Philip Cote is an Indigenous artist, activist, educator, historian, cultural advisor and Ancestral Knowledge Keeper from Moose Deer Point First Nation. Citing all of his ancestry, he is Shawnee, Lakota, Potawatomi, Ojibway, Algonquin and Mohawk. Philip created a drawing to commemorate the long tradition of service and sacrifices in war of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit people of Canada. He offers his reflections on his process, and the meaning behind many of symbols included in this important piece of art which will be planted on Sunnybrook’s grounds this Remembrance Day.
What was your path to becoming an artist?
Being an artist isn’t a choice. You are born like that, and I’ve felt that calling since I was a kid. I was already doing amazing artwork at an early age and it was something I loved. It kept me occupied, and in a way kept me from seeing how horrible the world was for Indigenous people in this country. I remember being very industrious with my artwork and have won numerous awards through the years. My parents were very encouraging and if I asked for art supplies, they did their best to get them for me.
How did you come to create this beautiful artwork for Sunnybrook?
Sunnybrook’s Indigenous Advisory Council approached me. My work is on social media and I do a lot of public speaking about the history of Indigenous culture and the history of our land. There are lots of institutions that are aiming to connect with Indigenous people and educate their employees.
For Remembrance Day, Sunnybrook engaged Indigenous artist Philip Cote to create artwork that honours the service & sacrifice of Indigenous Veterans.
— Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre (@Sunnybrook) November 10, 2021
Can you explain some of the symbolism in the artwork you created for Remembrance Day?
Even though it may look pretty and simple, it’s very complicated when it comes down to explaining all of the symbols.
The interior part of the buffalo comes from the Woodland, or x-ray, style of painting. Indigenous Canadian artist Norval Morrisseau is the most famous individual noted for this style of work and rightfully so because his art is so amazing. Even if you are not Indigenous, you can see something in it and it’s attractive. Morrisseau said that attraction is about the spirit, and he wanted to use that spirit to heal the viewer.
The idea of the spirit runs much deeper than our physical world, and this is so important in Indigenous culture. So all the black lines around my painting represent the beginning of the universe. When we talk about the beginning of the universe, the Anishinaabe people, we are talking about a great black void. There was a spirit in that black void that sent out signals into the universe and waited for a response, but no response happened. So the spirit called the signals back and asked them to create light in the universe as they returned. In that moment, the stars and planets, including one that could hold life, were born. And that’s where our humanity began, represented by the black lines seen throughout my painting.
The buffalo represents our ancestors and another nation, not just an animal. Part of the Indigenous philosophy is that human beings are not on a pyramid at the top. That’s the western view of the world. The Indigenous view is that we are all in a circle and connected together on the same level. That means the buffalo is just as important as humans.
The buffalo also represents the west. Our medicine wheel is divided into four colours, where the buffalo sits in the west, the turtle in the east, the eagle in the south and the bear in the north. The east is where the sun rises, so that represents the beginning of life. The sun sets in the west, so that’s where our ancestors are.
The poppy is a significant flower in terms of remembrance, something I’ve practiced since I was a kid. Remembrance Day was always important to me and it became more so as I got older. I realized we are talking not just about the warriors but also about our ancestors, who are so important in Indigenous culture and ceremony. I’m alive because of them, and I strive to follow their teachings and practices. The poppies I drew represent all the good deeds of our ancestors. They fought for our safety, peace and justice. For me, the poppies signify life, not death.
The magnificent crimson colours of the poppies are also significant as they remind me of a sacred fire. When we do a Remembrance Day ceremony, we have a sacred fire and invite people to put tobacco down and say a few words for those ancestors, the ones that fought in all the wars. We make an offering and say thanks for their deeds. That’s something that’s passed down to our children.
Canadian history is marked by many difficult truths in relation to the treatment of Indigenous peoples. How would you like to see Canadians reflect and move forward?
It’s a difficult question. The first thing I think of is 215, the number of young people found buried at a former residential school site in Kamloops, BC. Canadians need to think about the history of this country. Their freedom came at the cost of our people, and it’s important that our story start to be told.
You can hear the truth and it’s not about guilt, it’s about breaking down systemic racism. The Indigenous narrative is yet to be told. It seeps out slowly because of stories like the residential school children, and now they have found many thousands of them. That story was long thought to be mythology by most Canadians, and breaking down that kind of mythology will be important to the transformation of this country.
When I think about my people, I think with my heart and how that’s connected to my family and community. Every day, we are shown that we only have a certain amount of time on this earth, so practicing “heart thinking” focuses on what we want to leave to the generations yet to come. Canadians opening up to this will be important in showing Indigenous people that they are now included in Canadian society.
As I grew up, I learned that my paintings being shared across the city were the reflection that young people needed to see. A new history is evolving because people want to see where this artwork is coming from and from which culture. My paintings and the stories they tell are my legacy and I hope that generations from now, my descendants and everyone can learn from them. It’s about understanding why Indigenous people are important in this world.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.