Indigenous relations and understanding are at the core of two events happening next week to mark Orange Shirt Day.
Niagara-on-the-Lake resident Tim Johnson, director of Landscape of Nations 360°, has curated a concert event entitled “Treaty” to take place next Thursday, Sept. 29 at at 6 p.m. at the Niagara Parks Power Station Plaza. That will be followed the next day with a series of Truth and Reconciliation activities curated by Niagara Falls Métis artist Brian Kon at the same Niagara Falls location.
“I was looking to present a reflection on truth and reconciliation that comes from a deep Indigenous perspective,” says Johnson, the former associate director for museum programs at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.
“We realized that people knew what was going down, what was happening through history in their contact with Europeans. This was met often with bewilderment, confusion, sometimes amusement, and sometimes with humour, just to survive.”
To that end, Johnson identified a list of words in the context of Indigenous relations, and came up with the idea to have artists, historians and civic leaders comment on the meanings or definitions of those words. Words like ‘treaty,’ ‘reconciliation’ and ‘truth.’
“In that context, we recorded their thoughts about those words in relation to Indigenous peoples,” Johnson explains. “From that, we’ve worked with an ensemble of Indigenous and non-Indigenous musicians to curate songs that will correspond to those words and what our subjects said about those words.”
Johnson sees it as an in-depth approach to dealing with truth and reconciliation through music and musical theatre.
On Thursday, videos of those subjects talking about those words will be played, then the musicians will step up and explain how the songs they will perform relate to those words.
“Ultimately,” says the Mohawk from Six Nations, “it ends on a note that speaks to the alliances and friendships that we have. It’s about strengthening those friendships and maintaining the alliances that we have and reconnecting in solidarity with all peoples.”
Musically, the almost-two-hour free outdoor concert is being helmed by Joshua Arden Miller,
an Onondaga from the Six Nations of The Grand River and long-time member of the award-winning blues and soul group Pappy Johns Band.
“He’s our core in the lead ensemble, our captain,” raves Johnson, who also helped curate this month’s Celebration of Nations event at the First Ontario Performing Arts Centre. “And he’s put together a great core band.”
Miller will be joined by fellow Indigenous musicians Blaine-Bomberry on guitar and drummer Oren Doxtator on drums. They’ll be rounded out with keyboardist Miles Evans-Branagh and bass player Allen Duffy, both non-Indigenous musicians.
Native American Music Award winners The Ollivanders will also be performing.
“As a band themselves, they are a reflection of truth and reconciliation,” says Johnson. “Two of the members are from Six Nations Reserve, and two are from Caledonia. And they came together at a time when those two communities were embroiled in a land claim dispute. They are an exceptional group of musicians.”
California-based singer-songwriter Rob Lamothe will also take the stage, as will Indigenous musician James N. Wilson and powerhouse vocalist Tasheena-Doxtator.
The repertoire will include a number of recognizable cover songs that relate to the theme, as well as some original music from the artists.
Johnson adds, “we’re calling it a ‘reconcilation revelry,’ as we’re not only looking at reconciliation in the context of these words, but also having a good time. Like Celebration of Nations, this is not intended to be just an Indigenous gathering. It’s to bring people around to understanding Indigenous peoples’ cultures and expressions. And looking for crossover subject matter to engage with non-Indigenous audiences.”
Johnson says that’s always been the fibre behind what he and his collaborators on various projects have done over the past six years. And through those efforts, he agrees when it is suggested that Niagara has become a leader in many ways when it comes to facilitating Indigenous understanding.
“Niagara really shines nationally in this regard,” says Johnson. “It’s palpable. It’s a big country, and there’s a lot going on. But I think you can say as a case study, Niagara sets a really good example.”
The concert is followed on Friday morning at 7 a.m. with a traditional sunrise ceremony led by Grandmother Jackie Labonte and the lighting of a ceremonial fire by Dave Labbe.
Then, at 10 a.m., the story of Phyllis Webstad and the origins of Orange Shirt Day will be shared with the goal of moving toward cultural understanding and reconciliation marked by this national holiday. The ceremony will include Indigenous stories, music, traditions and more.
Both events are free and will be held outdoors at the venue, which Johnson says has plenty of on-site parking. Participants are encouraged to bring a blanket or chair to the park.
And beginning at 8 p.m. Friday, nearby Queen Victoria Park will turn orange for 15 minutes every hour to mark the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation. The evening will conclude with a fireworks display at 10 p.m, featuring a special orange finale. Niagara Region Native Centre’s Powwow Drummers and Singers will perform throughout the evening.