Arts·Year in Review

The Indigenous renaissance was truly here in 2018 — and it's not going anywhere

Indigenous culture has shaped the fabric of Canadian art since Confederation. The rest of the country is finally recognizing that.

Indigenous artists are finally getting the recognition they deserve for shaping Canadian culture

Jeremy Dutcher performs during the 2018 Polaris Music Prize gala. (Tijana Martin/Canadian Press)

When Jeremy Dutcher won the Polaris Music Prize this year, he made an observation that any person who has been paying attention to art in this country should have been able to make, but, for whatever reason, still hadn't. "Canada," Dutcher said, "you are in the midst of an Indigenous renaissance."

Dutcher, a Wolastoqiyik member of the Tobique First Nation, made the decision to record his innovative, award-winning album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa entirely in the endangered Wolastoq language. He could have recorded in English—in fact, non-Native producers might have insisted on it, claiming audiences wouldn't understand, relate to or buy music that was "too Indigenous." Yet, despite this and despite over 150 years of colonialism, Dutcher saw the value of his language — and used it to craft an album that doubles as an act of Indigenous resiliency and resistance.

Dutcher is far from alone. His Polaris Prize win marks the fourth album by an Indigenous artist to claim the prestigious prize in five years, after Lido Pimienta, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Tanya Tagaq. In the art world, three Indigenous artists — Duane Linklater, Nadia Myre and Ursula Johnson — have taken home the Sobey Art Award, the largest prize for young Canadian artists, since 2013.

In literature, Indigenous books have become the standard for all Canadian literature. The Griffin Poetry Prize, Canada's most generous poetry prize, has been awarded to Indigenous poets for three consecutive years: Liz Howard, Jordan Abel and, this year, Billy-Ray Belcourt. Tanya Talaga won the RBC Taylor Nonfiction Prize this year for Seven Fallen Feathers, four years after Thomas King won the same award for The Inconvenient Indian. Tanya Tagaq showed us she was a genius in more than one medium with her book Split Tooth, which was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize alongside Joshua Whitehead's incredible novel of two-spirit/Indigiqueer love, Jonny Appleseed. Terese Marie Mailhot's beautiful, original memoir Heart Berries has been nominated for every nonfiction award in this country. Darrel J. McLeod won the Governor's General Award for his stunning memoir Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age. Lee Maracle was nominated for the Toronto Book Award for the hilarious, smart My Conversations with Canadians. Eden Robinson is nominated for the $150,000 International DUBLIN Literary Award.

Tanya Talaga selected paintings by Indigenous high school students as the backdrop for her 2018 Massey Lecture on the legacy of cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

And those are just the Indigenous artists who have won or been nominated for awards recently. It doesn't even take into account musicians like Melody Mckiver, Cris Derksen, isKwe, Tara Williamson, A Tribe Called Red or Logan Staats, who are all creating different, inventive music. It doesn't touch on the groundbreaking work Lindsay Nixon has done as the Indigenous Editor-At-Large of Canadian Art magazine, making space for brilliant Indigenous artists like Dayna Danger, Fallon Simard and Raven Davis. It doesn't mention Mohawk dancer Santee Smith or the work she's done with Kaha:we Dance Theatre to create an international community of Indigenous dancers, or the beautiful, intelligent, edgy work of Indigenous LGBTQ2+ writers like Gwen Benaway, Arielle Twist, Nathan Niigan Noodin Adler and Lindsay Nixon (yes, the same Lindsay Nixon I just mentioned. What can I say? They're incredible). It doesn't highlight the talent, vision and ambition of Indigenous filmmakers like Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, Amanda Strong, Jeff Barnaby, Gwaai Edenshaw, Helen Haig-Brown or the legendary Alanis Obomsawin. The fact that I can't possibly fit all of the Indigenous artists doing innovative, interesting work right now? More proof that the Indigenous renaissance is in full swing.

That's not to say that Indigenous brilliance is new. Indigenous culture has been collectively shaping the fabric of Canadian art and culture since Confederation. The name of Canada is derived from Mohawk, just as the names of countless cities, towns, counties, lakes, rivers and provinces are derived from other Indigenous languages. Indigenous people were the first to turn maple sap into maple syrup — a condiment that eventually somehow became synonymous with Canada. Lacrosse was the Creator's game in Haudenosaunee communities long before it was declared Canada's national sport. And who can forget the often-cited Pierre Berton quote, "A Canadian is someone who knows how to have sex in a canoe"? That supposed measure of Canadian-ness wouldn't exist without Indigenous people inventing canoes in the first place.

Santee Smith choreographed the spectacular Opening Ceremony for the 2017 North American Indigenous Games. (CBC Arts)

Indigenous artists have always known that we were capable of creating incredible art; after all, we're the ones who have been making it, witnessing our peers make it and building communities around it. We have seen this possibility in ourselves for decades — centuries even. The difference is that we've had to deal with the effects of cultural genocide simultaneously. It's much more difficult to make art about your culture when you've grown up in a country that has legally forbidden you from practicing ceremony, that has forced you to go to a school where you cannot speak your language. You have to actively push away the shame that has been passed on to you before you can even consider your culture and language as worthy of art.

Our art carries a weight that goes beyond a song or a poem or a dance. By surviving, by creating meaningful work that ensures our cultures and languages can survive too, we're showing our ancestors our love. We're still here because they were here.- Alicia Elliott

On top of that, before the Truth and Reconciliation Report came out, there wasn't as much financial support or incentive for us to create our art. Gatekeepers saw our work as niche, as worthless drivel that anthropologists might be interested in — if we made our work "traditional" enough. But non-Native audiences? Absolutely not. That's exactly what white publishers told Lee Maracle, the godmother of Indigenous literature in Canada, when she tried to get her first book published. She knew they were wrong, but she still had get hundreds of signatures confirming people would buy her book before Canadian publishers even considered giving her a chance.

This mural honouring legendary filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, which was unveiled in Montreal this year, was designed by emerging artist Meky Ottawa (right). (Jessica Deer/CBC)

To go from that attitude in the 1970s to now, when at least one and as many as five Indigenous authors have been on every Canadian bestseller list all year, is a testament to the work Maracle and others have had to do. Without these trailblazers and space makers, this Indigenous Renaissance would not have been possible. Perhaps that's why Indigenous art is so consistently good: because we know what it's like to be forcibly silenced by a government, to have our cultures and languages almost obliterated — and we also know how vital it is that we preserve what we still have however we can. Our art carries a weight that goes beyond a song or a poem or a dance. By surviving, by creating meaningful work that ensures our cultures and languages can survive too, we're showing our ancestors our love. We're still here because they were there. Their pain and trauma wasn't for nothing.

Sometimes I think about how much more incredible Indigenous art we would have had if Canada had treated us like people instead of unwanted, inhuman nuisances for over a century. It makes me deeply, almost unbearably sad. But the Indigenous brilliance coming to light now is so bold and so strong that my sadness is quickly overcome by gratitude and relief.

Because Dutcher is right: the Indigenous renaissance is here. And it's not going anywhere.


Alicia Elliott is a Mohawk writer living in Brantford, Ontario. She’s had essays nominated for National Magazine Awards for three straight years, winning Gold in 2017, while this very column earned her a Digital Publishing Award nomination in 2023. She is the author of A Mind Spread Out on the Ground (Penguin Random House, 2019) as well as the upcoming novel, And Then She Fell (Penguin Random House, 2023).