Filmmaker Steve Sxwithul'txw aims to celebrate First Nations talent with an Indigenous Walk of Fame in the heart of Victoria.
Walking the talk
There is only one Indigenous person on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame: Jay Silverheels, a Mohawk actor who played Tonto in the original Lone Ranger.
On Canada’s Walk of Fame, only three Indigenous people are featured.
These facts stood out to lmmaker and Aboriginal Peoples Television Network Producer Steve Sxwithul'txw (pronounced Swee-thult).
How can a demographic so inextricable from stories and visual art be so shut out of mainstream recognition when it comes to the dominant medium for visual storytelling?
So he envisions an Indigenous Walk of Fame be created to recognize and honour the accomplishments of First Nations people in Canada.
"With fillmmaking, let's go back in history. Indigenous people are storytellers," he says. "Our history, our ways, our names, our cultures have all been passed down verbally. And now we're [using] the tools of today."
In fact, the connection between Indigenous Peoples and film is so distinct that some frame Indigenous cinema as its own genre.
"When I think of Maori and Sami cinema, I think of all of it as part of the same genre," storied Cherokee documentarian, producer and actor Heather Rae told Muskrat magazine in 2015.
"It’s essentially the storytelling tradition from the world’s original culture in its modern form."
Canada’s Walk of Fame acknowledges the achievements and accomplishments of Canadians and features a series of maple leaf-shaped stars embedded in 13 blocks of sidewalks in Toronto. Since 1998, 168 Canadians have been inducted into the walk, including athletes, coaches, actors, directors, writers and producers of movies, television and stage, singers, songwriters and musicians, playwrights, authors, comedians, cartoonists, and models.
The Hollywood Walk of Fame is made up of more than 2,600 terrazzo and brass stars embedded in the sidewalks along 15 blocks of Hollywood Boulevard in California. This walk of fame includes actors, directors and producers in movies, TV, radio and
live productions. Special stars recognize contributions from corporate entities, service organizations and special honorees.
The lack of First Nations representation on these mainstream walks of fame (just four individuals out of more than 2,700 names) spurred Sxwithul'txw—who has been in the industry since 2007 and has his own production company, Kwassen Productions—to create a walk of fame by and for Indigenous Peoples, rather than waiting for settler culture to acknowledge their work.
After gathering input, he expanded his initial scope beyond the screen arts to also include sports, music and the arts.
Sxwithul'txw originally pitched the idea for an Indigenous walk to city council in Duncan, B.C., where he grew up, but the now-Victoria resident decided the attraction needed a bigger and more central home.
In November 2017 he went before Victoria City Council to do a five minute presentation on his idea.
The motion was put forward formally by three councillors at the next meeting and passed pending approval from local First Nations, which Sxwithul'txw had already sought.
“I'm from the Island, so bringing it to Songhees and Esquimalt was very simple for me,” he explains. “I follow protocol, I know the ways of our people.”
Sxwithul'txw, a member of Vancouver Island's Penelakut Tribe, says that due to his track record, he received the trust and support of Songhees Chief Robert Sam and late Esquimalt First Nation Chief Andy Thomas, who died in April at age 71. Sxwithul'txw is hoping for a $400,00 budget for the first year and an ongoing budget for following years. He envisions the Walk of Fame starting in Bastion Square and running along Government Street.
Some of his initial ideas for the first round of inductees are: Alanise Obomsawin (longtime documentary filmmaker); Gino Odjick (former Vancouver Canuck); Buffy St. Marie (singer); the late Chief Dan George (actor); and Tantoo Cardinal (actor). The process will likely involve a nomination system and selection committee.
Interestingly, Cardinal is among hundreds of people who last month were invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the academy behind the Oscars.
The Cree/Métis actor told the CBC her invitation represents a shift toward increased cultural diversity at the star-studded Hollywood event.
"There has been a cry out for more diversity at the Oscars and kind of all over in our society, actually," Cardinal said in an interview with CBC Radio. "There is a lot imbalance that has to be looked at."
Cardinal, who has been awarded the Order of Canada and has received numerous accolades for her contributions to the Indigenous community, said the invitation is an important symbolic gesture.
Indigenous People have been breaking barriers as filmmakers, actors and storytellers, and Hollywood is starting to take notice, she said.
"Our voices have to be brought forward. It's happening and that's very exciting, so this just another part of that movement."
Meanwhile, the Victoria walk of fame project's further development is now in the hands of the City Family, a body consisting of Songhees, Esquimalt and Victoria council representatives. The City Family began in 2017 as part of the City of Victoria's effort toward reconciliation.
"The City Family structure was based on some of the practices and traditions of the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations rather than a city committee structure and how we usually do business," explains Coun. Jeremy Loveday, one of the initial supporters of the walk.
He says the City Family has been a valuable way of applying a new lens to the city's institutional norms, putting Victoria's brief tenure in the region's long history into perspective, and "making sure that this reconciliation lens is applied to all those decisions and projects going forward to make sure that we're going forward in a respectful way." Sxwithul'txw checks in regularly on the walk project's progress, but doesn’t anticipate laying any stars until 2020.
In the meantime, he’s continuing to seek funding and support for when it comes time to nance the construction and produce events, alert the media and manufacture the stars themselves.
He says he’s spoken with Victoria-Beacon Hill MLA Carole James and federal NDP MP Murray Rankin, who passed word of the project on to both Canada’s justice minister and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
While the walk is in the works, Sxwithul'txw is keeping busy with his own career. He has approached CBC with the idea for a First Nations scripted program, which he feels the network and other mainstream outlets were not ready for 10 or even five years ago. But many media sources are beginning to seek and support Indigenous content, he says, and he's cautiously optimistic.
"We [Indigenous Peoples] don't trust a lot of people because we've been burned so many times," he explains.
But Sxwithul'txw is hopeful that a new paradigm is beginning that the next generation can benefit from.
"I tell all of our youth, ‘You are in the perfect position if you decide to excel and promote yourself and find expertise in certain areas... you will be sought after.’ And that's something that our people are not used to. I'm getting used to it, I love it, and that's the way it should be."
It's for these young people that Sxwithul'txw believes the walk will make a real difference. Making the creative industries and mainstream culture as a whole more welcoming for young Indigenous storytellers is much of what drives him to push the project forward.
"Our people need role models," he says. "We've been oppressed, we've been put in residential schools, we've been nickel-and-dimed. We've had a rough, rough time in the 150 years we've been a part of this country. We've had little or no role models in multiple areas.
"And when the youth, our next generation, my kids’ generation, starts seeing that, 'Hey that person's Indigenous, hey
they're from our territory, or hey they're Cree,' you start associating with that.
"We want them to be proud of who they are and their heritage—much different than my generation who grew up with a lot of racism and the scars of the past."
One challenge when assembling the Indigenous Walk of Fame will be honouring past achievements without replicating
the harmful environments in which they occurred. After all, the film industry these artists succeeded in is the same one that sometimes marginalized, tokenized and misrepresented them and their cultures.
“It would be best [if] there was excellent gender representation in those noted on the Walk of Fame—women, two spirit, queer, and men—and balance in that representation is achieved,” says Waaseyaa’sin Christine Sy, a faculty lecturer in the University of Victoria’s (UVic) Gender Studies Department.
Sxwithul'txw believes the fact that the walk will be created for and by Indigenous Peoples will ensure that it reflects their own priorities and values.
Taking it to the streets
Reasserting an Indigenous presence on Victoria’s streets with a First Nations Walk of Fame is especially significant, as many of those streets themselves have been criticized for celebrating colonial injustice.
The majority of main roadways honour early colonizers such as James Cook, Richard Blanshard, and James Douglas. Most controversially, the name of Joseph Trutch, B.C.’s first Lieutenant Governor, adorns a short Fairfield Street, and until recently, a residence building at the University of Victoria.
As the colony’s chief commissioner of land and works in the mid-1800s, Trutch not only vocalized and promoted racist contempt for the Indigenous Peoples of the province, but also aggressively reduced their lands. Arguing that the reserve lands’ original occupants had no right to them and made no real use of them, he carried out a series of unilateral reductions that took away the majority of what had been allocated by treaties signed by Governor James Douglas.
A movement to remove his name from the UVic residence hall began in December 2016, led by Lisa Schnitzler, a student living in residence at Trutch Hall.
“In one of my Indigenous Studies tutorials, I brought up the fact that his name remains on campus,” Schnitzler says. “And my TA [Teaching Assistant] replied, ‘So what are you going to do about it?' ”
Schnitzler assembled research on Trutch’s past and submitted a proposal to UVic in January 2017. The name was removed in June 2017.
In January 2018, a discussion of whether to rename Victoria’s Trutch Street drew heated debate online, with some commenters arguing that changing historical place labels was unnecessary or amounted to erasure.
Panelist and UVic Geography Associate Professor Reuben Rose- Redwood argues that the perception of colonial and white supremacist place names as historical and normal is part of their insidious impact on place.
"These colonial myths have literally been inscribed into the very fabric of the landscape itself and thus appear to be part of the natural order of things," he says. "Yet they are actually a comparatively recent imposition of the colonial era when compared to Indigenous place names that have been in use in this region since time immemorial."
At a community information event at Cook Street Activity Centre, the atmosphere was mostly thoughtful and supportive,
with most vocal attendees either seeming in favour of the street name change or being won over to its merits after listening to the arguments being presented.
Sxwithul'txw, who lives in the area, was at the event supporting panelist Joan Morris, a Songhees elder. He says he came away pleased with the support.
“What I saw there was quite amazing, I saw more non-Indigenous people pushing for this than I did Indigenous people. And you know what, it’s about time. It’s people understanding the true history of what is still occurring.”
Coun. Loveday feels that although progress is still slow, "there's more people than ever who are aware that an injustice happened here and a lot of work needs to happen to move forward."
He cites what was known as Mount Douglas—now renamed PKOLS, meaning "White Head" in SENĆOŦEN dialect—as an example of how decolonizing place names has led to settlers better understanding regional history and their relationship to it.
"I think many people when they come here they're interested in [the full context of the region]. They want to know the
real history, not just the glossed-over, you know, ‘pretty inner harbour’."
The next candidate for change is likely the statue of John A. MacDonald outside Victoria City Hall.
Coun. Ben Issit, another of Victoria council’s original three supporters of the Indigenous Walk of Fame proposal, cautions not to think of the walk as an adequate counterbalance to the area's colonial markings.
“Denaming or renaming really focuses on the conduct of those figures who are recognized in street names or place names or statues. Commemorating the Indigenous heritage of the community,
I think that's a distinct question and that should proceed irrespective of any decisions around denaming.”
Ultimately, the intent of the walk of fame is to celebrate Indigenous excellence on its own terms. That celebration is something Sxwithul'txw believes will powerfully assert First Nations’ pride to both settlers and themselves.
"That pride that we're going to instill, whether these people are past or present being honoured, is that stepping stone to say, 'hey, we have a say. We have land, we have pride, we have our traditions, we have our cultures, and we want mainstream society
to understand that we're not a stepping stone for your projects [such as pipelines].'
"We're telling our own stories and we're going to move forward positively with our youth and with the guidance of our elders.