When two First Nations visual artists collaborated with students to design and paint three mural-sized banners, they portrayed a journey rich with history, tradition, and courage, and fostered profound story-sharing and dialoguing.
For three days in November, my classroom was transformed into an artist’s studio. Three 11′ x 3′ blank canvas banners hung from the ceiling along the back wall. Chairs and desks were arranged in a wide circle around the perimeter of the classroom, and up along the blackboard perched a rainbow of acrylic paint jars awaiting the stroke of a brush. Soon, these banners would be painted by 55 Grade 11 students and two local First Nations artists in a collaborative art project that would portray a journey rich with history, tradition, and courage, and would foster profound story-sharing and dialoguing.
In my recent years teaching the First Nations, Métis and Inuit Studies courses at James Cardinal McGuigan (JCM) high school in Toronto, I have reflected upon the question: How do I take on the responsibility of making space for Indigenous voices and get my students to engage meaningfully in a primarily non-Indigenous, Catholic, multicultural classroom? This was the challenge I set for myself as a settler-educator, recognizing the importance of my positionality and accountability in the context of Reconciliation. I wanted to develop a positive and inclusive activity that would both amplify Indigenous voices and enable my students to have an authentic, respectful, in-person dialogue with Indigenous people while contributing to a larger project.
Gathering both qualitative and quantitative data to assess students’ learning and transformation was one of the goals of this project, so they completed a survey before we started the art project and a second one afterwards. The results were encouraging: to this day, students describe this learning experience as one where they were able to “learn from two perspectives instead of one.” One eager participant attested, “We can learn from people who have a better understanding of current issues and take part in creating a better community.”
After reading about collaborative mural painting initiatives in various school boards and universities across Ontario, I was inspired to facilitate one at my school. Research indicates that an extraordinary experience with art enables educators and participants to examine multiple, shifting meanings of culture and communities.1 I decided on a banner project because banners (more so than murals) are easy to move around and rotate between different locations in the school for students and guests to appreciate.
Acquiring funding from the Ontario Ministry of Education was essential, so I applied for a Teacher Learning and Leadership grant and received the necessary capital to commission this art project. I want to thank my school’s administration, office staff, and art department for their pivotal involvement and support throughout the project.
Inspired by an article titled “New Mural: A first step toward reconciliation for Indigenous youth,”2 I invited the artists Chief Lady Bird and Aura to come share their culture, history, and perspectives with the students, and to collaborate with them on an artistic piece that could be showcased for years to come. Chief Lady Bird is Chippewa and Potawatomi from Rama and Moose Deer Point First Nations, and her sister, Aura, is Haudenosaunee Onyota’a:ka (Oneida Nation of the Thames). I taught my students greetings in Anishinaabek and Oneida, and posted them on our classroom door to make the artists feel welcomed and acknowledged.
My students had been learning about Indigenous histories, identities and cultural ways of knowing, and I reviewed the specific themes we had examined in class with the artists beforehand so that we could connect them to the project.
In the pre-project survey, the students’ ratings of their level of knowledge about Indigenous teachings (e.g. Medicine Wheel, The Seven Grandfather Teachings) was split evenly between feeling moderately, fairly, and highly knowledgeable. Some students felt a bit daunted by the task of collaborating with Indigenous people on an art project, but most were comfortable or even looking forward to it.
After the land acknowledgement, the artists began by introducing themselves in their languages and sharing with the students their backgrounds, the importance of reclaiming their languages, and their work with young people of all backgrounds in communal spaces to promote mutual respect, care, and knowledge-sharing.
They explored many themes with the students through the artwork, including: Creation Stories, Ceremony & Medicines, Water is Life, Intergenerational Healing, Heart Work & Heart Berries, and the Saskatchewan Lily.
One student said, “Art helps me understand Indigenous concepts because it is where the artists share and express their rich heritage and stories.”
Over three days, I witnessed immense growth in my students. Each had a chance to contribute to the painting – either by picking up a brush, suggesting an image to add or a colour to use. They produced three beautiful banners depicting a Grandmother in traditional dress, illuminated by a full moon; a powerful, resilient female beneath a traditional fish fence, encircled by the Fish Totem; and a young, hopeful girl, looking ahead, firmly rooted to her ancestry and to her Creation story. The three figures stand connected to one another in a symbiotic relationship.
Furthermore, the inquiry that came out of this project was noteworthy. Students asked the artists questions about the symbolic images (e.g. the meaning of the red dress worn by the girl, or the significance of the water being passed on through generations). This spurred further student engagement in the form of independent research, or connecting these meanings to texts studied in class. For one lucky group, this experience inspired a cross-cultural youth exchange with Thunderchild First Nation in Saskatchewan in May 2019, to further strengthen their own cultural competence.
One of the main messages communicated through this banner is “We are here.” It is imperative for all of us to share this message, and to hold space for the often under-represented voices in our society.
When asked why she does this work, Aura stated, “For me it’s about sharing who I am, learning with the youth and creating spaces for them to share who they are too. I believe collaborating between cultures and communities builds unity.” She affirmed the importance of creating positive work in the school system, and her critical role as a facilitator who is “in these spaces sharing my own truth. It is really impactful.”
Chief Lady Bird said that her goal is to “create a safer, kinder, more loving environment that captures the spirit of people, the true spirit of our teachings.” While working with youth, she added, she is “honouring the creative process of everyone. We don’t do things in one cookie-cutter way – we just let it flow; there’s not a lot of room for that in many institutions, so we disrupt with kindness.”
In the post-project survey, 82 percent of students rated the experience as being either highly or fairly meaningful and engaging. In terms of lessons learned, 82 percent said they had learned about relationship building and 68 percent felt more knowledgeable about Reconciliation. All students found that this activity enabled them to learn more about Indigenous stories and traditional teachings.
One student said, “The best thing about this experience was the opportunity to collaborate with the First Nations artists and share moments with them and learn about them and their backgrounds.”
Another student – who, thanks to this project, now self-identifies as part Mi’kmaq – found a sense of belonging and acquired greater knowledge of her history. She observed, “It is important for us to take part in a collaborative art project with First Nations artists because it is important for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to show that they can work together and move forward from what happened in the past.”
This work contributes to a growing body of work on “teacher-allyship”3 and aims to inform teachers who seek respectful and relevant ways of incorporating Indigenous approaches into their pedagogies. I encourage teachers to explore the plethora of Indigenous-written and -produced resources available to them for K–post-secondary, and to be in touch with their school board liaisons; I am grateful to the Toronto Catholic District School Board’s department of Indigenous Education for their support throughout my journey.
This project also is anchored in inter-cultural understanding and respect for alternative ways of knowing. By inviting artists from marginalized groups to share their knowledge and talents with students, we give voice to often-silenced speakers, lend greater legitimacy to the curriculum, and offer students and teachers opportunities for genuine discourse and practice regarding art, creativity, and social transformation.
We came such a long way in just three days. The transformations and mutual sharing that we experienced in that “artist’s studio” were remarkable, equally for the students, the artists, and myself as a settler-educator. The experience invited students to become culturally conscious in an authentic, respectful and engaging way, to understand the concept of reciprocity, to celebrate unity, and to look at storytelling through an artistic medium. Not only do these banners represent Indigenous narratives, but they tell a living story: one of history, reclamation, and relationship.
We hope that all students feel invited to tell their own stories of identity, and understand how much their heritage plays a pivotal role in shaping who they are. I hope this important work will inspire, educate, and transform educational communities across Turtle Island.
Photo: courtesy Laryssa Gorecki
First published in Education Canada, September 2019
1 M. Greene, Releasing the Imagination: Essay on education, the arts, and social change (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1995).
2 Justin Skinner, “New Mural: A first step toward reconciliation for Indigenous youth,” Toronto.com (Aug. 28, 2017).
3 Pamela Rose Toulouse, “K-12 Truth and Reconciliation: Becoming a teacher ally,” Education Canada 58, No. 2 (2018). www.edcan.ca/articles/truth-reconciliation-k-12