Connecting cultures: a journey through indigenous art in Canada

Video by TSU Productions

Connecting cultures: a journey through indigenous art in Canada

Video by TSU Productions

An inspiring photo assignment led National Geographic photographer Adam Ferguson from Montreal to Northern Québec, Canada, and into the creative heart of a welcoming community of Cree people, to capture how Indigenous artists reveal and sustain their culture.

He met artists in both urban and wilderness settings, all sharing what it means to sustain and reclaim their heritage amid 21st century Canada. As an Australian, Ferguson experienced something culturally familiar—a way of life still quietly, yet profoundly connected to the land. And in witnessing this connection, he found inspiration for his own art.

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Early morning mist over Lake Opemisca, Ouje-Bougoumou, Québec.

From downtown Montreal to the shores of Lake Opemisca some 425 miles due north, Adam Ferguson shares his experiences of the transformative power of Indigenous cultures in Canada — and discovers creativity as diverse as Canada itself.

What did you observe about these communities being able to share their art and culture with you?

“I walked through Old Montreal with Nadine St-Louis, founder and executive director of the Ashukan Cultural Space and Sacred Fire Productions an Indigenous entrepreneur of Mi’kmaq and Acadian heritage. She described her center as a unique place for Indigenous artists to exhibit and sell their works. From Inuit throat singers to stone sculptors, it was clear the people we spent time with here were proud of, and empowered by, their art and culture. Nadine spoke candidly about the community’s challenges as Canada evolved. But, she believes now is a time for Indigenous creativity to emerge and flourish – in Québec and elsewhere.”

Were there moments in this journey that changed you?

“Spending time on Lake Opemisca with Anna and David Bosum, a Cree family in Ouje-Bougoumou Québec, made me slow down. It’s easy in the modern world to be consumed by technology, social media, and work. On the lake, the Bosum family projected a quiet wisdom that calmed me. They were kind, intuitive people who have a deep relationship to their immediate environment, to the lake, to the trees around it.

“Their lifestyle is absolutely ingrained, with a worldview tied directly to the seasons and nature. Anna and David were going fishing, but not to catch and sell the fish. Instead, they share everything with community, passing it on to the elders who are no longer physically able to hunt or fish for themselves.

“Seeing how they live in this space allowed me to reflect on my own values and feel my true place in the great life cycle at work in this universe. It was humbling. “

Indigenous cultures emphasize the connectedness of all things. How did the art you experienced reflect this and other values of Indigenous culture?

“On the traditional side, stone carving and sculpture of animals seemed almost a form of worship; a way of acknowledging and thanking animals for what they give to the life cycle. The work of Harold Bosum, a Cree artist in Ouje-Bougoumou, was also very connected to the land. He wanders through his ancestral home, finding branches and other materials for his small canoes and other creations. There’s something beautiful in the holistic process of Harold executing his craft.

“In contrast, there’s the work of Nico Williams in downtown Montreal — much more political and ideological. Williams uses traditional beading craft to make contemporary statements about the issues facing First Nations people in Canada now. His sculptures are an intersection of the old and new, telling stories with traditional means in a current context. His art provokes dialogue and advances the level of understanding about his people.”

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Nico Williams, an Anishinaabe traditional bead artist, poses for a portrait in Montreal, Québec.

What did these experiences reveal about Canada that you wouldn’t have learned elsewhere?

“It’s quite something to drive into Montreal and experience these First Nations art exhibitions in a beautiful space, speak to the artists about their work, hear what they hope it communicates to visitors from around the world — and then head hundreds of miles north to a lake on traditional Cree lands and be part of a much simpler lifestyle. It was an incredible experience — like a peek behind the curtain of mainstream Canada.”

Did these Indigenous artists have an impact on you as an artist?

“I was struck with how my own story must be present in my work. Art doesn't resonate if it’s merely a technique mimicked. It needs an author, a personal story; one has to have something to say. Nico Williams in particular brought me closer to this truth. This young Montreal artist has embarked on a difficult quest to reconcile who he is as an Indigenous person within 21st century Canada. And his art is a voice for other Indigenous people doing the same. This inspired me.”

HOW TO EXPERIENCE INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES IN CANADA

Like never before, travelers from around the world can learn in both cities and rural settings by stepping into traditional ways of life and experiencing the knowledge of authentic Indigenous communities. You can connect to determined, resilient Cree artists seizing their place in a vibrant modern Canada. This cultural resurgence is a two-way street that extends far beyond art and journeys like this broaden visitors’ minds and break down barriers. But the opportunity to share one’s heritage is equally powerful.

As doors to Indigenous tourism across Canada have burst open, each of the hundreds of nations have their own unique stories to tell. For example:

Local Inuit guides share bountiful wildlife during a fleeting summer of 24-hour sun at the northern end of Baffin Island in Canada’s Arctic.

Mi’kmaq peoples and their families offer their traditional cuisine, art and ancient stories on Prince Edward Island along Canada’s Atlantic Coast.

The Anishinaabe People of the Mnidoo Mnising (Manitoulin Island) in Ontario reveal the Great Spirit Trail through canoeing, drumming, and ‘glamping’ in tepees.

Guides from diverse First Nations invite travellers to join drumming experiences and explore the Northern tip of Vancouver Island by boat.

In Canada’s extreme north, Inuvialuit hosts guide visitors on an ice roads trip and the famous Dempster Highway. They take visitors snowmobiling alongside reindeer herders as they drive massive herds toward Inuvik on the Arctic Ocean.

Metis guides reveal the myriad Indigenous cultures of Edmonton and the gentle wilderness of Elk Island National Park, also sharing the long and complex history of the fur trade across the Canadian Prairies.

In Churchill, Manitoba, Metis guides introduce travellers to summer dog sledding, a bird-watching boat tour, and some great aurora borealis viewing. At the Itsanitaq Museum, travellers take in thousands of years of Inuit culture and artifacts.

Six Nations guides share their connection to Niagara’s now famed wine region. Travellers learn about the role of Indigenous people in the War of 1812. All with iconic Niagara Falls a short drive away.

There are many more ways to learn about Canada from those who were here first. Find descriptions of wide-ranging Indigenous tourism experiences across the nation at www.indigenouscanada.travel.

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The Bossum family paddles on Lake Opemisca at sunset, Ouje-Bougoumou, Québec.

Adam Ferguson’s work has been featured in National Geographic magazine. Follow him on Instagram @adamfergusonphoto.

Writer Liz Beatty is a Toronto-based contributor to National Geographic Travel. She’s also producer and host of the award-winning broadcast/podcast, Native Traveler, relaunching on SiriusXM Canada Talks. Liz is passionate about tourism as a tool to empower indigenous cultures around the world. Follow her journeys @native_traveler.

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