saves, unifies and informs us, like nothing else. The time is most certainly now to celebrate life and to show people that we will not stand for ignorance, intolerance, oppression and hatred.”
Arctic-focused Aakuluk Music, newly formed to promote contemporary Inuktitut music, globally, is just one example. One artist on the fledgling label, Riit, reports, “Every time I perform for non-Inuit crowds, it feels like I take a step forward into decolonization. Going from a generation shamed for speaking to a generation making music in Inuktitut, I’m pretty damn proud and thankful!”
We have more than enough scientific evidence about anthropogenic climate change and now need more stories from front lines, especially the Arctic. Ditto the appalling, ongoing unjust conditions, truthful history and real-life First Nations’ perspectives.
This is painful stuff, folks. But as Buffy Sainte-Marie advises, “Keep calm and decolonize.” All that is required is what the Common Ground community does best: to listen respectfully and supportively. We are truly blessed and the payoff, including visionary art and leadership, is inestimable and far too-long overdue.
Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic.