Canada's biggest museum teams with Indigenous graphic artist to animate creation story

Meet Jay Odjick, the graphic artist who animated the creation story, which is featured in the Canadian History Museum's new Canadian History Hall.
Gchi-Manido (the Great Spirit), illustrated by Jay Odijick. (Courtesy Jay Odjick)

When the team of historians and curators at Canada's biggest museum began to discuss how to tell the story of Canada in the new Canadian History Hall, they faced a simple but thorny question: how do we begin?

"We wanted to give two perspectives on how people first occupied North America," says David Morrison, the director of research and content for the new hall at the Canadian Museum of History. "We thought since history of Canada begins with Indigenous history, we'd begin the Hall with an Indigenous view of the ancient past."

The initial exhibit visitors see as they enter the Hall presents archeological evidence that dates human habitation back more than 13,000 years, but gives more prominence to an Indigenous creation story, which plays on a giant wrap-around TV screen.

"We decided to give precedent to the Indigenous version, because this is Indigenous territory and it just seemed like the right thing to do," says Morrison.

Otter swims down to the centre of the watery planet, and finds a piece of earth. (Courtesy Jay Odjick)

Indigenous creation stories vary across Canada. In different versions, Sky Woman, Glooscap, Sedna, Nanabush or Raven create the world. The curators originally envisioned beginning with six different creation stories, but the cost associated with telling multiple stories became unwieldy. It was agreed to privilege the version told by the Anishinaabe people, upon whose traditional territory the museum sits.

The next challenge was how to depict a story that's been shared orally for thousands of years. For that, they turned to a Algonquin man with a passion for comic books and superheroes.

'Building God'

Graphic artist Jay Odjick was familiar with his own Nation's creation story, having heard it told in his home community of Kitigan Zibi First Nation. Adept at imagining the supernatural, after creating a popular cartoon series for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network about an Indigenous superhero known as Kagigi, Odjick admits being intimidated by the museum's request to animate the creation story.

"This is our culture. We've been here since time immemorial and this is the story of how we came to be here. It's a huge responsibility and it's one I don't take lightly."

In the version told in the Hall, Gchi-Manido (the Great Spirit) gathers the animal spirits to advise them he's going to create people, called the Anishinaabe. One spirit - the Otter - realizes people will need a place to live. Otter swims down to the centre of the watery planet, finds a piece of earth, and brings it the surface, which ultimately grows to be Turtle Island.

Graphic artist Jay Odjick sought feedback on his early sketches from elders at Kitigan Zibi First Nation. (Duncan McCue/CBC)

"The most intimidating thing for me was the visual depiction of Gchi-Manido," says Odjick. "Essentially what you're doing is, you're building God. I don't want to offend anyone. I want people to look at it and say, 'Yes, that's a valid interpretation of it.'"

Odjick opted not to depict the first human beings, in order to focus the viewer's attention on Otter's role in searching for earth - and the animal spirit's gift of bringing harmony and unity to the people. He partnered with an animation company in Boston for storyline and computer animation, but sought feedback on his early sketches from elders at Kitigan Zibi.

"I asked, 'How would you like spirits to be depicted?' And they said, 'They should be made of the same stuff as the stars.'

The result is a two-minute cartoon, voiced entirely in Anishinaabemowin by Joan Tenasco, also from Kitigan Zibi. The story has small subtitles in English and French.

"This to me is just a modern form of rock paintings, what we used to do back in the day… just that the pictures move now. And they're drawn in Photoshop, not with paint on rock," says Odjick.

Gchi-Manido (the Great Spirit) gathers the animal spirits to advise them he’s going to create people, called the Anishinaabe. (Courtesy Jay Odjick)

Integrating Indigenous history

Starting Canada's narrative with the Anishinaabe creation story is just one example of how the museum's unprecedented level of consultation with First Nation communities impacted the final product in the new Hall.

"It much altered the way we told history and the kind of history we told," says Morrison.

The museum formed an aboriginal advisory group, but also reached out to First Nations, meeting with circles of elders and band councils - often as many as twenty times - to discuss and review draft texts and visual layouts of exhibits.

"We went into this not quite knowing what to expect. Circles of elders and band councils are sometimes political and can be quite irascible. They have their own agendas," says Morrison. "We were expecting more difficulty than we had. We found once we explained things properly, and they got over their initial suspicion, it went extremely well."

For his part, Odjick is excited that visitors to the museum will now be exposed to an Indigenous view of how human beings came to inhabit what's now known as Canada, alongside scientific theories that the first peoples arrived from Asia by walking across the Bering Strait land bridge.

"It's as valid as any other creation story. They all have the same merit," says Odjick. "The important thing is, moving forward for the next 150 years, we have to stop looking for ways that we're different, and have to start looking for ways that we're similar."


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