This Is Our Story: First Nations and Inuit in the 21st Century,
A major new permanent exhibition at Musée de la civilisation
The Atikamekw Nehirowisiwok, Waban-Aki (Abenaki), Anishinabeg (Algonquin), Innu, Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk), Huron-Wendat, Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet), Eeyou (Cree), Mi’gmaq, Naskapi and Inuit*: What do we really know about the history and culture of the approximately 93,000 Aboriginal people living in Quebec today? This Is Our Story: First Nations and Inuit in the 21st Century, a major new permanent exhibition opening at Musée de la civilisation on November 27, offers a remarkable in-depth look at the 11 Aboriginal nations of Quebec. A Hydro-Québec presentation, in partnership with La Boîte Rouge vif, and with the collaboration of Ministère de la Culture et des Communications; Ministère de l’Enseignement supérieur, de la Recherche, de la Science et de la Technologie; Secrétariat aux affaires autochtones; Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec; the Canadian Heritage Museums Assistance Program; Université du Québec à Chicoutimi; Alliance design et culture matérielle; the National Film Board of Canada; and the newspaper Le Soleil. Alcoa is a partner in all Musée de la Civilisation programming.
To develop content for the exhibition, Musée de la civilisation worked hand in hand with the 11 Aboriginal nations of Quebec. Over a period of more than two years, consultation meetings known as “Mamo-Ensemble” were held with representatives from each First Nation, the Inuit, and various aboriginal organizations.
What does it mean to be an Aboriginal person today?
This Is Our Story: First Nations and Inuit in the 21st Century is an in-depth reflection on what it means to an Aboriginal person today. Using a contemporary approach based on a concept by Yves Sioui Durand, the exhibition explores the worldview of Aboriginal people, their relationship with the world around them, the ways in which they reaffirm their culture, and the issues they face today. To further illuminate their story, over 400 objects are presented, along with large-screen projections, works by contemporary Aboriginal artists, and audiovisual material produced by La Boîte Rouge vif in collaboration with Musée de la civilisation (with archival and post-production support from the National Film Board of Canada). Visitors can also listen to an evocative poetic narrative by young Aboriginal writer Naomi Fontaine at six listening stations positioned throughout the exhibit.
“This exhibition, which bears witness to the history, aspirations and way of life of the Aboriginal peoples, deserves a place as a major cultural milestone of our time. This invitation from Musée de la civilisation is an invaluable opportunity to become better acquainted with the history and culture of the First Nations and the Inuit of Quebec, and I urge my fellow citizens to come discover the rich heritage of these great peoples,” said Maka Kotto, Minister of Culture and Communications.
“This remarkable exhibition pays tribute to the values of courage, high ideals, and respect for nature paramount in Aboriginal cultures since time immemorial. The exhibition also has the merit of portraying First Nations and Inuit culture in a contemporary light, effectively mingling traditional heritage with 21st century realities,” said Élizabeth Larouche, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.
Understanding the aspirations of the Aboriginal nations
“The exhibition can be interpreted in several ways,” noted Michel Côté, Executive Director of Les Musées de la civilisation. “It showcases everyday objects as well as contemporary creations that are touchstones of a story still unfolding. It gives a voice to members of the First Nations and the Inuit, who remind us that behind every object, there are individual people. And furthermore, it was developed in a spirit of collaboration and partnership that gives us a better understanding of the aspirations of these nations. And that is what an exhibition should do,” Mr. Côté concluded, “help develop new insights and points of reference.”
Eleven nations, five themes
The exhibition begins with an overview of Quebec’s 11 Aboriginal nations, then turns to its first theme, Who We Are Today – The Reserve, Our Communities. This section delves into the identity of Aboriginal people—the wellspring of all their aspirations—and into their multiple, complex realities. Through people, projections, historic facts, and objects (drums, sculptures, models, and more), visitors gain insight into reserves and villages as physical places, but also as a way of life and a historical reality—places of confinement that grew into communities with a sense of belonging.
A second theme, Our Roots (paleohistory and history) illustrates how deeply ingrained Aboriginal culture is in North America, establishing connections between migratory movements, the emergence of regional identities and cultural diversification. Here the visitor will discover archeological objects, traditional items, an Inukshuk, and a wall of snowshoes, a visual metaphor for the march of the Aboriginal peoples across the North American continent.
The third theme, Colonization – A Time of Turmoil, shows how relations between Aboriginal peoples and the Europeans began as alliances and were subsequently transformed. For over 400 years, Aboriginal groups showed strength and resilience in the face of upheaval and change. Displays include guns, hatchets, tomahawks, crooked knives, rattles, necklaces, wampum, beaver pelts, amulets, and clothing.
The fourth exhibition theme, Decolonization – Healing, highlights 20th- and 21st-century milestones in the Aboriginal struggle for recognition, right up to the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007) and the Idle No More movement. New political organizations, court challenges, land claims, and the transfer of administrative powers are among the many initiatives undertaken to re-establish a historical relationship. The display features pow wow drums, clothing, pipes, headdresses, footwear, cradleboards, toys, and a moccasin trail representing the long road Aboriginal people have traveled to gain recognition.
The concluding theme, What Are Our Dreams for the Future?, expresses Aboriginal people’s desires for the future of their communities in light of current realities. The voice of Naomi Fontaine is again heard in narration, and a large-screen projection shows 11 objects – one per nation – that embody hopes for tomorrow.
Objects rich in meaning
Exhibition visitors will have access to nearly 400 objects, most from the collections of Les Musées de la civilisation. The museums also possess a magnificent collection of Inuit artwork, of which several pieces are shown in this exhibition. Other objects that are of special interest or extremely rare include ceremonial regalia, articles of clothing, decorative baskets, shell-bead wampum, and more. There is also a splendid birchbark rabaska canoe measuring 11 m long, and an Inuit kayak. Works by contemporary indigenous artists from different nations also punctuate the exhibition: Jacques Newashish (Atikamekw Nehirowisiwok), France Trépanier (Kanien’kehá:ka and Québecoise), Nadia Myre (Anishinabe), Teharihulen Michel Savard (Huron-Wendat), Virginia Pésémapéo Bordeleau (Métis and Eeyou), Marc Siméon (Innu), and Glenna Matoush (Ojibwe Anishinabe),
All of the everyday objects on display—some commonplace, some specific to a particular group—are a window onto the identities, characteristics, values, and traditions of the 11 Aboriginal nations of Quebec, as well as their similarities and differences. By learning about the values and roles of these items—be they utilitarian or symbolic—we gain a better understanding of Aboriginal people today.
A resolutely contemporary design
The design of the vast exhibition room attests to the contemporary character of the exhibition and is in keeping with the Musée’s new approach to Aboriginal issues. It is a reflection of a modern population whose identity derives in part from the past, but whose feet are firmly planted in the present and future. Throughout the visit, exhibit-goers will encounter the dichotomy of the modern-day Aboriginal experience, tied to both their extant traditions and their contemporary lifestyle.
An indispensable partnership
This exhibition was made possible by the generous contributions of Hydro Québec, the exhibition presenter, and by Ministère de la Culture et des Communications through its program to support permanent exhibitions. Hydro-Québec has been associated with the Musée de la civilisation since its founding 25 years ago. It contributed to the first permanent exhibition on the Aboriginal nations of Quebec, Encounter with the First Nations, and the partnership continues with the exhibition This Is Our Story: First Nations and Inuit in the 21st Century.
In accordance with their respective sustainable development programs, the Alcoa Foundation and Musée de la civilisation also partnered to convert basic exhibition area lighting to LED lighting. This is the first of a series of transformations planned for museum exhibit halls and other spaces.