TORONTO — A gesture by late musician Robbie Robertson has drawn attention to a Six Nations community’s cultural restoration project and local leaders anticipate it will have a lasting positive impact.
Heather George, executive director of the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, Ont., says a public request from Robertson’s family to donate to the centre’s fundraising efforts for a new building has already drawn much attention as news spread of the musician’s death on Wednesday at 80 years old.
“One of my hopes is that more people learn about Woodland, the work that we do and the history of our site,” said George in a phone interview.
The Woodland Cultural Centre is located on Six Nations land and is part of the former grounds of the Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School. The school closed in 1970 and is now preserved as a historic space to educate people on the impacts of the residential school system.
The cultural centre provides resources to promote Indigenous language and history with the goal of sharing the story of the Haudenosaunee people through exhibits and performances.
Robertson, best known as former guitarist of the influential 1970s Americana rock act the Band, was a frequent advocate for the Six Nations of the Grand River where he spent some of his youth.
He opened his 2016 autobiography “Testimony: A Memoir” by acknowledging the community as a hugely influential piece of who he became. He explained it was the place where he first learned about music and “serious storytelling.”
His memoir is scattered with vivid memories of his time in the community and recollections of the impoverished upbringing faced by his Cayuga and Mohawk mother and other relatives.
Those experiences framed Robertson’s own convictions to dedicate some of his life to drawing attention to Indigenous music and art, particularly from young creators.
The Woodland Cultural Centre received some of that support when Robertson recently agreed to serve as honorary chair for a campaign to replace the older building, which was in extreme disrepair. A request by his family for donations in lieu of flowers became an unanticipated part of that support.
“(People) like Robbie have been involved in a lot of really important movements for Indigenous arts and culture, but usually, behind the scenes,” George said.
“We have these huge conversations going on right now around repatriation and Indigenous rights. And I think sometimes, culture and heritage aren’t always given much visibility in terms of thinking about healing or community wellness.”
Ava Hill, co-chair of the capital committee for the Woodland Cultural Centre project, said she anticipates a “tremendous” impact from Robertson’s name.
The former chief of the 56th and 57th Six Nations Elected Council first met the musician about a decade ago when she was in the leadership role. She said Robertson was deepening his connections with the community at the time while applying for his status card, which he eventually received before a visit around 2018.
“I think he was very proud to say that he was a member of Six Nations ’cause I remember him flashing his card to everybody,” she laughed.
The two stayed in touch occasionally by email in recent years, which is what led to his involvement in the cultural centre project.
“He always was concerned about what was happening at the bush,” she said.
“When we started, I kept thinking, ‘Oh, I can’t wait for the day that this opens and we can have Robbie up here, talking to people and maybe playing his guitar.”’
Hill said she is still processing the realization that can no longer happen.
However, thousands of dollars in donations have already come in for the Woodland centre after Robertson’s death.
The response leaves her hopeful that organizers can find ways to honour Robertson as they build a positive space for Indigenous artists and “break that cycle of intergenerational trauma that so many of our people suffered because of the residential schools.”
“One of those ways that we can (do that) is giving people hope and inspiration,” she added.