The McGill Indigenous Studies Program hosted a panel called ᐃᓄᐃᑦ ᐊᕐᓇᐃᑦ ᐃᓱᒪᓂᕕ ᐊᒻᒪ ᓴᓇᙳᐊᒐᑦ: Inuit Women in Art on September 25. The panel featured four distinguished Indigenous women in various fields of art. The event was one of many happening across campus as part of McGill’s eighth annual Indigenous Awareness Week. Patricia Johnson-Castle, Administrative and Student Affairs Coordinator for the Indigenous Studies Program, and organizer of the night’s event, opened the panel by introducing the four guest speakers: Beatrice Deer (ᐱᐊᑐᐊᔅᑎᐅ), singer, television producer, and author; Nancy Saunders (ᓂᐊᑉᓴᓐᑐᔅ), known professionally as Niap, visual artist and throat singer; Heather Igloliorte (ᓯᕈ ᐃᒡᓗᓕᐅᖅᑎ), co-chair of the Indigenous Circle for the Winnipeg Art Gallery; and Nina Segalowitz (ᓂᓇ ᓯᒐᓗᕕᑦᔅ), writer and throat singer.
Beatrice Deer took the floor first and went into detail regarding the various types of art forms she has explored over the years including, costume design, music, fine art, literature and sewing. Deer hails from Quaqtaq, Nunabik and has resided in Montreal for the past 11 years. She previously sat on the board for the Inuit Art Foundation alongside fellow speaker of the evening, Heather Igloliorte, and Deer received the award herself in 2016.
Igloliorte, an Inuk scholar and independent curator, as well as Co-Director of the Initiative for Indigenous Futures Cluster, discussed how the issue of a lack of Indigenous recognition affects us all, regardless of our respective backgrounds. She highlighted the difficulties in creating a comprehensive learning program, explaining, “even in courses where Indigenous art is meant to encompass a broad range of artistic practices, there’s not a lot of specialization or understanding, […] First Nations colleagues,” she said “have said to me that they’re not really comfortable teaching art because they never studied it when they were at school or they don’t see it in exhibitions in the same way [as non First-Nations people].”
Igloliorte discussed at length the irony within promoting and displaying Inuit and Indigenous art: “we have these collections of Inuit art in almost every museum and gallery in this country as well as a whole bunch of galleries all over the world […] and yet in this country there’s never been a permanent full time Inuk employed in a museum.” Universities offering courses in Inuit and Indigenous art exist exclusively in the South of Canada. The North, in contrast, possesses no universities at all, just a few colleges. “Canada is the only Arctic country that does not have a university in the Arctic,” Igloliorte explained.
Deer spoke about being “very influenced by [her] culture” and how she “writes mostly in Inuktitut as that is [her] first language and that’s the one [she] is most confident expressing herself [in].” Deer and the other panelists all shared the sentiment that their art is as much about improving the rights for Indigenous populations and educating others, as it is about self-discovery.
Nancy Saunders, who is professionally known as Niap, is a visual artist from Kuujjuaq, Nunavik. Her pseudonym comes from a mispronunciation of the Inuktitut word for older sister. Saunders, who provided an opening speech in her mother tongue of Inuktitut, spoke of her transition from figurative and literal work into the abstract. She described this journey in terms of her self expression and self-realization of her heritage.
“When I was growing up in the South I was very much ashamed of who I was,” Saunders moved from her home town of Kuujjuaq at the age of 12. Saunders stated that her initial work focused predominantly on the literal representation of “who [the Inuit] are with the traditional clothing and such, and then [she] started learning about the mythology […] stories about transformations, and metamorphoses.” Of her art, she said, “I just kind of share what I think is beautiful from my culture and I want to share the stories and these things that I am discovering — I want other people to discover them at the same time as I am.” Saunders demonstrated this period of self-discovery and evolution by showcasing several examples of her work. She presented a life-like drawing with a section of three dimensional beadwork, and a stream from her hometown accompanied by a montage of sounds from her home. Saunders stressed greatly the necessity to be “immersed in the piece” and offers this as an explanation for her use of several mediums at once.
Saunders discussed at length the struggles she has faced both internally and externally with the perceptions of what it means to be Inuk. During a sculpting residence in Paris, France, Saunders was faced with having to justify her identity to the people around her. “I wasn’t considered a real Inuk in France, because I lived off second-hand information,” she said, “I wasn’t born in an Igloo, I have pale skin and I have green eyes and I didn’t live with a dog sled or anything like that, so I struggled every day to justify what it means to be Inuit.” This sense of internalized shame was similarly expressed by Nina Segalowitz. Born Anne-Marie Thrasher in Fort Smith Northwest Territories, Segalowitz was stolen from her parents at the age of seven months during the Sixties scoop. The Sixties scoop refers to the wide-scale national apprehension of Indigenous children by childwelfare agencies to place them in non-Indigenous homes in Canada, the US, and even overseas. The practice began in the 1950’s and lasted until the mid to late 80’s.
This traumatic displacement was instrumental in Segalowitz’s journey to self-discovery. Through the outlets of music and spoken word, she has been able to start to reconcile her heritage with the way she grew up. “I still feel anxiety,” she said, “I always felt like I was playing a part [growing up in her Filipino-Jewish family […] I always felt like people had a list of things they wanted me to do — they wanted me to go to a private girls’ school, I went to a private girls’ school, they wanted me to pray in Hebrew, I prayed in Hebrew […] I felt like I was always constantly meeting other people’s expectations of me.”
“Throat singing was a way for me to heal that hole in my heart and my spirit, and when I do it I feel transported in time. Every time I learn a new song, the government loses again”.
Speaking after the event, Patricia Johnson-Castle, whose family is from the Indigenous community of Nunatsiavut in Labrador, explained the importance of this event: “[Indigenous people] are so multitalented and it’s only […] in the past little while that people are getting the recognition that they deserve based on their talent”. Johnson-Castle also spoke at length about her hesitations with Indigenous art being placed in galleries: “the way that those pieces of Inuit art have gotten into museums all over the world is also part of this greater project of the Canadian government [saying] ‘you are useful in this way.’”