Picture Books Celebrating Canada’s Indigenous Art

 “If we are to preserve culture we must continue to create it.”

~Johan Huizing

2017 has given me many opportunities to explore history from the perspective of Indigenous peoples, through various arts events.  I have heard a beautiful performance by Marion Newman, Kwagiulth and Stó:lo First Nations mezzo-soprano.  The Toronto Consort introduced me to the music of Jeremy Dutcher, who has blended traditional songs of the Maliseet people with his own original compositions. I attended a presentation where Jesse Wente discussed how Indigenous peoples have long been misrepresented in film, explaining the incongruity between how movies portrayed historical events and what was actually happening.  The Kent Monkman art exhibition, “Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience” invited viewers to reflect on some of the harsher realities of the impact of Confederation on indigenous peoples – starvation, sickness, the loss of land, language and culture.  More and more I have realized how the arts preserve, transmit, and transform culture, particularly in instances where a culture is vulnerable. The arts have shown me both what has been lost and what is being been found again, and revitalized.  Here is a collection of picture books that will acquaint children with the art of Canada’s Indigenous peoples in its various forms – carvings, stories, poems, dance, crafts and music. The arts give us a window into history. They help us to express vital ideas about who we are today. And the arts inspire and ignite the imaginations of future generations.  I hope these books invite children not only appreciate Indigenous art, but also to realize their own potential as artists, because the arts live on through our children.

Blanc, Mike (illustrator).  Magic Words from the Ancient Oral Tradition of the Inuit.  Akron, Ohio: Vanita Books, 2013

magic-wordsTranslated by Edward Field, the poetic words in this gorgeous picture book are drawn from journals kept by Knud Rasmussen during the Fifth Thule Expedition. Rasmussen collected extensive information about the Inuit societies in Canada, including their oral traditions. Inuit myths and legends passed down by the elders through generations, preserve traditional teachings, but also explain the relationship of the Inuit with nature.  Magic Words demonstrates the belief that animals have magical powers and can hear and understand what humans are saying.  Mike Blanc’s vibrant illustrations done in ink and charcoal pencil and coloured with digital painting software are inspired by the artwork of Simon Tookoome.  Children will love searching in the illustrations for such animals as bear, wolf, walrus, caribou, tern, musk ox and narwhal as they are introduced to the world of the Inuit and to their stories.

Crewe, Sabrina.  Totem Poles.  North Mankato, Minnesota: Pebble Plus/Capstone Press, 2015

Written using very short chapters, this book briefly explains how totem poles are carved, totem-polespainted, and raised, an event which is often an occasion for communities to come together to celebrate. Readers will learn how totem poles often have animal symbols representing clans and how these symbols can reveal important information about events, ancestors and clan members. The book includes a glossary of terms, and references to additional resources about British Columbia and tales from the Pacific Northwest.  Much can be learned about totem poles and their history from both Western and Indigenous perspectives. Readers will be fascinated to learn more about what totem poles
represent both for those who create them, and for Canada.

Daniel, Danielle.  Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox.  Toronto: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2015.

sometimes-i-feel-like-a-foxMétis author and illustrator Danielle Daniel wrote Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox to help readers understand how animal totems  influence a child’s identity, by instructing, guiding and protecting them, and to explain their connection to particular Anishnaabe clans.  Through short, poetic phrases and whimsical acrylic illustrations that describe a variety of animals (e.g., butterfly, owl, turtle, wolf) and their characteristics (e.g., vulnerable, wise, patient, loyal) children might recognize themselves in these animals and see how their skills contribute to the community.  In addition to giving children a vocabulary for different character traits, the book provides an invitation to imagine being each of these animals and to explore how it feels to be curious, brave determined or loving.  Children could make masks and then dramatize the different animals, and describe the experience. Readers could also explore Anishnaabe stories about the animals in this book to gain an appreciation for the tradition of storytelling.

Olsen, Sylvia. Yetsa’s Sweater.  Winlaw, B.C.: Sono Nis Press, 2006

Joan Larson’s textured pastel illustrations provide a gorgeous backdrop for Olson’s storyyetsa of how a young girl learns from her grandmother all that is involved in the making of a Cowachin sweater.  Yetsa first helps to remove debris from bundles of fleece, then washes and the fleece and hangs it up to dry.  She enjoys loving conversations with her grandmother as they tease the wool to prepare it for carding and spinning (jobs that Yetsa will be able to do when she is older).  When the wool has been wound it is at last ready to be knitted into beautiful sweaters that incorporate designs such as flowers, waves and whales. In an afterword, the author provides a brief history of how knitting was introduced to the Coast Salish, and how the tradition of making Cowachin sweaters gets passed from
generation to generation.  For their beauty, and resistance to wind and water, these hand-crafted garments are worth seeking out in specialty shops.  This book is not just about the craft of knitting, but speaks to the importance of family connections and the preservation of cultural traditions.  It is one to be cherished by readers and knitters alike.

Philip, Neil (editor).  Weave Little Stars into my Sleep: Native American Lullabies.  New York: Clarion Books, 2001

weave-little-stars-into-my-sleepPhilip’s beautiful collection of lullabies includes some examples from the Ojibwa, Inuit, Haida, Tsimshian and Kwakiutl, translated into English.  The songs are about creatures like fire bugs and owls, comforting places and sounds, dreams, and hopes for our babies. The illustrations are photographs of Edward S. Curtis; during Jesse Wente’s presentation, he spoke of how Curtis photographed and filmed indigenous peoples as their way of life was disappearing.  In the afterword, Philip refers to studies of Indigenous children’s music conducted by the Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, in 1918 and 1939; perhaps it was also the editor’s intention to preserve something that was being lost. Lullabies create bonds between parent and infant, and impart language and traditions from one generation to the next.  The idea of what happens when our children’s songs are lost is echoed in the Kwakiutl Spell Song: “The days gone by – what shall I tell you, my grandchildren, of the days gone by?” Today musicians like Jason Burnstick and Nadia Gaudet are releasing recordings of lullabies in English, French and Cree, in an effort to revitalize an Indigenous language and restore an important part of their heritage.

Rogé (illustrator).  Mingan my village: Poems by Innu Schoolchildren. Calgary: Fifth House Publishers, 2014

Inspired by the music of Chloé Sainte-Marie and the poetry of Joséphine Bacon, illustratormingan-my-village Rogé spent time at the Teueikan School in Mingan, an Innu village in Northeastern Québec.  There he photographed fifteen children who participated in writing workshops conducted by the French poet Laure Morali and the Innu poet Rita Mestokosho.  The children learned to express their ideas about their concerns, emotions and surroundings, through poetry. Their beautiful words are about their grandparents, the seasons, weather, animals, rivers and transformation.  Rogé later drew the children’s portraits in shades of grey, black and sepia, and these haunting images became the faces of the poems contained in this poignant collection.  The original Innu texts are provided at end of the book, providing readers with a special opportunity to appreciate this unique language.

Thomas, Penny.  Powwow Counting in Cree.  Winnipeg, Manitoba: Highwater Press, 2013

powwow-counting-in-creeDelicately illustrated with paintings by Melinda Josie, this simple rhyming book introduces children to the numbers one to ten in the Cree language.  A list of the words and their pronunciations is provided to aid readers in learning to say them (e.g., peyak
is pronounced PAY-yuk).  The images in the book will provide children with an introduction to objects and symbols associated with powwows (a ceremony involving feasting, singing and dancing) such as feathers, moccasins, regalia, drums, an Eagle staff, and the seven sacred teachings.  Although the book does not explain these things, it provides an invitation to ask questions, and to learn more about Cree culture and ceremonies.  A resource guide is available for educators who might want to make this lovely book part of a rich educational experience for children.

Webster, Christine. The Mi’kmaq.  Calgary: Weigl Educational Publishers, 2008

This book is part of the Canadian Aboriginal Art and Culture series (which includes other titles about the Cree, Denesuline, Haida, Inuit, Iroquois, Métis, Ojibwa and Salish).  It contains short chapters on different aspects of Mi’kmaq culture, including music and dance, language and storytelling, Mi’kmaq art, petroglyphs, and information on modern artist Alan Syliboy.  The book includes an art activity with instructions on how to make a porcupine-quill bracelet using beads and string.  Illustrated with maps, modern and historical photographs and drawings depicting the past, this book will provide readers
with foundational information about Mi’kmaq culture.

“Teach them that rainbows appear after a storm to remind them that light begins and ends with all colors.”

~ Frederic M. Perrin, Rella Two Trees – The Money Chiefs

 This blog post is dedicated to the memory of Germaine Desjardins, my Métis grandmother.

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