“Native Christmas” – How Festivals Can Lead to Cultural Resurgence




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“Native Christmas” – How Festivals Can Lead to Cultural Resurgence

Jason Ryle is the executive director of the imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival in Canada

Executive director of the imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival in Canada, Jason Ryle, on the importance of the Festival in expanding authentic representations of First Nations people

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Mar 05, 2021

It was at an academic conference on Indigenous Futurisms at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in November 2017 where I had a profound cultural experience. By this point, I had been entrenched in the Indigenous media arts sector for over a decade as the executive director of the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival.

It bears mentioning, however briefly, the legacy of cultural displacement that many First Nations people in Canada endure due to European colonization of our nations. My mother’s first language is Anishinaabemowin, but it is a language whose beauty and embedded cultural knowledge was not passed on to me. My mother was one of tens of thousands of Indigenous children forcibly removed from their families and cultures by the Canadian government and placed in church-run residential schools. She was six years old when she was taken. Eradication of Indigenous cultures was the goal, and children were beaten for speaking their languages.

This active assimilationist practice – not widely known in Canada until recent years – has been acknowledged as a cultural genocide by the United Nations and was brutally effective in fracturing sovereign nations and causing deep traumas in generations of Indigenous families.

Part of my inheritance was a disconnection not just from my ancestral language but also a childhood growing up with deeply harmful portrayals of Indigenous peoples on screen. Hollywood really did a number on us. News reportages were often racist. The Natives I saw on screen were nothing like me or the people I loved. Indigenous children grow up with an acute understanding of authentic representation and how to navigate global stereotypes of who we are.

This is why imagineNATIVE was founded. Since the first Festival in 2000, imagineNATIVE has been mandated to support Indigenous artists working in screen-based media and to promote Indigenous narrative sovereignty in screen storytelling. Indigenous-made cinema has long been a counter cinema to over a century of films created by non-Indigenous people, which helped establish a persistent global stereotype of who we are.

The front cover of the 2019 imagineNATIVE Festival catalogue

The Festival’s first years were lean. Given our strict mandate to only show films whose creative lead was Indigenous, the number of eligible films was small. But the Festival and the Indigenous media art sector grew in tandem, each nourishing the other to where imagineNATIVE now receives hundreds of eligible submissions each year. Our sector is still growing rapidly.

Back to that conference in Winnipeg and that particular afternoon where so much changed for me. A number of Indigenous youth were presenting their work, and there was something so profound in what they were saying – how they were talking – that captivated me.

As someone a generation older than these teens, I realized it was the first time that I was hearing the voice of a cohort that my peers and those whose shoulders we stand upon had long been working to welcome. These were Indigenous youth who had grown up in a century with strong and numerous Indigenous role models, at a time of accelerating Indigenous artistic and cultural forward momentum, and with a wonderful diversity of Indigenous artistic expressions (a quantity that did not exist when I was young) to inform and inspire them.

This is unfathomably powerful and as significant a cultural shift as I can imagine. Their connection and relation to their cultures were different than mine, someone who had to find a way back to my Anishinaabe culture. My work as a Festival Director was not just a means to give back to my community but also to find my place in my nation.

The Seven Fires prophecy is often in my mind. It is a centuries-old pre-colonization Anishinaabe prophecy that foretold seven epochs for the nation, including the arrival of Europeans and the apocalyptic impact on Indigenous peoples. Our current age (which began in the early 1970s) is the Seventh Fire, a time characterized by cultural renewals and resurgences. Indigenous artists and youth have been central to keeping this fire lit, and the success of events like the imagineNATIVE Festival exists within and because of this cultural context.

The Festival and the artists it presents have become a significant event for many Indigenous people not only in Toronto but across Canada and around the world. imagineNATIVE embodies so much more than a showcase of art; in many ways, it is a reverberation and amplifier of the larger Indigenous cultural resurgence happening worldwide. A long-time attendee lovingly – and humorously – dubbed the Festival “Native Christmas,” and it is an apt description. Each year, people from around the world gather at imagineNATIVE in celebration and cultural affirmation.

As the Festival’s organizers, we are committed to keeping the Seventh Fire lit, which we do for those in our communities today and, importantly, for future generations. This means we rely on a framework of Indigenous cultural values to guide our decision-making, which helps us remain responsive to our diverse Indigenous global community and, in particular, to ensuring there is meaningful space and support for Indigenous youth. It is a values-based governance structure that foregrounds kindness, generosity, the principle of reciprocity, and the practice of “do no harm.” And that conference in Winnipeg – on the future no less – was in so many ways as perfect a manifestation of why we do what we do.

The voices of those youth were proof to me that things had changed and that a new foundation was being built. I am excited to see what they will do when they become leaders in our nations and have festivals of their own.  

Jason Ryle is the executive director of imagineNATIVE, an Indigenous-run media arts organization based in Toronto, Canada. imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival is the world’s largest showcase of film and other screen-based works created by Indigenous artists.