Learning from First Nations’ Artists

Are artworks created by First Nations artists a form of environmental art-making?  Many can be considered as such, based on the imagery and meaning of their works; some draw attention to the natural world, are made with biodegradable materials, celebrate the interconnectedness of all forms of life and/or take an activist stance on environmental issues.  I was honoured to learn from two artists who are well-known environmental activists here in Ontario – Christi Belcourt (Métis) and Isaac Murdoch (Ojibwe) (they were keynote speakers this year as part of our national conference in Environmental & Sustainability Education). They are the founders of the Onaman Collective, which focuses on a resurgence of First Nations language and Land-based practices. They have co-designed a series of graphic black and white images that draw on First Nations symbolism to support environmental activism, which they generously share for free with other activists.  These small-scale, abstracted works sit in contrast to the huge colourful murals created by artist and traditional wisdom keeper Phil Cote (Potawatomi) around the city of Toronto; he leads the Tecumseh Collective. One series of his works is found on the edge of the Humber River, which feature the integral relationships between native riparian wildlife and First Nation peoples.  All three of these artists take time to work in K-12 schools with children around the GTA and the province, generously sharing their knowledge of and commitment to the Land with the next generation, hopefully leading both Indigenous and settler children to live more lightly on the Earth.

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