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'We are all related': Spiritual elder Philip Cote uses art to tell Indigenous stories

Last Updated Jun 15, 2020 at 2:03 pm EST

Artist and spiritual elder Philip Cote in a supplied photo.

June is National Indigenous History Month. It is a time for all Canadians — Indigenous, non-Indigenous and newcomers — to reflect upon and learn the history, sacrifices, cultures, contributions, and strength of First Nations, Inuit and Metis people. Throughout the month of June, CityNews will profile Indigenous people, and share their stories and voices, so that we can celebrate the difference they have made in their communities and to our country.

June 15: Today, we celebrate Philip Cote


Philip Cote is a Young Spiritual Elder, Indigenous artist, activist, educator, historian and traditional wisdom keeper. He is a member of Moose Deer Point First Nation: Shawnee, Lakota, Potawatomi, and Ojibway. Cote received his Indigenous name Noodjmowin (The Healer) in 1979 from Joe Couture, an Indigenous pioneer in his own right.

Cote explains that as a Young Spiritual Elder he has “a deep understanding of our Indigenous cosmology and ceremonial protocols. I bring understanding to those who seek spiritual advice and I am gifted to see and connect people to their Indian names and colours.”

As an Indigenous painter and muralist, the purpose of Cote’s research is to unearth, and reveal, his cultural experience and knowledge of signs of Indigenous symbols, language and interpretation. He believes it is important to share his knowledge both orally and through his art.

“I felt proud about being ‘Indian’ for the first time.”

“Something my father showed me one Sunday afternoon that changed me. He was reading the paper and there was an article about Norval Morrisseau, the painter, and I asked my father who he was. He said he was one of us and I knew he meant — an Indian — and I felt proud about being ‘Indian’ for the first time. It was this moment that drives my work, giving me a sense of pride and unity. This seed was planted in my psyche. At that time in my life it was all I had and I knew later on telling Indigenous stories was a part of painting. I started to look into our Indigenous culture for stories transforming my art into a long forgotten lexicon of storytelling.”

Cote utilizes multiple platforms to educate both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

When asked about what he hopes people will learn about Indigenous people, he said: “My main thoughts are that the Indigenous stereotypes that most people rely on is wiped away, and in its place our Indigenous narrative about our culture, cosmology, history, language and technology that prevail — as this is the only way for indigenous people to have equity in this country.”

“Our portrait has been painted by colonization — the likeness of a beggar, uneducated and without civilized belief systems, with a bounty on our heads to show our worth. This changed when in the 1960s famed Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau brought our culture, cosmology and history into the 20th century and began an art movement that inspires identity and an indigenous narrative that breaks open the colonial iceberg. My work continues this idea of the living Indigenous narrative in art through an Indigenous lens.”

Cote has painted many murals that can be seen across Ontario, many of them in the City of Toronto. Cote has won awards from the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas for his street murals.

“Nindinawemaaganidok — which means ‘all my relations,’ which means we are all related.”

He said he is most proud of his recent mural called “The Original Family” at Dundas and Jarvis streets.

Philip Cote’s “The Original Family” mural at Dundas and Jarvis streets in a supplied photo.


Philip Cote’s “The Original Family” mural at Dundas and Jarvis streets in a supplied photo.


“Looking up five stories and 120 feet across to see the first-man and first-women with the iconic animals of this territory and a Thunderbird showing the essence of our culture — a tease if you will, the beginning of our story of the Anishinaabe ‘From Wence Lowered The Male of The Species.’ This shows the beginning of our nation, history, culture, narrative and a continuation of the way in which our ancestors communicated across time.

“This work and all my public works continue a long history of rock art called pictographs. With these depictions our ancestors celebrated our local heroes and warned when danger was near, shared cosmology and spoke of great wars between the spirit world and the physical world and these images crisscrossed the land as my work crisscrosses Toronto telling our story of the original people reclaiming our voice on this land once again.”

Click here to learn more about Cote and to see examples of his work.