First People’s Fest explores issues of Indigenous identity

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Aboriginal culture and recognition was celebrated during the 27th First People’s Festival in Montréal August 2-9 with films, live music and art installations that showcased multi-disciplinary Indigenous art from around the globe.

The opening gala at the BanQ National Library was in part organized by the Aboriginal Peoples News Network (APTN) to highlight emerging cinematographers who create contemporary Indigenous short films.

Emerging themes from this year’s festival were poignant. Issues on the topic of Indigenous identity – from racism to reconciliation, to recognition and embrace of the future – were prevailing topics of discussion. Though contemporary and indigenous cultures are crossing paths, the fight for understanding one another is still an ongoing process.

Some films, like Creatura Data, directed by Outaouais artist Caroline Monnet, recognized a clash between the old and the coming of the new. It showcased six indigenous women having a culinary feast with food staples from regions across Canada.

El Camino es Largo, a short film directed by Guatemalan filmmaker Edgar Sajcabun, is about a Mayan boy who runs late for school because he was distracted by a fish. He is ultimately reprimanded by having his hair cut.

God Acre, directed by Kelton Stepanowich, won the APTN award for best short film. Frank, played by Lorne Cardinal, is an ardent landowner who refuses to leave his ancestral home threatened by the rising water levels that accompany climate change. He slowly comes to terms with his existential reality and finally accepts the external forces that has us gripping to, and sometimes letting go of, tradition.

During the First Peoples’ Festival, multi-media used for storytelling embraced rather than overshadowed stories of culture and tradition. Caroline Monnet and collaborator Sébastien Aubin featured a digital mural paneled across the UQÀM building facing Place des Arts that tells an abstract story of brotherly love with shadow and light.

The stop-motion, mixed-medium film Hands to the Sky, directed by Elisabeth LaPensee with music from the Métis Fiddler Quartet, brings to light the detrimental effects from the oil industry by merging photography, drawing, animation and painting. It’s a dark story of a healing process: from the influx of industry and barren lands to the reappearance of animals, life and light.

New media helps increase accessibility to Aboriginal stories and storytelling, argues Montréal First Peoples Festival director André Dudemaine. “I think that if people want to live on this territory, they need to connect to the ancient culture of their region in order to better comprehend who they are,” he said.

Legends brought to life

The festival was further proof that tradition in storytelling is evolving, growing stronger and finding its presence in contemporary culture.

Pierre-Paul Savoie, owner of PPS Dance in Montréal, choreographed the opening dance for the Great Game of Creation, an evening spectacle at Place des Arts August 2-6. Animal and earth dancers set the scene as a hunter chased volunteers and dancers mimicking deer up to the stage.

The most prominent figures, however, were the two, 20-feet tall puppets commissioned as part of the telling of the Ioskeha and Tawiscara legend.

There are varied versions of the legend. One is a story of two rival brothers of opposing water and fire elements forging the world as we know it through their rivalry. As one bled volcanic fire and the other cried, together they forged a great river.

Added to the story was the Peace Tree, which is a symbol of peace, allegiance and gathering among the Iroquois Nations native to the island of Montreal.

This multi-disciplinary art is a present and prevailing force in contemporary storytelling. As new mediums for sharing are used by Indigenous artists, tradition and culture find their way in new versions of history. Like the forging of the river by the brothers Ioskeha and Tawiskaha, good can come from unearthing the past. It takes mindful and thoughtful effort to seed the tree and call for a peaceful gathering in honour of Indigenous heritage.

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