Nfld. & Labrador

The arts are a powerful opening to reconciliation, but work remains, say artists

Joanna Barker, Stan Hill and Melissa Tremblett talked about art, truth and reconciliation on National Indigenous Peoples Day.

'We are no different, it's just that our art tells a different story,' says Stan Hill

Stan Hill is the chair of ArtsNL, otherwise known as the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council. (Meghan McCabe/CBC)

Art offers unique opportunities to continue the conversation about reconciliation, say three Indigenous artists from Newfoundland and Labrador.

"We as people have certainly been resilient enough to still be here, and still been resilient enough to still be wanting to tell our stories," carver Stan Hill, who is from the Miawpukek First Nation, told CBC's Newfoundland Morning on Friday, National Indigenous Peoples Day.

"I think the acceptance of our stories into the larger vision of what art is is going to be an important part of it. That's one way that we are no different, it's just that our art tells a different story."

Things are changing, said Hill, singer-songwriter Joanna Barker, and visual artist Melissa Tremblett. The three artists, whose Indigenous heritage plays a large part for each of them in their work, said that even over the past few years they've seen more invitations of Indigenous artists and consultants into creative spaces, from singer-songwriter circles to larger institutions like The Rooms or Opera on the Avalon.

Visual artist Melissa Tremblett is currently the artist is residence at The Rooms. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

But the work remains ongoing, all three said, as do the difficult conversations around reconciliation and decolonization.

"Because there is change, it is not an indication of an end point," said Barker, who is with the Qalipu First Nation.

"There's a lot of more truth to be told."

'There's greater acceptance'

Melissa Tremblett, who is of Innu and English heritage, said that part of the ongoing work of reconciliation in the arts community involves institutions considering how they handle artwork and artifacts from Indigenous people, and the access those people get to the objects they themselves created.

For example, Tremblett is currently the artist in residence at The Rooms, and part of that role involves working with the Indigenous objects among its collection. While doing so, she saw tea dolls traditional Innu dolls created by her own grandmother, through a glass display case.

Singer/songwriter Joanna Barker says music offers a powerful way to move people toward empathy and away from anger. (Knoah Bender)

"I didn't know it was in there, my dad didn't know it was in there, my grandmother definitely didn't know it was in there," she said.

At the same time, Hill pointed to The Rooms as an example of an institution that has sought out Indigenous consultation and guidance for developing gallery spaces, and that includes Indigenous artists among its fine art exhibits.

This is part of the value of art toward reconciliation, Hill said it presents different Indigenous identities, cultures, traditions and stories on a wider platform, in a way that reaches people emotionally and shares a history that is rich, while also often difficult, on a new level.

"There's greater acceptance among the non-Indigenous population, who is interested and curious to learn a deeper meaning of who we are as a people," he said.

The difficult parts of that history can often result in anger from some non-Indigenous people, Barker said, but acknowledging that these discussions are often uncomfortable and hard is part of shifting them away from that anger and toward empathy.

Some of that acknowledgement, and the work to move away from that anger, must be done by non-Indigenous people as well, Barker said. 

"I think it's really important that non-Indigenous people are also carrying responsibility there within a non-indigenous community, to speak to people who feel this sort of like anger and frustration towards the whole conversation accountable for the change that needs to happen."

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