Native American Heritage Month has evolved from its beginnings as a week-long celebration in 1986, when President Reagan proclaimed the week of November 23-30, 1986 as “American Indian Week.” Every President since 1995 has issued annual proclamations designating the month of November as the time to celebrate the culture, accomplishments, and contributions of people who were the first inhabitants of the United States.

Norval Morrisseau, National Art Gallery of Canada

Amazingly, I had two vacations in Canada this year. In April, I spent a wonderous week on the East Coast (Halifax) with friends. Then, in August, an unexpected trip (funded through the generosity of another friend) delivered me, via train, to Ottawa, Ontario, Canada for almost 3 weeks.

Both trips provided the opportunity to appreciate and learn about indigenous North American culture.

In Halifax, at the Natural History Museum, I experienced the interactive “This is What I Wish You Knew” installation, presented in partnership with the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Center in Halifax:

“The tiles presented in this exhibit form part of a tile exposition at the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre titled, ‘This Is What I Wish You Knew,’ which explores Indigenous self-identity. Fifty community members from the urban aboriginal community in Halifax carved and painted their personal stories onto rectangular clay tiles. The project builds upon recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of 2015, which documented the history and legacy of Canada’s Residential School System. The fundamental theme behind the tiles communicates the diversity, strength and courage of our Indigenous population in the Halifax region.

Through these fourteen tiles, the artists share the challenges and diverse experiences of the Mi’kmaw community throughout our region. We invite you to enjoy the beauty of the tiles and listen as the artists reveal how their personal journeys are reflected in these works of art.”

These videos also provide the opportunity to hear native speakers and see the dialogue written with Mi’kmaq glyphs.  (Note: various spellings of Mi’kmaq have been/are used from first contact to the present day.)

Another cultural partnership between the museum and indigenous groups is Siawa’sik: A Contemporary Study of the Resilience and Adaptation in Mi’kmaq Art

“Siawa’sik is an exhibition curated by the students of the Indigenous Exhibition Methodologies class at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD). As a part of the class, we were tasked with researching Indigenous material culture in the collection of the Nova Scotia Museum. This exhibition represents a culmination of this research. Siawa’sik seeks to challenge the pervasive historical narrative of ‘The Vanishing Indian’ and instead highlights the resilience of Mi’kmaq communities and cultures which still thrive today. A focus throughout our research has been the changes in arts and crafts processes, often as a result of contact and collaboration with colonial cultures.

Many of the objects on display are examples of souvenir art, in which materials and decorations have been skillfully adapted to meet the demands of the new European market. Rather than a loss of “authenticity”, these changes represent survival, a continuation of Mi’kmaq culture despite colonial pressures to assimilate. Curated by Sarah Brooks, Erin Riehl, Undine Foulds, Katelyn Bungay, Sydney Wreaks, Darcie Bernhardt, Luke Mohan, Robin Jarvis, Anna Wildish.”

As the capital of Canada, Ottawa hosts several exquisite museum experiences offering insights into Aboriginal history and culture.

I spend an extraordinary day wandering through the Canadian Museum of History.

“Honouring the First Peoples: Overlooking the Ottawa River and boasting a specular view of the Parliament Building, the Canadian Museum of History  . . . gives pride of place to the First Peoples, along with a virtual exhibition you can explore here.”

“The spectacular Grand Hall offers an introduction to the history, cultures and beliefs of the First Peoples of Canada’s Pacific Coast. With its curving, six-story window wall and unrivalled view of Parliament Hill, the Grand Hall is one of the country’s most impressive indoor public spaces and the Museum’s architectural centrepiece.”

Spirit of Haidi Gwaii

Within the First Peoples of the Northwest Coast exhibit (which shows a culture rooted in its past as it thrives and evolves in the 21st century) is From Time Immemorial:

“In the setting of an ancient forest, this exhibition presents both archaeological and ethnological elements, teaching us about the way of life of the Tsimshian nation and the role of the archaeologist.”

The museum also hosts: Unceded: Voices of the Land

“What do Indigenous thinking and spirituality bring to the world of architecture? UNCEDED – Voices of the Land is a breathtaking multimedia installation that brings together the past, present and future of the Indigenous experience, as seen through the eyes and minds of 18 distinguished Indigenous architects and designers from across Turtle Island (North America).”

“UNCEDED was created to represent Canada at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, the most prestigious architectural exhibition in the world. . . .  An exhibition developed by Douglas Cardinal Architect Inc. and adapted by the Canadian Museum of History.”

I firmly believe that the Indigenous world view, which has always sought this balance between nature, culture and technology, is the path that humanity must rediscover and adopt for our future. The teachings of the Elders are not the teachings of the past. They are the teachings of the future. — Douglas Cardinal, Blackfoot, Red Deer, Alberta (Designed the Museum of Canadian History buildings and surroundings)

Another day was spent among the exhibition galleries of the National Art Gallery. Here, an unique and interesting approach to integrating Canadian and Indigenous art spools out.

Canadian and Indigenous Art: In these transformed Galleries, the parallel and, at times, interrelated stories of Canadian and Indigenous art in Canada are brought together in one unforgettable display of masterpieces. Almost 800 paintings, sculptures, prints, photographs, silver, and decorative art objects from across Canada are on view, dating from 5,000 years ago to 1967.”

Highlighting contemporary indigenous art, the National Gallery presents:

Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu continuel, the second exhibition in the National Gallery of Canada’s series of presentations of contemporary international Indigenous art, features works by more than 70 artists identifying with almost 40 Indigenous Nations, ethnicities and tribal affiliations from 16 countries, including Canada.”

Other national museums in the Ottawa, Ontario/Gatineau, PQ area spotlight the integral ways in which native and non-native cultures continue to interact. Next time I visit, I plan on spending a day at the Canadian museum of nature. This museum includes in it’s Extraordinary Arctic exhibition galleries:

A Window into the Arctic: Catch a glimpse of life in the North from the people who live and travel in the Canadian Arctic. Social media allows us to see, in near-real time, the wonders of the natural world and our relationship to the land. #ExtraordinaryArctic”


Qilalukkat! : Belugas and Inuvialuit: Our Survival Together

Learn about beluga whales and their relationship with the Inuit people of the Western Arctic, the Inuvialuit. Explore the history and traditions of beluga harvesting, which continues to be a vital part of present-day Inuvialuit life. Experience a Tuktoyaktuk family’s journey, from preparing to storing the food provided by their annual beluga harvest. See ancient artifacts, modern tools and beluga-inspired arts and crafts. Stroll through a recreated camp and smokehouse. Discover how Inuvialuit and scientists work together for beluga conservation.”