New Brunswick

Artist, activist Shirley Bear mourned, remembered as Indigenous trailblazer

Artists and members of the Wabanaki community are paying tribute to an elder from Tobique First Nation, or Neqotkuk, who is described as a pioneer, a hero, and an important cultural figure.

Tobique elder credited for helping to reclaim Wabanaki identity and women's rights

A funky looking woman with long gray hair wearing a black brimmed hat, black blazer and floral print skirt sits cross-legged on a wooden bench, with a coffee cup on her knee, looking off to the side, with a birch tree and part of a building that could be a house in the background.
Terry Graff, former CEO of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, said Shirley Bear gave him this photo years ago when he was preparing an exhibition of her work. (Terry Graff/Facebook)

Artists and members of the Wabanaki community are paying tribute to an elder from Tobique First Nation, or Neqotkuk, who is described as a pioneer, a hero, and an important cultural figure.

Shirley (Minqwôn-Minqwôn) Bear died Saturday at the age of 86.

Bear was many things, including a Wolastoqi multimedia artist, writer, political activist, feminist and traditional medicine expert.

"She's a hero to our nation," said Mi'kmaw artist Alan Syliboy.

"She really helped us as a people."

Mi'kmaw artist Alan Syliboy said Shirley Bear was his first painting teacher and without her, he probably wouldn't have become an artist. (Submitted by Alan Syliboy)

Syliboy said he became friends with Bear in 1969, when she recruited him to do workshops in First Nation communities in New England.

She became his first painting teacher and a mentor "for life."

Artists are the movers and changers of the world. They have always been the revolutionaries, creating change in thought and style within their societies.- Shirley Bear, Virgin Bones (McGilligan Press/2007)

Around the same time, Bear won a grant from the Ford Foundation and went on a spiritual quest across the continent meeting other Indigenous artists, according to former Beaverbrook Art Gallery CEO Terry Graff, who interviewed her several times for a career retrospective exhibit in 2009.

"I don't think I would be an artist if I hadn't met her," said Syliboy.

He's especially grateful to Bear for introducing him to a book of petroglyphs — images found on rocks that had been etched by Wabanaki people thousands of years ago.

A red hour-glass shape with a square head and two feathers extending from either side of the top of the head, on a starry black background.
This is one of Alan Syliboy's paintings, based on an ancient petroglyph etching found in Nova Scotia. (Alan Syliboy)

"We as a people didn't know about them," he said.

The petroglyphs became a subject that gave purpose to his work and life.

As they were to Bear's.

She found in these images, said Graff, in a lengthy tribute on Facebook this week, "an ancient story which continues to be my strength and a sense of foreverness on this continent. It's this fortitude that has been a lifeline for me."

An outline of a bell-shaped figure with feet and outstretched arms in the bottom left-hand corner of a framed painting hanging on a wall.
This detail of a Shirley Bear painting that shows the petroglyph woman (left) that she used as a signature. (CBC)

Syliboy credits his experience with Bear and her second husband, the award-winning Mi'kmaw writer and basket weaver Peter Clair, for leading him to a great life as an artist, "reclaiming what was lost."

"She was a pioneer," he said. "And I was so happy to be part of that."

It was an exciting time, said Syliboy.

"When we started out there was nothing — really very little left of our culture. We had to research and fight for every bit we could find. And she was a big part of that. That was extremely important."

Bear was "very driven by native rights," he said, "women's rights especially, and she made all kinds of contributions," Syliboy said.

Elder Alma Brooks interprets a Shirley Bear painting, called Medicine Woman, during an exhibit in 2009 at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. She says it shows the community and a medicine woman healing children from the harms inflicted in church-run schools. (CBC)

"She had a strong heart and she was not afraid to protest and stand up for herself."

She was at the forefront of a group of women from Tobique who successfully lobbied for a change to the Indian Act in 1985, so that Indigenous women didn't lose their status when they married a non-Indigenous person.

"Forcing women to live off-reserve meant the loss of ties with their families and communities," said Graff, and "the destruction of their culture."

"It was the women who traditionally passed on cultural knowledge to the next generation."

Bear produced a lot of paintings inspired by women she saw in Vancouver where she was a resident elder at UBC from 1996 to 2006, and where she worked as an advisor at the British Columbia Institute of Technology and the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. (CBC)

Her feminist activism began after the end of her first marriage, said Graff, when Bear realized she was in an abusive relationship and became determined to reclaim her name and her life.

A lot of Bear's artwork gives representation to Indigenous women and their traditional strength and values, he said.

It conveys nonviolence, consensus-based decision making, gender balance and respect for nature.

Graff says Bear responded through art to conflicts such as the Gulf War and the Oka Crisis. This piece from 1991 is called called Oka Warrior. (Shirley Bear/Beaverbrook Art Gallery)

She visualized the Wolastoqey way of life before colonization, "to remind us that our present-day political system is not inevitable, and that society without structures of oppression is possible," he said.

Bear was many years ahead of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the MeToo movement, according to Graff, challenging colonialist and patriarchal narratives and illuminating a space for healing and empowerment.

Her mother was a major influence in her early years. She, too, was an activist, he said, and cared a lot about her community. She helped young girls who'd been abused. 

Former Beaverbrook Gallery CEO Terry Graff met Bear in the late 1980s when she curated a “groundbreaking” exhibit of the work of other Indigenous women artists called Changers: A Spiritual Renaissance. Some of his own art is shown in this photo. (Terry Graff/Facebook)

Bear's art education was "sporadic." She "followed the beat of her own drum," he said.

Validated by knowledge of the land and stories from her ancestors, she created art that resonated with many people from the substance of her own "deeply lived life."

We have no desire to produce work that either looks like or is connected to any European tradition or movement. It is not our way.- Shirley Bear, Virgin Bones (McGilligan Press/2007)


From humble beginnings sketching portraits for a few dollars each and showing her work in public parks in Massachusetts, she became "an important and major cultural figure," Graff said.

Bear’s poems were published by McGilligan Press in 2007 in a book called Virgin Bones. Her writing is also featured in Kelusultiek: original women’s voices of Atlantic Canada (Mount St. Vincent University, 1994) and The Colour of Resistance (Sister Vision Press, 1993). (Shirley Bear/McGilligan Press)

Her art has been shown across North America and is included in many collections. Her writing is featured in several anthologies. She was invested in the Order of Canada in 2011.

"Shirley Bear lived an extraordinary life," said Graff, "one that inspired many other artists, poets, and political activists by her example."

Bear's name and influence can be seen and heard "everywhere," said Syliboy.

"She lives on."