Story by Tonya Muchano, Photos by Laura Paxton

It’s pouring rain but that hasn’t deterred the talented and dedicated artists of Neechee Studio. Up at the lookout on Anemki Wajiw (Mount McKay) they are hard at work at their latest project—a beautiful mural that represents their relationship to the land, culture, and community. The mural is the final workshop in their Neechee on the Land series, a partnership between Neechee Studio, the Anemki Art Collective, and Fort William First Nation. Neechee has also had the opportunity to bring in professional artists to assist along the way. For the mural workshop they enlisted the help of media artist and filmmaker Amanda Strong and performance artist Jeneen Frei Njootli, both based in Vancouver.

The program, hosted at Fort William First Nation, aims to reconnect Indigenous youth with the land and their heritage through traditional and modern art techniques as well as cultural teachings. Workshops have included sewing, photography, porcupine quill embroidery, copper embossing, and canoe building. Prior to each workshop, the group has invited a community elder to provide teachings on various topics and cultural protocols. “I’ve really enjoyed the teachings we’ve done before the workshop and how that ties into the artwork,” explains Blake Evans, a Neechee committee member and Lakehead visual arts student. “Being able to use birch bark or porcupine quills and literally being able to gather art supplies from the animals and the trees is a really amazing teaching.”

Artist Jean Marshall, member of Neechee Studio and Anemki Art Collective, explained that they saw a need for Indigenous youth in Thunder Bay to connect with more than just art. Neechee on the Land, funded by the Ontario Arts Council, has provided the platform to more fully integrate art, culture, and traditional knowledge.

“It’s a form of healing,” says artist Matilda Suganaqueb, who has been involved with Neechee Studio since its infancy in 2013. She says that doing this work on the land means youth are “away from the hecticness that’s going on [in the city] and finding peace.” Marshall also hopes that this combination of connecting to land and traditional teachings will help to widen the young artists’ support networks— knowing they not only have each other, but also trusted elders to turn to when they need it.

“Getting outside and doing stuff like this—I believe [the youth] really need it,” explains Gail Bannon, culture and recreation coordinator for the Fort William First Nation. “They yearn for it and they don’t even know what they’re looking for.” Bannon also manages the Mountain Crew, which employs youth living on Fort William First Nation as caretakers of Anemki Wajiw. Their duties include the usual grass-cutting, garbage picking, and trail maintenance, but also involve learning about and harvesting medicines, canoe building, and this year, mural painting with Neechee Studio.

Charlene Bannon is part of the Mountain Crew and a participant in the Neechee on the Land mural workshop. She recognizes that this project is unique. “Doing this work on the mountain, it’s something special for sure. And it’s not just for the community, it’s for everyone. Every time I’m up here I feel so connected to the land. It’s like home.”

Neechee Studio is an Indigenous-led, youth-run art studio based out the Definitely Superior Art Gallery. They hold free workshops on a monthly basis between November and April, providing a safe, fun space for Indigenous youth to learn about various art techniques from a wide range of artists.