“Honouring our Matriarchs” is this year’s theme

Last year’s Celebration of Nations was primarily featured online due to Covid-19. The festival’s artistic producer, Tim Johnson, is hopeful that this year many will return to in-person attendance.

The gathering, held annually on the weekend after Labour Day, is a three-day showcase, September 9 through 11, at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, in St. Catharines. It highlights Indigenous arts, culture, and heritage, replete with traditional and contemporary music and dance, visual art, film screenings, and creative workshops.

Some 40 in-person events are slated, including concerts, hands-on workshops, storytelling, poetry and discussion sessions, music, drumming, and dance demonstrations, and an Indigenous interactive discovery zone.

“In 2020, we had about 36,000 remote viewers of the programs,” said Johnson. “This year, we’re doing a full hybrid, so all programs will be live-streamed, as well as being open to the public to attend. In the past we had about 5000 people in person at the events, but 2022 is sort of a transition year, so we’ll have to wait and see how many turn out.”

Johnson asserts direct descendance from the historic Mohawk leader Joseph Brant. He spent time as associate director for museum programs at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington DC, and has managed the production of critically acclaimed cultural exhibitions, publications and media.

“We start off on Friday evening with our Outstanding Achievement Awards, where we recognize Indigenous people who have become distinguished members of the community. There’s also an award called Two Row Wampum Allies, for Non-Indigenous people who have been supportive of Indigenous causes in the region.”

In keeping with this year’s theme of “Honouring our Matriarchs,” a concert the evening of September 9 will feature the “First Ladies of Jazz,” produced by Johnson in partnership with the TD Niagara Jazz Festival. It includes a tribute to Mildred Bailey, an Indigenous 1930s American jazz singer from Idaho known as the “Queen of Swing.”

“Many people don’t associate jazz music with Indigenous artists,” said Johnson, “but Bailey brought some unique phrasing, and stretching or bending of notes, that established her jazz vocal style. She had a tremendous influence on the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Tony Bennett. We have created a concert that focuses on three phenomenal female jazz vocalists in history, leading with Mildred Bailey, then proceeding to Billie Holiday, and finally Ella Fitzgerald. Our female vocalists are Cheri Maracle, Faith Armour, and Ranee Lee. It should be a wonderful experience.”

She had a tremendous influence on the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Tony Bennett

Indigenous singer-songwriter icon Buffy Sainte-Marie will be returning to the festival for a concert on September 10 at 7:30 PM in Partridge Hall, performing with Two-Spirit Mohawk singer Shawnee Kish, and the local female drum group Strong Water Women.

“Buffy was our headline act back in 2017, and it will be great to have her back. Shani Kish is a phenomenal musician, who was Juno-nominated this past year. She’s top-notch performer,” said Johnson.

The Niagara Escarpment Biosphere Network is holding a conference session on September 11.

“This is a really important, something that we’ve integrated into the curation of Celebration of Nations, looking at topics that span cultures, groups, and interests,” said Johnson. “It’s another example of where we’re trying to really promote collaboration and partnership among indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, working together to preserve the status of the Niagara Biosphere that runs from Niagara up to Manitoulin Island. There are great people involved in that whole process.”

The Red Dress Exhibit honours the untold stories of murdered and missing Indigenous women, with a collection of 13 empty red dresses, and audio documentary for each one.

Film screenings during the weekend include The Water Walker, Blood and Water: A Reclamation Story, and family-friendly animated National Film Board shorts by Indigenous filmmakers.

Drums Across Canada will unite drum circles from different performing arts venues, paired with Indigenous drumming groups across the country, in a call for healing and wisdom.

For the full lineup of events for the Celebration of Nations weekend, see www.celebrationofnations.ca. Events tickets are available online at firstontariopac.ca