Aboriginal art

Frederick R. McDonald is a Woodland Cree painter born in Fort McMurray, Alberta. He graduated from the University of Calgary, where he earned his BFA, and has recently published a book, Ancestral Portraits: The Colour of My People.

I met Frederick McDonald in the summer of 2003. All I knew of him was that he was a remarkable artist and a friend of my father, so I approached him one day.

“You must be Frederick McDonald?” I asked to confirm.

He turned, the men he was standing with turned, and they stared at me with blank expressions.

“Actually, I’m not Frederick. I’m just in town visiting,” McDonald said.

I turned bright red, apologized and left embarrassed, wondering how I could have been wrong because I’d seen pictures of the man before.

The next week, I saw the same man, named Frederick McDonald, being honored in the community for his work as an artist. What a kidder.

I recently met with McDonald to discuss Aboriginal oral traditions.

How would you define Aboriginal oral traditions?

An oral tradition is an interesting historical record of the past, meaning two things: [First]it’s interesting to sit around a fire or around a circle and listen to someone talk about an individual’s life from the past or a community life from the past. Every person can put their own slant, their own sway, their own thoughts, their own feelings into the historical aspect. [Second]from a non-native perspective, from my perspective because I’m a person that lives in an urban setting, the Europeans, when they came across Canada and started to make treaties, overlooked the oral tradition. Because it was not a written record or agreement, it’s been misconstrued. The oral tradition is something that is not looked on as a solid record or a hard fact.

What do you show in your artwork?

Four things. First is the history of the Aboriginal people of North America–a historical perspective, my perspective. Second is the visual record of my people in the north, my family, myself, how I grew up along the Athabasca River. So that, in a way, is a written oral tradition bringing together a story that can be told about the painting, but at the same time the oral history is visually presented. Third is a way of communicating spirituality, the spirituality of myself, my connection to the land, my connection to my ancestors. The fourth way is me, as an artist, talking about the future.

McDonald went on to tell the story of Big Bear, an Aboriginal chief during the time of European settlement who fought not with his hands, but with his intelligence, to preserve Native heritage, but who unfortunately lost the battle.

The whispered stories of Aboriginal oral tradition continue.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.