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Looking at Indigenous Performing Arts on the Territory Known as Canada

February 9, 20229 February 2022

Indigenous arts: Resources for imagining, thinking, and working toward decolonization

Primary Colours / Couleurs primaires


Sara Roque, France Trépanier, Denise Bolduc, Chris Creighton-Kelly, and Richael Laking

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Anchored in research efforts that include “historic key documents, two bibliographies, in-depth interviews with 12 experienced Indigenous theatre practitioners, and a survey questionnaire”, this report provides insights into Indigenous performing arts creation “on the territory known as Canada”. The authors note that “this document comes from and returns to Indigenous arts communities”. As such, the goal is “to document what needs to happen to make Indigenous theatre thrive in these lands now known as Canada”.

As a “point of departure”, the report indicates that “Indigenous performing arts are underfunded, under resourced and under appreciated”. Moving well beyond that starting point, the report offers four “prerequisites for understanding the current situation of Indigenous performing arts”.

  • Indigenous worldviews: “All Indigenous art practices are different because of what existed before and what was changed by colonial history…. Almost always, there is a link – direct or indirect – to land…. It is impossible to overstate the importance of Indigenous knowledge – again with roots in the land – to contemporary Indigenous performing arts.”
  • Indigenous communities: There is significant diversity between Indigenous Peoples and their arts practices: “… many art practices derive from different roots inherent in the protocols of different First Peoples/Nations.” The performing arts are a part of the significant work underway to revive, renew, and reinvigorate Indigenous languages, many of which were hidden or obliterated by “the cultural genocide produced by colonialism in the territory now called Canada”.
  • Indigenous spaces: “Generally, Indigenous arts organizations live in various states of precarity…. Most of the Indigenous arts ecology is fragile and subject to bureaucratic decision making.” In cases where “existing cultural institutions have established ‘Indigenous sections’ within their structures”, these can be “underfunded, misunderstood, ignored – sometimes unwelcome within the institution [and at risk of being] eliminated at a moment’s notice”.
  • Indigenous self-determination: “Self-determination is complex, context-specific and essential to the understanding of any way forward…. There is no point in imagining concepts like ‘reconciliation’, without centring self-determination…. decolonizing the arts means questioning colonial assumptions and starting again with different premises, not tinkering with Eurocentric models”. The report argues for “Indigenous community engagement in every aspect of the Canadian arts system, [such as] what qualifies as art; eligibility criteria for applications to arts funding; arts juries; the definition of professional artist; what constitutes a sanctioned venue; what is an accredited degree vs other forms of education/learning; success metrics”. “By incorporating Indigenous worldviews and values, a new path naturally leads to a new destination.”

The report emphasizes that “the practice of Indigenous performing arts in the territory known as Canada is different [from settlers’ arts practices]. It is not a difference of degree, but a significant difference in kind. The round stick cannot fit into the tiny square Euroderivative theatre forms and methods of creation.”

The report highlights the fact that “different First Peoples have different knowledge; different stories; different cultural traditions”, which lead to differences in performing arts creation and practices. Some are “community-based, land-based, Traditional Knowledge-based (TK) or aspiring to a professional, contemporary practice”.

The report concludes with eight “ideas for concrete action … as a way to move forward towards actual initiatives that change the conditions for Indigenous arts creation”:

  • A needs assessment
  • An Indigenous arts and culture vision
  • Scaling up infrastructure
  • Touring
  • Training
  • Indigenous performing arts history
  • Critical commentary
  • Educating the mainstream

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