In a few months’ time, the walls of Yellowknife, Dettah, and Ndilǫ will be filled with images that evoke tales of Indigenous strength, positivity, and resilience.
Strong People, Strong Communities is a grassroots mural project founded by sisters Mahalia Yakeleya-Newmark and Kalina Newmark. It pairs northern youth with Indigenous professional artists to design and create murals highlighting positive Indigenous stories.
The sisters said they came up with the idea when looking to honour the lives of their great aunt and cousin, along with other Indigenous women who have been murdered, from a strength-based perspective.
There are 21 artists involved – 11 youth from the NWT and 10 mentors from across Canada – split into six teams.
Each team has designed a mural centred around a distinct theme: healthy, strong women; healthy, strong men; honouring our LGBTQ2S+ community and other Indigenous ways of being; healthy, strong babies and youth; healthy, strong Elders; and healthy, strong families and communities.
The teams gathered virtually on Thursday last week to reveal drafts of their mural concepts, though the designs are subject to final edits and tweaks.
“As Indigenous people we are constantly working, creating things with our hands, hearts, and minds to build things that are beautiful, usable, and communicate who we are and what is important to us,” Yakeleya-Newmark said during the call.
“Art has the power to change lives. It is transformative, a space of learning, and a catalyst for social change. This is some of the inspiration around the project. We want to brilliantly express that we are strong people, strong communities.”
‘Example of resilience’
Filmmaker Morgan Tsetta, a Yellowknives Dene woman who has used TikTok to raise awareness about the remediation of Giant Mine, is a member of the Healthy, Strong Elders team alongside Chippewa and Potawatomi artist Chief Lady Bird and Inuvialuit mother-daughter duo Christina and Isabella King.
Another Inuvialuit mother-daughter team, Myrna Pokiak and 11-year-old Mya Paul, have designed a mural around Healthy, Strong Babies and Youth with Dene painter Carla Rae Taylor and Inuvialuit artist Elycia Monaghan in Yellowknife.
Brian Kowikchuk, an Inuvialuit artist from Tuktoyaktuk and a member of the Honouring Our LGBTQ2S+ Community team, described the designing experience as a growth process.
“This is the first time that I’m using a teamwork effort … learning art through different perspectives other than my own,” he said. “So it’s been a journey, looking at a different piece through someone else’s eyes and my team’s.”
Four of the murals will be painted in Yellowknife, one in Ndilǫ, and one in Dettah. Exact locations are still being discussed, according to Yakeleya-Newmark. She said anyone with suggestions can reach out to the Strong People, Strong Communities collective.
Each of the groups will come together in Yellowknife this August to paint the pieces, where the public will be welcome to watch and interact with the artists.
Dene Elder Paul Andrew, who offered an opening and closing prayer during Thursday’s unveiling, praised the artists.
“I know that you guys are either in school, or you have a full-time job, or you have a family,” he said, “and at the same time, you’re still creating some amazing work. That is the kind of stuff that gives me a lot of hope for the people that we come from.”
Here are the six mural concepts coming to the North Slave this summer, with short descriptions from the artists.
Healthy, Strong Women
Team: Kyla LeSage, Lianne Charlie, Melanie Jewell
“The story of our mural is rooted in the teaching that hair carries our memories. Mother and daughter sit together in the centre of this image, encircled with an abundance of ancestral memories. The girl’s braided hair is connected with the sun/moon, and then sweeps around the whole entire image connecting each memory in a long flowing record of her past/future. It was important to us to depict strength and wisdom in our piece.”
Healthy, Strong Men
Team: Danielle Wendehorst, Jordan Epelon, Peatr Thomas
“A winter landscape with a clear sky, Northern Lights, visible stars and constellations. The Northern Lights to line up the constellation of Yamozah and the story of the beaver. The beaver’s lodge to be the centre of the horizon and mural. A dog team and sled in the foreground. Shows an Elder pointing to the starts to show the constellations with a young person in the sled. The lines shown are of connection, guidance, and protection. The Elder is to symbolize being a strong healthy man. That being active and out on the land will bring you a healthy mind, body, and spirit.”
Honouring Our LGBTQ2S+ Community And Other Indigenous Ways Of Being
Team: Kale Sheppard, Brian Kowikchuck, Lexis McDonald
“We have all of the different local plants, florals, and berries in the foreground. It’s just to help balance out the colour, as well as connect us with the land more in our piece. We have the fireweed, the blueberries, cranberries, cloudberries, daisies – all sorts of different plants and flowers … we have our tipi to help represent the Dene people, and the inuksuk to help represent the Inuvialuit people. If you look closer, there’s also two feathers with the teepee. That’s to help represent a Two-Spirit people, as well as two people in the tipi. It’s a way to add what it’s like to be human and to be part of the LGBTQ2S+ community. It’s just to be there together with each other and for each other.”
Healthy, Strong Babies And Youth
Team: Elycia Monaghan, Myrna Pokiak, Mya Paul, Carla Rae Taylor
“Ancestors look over our babies and youth, nourished by Mother Earth, with fruitful land and freshwater. Children gain strength both mentally and physically through cultural connections and new opportunities, while bringing forward a sense of joy and happiness to the world. Guided by the sun, moon and sky, children grasp the sacred elements passed on through generations and are taught life’s lessons through the Dene laws.”
Healthy, Strong Elders
Team: Morgan Tsetta, Isabella King/Anara, Christina King/Taalrumiq, Chief Lady Bird
“Our murals tells the story that we recognize and respect our Elders as knowledge keepers. They pass on valuable traditions and history of who we are – our culture, our language, and ancestral wisdom. Our matriarch, once a brave youth herself, takes her place passing on traditional knowledge to the next generation. The youth, with moccasin-clad feet planted on the ground, is physically and symbolically rooted to the land and tradition of our cultures. Her thick braids show her vitality and strength as a young woman. She bears traditional face markings of her ancestors, a sign that she is of age and ready to do her part in her family and community.”
Healthy, Strong Families And Communities
Team: Kaitlyn Nasogaluak, Jamaine Vilan, Bracken Hanuse Corlett, Cody Fennel
“When our group first got together in a virtual space, we spoke about what connects us to the land and to our communities. We are from different territories and ancestral Nations. We have our own lived experiences and cultural teachings, but in our discussion we also found our similarities. We came to understand the Raven as a symbol of family unity and resilience. Through further discussion, research and teachings from knowledge keepers – Paul Andrew and Karen Wright Fraser – we sketched, coloured and collaged a winter scene of a family setting out on a hunt. As they travel they stop to make an offering to the Ravens who are noted as esteemed hunting guides and helpers.”