Supporting Aboriginal Artists In The National Capital Region

 – A Message From Jaime Koebel

Here is a small gesture that can have the affect of big change in the arts at a national level).

Please write a letter of your experience if you have visited the Sakahàn – International Indigenous Art exhibition or if you have not, but believe that it would be important to have an Educator of Indigenous Art for the public year round, please write a letter to Marc Mayer (, the Board of Trustees and the fundraising committee. Also cc the Audain Curator of Indigenous Art, Greg Hill ( as well as the Chief of Education, Megan Richardson ( or simply have it mailed to the gallery at 380 Sussex.

This past spring and summer, the National Gallery of Canada was fortunate enough to receive a significant private donation to engage Aboriginal youth from the ages of 8-18 in the Ottawa-Gatineau region for the Sakahàn – International Indigenous Art exhibition. The position of Sakahàn Educator was created from as a part of that donation and it comes to an end on November 4, 2013.

Here is a short video that explains some of the programming that was conceived of, developed and carried out this summer and fall:

Similarly, the OAC (Ottawa Aboriginal Coalition) also received a significant private donation for the same purpose with the same parameters from the United Way. The NGC, the OAC and the UW partnered to make the following programs a reality:

– Aboriginal Junior Curator Program – Sakahan Youth Ambassador Program – Our Ways; Our Stories (local and Sakahan artist workshops and talks) – Youth Tours of the exhibition – Sakahan Summer Camps – Concentric Circles (artists on reserve making a community project) – Schools Art Projects (2 public schools involved and one Catholic School involved) – Apprenticeship Program

The outcome from this programming has been absolutely amazing. Not only were Aboriginal youth engaged with the exhibition which was the main goal of the donation, but it has run far deeper in affecting important issues in young people and their identity. As an Arts Educator I saw young people show up at the gallery without knowing what their cultural Aboriginal background was and by the time they finished programming, they knew the correct name of the community they came from and what the proper name of their people was. This of course is significant because many generations of Indigenous people in Canada have been separated from the knowledge of their culture through Canadian policy and shame. To see the emergence of pride in one’s identity was incredible.

For example, one 8 year old girl connected with an art piece by Brett Graham & Rachel Rakena (Maori, NZ) called Āniwāniwā which describes cultural loss from the flooding of a small power generating and traditional lands to make room for a huge hydro-electric dam to run a diamond mine. When the little girl connected that story with the possibility of the Ottawa River for instance was flooded – losing access to her culture if a building special to her like the local Minwaashin Lodge, Odawa Native Friendship Centre or Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health, the impact on her made her cry. The very next week, she was in the gallery explaining to a fellow camper on what Aniwaniwa was about – with confidence. This example is typical for many Indigenous peoples (and people in general) when they learn of situations that can have an impact on them, their families or their ancestors. It’s like the cycle of grief which brings healing when supported properly.

The gallery provides a safe environment to learn about historical and contemporary issues as a way to educate not only Aboriginal people but the public as well.

Another group of Aboriginal university students came in for a tour and by the end of it they had pulled out a hand drum and made a circle around Seneca artists Marie Watt’s piece called, “Blanket Stories” to show gratitude for a tour that they could finally relate to. They said they learned more about their culture and history from that your than they ever did in grade school.

A lost group of New Brunswick Natives who made their way to Ottawa stood at the gallery lobby confused about where to go happened to catch my eye during an empty one hour time slot I had so I gave them a tour. Upon entering the room with Algonquin artist’s piece called, “Indian Act” & Kwakwakwak artist, sonny Assu’s piece called, “1884-1951” – one of the women lost her breath at the power she had felt from those pieces. There were 56 pages of the Indian Act all framed and hung on the wall, beaded over with red and white beads which was an extraordinary scene of watching the contemplation of the idea of being legislated by this one document which was laid out across the wall in front of their eyes which has had profound intergenerational effects and so many people in their lives. The power and resistance and reclamation of spirit that piece showed with the red beads covering the pages of the Indian Act types on white pages blew them away.

I have story after story to share about the value of having a full-time Indigenous Arts educator as a part of the NGC educational landscape but the one that interested me the most was the observation of non-Indigenous peoples tagging along my tours to listen to an Indigenous perspective from the art pieces. Never before had they learned about Indigenous peoples art and here, they were getting a taste of history and culture, social political issues in a way they had never experienced before.

There were special requests to the gallery to have the “Aboriginal” tour but sadly, this tour was only available to the Aboriginal youth who attended my programming although I would never turn away a person who tagged along on one of my tours.

Obviously, I’m passionate about the prospect and the proof that teaching social, political and cultural issues through Indigenous Arts builds confidence, builds strong communities and builds bridges.

The address to the gallery to send your letters to is:

National Gallery of Canada 380 Sussex Drive P.O. Box 427, Station A Ottawa, Ontario K1N 9N4 Canada

The reason a full-time educator would be great right now is because there will be opportunities for teaching/learning through upcoming Aboriginal art exhibits between now and the next five years when another International Indigenous Art exhibition arrives at the gallery. It’s also an opportunity to have the educators go in to schools to teach about contemporary Indigenous Art.