Arts and Community editor Salome Barker and Co-Editor-in-Chief Yanik Gallie of The Xaverian Weekly did an interview with Alan Syliboy on June 24th, 2018 at NovelTea Bookstore Cafe in Truro, Nova Scotia. Alan is the artist of Mi’kmaw Animals, released on May 30th by Nimbus Publishing. The baby board book is now available for purchase at Chapters and select bookshops across Canada.
Alan Syliboy grew up believing that native art was generic. “As a youth, I found painting difficult and painful, because I was unsure of my identity.” But his confidence grew in 1972 when he studied privately with Shirley Bear. He then attended the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where 25 years later, he was invited to sit on the Board of Governors. Syliboy looks to the indigenous Mi’kmaq petroglyph tradition for inspiration and develops his own artistic vocabulary out of those forms. His popularization of these symbolic icons has conferred on them a mainstream legitimacy that restores community pride in its Mi’kmaq heritage.
YG: Two years ago, you held the Coady Chair at StFX. What did you gain from that experience?
AS: I think the hardest part at the very first was, exactly what is that position? What do they expect? Trying to define what is was, that question, came up a lot early on. I didn’t worry about it too much and I just kind of let it happen and that’s generally how I do things. I do a diagnosis of it as it’s going on. I found a good number of indigenous students there who were very thrilled that I was there. In my being there, they felt supported. They got noticed too because I was there. Every time I would be invited somewhere, they were there. It was a mutual, beneficial, thing and I felt that I was already benefiting from the position. Also, there was an indigenous student who was in a wheelchair, and her husband who was sort of the manager in some way, sort of directed me how to be an ombudsman in a way. That’s how I saw the role.
The first day I was there I was on FOX campus radio. Well, I'll come and watch the show. I thought that was the plan all along. Right away, I’m running against the establishment in my very first day. There couldn’t be a better cause. I found out how difficult it is to make change in that structure, because it’s nuts and bolts, it’s money. If you wanna change a building, it’s a big effort. These buildings are from different ages. One student in a wheelchair had to crawl through the snow to get to class a couple times. It was just so difficult. When this woman got to StFX, she was so happy to have finally made it. And, it took her an extra year to graduate, because she had to drop classes as she couldn’t physically do them. She wanted to go to lunch and she had a lunch voucher but couldn’t make it there a lot of the times because she had to get the key to the elevator. You got to find that person with the key to get access. All of those things were against her. It’s amazing.
When we had the president’s colloquium, that was probably the highlight of everything I did there because I had panelists and they never did panelists that way before. I said, “It would have an effect, if I do it. But it would be a stronger effect, if I had 3 other opinions on the same subject.” That’s what I did, and it was a phenomenal success. That was addressed there, the issue of a person in a wheelchair. Very uncomfortable, I think, for the establishment who sat there. I was surprised that they sat there, and they listened. I felt that was one of my main achievements there. I didn’t do it alone, I had the right people. I listened to them who directed me too because I had no idea. I had Murray St. Claire there and we had the flag issue came up at the time, the Mi’kmaw flag. It’s up, it’s down. Murray was told about this problem with the flag. He said, “I went to the Senate. They gave me two flag poles and it was Canada and my Nation. He wanted another flag for his community. They said, “No. We only have two poles.” So, he said, “Ok.” He opened the window and he put his flag up and you could see it. That’s how we dealt with that. Next day, he had a pole haha.
There were a lot of grad students’ voice grievances, it was very touching. It’s very isolating when you come from a small community and you’re in this university. They’re not really equipped. Some of the indigenous personnel weren’t indigenous. They took the job because no one else was taking it. It’s getting better, of course. It shone light on issues like that which should have been addressed. They are being addressed now. It was good for me in the sense that I had all of these classes. I did more talking than I had ever done before. I was talking for three or four hours a day. Then you’re in big demand, so they’re trying not to wear me out.
I took classes voluntarily on my own. So, I couldn’t blame them for all the workload. I even had a daycare come into my studio on-campus. They came twice. I wasn’t there on the first day, but they watched my animation. The next day they came in, I read them a story. Some of them were three years old. I felt really connected in doing these things. It was very positive. I wouldn’t want to do that every day, I couldn’t do that every day. But, I’m glad of the experience.
Also, I had to talk and tell my story so many times it refined my story. It made me a better public speaker. It improved my message to a large extent as well. I felt that. Basically, you’re telling the same story over and over, so you refine it. You also find the keys that turn in the right direction at the right time. It was a very good and rewarding experience.
SB: You’ve had many accomplishments as an artist such as creating the first Indigenous coin for the Royal Canadian Mint. Reflecting on your career, what other big accomplishments stand out the greatest for you?
AS: The Queen’s Jubilee medal, I also got to meet the queen as well. I have a campaign to do more public art. In this area, we are almost invisible. Whereas if you go to B. C., indigenous art is everywhere. You do not see that here at all. To increase the visual profile of us. And, it’s working. I have a mural at the airport that is permanent, and I just put a piece in the Commons. I have a piece there and it’s up for Masterworks Arts Award as well. I should hear within a month about whether I’m on the shortlist or not for that. All kinds of things have sort of come up everyday.
Pat Power and I have a meeting every day in the morning for two, sometimes three hours, just going through emails. Answering emails and everything. I have a sense that Pat’s good at filling out forms and taking care of the little details. He was a finance guy so that’s the kind of stuff he likes a lot which is a perfect partnership because details are not my area. It could take me an hour to write a paragraph, I’m almost illiterate that way. As far as a spell check and all that, they’re catching up to me. I’m starting to speed up because of that. On my own, my education was very poor that way.
Social media too was one of my major accomplishments. As Native and indigenous communities we are pretty isolated as a rule when I was young. Now, I have 5000 friends on Facebook. A great number of my friends are indigenous. It’s a daily thing. I like the intimate interactions. For us, community-wise, you have a living Mi’kmaw dictionary. If you ask a question, you’re gonna have a half a dozen people come to help you out. You feel like you’re talking to the whole community, even beyond Mi’kma’ki. Even out West, I used to do shows out there, so I know lots of people out there. I find that is the biggest. Like first when we started the Morning Drum featured on my Facebook. That was just a temporary one-off thing that we did, but people refused to let us quit that. They would not let us, they just demanded. That was by accident. It’s a thread that finds its way everywhere. I go to places and people tell me about the Morning Drum and a lot of them have been shown by their friends. I realized the power of that. You’re always in an age when you’re relying on a gallery to promote you to make you a star. But that couldn’t happen, you couldn’t get the critical mass on your own, or you’ll get it for a little while and it’ll fade. My approach is brick by brick and day by day. That’s how I’ve done everything. Sometimes you don’t look back and see what you’ve built, because you’re too busy in the middle of building the next brick. You have to come back, or somebody will remind you that you did things. A doctorate too is up there. Unexpected. A doctorate was one of the biggest. There’s a list but I don’t think about it very much. There’s a few on the top of the list for sure.
SB: How does art help you to express your own heritage?
AS: When I was young, just starting out, there was no indigenous art. Art was your view of yourself as what you saw on TV. I had to discover that I am a Mi’kmaw which is aside from other tribes, but no one teaches you that. When I was about to go to school, and I remember this clearly, we spoke Mi’kmaw all the time as kids. Then a letter came out from the church, it was catholic school, and they said, “You’re not allowed to speak Mi’kmaw anymore. If you go to school, it’s gonna hold you back so no more Mi’kmaw.” My parents bought into that because they were very, very fluent. Everything was fine up until that point. That’s why I stalled in school that much because it was not only emotional trauma of going to school. But, it was going to school and not understanding what they’re telling you. TV came on at the same time and the language went out fast. It was gone really fast. I never recovered. I never was a very good student. I excelled at making images under the table in whatever way I could make them. My art was sort of an underground movement. That’s what I did everyday.
Unfortunately, I didn’t learn any of the grammar rules or arithmetic. I was very poor at that. The nuns when they finally limped me into grade 7, there were 3 years of failure already in that time. I was diagnosed as “borderline retarded” by them. That was who they saw in their school. You couldn’t disagree with that because I had very little to say. I was actually afraid to talk. You go into the classroom, and you try to stay in the back to not cause any weight. You’d be singled out every now and then for entertainment purposes. They’d ask you a question they know darn well you don’t know the answer. Some of it was just for survival. I would say that school was residential-like. We’d head home every night. It wasn’t residential schools, but it was a version of it.
YG: Your artworks are often used in schools to teach principles of design such as balance, depth, and contrast. When students are introduced to art, they often ask “What’s art?” How do you respond to that question?
AS: I try to diagnose what level they are at artistically. For instance, I went to an inner-city school in Halifax which was primarily African. All of my classes before then were indigenous or rural, which is quite different. The first thing I saw was that the teacher had told them about me. They had got them prepared. They had already done artwork upon meeting. The first thing I did is I went place from place to place and individually looked at the work and gave them some critique and some advice. It was a one-on-one thing, and from then on it was just golden. I was in, we were pals. They were a generic group, killing time or something. Individually, you see where they are at. Some of them are quite advanced. You determine that and ask them what they want to know or how to do something. That connection is easily fixed with a one-on-one thing.
I do DAREarts, it’s an art program from Ontario originally. Look for DAREarts Atlantic. I started the program with them when they were down here, but they’re all over. I was impressed with them because they are like an art SWAT team. They come into schools and teach painting, music, theatre in one week. They have several teachers who have different strengths. Their program is free for schools. They finish a project and do a show at the end of the week.
I’ve heard a story that one group went out North. They were waiting for students to come and nobody came to their program. They decided to go knocking door to door and explaining what they’re doing. First thing we’ll do is feed your kids and then we’ll teach them art and take care of them. A handful came when it started. I think there was a dozen the first year. Next year there were almost three dozen. The year after was over a hundred and then on. Had they not knocked on doors, nothing would have happened. They might have said, “Well nobody wanted to come.” They didn’t take no for an answer. I like that because they’re aggressive. They work very hard. They select their people well.
I’m a painter, we’re doing The Thundermaker that is a vehicle for education in the arts. They also have people in the theatre, and somebody in music. All of these elements are touched at once and the fort of focus. We’re working with three schools, working on the same material. It’s all over Canada and it’s privately funded. I think McCain’s is one of our funders down here in the Atlantic Provinces. If you go onto DAREarts Atlantic, you’ll see all that information. That’s one of the ways I can be in the schools. I can focus in that way. I can go there for a whole week and affect quite a few students. I get asked almost everyday by a class to come speak and it’s not possible. I’m a professional artist and that’s priority for me. I want to do work with students and do my part with students as much as I can.
There are exceptions for somethings like Québec. I’d never been there. I said I couldn’t get there because I needed to fly over. But, they were so determined to get me there. They covered travel expenses for me. They wouldn’t take no for answer. So I said, “I’ll go.” I feel that what I do is seen as important. This is not the political thing. I’m not talking about the band council or whatever. They are what they always were, they ignore everything. It’s business as usual for politics on reserves mostly. I wouldn’t say that as a whole. Very few politicians look at the arts that much. That’s changing, and you don’t wait around. That was one of my main things. If support wasn’t coming, you just worked around it. I always felt that way. I always felt that there’s a big world. When I went to the Art Project with Shirley Bear in the 70s, she made my world a big world from then on. We were being taught by world-class artists. We were going to the best universities and museums, and we were taught so well. The world was that, we never regressed. It was always looking ahead toward an extra horizon. I give thanks to Shirley Bear for changing everything for me that way. The main idea for Tribe Incorporated was that we did workshops on reserves. That was leading edge for indigenous people teaching indigenous people. Even now you don’t see that much. I did an art program in Wagmatcook. It was the first time they had an indigenous artist critiquing or judging their art. That’s kind of amazing, but it shouldn’t be. The quality of work that was there was so astounding.
YG: What is the most valuable lesson Shirley Bear taught you?
AS: Shirley’s always been there all my life, and still is. I think she was very radical. She’d never ask any permission from anywhere. She was part of AIM and she knew Anna Mae Aquash. I met Anna through Shirley at a radical time. She was from Tobique which is sort of a radical place. I think that’s a sort of breeding ground for radical women. They take over the band hall every year few years and you hear of them all the time. That’s where she comes from and she was never afraid to speak up.
Indigenous people don’t like to rock the boat. It’s really hard for them to confront. It’s not easy to do. Shirley and Peter are the exception of that. And, that’s not always appreciated in the larger indigenous community. We’re taught by the Catholics very well to not say anything. However, that is changing more and more everyday, things like Idle No More. Shirley and Peter J. Clair would do protests in the early 70s around here which is unheard of. When the Warrior’s Society took over, which was a bad approach, you’re in the red zone on the first day. You got a gun. Nothing got resolved over a long time. It was intimidation back and forth. No one wanted to support Warrior’s Society. That was a bit too radical too fast. It didn’t get the results that it had planned too. They were loosely structured and that didn’t help as well. Some of them had charges on them for domestic abuse and that didn’t help. When Idle No More came, that was completely revolutionary in the sense that their approach was superb. You know they’re working when the chief and band council are being asked questions they never been asked by anyone before. They’re not used to that, it never happened before. It’s in a better state than it was. I’m glad I’m around to see this.
YG: Nature comes alive in many of your pieces, especially in the cover artwork of Mi’kmaw Animals. Talk us through your creation process for your artwork.
AS: Shirley was giving me my first painting lessons, and I was doing landscapes, portraits and the typical kind of things. We decided we didn’t want to be just another landscape painter. Shirley is the one who discovered the petroglyphs book. That radically changed everything. We looked through that and decided that was what we wanted to do. We were teaching ourselves, but ultimately, we were teaching everyone. Mi’kmaw people didn’t know about petroglyphs at all. It’s way different now. We didn’t have anyone to follow at the time in the 70s.
The animal motifs, I learned about them. In the beginning, artists are very isolated in their studio. That’s changed for me. I have archaeologists, who are Mi’kmaw people now, and all kinds of support people that I can get better information. I can increase my knowledge and then convey that in art. Roger Lewis for instance, he was an RCMP and became an archaeologist. Now, he’s head of the Archaeology Museum in Nova Scotia. We’re the same age, we grew up together. He’s one of my best sources for information. I’ve asked him about anything and he’ll come up with some research and give me something. I prefer to do that. I prefer to base it on factual knowledge, but I’m bringing an artistic element to it too. It feeds a couple of things. It has the beauty.
Art can be beautiful. For instance, I’m doing a burial show now. It’ll be out in a couple of years. It’s not burial rights, it’s on burial practices and it’s never been done before. It’s been a few years since I’ve been researching this at Saint Mary’s University. Robin Metcalfe is my curator. It’s gonna happen there and I’ve got a grant for it too, it’s being supported by the province. All of this is coming together. Now I have animation that I use, we’re gonna have some hologram effects. We’re going to have some music that I do. All of these things that I’ve incorporated, we’ve flipped them for another use. This should be interesting. No one ever done a burial show.
One thing that bothered me when I was young was that it was a Christian burial. It was like one size fits all motif. That’s the way it was, they didn’t really speak about who was being buried. It was the word of God only and that kind of thing. To me, that was disrespectful in my opinion. I started looking around because you go to a lot of funerals when you’re an indigenous person. Going to funerals is a regular thing. Some of them start to change over time. You can see very subtle changes. Some of it like being buried with tobacco and sweetgrass. When my grandmother was buried, I was part of a sweat lodge group. We did a song in the graveyard which has never been done like that. We didn’t ask anybody to do it, we just did it. My grandmother supported us. She always told me all her life, “You should go back to the church.” She lived to be in the eighties. She saw what the ceremony was doing for me and then she said, “as long as you believe in something.” She stopped the "church" thing. She was supporting us. She was a forward thinker. She was always open-minded. I give a lot of credit to her for making me because we had a good relationship. We could talk about anything at anytime. She was radical in her own way too. She made some people nervous. Especially the priests. If she would disapprove of them, she would say something. They all had to pass the test to go see her, of course they had to go see Rachel Marshall.
SB: How did you select the 9 animals represented in the baby board book?
AS: I compiled a list of animals, but I was never thinking about a list when I made them. See the petroglyphs to me, there were so many varieties of them. 10 years ago, I started doing caribou. I never did one before. I had never done one before, so I started doing them from then on. Then, I started to draw eels. It’s just like I took turns finding them. Each one has a turn. The turtles have been there a long time. Whales are fairly recent. They’re already part of who we are, and petroglyphs give us that. That’s what I’m using as my source. These are the images that were available right now. None of them are new for this book, they already existed. The butterfly’s been around for a while, it took me about ten minutes to make the first one.
SB: I found myself really connecting to your “Qalipu” painting. Interestingly enough, I come from the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nations band in Newfoundland and Labrador. I was wondering if you intended for aboriginal people from different nations to connect to your artwork?
AS: I know that it would, the caribou were all over the place. Over half of Canada at least. It was in the petroglyphs book. The reason I picked that at that time was that I did some research and found out that in Truro was where one of the last place they were shot and extinct. The last groups were shot here, so I said, “this was very close physically to where I was”. To me, it evokes the memory of what they meant. It’s also a teaching tool. Like Debert for instance, it’s an 11 000 or 12 000 year old campsite there. You can imagine how long we’ve been here. There are two sites there that are really old. I’m talking to the new people who are working there and they’re telling me new things that they are finding, I’m up on that currently.
YG: Mi’kmaw Animals is an excellent educational resource for children to develop literacy skills. What is the connection between polylingualism at a young age and literacy?
AS: We were told that Mi’kmaw was gonna hold us back. People in the community, like our neighbor, believed that it was gonna hold us back. I said, “Well if that’s the case, why do Europeans speak six languages? It doesn’t hold them back” He didn’t have an answer to that, but that’s how I thought. To me, the more information that is brought forth the better. Now you have Mi’kmaw aritsts who are going to NSCAD, and their working on their own too. It’s opening up much faster intensity to different points of view and different ways to do things. To me, I feel that it’s a really great time.
Also, artists have never been considered important. I think if you’re learning about yourself, artists can bring you more than anyone else because it’s emotional too. It’s not just the text or the hard-raw information. It’s more than that. There’s an attachment that they can bring to make you feel something. Artists can do that. When I’m on Facebook, I see lots of excellent artists doing excellent things. I’m feeling pretty good about where we are right now.
SB: Can you share your vision of indigenous art for upcoming generations?
AS: Mike Sark. He’s in his fifties. He was in the Marines. He used to be in our sweat lodge. He was always connected to us all the time. He’s decided to go to NSCAD and become an artist. It’s amazing because of everything he’s done. All of that raw energy and knowledge with other things he did, he’s putting it into making art now. He’s popping out all over the place. He does animals, but he’ll cut them out and put them together and paint them. Like a 3D thing. Everything I’ve done, he’s made into 3D. That’s pretty cool. I said, “That’s alright.” Next year, he’s going to carve. It’s not like he started when he was seventeen. He’s fifty-seven and doing this. There’s more and more people like Natalie Sappier-Samaqani Cocahqup in Tobique. I met her a few years ago. She’s doing terrific. There’s lots of new ones.
I went to Caraquet too. I’m working with the French in Caraquet. There is the biggest French community there. They really support their festival, it’s sophisticated. They all have careers as artists. It’s good for our artists because they can see what it’s like to be an everyday artist because we don’t have that facility. We don’t have that support. They were very welcoming, so it’s a good place and it’s mutual. We’re doing a show in Montreal at the Peoples' festival. I’m going to Montreal with Caraquet’s group in mid-August so I’m pretty happy about that. I’ve also got a new gallery of world-wide fine art in Toronto, we sold a painting yesterday. The gallery’s been around for twenty-five years. I think they are originally from Cape Breton so there’s a home attachment.
SB: The conversation of reconciliation has been happening for years now. It’s been three years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action. How do you see reconciliation moving forward?
AS: I’ve been approached by people to do events. The events were stirred by this reconciliation. It’s almost like they wanted to do something and now they have a blueprint to go by and I’ve seen that lots of times. That’s a step forward definitely. We have a lot more connection. I’ve also joined boards, and so on, because they just didn’t have indigenous representation. Like the ECMAs, I went there on the board of directors. A very daunting work to that position, however I did the best I could. Now they’re not going backwards. They are having visions and they’re moving forward. If they were sleeping, they would have stayed asleep. You have to go there and say, “here I am” so they can’t go to sleep again like I’ve done that in several boards. I’m more concerned about the next one.
Like the Coady Chair in 2017, Dorine Bernard was just amazing. I know her, but I didn’t know how much she did. How much effort she puts in everything. She is like steel, it’s amazing. She told me too about things, that is was real hard for her to do it, but she got it done. The focus once it happens, there’s a good chance it’ll be another indigenous person again. I see that as breaking a few trails. I see my role as a senior artist as something that will live on and contribute in a long-term and meaningful way.
YG: I’d love to get your interpretation of this quote by Black Elk, a medicine man of the Oglala Lakota, he said “The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.”
AS: I totally agree with Black Elk. There was an indigenous Akwesasne Notes from New York, we got it every month. It had all sorts of indigenous ads, like tobacco and wild rice. We ordered all the posters, my brother and I, with the sayings of chief Joseph. We had them all. We got music from there too for years. It eventually stopped but it was a nice ride for a while to have that coming out. I miss it.
It’s been a long time, since the 70s, that I read the quote. Absolutely, his words are tremendous. I see that more and more. Years ago, there wasn’t much going on. People are appearing and doing things. You can feel the energy and see it. I’ve been here long enough to see it happening and I’m grateful for that. I see that the younger are the ones who are more dedicated. Their motives are better. That’s why you see people who go to sweat lodges and do things like that. Their motives are much more clear and pure. Some people just say words. It’s not just saying words, it’s actions. That’s always been my scale. It’s not what you say, it’s what you do. If you’re not doing anything, then it doesn’t matter what you say.