The Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. (PNIAI) was one of the first independently organized, self-managed Aboriginal artists’ collectives and cultural advocacy groups in Canada. Established in the early 1970s in Winnipeg, Manitoba, by seven independent Indigenous painters, PNIAI had a formative and enduring influence on the development of contemporary Indigenous art practice, its critical acceptance and public appreciation. The PNIAI initiated an era of increasing activism and empowerment for artists and cultural workers of Aboriginal ancestry across the country.
Though diverse in their painting styles and cultural backgrounds, the founders of PNIAI were united in their determination to advocate for inclusion, recognition, and access to cultural funding for contemporary Aboriginal art and artists in terms equivalent to what was enjoyed by other contemporary non-Indigenous Canadian artists. Their influence and effort paved the way for later Aboriginal arts organizations such as the Society of Canadian Artists of Native Ancestry (SCANA) and the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective (ACC), and helped broaden national awareness of contemporary Indigenous art in Canada.
The members of Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. were Jackson Beardy, Eddy Cobiness, Alex Janvier, Norval Morrisseau, Daphne Odjig, Carl Ray and Joseph Sanchez. The group started with a small circle of artists who were dissatisfied and frustrated at the lack of exhibition opportunities for Aboriginal art within the contemporary gallery system, but their interests quickly matured into a critique of prevailing assumptions, then common in Canada, about Aboriginal peoples and their art. The general attitude in Canada at the time seemed to be that Aboriginal art, if it had ever existed, was a thing of the past, consisting primarily of handicrafts and ethnographic artifacts, which had no place in a contemporary fine art gallery but should be most appropriately displayed in a natural history museum.
Three original members of Professional Native Indian Artists Inc., Jackson Beardy, Eddy Cobiness and Joseph Sanchez, lived in or near Winnipeg in 1971 and often met informally with Daphne Odjig at her print shop and gallery, Odjig Indian Prints of Canada at 331 Donald Street, which had become a welcoming gathering place for artistic and political discussion. The group talked about their professional and aesthetic aspirations, compared their experiences as outsiders to the Canadian gallery establishment, and their various encounters with institutional barriers. They discussed strategies for bringing about change and decided they would be more effective as a collective than as individuals. To this end they wrote to other Aboriginal artists across the country inviting them to join in the struggle for self-determination and professional advancement. Three artists, Alex Janvier from Alberta, and Carl Ray and Norval Morrisseau from Ontario responded and joined the group. The seven members formalized their association in 1972 as Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. Shortly after, following a number of successful professional group exhibitions of their work, reporter Gary Scherbain dubbed them the Indian Group of Seven in an article in the Winnipeg Free Press. The name stuck.
The Indian Group of Seven had lofty goals. Their incorporation papers of 1973 emphasized the importance of attaining professional accreditation for both the individual artists and the group. They hoped to achieve national and international recognition through public exhibitions at major art centres, and planned to use part of the money raised by sales of their work to wholly or partially fund mentorship opportunities and other incentives for young or emerging Indigenous artists across Canada. They also hoped to establish bursaries, awards, scholarship funds, and other educational programs to assist in the development of amateur Aboriginal artists. Aware that national and international art exhibitions, lectures, workshops and conferences on Aboriginal art and culture were essential to establishing the kind of cultural shift they were seeking, the group also committed to developing educational activities and facilities for the study of Aboriginal art and culture.
Though many of these goals proved unattainable, the group’s written commitment to offer moral and financial support to individual artists while simultaneously lobbying for Indigenous contemporary art in general, served as a seminal strategic model for Aboriginal arts organizations to come.
Achievements and Legacy
The artists of the Indian Group of Seven voiced their concerns about the survival of Indigenous philosophies, aesthetics, and nationhood at a time when such ideas were not current or supported by the major cultural or political institutions of the day. The group brought the work of contemporary Indigenous artists to the public’s attention using strategies that challenged the restrictive categorizations of the mainstream art world. Though their progress was limited and 40 years later artists and curators of Aboriginal ancestry still struggle against many of the same institutional and personal barriers, Professional Native Indian Artists Inc., which disbanded in 1975, modelled an organizational structure and collective vision that continues to offer support and inspiration to new generations of Indigenous cultural workers.