Indigenous Success Stories

Museums and Archives (67-70)

Six Nations artist and curator Tom Hill was ‘a champion for Indigenous artists’

January 8, 2024

Gained fame for Indigenous exhibits, worked at Woodland Cultural Centre

Tom Hill
Tom Hill was a celebrated curator at the Woodland Cultural Centre from 1982 to 2005. Woodland Cultural Centre photo

NationTalk: When Tom Hill told his father in the 1960s he wanted to be an artist, his father was dismissive. “His comment was sarcastic, ‘What do you want to do? Put on a blanket and sell trinkets to tourists all your life?” the Six Nations band member told The Spectator in 2004.

“But, that was his world. There was a feeling that we were folk artists, part of the modern era, not the postmodern one. It pushed you into a niche. You could emphasize your Indian-ness, but don’t go beyond that.”

Hill did go beyond that.

He didn’t just become an artist, he became recognized as one of the first big advocates of contemporary Indigenous art and an expert on Indigenous history. The bulk of his career was spent as a curator, first as an intern at the National Gallery of Canada and as a director in the cultural affairs branch of the federal Indian Affairs Department.

The Seneca artist — who died Nov. 11 at age 80 — became curator of the Woodland Cultural Centre in 1982, and remained there until he retired in 2005.

Tom Hill became curator of the Woodland Cultural Centre in 1982, and remained there until he retired in 2005.Kaz Novak/The Hamilton Spectator file photo

He graduated from the Ontario College of Art and Design in 1967. Some of his artwork hangs in the Smithsonian and the Art Gallery of Ontario (where he staged a well-received Indigenous art exhibit in 1984).

Hill first made a splash when his ceramic mural Tree of Peace was shown at the Indians of Canada Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal. It won him a $300 prize and led him into curating in 1968.

The Woodland Cultural Centre, which opened in 1972 and expanded into art in 1975, became known under Hill as a hotbed of contemporary Indigenous culture, holding annual juried shows and launching the careers of many Indigenous artists. Hill’s exhibits touched on Indigenous people in pop culture, traditional quilt-making and the culture of Indigenous steelworkers.

In a release, the WCC called Hill “a champion for Indigenous artists” and said he was “instrumental in creating paths for Indigenous artists and cultural workers.” WCC executive director Heather George said Hill’s work reflected who he was as a person. “He was collaborative, kind, open and inclusive,” she said.

Naomi Johnson, a former WCC curator, said Hill had “a love of life and was curious about people of all walks.”

On social media, actor Gary Farmer said he was going to miss Hill and “as a young person he set me straight on a lot of protocol that informed my long career in performance. I will always remember him with fondness and love.” Farmer, known for such work as “Powwow Highway” (1989), once worked at the WCC.

Hill spoke at Harvard once on sacred Indigenous art and was an advisor to the Smithsonian and the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. In 1992, he was one of the chairs and authors of the Taskforce on Museums and First Peoples, which helped redefined the relationship between museums and Indigenous people. Hill was a writer, co-authoring a number of books, and a playwright. He co-wrote a play about Mohawk poet Pauline Johnson.

Hill was born May 9, 1943, in Ohsweken to Alton and Daisy Hill. He married Roberta Jamieson in 1975. A Mohawk from Six Nations, she served as Ontario ombudsman from 1989 to 1999 and as chief of the Six Nations elected-band council from 2001 to 2004.

In 1989, Hill and his wife were among a small group of parents who recruited two teachers to an abandoned school and started an Indigenous language school so their children could be educated in their native tongue. By 2004, there were two schools teaching Mohawk and Cayuga.

Hill received numerous awards, including an Order of Ontario in 1993 and the Governor General’s Award for Visual and Media Arts in 2004.

Hill is survived by his wife Roberta, daughter Jessica, grandchildren Daisy, Miles and Lyla. He is also survived by his sister Rose Margaret.

Daniel Nolan is a freelancer who writes about film and TV for The Hamilton Spectator. He can be reached at