By Emma Hassencahl-Perley and John Leroux
Magazine Issue: Fall/Winter 2021
The trade of “Indian Arts and Crafts” with European settlers and explorers has taken place since the 1600s. Indigenous objects entered into European public and private collections through trade economics, becoming popular during the nineteenth century. European travellers and explorers were inclined to collect objects from foreign lands, especially souvenirs. Plains Cree artist, curator, and scholar Gerald McMaster affirms that our relationships to cultural objects start to change as they enter trade economics. During the Reservation Period (1876-1950s), Indigenous peoples moved from being reliant on land and water (their resources) to dependent on a foreign economic system founded upon possession and profit, characteristics that inevitably undermined Indigenous customs and values.
Western standards of “high” art as represented by fine art, architecture, and craft hierarchies often did not readily recognize Indigenous art forms. In addition, the categorization of Indigenous art within the Western art system is steeped in racism, with a classification based on an image of the “primitive other.” It is as if to say: Indigenous art must be something else because Indigenous peoples are “something else.” These outdated ideas are still present in art history canons and they sometimes block the interpretation of art produced by BIPOC communities. Classifying Indigenous art as “craft” or “souvenir art” is deeply ethnocentric.
This context led to an exceptional instance in which traditional Wabanaki stories fused Indigenous and modern art and graphic forms with fine English porcelain. This unique line of products originated from a vibrant art and design co-operative that flourished during the 1960s in Big Cove (now Elsipogtog), then a marginalized First Nations community in eastern New Brunswick.
A group of Indigenous artists there formed the Micmac Indian Craftsmen (MIC) in 1962. The group’s visual language was eclectic, often minimalist, and unabashedly contemporary. All the more remarkable is these makers and designers were primarily self-taught, with little academic training. What they did possess was talent, craftsmanship, patience, and a desire to make their mark in modern material culture, but through time-honoured Wabanaki visual traditions and stories.
Deeply-rooted in their community, these men and women all spoke Mi’kmaq as their first language. They were the first modern Indigenous artists in eastern Canada, developing an international following almost overnight. Between 1962 and 1967, the MIC were featured in print media from coast to coast, school textbooks, and at Expo 67. The group took part in a major Indigenous art summit and they sold hundreds of thousands of handmade items of their own design in only a few years. The studio’s accolades and patronage were extraordinary, but several generations later the MIC’s work and reputation are all but lost, with little evidence of the group in current New Brunswick visual art or Indigenous Studies.
Local Indigenous artists Michael Francis and Stephen Dedam led the MIC operation. They, and a dozen or so other artisans, produced weaving, silkscreen printing, woodturning, pottery, and jewellery. By early 1963, MIC were making silkscreened “hasti-note” cards at a rate of 200,000 per year that sold across North America. The multiple card series included six-card groups illustrating Wabanaki stories. Their themes included: The Micmac Legend of Our Seasons, The Micmac Legend of the Wild Goose, The Micmac Indian Legend of the Turtle, The Micmac Legend of the Shooting Star, and The Micmac Legend of the Little People. The artists soon explored etched glass, tapestries, clay figures, wall hangings, and created Mi’kmaq patterns on English bone china.
The latter was one of the more unusual opportunities in the history of visual arts and fine craft in eastern Canada. Due to the success of the MIC products, a collaboration took place between the MIC and the British fine porcelain manufacturer Royal Tuscan—a venerable company later purchased by Wedgwood—to print MIC designs by Michael Francis on glazed white china cups, saucers, creamers, and sugar bowls. The forms were clean and simple and featured six designs of the stories that matched Francis’s illustrations of the silkscreened “Little People” hasti-note card set. The saucers bore the label “The Micmac Indian Legends of the Little People” in light blue sans-serif letters around the rims. Hayward and Warwick, a longstanding china and tableware importer in Uptown Saint John, New Brunswick, worked out a deal to distribute the Mi’kmaq china sets internationally.
As the demand for this imagery grew, Francis also created a series of large, hand-woven tapestries based on the same figures for the New Brunswick Teacher’s College. The Little People (Pukaludamuj in Mi'kmaq, Geow-lud-mos-sis-eg in Wolastoqey) are small beings, no bigger than a three-year-old, with characteristics similar to that of an Irish leprechaun. Little People are magical beings considered both good and bad, depending on one’s perspective. Community members across Wabanaki'k (the Dawnland) have experienced personal sightings for centuries.
The Little People are known for pranks like braiding animal tails, pulling clothes off laundry lines, and knocking over stacks of wood. Stories describe them as tricksters, and they are often met with fear or annoyance. Yet the Wabanakiyik (the people) respect them because the Little People are special, with almost supernatural abilities, and make small offerings to them in the form of trinkets or candy to ward off their mischief.
The Wabanaki decorative motif of the double-curve informs the composition of some of the Little People series. Wabanaki double-curves are a design motif of two opposing foliate incurves that are often found beaded onto textiles and cultural objects or etched into birch bark containers and canoes. In the Little People hasti-notes and china series, Francis sometimes used the double-curve as the foundation for the design. For example, in one design, double incurves with an enclosed centre peak suggest a stylized wigwam. Images of animals and trees are on both sides of the central kneeling figure, mirroring one another. The compositions are often inorganic, static, and balanced, whereas the natural environment the images depict is organic and wild, with flowing foliage, waves, and skies.
These designs can be appreciated as part of the modernist fine art tradition. But that perspective misses their deeper meaning: they are rooted in a visual language and cultural traditions of the Mi'kmaq. Notably, the stories are central to MIC products. These stories reveal Wabanaki values and worldviews and connect to events that took place over the course of the MIC’s successes and difficulties.
As Aman Sium and Eric Ritskes note:
Indigenous stories are a reclamation of Indigenous voice, Indigenous land, and Indigenous sovereignty. . . Indigenous storytelling works to both deconstruct colonial ways of coming to know, as well as construct alternatives—recognizing that these two processes do not happen in a linear trajectory. . . Indigenous stories are a creative force, grounded in rootedness and relationality.
By illustrating some of these stories, Francis and other MIC designers ensured their continued significance to future Wabanaki community members. Storytelling encourages a broader understanding of the self, spirit, spirit world, community, culture, relations, and identity—especially when stories are told and understood in their original language. Like language and art, story can help to rebuild or remake Indigenous identity in ongoing colonial settings.
Sadly, Royal Tuscan’s The Micmac Indian Legends of the Little People line was short-lived due to federal and provincial government trepidation in supporting the MIC. This lack was unfortunate, especially when one considers the artistic and commercial success of better-supported Inuit co-operatives of the same era.
The cups, saucers, and creamers are rare, but pop up occasionally in antique shops or online retailers, their sellers rarely aware of the New Brunswick cultural connection and their artistic lineage. Yet the MIC's brief period of national and international attention is an influential episode of history. It should be celebrated as a unique cross-cultural episode where an Indigenous community and a faraway British manufacturer came together.
The story of the MIC matters because it is not only part of the Elsipogtog, but the collective identity of all Wabnaki’k. Now elders, there are still several MIC artists living in the community. Their descendants may only know pieces of this story, but knowing it in its entirety can impact future generations.
As a Wolastoqey artist and curator and a non-Indigenous curator and cultural historian, we are grateful to the MIC artists for their contributions to the Indigenous arts community in Wabanki’k. By retelling their story, our hope is that it becomes ingrained in the art history of New Brunswick and the communal history of Elsipogtog.
Now is the time to have more of our Indigenous stories in print, paintings, dance, and music while maintaining oral ways of storytelling. Art can do this for us. It upholds our knowledge, histories, ceremonies, laws, and language. Looking into our past is essential work in rebuilding our relationships to this territory. For Wabanaki peoples in first-contact zones, so much collective cultural identity has been lost or moved away for its protection. However, it will come back, as it was always meant to.
Emma Hassencahl-Perley is a Wolastoqwiw educator and curator from Nekutqok (Tobique First Nation). She is also a visual artist who works primarily in beadwork, soft sculpture, and mural painting.
John Leroux is Manager of Collections and Exhibitions at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton.