Digging Roots First Peoples Festival Présence autochtone

Digging Roots

Montreal’s First Peoples Festival mounts a cultural open house through Aug. 18

The 32nd annual event, aka Présence Autochtone, presents some of the best in Indigenous music and film, as well as dance, theatre, circus and visual art in Place des Festival and Cinéma du Musée.

The summer of Montreal festival comebacks continues with the First Peoples Festival, aka Présence autochtone, taking place in Place des Festivals from Aug. 9 to 18.

The festival presents some of the best in Indigenous music and cinema from here and elsewhere, rounding out the programming with dance, theatre, circus and visual art.

“The program is so varied,” says Xavier Watso, who is Abenaki from Odanak, Quebec, and the host of this 32nd edition of the festival. “There’s something for everyone in it.”

Watso is a high school teacher, proud Two-Spirit Indigenous activist and a TikToker bringing the culture to over 40,000 followers on the video platform. It is the energy of young Indigenous people such as himself that this festival seeks to celebrate and promote.

“I’m lucky to have a platform to be able to help other people discover the festival who might not have had access to it in the sense that they know it exists, but they don’t think it’s meant for them. I’m in a position where I can invite them to participate.”

And the participation of those who are not Indigenous is welcome and needed — just like during powwow season, another type of event Watso says settlers often express uncertainty about being “allowed” to attend.

“Some people ask the same question about the festival, they’re worried it’s not meant for them. But the answer is yes, of course, it’s important to come, discover and appreciate, because it’s in those moments that there’s a cultural appreciation, as opposed to cultural appropriation,” he says.

Xavier Watso, hosting the 32nd annual Montreal First Peoples Festival

In a schedule with over 50 films, there’s a lot to choose from. Some short, others feature length, and there’s a mix between documentary and fiction. Most of the screenings will take place at Cinéma du Musée in the Museum of Fine Arts. 

Some of the standouts include two feature-length Bolivian films that have been well received at film festivals around the world: El gran movimiento and Utame. Both screenings will be Montreal premieres, bringing contemporary concerns and realities of Bolivia’s majority Indigenous population to the forefront. 

A notable local production is Caroline Monnet’s Bootlegger, starring Devery Jacobs of Kahnawake. The film takes place in a northern Indigenous village in Quebec, where its residents are debating whether allowing the sale of alcohol in their dry community will address the violence and underage drinking that plagues them. Generations, cultures and intentions clash as the community envisions a future of self-determination.

The documentary Mary Two-Axe Earley: I Am Indian Again presents an intimate depiction of a woman behind a major change for the rights of Indigenous women. Two-Axe Earley was a leading force behind the push to return Indian status to women who had married non-status men, and she hailed from Montreal’s neighbouring community of Kahnawake. 

There’s also Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy, which chronicles the Kainai Nation’s uphill battle against addiction and the culturally sensitive ways prevention workers are trying to help users in the community. The film makes a compelling argument for harm-reduction approaches to addiction and charts a path forward for addiction treatment in Indigenous communities. 

Place des Festivals will come to life during Présence autochtone with a full schedule of headlining evening shows and more laid back, celebratory and traditional programming during the day. 

The main music attractions kick off on Aug. 10 with acclaimed Inuit/Mohawk singer Beatrice Deer, whose “inuindie” sound and Inuktitut singing were most recently heard on her 2021 album SHIFTING, and Anishinaabe musician Leonard Summer, known for fusing many styles with his distinct sound. Another highlight on the main stage is the Juno award-winning duo Digging Roots, performing on Aug. 12.

“These artists are very involved in furthering Indigenous issues. They’re not just here to sing nice and pretty; they have a message,” says André Dudemaine, artistic director for the festival and the founder of Land InSights. 

On Aug. 11, SiriusXM presents this year’s edition of Musique Nomade’s annual show, presenting a full schedule of established and emerging Indigenous musicians. Some on the list are Matiu and Native Mafia Family.

For visual arts, renowned musician Buffy Sainte-Marie will have work displayed along Ste-Catherine Street, allowing viewers to see a new side to the singer through her less known visual body of work. There will also be art exhibited at the Maison du développement durable (50 Ste-Catherine W.) and projected onto the front of the Grande Bibliothèque. ■

This article was originally published in the August 2022 issue of Cult MTL.

For the complete list of First Peoples Festival events and ticket information, please visit Présence Autochtone website.

For more, please visit the Arts & Life section.