This year’s Hillside art perfectly depicted what the 2018 festival looked like—a band playing on the main stage as an osprey nests above with a potent orange sunset engulfing the scene.
This year’s Hillside art perfectly depicted what the 2018 festival looked like—a band playing on the main stage as an osprey nests above with a potent orange sunset engulfing the scene. All three nights of the festival hosted in Guelph, Ontario boasted beautiful weather with colourful sunsets and even more colourful performances. The artist behind the work, Jay Soule, is a Toronto-based Indigenous artist from the Chippewas of the Thames First Nations. I spoke with Soule to discuss his inspiration behind this piece and what it means to be an Indigenous artist in Canada.
Soule uses his art to contribute to Indigenous activism, challenging people to recognize the struggles Indigenous communities face in Canada. Soule is also known under the pseudonym Chippewar to reflect his Cheppewa identity and the importance of the warrior role in traditional Indigenous cultures. As I see it, the Hillside community is a perfect audience to host his work— it’s full of open-minded and conscious people that share a passion for their community and environment. Understanding our connection to Indigenous history, their realities and territorial land, all contribute to a greater collective consciousness of our community and protecting the land that hosts it.
For Soule, the simple fact of being Indigenous was enough to prompt him to use his art as a means of protest.
“Indigenous people aren’t meant to be here. There was an attempted genocide. Just being alive, breathing, working is kind of a protest. It is a continuous fight,” Soule said.
He uses opportunities, such as this interview, to push Indigenous issues to the forefront and educate people. Soule explained that from the year 1876 to 1951, it was illegal in Canada for Indigenous people to practice their art, language, and culture. Consequently, the revitalization of Indigenous art and artists is immensely important. It was only 10 years ago that the Canadian Government created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to inform all Canadians of the history and impact of Residential Schools in Canada. The survivors, families, and people affected by Residential Schools are still around today. This is not history. This is the present. Our relationship with Indigenous people has suffered from years of mistreatment and demoralization of their identity and communities. Healing and repairing this relationship can only begin with by acknowledging their struggles and an increasing awareness of the legacy that has been left. As Soule said, Indigenous people themselves are trying to reconnect with their own culture after years of inaccessibility.
You don’t need to look very far to find many of examples of cultural appropriation in art, media and beyond. Soule has seen an influx of international markets producing and selling inauthentic traditional Indigenous art. “We need to be represented in an authentic way, not [through] a foreign market’s interpretation of what our work is,” says Soule. Indigenous artists make on average 28 percent less than their non-Indigenous counterparts. There is no shortage of efforts we can do, as allies, to help support Indigenous people. It can be as simple as being a smart and conscious consumer. Don’t buy inauthentic Indigenous art—do your research before making a purchase. Soule has made it easy for people to educate themselves on this issue through the creation of his website reclaimindigenousarts.com. The website clearly states what cultural appropriation is, who it hurts, how it hurts, and what you can do to support Indigenous artists. As the website states, there is “a direct link between the importation of internationally made ‘Indigenous’ items… and the devaluation of authentic, Indigenous art.”
As an artist, one of the most important parts of reconciliation to Soule is economic reconciliation. Economic reconciliation is about paying Indigenous artists the same as their non-Indigenous counterparts and stopping the importation of inauthentic Indigenous art. Soule also tells me that he encourages people “to not just consider what they’ve been taught what Indigenous art looks like… A lot of my peers and I are breaking ground by just being an artist that happens to be Indigenous. I think there needs to be that separation between it: you don’t have to be doing traditional art or what the public perceived to be indigenous art—it can be whatever you want as an indigenous artist and it deserves as much support.”
Supporting Indigenous people, including indigenous artists, is a continuous fight. There are so many ongoing issues that affect Indigenous communities that should be on the public stage and need the support of allies to push these issues to the forefront of Canada’s agenda. Clean water for Indigenous communities and reserves, justices for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, child welfare and education are just a few that Soule says need support in every way possible. “At the end of the day,” says Soule, “it’s our perspective that is important. The opinion of settlers on our lives, our art, and our culture are not their place to have opinions on. It’s not a debate.” As an ally, it’s important to educate yourself on Indigenous history and culture in order to be an active supporter of the causes that affect them.
In Canada, there are a number of Indigenous resistance movements that allies can participate in to support Indigenous people in their community. The more support these movements get, the more capacity they have to make a difference. Organizations including Idle No More, Defenders of the Land, Families of Sisters in Spirit, and Indigenous Environmental Network, are just a few examples of Indigenous-led groups that use grassroots initiatives to fight for Indigenous rights. A quick visit to any of these organization’s websites can provide visitors information on the movements, their backstories, and opportunities to get involved. In Guelph specifically, reaching out to the University of Guelph’s Aboriginal Student Association could prove to be a valuable resource for learning more on building a productive relationship between the Indigenous community in Guelph and beyond.
Guelph and its surrounding area, including the location for Hillside, resides on ancestral lands of the Attawandaron people with Anishanaabe, Haudenosaunee, and Métis land neighbouring, and overlapping, in the area. The British purchased the land in 1784, as Upper Canada Treaty No. 3. This year’s Hillside Festival included many opportunities for festivalgoers to participate in workshops in the Indigenous Circle, including talks on Truth and Reconciliation, Territorial Acknowledgements and beyond.
As Richard Trapunski, of NOW Toronto said, Hillside is “synonymous with community, independent arts, culture, sustainability, inclusiveness.” These key components cannot be carried out without first acknowledging our country’s history, including that of those who came long before us. Acknowledging the land that we reside on as territorial Indigenous land allows us to honour the relationship between the people and the land where they lived and continue to live. Acknowledging the history of the land where Hillside takes place is one of many ways we can be mindful of our collective role as stewards of the environment in which we live and gather. Hillside is a community of wonderfully accepting and conscious people who should continue to thrive to protect our environment through not only green movements, but through supporting Indigenous people and communities to enhance our knowledge and create a platform through which we can participate in the reconciliation of Indigenous people.