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Indian art, as it is commonly known, is a tradition that extends back many hundreds of years in the area of Saskatchewan, and many Saskatchewan Indian artists today derive their inspiration from our ancestral past.
The creative objectives of our forefathers were so inextricably woven into the fabric of the culture it was difficult to categorize them as art. The very idea of making art was a new concept in the Indian world. It did not, however, preclude the fact there were many gifted individuals who were immediately recognized within the traditional community as manifesting creativity. Many men and women were often recognized as receiving this "special gift" from the Great Spirit, and were expected to put it to good use. In fact Plains Cree terminology point out capabilities of craftsmanship, yet there is no word or concept for art.
The actual creation of "art" was not recognized or defined as such until the Europeans began to take an interest in Indian-made objects. Many of these objects were first seen as curiosity objects, or curios and were purchased by early European tourists who came out onto the Prairies. Later, however, these objects became the interest of anthropologists as ethnographic specimens of a dead or vanishing culture.
In order to understand contemporary Indian art we must first look briefly at some historical developments. At the turn of the century, the Department of Indian Affairs in Ottawa often participated with Montreal's Canadian Handicraft Guild in agricultural exhibitions such as the Regina Agricultural Fair. These exhibitions were often the gathering place of surrounding Indian tribes who performed dances in traditional costume for the farmers and tourists. The activities of the Indian people at these exhibitions were usually under the watchful eye of the notorious Indian agent. His job was to see that the Indian was becoming an assimilated member of Canadian society and not practicing his old ways. It should be noted that the Canadian government had outlawed the religious and cultural freedoms of every Native Canadian.
The exhibitions like the one in Regina were organized during the summer for they gave the farming community a chance to get together and compete for agricultural prizes. Students from Indian schools were invited but only through assistance of the Department whose intent it was to show how much the children had become assimilated. Prizes, for example, were awarded for writing skills as well as domestic activities, such as farming for boys and sewing for girls. Traditional-type objects were displayed but usually in a subordinate manner.
By the 1920's and 30's most traditional Indian objects were no longer being made because two or three generations had passed and the forces of assimilation and acculturation had swiftly eroded a former way of life. This assimilation process included compulsory attendance for all children in Christian-run boarding and industrial schools, and the forced incarceration of traditional nomadic tribes onto reserves as a measure of government control. This period, known as the Reservation period, began in the 1880's and lasted until about 1950 when the Indian Act was finally altered to include religious and cultural freedom, but by then the meaning of being a Plains Indian had been irrevocably changed.
The ideas and intentions that had been for so many generations an important source of inspiration were gradually removed and eventually meant very little to the Indian in his new state. The dreams and vision quests that were inspirational to image-making evaporated quickly because of Canadian law. Male activities of hunting and war-games became antiquated, as did many women's societies. The entire context for creativity was diminished because the life that gave meaning to being a Plain's Indian was forever changed. There was no longer a need for clans and societies. However, it should be noted that Plains Cree religion was being practiced clandestinely and has survived to this day in the form of the Rain or Thirst Dance, the winter Round Dances and the summer Dakota or Pow-wow Dances.
It remains to be seen whether or not these traditions will influence a new generation of Saskatchewan Indian artists, as it is now with Indian artists in British Columbia and Ontario.
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The generation of modern day Saskatchewan Indian artists begins with Allen Sapp, a Plains Cree from the Red Pheasant Reserve, who during the 1960's began a form of expression that caused considerable excitement. Until then Prairie Indians had been producing primarily bead and feather word as an artistic expression, but Sapp created a new context. The white collector wanted more than just beads and feathers. Sapp created an art that was informed more by his white schooling and what he saw in books and magazines than by his Indian traditions. His introduction of portrait and landscape painting on square canvasses was a completely new idea in Indian art. It was this framework that was to be so influential on other Saskatchewan artists like Sanford Fisher, Henry Beaudry and the younger Micheal Lonechild, each with his own style of realism depicting life during the Reservation period, and everyday life (as opposed to more spiritual matters) is reflected as a dominant theme. Their success is largely due to a public that accepts realism over abstraction, banality over experimentation, naivety over the art-school trained artist, though their importance lies in having generated a new establishment of Indian artists in the 1980's who are questioning the modern values of Indian art within Indian and non Indian society.
This new generation of artists is largely educated in art schools and have a very good knowledge of traditional Indian art. It is therefore not surprising that their work is informed by traditional practices and ideas. The late Sarain Stump during the 1970's should be credited with this new dimension of Indian art and thinking. He understood the intricacies of Indian thought and applied it to art-making which became extremely influential on many succeeding artists. Edward Poitras, a former student of Stump, now creates environments in which his work must be experienced as one would enter an area where ceremonies are taking place, even though his work does not presume the same level of spirituality. Bob Boyer of Regina, is not only heavily involved with modern pow-wows but he is intrigued with the flat painting style of the parfleche bags. Ruth Cuthand's aesthetic gives new meaning to painting dresses. Her dresses become iconic rather than utilitarian, much the same as the Sioux Ghost Dance shirts of the 1880's.
The future of Indian art in this province, or for that matter in Canada's prairie provinces, is very promising. Many collectors are beginning to recognize the dynamism in con temporary Plains Indian art that was once believed lost forever. Artists outside the prairies are being greatly influenced by the uniqueness of the Plains as an inspiration for their art.
Today, all Indian artists realize the importance of their heritage in forming their artistic expression, and they are making strides to return it to the Indian community from where so much of it came, if only our people are willing to accept it as a dividend being paid.
The contemporary Plains Indian artist realizes that the individuality which was an acceptable form of expression a hundred years ago is critical today if it is to infuse a new spirit. The dormancy of the Reservation period has only been an inspiration to these artists and they are now motivated enough to make stronger connections with the past.
For futher discussion read the essay "Tenuous Lines of Decent: Indian Art and Craft of the Reservation Period" by Gerald McMaster in the forthcoming book In the Shadow of the Sun: Contemporary Canadian Indian and Inuit Art to be published by Editions Cantz, Stuttgart, West Germany, 1989.