Indigenous art comes in many different forms. Every First Nation has it’s own traditional style of art. Metis communities and Inuit communities have their own traditional styles of art that is specific to those communities. On the west coast, formline is one of the most recognizable styles – you’d know the design by it’s iconic ovoid shapes, shown on various mediums from totem poles to jewelry to textiles.
This type of art has been developed by feasting and potlatching communities over thousands of years, and have a strict set of rules that define this style. In the Tsimshian territory, colours, crests and clan depictions are strictly regulated based on the rules set out in Tsimshian law.
But formline is not the only form of Indigenous art coming out of the west coast. Indigenous artists are now taking expression into modern practices. Artists are bending the rules and re-presenting traditional art forms in modern mediums – including theatre, film, photography, graphic design and literature. This isn’t just young up and coming artists… like K’omoks artist Andy Everson’s Indigenized Star Wars designs… but we have the old pro’s setting the scene for innovation including the late Kwakwaka’wakw artist Beau Dick.
While we are taking expression to new forms, there are still dangers to be cautious of in the art world. The history and present environment of colonization that Indigenous peoples exist in, pose unique challenges in itself. Who owns the rights to these cultural expressions? We see issues of cultural appreciation blurring the lines of cultural appropriation: who has the right to these expressions of Indigenous design elements?
We find ourselves on the brink of Canada 150 – that’s one hundred and fifty years since Canada entered confederation… to design a government that would ultimately dispossess Indigenous peoples from their lands and resources. These lands Indigenous people have occupied for upwards of 10,000 years.
Indigenous peoples have had a lot taken away: from overfishing our waters and over hunting our lands, natural resource extraction including mining and forestry, the residential school system that took our children from our homes, the child welfare system that still takes our children from our homes, and our loss of language in many parts of this continent. The thought of having Indigenous art… that has been developed over thousands of years, much much older than the history of this country… the thought of having our art taken from our hands and appropriated for the benefit of non-Indigenous communities is another example of the ongoing extractive practices of settler colonialism.
But now the conversation has changed. Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples are asking questions about who has the right to tell stories? Who has the cultural right to express Indigenous design elements in their work?
Thankfully, Indigenous artists are some of the most resilient people we have in our communities. And artists are so integral to our cultural livelihood as Indigenous peoples. Artists are the ones tasked with persevering despite these challenges. And they’re doing this in all sorts of different ways, through different mediums, and with unique messages.
MEET THE ARTISTS
Samantha Nock is a Cree/Métis writer and poet from Northeastern BC, with her family originally from A-la-Crosse (Sak-it-a-wak), Saskatchewan. She’s been busy publishing in Red Rising Magazine, Shameless Magazine, and GUTS Magazine among others. She’s also writing on her website at “half breeds reasoning.com”
Bracken Hanuse Corlett is a multi-talented, multimedia artist from the O-week-i-know and Kla-hoose Nations. He’s worked in theatre, painting, drawing, digital-media, audio-visual performance, animation and narrative. He combines Indigenous Northwest Coast form and story with digital platforms.