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BriefsReportTable of ContentReport IndexRoyal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and SciencesRoyal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and SciencesRoyal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences

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1. We heard much in our sessions of the Indian peoples who once played such an important part in the history of Canada and who still maintain to some degree separate communities and a distinct way of life throughout the country. That aspect of their life of special interest to us, their arts and crafts, was brought to our attention in sixteen briefs and presentations. We also received an authoritative study on the subject to which we are indebted for much valuable information. We were interested in this matter for its own sake and because it affects the well-being of an important group of Canadian people.

2. We received information on the arts of various groups of Indians showing how original differences, presumably brought with them on their migration to this continent, have been accentuated by variations of climate, of geography and natural resources in the areas where they made their new homes. We learned of the tribes of the eastern woodlands, the great plains, the interior of British Columbia and the North-West Coast, and of the ingenuity and beauty of their products: basketry of all kinds, leather work, carvings, embroidery, weaving, and silver work in many styles. We heard in detail of the arts and crafts of the Pacific Coast where a highly developed social and economic system was accompanied by the greatest variety and originality in various forms of self-expression. We were reminded, however, of the need for such information as we received to be made available to a wider public:

"There is still a widespread ignorance about Indian cultures. The movies and the comics provide the only general knowledge to many people. All Indians are portrayed as living in tipis and wearing feathers, until even some Indians have come to believe this. A vast area of indifference surrounds imputations of ignorance, laziness or unreliability. Erroneous beliefs are coupled with the sparse facts that Indians made arrow heads which are found from time to time, and that the old women used to trade baskets for old clothes . . . and that is the sum total of public knowledge of these peoples."1

This general indifference and ignorance on the part of the white population of Canada is matched by increasing indifference on the part of the Indians themselves to their native traditions and their native arts. We received valuable and important briefs on this matter from the


British Columbia Indian Arts and Welfare Society, and local members of the Federation of Canadian Artists who take an interest in Indian work. We also heard from several groups in Alberta, and learned of an important outlet for Indian craftsmanship in New Brunswick. There was general agreement that the younger generation is turning away from the traditional crafts, and that some of the rarer such as the silver work and the argillite carving of the Pacific Coast may disappear completely before long. According to the authors of our special study who based their conclusions on exhaustive inquiries, "Young people do not know this," or "Only a few old people still do it", were recurring refrains in letters sending in information for the report.2 And again, speaking of the indifference to the past:

"In most sections, the Indian culture was treated with scorn, indifference or hostility, and the objects the Indian made were, at best, regarded as curiosities. Aside from museums and the amateur collector, these objects fell between the indifferent contempt of the European and the apathy of the Indian, who was confused by his own motives. As a result, one finds again and again in the reports from the Indian Agents: 'Only a very few old women remember this process. The young people don't want to learn.' Or: 'All they are interested in is the money they can get for it. They don't care about craftsmanship'."3

3. Many of the products of the so-called Indian craftsman which do survive are degraded objects mass-produced for the tourist trade, badly carved miniature totem poles, brightly tinted plastic pins ("of Indian make from pressed bone") and other regrettable "Indian" souvenirs made in Japan.4 Such activities do not always result even in economic benefits for the Indian family, but may instead impose a form of sweated labour on the wife and children.

4. This unsatisfactory state of affairs has led some to believe that, since the death of true Indian arts is inevitable, Indians should not be encouraged to prolong the existence of arts which at best must be artificial and at worst are degenerate. It is argued that Indian arts emerged naturally from that combination of religious practices and economic and social customs which constituted the culture of the tribe and the region. The impact of the white man with his more advanced civilization and his infinitely superior techniques resulted in the gradual destruction of the Indian way of life. The Indian arts thus survive only as ghosts or shadows of a dead society. They can never, it is said, regain real form or substance. Indians with creative talent should therefore develop it as other Canadians do, and should receive every encouragement for this purpose; but Indian art as such cannot be revived.

5. There is, we believe, general agreement that certain forms of Indian art have disappeared finally with the customs that gave rise to them; and


that the indiscriminate use of totem poles to advertise gasoline stations does nothing either for the cause of the Indian or for the cause of art. This is no reason, however, for not preserving with care the works of the past which have great significance in anthropology and in the history of primitive art.

6. It has, however, been stated to us by a number of groups and persons that Indian art is of much more than historical interest. We have been frequently reminded that Indians by tradition are craftsmen of a very high order; and that to allow their traditional excellence in technique, their taste and originality in design, and their power of adapting their skills to the use of new materials and to the production of new types of articles to die out for want of encouragement would be to do an injury to all Canadians, Indian and white alike.

7. There need be no danger, it seems, of arts becoming stereotyped which in "workmanship and design rank very high in . . . aboriginal arts and crafts".5 These arts have for centuries resisted corruption while readily availing themselves of all that the white man could offer in improved tools, materials and even designs. The rapidity and ease with which Indians in the past adopted and used the white man's beads, silks and patterns and made them their own, is well known. Today, we learn, the same process goes on; Indians on Vancouver Island and elsewhere have taken to knitting, using not the designs of the white man, nor even necessarily their own traditional ones. Instead "new traditions are established, portraying flying swallows, deer and similar animals in a new content".6 We have other evidences of the sense of design which seems to be common to Indian groups which in other ways differ greatly.

8. We were reminded, however, that the best Indian work can be produced only in certain conditions which now seldom prevail. Some tribes regard certain products as sacred and resent one of their members parting with them even as a gift to a valued friend without a special tribal ritual. Such customs, exceptional though they may be, explain the statement made to us on more than one occasion that Indians do their best work only when it is properly appreciated. Lack of interest on the part of the buyer and the demand for cheap articles have caused that serious degradation in standards of workmanship mentioned to us by certain voluntary groups, especially in British Columbia, which are working to restore them through encouragement and fair prices.

9. It is perhaps reasonable to assume that the present depression in Indian arts which may result in their disappearance may be attributed in part to tendencies which affect all modern societies: the general mechanization of life, the desire for novelty rather than for quality, the tendency to take the easy, slipshod way. But today, white people in Canada, as we have seen, are taking up handicrafts with enthusiasm for a variety of


reasons: to satisfy the almost universal desire to make something, to spend leisure time pleasantly, to earn money. The Indian works with similar motives but is often held back by lack of instruction, advice and encouragement, by the feeling that no one wants his best wares and by difficulties in marketing, especially of fine products which must find a special market.

10. It is these facts which have led voluntary societies to impress upon us the need for help and encouragement. It should be given, it is said, not only for the sake of the Indians but in the interest of all Canadians who are concerned with the lesser arts and crafts. The Indian groups with their ingenuity and taste, their traditional designs, and the special articles which they alone produce, have a valuable contribution to make to this part of Canadian cultural life.

11. Several suggestions were made about the assistance that might be given: co-operation from the National Gallery in preserving and publicizing Indian designs; travelling exhibitions of Indian work; special instruction; and a study of marketing problems for the different kinds of products. There is general agreement that help, though essential, must be given with much care; otherwise it may do harm, rather than good. High standards of quality must be maintained through interest and encouragement. The Indians should be reminded of the value of their own traditions and the beauty of their traditional designs but should be free to work in the form and pattern which they prefer. In these ways they may be persuaded to avoid the slavish copying of novelties which attract them, or which they think may be better only because they come from the white man.

12. It has been suggested that the Indian Affairs Branch be encouraged to look after these matters, and that it be provided with the necessary resources. A number of agents of the Branch are interested and helpful, we were told, but there was a general impression that the Branch as a whole has adopted a somewhat negative attitude. No standardized plan can be laid down, but a flexible programme is needed to encourage Indians to produce their best work; publicity and information are needed to enable other Canadians (already, as we have seen, keenly interested in handicrafts) to understand its value. We have even had a suggestion that a special council reporting to the Cabinet be responsible for this work.

13. "The establishment of a national arts and crafts programme is a basic necessity for the development of Indian welfare."7 This brings us to the welfare of arts and crafts in Canada, a subject which was a matter of concern to a number of societies. Indians in Canada are a minority; and for the most part are economically, socially and intellectually depressed. Their formal education is a responsibility of the Indian Affairs Branch, and we heard it proposed that arts and crafts should be an essential part of that education. The Centre d'Etudes Amérindiennes de l'Université de Montréal


points out that Indians in Canada have received divided attention from government welfare agencies (which operate paternally) and from agencies such as the National Museum engaged in cultural investigations. It is suggested in this brief that there is need for a Canadian Council of Amer-indian Studies and Welfare to consider every aspect of Indian life and to make suggestions for suitable legislation. Certainly these voluntary groups and individuals which have been trying in a small way to do this very thing seem to agree that the Indian can best be integrated into Canadian life if his fellow Canadians learn to know and understand him through his creative work. They have suggested to us that it is no act of patronizing charity to encourage a revival of the activities of those who throughout our history have maintained craftsmanship at the level of an art.

* From: Canada. Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters, and Sciences. Report. Ottawa : King's Printer, 1951. By permission of the Privy Council Office.

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