Oji-Cree Nativity painting

Jackson Beardy (1944–1984) was an Anishinaabe artist born on the Garden Hill Reserve in Manitoba. He belonged to the Woodland school of art [previously], adopting its distinctive style of Indigenous expression characterized by thick black outlines and vivid, compartmentalized color. His paintings draw on Ojibwe and Cree oral traditions and often express cosmological and spiritual concepts.

Nativity by Jackson Beardy
Jackson Beardy (Oji-Cree, 1944–1984), The Nativity, 1975. Acrylic on canvas, 121.1 × 172.1 cm. Collection of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. © Concacan Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Beardy is one of twenty Canadian artists commissioned by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1975 to convey the Christian message using whatever idiom they wished. Beardy chose to portray the Virgin Mary pregnant with the Word, the sun’s fire pouring into her and yet she is not consumed. He provided the following artist’s statement:

It is my personal belief that a messenger from the Great Spirit came to earth in the form of His image after Him through a virgin birth in unrecorded history. Through this man, knowledge was passed on to man from the Great Spirit. Many of the teachings of this man have been kept by word of mouth through the ages by the elders of all tribes.

We see the virgin mother-to-be holding on to an embryo connected to the sun symbol (the Great Spirit) [center] who has deemed it necessary to send his messenger to his people. The mother is also connected to Mother Earth, who is nursing her [see the breast shape below]. She too is connected by a lifeline to the sun symbol. Around her are all the orders of creatures who come to see the messenger. He is born to explain their existence, [to restore] harmony between humanity and the elements, physically, mentally, and spiritually.

On the other side of the sun symbol we see an elder in prayer, ritually offering a bowl filled with sacred things. You can see the sun symbol is resting on his hunched frame, bearing him down with doubts, fear, depression, and all the ills of his time, his back to the very miracle he is praying for. It will take time for all to fully comprehend this phenomenon which has come to pass.

The four semicircles represent the elements of the air: snow, rain, tornadoes, heat. The moon [the blue circle] is painted above the elder. We regard the moon as our Grandmother who keeps vigil over all creatures during the night.

Though titled The Nativity, the painting is actually a prebirth scene, as Jesus is still in utero. Beardy shows the Christ child taking root in Mary’s womb (having been conceived by the power of the Great Spirit) and growing to full term as people and animals alike long for his arrival. They groan, they watch, they wrestle and seek. Creator Sets Free—as the First Nations Version of the New Testament translates the name Jesus—is almost here.

(Note: There’s a flipped version of this image floating around online. I confirmed with the CCCB that the file posted here, which I licensed directly from them, represents the correct orientation.)

Leaning into that Advent yearning, here is a performance of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” in Ojibwe—“Ondaas, Ondaas, Emaanooyen”—performed by E Halverson:

Now, I have a crowdsourcing request: I am searching for Advent or Christmas songs originally written in Indigenous Canadian or Native American languages, preferably by an Indigenous person. If you know of any, please let me know in the comments below, or in an email. Thanks!

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