First Nations artists, business owners promote their work online amid COVID-19 social distancing

How are First Nations artists coping with the cancellation of powwows, concerts and other events amid measures to help slow the spread of COVID-19? They’re bringing their art online.

Jeremy Dutcher to livestream concert from his living room

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

How are First Nations artists coping with the cancellations of powwows, concerts, and other events amid nation-wide measures to help slow the spread of COVID-19?

They're bringing their art online.

"What this time is showing us is now more than ever, we need to be there for each other," said Wolastoqew musician Jeremy Dutcher, 2018 Polaris Prize winner.

Dutcher was supposed to start a tour across southern Quebec this week, but all his performances have been cancelled after the provincial government banned public gatherings. Dutcher said he was looking forward to the tour, as it was taking place on traditional Wolastoqew territory.

On Monday, he announced over Twitter that he'll be live streaming a performance on Friday from his living room.

"I love the fact that not just people in Rimouski or people in Quebec City will be able to see this show, but everyone can tune in from everywhere now and that's a cool way to democratize this art because people need it right now," he told CBC News.

"We need entertainment."

Dutcher isn't the only Indigenous artist bringing his talents online for the masses. Montana-based Mashantucket Pequot artist Dan Simonds is organizing a social distancing powwow this weekend, encouraging dancers, drummers, and vendors to go live on from their homes to change Facebook feeds from coronavirus-related news and toilet paper memes into a virtual powwow space.

"We all need some more positivity and other things to take our mind off everything going on right now," he said.

"Just let people post on the event page or their own pages, other than something else than this media we're being bombarded with."

Dan Simonds, a Mashantucket Pequot artist, at his home community's powwow last year. (Submitted by Dan Simonds)

Simonds has been vending on powwow trails for the last decade, as the artist and owner behind Wampum Wear. He planned on vending next month at the now-cancelled Gathering Of Nations in Albuquerque, N.M., the biggest powwow in North America.

"This virus is hurting our pockets, but not only vendors, dancers, drummers — everyone who relies on powwows to get by. It would be good to have something going on online," he said.

Impact on businesses

Keith Henry, CEO of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, says the impact of COVID-19 to Indigenous businesses needs to be discussed more.

"Often Indigenous artwork, items or experiences are thought of as add-on to people's lives," said Henry.

"What's happening right now, that kind of secondary spending is going to be very challenging for the next 12-24 months. Considering that Indigenous artists and Indigenous tourism businesses get 55-60 per cent of their business from Canadians, those are all gone now."

The association has an impact survey for Indigenous businesses going until March 22, and has requested a $557 million federal stimulus fund for immediate support for Indigenous tourism members.

"We're hoping that as governments make announcements, that they're going to support Indigenous businesses more effectively. We have to figure out a way to stimulate and protect those economies as well."

However, Crystal Semaganis, from the Little Pine First Nation and Poundmaker Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, is worried small Indigenous businesses, especially those that might not be registered, may fall through the cracks.

She's been feeling the impacts of COVID-19 as a beadwork artist and founder of the Sudbury Indigenous Marketplace Facebook group.

"I know people are no longer prioritizing getting anything creative or artistic," she said.

"I know we have to take a backseat to necessities and providing the basics for their families, but it's a little bit scary because there goes my source of income and social network," she said.

After teaching herself the craft through a process of trial and error, Crystal Semaganis has now been beading for 28 years. (Leah Hansen/CBC)

"There's an entire vendor community and we see each other at powwows, festivals, gatherings. We're like what are we going to do? I could make enough money during the summer to last all year."

It's why she launched the Turtle Island Quarantine Festival, and is inviting Indigenous artists to submit two of their pieces once a week until May 15 for the online exhibition.

"It's a weird period right now because people are settling into this odd void of being at home, so I'm looking at ways to still connect people," she said.


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.