An Interview with Anishinaabe Artist, Luke Swinson: Reclaiming, re-discovering, and reviving his culture, one illustration at a time

This article was originally published in the Obiter Dicta on April 7, 2021.

Emily Papsin is the Co-Editor in Chief of the Obiter Dicta and a JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

Growing up, Luke didn’t feel Indigenous at all. Most of his family lived on or near the reserve on Scugog Island quite close to Lindsay, Ontario, where he was born. “We’d go out to res very often, but it never felt like an Indigenous community, it was just my family,” he tells me as we sit on opposite sides of a picnic bench on a cold November morning in front of his studio in downtown Kitchener. Luke and his sister are members of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation, but only started to take reconnecting to their culture seriously about five years ago. “[In] Kitchener, honestly, we’re pretty invisible,” he says of the Indigenous population nearby, “unless you attended a local university, it’s hard for young Indigenous people to connect.” He found other Indigenous people his age mostly by fluke, through his fledgling art career, and through a one-off, local Indigenous-only archaeological digging job. Since then, he and his sister have been on a journey of reclaiming their culture and sorting through all that was lost.

We discuss a familiar history that explains how his Indigeneity fell into the background.  Luke and his sister are only learning their traditions later in life, as they never got the chance to learn them any earlier. “I don’t blame anyone for how we were raised. My parents were loving and supportive, but it’s tough, the intergenerational trauma is a tough thing” he tells me as an explanation for his lack of exposure. Luke’s tone has a gentle bluntness about it that lacks any resentment while discussing realities that would no doubt inspire an understandable amount. 

The push towards his own identity is tough to nail down, but from what I understood, it started with a bear. Luke has been an artist since high school, but never had a style of his own. He had been exposed to art through his father, and because of other well-known Indigenous artists like Norval Morrisseau, but he still felt insecure that the only reason he was doing art was the fact that he was decent at it. The deeper meaning, that at least colloquially, most artists seem to need was lacking in his work. That changed, however, when he drew for the first time with his culture in mind as his inspiration. He decided to draw a bear, and now he tells me that “bears come up a lot in my art now, and that definitely means something.” He describes the feeling that most people look for when they’ve decided to take a leap, and realize with immense relief that their wings are properly attached. “It was […] this overwhelming feeling of ‘this is what I should be doing, and this is who I am and it’s something I have been suppressing for most of my life.’”

I asked him about that suppression, and whether or not it was conscious. He said it wasn’t something he had done actively, and that instead it stemmed from a lack of exposure, and the internalization of his identity. It is hard to actively suppress something that isn’t even part of your self-concept. Luke explains that aside from his family, he didn’t know a single Indigenous person. “In terms of my Indigeneity, I knew it existed, but it was rooted on Scugog Island with the rest of my family, and it wasn’t here.” He says this with the same gentleness that I realize is a hallmark of his Indigenous rediscovery, too. Lacking from our conversation was any sense that he could have done or known any better. There is simply a sense of prevailing satisfaction and acceptance at the fact he has gotten to where he is.

As we spoke, Luke touched on facets of reclaiming Indigeneity that I hadn’t heard anyone speak about before. He said that his father struggles with learning how to feel worthy of reclaiming the Indigenous culture he had lost. I was surprised, but in hindsight, that was probably naïve. I asked if this sense of unworthiness was common when reconnecting to Indigenous roots. “I think for all of us there is [that sense of unworthiness]. It’s tough, this stigma, that if you don’t look or talk a certain way then you’re not Indigenous. […] there’s an insecurity that we don’t belong in this community.” Thankfully, he followed that with the acknowledgement of that being more of a perception, than a reality. “The more we interact with the community, the more we realize that’s not the case.”

Public Perception 

Luke says that he is “shocked at how well-received [his art] is.” This is true of both the broader Indigenous and non-Indigenous community, and the relatively conservative Germanic community that makes up the majority of Kitchener-Waterloo. The reason behind his art’s accessibility is a simple one; “one thing that I set out to do in my art was to make it clear that I was learning, which I think is super relatable for people in the wider Indigenous community.” Still, as his online presence grew, he felt an immense pressure on himself to be “more Indigenous than [he was], and to know more than [he does].” Those competing pressures of that feeling of unworthiness juxtaposed with the need to represent something that he is still discovering for himself could be debilitating, but Luke is optimistic. He tells me that generally, people seem to see what he is doing, and appreciate it.

Future Outlook

Luke admits he’s not much of a planner. He went from basically not having a career, to doing lots of work in a short amount of time. Kitchener has given him a fair amount of work in spite of the city’s general hesitancy about him early in his career. That is especially true since the city figured out that the pandemic wasn’t going to stop all public art from being possible. A quick lap around the city’s downtown will show you a mural of a crane the size of a school bus, and a series of colourful animals painted onto the sidewalk that are hard to miss. While he admits he is still early on in his career, and he has yet to choose what his favourite things to do are, some of his preferences are clear. Public art and murals are a favourite. “Original acrylic paintings on canvas? Not my thing!”

As for bigger goals, Luke wants to “create an Indigenous art community even just within the city.” He makes special mention of a space for Indigenous queer artists as well, in that “if I don’t feel like there’s space for me, they certainly don’t.” It’s also not all positive. A few years ago, he and some other Indigenous artists tried to coordinate a space for their community through art gallery curators, business owners, and local representatives, but that had a “rather dramatic ending.” Luke’s answer to that is that they’re just going to do it themselves. He is realistic about the resistance of the city to change, but still finds a way to be kind. “There are good people in the city. The system is against us, but not necessarily the people within the system.”

As our conversation wound down, I asked him why he thought art was the way forward. He answered that it all comes down to representation, and that when he was growing up, a huge part of why he didn’t feel Indigenous is that he just didn’t see it anywhere. “I feel like it’s such a special thing for me to be able to create public art that is so clearly Indigenous, for maybe those kids here that feel the same way. That, oh, there’s other people like me, and that’s something I can be proud of.”

Luke’s art can be found at https://lukeswinsonart.com/ or on Instagram @lukeswinsonart.

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