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Masked dancers in canoes - Qagyuhl 1916 by Edward Curtis - Click to see Large View

Theory

Culture

First Nations pedagogy can not be truly embraced without a foundational philosophy of First Nations culture. First Nations culture provides a rich essence that is intrinsically woven by the supportive threads of relationship: with one other, with the Great Spirit, and with the Earth. This is the kernel of First Nations wisdom, and the core value from which all expressions of culture evolved - whether ritual, artefact, or ceremonial practice. Relationship, often expressed best (in the English language anyway), as
"All My Relations" guides the development of all cultural practices, including language, oral teachings, prayer, music, dance, spiritual and social ceremonies, rites of passage, housing, even clothing, adornment, art, tools, and object creation.

Dynamic Culture

It is impossible to describe a common cultural reality for all First Nations people. The various nations traditionally manifested cultural practices, symbols, and belief systems coloured by their unique experiences on the land and with each other, always conscious and connected with the Spirit world. Thus, culture expressed by sea people such as the Haida is unique compared to the culture expressed by the grasslands people of the Secwepemc. Still, all First Nations people from all over Mother Earth share the critical tenet of Relationship as central to their expressions of culture.

Culturecide

During the past two centuries, a serious disenfranchisement was forced on First Nations peoples, where the annihilation of their culture was a common and merciless goal of colonizing nations. This disenfranchisement was widespread and sinister - aimed to extinguish the power of the First Nations people. Due to the resiliency of the peoples' Spirit, cultural practices have endured, although the time-honoured oral transmission method was interrupted for more than two generations. The displacement that resulted from forced reservation relocation also had a serious influence on the cultural propagation and transfer to the next generation. Cultural practices were often forbidden, resulting in some becoming lost or forgotten, while others were adopted as nations came into contact with other nations.

Renewed Culture

Cultural studies and theories abound in mainstream academics, but for this resource, an aboriginal interpretation of culture is necessary. Ultimately, to the indigenous peoples of this planet, culture is living, growing, and ever evolving. The resiliency of the aboriginal peoples has enabled them to preserve the best of their traditional culture, despite generations of oppression, and to combine their own ingenuity to the knowledge of the mainstream to create new cultural rituals, artefacts, tools and objects of art.




Thus, for many aboriginal people, culture is expressed with a foot planted in the world of today and the world of yesteryear - presenting new ways of expression for the seven generations to come, yet honouring the seven generations of ancestors that came before them. There are also many First Nations peoples dedicated to restoring ancient cultural objects and art to the people - many are currently "owned" by museums, cities and private collectors.




A message to the Pacific Northwest Nations to remember their culture,
spoken in Lushootseed, a dialect of the Salishan language and English





Potlatch

On the Pacific Northwest Coast, as in other parts of Canada and the world, the potlatch was a sacred significant social ceremony that was outlawed by colonizing nations in 1884. The Potlatch ceremony was still engaged in by many First Nations people, but they were done in "secret" so that the mainstream culture would not interfere. Today, the potlatch is once again openly held to build community spirit, honour a member of a nation, and to mark historic events. The Potlatch signifies the value of generosity as a mark of social stature - those who lived in abundance shared their material belongings with others openly and publicly. The potlatch was a time of great feasting and ceremony that traditionally lasted for several days. Full regalia including amazing masks were worn by the dancers and other performers, and people young and old participated in the event.




These next two videos demonstrate how potlatchs are gaining momentum in First Nations culture once more, from the perspective of former Chief James Seaweed of the Kwakiutl Nation, including wonderful old footage of potlatch ceremonies both before and after the potlatch ban laws were imposed, then finally lifted.









Sacred Cedar

The First Nations people of British Columbia, particularly those who lived in the Coastal Pacific North West had a special cultural relationship with the Cedar tree family. They learned to integrate the cedar's many blessings into their lives on several levels, including building their homes (often longhouses); choosing their house posts or building totem poles; shaping their canoes which were a key mode of transportation along the coastal and inland waters; or weaving cedar strips into household items such as mats, blankets, baskets, and carrying containers as well as clothing such as masks, hats and capes; for stoking cooking fires, and for medicine and smudging. The following four videos demonstrate First Nations peoples using the sacred cedar to renew their culture, or remember the ancient ways.





This first video shows the preparation and opening ceremony for the community Longhouse in Gingox, BC (2005) showing the carving and raising of the cedar structure and totem.






This second video features Chief Sammy Robinson of the Haisla nation, perhaps the oldest living BC Master carver who still practices the ancient ways of carving with cedar.







This third video also showcases several contemporary cedar carvings by various Pacific Northwest First Nations artists, who try to maintain the traditional art forms.



Artwork

Mother Earth and her flora and fauna are common themes in First Nations art, both traditional and contemporary. Animals common to the region were often represented in the carvings and painted items which graced the First Nations pre-colonial homes, clothing, canoes, tools, and accessories. Common animal images include Raven, Eagle, Orca, Otter, Osprey, Crane, Hummingbird, Hawk, Cougar, Coyote, Bear, and Salmon. The Sun and Moon also figure dominantly.





The next two videos give brief overviews of two important First Nation artists, Daphne Odjig and Norval Morrisseau, two of the artists who belonged to a group that the media and mainstream art circles called the "Indian Group of Seven" although they and their five counterparts - Jackson Beardy, Eddy Cobiness, Alex Janvier, Carl Ray, and Joe Sanchez called themselves, the "Professional Native Indian Artists Incorporation" (PNIAI).













Although there are many fine contemporary First Nations artists, Bill Reid is one of the most well known in British Columbia, an artist who has significantly helped to open mainstream culture's eyes to the beauty and splendour of traditional aboriginal art using many different mediums.









It is exciting to witness the resurgance of new First Nations artists who are embracing the traditional styles of art and applying them to the 21st Century. Artist - traditional Dancer- and anthropologist Andy Everson (in the video below) reflectis his K'omoks and Kwakwaka’wakw heritage, by sharing his hauntingly beautiful paintings that reflect the Pacific North West style in a very spiritual and reverant way.







Oral Art

The gift of song, prayer, and poetry are strong in the First Nations people, traditionally linked to the Great Spirit, Mother Earth, Father Sky, Grandfather Sun, Grandmother Moon, and and all of the species who live upon the land. In contemporary times, the experiences of the First Nations people continue to express the world around them - a world that needs immediate help, a society that needs cleansing, and many wounds that need to heal before the songs can flow clearly full of sacred energy once again. Chief Dan George, author, actor, hereditary Chief of the Coast Salish tribe and honorary Chief of the Squamish tribe of North Vancouver was an excellent role model in how to use words, song, prayer, poetry, as well as play and motion picture scripts to convey a strong message for his people, and love for the Earth.





The beauty of the trees, the softness of the air,
the fragrance of the grass speaks to me.
The summit of the mountain, the thunder of the sky,
The rhythm of the sea, speaks to me.
The faintness of the stars, the freshness of the morning,
the dewdrop on the flower, speaks to me.
The strength of the fire, the taste of salmon, the trail of the sun,
and the life that never goes away, they speak to me
And my heart soars.



Group sings Chief Dan George's Prayer Song




Tutorial

Online learning can adapt quite easily to cultural exploration, since video, images, audio and multimedia are becoming both easy to access and fairly easy to create. Since First Nations culture is so rich and diverse, there are plenty of cultural foci that can be incorporated into online education. An example is provided below.

Preparation

1. Choose your dialogue medium, one where students can readily answer the questions, such as a blog, forum, journal, web page or text assignment page. Set up the medium with the questions below.


2. Embed the 3 video clips (copy embed code on YouTube original page and paste into your showcase page).


3. If you do not have an online environment, but still want to engage in this learning activity, you can create a worksheet with the questions, then direct the students to this page or the original Youtube video pages to watch the video clips.


Process

1. INTRODUCTION This learning activity is based on the learner's impressions and responses to a set of questions, after they have watched the three video clips below (all part of a 26 minute documentary, called Indian Art through Indian Eyes).


2. WATCH VIDEO Go to the PBS website and watch the 24 minute video: Indian Art Through Indian Eyes at: http://portal.knme.org/video/1484281446/

3. COMPLETE QUESTIONS Learners should go to the designated blog, forum, journal or worksheet to answer the following questions.


QUESTIONS

Q1. What were three strong messages emphasized by the First Nations people who shared their perspective in these video clips?


A1. a.

A1. b.

A1. c





Q2. This production was American but still carries relevance to the mainstream impressions of First Nations people in Canada. What could a school like the Institute of American Indian Arts offer young First Nations people in this country?


A2.






Q3. What two unique characteristics of the art shown in these videos impressed you the most?


A3.a.

A3.b.







Q4. What did the narrator mean when he said "Artists are the storytellers of our time"?


A4.



Recommended Links

Our World - Our Way of Life
A nicely designed introduction to Haida and Inuit culture, sponsored by the Canadian Heritage Information Network.

Canada's First Nations
Thoughtful introduction to Canada's First Nations peoples, particularly the Cree and Ojibway (Anishanabe) nations.

Gateway to Aboriginal Heritage
From the Canadian Museum of Civilization, with well designed highly visual, well written overviews and some interesting resources for teachers.

Native Drums
This site is devoted to the rich heritage of First Nations culture and music in Canada. With games, videos, and moving image galleries for Kids, in-depth interviews and articles for students, the image research database for scholars, and downloadable resource kits for teachers, Native Drums has something for everyone!

Native Dance
With over 100 videos of original footage, and over 900 new images, Native Dance contains a wealth of information on Dance Traditions from coast to coast in Canada.


Developed by June Kaminski, 2011



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