First Peoples Festival: A celebration of indigenous cultures

Jesse Staniforth

The 2018 Montréal First Peoples Festival is sweeping in its content. As always, there are far too many excellent events to capture in a snapshot, so we will instead offer three sets of recommendations for things we find engaging and delightful, knowing full well that any visitor to the First People’s Festival is likely to find many alternative events just as enticing.

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Indigenous artists and craftspeople

How do you showcase Indigenous crafts and art when there are as many types as there are hundreds of First Nations and Indigenous communities across Canada? The Montréal First People’s Festival meets that challenge by selecting a small number of the best artisans from a small number of Nations and communities to be their “Craftsmen” (in the Place des Festivals). This year, the craftspeople representing the festival’s place on Kanien’keháka/Mohawk territory are Kahnawake’s traditional bead workers Sedalia Fazio and Rita Jacobs Fazio, and contemporary Kahnawake Mohawk photographer Martin Akwiranoron Loft. The Naskapi Space will introduce visitors to the many sensory experiences of Naskapi (Innu) peoples of Quebec’s northeast, offering not only visual art for the eyes and legends for the ears, but a Labrador-tea tasting for the palate. Finally, Mi’kmaq painter and mixed-media artist Dr. Alan Syliboy draws on hundreds of works of tradition to create vibrant, colourful, and uniquely modern images that celebrate the present-day existence of a culture with several millennia of creative history. Other artists are showing work outside the Craftsmen space as well. The work of Six Nations Turtle Clan Mohawk photographer Shelley Niro (Place des Festivals) builds on Cindy Sherman’s critical self-portraits to picture the artist herself and her female relatives in post-contemporary traditions to challenge assumptions about Indigeneity. Anishinaabe/Ojibwe artist Nico Williams (Espace Culturel Ashukan, 431 Place Jacques-Cartier) pushes beadwork into dramatic kaleidoscopes of geometric colour. Liǥwildaʼx̱w of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nations artist Sonny Assu (La Guilde, 1460 Sherbrooke Street West) creates surreal, searing paintings by superimposing electric Indigenous imagery overtop traditional representational canvases. Together these artists alone are almost overwhelming in their sensory power, yet they represent only a fraction of the creative vision on offer across the Canadian territory.

International film screenings

The First People’s Festival isn’t just about those peoples who exist inside Canadian borders. In its film selection, the Festival widens its scope to consider the peoples Indigenous to many other regions of the world. Take, for example, the documentary Joey and the Leitis (Sun., Aug. 12, Concordia De Sève Cinema, 6:30 p.m.), which explores the conflict brewing between Tonga’s Indigenous Leitis (transgender) people and followers of the increasingly popular evangelical churches in the territory. In Peruvian feature-film Wiñaypacha (Fri., Aug. 10, Concordia Alumni Auditorium, Hall Building, 6:30 p.m.), an elderly couple in the remote Andes fight a daily battle with the extremity of their landscape as they pray to gods for their son to return for them. Two US-based documentaries, Mankiller (Sat., Aug. 11, Concordia de Sève, 8:30 p.m.) and On a Knife Edge (Wed., Aug. 8, Concordia Alumni Auditorium, 6:30 p.m.), meanwhile, chart two fronts of American Indian activism—the election of Chief Wilma Mankiller of the Cherokee Nation and her leadership of that body, and the grassroots radicalism of American Indian Movement leader George Dull Knife, from Lakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation.

DJs and musical performances

Some want to take in art and film, but others just want to dance. DJ PØPTRT, the first female DJ to hail from Kahnawake, has got them covered with her selections of house and nu disco (Wed., Aug. 7, Cinémathèque Québécoise, 10 p.m.). For those who want a lower-key musical experience, the indie freak-folk of Carrier Nation/Cowichan singer-songwriter Aidan Thorne (Thu. to Fri., Aug. 8 to 9, Place des Festivals, various times) may bring to mind the subdued intensity of Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Bill Callahan, or early Angel Olsen. For everyone in between, Iqaluit’s beloved Inuktitut party-band the Jerry Cans (Thu., Aug. 9, Place des Festivals, 9 p.m.) mash together pre-contact throat-singing, early post-contact fiddle-accordion stepdance, and the modern coastal-folk of the Pogues or Great Big Sea into a rollicking celebration of Inuit life far too “mamuqtuk” (“delicious”) to miss.

Jesse Staniforth

Jesse Staniforth is a Montreal-based freelance journalist specializing in Indigenous issues, cybersecurity, and lifestyle reporting. He has been a regular contributor to the Nation magazine, serving the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee (on James Bay’s eastern coast), since 2011.

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