Being and Becoming an Artist: Exploring the Life Histories of Five Indigenous Artists from the Northwest Territories

In: Perspectives on Arts Education Research in Canada, Volume 1


In Northern Canadian communities few, if any, formal arts education programs have been available, although art has always been an important part of northern cultures. Many northern Indigenous people have used and use their artistic abilities to support subsistence lifestyles. Research is, therefore, needed to understand how Indigenous people in Northern Canada develop their artistic abilities. We contend that understandings about arts education in Canada can be enhanced by these investigations.

We conducted life-history interviews with five Indigenous artists who grew up in small communities in the Northwest Territories. We used personhood theory (Cajete, 2016; Martin, Sugarman, & Hickinbottom, 2010) as a conceptual framework to illuminate how the artists were influenced and how they extended into and connected with the possibilities for being artists in their life-world. All of the artists in the study were recognized for their artistic abilities or sensibilities in their early years by family, friends, teachers, elders or leaders, and all the artists recognized their interest, identity and ability in themselves. The making of art for these artists was an intermingling of traditional and contemporary ideas and practices. While the particular art forms may not have been part of the traditions of their upbringing, they have used sculpting and painting, for example, as a new way to contribute to their Indigenous community and make their way in contemporary non-Indigenous culture. Our findings illuminate possibilities for arts education construed as intentional, connected support for young people as the artistic aspects of their personhood unfolds within a relational world.