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Indigenous Canadian Art

Updated: Jan 17

Wayne Morgan - Canada
Wayne Morgan

Indigenous Canadian Art 

Wayne Morgan - Canada                     

With each spawning from roots that have emerged from ancient cultural traditions, there are three prominent styles of indigenous Canadian Art today. Each one is diverse, brimming with a singular allure and ingrained with enough vitality to sustain their passage through the eons. While there are others, these three in question are woodland art, Inuit art and Northwest coast art.

Woodland art, Inuit art and Northwest coast art.
Inuit art, Woodland ar and Northwest coast art.

Before a look at these three differing styles in an individual sense, it’s perhaps worth taking a look further back at to how native schools of art as a whole evolved from prehistory.

“The history of Indigenous art in Canada begins sometime during the last Ice Age between 80,000 and 12,000 years ago. To date, however, the oldest surviving artworks are datable to no earlier than 5,000 years ago.”

Prehistoric carvings have popped up all over Canada, from Turtle Island to the banks of the Fraser River, and beyond. These early finds differ greatly in style and form to what we have arrived at today. Historians and scholars alike have been set to task analyzing and interpreting the evolutionary changes in the works of the First Nations and Inuit people to whom many of the oldest carvings are associated. Historians have been able to ascertain a markedly different output in indigenous art between pre-European contact and post-contact, as the influence of this critical juncture on the lives and artwork of Canada’s indigenous people becomes evident.

The woodland art style emerged in the 1960’s when native artist Norval Morrisseau brought his art to the attention of the wider world, pointing to ancient petroglyphs as antecedents of his art vision. To share his progeny with outsiders was a bold move and one which swam against the current with regards the wishes of tribal elders in his community. Revealing the spiritual beliefs and mythology of the people was considered taboo.

Yet Morrisseau insisted that widening the global focus of native art would bring about greater appreciation of the artistic and cultural values of native people far and wide. And he would prove to be right. The woodland style became a source of great intrigue, with people taken by the regular themes of transformation within it – man and animal often exist in tandem or interchange. This is best exemplified in Morrisseau’s Man Changing into Thunderbird.

Inuit art, also known as Eskimo art is another thing entirely. The form it takes today (which is influenced by the much earlier Dorset people) emerged a few decades prior to woodland art, springing up in areas such as the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Quebec and Labrador. Walrus ivory was once the most common canvas of Inuit craftsmen and women but owing to the inception of Inuit markets in 1945, the move was made to prints and soft stone carvings, revolutionizing Inuit art forever more.

Inuit Contemporary Inuit art: Kenojuak Ashevak’s The Enchanted Owl, created in 1960, was featured on a Canadian stamp, and has now been recreated on the wall of the Iqaluit airport.
Inuit Contemporary Inuit art: Kenojuak Ashevak’s The Enchanted Owl, created in 1960, was featured on a Canadian stamp, and has now been recreated on the wall of the Iqaluit airport.

Whereas their predecessor’s art usually depicted elements of everyday life such as weapons. Contemporary Inuit art is geared towards spirituality and acknowledgement of heritage by means of legends and religion. Also heavily focused on cross-cultural interaction, pieces espouse shamanistic elements and there’s a recurring expressionistic style imbuedthroughout. Inuit art can at times be exceptionally elaborate and highly abstract, with geometric designs layered around anthropomorphic themes.

“Inuit art is remarkable chapter in the history of art in Canada.”

The Northwest coast art style is the one most familiar to non-Native people due to totem poles. Many accounts from explorers in the 1700’s speak of totem poles dotting the entire coastline in spectacular and daunting fashion.  Large wooden carvings, their meaning is constantly misunderstood and misinterpreted, but they are presumed at least to some degree to be symbols of family wealth and prestige. Totem poles are thought to have begun with the Haida people of the Queen Charlotte Islands, with the tradition later spreading to indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America.

Christian missionaries banned the totem pole, claiming it “an object of heathen worship”, and insisting that natives halt further production and destroy existing ones. Totem pole carving and production fell into serious decline. But a resurgence came in the 1950’s, reignited by linguists, culturists and artists and these mysterious monuments which were almost eradicated from existence became reappearing along the coastlines of North American once more.

But the Northwest Coast art style is about much more than just totem poles. Masks, paintings, canoes, sculptures, and other forms of art are found that showcase its varied elements and styles.

For decades native art was shunned and outright banned by the government in a dedicated racial and discriminatory campaign to quell the voice of the indigenous. Grass roots assimilation techniques were employed in the form of the dreaded residential school system.

“It was intentional to invalidate art as a cultural or historic expression of Indigenous Peoples.”

Alex McLeod, Cree knowledge keeper

But today native art (paintings, masks, tattooing, music etc) has been revitalized, more resilient to attack and charting a steady new path for its creators toward the times that lay ahead. I need to look no further than to my super-trendy Haida-inspired green sunglasses sitting next to me on my desktop for a reminder of just how far native Canadian art has come, and the extent to which it has managed to permeate non-native society, pop culture and mainstream contemporary art.

 “We are what we imagine. Our very existence consists in our imagination of ourselves.”

N. Scott Momaday


The Totem Poles at Brockton Point in Stanley Park are one of the major tourist attractions in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
The Totem Poles at Brockton Point in Stanley Park are one of the major tourist attractions in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada




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