Indigenous Arts and Cultures

We have prepared a series of context briefs that contain key information and resources about emerging, minoritized and less-understood arts communities and practices. Our intention is to foster greater understanding, and help ensure that internal and peer committees are equipped to make informed recommendations.

Each Context Brief is a living document and is updated from time to time to evolve with the ongoing dialogue about the topic.


The Canada Council Strategic Plan 2016-21 states:

  • The Council is supporting a self-determined approach that respects and appreciates First Nations, Inuit and Métis artistic expression, cultural protocols, rights, traditions, and worldviews. This will stimulate the work of Indigenous artists, enrich their artistic practices, and give impetus to their communities. This new approach represents a fundamental change in the way the Council funds, supports and acknowledges the Indigenous arts and cultures of Canada. It recognizes the cultural rights of Indigenous peoples and respects the concept of First Nations, Inuit and Métis self determination.

Key characteristics of Indigenous arts and culture


It is important to note that, obviously, not all Indigenous arts practices and cultures are the same. There are significant distinctions among Indigenous peoples across the land now known as Canada. Yet as Mi’kmaq scholar Marie Battiste states, “…they share a worldview informed by the common belief that their environment is shaped and created by living forces.”

Indigenous arts and cultures are different from mainstream arts practices that we have come to see as the standard, even universal frame that then tries to “include” work from other cultures and races. At the same time, Indigenous arts in all of their dynamic manifestations, are not completely separate from the rest of the art world.

There are three conceptual and contextual frames that can assist in properly understanding Indigenous arts and culture: Differing Worldviews; Colonial History and Cultural Sovereignty.

Differing Worldviews

Cree ethicist and elder Willie Ermine describes Aboriginal worldviews as “founded on a search for meaning from a metaphysical, implicit, subjective journey for knowledge based on the premises of skills that promote personal and social transformation; a vision of social change that leads to harmony with rather than control over the environment; and the attribution of a spiritual dimension to the environment.” This perspective contrasts with the Western worldview which emphasizes a scientific, explicitly physical, and objective search for knowledge. Indigenous worldviews posit an understanding of the connectedness of all things (objects, people and the ethereal) in an inter-related cosmology.

Indigenous worldviews see ‘land’, which includes all living creatures and plants, as central to tradition, identity and contemporary life ways, including artistic practice. This can be expressed in the following schema:

  • land ~ people ~ language ~ culture ~ art

It follows that art which comes from this understanding will have distinctive references not found in mainstream, Eurocentric art forms. In Indigenous arts practices, sometimes references to land are direct, others are subtle and still others are oblique.

Colonial History

More and more non-Indigenous people are learning about colonial history in Canada. This history includes the reservation system, the Indian Act, residential schools, and the sixties scoop as some of the many examples of injustice towards Indigenous peoples. Today we see the tragic results in health, education, the prison system, etc. Why would the arts be any different?

Over the last few centuries, the arts in Canada have been understood primarily through a Western world lens, privileging art forms with roots in Europe. Until very recently, Indigenous arts were variously described as ethnic or craft or folk or even degenerate. Despite the decades-long ban on cultural practices (e.g. the potlatch) or the ban on speaking Indigenous languages, Indigenous art has been in the process of renewal and revitalization over the last 35 years or so. This process is part of what Anishinaabe scholar Gerald Vizenor names as survivance, “…an active sense of presence, the continuance of Native stories, not a mere reaction…Native survivance stories are renunciations of dominance, tragedy, and victimry."

Cultural Sovereignty

During this 35-year period, Indigenous artists have sought “access” to the same support systems as non-indigenous artists – funding, infrastructure, arts service organizations, venues, etc. Their efforts were only partially successful. Today, in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it appears that the Canadian arts system is finally attempting to engage with Indigenous arts practices in meaningful ways. We are starting to move past the “access” and “inclusion” methodologies of the last two decades.

Indigenous artists are now, as the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective puts it, “activating Indigenous creative sovereignty.” The Canada Council’s “self-determined” approach to Indigenous arts stems from this same assertion.

Indigenous artists themselves are defining what is art; how is it made; what protocols surround art making and art reception; what is sacred and not; who is an artist; what are the arts discourses that describe Indigenous art and a host of other challenges. They are working to do this in an Indigenous frame, self-determined and sovereign.

This creative sovereignty is a critical, but under-mentioned, aspect of the cultural appropriation debates that arise in the arts body politic of Canada. These controversies, which focus on artistic freedom and censorship, rarely take into account the matter of Indigenous cultural sovereignty. Indigenous artists – some of whom have been literally silenced by neo-colonial strategies – are asking for respect, for self-determination, for observance of protocols. They know that their artistic traditions are strong but that a nearly complete cultural genocide has taken place across this land. Despite a strong arts resurgence, there is still an underlying fragility, not so much in the artistic traditions themselves, but rather in the support networks that present, promote, witness and advocate.

Aesthetic Differences

An obvious but often overlooked fact about Indigenous arts is that, here – the territory known as Canada – is the “home” country. If people stop dancing Kathak in Canada, it will still thrive in India. If opera stops in Canada, countries in Europe and Asia will carry it on. But if Indigenous people stop dancing powwow here, then there will be no powwow on the planet.

It has become almost a cliché to say that in Indigenous cultures, there is no word for art. While this is often true, a more complex way of re-asserting this would be to say that there is no one word for art, but actually there are many. These numerous words for art in different ancestral languages do not smoothly translate the concept of art from a European perspective. Rather, Indigenous words often reflect process, movement and experience. As a result, Indigenous arts occupy the full spectrum of practices – sacred and ceremonial, customary and contemporary.

Even this dichotomy of traditional/customary vs. contemporary does not appropriately translate into terms understood by European arts history. Indigenous arts are created in a continuum. “Traditional” artists use motifs, approaches and contexts borrowed from artists working in more recently developed art styles. “Contemporary” artists utilize centuries-old art materials or techniques and place them in a mainstream, contemporary framing, giving them old/new meanings. Much of the spectrum is hybridized with both Indigenous and European art influence, blurred, sometimes blended – and almost always referencing customary practices whether as linkage to Indigenous cosmologies, as respectful homage or as satiric deconstruction of stereotypes.

Indigenous Arts Production

Indigenous artists reflect on inherent considerations when approaching their art practice. They are likely, although not always, influenced by Traditional Knowledge (TK). They will generally be aware of and try their best to follow certain protocols. A way to think of protocols is to consider them as respectful ways of doing. Speaking with elders and cultural carriers; asking for understanding and permission to use certain images, dances, stories or rituals; learning the appropriate manner in which to enact ceremony (or not enacting it at all!); and learning to speak Indigenous languages are just a few examples.

It is critical to understand how Indigenous artists are “trained”. Some of them go to schools for professional training – both Indigenous-based and European-based – and have degrees. Others are mentored by elders and teachers. This involves working in oral tradition, storytelling, listening and doing. Some are trained in both traditions, straddling two worlds. Sometimes there is written work; sometimes not.

Indigenous artists learn skills – drawing, acting, dancing, directing, filmmaking, etc. – and they also have “cultural” training, placing their work in various Indigenous historical contexts, learning from where images, movements, songs, form lines and poems originate.

Of course, they have also faced systemic barriers with little or no funding or infrastructure. It is often noted that as Indigenous artists have been creating their works, they have also had to build the arts infrastructure, training/mentorship programs, networks, venues, critical discourses, etc. at the same time. In addition, Indigenous art has not really been considered “true” art and therefore ignored, sometimes overtly rejected, by the arts system. This is finally changing, albeit at a glacial rate.

Indigenous Arts Reception

There are considerations that are inherent in the reception of Indigenous art, especially when artists work within their communities. It is commonly remarked that Indigenous people react profoundly differently from mainstream audiences when experiencing the exact same work.

Historically, Indigenous audiences have not paid money to be witness to artistic events. Notions like “bums in seats” or “greater market shares” do not make sense in the face of this. Arts and cultural activities have been experienced at Indigenous gatherings as part of community feasts, at honouring or naming celebrations, even at sacred, closed ceremonies. For many Indigenous artists, a white-walled gallery or a proscenium theatre is “read” differently than European significations which normalize these types of venues.

Younger Indigenous Artists

Some young Indigenous artists work in customary ways, immersed in tribal or clan or even family-based ways of cultural learning and creating art. But regardless of their medium, many others – especially urban Indigenous artists – are navigating two or more cultures. They challenge and break superficial stereotypes of Indigeneity.

They often borrow and re-contextualize cultural forms that are not Indigenous in origin. A common example is hip-hop culture in which Indigenous youth use “Red Rap” as a form of aesthetic protest. Other artists work with new media, creating screen/music environments that are both Indigenous-influenced and popular. Still other artists are using digital techniques, platforms and languages to make art which imagines Indigenous futures.