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Art Returns To Indian Society

Ruth Cuthand

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      JULY/AUGUST 1988      INDIAN ART SUPPLEMENT p04  
Art has been one of the marks of a true civilization. Art activity can be found in Saskatchewan dating back to mid 18th century. Early forms of painting can be found along the Churchill River Basin in northern Saskatchewan. Throughout the history of Indians in Saskatchewan there has been a rich artistic expression. Today artists of the Plains are known for their individuality.

The Plains cultures have always been highly individualistic. Artistic expression among Plains Indians was of a utilitarian nature. With the coming of the horse, the Plains cultures underwent a great change. Tribes moved out from the fringes of the plains and became highly mobile. Pottery gave way to rawhide containers. Painting became more common place with the introduction of ready made paints brought by traders.

The subject matter made direct reference to the individual. Symbols were egocentric and were used to tell of exploits in war, visions, stories or an account of their life. Men almost exclusively produced works representing life forms or supernatural beings. The most influential Plains art form was the narrative composition, which told a story, often heroic or highly personal. These representational works were produced by men on hides and tipi liners. Often the composition had no top or bottom and was to be seen on the ground while surrounded by viewers. Women, on the other hand, worked with abstract and geometric symbols. Each woman would have her own colours and symbols. Their work was used on household objects and clothing.

The Golden Age of the Plains Indians brought new found wealth, as hunting the buffalo with horses gave the tribes ample food. The Fur Trade increased the wealth of the bands in material possessions which allowed them to in turn trade with other tribes. The horse also brought about greater mobility and allowed the people to trade with different tribal groups and share concepts. Although contact was made with different tribes each tribe maintained its own unique artistic expression.

Trade goods such as beads, canvas and stroud cloth were readily adapted by the people. Clothing was now beaded in bright colours and the quills were dyed with colours brought by traders. Commercially made paints were used to decorate lighter tipis made out of canvas. With these new materials, painting flourished and the Plains cultures became known for their painterly abilities.

The Indian society in Saskatchewan was not strong enough to support an active arts community.

The coming of settlers to the plains and the reserve system caused great damage to the tribes. The civilization that was once great now crumbled to mere survival. The artistic expression that was available to everyone suddenly became an underground activity. Songs, dances and ceremonies were outlawed and assimilation was pushed on the people. The white man's dress became more common place, the old clothing was only used for ceremony. Memory became important as the government could not control it. Stories and oral history told of the old ways and were handed down through the generations. Visual records were now kept in the memory.

Until the 1960's artistic expressions were used to make bead work and other goods for the tourist trade. Geometric designs were carefully copied, the individual symbol ism gave way to the "tribal". The Indian society in Saskatchewan was not strong enough to support an active arts community.

In 1968, Allen Sapp had his first exhibition in Montreal and Saskatoon. This was the first recognition of an Indian artist in Saskatchewan. Sapp painted genre paintings of his early life using representational images. In 1973 Sarain Stump set up the Indian Art Department at the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural College. The course was to train art teachers for reserve schools, but it had more of an impact than that. For the first time, Indians were brought together from all over the prairie provinces to study art of their ancestors. These two events gave individuals the courage to develop their artistic expression.

Since then, the Indian art community has undergone changes. Some of the artists are university trained, others are self taught. Traditional painters are dedicated to preserving the flat two dimensional surface and the use of symbolism. Contemporary artists are pushing back the traditional boundaries to find their own expression. Experimentation with different media has caused the general public to redefine their concept of Indian Art.

The concept of Indians controlling their own destinies has helped the Indian art community to grow. More artists are coming out of educational institutions and the self taught artists now have the opportunity to market their work. The old ways are gone and the contemporary artist has accepted the challenge to create art for a new society. The more things change the more they stay the same. Just as our ancestors adapted to the new media of the traders, the artist of today is trying new methods and media. Individuality of artistic expression is now allowed to flourish as it once did. Art is returning again to Indian society.