Understanding Indigenous Artworks in Canada

By Xingru Chen

To indigenous people in Canada, the way they pass down belief, history, story, and culture through generations is to sit around the secret fire inside the tipi and enjoy the wise elder’s narrative which is filled with the traces of history while the dim flames leaped on everyone’s pupils. The yellowish and radish light project on the inside of the tipi, as the narrator moves showing different abstract patterns, just like the rock murals, implying the deep connection they build with their ancestors and the landscape through continuous storytelling. During this learning process, indigenous youth build their worldview through storytelling. As a part of their cultural heritage, indigenous art plays an important role for indigenous people to demonstrate their true selves. It also opens a window for the audience to have a better understanding of indigenous culture.

The definition of indigenous art has always been filled with bewilderment because of its seemingly enormous scope and vague meaning. People tend to limit the concept of indigenous art to artworks like traditional cider boxes or beadwork, while I personally see indigenous art as a unique way for indigenous people to illustrate their belief in the supernatural and their respect towards Mother Nature. To indigenous art, the representation of the cultural heritage is more important than the artist’s biological heritage. It is essential to distinguish the differences between biological heritage, cultural and political identity for further understanding. This means the fact that artists pursue indigenous art based on personal interest is more important than their biological or political identity.

Pursuing art to discover personal identity

The bond between indigenous people and their ancestors has an enormous impact on their self-identity, especially for the Canadian indigenous artist Meryl McMaster. A large proportion of her art, such as those dramatic photographs of herself in costume and the way she merges herself into the landscape of indigenous territories, are all speaking about exploring one’s self-identity. She has a mixed heritage, her mother being a British/Dutch Ancestry and his father as a Plains Cree. The two contrary and distinct cultures and historical backgrounds made her question her own identity. She turns her camera toward herself so as to build a sense of self and examine the connection with her ancestors through art.

Wondereur. 2021. Ancestral 6 by Meryl McMaster • Wondereur.
[Accessed 19 October 2021].

Meryl McMaster has always been wanting to build connections between her artwork and the audience. She explores these themes in her artwork which is based on the photographer Edward Curtis. In the early 20th century Edward traveled deep into the Indian territories to record the traditional life of indigenous people because he thought they were disappearing. Edward however was infamous for the employment of staging, costuming, and retouching to create an idealized and romanticized version of native people. Through these methods, he made the life of the indigenous people in the photo look simple and backward, which created lots of stereotypes. Meryl McMaster created a series of photos where she paints her whole face and projects those pictures on her body. She says this to explain this artwork. “I wanted to have my ancestors speak through me in the present and meld the old and the new in some way,” She also emphasized that she wants others to think about indigenous people without the influence of the stereotype. Almost every art Meryl McMaster has created can be a reference to challenges and problems in her life about her struggle with identity. Continuously through art-making she is questioning and discovering a new self. She also tries to inspire her audience to think about their own ancestors and their origin.

Inspirations from traditional life and Cultural traditions

Beadwork has been a traditional practice for indigenous communities for thousands of years. In the past, women often created beadwork to exchange money or food for the family. The beadwork artist Nico Williams thinks beadwork refers to a community activity that requires teamwork and collaboration skills. His pursuit of beading art focuses on the use of traditional materials and is inspired by nature and many artists who come before him. To Nico Williams, beading is about a relationship to those colors and community, as well as caring about the cultural heritage.

2021. chi-miigwech by Nico Williams 
[Accessed 19 October 2021].

A significant artwork of Nico Williams is the Miigwech bag, which was displayed in the exhibition that is also named chi-miigwech. The design of the patterns on this bag was inspired by a walk he had when he saw the birch bark tree’s branches’ bluish shadow on the white snowlike winding streams. This image reminds Nico Williams of how important birch bark trees are to his community since ancient times. Through generations, indigenous people have been using it to make canoes, hunting tools, building materials, and for pictorial writing. Even nowadays they still use birch bark trees to make baskets, and Nico Williams personally enjoys the smells of them. The idea of the Miigwech bag occurred to him. Miigwech as a word saying thank you in Ojibwe was designed on the bag to represent thankfulness towards mother nature.

Since traditional languages are disappearing, artworks like the Miigwech bag which carries language meanings and brings the indigenous language to different communities become essential for culture preservation. During the exhibition, Nico Williams is inspired to start deeper research on the word Miigwech. Nico Williams’ describes this research and language learning process as to be continued. He said, “ My works create narratives about indigenous knowledge systems and experiences in order to educate about the current realities in both urban and rural communities.”

Social power behind artworks

As a form of expression that stimulates people’s senses, art could get people’s attention and empathy more easily. Social movements related to the indigenous people are generally about protecting the environment and pursuing equal rights. This is related to indigenous people’s belief about maintaining the balance between humans and nature. Their respect for nature is greatly embodied in culture and rituals, such as leaving tobacco on the ground after hunting. In indigenous beliefs, nature and land are preserved for the next generation. They believe that they have the responsibility to protect the environment considering the interconnection between living animals and Mother Nature.

Offerings to Save The World by Christi Belcourt
[Accessed 20 October 2021]

Christi Belcourt, an artist who has had a huge impact on the indigenous movement, has been creating images to support the parades and social movements on environmental protection. She believes through this way she is supporting the community. Another reason for her to create images for social movements is that most of her beadwork is inspired by the cycle of life —— water, birds, and leaves. There are lots of plant patterns in her work as she constantly finds inspiration in the forest with a camera on her hands, leaning down and lying on the ground to observe the dewdrops and fluff on the plants. This appreciation and caring she has about the environment inspired her to be at the frontline of environment preservation social movements.

In addition to making a difference in protecting the environment, she also held a massive memorial community-based ceremony project —– Walking With Our Sisters to honor murdered and missing indigenous women. This ceremony calls for vamps to memorialize indigenous girls who disappeared or were killed. The judicial department did not pay enough attention to those cases, and no one thinks about those girls’ unfinished life or the dreams that they were pursuing but were left behind now. Many responded to Christi’s request to be part of this social movement to raise attention about the 1181 girls who were missing over the past 30 years. Looking at those vamps had brought people strong emotional resonances such as pain and sadness. For example, on one of the vamps, it was an image of a woman sitting on one side of the table while the other side only had an empty chair. The writing for it is “this woman is waiting patiently for her daughter to come home.” The ceremonial ritual also brought the families of the victims together to form a community where they can help and support each other that lasts until now.


No matter it is for these three artists or other artists who are pursuing indigenous art, they are constantly integrating their worldviews into their arts and striving to elevate their pursuit and love of art to a deeper level. They seek for personal identities in their works, support social movements, or use art for advocacy and let more people know about their cultural heritage. These artists gained guidance from their communities and were determined to contribute to the community in all aspects. Learning about indigenous artwork, including the inspiration, tradition, and social message behind it offers us a chance to better understand the indigenous community rather than looking at them with superficial or stereotypical understandings.

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