How a symposium grew to shine a powerful light on East Coast Indigenous art
New Atlantic Voice documentary traces the revival of Indigenous arts through Petapan
The June evening wafts in through windows of the student union building on the University of New Brunswick's campus, settling over a nametagged crowd making icebreaking chitchat and picking through catering chafing dishes.
It's the university off-season, when the conference trade picks up at UNB, but this isn't any ordinary such conference.
This is Petapan First Light Symposium.
In a straightforward sense, it's an event that brings together Indigenous artists from across Atlantic Canada, for networking, skill sharing and development. But Petapan veterans frequently refer to it as "a gathering," a word laced with deep cultural meaning.
"When you think of the Indigenous circle, the Indigenous community on a whole, you know, that whole idea of gathering is at the centre of our culture," said Tara Francis, a member of Petapan's steering committee, and an artist from Elsipogtog First Nation.
"And so the Indigenous artist circle, is a circle within that circle. And, you know, we become a family."
For Petapan 2022, that family numbers around 200 artists from just about every Indigenous community on the East Coast, with Inuit, Innu, Mi'kmaq, Wolastoqey and Passamaquoddy all shacking up in UNB dorms to take part in talking circles, workshops, meetings and public exhibitions over a four-day span.
The events are all meant to engage and inspire, much like the word "Petapan" itself — which means "first light."
"It's that idea of that spark, you know, that first beam of light that comes up to North America," said Francis in an interview with CBC.
"We're the first people to see that. And maybe in that sense, Petapan …is the first group of artists who are going to shine that light. And it's going to be like a beacon for the generations to come."
The first-timers among the Petapan 2022 crowd are already feeling some of that energy.
"So far, I just love seeing all the different type of artistry that's coming out of it, and seeing how much people are just loving being around each other," said Carr Sappier, a filmmaker from Neqotkuk who also helped organize Petapan's first-ever film festival.
When the past wasn't so bright
Despite the hubbub of Petapan 2022, Francis can still recall a far lonelier time of 2002.
"I was the only graduate of the Native Art Study Program at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design the year I graduated," she said. "We started with maybe five or six, and then as the year went on, I was the last one standing."
After graduating, Francis said she often presided over Christmas craft sales with just one other artist, selling her quillwork that combined traditional methods with contemporary subjects. At that time, she didn't know of anyone else doing quillwork on a regular basis as a professional artist.
There were established Indigenous artists she looked up to — Ned Bear, or Shirley Bear, for example — but mostly, Francis felt the art scene was "scattered" with many practising their craft in the relative isolation of their communities.
Natalie Sappier grew up steeped in artistic culture in Neqotkuk, but when she moved to Fredericton to further her professional artistic career she too felt a sense of loneliness.
"I'm looking around and I'm not seeing it, you know? I'm not seeing representation of Wabanaki culture," said Sappier, who also goes by her Wolastoqey spirit name, Samaqani Cocahq.
"It is so beautiful. Right? And, you know, [there's] lots of talk about, building relationships, truth and reconciliation. I was just like, you know, looking around, and [asking] 'where are we?'"
To find her answer, Sappier went inside the existing arts system, taking a job as an Indigenous outreach officer with the provincial arts board ArtsNB. She and another outreach officer travelled to every Indigenous community in New Brunswick, to find out why Indigenous artists weren't applying for funding opportunities.
"We identified that it was a very overwhelming experience for people to even try to apply for these grants. So our first step was to help guide them through the grant process," she said.
That groundwork began to yield results. Sappier said artists began applying and receiving grants, and the ArtsNB database leapt from 20 registered Indigenous artists to 100 within a single year.
That's when the other Atlantic provinces' arts boards sat up and took notice, reaching out to Sappier with questions on how to better engage Indigenous artists, and led to the idea of a symposium.
"What if we just come together and gather together? Because that's what we need. We need to see our own doing it. We need to work together," said Sappier, one of Petapan's co-founders.
The first Petapan came together in 2014 in Millbrook, N.S.. It was followed by Dieppe, N.B., in 2016, St. John's in 2019, and Fredericton in 2022.
The Fredericton edition was the biggest Petapan yet, with a deliberate attempt to increase public exposure to what's mostly been a closed event in the past. The symposium took over the Beaverbrook Art Gallery on a Friday evening, opening an art exhibition inside, a craft market outside and transforming two corners of the gallery's exterior into a catwalk for Petapan's first-ever fashion show.
"I almost cried on the runway," said Oakley Rain Wysote Gray, a fashion designer from Listiguj First Nation who also modelled from their collection for the crowd.
"It felt so good to just be out and be able to show my pieces, because I've spent so much time working on them."
Large crowds massed around the catwalk, with the thumping music echoing down the street.
"As Indigenous designers we're not just regalia makers," said Mariah Sockabasin, a fashion designer from Neqotkuk who organized the show.
"We don't just make regalia for powwows, we make art. And it's so amazing that the designers got to showcase what else they can do."
A milestone made
The public side of Petapan culminated with an artist showcase at the Playhouse in Fredericton's downtown, featuring dancers, musicians, comedy and film.
The morning after, participants gathered a final time to reflect, as its organizers celebrated a milestone: Petapan 2022 was the first symposium to be entirely run by an Indigenous organization at the helm, as opposed to the provincial-run arts boards of the past.
"It made sense for us to give this a go," said Charlie Gaffney, the chair of Mawi'Art, the Fredericton-based organization dedicated to helping Indigenous artists that took charge.
"The comments I'm getting from from a lot of folks that I've been talking to is that this year's event was was a much higher calibre in terms of delivery, and that a lot of people are really happy."
Gaffney has spent years laying groundwork to help Indigenous artists on the East Coast flourish. He founded and taught the Aboriginal Visual Arts Program at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design — now known as the Wabanaki Visual Arts Program — and then helped found Mawi'Art when he saw program graduates struggling to find professional pathways with their art.
Watching the revival of East Coast Indigenous artistry — from basketmaking to quillwork to beading and beyond — with the college and Mawi'Art helping it along has been satisfying for Gaffney to watch unfold and culminate in Petapan 2022.
"We do have our own culture here, and that art is at the heart of it here for for a lot of Indigenous people. That's part of our story and our language and it's part of who we are," he said. "And it's just been fantastic to kind of celebrate that."
Gaffney is also a carver. The final day of Petapan coincided with his final day as chair, as he stepped down to focus on his own artistic practice.
The same day, Tara Francis was named a new chair — and she has plans to continue expanding Petapan, particularly its public events, with Mawi'Art.
"It's all symbolic of that idea of, you know, taking on our own identities, taking control of our own futures, absolutely. It kind of speaks to self-governing," she said.
"We can make it even bigger with with us at the helm."
The next Petapan is planned for Prince Edward Island in 2024.