“As someone who used to oversee Indigenous exhibitions and programs at the Smithsonian Institution, I can state with a high degree of confidence that what we’ve created here in the Niagara region is unparalleled,” says Tim Johnson, artistic producer of this weekend’s upcoming fourth annual Celebration of Nations.
This celebration is presented by FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre and Kakekalanicks, an Indigenous consulting company, in partnership with the City of St. Catharines. It’s part of the year-round programming that culminates in a three-day celebration of Indigenous arts, culture and tradition. From Friday, Sept. 11 to Sunday, Sept. 13, the program features crafts, artistry and entertainment. The jam-packed schedule includes story-telling, poetry, dance, singing, short films, traditional crafts workshops and a cooking class.
It is part of a long-term vision to build on the Two Row Wampum that “promotes all Nations walking together, in parallel, with respect, compassion and understanding to cultivate an inclusive community for our shared future.” This reference is to the Two Row Wampum which is a 400-year-old treaty between the Onkwehonweh people of Turtle Island, and the European immigrants, says Tom Keefer of Briarpatch Magazine. “The Two Row is a foundational philosophical principle, a universal relationship of non-domination, balance, and harmony between different forces. The Two Row principles of peace, respect, and friendship can exist within any relationship between autonomous beings working in concert. These include nation-to-nation relationships, dynamics between lovers and partners, and the relationship between human beings and our environments.”
This year’s theme connects participants and partners to our environment and region. As Johnson explains, “this year our theme is Mighty Niagara and the Great Lakes Watershed. Once we have a theme, we reach out and engage our network of artists and partners to conceptualize and produce both performing arts and intellectual programs.”
The celebration this year is a virtual environment rather than a total immersive experience. “As with most performing arts institutions and programs, we’ve had to produce this year’s Celebration of Nations online. I’m also a board member of the Shaw Festival and I can’t tell you how disappointed I was that the Shaw season had to be cancelled. One of the things we realized in the process is just how much we, as human beings, need shared social experiences. I think it’s become part of our DNA,” says Johnson. “So, we knew early on and made the decision very early that Celebration of Nations would have to be produced, almost entirely, online. Making that early decision helped immensely, even though it didn’t reduce the workload. In fact, the opposite happened. The workload has doubled or even tripled, because now we’re essentially having to produce a three-day variety television special and pre-producing a ton of video content. The work going on behind the scenes is incredible. We will all be working 12-hour days leading right up to showtime.”
The hard work is worth it, he adds. “The benefits are that we are creating a safe environment for our artists, intellectuals and visitors, and, we hope, being able to draw a larger audience, even an international audience for our outstanding Indigenous programming.”
Johnson is a champion of Indigenous programming. Among his many accomplishments, he is an award-winning director, and served as the co-chair of Landscape of Nations: The Six Nations & Native Allies Commemorative Memorial in Queenston. He also served as an associate director for museum programs at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.
In his current role as the artistic producer of the event, Johnson gets hands-on with many of the programs in all varieties of artistic expression. “I also get heavily involved in producing programs such as educationally-inspired concerts like RUMBLE THE CONCERT, which was based upon my award-winning film, RUMBLE: The Indians Who Rocked the World. I also develop special educational programs such as the Indigenous Cultural Map and web platform found at thegreatniagaraescarpment.ca. This year, in association with the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, Plenty Canada and the Indigenous Cultural Map, we’re producing an online tour of Indigenous history and culture destinations in the Niagara Region. Called the Indigenous Niagara Living Museum Tour, it will transport visitors, virtually, to locations such as The Indian Council House site in The Commons, the Landscape of Nations Memorial, Willowbank and its Indigenous Community Love Garden, the majestic Niagara Falls of course, and several other fascinating sites that help bring Indigenous history alive through specially produced video tour productions. And so much more.”
As with the theme of the event, Johnson reminds us of our history and roots in the region. “People may not realize this, but Celebration of Nations actually has roots in Niagara-on-the-Lake. They are imbedded in the Town’s history and subsequent related work done to create, install, and unveil the Landscape of Nations Commemorative Memorial that opened to the public in Queenston Heights Park in October, 2016. When we were working on that project, we realized that the memorial’s physical development was only the first part of the process. We understood that we also needed a program that would follow up to provide education about Indigenous peoples’ histories and cultures to deepen the messages contained in the memorial. My creative partner in this second phase of the work, Michele-Elise Burnett, forged an alliance with the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre to establish Celebration of Nations, and she asked me to join the effort as a collaborative partner.”
He shares many of his duties on this project with artistic director Burnett, who also has an impressive resume. She currently serves as president of Kakekalanicks, an Indigenous arts and consultancy company which works to support the art of Indigenous peoples by promoting and celebrating the unique culture and achievements of the artists. She also serves as vice-president of Ignite the Spirit of Education Foundation, which raises funds to help improve the literacy levels of Indigenous children and to “support the awareness, appreciation and use of First Nations, Metis and Inuit books in public libraries, on-reserve libraries and Friendship Centres.”
Along with Burnett, Johnson proudly states that, “the work we’ve accomplished with our tag-team partners, Sara Palmieri and Annie Wilson, and advisory board of Jennifer Dockstader, Gary Parker, Brian Kon, and Phil Davis, has been extraordinary.”
The caliber of talent is clearly evident from the program. The home page of the website celebrationofnations.ca opens on a video of young singer Semiah Smith singing Jigonsaseh’s Song. Her beautiful voice along with the harmonies of Santee Smith is a gorgeous way to introduce the celebration.
The only event that does not happen virtually is the Sunrise Ceremony and Sacred Fire that begins Friday at 6:30 a.m. in the backyard of the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre. This fire will be lit during the ceremony and burn until the close of the event on Sunday. That evening the virtual program will begin with a performance by Olivia Mater, a visual story-teller and artist, whose performance piece, Starborn, will be accompanied by composer and bassist Garth Stevenson, after which Johnson and Burnett will open the celebration and host the 2020 Celebration of Nations Outstanding Achievement Awards. Other performances include 2020 Juno Award winners, Celeigh Cardinal and Lee Harvey Osmond.
Saturday and Sunday offer full programs that include stories, poetry, dance and workshops. Highlights from Saturday’s lineup include stories about the Haudenosaunee people, an opportunity to learn Indigenous dance at the Pow Wow Boot Camp with Santee Smith, and the Virtual Smoke dance competition. These events are interspersed with environmental presentations on the importance of our native pollinators, and the history of the Niagara watershed and impact on Indigenous people of the area.
Sunday morning’s program begins with Drumming Circle hosted by Jackie Labonte and Oliver Nobosin, followed by workshops on making your own bundle bag, and making a Medicine Wheel bracelet. The Smoke Dance winners will be announced followed by an Indigenous-focused cooking class hosted by chef Laura Lenson. Sunday evening’s program will end with the much-anticipated Landscape of Nations 360 – Indigenous Niagara Living Museum Tour, hosted by Burnett and Johnson, followed by the official closing of the Celebration of Nations.
For all the programming information, consult the celebrationofnations.ca website, their Facebook page or FirstOntario Performing Art Centre website at firstontariopac.ca.