How Art and the Cultural Sector Can Support Indigenous Communities

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Feb 10, 2017
by Oscar Tollast
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How Art and the Cultural Sector Can Support Indigenous Communities

Fellows discuss how art and cultural sector can reinforce resilience of indigenous communities Fellows who took part in the panel on Indigenous Communities during 573 The Art of Resilience: Creativity, Courage and Renewal

When we talk about refugees and migrants, we think of people who have been compelled to leave their homelands. In the case of indigenous communities, we see people trying to keep close and connected to their land and roots - yet they are often also marginalized. In the world today, there are at least 370 million people who are indigenous. Despite colonization, marginalization and discrimination, indigenous peoples across the planet have continued to show resilience in the face of adversity, maintaining and reaffirming their cultures, languages, and social institutions. 

Indigenous communities have had to withstand shocks in the face of difficult conditions. Even today, battles continue. In North America, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe is fighting against the controversial Dakota Access oil pipeline. In February, Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) was given formal permission to continue laying the pipeline under a North Dakota reservoir. The project previously stalled following protests from Native American communities. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe says the pipeline endangers its drinking water. A legal challenge has again been filed to stall the project’s completion. In January, Indigenous Australians marked "Invasion Day" - more commonly known as "Australia Day" - marking the British colonization of the country.

The creative sector provides a source of unconventional thinking and innovation, opening up opportunities to capture civic imagination for greater cohesion and resilience. As part of a panel discussion at The Art of Resilience: Creativity, Courage, and Renewal, Salzburg Global Fellows considered the ways in which artists, cultural workers, and creatives could inspire and strengthen the capacities of indigenous communities. Listed below are a few of their summarized thoughts.

Art can provide education and stimulate social development

Charities such as Amantani work to improve the lives of children, providing greater access to education in rural areas. Since 2008, it has helped marginalized Quechua families in Peru. It has attempted to bridge the gap between home and school for people living in Ccorca. Its Educational Boarding Houses enable the most disadvantaged children in Ccorca to have a place to stay near school, allowing time for extra support and community outreach projects.  

Amantani works in a small district comprised of eight communities. The young people are growing up in a different world to what their parents experienced. Amantani helps these young people to take on the narrative of their own communities, change it, and retell their stories from a positive point of view through their video project "Meet My World". Young people went into their communities and looked for things they wanted to teach others. Short films were made by young people about the production of food and how to have fun without technology. One film showed a child teaching his audience how to catch a fish with their bare hands. Films like this are now shown all over the world. This has led to a large emotional response, including many thank you cards. Through this method of art, children gain skills to negotiate Peru’s modern society, while reinforcing indigenous autonomy. 

Art allows people to remember who they are and where they come from

The root of resilience is relationships - respecting, renewing and remember our relationships to all things. Organizations like First Peoples Fund in the US support the “collective spirit” of First Peoples artists and culture bearers. It provides tools, resources and a voice to Indigenous artists. The organization was founded in 1995. It describes “collective spirit” as the feeling which encourages people to stand up and make a difference and to ensure ancestral knowledge is passed on. It believes in the power of art and culture to bring about positive change in Native communities. It works alongside community-based partners across Indian Country to strengthen their capacity. Since its establishment, First Peoples Fund has supported thousands of artists. It has awarded $1.5 million in direct grants to individual artists and $1 million to community-based organizations. The story of resilience can be rooted in songs, stories, and the ways in which people have kept to their way of life. 

The cultural sector has a responsibility to accurately tell histories

Despite the mainstreaming of Indigenous art, such as dot paintings, which decorate walls of contemporary offices across Australia, there still lacks a widespread understanding for the stories and the complexity of culture behind such artworks. Many Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians consider the nation to be in the midst of a history and culture war, determining what version of the country's history is told and valued. Controversies include the opening of the National Museum of Australia in 2001, which led to accusations that the exhibitions had politicized the country's history.

First Nations people have been able to regain their identity as as the original inhabitants of Australia, following the Racial Discrimination Act (1975), but social marginalization persists. There is a view that the First Nations people in Australia “should know their place,” representing a significant barrier to achieving meaningful recognition within its constitution.

The arts and cultural sector has a significant role to play to ensure that indigenous peoples' histories and cultures are represented accurately and respectfully. As one Fellow remarked, “I strongly believe in the power of museums and the creative sector. More broadly, I believe they have a responsibility in building social capital. I believe they have a civic role and can be agents for social and political change if carried out in a non-polemical way.”

Art can give a voice to those who need it 

Art can move us, but not always to action. Some of us can feel changed and inspired to continue creating art as if it does matter. It can give us new pictures of the world, influencing patterns of behavior. Art is not essential to our survival, but it is integral to our humanity. Art can be a way for the marginalized, refused and repressed to return. In the making and adoration of art, there is a space of difference - even resistance - where people can find refuge from ideas that otherwise rule them.

Cultural decolonization covers two areas. It is about unsettling settlers while also helping them to adapt as non-colonial persons with Indigenous spaces. It is also about First Nations, Inuit and Métis people being themselves by struggling to make new ways of being Indigenous within the complex of the contemporary negotiations of Aboriginal/settler/international Indigenous identities. Beautiful works of art display world views but sometimes fail to explain them. To design effective decolonizing tools from art, “artists should look beyond visual allure alone.”

Aboriginal culture before contact was neither de-colonial or activist. Art as a form of de-colonial activism is the result of contact. It emerges from cultures in collision. De-colonial pieces of art are neither wholly Indigenous nor western. Native contemporary artists create work in the space of cultural overlap. 

As a society, we should consider centering the Aboriginal and Indigenous, “not out of guilt, deference, or an expression of multicultural inclusion… but because we recognize it as a better way of knowing and being in these territories…” 


The Salzburg Global program The Art of Resilience: Creativity, Courage, and Renewal is part of the multi-year Culture, Arts and Society series. The session is being supported by the Edward T. Cone Foundation. More information on the session can be found here. You can follow all the discussions on Twitter by following the hashtag #SGSculture.