Culture and Indigenous Storytelling

A Learning Journey linked to lived experience

Last weekend I was asked by leadership to put together a reading list that reflected my learning journey with indigenous art in Canada over the past year or so. Our group was coming together for another learning session to prepare for the virtual tours of Early Days.

During the art museum docent meeting I gave a verbal presentation on my learning journey with multiple books, sources and webinars. Over the next week or so I will be working updating this medium article to reflect my quest for greater understanding of the multiple artists, curators, and knowledge keepers in this area.

Two Ideas — Our Earth’s Future and our past

When I was growing up, my mother was completing a university degree at the same time my aunt was attending university so I remember interesting adult conversations around me. For some reason I was particularly influenced by one idea about the future and another idea about the past.

The Limits to Growth (LTG) — Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III, http://bit.l

The first idea came from a book called The Limits to Growth. At the time, I had the good fortune of being able to have a forest with a ravine at the end of my street and a great appreciation for nature. I could also see the impact of cars, traffic, transit around me. I remember reading this book before going to high school and having this sense, based on the book’s predictions that while everything looked pretty wonderful on the surface, some of the assumptions about consumption, land, water, air, energy and resources indicated that we could not continue our current urban/suburban patterns indefinitely. There was this idea that the world was on a trajectory related to growth and expansion, but the assumptions and the underlying principles would not work over the long term.

While this might sound a bit negative and traumatic for a child, I was for some reason, under the impression that that educated people were looking at these matters and that through that, the situation was being addressed. In the past week, when I double check on the Wikipedia post for the book, I discovered that the book was initially not well received and acted upon. It seems as though the book was received as being more polemic than scientific. One of the more interesting quotes cited by the Wikipedia reference was:

Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update was published in 2004. The authors observed that “It is a sad fact that humanity has largely squandered the past 30 years in futile debates and well intentioned, but halfhearted responses to the global ecological challenge. We do not have another 30 years to dither. Much will have to change if the ongoing overshoot is not to be followed by collapse during the twenty-first century.”

Moving on to the second idea, I remember reading about the Leakey family and the discovery of the skeleton called Lucy by Johanson in 1974. Based on my interest in history, patterns and trends, I initially thought that I would study anthropology and archaeology in university. However, when I started the classes, I remember there was a discussion about how can you study cultures other than yourself and be fair and true to their values and respect their human dignity. This discussion felt unsettling to me at the time. While academics had identified this as a problem, they didn’t seem to have solved it yet back in the 1980s.

Historical Storytelling

I continued to have a fascination with political patterns, historical impacts and story telling. I was fortunate to obtain summer and contract work in a number of historical sites describing patterns of the past. I completed a Certificate in Museum Studies with the Ontario Museum Association during the 1990s.

I remember visiting the Woodland Cultural Centre for one of the OMA courses within the Certificate in Museum Studies and becoming more familiar with the idea of telling Canada’s indigenous history through the lens of First Nations people and their lived experience, as well as the memories of their elders and leaders. It made me reflect back upon the museums that I have seen in Canada and Europe and how indigenous material was presented and displayed in the exhibit cases and installations and remembering feeling somewhat ill at ease.

Norval Morrisseau, Shaman and Disciples, 1979  Acrylic on canvas  180.5 x 211.5 cm, McMichael Canadian Art Collection
Norval Morrisseau, Shaman and Disciples, 1979
Acrylic on canvas
180.5 x 211.5 cm

Around or shortly after Norval Morrisseau’s show at the National Gallery in 2006, I remember being fascinated by the artist’s images and the idea of the Woodland school of artists.

Digital Storytelling through virtual tours at the McMichael

In August 2019 I started a training program at the McMichael Canadian Collection to become a public tour docent. By early October 2020, I started to present virtual visual art tours to the public during the pandemic restrictions. While the McMichael is well known for its extensive collection of work by the Group of Seven, one-third of the collection is composed of works by First Nations, Metis and Inuit artists. As it became apparent that part of the online storytelling role during COVID restrictions would involve describing these pieces, I was reminded of the nuanced discussions started with the OMA’s Certificate in Museum Studies in the 1990s around the best way to exhibit, display and explain indigenous cultural material. I sought out more recent material to reflect current indigenous authors, scholars and curators.

I have been following these discussions through zoom webinars, the media and other sources and reflecting them in my blog when I get new information.

https://www.rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca/eng/1450124405592/1529106060525

Within Canada, many museums have recognized the importance of Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as the need to respond to actions taken by religious organizations and our federal government in a meaningful way. In a 2020 webinar, it was suggested that we are still working on the ‘truth’ piece.

In the last couple of years, I read Indian Horse, Seven Fallen Fathers and From the Ashes, three very different books by Indigenous authors about the stories of multiple generations of indigenous families. However difficult these stories have been to read, it has helped me see Canadian history in a different way related to the residential schools in Canada, as well as the clearing of the plains for the building of a railroad.

When Wanda Nanibush, Curator of Indigenous Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario participated in the panel presentation entitled “Indigeneity and Its Representation in the Arts” shared two additional resources this webinar hosted by Cultural Pluralism in the Arts Movement Ontario (CPAMO), to the three books that I mentioned above:

  1. Online course on Indigenous Canada offered by the University of Alberta created by Dr. Tracy Bear.
  2. Ravens Reads has produced a reading list on Canadian History books by indigenous authors.

When I was in Ottawa lately, I remarked on how the Museum of Civilization has gone through a couple of different name changes to my friends and I was wondering what it should be called next. It is currently called the Museum of History. Based on this discussion and reflection, I was very interested to see a museum in San Diego changing its name from Museum of Man to Museum of Us effective August 2nd, 2020.

The Museum of Us website shows their four guiding principles for decolonization initiatives as:
1. Truth telling and accountability
2. Rethinking ownership
3. Organizational culture shift supported by systems and policy
4. Indigenous Representation https://bit.ly/3gWoCpu with reference to Dr. Lonetree’s book Decolonizing Museums.

In this link from Jstor, we find further details behind Dr. Lonetree’s process from work with three museums (Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, the Mille Lacs Indian Museum in Minnesota, and the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways in Michigan), leading to solutions to “historical and contemporary museum practices and charts possible paths for the future curation and presentation of Native lifeways.”

Clearing the Plains, 2013, by James Daschuk examines the roles that Old World diseases, climate change, building of the railr

At some point in my 2020 Learning Journey, someone recommended reading Clearing the Plains by James Daschuk. I found the book helped to create another layer of understanding beyond Jesse Thistle’s From the Ashes and Christi Belcourt’s exhibit at the McMichael.

I appreciated Daschuk’s approach in explaining climate and indigenous health pre-European contact. There is archaeological evidence of a world wide drought pre-European contact. The evidence also shows how populations moved in response to the drought in search of food. During this period, a nomadic life was pursued. Previous to the drought there is evidence of prosperity, villages, agrarian activity, trading and exchange. Unfortunately my exploration of this important discussion was cut short by my local library asking for the book back for another reader, and then library access being constrained by the recent round of pandemic restrictions here in Canada.

I look forward to learning more and finding ways to extend the spread of indigenous culture through indigenous authors, artists, curators and academics.

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Victoria Stasiuk

Victoria Stasiuk

Arts & Culture Consultant — Working with cultural organizations seeking to increase audience engagement & interaction through digital transformation