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Symbolism and Expression Additional Reading

Symbolism and Expression

Site: AB Course Sharing Hub
Course: Aboriginal Studies 10 - St. Gabes SSN1154 - 2
Book: Symbolism and Expression Additional Reading
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Date: Tuesday, 2 June 2020, 1:11 AM

Symbolism and Expression Introduction

Most First Nations and Inuit peoples’ languages do not traditionally have a word for art. This does not mean that their lives were historically devoid of beauty or creativity. Instead, every aspect of their daily lives – from clothing to shelter to hunting – was infused with artistic expression. Traditional peoples did not hang their art in museums or galleries. Instead, it formed the vivid paintings on the walls of First Nations tipis, it was woven into sashes worn by Métis fur traders, and it crept up during an Inuit hunt in the guise of a beautifully carved wooden club.

Some forms of creative expression traditionally helped reinforce cultural and social identity. Many designs were unique to a particular nation or clan. Use of them helped to enhance a common bond. For example, the salmon instantly speaks to First Nations from the Pacific Northwest, the polar bear to the Artic Inuit and the buffalo to the Plains first Nations and Métis people.

Traditionally some significant designs were restricted to particular individuals, who were then responsible for passing on the design to the next generation. This practice ensured the integrity of symbols and designs from one generation to the next.

Handing Down Cultural Traditions

The acquisition of cultural knowledge is important to all peoples. Before the arrival of Europeans and the imposition of a foreign colonial educational system, First Nations, and Inuit had their own oral educational system, which ensured that children learned the cultural values and history of the tribe, and they learned a foundational principle—respect others and live in harmony with the environment.

 Aboriginal parents and grandparents, extended family members and elders were responsible for passing knowledge to children. Aboriginal cultures were oral, so knowledge was passed down through stories. Children learned about the world around them and about the relationships between human beings and all other living and non-living things. Early in life, they learned the importance of knowing who their relatives were and the value of the kinship system. They also learned manners and respect and became acquainted with virtues and positive, humanistic qualities, such as love, kindness, honour, generosity, and sharing, which they were made to practice throughout childhood.

Children were taken to social and spiritual ceremonies to observe and learn their people’s customs and practices, often taking part in the ceremonies themselves. During certain ceremonies, children were formally introduced and might be given a First Nations name or dance at their first powwow. Community members conducted the ceremonies, passing along additional knowledge about cultural practices. Often children who are musically talented learned the ceremonial songs and the correct drumming techniques and were recruited as valued members of singing groups.

Traditionally, hunting skills had to be learned. The duty of teaching hunting techniques fell first to the father or to a member of the community who was a great hunter. Boys learned to correctly use their hunting equipment. They were also taught about wild game, the natural world and where animals could be found. Becoming a good hunter depended on the amount of training one received and could take a long time. Proficient hunters were highly valued members of the community. These teachings continue today in many communities.

Mothers and other female members of the community passed homemaking and sewing skills down to the girls. Girls learned how to make clothing and other home products from animals, birds and plants, the raw materials of Mother Earth. They were taught the duties, roles and responsibilities expected of women. Women were important members of the community and often functioned as advisors, healers, and providers. Women had important positions in some of the spiritual societies in the community.

Knowledge was passed down orally by members of the community: historians, healers, those responsible for giving out justice, individuals with special knowledge of the environment, leaders of the social and spiritual societies, and storytellers. Those who were familiar with important legends about each nation’s helper to the Creator, Weesakichak (Cree), Naapi (Blackfoot) and Nanaboosh (Ojibwa), whose earthly exploits had moral messages told stories and ledgends according to specific rules and observances. In other words, education in First Nations and Inuit cultures was seen as a community responsibility.

Today, traditional Aboriginal cultures have been largely displaced by modern North American culture. The impact of the change has been so powerful that today many First Nations parents do not know how to speak their traditional languages. The main reason for this is that traditional cultural knowledge was almost lost when children were removed from their homes and placed in residential schools. School authorities strongly discouraged and punished students for using their language and practicing their cultural traditions.

Nevertheless, there is cause for hope for the survival and revitalization of First Nations, Métis and Inuit cultures and languages today. There are pockets of the Aboriginal population that still have a sophisticated traditional knowledge base. It is through them and a renewed interest in traditional language and culture that cultures will be preserved.

Marilyn Dumont

Marilyn Dumont, a Cree-Métis poet who was born in Olds, Alberta is a descendant of Gabriel Dumont, a Métis leader during the 1885 resistance. In her prose poem, "It Crosses My Mind," she asks where Métis people fit within Canadian Culture. She questions whether it is only a matter of time before young Métis people become assimilated into non-Aboriginal cultures.

It Crosses My Mind

It crosses my mind to wonder where we fit in this "vertical mosaic," this color colony; the urban pariah, the displaced and surrendered to apartment blocks, shopping malls, superstores, and giant screens, are we distinct survivors of the "white" noise, or merely hostages in the enemy camp and the job application asks if I am a Canadian citizen and am I expected to mindlessly check "yes," indifferent to skin color and the deaths of 1885, or am I actually free to check "no," like the true north strong and free and what will I know of my own kin in my old age, will they still welcome me, share their stew and tea, pass me the bannock like it's mine, will they continue to greet me in the old way, hand me their babies as my own and send me away with gifts when I leave and what name will I know them by in these multi-cultural intentions, how will I know other than by shape of nose and cheekbone, color of eyes and hair, and will it matter that we call ourselves Metis, Metisse, Mixed blood or Aboriginal, will sovereignty matter or will we just slide off the level playing field turned on its side while the provincial flags slap confidently before me,  echoing their self-absorbed anthem in the wind, and what is this game we've played long enough, finders keepers/losers weepers, so how loud and how long can the losers weep and the-the "white noise" infiltrates my day as easily as the alarm, headlines and "Morningside" but "Are you a  Canadian citizen?" I sometimes think to answer, yes, by coercion, yes,

but no....there's more, but no space provided to write my historical interpretation here, that yes but no, really only means yes because there are no lines for the stories between yes and no and what of the future of my eight year old niece, whose mother is Métis but only half as Metis as her grandmother, what will she name herself and will there come a time and can it be measured or predicted when she will stop naming herself and crossing her own mind.

First Nations Art

In traditional First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities, art was a holistic part of everyday life, which means it was so much a part of day-to-day living that it could not be separated as a distinct activity. Everyone expressed themselves through song, dance, and the tasks of everyday life.  There were, of course, individuals with certain gifts – a good ivory carver, for example – but every individual was an artist of one kind or another.

Art was important because it recorded past events and visions of the future.  It helped transmit culture and knowledge from one to the next. On the Plains, for example, buffalo hides were often painted to relay the story of the great battle, hunt or act of heroism.  Such paintings served as support for the oral tradition – acting as memory aids for those who know the oral history.


Symbols are often rooted in the spiritual beliefs of the community.  Creative expression was traditionally a way of connecting with and honoring the spiritual world.  For example, symbolically adorned tobacco pipes and drums are an integral part of many First Nations spiritual ceremonies.  Use of these objects is seen as a form of prayer or other communication with the Creator.

The symbols found in traditional works of art are as varied as the cultures who have created them.  However, because the natural environment played such a central role in the spirituality of the traditional First Nations and Inuit societies, the source of many cultural symbols can be found in the natural world.

First Nations people from many different nations adopted ancestral symbols that represented ideas, beliefs, dreams or reality. Very often symbols represented figures in nature, such as important animals or birds, like the buffalo and the eagle. Sometimes the symbols represented the spirit world and spiritual helpers, like the thunderbird. Some symbols identified nations or clans while others depicted celestial bodies, such as the sun, the moon, and the stars. These last symbols are often seen on tipi's and clothing and carved into jewelry.

Symbols take many forms. Some are beaded on clothing and others are painted on entire hides and tell a story of the history of a tribe or nation.  A number of symbols are thousands of years old, and their meanings have been lost. The petroglyphs at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in southern Alberta are an example of this. First Nations people who believe in the traditional ways wear symbols that give them strength or identity.

First Nations Symbols and Their Meanings

The following are examples of major First Nations symbols:

The eagle is a symbol of truth, power, and freedom as it roams the sky. Its wings represent the balance between male and female, each dependent upon the strengths and abilities of the other. When one holds the eagle feather, one must speak the truth as positively as one can, for the ear of the Creator is that much closer to the feather of the eagle. Therefore, First Nations people honour the feather of the eagle with great care, showing it respect and honesty at all times. To be given an eagle feather is the highest honour that can be awarded within First Nations culture.


The buffalo symbolizes subsistence, strength and the ability to survive.


The bear symbolizes strength, endurance, intelligence, and loyalty.


The rock symbolizes strength and endurance, and it holds the spirits of the ancestors.


The drum is a powerful symbol of Aboriginal identity and represents
the heartbeat of Mother Earth.


Métis Symbols and Their Meanings

Some important symbols of Métis culture are listed below.

 The infinity sign (∞) symbolizes two cultures together and the continuity of the Métis culture.


The Red River cart is a well-known and ingeniously designed symbol of Métis identity. It can be used as a cart or as a raft when the wheels are removed.

The Métis sash symbolizes present-day Métis identity but had many uses in the early days, often functioning as a rope or a belt. Much like the Scottish kilt, Métis use traditional woven patterns and colours in sashes to represent their community.

The buffalo symbolizes subsistence, strength and the ability to survive.

  • The fiddle is a favourite musical instrument of the Métis used for traditional songs and dances such as the Red River jig.

Inuit Traditions and Values

To survive in Canada’s Arctic required that the people willingly cooperate and share—primary values of Inuit life both then and now. The sharing of food best illustrates how these values tied the Inuit community together socially. When animals were killed, the meat and skin were shared among the community. Formal rules evolved that established how food would be distributed. For example, specific parts went to the hunter who killed the animal, other parts went to the helpers and other parts went to women. Leftover meat was divided among everyone, ensuring that everyone got an equal share. When Inuit were in need, they looked after each other.

Before people lived in the larger permanent communities of today, the values, traditions, skills, and knowledge that defined the culture were expressed differently. The elders still speak of times when their lives were in sync with the seasons and, though life was somewhat nomadic, the people returned to the same places year after year. The nomadic movements provided opportunities to exploit seasonal resources and establish family hunting territories. This pattern did not imply that anyone owned the land or had exclusive hunting rights. It did, however, identify a group’s territory and established localized social systems and patterns of land use. Again the principles of sharing and cooperation were central to life and to survival.

The Inuit have a long-standing code of behaviour based on time-honoured values and practice. Their values are communicated to children early in life through stories, legends, songs and direct modelling of behaviour. In addition to sharing and cooperating, children are instilled with values based on connecting with others (respect, generosity, love, equality, significance, and trust); work (observation, practice, mastery, teamwork, unity, consensus and conservation) and coping (patience, endurance, improvisation, strength, adaptability, resilience, resourcefulness, survival, interconnectedness and honesty).

Within their network of social relationships, they placed equal status on men and women even though they had different roles within the family and community. Women were usually keepers of information of family trees and storytellers. Women had certain patterns on their clothing and may have had tattoos on their faces. Women and young girls tended to qulliq (seal oil lamps) and used ulus to prepare skins and then sewed them into clothing.

Inuit Symbols and Their Meanings

The term Inuksuk (the singular of Inuksuit) means “to act in the capacity of a human.” It is an extension of an Inuk, a human being. These Inuksuit
were designed to be messages fixed in time and space. Others may have been personal notes or grief marking where a loved one perished. Some Inuksuit were never approached and were avoided because of their power; some were sources of good fortune, cures and protection. In addition to their earthly functions, certain muksuk–like figures had spiritual connotations and were objects of veneration, often marking the threshold of the spiritual landscape of the Inummariit, which means “the people who knew how to survive on the land living in a traditional way.”

Traditional Art Forms

People in traditional societies had few belongings, but those they had were highly functional. These belongings were often decorated using many kinds if natural material. 

birchbarkEach traditional art form was passed down from generation to generation.  Some forms of expression, such as the designs on tipis, were only transferred to another individual through a ceremony. Techniques like tufting, birch bark biting, and fish scale art, in contrast, were communal and learned by observation and careful practice.

Birch Bark Biting - Sally Milne

Contemporary Aboriginal Artists

Art takes many forms in contemporary society and First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples contribute to all of them.  As accomplished musicians, storytellers, dancers, performers, architects, painters, sculptors, designers, choreographers, directors, actors and filmmakers, Aboriginal artists have a significant place in Canadian and international arts and culture.

Some contemporary Aboriginal artists choose to continue the artistic practices of their ancestors, such as sculpting from stone, wood and antler.  Many combine modern ideas and techniques with old symbols and themes.  Others adopt radically new types of art such as those that use computer technology.


Aboriginal literature is as diverse as any other aspect of Aboriginal culture.  Yet Aboriginal authors in Canada often share common concerns and approaches with each other and with Indigenous writers from around the world.  Theses common threads include a strong sense of connection to their ancestral lands and a cultural history of European colonization.  This is often expressed as a sense of spiritual, physical and cultural displacement.  However, although Aboriginal literature once stressed themes of displacement most prominently, today it also reflects a growing sense of empowerment for future generations.

Inuit Literature

Because of their geographic isolation from most of the European people who settled in North America, Inuit cultures, in general, suffered less disruption than First Nations and Metis communities in southern Canada.  Many contemporary Inuit writers celebrate the continuation of their traditions and question how to combine their traditions with modern cultural influences.

Journalism is often a popular format to show political consciousness and an adept use of the English language by the Inuit people.  For example, Tagak Curley wrote the following passage for Maclean’s Magazine in 1986:

Our land has never been conquered.  If it was, we would be wiped out of our culture.  The minute we step out of our community we are in our historical environment.  But not down south. Indian people have to cope with that.  They were deprived of their wildlife, their land. But we have something that helped out people. Our environment is harsh.  Who would want to live here?

Reclaiming Stories

First Nations and Métis authors write from a distinctly different perspective.  After suffering generations of cultural disruption, many write to reclaim their cultural heritage and the right to tell their own stories in their own way.

Métis writer Maria Campbell is one such writer.  In 1973, she published the book Halfbreed, which chronicled her life as a Métis Woman in Canada.  This work was significant because it was the first book that honestly depicted the reality of being Métis.  It also inspired many other Aboriginal people to tell their own stories.  Autobiography remains an important genre in Aboriginal literature.

Speaking Out, Speaking Back

When writers share works that come from their personal experiences, the most powerful are often those that are shared experiences.  Many narratives speak out against the social problems that Aboriginal peoples often experience in Canada as well as the causes of these problems.

Margo Kane’s play Moonlodge deals with the abduction of children from their homes and cultures.  This topic appears in many works because so many people experienced this displacement, from residential schools, forced adoptions or other family break-ups.

Many Aboriginal writers use their work to speak back to institutions that have tried to take away their peoples’ power.  Marilyn Dumont’s poem “Letter to Sir John A. Macdonald speaks back to the long-dead prime minister to let him know that the Métis Nation has outlasted the railway that helped displace them from their land.


Perhaps the most common issue that Aboriginal writers explore is that of identity.  Some write about how to maintain traditions and culture in the modern world.  Others write about searching for self-identity after suffering a family or community breakdown.

Mi’kmaq poet Rita Joe illustrates this in “I Lost My Talk”

I Lost my Talk
I lost my talk
The talk you took away.
When I was a little girl
At Shubencadie school.
You snatched it away:
I speak like you
I think like you
I create like you
The scrambled ballad, about my word.
Two ways I talk
Both ways I say,
Your way is more powerful.
So gently I offer my hand and ask,
Let me find my talk

So i can teach you about me.

Richard Wagamese is an award-winning author of Anishinabe ancestry.  In his autobiographical writings, he describes his early life of alcoholism and years spent on the streets and in prison.

Nipissing writer Wayne Keon's poem "Heritage" squishes the names of First Nations together into a tidy box.  All distinctions are lost.  The names are broken to suit the shape of the box and ordered alphabetically to suit the order of the English language.