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Indigenous Icons in Canada

As we approach September 30th, National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, many Canadians are turning their minds towards learning the true history of Canada. In this regard, it is also important to recognize the significant contributions of various Indigenous trailblazers who have helped shape Canadian history and whose contributions continue to inspire us today.

Here is a quick list of some of the many influential Indigenous icons for you to learn about and draw inspiration from.

Buffy Sainte-Marie

Photo: Matt Barnes

This multi-lingual music legend hails from Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan, and born to Cree parents on the Piapot Reserve. Her illustrious career includes no less than 21 albums and was utilized to bring awareness to Indigenous issues in the US. Her use of the mouth bow in her music performances is impactful and inspiring.

Photo: Getty Images, Michael Ochs Archives

She is also the first Indigenous person to win an Oscar for her song “Up Where We Belong” (along with Jack Nitzsche and Will Jennings) in 1983 for the Best Original Song award on the film An Officer and a Gentleman. This song has been highly popularized by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes.

Watch Buffy perform this song on YouTube here.

To read more about Buffy’s life, check out this article by CBC.

The Honourable Jody Wilson-Raybould

Photo: Melanie Provencher, House of Commons Photo Services

The Honourable Jody Wilson-Raybould, PC, QC, is a descendant of the Musgamagw Tsawataineuk and Laich-Kwil-Tach peoples, which are part of the Kwakwaka’wakw and also known as the Kwak’wala-speaking peoples. She is a member of the We Wai Kai Nation and is also known by her traditional name, Puglaas, which means “woman born to noble people.”

Jody served as the Independent Member of Parliament for Vancouver Granville, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, the Minister of Veterans Affairs, and the Associate Minister of National Defence until her resignation in 2019 following the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Jody is also a best-selling author for her books From Where I Stand (2019), Indian in the Cabinet (2021), and True Reconciliation (2022). She has been a provincial crown prosecutor, a councillor for the We Wai Kai Nation, a chair of the First Nations Finance Authority, and has served as regional chief of the BC Assembly of First Nations.

In 2015, she was elected as an MP for the Liberal Party, under which she was appointed Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, making her the first Indigenous person to hold the title.

In 2019 she resigned from the Liberal Cabinet after the SNC-Lavalin issue. She was later expelled from the Liberal caucus, but that didn’t stop her. Later she ran as an independent in her riding of Vancouver Granville and was re-elected as an MP.

Tantoo Cardinal

Photo: IMDB

Tantoo Cardinal is easily one of the most recognized Indigenous actresses on TV and film. She is of Cree and Métis descent and was raised in Anzac, Alberta. Her acting prolific portfolio includes, among many others, The Killing, Gunsmoke, Lonesome Dove, Legends of the Fall, Dances with Wolves, Street Legal, Strange Empire, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, as well as Loyalties (earning her a Genie nomination, American Indian Film Festival Best Actress Award, the People's choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival, plus Best Actress Awards at International Film Festivals in Zimbabwe and Portugal). She has more than 100 acting credits.

Tantoo also won the Eagle Spirit Award, has also been honored with the MacLeans' magazine Honor Roll as Actress of the Year, the Outstanding Achievement Award from the Toronto Women in Film and Television, an International Women in Film Award for her contribution to the arts, induction to the CBC/Playback Hall of Fame, 015 ACTRA Award of Excellence, Best Actress - Elizabeth Sterling Award in Theatre, First Americans in the Arts Totem Award, American Indian Film Festival's Best Actress Award, Rudy Martin Award for Outstanding Achievement by a Native American, a Gemini award, and a Leo award. As well, she was appointed to the Order of Canada for advancing Indigenous performing arts in 2009.

Chief Dan George (July 24, 1899 – September 23, 1981)

Photo: Tourism Victoria

Chief Dan George was a chief of Tsleil-Waututh Nation and also an actor, musician, poet, Indigenous rights advocate, activist, environmentalist, and author. Two of his most well-known books, My Heart Soars (1974) and My Spirit Soars (1983), books of prose, poetry, stories, and songs, later combined into the book The Best of Chief Dan George which became a best seller and continues to inspire Canadians today.

He is also known for playing opposite Dustin Hoffman as the character Old Lodge Skins in Little Big Man for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and also as the character Lone Watie opposite Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales.

Alanis Obomsawin

Photo: Cosmos Image

Alanis Obomsawin is an Abenaki American Canadian documentary filmmaker, singer, artist, storyteller, and activist primarily known for her work that focuses on the struggles of Indigenous peoples and giving them a voice. Among them is her film on the 1990 conflict between the Mohawk and government at Oka titled Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance. It was acclaimed nationally and internationally.

Obomsawin is an officer of the Order of Canada, a Grand Officer of the Ordre national du Québec, she has received the Canadian Screen Awards' Humanitarian Award, multiple Governor General's Awards, and lifetime achievement awards.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier

Photo: Stephen Lowe/Right Livelihood

Sheila Watt-Cloutier was born in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, Northern Quebec. Not only is she a Nobel Peace Prize nominee (2007), Sheila has worked to represent Inuit at regional, national, and international levels in social, environmental, human rights, and global health issues. She has received numerous awards and honours for her work and has been featured on several documentaries. Sheila has also the recipient of the Order of Canada (2006).

From 2002 until 2006, she served as the international chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, representing over 150,000 Inuit from Russia, Greenland, Alaska and Canada. Her 2016 TEDx Talk, “Human Trauma and Climate Trauma as One,” brought attention to the connection between Indigenous rights and climate change. Check out Sheila’s TEDx Talk here.

Bill Reid (January 12, 1920 – March 13, 1998)

Last but certainly not least on our quick list is well-known Haida artist Bill Reid, OBC, RCA, whose works include jewelry, sculpture, screen printing, and paintings and whose prolific, 50-year career produced over 1,000 original works. He was a matrilineal descendant of K'aadaas Gaa K'iigawaay, who belong to K_ayx_al, the Raven matrilineages of the Haida Nation. This matrilineage traces its origins to T'aanuu Llnagaay. His names are Iihljiwaas (Princely One), Kihlguulins (One Who Speaks Well), and Yaahl SG_waansing (Solitary Raven). (Reference: Wikipedia)

Bill Reid with The Raven and the First Men at UBC Museum of Anthropology Photo: Coastal Peoples Fine Arts Gallery

Bill worked to salvage artifacts in abandoned village sites throughout British Columbia and also assisted in the reconstruction of the Haida Village at the University of British Columbia. His most famous works include The Spirit of the Haida Gwaii (in black at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC, and in green, the Jade Canoe at the Vancouver International Airport), the Chief of the Undersea World at the Vancouver Aquarium, and The Raven and the First Men at the UBC Museum of Anthropology.

1. Chief of the Undersea World, The Vancouver Aquarium 2. The Spirit of Haida Gwaii at the Canadian Embassy, Washington, DC 3. The Raven and the First Men at UBC Museum of Anthropology Photos: Wikipedia

There are numerous other Indigenous people of influence, of course, too many to name in this article. We give thanks to all our inspirational Indigenous individuals, past and present, and will continue to do our part as Canadians to learn and grow from our rich history.


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