By J.P. Antonacci
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
In the shadow of Brantford’s infamous Mohawk Institute residential school, the Woodland Cultural Centre keeps Indigenous culture alive, and thriving.
“In a way, Woodland reclaimed the space from the residential school,” said executive director Janis Monture.
Monture said public and media interest in the Mohawk Institute has increased significantly since the discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
She wants to focus that attention on Woodland’s ongoing efforts to preserve Indigenous history and languages.
“Our actual mandate is to bridge that understanding of our culture to non-Indigenous people, but (also) with our Indigenous communities, and to really celebrate our culture, identity, philosophies through the arts,” Monture said.
Woodland falls under the jurisdiction of Six Nations, which recently loosened COVID-19 restrictions after not having any new cases for over a month. That allowed Monture to open the doors to visitors on June 17.
She is particularly excited for members of the public to see a new exhibit featuring Woodland’s first curator, Thomas Hill, a multidisciplinary artist from Six Nations.
“If you look at Indigenous art in Canada, he really put that mark on taking it from seen as a craft to actual art that should be shown in mainstream galleries,” Monture said.
Most of the approximately two dozen paintings, drawings, pottery and silkscreen prints on display depict scenes from Six Nations, a community within a Carolinian forest. Hill’s paintings find the beauty in a traditional longhouse, a cornfield, a laneway and a vacant house.
“He really looked at the landscape a lot,” Monture said, explaining for the Haudenosaunee, “connection to our natural surroundings (is) really imperative.”
“In some of the works, he talks about our culture and philosophies, in things like the creation story, the great Tree of Peace.”
The exhibit also features impressions from the artist’s travels, a rainy theatre in New York City, a forest trail in Banff, and tenderly painted portraits of his mother and grandmother.
Some pieces are borrowed from the collection of Indigenous Services Canada, where Hill worked for 14 years as director of cultural affairs at what was then called the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.
He left government service in 1982 to become Woodland’s first director. Before retiring in 2004, he curated exhibits of Indigenous history and contemporary art at the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Smithsonian in Washington.
The new exhibit is a way for Monture to personally honour Hill, who was a mentor during her first stint at Woodland from 2003 to 2017.
“For me, it was so fun to see this project come to life, because he was someone I always looked up to when I was working here,” Monture said.
With Woodland turning 50 next year, Monture returned last May to prepare for that milestone anniversary and “get us back to our roots.” Previously, she was director of tourism and cultural initiatives for the Six Nations of the Grand River Development Corporation.
“While I was gone, there was so much focus on the residential school. And that’s important, and I’m all about advocacy about that history,” she said.
“But at the same time, I’d like people to see us as a thriving culture, living in our communities and doing really great work.”
Along with the retrospective exhibit of Hill’s art, visitors to Woodland can tour a portrait gallery of prominent Indigenous figures and explore a permanent exhibit that traces the history of local First Nations from before contact with European settlers to the present day.
Among the many items on display are poignant artifacts from the Mohawk Institute.
As the former school undergoes renovations to reopen as an interpretive site, Monture is placing Indigenous culture at the forefront by keeping Woodland’s Indigenous language revitalization department and research library inside the Mohawk Institute building.
“I want tours to go through the language space, because I want them to hear the language,” she said.
“Because that’s one of the things that school did, you were punished for speaking your language. I want those walls to hear it.”
J.P. Antonacci is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Hamilton Spectator. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.