by Shelley Mantei
(ANNews) – Art training and engagement in the arts is one of the most powerful, culturally appropriate means to inspire Indigenous people with justice system conviction histories. Art instils a sense of purpose and develop self-confidence, esteem, and most importantly, an identity other than as a convict.
Re-entry from prison poses a host of overwhelming problems, such as, finding suitable housing, transportation, and a job that pays a living wage. Making art can provide solace from those challenges and possibly a career, if “returning” artists — a term advocates often use in place of “formerly incarcerated or former inmates,” which carries stigma — find the means, mentorship and money to make and sell their creations.
One social enterprise providing an Indigenous arts platform is the Circle of Eagles Lodge Society. It operates Halfway Houses in Vancouver, BC on the Coast Salish territory to assist Indigenous Brothers and Sisters leaving Canadian federal institutions and those dislocated from society. For over 50 years, they have provided supports to reintegrate their clients into communities by providing men’s and women’s housing, cultural healing, employment readiness, and life skills.
Many of the Lodges’ residents are talented artists and craftspeople, with limited resources who are not well connected with distribution channels and markets. They began thinking of ways to help these artists sell their work as a means of easing re-entry into the community. This gave birth to: Circle of Eagles Trading Post.
“The narrative of people’s lives is destroyed when crime and violence happens,” said Merv Thomas, CEO of the Circle of Eagles Lodge Society and Circle of Eagles Trading Post. “Restorative justice asks us to come together and think about what forgiveness would look like, and art has the redemptive power to enable that.”
Circle of Eagles Trading Post is an online and retail artisan crafted store operated by the Circle of Eagles Lodge Society. Together they create career opportunities for their clients to participate in the local economy by introducing their artwork at fair value. The Trading Post acts as an intermediary connecting these artists with the marketplace. It is also a source of fairly priced arts supplies alongside cultural and traditional materials that are difficult to source in the urban environment.
Indigenous people represent approximately 5% of the total population across Canada, yet the portion they represent of federal incarnation has reached new historic highs surpassing 30%. The pace is set for Indigenous people to comprise 33% of the total federal inmate population in the next three years. For women and girls, the figures are even more alarming. 42% of all incarcerated women are Indigenous, and 60% of all girls in custody are Indigenous. (2020). Since April 2010 Indigenous inmate population has increased by 43.4% while non-Indigenous custody has declined by 13.7%. These statistics also represent the ratio of Indigenous people that need the necessary supports to build sustainable careers and develop the networks they lack after leaving prison.
Art helps lessen emotional and financial burdens in order to make re-assimilation much more feasible. To truly break the cycle and see ex-offenders become a part of the community when they are released, they need to have a way to make an income. With the income from selling their art, they are more likely and able to succeed in their new communities.
“The Trading Post’s most important goal is to put money in the hands of artists. Every purchase from our store directly empowers the artisans with a reliable place to sell their work and lift themselves from poverty,” Thomas shares. “In addition, one of the main reasons for reoffending is because former inmates cannot find employment when they are released, but our programs break the cycle and empowers our Brothers and Sisters with opportunities.”
Many Indigenous incarcerated artists credit art-making as part of their healing and coping inside prisons; this healing is a continued practice in their reintegration. Participating in creative activities such as drawing, painting, and creating other artwork has been shown to improve mental health and proven to help people communicate experiences and traumas.
Many returning artists find success through creative outlets that can help them reclaim mental balance, to heal, gain a sense of purpose, and become well-adjusted adults who can positively contribute to the community.
To learn more about Circle of Eagles Trading Post, visit circleofeaglestradingpost.ca