How this artist's dream — and art — ended up in a film, totally by accident
I was taught that dreams are special.
Some dreams are meant just for you. Some are meant to be shared. If you dream about someone you should tell them. And if someone shares a dream with you, you should listen carefully and thank the person for sharing.
I was reminded of this teaching after hearing and watching KC Oster share a dream they had in the documentary Stories From The Land: Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung, about the Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung National Historic Site on Treaty 3 territory in northwestern Ontario.
The dream is from the point of view of a young Anishinaabe man. His family must leave him, but his father reassures him that when he sees a dreamcatcher, they'll return. One day, the young man looks up into the sky and sees an arrow circle twice above him. He understands this is the dreamcatcher his father foretold. When his family returns, the man runs to them, and they are reunited in an emotional embrace Oster said "was like nothing I'd ever experienced in my life."
But Oster, who uses the pronoun they, didn't just share the dream in the documentary. They also animated it.
Oster has worked as a tour guide and cultural interpreter at Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung for almost five years. It's one of the most significant centres of early habitation and ceremonial burial in Canada and was once the hub of a vibrant continent-wide network where people gathered to trade, share, celebrate and mourn.
Born and raised on Rainy River First Nation, Oster has felt a connection to the burial mounds ever since their first visit. "I remember coming out here for school trips, coming right here to the mounds," they said. "I always looked forward to those [trips]…. It really does feel like home, and it's so comforting and peaceful out here."
But in addition to Oster's work as an interpreter of their history and homelands, they're also a talented visual artist, comic artist and illustrator. They didn't expect those two worlds to collide when they were asked to give a tour for the documentary.
Oster said it was an accident that led to their dream — and art — being included in the film. When they took host Ryan McMahon and producer Wendell Collier past the place where their dream took place, they felt an urge to tell the story — something they said they wouldn't normally do with strangers.
"Ryan's storyteller sense immediately jumped on the idea [of including the dream in the documentary]," said Collier.
"[He] was right.… The dream sequence acts as a bridge between the past and the present — between ancestors who have come before us and who will come after us."
The dream sequence acts as a bridge between the past and the present — between ancestors who have come before us and who will come after us
Oster reflected on what it was like seeing the finished product. "I...did the illustrations, and the editing actually made them move," they said. "It's like the animation solidified the dream in my mind."
They were happy with how it turned out and with how much control they had over the retelling. "I'm glad I was able to share the story with both my own words and my own visuals to really get it across and bring it to life," they said.
Since Oster began working at Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung, their art has become more centred around Anishinaabeg culture, and they see many parallels between their work as a cultural interpreter and an artist. In both roles, they're committed to communicating information and stories in a way that is accessible and relevant to a broad audience.
"I like to keep it easy to digest for children and people outside of the culture who maybe don't have that context that me and my family have had growing up and coming out here for years," they said about the tours.
There was never a question that Oster was meant to make art and tell stories. Their mother said they've been drawing "since they were able to hold a pencil."
Today, Oster describes their aesthetic as fluid and responsive. They're as influenced by the natural world around them as by the media they're taking in.
Sometimes, this means they're illustrating otters and coyotes in an animated take on the traditional Anishinaabe Woodland style of art.
Other times, they're working on non-stereotypical depictions of modern Indigenous people, which have elements of Anishinaabe culture blended with anime or video game aesthetics.
"This place started inspiring my one comic and … that was when a lot of my artwork started to centre more around Ojibway culture," they said in the documentary. "Native people today don't normally walk around with, like, three feathers in their hair or beadwork decorating their whole body … or, like, fringes all over the place.
"I try to make it very relatable and occasionally, I'll throw in something where it's … very obviously Native, but still subtle, [so] it's not burning a hole in your head with how Native it is."
In Stories From The Land, McMahon pointed out, "The old ones always say, 'Well, everything happens for a reason.'"
I find it hard to believe it was an accident that brought Oster's work to a wider audience. I find it hard to believe the gifts and dreams of a young Anishinaabeg — inspired by and nurtured in their ancestral homelands — is accidental.
Dreams are not accidental. Dreams are special. Some dreams are meant just for you; some dreams are meant to be shared.
Oster has more dreams for their future, including a web comic series and a shop with merchandise showcasing their art, stories and characters.
I'm grateful they have chosen to share their gifts and dreams with the world.