Aboriginal Arts Program exploding at Banff Centre

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BANFF, Alberta - The Aboriginal Arts Program at the internationally renowned Banff Centre for the Arts is a prime example of what can happen when people really strive for excellence and partnership in the arts.

In 1993, a national strategic planning session was held with First Nation's people representing Aboriginal arts organizations from across Canada. It was decided the greatest need in the Aboriginal arts community was a film and video program, an important genre with little local or national support.

To respond to this need, the Aboriginal Film and Video Art Alliance negotiated a strong partnership with the Banff Centre.

With an existing, strong media program, the center was an ideal place to pioneer the new partnership. The Centre agreed to front administrative costs, supply administrative as well as classroom and dormitory facilities, equipment, computers, telephones - everything needed to start a first-class media arts program. The Alliance supplied the vision, the people and the fund-raising know-how to get the program off the ground.

Marrie Mumford, who became Aboriginal Arts Program director in 1995, likens the start-up years at Banff to her people's concept of "the runner."

"When the people would move into a new area or location, when the people would move, there would be a runner who went ahead and got the place ready for the people to come to," says Mumford, a Chippewa Cree from southern Alberta.

As a runner, the film and video program proved a great success, paving the way for an expanded partnership. The summer program, which started in 1993 with just a couple of students, expanded in 1995 into a multi-disciplinary program including: dance, music and sound, writing and publishing, and media and visual arts. Work-study programs are offered in arts management, audio, curatorial, media production and post-production, theater design and stage management.

Today, summer enrollment averages 50 to 60 students. The dance program exploded with both a training segment and a professional project that draws Native dancers and choreographers from around the world. Equally popular is the music program.

Students from Native cultures all over the world are welcome to apply for the programs held during June and July. Students are selected based upon their application and experience. Tuition, meals and lodging average around $3,000. But scholarships are available and Mumford makes it clear nobody with the desire, skill, experience and determination to participate in the program will be turned away.

"We try to encourage people to go through their band's council or their arts council," she says. "We don't have any kind of scholarship endowment in place, so I have to fund-raise for students who can't raise their own tuition."

It is unfortunate, Mumford adds, that money is rarely available from bands' governments to subsidize Aboriginal arts.

"I believe that our arts work is part of our healing. Our hope is by providing that training, that people then take it back to their home communities."

All four study areas are "culturally specific." The staff, with representatives from the Aboriginal Film and Video Art Alliance and the National Council of Aboriginal Arts, takes into account the diversity of First Nations in Canada, the variety of cultural programming available and the variety of traditional artists, and then coordinates contemporary programs to meet the needs of the greatest number of people while highlighting different cultures. It's a sort of unity through diversity approach.

"One of the things that colonization has created is a divisiveness amongst our communities and our nations," Mumford explains. "So we look at this as part of our healing. ... We are tribal people, and our history is about working together for the benefit of all of our communities. So we look at what we need to do to reinstate that process. It's about working together so that all of our programs connect.

"Our program is multi-disciplinary, but it's also collective. We look at strategically targeted needs in Canada and consider, 'like what isn't happening for our people?'"

A prime example of how the program works is the Music and Sound Department's project, Aboriginal Women's Voices. The department offers workshops exploring voice through Aboriginal songs and various techniques. Traditional women, often elders who know their language and are fluent in their music traditions, work with contemporary women who want to learn that particular culture.

As a result, new songs are created out of the old forms and traditional songs that might otherwise be lost, are salvaged.

Students are encouraged to write down songs they remember and songs they create, and to come into the studios to record them. A 1997 CD, "Hearts of the Nations," produced by Aboriginal Women's Voices, was nominated for a Juno Award last year for Best Music of Aboriginal Canada Recording. The CD was produced within the program, enabling students to gain production experience they could take back to their bands.

"We did our first CD in 1997 just to learn how to do a CD," Mumford said, laughing. "So much of our music is produced by non-Native people, so that when money is made on those CDs, it's often not reinvested back into our communities."

Handled by the Aboriginal Arts Program, the production turned out to be a win-win learning experience at every level.

Two years ago, the program entered into an international agreement with Mexico, drawing students and professionals from that country into the program. Georgina Martinez, a choreographer from Mexico, is in her second year as coordinator for the Aboriginal Dance Training Program.

An agreement with the Australian Arts Council will be finalized next year.

Members from the music and dance program have already attended a national Aboriginal dance conference in Australia as well as the Maori Performing Arts School in New Zealand. This year, four Maori dancers came to the program at Banff.

"It's so exciting to share and exchange cultures," says Mumford. "And also it opens a door for our artists to go to their countries and share and exchange. ... There are certain principles that we share as Indigenous people. So it's very exciting to do this work."

A new program on the horizon is television script writing, specifically geared to supply programming for the new, national Aboriginal People's Television Network that started in 1999.

Eventually, Mumford hopes the program can go year-round. Her biggest dream is to have an Aboriginal center within the Banff Centre - a stand-alone facility that can foster even greater diversity. As more and more partnerships are created between Aboriginal groups across Canada, she hopes to see arts centers form among many different bands in Canada.

"By working together it creates more momentum and more energy and more dollars and allows us to accomplish more," she says. "If everybody puts in a little bit, it's not as hard."