Honoring the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples
August 9th is the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, the annual celebration which raises awareness on Indigenous peoples’ rights and recognizes the global community’s achievements, many of which are environmental. To commemorate, you may have noticed something special about the YouTube logo today. To learn more about how we landed on this design, we talk to its creator: Canada-based Anishinaabe artist Luke Swinson.
“It’s a rare chance for all of us to get together,” Luke says on the day’s significance. “It doesn’t matter what nation you’re from or what community you’re from. It is one of the only positive things that brings everyone together.”
Today, there are between 370 and 500 million Indigenous people in the world living in over 90 countries. Indigenous Peoples are culturally distinct societies and communities, which make up around 5 percent of the global population. Each community has a unique cultural practice which shares deep ancestral ties to their historic lands — lands which many communities are now displaced from.
Each year, Luke commemorates Indigenous Peoples’ Day by painting a mural in Waterloo, Ontario in collaboration with his partner Alanah, who is also an Indigenous artist. He also attends Thanksgiving ceremonies where a knowledge keeper or Indigenous language speaker gives an address. The city hosts many celebratory gatherings filled with an abundance of food and markets acknowledging the rich diversity of Indigenous communities in the area.
“There are a lot of really awesome rallies and ceremonies at other points in the year,” says Luke, “but I feel a lot of them are sadly around tragedy.” Indigenous Peoples’ Day, on the other hand, is “purely a celebration of our cultures” both for people with Indigenous roots as well as non-Indigenous allies who come to support and learn from the community.
Born in Lindsay, Ontario, Luke was exposed to creativity from an early age through his father, August Swanson who was also an artist. Luke quickly came to admire the work of renowned Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau. Known as “the grandfather of Woodland art,” Morrisseau’s work uses bold color and strong black lines to express a sense of spirituality. Whenever Luke thinks of Canadian art, he thinks of Norval Morrisseau and his contributions raising the profile of Anishinaabe art.
And so when it came time to design today's custom art, drawing inspiration from previous generations felt like the natural route. “The whole point of thisxf, other than to celebrate Indigenous people, is to show the passing of knowledge between generations," he says.
Just like the seasons, or the cycle of life and death, Luke believes everything can be understood as cyclical. In Indigenous communities, knowledge can also be seen as circular; the elders pass down ancient knowledge to the youngsters and in turn, the young can share information with the old.
To illustrate this, Luke represents that transfer through two sets of hands — one pair more mature than the other. “There’s a sharing between the two, and an acknowledgement that we need all generations, both past and future, to be able to hold everything together. It’s not just up to our elders to pass down the knowledge. There’s a role for everybody and every generation has to play a part.” He also consulted that Indigenous communities in order for the project to be more accessible.
To further evoke the feeling of togetherness, Luke tied the piece with a gathering round a fire. “It’s such a common place to share knowledge and the fire itself is so important to us as it connects us with our ancestors,” he says.
While the diverse aspects of nature is one prominent theme in Luke's work, he also endeavors to show a diversity within his own identity and within various Indigenous communities. As someone with European and Anishinaabe ancestry, it's important to show that Indigenous identity cannot fit into a one-size-fits-all box. “Different communities are diverse, different people are diverse, different nations are diverse,” he says, “I think it’s important for the public to see that.”
It’s important to be respectful of [Indigenous peoples' space and do your part to support the community, whether that’s financially or within the political structure. Lift up Indigenous rights and support things that are important to Indigenous people” Luke Swinson
As for what non-Indigenous people can do to show support? “I appreciate allies just showing up. Doing their part to learn but also respecting Indigenous peoples’ space is a big one," Luke says. "It’s important to be respectful of their space and do your part to support the community, whether that’s financially or within the political structure. Lift up Indigenous rights and support things that are important to Indigenous people: Land protection, clean drinking water in Canada is a big one. Do your part to raise awareness on behalf of Indigenous people and lift the voices of Indigenous people.”
Indigenous communities are key to tackling climate change and Luke hopes the wider society can appreciate this. “We’re going to get out of this mess through them and their knowledge. I want other Indigenous people to see themselves in this artwork and to see that we all have our roles to play, our knowledge to share and hope you see that connection between us and the natural world.”