TORONTO - A venerable lady of the Native Canadian artistic world took a bow on May 28 to celebrate her 10th birthday. Native Women in the Arts (NWIA), Canada's only non-profit arts organization for First Nations, Inuit, and Metis women from diverse artistic disciplines, marked the occasion with a gala evening featuring some of the nation's most accomplished Aboriginal female artists.
Performing were such Canadian luminaries as award-winning Inuk singer Susan Aglukark, world champion hoop dancer Lisa Odjig (Anishinabe/Odawa), and Alanis Obomsawin (Abenaki), the continent's pre-eminent Native documentarian.
Based in Toronto, Native Women in the Arts was founded in 1993 by Sandra Laronde (Teme-Augama Anishnaabe). One of the most active members of the city's First Nations artistic community, Laronde is a dynamic one-woman show. An actor, writer, producer, storyteller, dancer, and a blue belt in tae kwon do martial arts, her intent was to establish an organization for indigenous women to explore and express their cultural and artistic visions through creativity, activism, and social responsibility.
"I didn't see anything around me that reflected Native women. Not in dance, not in literature, cultural theory, or any other art forms out there," Laronde said. "What I did see around me felt very dark and sad - for very good reasons - but I also wanted to see something positive and beautiful. This is more revolutionary to me: to show beauty in light of our peoples' shared atrocities."
Over the past decade, the diverse work that has emerged from NWIA embodies her original intent. The organization has been directly involved in the creation and execution of artistic collaborations from dance performances to literature to painting to cultural development.
Two years ago, Laronde mounted "Seed-2-Stage" and succeeded in creating a Toronto first: an evening of Aboriginal women's dance featuring performers from Canada, Mexico, and Greenland. "There are a lot of stereotypes about Aboriginal dance forms," she said. "This dance performance displayed scope, diversity, and artistic excellence."
Since its inception, the organization has published the poetry, prose, non-fiction, and visual arts of 155 Native women in three anthologies: "In a Vast dreaming" (1995), "Sweetgrass Grows All Around Her" (1997), and "My Home as I Remember" (2000), which was honored with the Mixed Media Award at the 10th Annual Returning the Gift Festival in Oklahoma in 2001.
Already on the publishing slate are two more works. "Sky Woman," another anthology, and an as-yet-untitled 10-year retrospective of NWIA told through the voices of the women involved about their successes and achievements through the organization.
A recent addition to NWIA's artistic stable, the Catalyst Caf? nights evoke the intellectual air of 1920s Parisian cafes with a Native twist. Their intent is to stimulate creative encouragement and civic engagement to expand artistic possibilities with such discussions as biculturalism in the First Nations community.
Even at the celebration's close, Laronde is looking ahead to the next decade and beyond: "Native Women in the Arts is embarking on a new stage of growth. We aim to expand our horizons both nationally and internationally and to cultivate a new generation of artistic talent. Our first seven years were more community-focused, more introverted. In the past three years we've begun to look outwards. In the coming decade and beyond we'll continue to be more expand and grow beyond Canada and into the international realm."
For more information on Native Women in the Arts, please visit www.nativewomeninthearts.com.