Metis Scholar & University of Calgary Professor Interviews Blackfeet Artist John Isaiah Pepion

John Isaiah Pepion, Blackfeet Plains Graphic Artist, was interviewed by Metis Scholar & University of Calgary Associate Professor Dr. Karlee Fellner. Read the in depth interview below!

You have this amazing range of art where you incorporate both traditional and contemporary images and motifs. I know that you hold the rights for some traditional Blackfoot art forms as well. What inspires you?

John: My culture inspires me. I started by asking questions. I asked elders and other artists from my community questions. Questions about designs and what they meant. My grandfather was a painted lodge owner. He owned an Antelope tipi. After his passing I started asking some elders how I could own his tipi. It took a while, but it led to me getting the rights and transfers to paint tipi’s plus owning my grandfather’s design. I also have a Museum Studies background. I wanted to be a curator. From time to time I visit collections/private collections of artifacts and art. Specifically from my tribe. I always wanted to get our designs right and accurate because growing up I didn’t know a thing. I didn’t know who I was. At one point I had designs going all over the place. Eventually I just wanted to do it right. Now I see my art as cultural preservation. I’m telling a story while preserving our culture.

You have had a lot of inspiration from the traditional arts that come from your people, from the elders, and from the people who have mentored you. What is your inspiration for your more contemporary art?

John: Issues we face as Indigenous People today. Some of my more contemporary pieces deal with situations we are facing now. We are trying to still heal and recover from the boarding school/residential school era. And then the issue with missing and murdered Indigenous women and even children plus men because it happens all over the United States and in Canada. It seems nobody has a clue and people just disappear. Our people are still fighting for our water rights. Also, I portray how we’re living now. Sometimes I’ll have people using cellphones or skateboards also satellites. Sometimes I add humor within my work.

And what’s the importance of the humor to you?

John: Humor is a big part of Indigenous culture. There is a comedian in every Indigenous family. Indigenous people always tease each other. My grandfather was very humorous. I come from a family of artists as well. And some of them purposely have humorous pieces. A notable family member was Ernie Pepion, he was a quadriplegic. People considered him the Napi (trickster) of art. I think humor is a big factor in healing as well.

I totally agree, I think that’s great. I hear it so much in what you have been talking about already – talking about all these things that inspire you – it’s so collective, like it’s such a collective inspiration that you’re working from. So, coming from an Indigenous perspective, that’s how we understand ourselves. We as individuals are always interconnected with our families, our communities, our nations, wider society, the natural world, the land, the sky, and the universe including metaphysical beings and energies … Which is a significant contrast from the mainstream understanding of the individual as an isolated individual right? In my perspective, this has a huge impact on both how art comes to manifest and the purpose and impact that that art can have on people and communities. So, I’m just wondering, for you, how do you see your art both emerging from and having an impact on your web of relationships, your universe of relationships?

John: I think we’re all going through a period within our communities from the United States to Canada where the time is now. We are reclaiming what was taken from us, whether it’s education, or our music, or our art. A lot of Indigenous people are getting their education, receiving their master’s degrees and doctorate degrees. People are starting to speak our language again, people are speaking fluent again, and people are starting to learn our sacred designs, and our art. Like you mentioned collectively, I easily connect with a lot of indigenous artists because we’re all on the same page. We are trying to help our communities most importantly heal our communities. As an artist it hasn’t always seemed that way but now it naturally fits. Deep down I feel good if I inspire somebody or help my community in some of way. At times I’ve helped my community by doing art workshops for free. As of now that’s how I can give back. Art is therapy. It heals people. Art has led me back to my community and culture. Blackfoot culture has really influenced me, and I feel like it has saved my life. I didn’t know what I was doing as an artist. I could draw. Now I feel I have a purpose. I’m always learning and growing. I think it’s great to be a part of movements that are going on in the Indigenous world right now.

I totally agree, and I love hearing you speak about the evolution of your art and of yourself as an artist. I think it’s inspirational and I’m just curious about when you do that work that you spoke about with the youth and younger people from your community. What do you bring into that to help them connect with what you’re talking about with the cultural pieces and their identity? How do you bring that into your workshops with the kids?

John: I ask the youth questions. Questions about what they want to be in the future. Sometimes I’m at a language immersion school, where they speak a native language, know their ceremonies, and culture. In different communities I bring in the idea that it’s ok to share plus it’s better to work with everybody. Sometimes we work on a large project together. I stress that it’s ok to express yourself, no matter who you are. And there’s never no wrong way. Most importantly it’s okay to make mistakes. That’s why I bring erasers. I explain to the youth that it’s ok to erase mistakes. It’s ok to grow and it’s okay to ask questions and learn. I just share my experiences with a story and tell them that its ok to express yourself on a piece of paper or canvas. Its art. I feel there are no limits to art.

I feel like that’s so liberating, particularly within the dominating mainstream culture which reinforces assimilation and homogenizing and trying to make everybody the same. Those mainstream art classes often dictate to the kids what they are and aren’t allowed to draw or create or paint, and how they can and cannot do it, so I think that’s a really strong and powerful message that you bring to really open up the space for young people to express who they are. So, I’m wondering…how does your art personally speak to who you are as Niitsitapi?

John: I feel that when you see may art you know it’s Niitsitapi, I’m heavily influenced by our medicine lodges, parfleche designs, our winter counts, and our war records. I admire rock art. Within my art I still have that old feeling but contemporary. Like my ancestors, I'm still telling a story. Telling stories through my art, whether it's funny, whether it's traumatic, whether it's sad, or whether it's historical. Sometimes re-telling a war story from long ago. Carrying on with coup stories. Today’s coups are graduating or surviving or making it back home.

I love that, because really those stories speak to survivance right? That idea of survivance comes from Gerald Vizenor, and it's about these stories that speak to our active presence, our continuation as Indigenous people despite attempted genocide on our people. That's powerful, especially the way that you talk about bringing those historical stories and images and inspirations in contemporary times and really bringing them together. And I think, you know, one thing that I absolutely appreciate about Indigenous art that integrates both those traditional and contemporary motifs is the conversation that it brings forward about Indigenous identity. There are so many colonial ideas out there about what it means to be Indigenous, right? I mean it ranges from, simplistic blood quantum definitions, like you’re only Indigenous if you’re enrolled in a tribe, to these other definitions of being too Indian or not Indian enough, or too traditional. There’s all these ideas out there about what it means to be Indigenous that really come from colonizing ideas, and our young people often end up in the cross fire of these conversations, and for all of us it can be hard to find ourselves and who we are with all these messages that are honestly, in my understanding, disconnected from our teachings and the teachings from the land. So, to me, your art really speaks to a contemporary Indigeneity and more so specifically, contemporary Niitsitapi identity. I wonder if you can talk a bit about what being Niitsitapi in our current context today means to you, and how your art speaks to you in relation to contemporary Niitsitapi identity?

John: There are a lot of people in my community who don’t know who they are, don't know where they’re from, don't know nothing about our culture, they don't know that it exists, don't even have any faith at all, they’re lost and seem not to care? I used to be the same way. I didn’t know who I was. We face a lot of negativity. There’s the who's more “Indianer” and basically, it’s the crabs in the bucket mentality. It has us divided as indigenous People. It has a huge impact, especially within Indigenous art too. So, for me purposely, yeah it is about identity, it's about the community I'm from, the land I'm from, it's about people I come from and about being proud of who I am and still being here and surviving. There's been hard times where I didn’t think I would make it out of hard situations or be here today. Talking about art – art today and being a Niitsitapi, going to our ceremonies, learning our language, learning our designs, it doesn't matter where we're at, whether it's Piikani, or Kainai, or whether its Siksika, or whether it’s here in Browning we are all Niitsitapi. Art unites people and it’s a good way to help break that cycle of divisions because a lot of Indigenous people we share the same symbology – we recognize the handprint worldwide. Piikani put it on the horses, as a sign for stealing horses or going to war, but nowadays, as a Niitsitapi I can’t go steal a bunch of horses or go to war. I’m too old to be a soldier now. I consider myself a warrior through art, I never used to, but I do now. I'm proud to tell people about who I am and why I do this kind of art. And proud of my community no matter what, because when people come into my community, they have this idea “you’re all alcoholics, uneducated,” and all this negative stuff. I always tell people from outside of my community to talk to our people and learn about who we are.

Yeah, I love that idea of being a warrior through art because it's so true, and it speaks to that contemporary warrior identity where it does look different than it did a couple hundred years ago, but it's just as powerful. I really appreciate in your art how you tackle some critically important issues and challenges that our communities face within themselves like lateral violence and things like that, as well as challenges that we face with mainstream society which you've spoken to a bit, so I'm just wondering if you can speak a bit about what it's like for you to create some of those more challenging pieces, as well as your experiences with how these pieces are received?

John: Sometimes when I do like to tackle some of the challenging issues like the MMIW issue or the oil issues or the Man-Camp issues or the water rights issues, I've noticed on social media that Native and non-Native people have commented negatively about my work, and it’s all of the same thing. They always say, "show me the facts, show me the proof." I get the facts and the proof about the issue by actually talking to activists, people that have been doing this all their lives, and I ask their opinions and ideas and ask them if it's ok for me to create a piece like that. And I still do that because it's hard. One, saying I'm an artist, and two, I don't really identify as an activist, but I have done some pieces that reveal a lot of issues and that helped with a lot of people that are fighting those issues. So, yeah, you just got to be brave, a lot of people are going to say a lot of things, so I must as an artist take criticism, negative criticism, and constructive criticism. Not everybody is going to be happy about your art and I have realized that but revealing these issues have also helped me think about things. Like here in Montana, like the boarding school issues, like the residential school. What really bothered me about it personally is how it affected my family, how my grandparents were ashamed of who they were, of speaking their language, and forced education upon my family. I'm thankful that I've got my bachelor’s degree, I went for my master’s degree but never finished. I never really knew who I was, I didn't know my language, I didn't know who my family was. Everybody was ashamed, and I still struggle with that. When I create these boarding school pictures, I think of my grandmother and the horror stories of boarding school. I think of the people that were stolen from their families. I think of everything that was taken from us. When I draw these pieces, it makes me feel proud because we are still here, we are still going to learn our language, we are still going to practice our ceremonies, and songs. We will never go away.

You have a strong message and theme in your work, which is great. I know what you’re speaking about because for myself, I do a lot of writing, and yeah, whether you’re doing it through art, through writing, through presentations, the truth can be hard for people sometimes. But like you’re saying, I think it's important. I know for myself and a lot of other people that I know, both Indigenous and our non-Indigenous allies, really do appreciate those pieces because they are highlighting critical and important issues that need to be attended to and that we need to face, as difficult as it can be, and I thank you for that.

John: Another major issue is MMIW. A lot of people are capitalizing off that right now. Native and Non-Native people are using MMIW for everything such as: pow-wows, fundraising, t-shirts, and etc. Are they giving back to the people that are affected by it, are they giving back to the families, or asking their permission?

Yes, absolutely! I couldn't agree with you more, I think that that's something that we see all the time and you know I can speak to that specifically in Canada because we tend to have more funding and things that are attached to whatever the current wave of social justice is. So, people sometimes hop on that right? Either for funding and grants and awards or even just for spotlight, and it's kind of about their ego in that way. So, I think that's a really important point that you raise especially right now with the issue of MMIW, the issue is so prominent, and I think we've been seeing a lot more of that capitalizing.

John: As an Indigenous male, I feel uncomfortable doing MMIW art. I'll ask family members of people affected by MMIW in my community. I have recently started asking questions on the internet because I'm not saying: hey, I'm going to represent that issue! MMIW is a real issue and it affects everybody. And I never realized that it affects my community, either people I know or people I'm related to. I’ve noticed too, like you said, a lot of people use MMIW to be in the spotlight or "look at me," so me personally, when I'm doing this sort of issue it isn’t about that, it's more of a healing element and addresses the issue because sometimes you have to. We don't want to, but we’re forced to. We must voice our opinion sometimes, especially being an Indigenous artist.

Yeah, absolutely! And I think the way that you’re speaking about it is a great way to go about it. It's about having those conversations with people and speaking from your experiences and your perspective, which can be powerful. And then doing that healing work like you’re talking about, so I think that's great! Going back to what you’re talking about, the healing and identity and these themes of survivance, all of the wellness and the therapy that comes out of this engaging and this process of creation in itself; going back to the question about how Indigenous art often transcends that individual orientation that characterizes more mainstream, what are your hopes for how your art might specifically benefit your community and the generations coming up behind you?

John: Everybody has this perception that I'm this big-time famous artist, but I'm just like everybody else. I struggle, but for me art is therapy and it is for a lot of people whether you’re Indigenous or not. It's healing me and I share those ideas with others to help release some of the stuff we keep inside. When people see my art, I just want them to be inspired and I'm from the same place that they’re from, I came from the same situations they’re in, that there are possibilities, and yes you can make it. You can still pursue your dreams and be somebody.

Yeah and I think that's so powerful and I know for a fact that you've had opportunities, I'm sure plenty of opportunities, to go and live elsewhere and be elsewhere. I'm just wondering if you can speak a little bit about your vision to stay in your home community.

John: I lived off and on the reservation. What I miss most when I’m away from home is the mountains. The mountains keep me grounded. I come from a huge family. Most of us live by each other. We celebrate birthdays and holidays together. When I was attending college, I missed that togetherness of family. At some point living away from my family and the reservation I didn’t know who I was. Growing up I never participated in ceremony and I never had transfers or rights to do anything. I never really knew of Piikani culture. Eventually I returned home and started attending ceremony. What's keeps me here is ceremony also knowledge plus continuous learning. I’m forever a student of Piikani culture. I do get burnt out on the long and hard winters, especially if you’re burning wood. I love urban areas, I love cities like Calgary, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Albuquerque. But prefer the private and quiet countryside. If I ever move away, I'll always come back for our ceremonies.

Yeah and I mean that's so powerful because my understanding of the word Indigenous is that it means of the land, and that connection with place and land totally resonates with me, and I completely get it. And that desire to be there because everything is with and in the land. You know, the language, the ceremony, like you’re talking about. The traditional art forms, I mean they all come from that place, so that's really inspiring.

John: When it comes to ceremonies I’m still learning. I would never claim that I know it all. I'm thankful, when people do turn to me for questions, and especially when it comes to painted lodges. I'm a strong believer in Piikani culture, it has helped me become a strong person. Within our Indigenous communities a lot of people are giving up and committing suicide plus others are turning to the streets and never coming back. They are always in my prayers because I was there once.

Yep, absolutely. And that's where our strength is – in the land and in our cultures and traditions. That's so awesome. Well is there anything else you'd like to add about yourself or your art John?

John: I'd just like to say that there's no rules of being an artist. If there are rules in this art world its okay to bend them. I’m forever learning and glad to be part of this Indigenous art community.

That's great! So inspirational!



Dr. Karlee Fellner is Cree/Métis from central Alberta, and is an Associate Professor in Indigenous Education Counselling Psychology at the University of Calgary. Karlee’s work focuses on community-based Indigenous approaches to wellness, and centering Indigenous ways of life, including culture and language, in supporting healthy communities. Since 2016, Karlee has worked with Elders and knowledge holders of the Blackfoot Confederacy to collaboratively design the two community-based interdisciplinary Master of Education topics, Poo’miikapii: Niitsitapi Approaches to Wellness and Niitsitapisinni: Real People’s Way of Life.  Karlee is passionate about the role the arts play in community healing and wellness, and in nurturing vibrant contemporary Indigeneities.