The fourth annual First Nations Cultural Awareness Day at Georgina Arts Centre and Gallery took place alongside the Ogitchidaa Kwe: Warrior Women exhibition on June 7 in Sutton, Ont.
Suzanne Smoke, 48, cultural coordinator for the Georgina Arts Centre and curator of the Biindigen Alcove Gallery helped organize the day. She curates the entire gallery featuring First Nations artists for the summer of which Ogitchidaa Kwe is part.
From Alderville First Nation, Smoke now lives in Georgina, Ont.
“When I started here six years ago as a staff member, we had three First Nations artists. I now represent over 36 in six years so we are growing,” said Smoke.
She looks at artists as activists who support Indigenous rights.
“Every Indigenous artist or person is an activist in Canada. We have to be as our rights are slowly being eroded or the government thinks they are eroding them. We are asserting our sovereignty and we are not going to take that. It was the women who started the healing movement especially with Idle No More that took over and mushroomed through the grassroots people,” said Smoke.
When she thinks of Indigenous women, she thinks of them as Ogitchidaa Kwe or Warrior Women. “They’re the ones that are working for the people. It’s not about accolades. It’s not about money. It’s not about Natives verses Harper.
“It’s about the water. It’s about the people. It’s about sovereignty. It’s us. It’s our nations. It’s the women that are leading that and the men are following. That’s where it started from and how I thought about this. I’ve been blessed to work with so many wonderful artists. These four Native women artists are to me the epitome of Ogitchidaa Kwe.”
The four artists are Nathalie Bertin, Jackie Traverse, Summer Faith Garcia, and Joeann Argue who are different ages and from different backgrounds. The exhibition runs until June 22.
For Smoke, the exhibition represents the empowerment of Indigenous women to share history and culture. It’s a way to cope with the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada today.
“I will call our government on that as they are not doing a good job at protecting our women. Our men and women are taking that role now. This is my medicine. This is our good stories. This is who we are. We are not all those things people read in the newspapers. All that is propaganda. This is our culture, our identity, our strength,” she said.
Smoke believes it’s important for Indigenous artists to tell their own stories.
“Nobody can interpret or tell those stories for us. When it comes to our artwork and how it’s conveyed, it has to be somebody from the Red Nation that speaks to that,” she said.
“As we look back at the government propaganda since the colonial dominance started, we are less than in many eyes of Canadians. We are magnificent. Our kids and our families are magnificent. Our culture is magnificent. We have a history that goes back more generations than anybody here in Canada. It is important that not only every Canadian recognizes that magnificence but even our own people,” said Smoke.
Some of the magnificence can be found in a little girl’s jingle dress dance at the pow wow. Smoke saw Tessa Snake dance without missing a beat.
Jingle dress dancing is a way to ask for healing from the Creator.
She mentioned how her daughter, Cedar Smoke, jingle dress danced that day for her father who had suffered two heart attacks and had a triple bypass.
Duke Redbird, 75, Potawatomi Chippewa from Saugeen First Nation, elder-in-residence for the Georgina Arts Centre and Gallery closed the pow wow with his poem The Power of the Land.
“I have seen great changes over the last 50 years or so where in the beginning we almost had to keep it a secret whenever we gathered to do any dancing or celebrating in our traditional way. In the 21st century, we do it openly and proudly,” said Redbird about how he felt of the day’s pow wow.
At one point in Canadian history, it was illegal for Indigenous peoples to practice dances or ceremonies.
“It brings us around to re-establish a sense that this is an important feature of self-preservation of not only this part of the world but the entire world has to reconnect with the earth to have some healing. Pow wows help to do that,” said Redbird.