The Canadian Art Database

Robert Houle

The Spiritual Legacy of the Ancient Ones
The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1992

(from the catalogue for Land, Spirit, Power, The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1992)
[ 11,601 words ]

Art — drawing, painting — is an intelligence of some kind, the hand and the eye bringing the imagination down upon the picture plane; and in this a nearly perfect understanding of the act of understanding. Ha!

Someone looking into a glass at someone looking into a glass — transmitted to the fingertips, an understanding not of ice bears and fright but of these and more, a composed unity of fragments which is a whole.

N. Scott Momaday, The Ancient Child (1) 

This quote sets a familiar context for any artist. It comes from a magnificent piece of prose wherein the hero, Set, a Kiowa artist who has been raised far from the reservation by his adoptive father is about to experience a tormented search for his identity through a magical saga shaped by the ancient Kiowa myth of a boy who is transformed into a bear. The symmetry of time and place created in the novel leaves the reader with the constant sense of the present time, certainly from the perspective of those who would identify with Momaday's masterpiece. This essay uses the cultural constraints and parameters created in Momaday's artifice, and operates within limits and signifiers of current Western art discourse.


The lack of a linear chronology in myth, storytelling, and dreams, the interchangeable grammar and the interchangeability of perception is what makes wonderful, rhythmical patterns of thought in the oral traditions of the ancient ones. These constituted patterns of thought have been etched into the psyche of their descendants through the human voice, thus leaving a legacy with which to affirm one's being and one's place, in the scheme of things. When the first peoples of this continent, known as 'Paleo-Indians', arrived here, ostensibly through a wide corridor of land about 20,000 years ago, they had to tell new stories of themselves, stories that would enable them to appropriate an unknown and intimidating landscape to their experience. (2)  Their existence here is one of the great chapters in the story of humankind.

By 1492, when 'America' was ostensibly 'discovered', there were untold numbers of indigenous societies, untold numbers of languages and dialects, architecture to rival any, imperial city states with astronomical observatories and solar calendars, a mathematical concept of zero, an extensive knowledge of natural medicine and the healing arts, highly developed oral traditions, and above all, a spiritual comprehension of the universe, a sense of the natural and supernatural, and a profound sense of the sacred. This was part of humanity's long, inexorable ascent to civilization, on an earth possessed of honour, dignity, and generosity of spirit.

This glorious history of the ancient ones gives a context to the legacy left to their contemporary descendants, the artists in this exhibition. To detach them from this ethnic specificity, its subjectivity, by subsuming it in the master narrative of Christian patriarchal hegemony. Western European ethnocentricity, is to disinherit them, to deny their inherent right to the land their ancestors have always enjoyed and respected. It would be more reasonable to approach Scripture not as a theological, all-encompassing description of truth, but as an objective ethnographic document, more useful to discern in its many time-strata the timeless struggle of humans with their humanity, more useful to trace within it the unbroken and unmysterious ethnological continuity of the Old World into the New World.

It is important, therefore, to use local and temporal narratives, and personal identities, in any critical investigation of current thinking, especially if one wants to examine the re-integration of the individual, culture, and environment in an intuitive zone that has been lost to Western civilization. Because there has always gaped so terrifying a chasm between the basic needs of humankind and our knowledge of the world as we first became conscious beings, we have always reached towards ways of understanding and controlling our environment. Theological explanations have been superseded in the modern age by scientific and technological proof — the new poetry of belief. Barnett Newman, the great American abstract expressionist, poetically described this process in October 1947, in an article for the first issue of Tiger's Eye:

The dominion of science over the mind of modern man has been accomplished by the simple tactic of ignoring the prime scientific quest: the concern with its original question, what? When it was found that the use of this question to explore all knowledge was Utopian, the scientist switched from an insistence on it to a roving position of using any question. It was easy for him to do so because he could thrive on the grip mathematical discipline had, as a romantic symbol of purity and perfection, on the mind of man. So intense is the reverence for this symbol, scientific method, that it has become the new theology, so brilliant is the rhythm of its logic-rite, its identification of truth with proof, that it has overwhelmed the original ecstasy of scientific quest, scientific inquiry. (3) 

Another statement by Newman, found in an opening paragraph of the catalogue for a 1946 exhibition of Kwagiulth art at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, thrust off the weight of European culture by creating an indigenous narrative; he circumvented the humanistic and relativistic art of the Greco-Renaissance tradition by questioning its concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it. He distinguished visually between a geometrical shape that functions in a cubist or post-cubist painting as 'a formal abstraction of visual fact' and the same shape in a Northwest Coast painting where it is a 'living thing.' (4)  In the former, a rectangle is a generalized representation of literal reality; and in the latter, it is a metaphysical symbol that magnifies human gesture with archetypal importance. Elsewhere, he declares: '...we are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting...' (5) 

This is certainly a language the artists in Land, Spirit, Power understand, for any attempt to move away from the Renaissance imagery of figures and objects contributes to their struggle to open and reopen the discussion over the nature of beauty.

However, although an important voice, his is one of only a few. It must be pointed out that the New World as America (since the United States is today the global hologram, with Canada as part of that image), still needs a violent decoding and receding, if the artists in this exhibition are to be seriously understood. In The Possessed Individual: Technology and the French Postmodern, Arthur Kroker writes about Paul Virilio's discourse on the political history of the late twentieth century, the fateful fin de millennium. Kroker is discussing Virilio's metaphor of the postmodern body as a war machine, and the irradiation of the mediascape by a 'logistics of perception,' (6)  which works according to the rules of the virtual world, that is, the receding of human experience by the algorithm 'of computer wetware, the world of digital dreams,' (7)  when he writes:

It is appropriate to reflect on Virilio's Pure War in the context of Montreal, a city which in the early 1990s was the scene of the violent application of the Canadian war machine against its aboriginal population, the Mohawks. A city, that is, which in the summer of 1990 experienced as part of its cultural politics the invasion of the Mohawk reservations surrounding Montreal by all the policing strategies that could be produced by the state: 6,000 soldiers of the Canadian army, complete with tanks, armoured personnel carriers, and even TOW missiles, the greater part of the Quebec provincial police, and the RCMP. All of this array of power belonging to the state was set against, in the end, less than 50 Mohawks who only wished to prevent the destruction of a sacred pine grove of their ancestors by developers intent on extending a golf course to eighteen holes...If in cultural politics we should be able to read the universal in the particular, to decipher a larger war logic in local applications, then Oka is Pure War in Virilio's sense. (8) 

For the people of Kanesatake and Kahnawake it was state terrorism, the act of war without a declaration of war, so that there is no formal protection of civil rights or internationally regulated political rights (which would make it easier for Amnesty International, for example, or the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, to intervene on their behalf — an intervention I feel was arguably called for). (9)  Ironically, the warriors used the Western patriarchically controlled mediascape to disseminate their own rhetoric of a democratic politics based on matriarchal principles of rule; that is, on the traditional form of the Longhouse society, which is not ruled by the technocratic specialists of the war machine. That is what made the warriors 'look' dangerous — they presented a face not recognized by or fully understandable to the non-native military machine. Again the images created by artists like Frederic Remington (1861-1909) and George Catlin (1796-1872) of 'Indian warfare' were reinforced. The electronic image continues what the hand had created.

And yet, it is for the very lack of these unrecognized values and images that the dominant technocratic cultures are suffering. In his recent and controversial book, In the Absence of the Sacred, Jerry Mander brilliantly argues that the lost values mentioned earlier, lost, that is, to the Western technocratic society, but not lost in the spiritual legacy left by the ancient ones, are central to the survival of humanity. He writes:

The assumptions have been gaining strength for thousands of years, fed both by Judeo-Christian religious doctrines that have de-sanctified the earth and placed humans in domination over it; and by technologies that, by their apparent power, have led us to believe we are some kind of royalty over nature, exercising divine will. We have lost the understanding that existed in all civilizations prior to ours, and that continues to exist on Earth today in societies that live side by side with our own; we have lost the sense of the sacredness of the natural world. The new technologists don't accept this notion; they live in a world that is removed from it; they themselves have lost touch with the source of that knowledge. They find it silly. (10) 

He concurs with native people, the descendants of the ancients, that a society based on a philosophy emphasizing technology worship, economic expansion, and commodity accumulation is doomed to failure, as it leaves out an understanding of and respect for the sacredness of nature and the limits to human endeavour. That inevitable approaching failure has been the cornerstone of aboriginal peoples' argument against assimilation, because we have known for a long time of the centralizing forces and the dark vampiric logic of technology. For assimilation would mean spiritual suicide.

Instead, we turn to the stories, premonitions, and prophecies that have been left by the first settlers of this hemisphere: whether they made their homes in the temperate cedar forest of the Northwest Coast, the subarctic tundra of the Mackenzie Lowlands, the high arid lands of the Columbia Plateau, the stark and monumental landscape of the Laurentian Shield, the mixed forests of deciduous and coniferous trees in the Appalachian Mountains, or the majestic open spaces of the Great Plains. (11)  These stories and premonitions are the cultural capital, the inspirational source, that the artists in this exhibition invest into a new visual language. Theirs is a lexicon not just rich in historical forms and images, but one laced with the authentic vocabulary of a shamanic past, of a moment when humanity's indestructible dignity was in harmony with the symmetry of time and place.


However, the goal of commitment to making the re-integration of people, culture, and nature a fundamental element in cultural thinking becomes unclear when the premise underlying that pattern of thinking is a fallacy. In a 1988 issue of Artforum, Jimmie Durham and critic Jean Fisher co-wrote:

It must be admitted from the outset that Native Americans are peoples about whom we can have nothing to say that is not fatally contaminated by Eurocentric patterns of thinking. The vast body of 'objective' data, scientific or literary, that purports to evidence indigenous Americans almost invariably constitutes a mirrored reflection of our own psychic demons instead. For 'knowledge' is a matter of interpretation, which is in turn a property of the subject who assumes it, not of the object itself. (12) 

Durham and Fisher echo Newman's rejection of scientific rationalism, and point out the problems that are inevitable when looking at artists who are other within the perimeters of Western art. For example, the magnanimous cataloguing of tribal names on the decorative frieze in the Walker Court of the Art Gallery of Ontario by the German, Lothar Baumgarten, in Monument for the Native People of Ontario (1984-85), is not 'objective knowledge' because the list: Algonkin, Huron, Iroquois, Neutral, Nipissing, Ojibwa, Ottawa, and Petun exists by sanction of a power structure outside the cultures described. Such sanctioned validation authorizes certain representations, while blocking, prohibiting, or invalidating others. And that pattern of thinking — expressed here in a piece based on the long inheritance of and abiding image from the late Renaissance notion of indigenous peoples as being 'without Scripture', and thus excluded from the family of humanity in the biblical text, the written contract with God — is what makes the Baumgarten work Eurocentric. After all, around 1512 a Dominican referred to the ancestors of those 'written' on the walls of the Walker Court as 'speaking animals', and it was not until a papal bull of 1537 that the ancient ones were declared 'true men'. Even so, that did not stop another Dominican, Domingo de Betanzos, from continuing to insist that they were brute beasts incapable of learning the 'mysteries' of the European 'Faith'.

One reason the Monument is problematic is because of the current rhetoric of dissatisfaction of the Western rationalist cultures, their patronizing dream of creating a world wherein the stateless, the other, is given a voice — but through the mediation of another, not through speaking directly for themselves. Already, the fact that aboriginal peoples are presumed to be stateless is to assume that they have been conquered; that alone, certainly in the context of the Canadian province of Ontario, is already an abrogation of aboriginal rights. In the instance of Baumgarten's artwork, his version of this rhetoric of discontent has sanitized and distanced the political reality of his subject; ironically, his national culture leaves a contamination. (13)  He does not cross the gap between his nostalgic European myth of the loss of origins and the reality of the inherent rights of those whose names he has evoked to be heard. He does not, by his annexation, give those he has listed any cultural property, any voice, because cultural annexation affects sovereignty.

Perhaps the best way to clarify the nature of Baumgarten's transgression of the spiritual integrity of those whose names he has 'written' is to point out that their oral tradition was violated. To native cultures, the spoken word is sacred, is essential to our profound belief in the efficacy of language. Because we are governed by that tradition, our proper names exist at the level of the human voice as sovereign; and exerting on them the force of a foreign language, the script, is to vanquish. Another way of illuminating the place of speech for aboriginal peoples would be to ask, for example, whether the traditional oral recital of the Great Law of Peace by the wampum keepers of the Iroquois Confederacy Longhouse could be mimeographed for the Clan Mothers with the same authority and legitimacy. Oratory is a central feature of Iroquois ritual and spiritual life. It is evident that language and speech were, and are, central in the politics, religion, curing, and magic of the Six Nations and other First Nations.

And language and speech were and are not only sacred and powerful, but also poetic and verbally artistic. In First Nations cultures, poetry and verbal art are usually essential, often in quasi-magical ways, to the power and sacredness of the word. At the same time, there is tremendous diversity in the ways in which the word enters into the social and cultural life. In some societies, silence and laconism are valued; in others, verbal effusiveness; in some, talk is omnipresent, as an essential ingredient in everything one does.

Monument for the Native People of Ontario is an elegant, site-specific installation. It is a beautiful work styled as a tribute, but the human drama it presents is unfortunately simply a program of romantic twentieth century anthropology. It is true that the classicism of the Walker Court and the typeface used to render the proper names evoke a lamentation for these people who were ruthlessly rendered landless and powerless, but one is still left with the question of the impossibility of translating one set of cultural terms into the language of an outsider. The process of objectification still prohibits the 'authentic' voice from being heard, because its proper name has been appropriated, thus making the silence deafening.

This brings to mind a work by another contemporary German artist Gerhard Merz, Tutte Le Strode Conducono a Roma, which once also graced the walls of the Art Gallery of Ontario, in 1988. Merz's immense work remembers Mondrian's static absolutism, his primary blue pigment, by framing a large field of this colour within an even more expansive grey border. Art historian Mark A. Cheetham refers to the notion of Neoplastic purity when he writes, 'The painting makes Mondrian "present" simply by its scale, which invokes the dominant, male discourse of abstract painting. The grey background, a colour rejected by Mondrian as impure, makes us wonder about Merz's message.' (14)  Given the scale of the work, one can hardly help registering the work's inscription, AGLI UOMINI DEL FUTURO MCMLXXXVIII — a dedication to the vision of 'the future generations of men.' The disturbing overtones here are the absolute belief in a patriarchal hegemony and in the supremacy of Western art. Humanism was born in Greece, but the ultimate error of Plato was to suppose the subjective paradigm had objective existence.

Both Baumgarten and Merz, through their larger-than-life abstractions, their inscriptions, their absolutism, reinforce the philosophical heritage of the Enlightenment — a rejection of anything not European. The global hologram, the ongoing homogenization of the world's way of life, still presupposes validation by dominant nations, who simply hold tightly to their own, even as they experience greater opportunities for exposure to others. (15) 

Finally, postmodernism, the creed of the disappointed revolutionary generation of '68, the 'new middle class,' is not the significant intellectual and cultural shift it has been touted as. Rather, it is only a symptom of political frustration and social mobility. The centre of power has not moved; and any denial of this obvious fact should itself be considered as evidence of centrality. The First Nations of the New World are still not even in the picture. Nonetheless, it is important to examine at least two issues raised by the postmodernist critique in order to create a picture that will give the exhibiting artists of Land, Spirit, Power a representation with real images.

First, there is their position as the contemporary descendants of various ancient cultures, many of which have gone through a transformation, not just in reference to their spiritual legacy from the ancient ones, but also to their Western orientation. Given the tenuous relationship between the Newcomers and the First Nations, rapprochement is, at best, an ideal. One cannot really blame these exhibiting artists for any cynical rhetoric. But cynicism simply begs the question of how one's collectivity, the ancestral legacy, falls into the discourse where individuality operates in the language of paradox, irony, and ambivalence. And how does one's collectivity, aboriginal distinction, fall into the current phenomenon of ethnic nationalism?

Second, there is the question of the artists' proximity to the new omnipresent cult of dissatisfaction. Postmodernism has become the high priestess of the current age of sophistry, dressed in the basic philosophical garment of virtual reality. (16)  From the Western perspective, it offers an opportunity to be introspective about the inheritance of the Enlightenment. Although the metaphor of America as hologram for the world remains paramount (considering the coming world order), the New World is nonetheless still a construct of the Old. There are too few true innovations in its dominant culture to cast it as making a real break away from the past. Although French postmodern discourse on cultural thinking consists of a creative, dynamic, and highly original account of the technological society, it does not deal with the fact that it is a product of the Enlightenment. The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard laments 'Astral America. The lyrical nature of pure circulation. As against the melancholy of European analyses'; (17)  but his disappointment does not take into account that he is no virgin, but its father. North American thought is trapped in a pragmatic description of technology as liberation, and French discourse on technology begins with the violent externalization of the self, but neither is exclusive of the other. America is still basically a Eurocentric child. Baudrillard's disturbing vision of a cynical technology does not automatically, for the First Nations, offer a diplomatic language for a rapprochement. The sophistry of virtual reality still makes them dangerously invisible.

The artists in this exhibition are strategically situated, because they are not the 'technological embryo' (18)  orphans of current dissatisfaction, but the spiritual children of the ancient ones. This is the real image of them; one can begin with their history, and the history of how others have represented them. One hopes, by examining how other people have portrayed them, to get a better idea of how to return their right to a true identity.

Baumgarten only adds to the data of representation that has made the First Nations among the most objectified and othered of all groups; and Merz totally excludes them from the future. One inevitably asks whether such work actually examines the fragile spiritual connection between humans and nature, or whether it is rather about the destructive nature of humankind. The artists in this exhibition are strategically positioned as descendants of those who created the ceremonial traditional artifacts which have been despoiled through curatorial greed. They are morally able to request the return of such objects to their proper owners and appropriate uses in ritual and ceremony, while at the same time free to make use of the powers evoked by this historic backdrop in their own artworks. (19) 


The ancient ones arrived here and created narratives to affirm who they were and where they were in the scheme of things, as did the Europeans when they first arrived. For example, in 1493, when Christopher Columbus announced his discovery of the lush northeastern hills of Dominica, one of the loveliest of the Windward Islands that help shelter the Caribbean Sea from the Atlantic, and his first encounter with the Tainos, he published a letter containing two woodcuts. These woodcuts were executed by Giuliano Dati to accompany the Italian edition of Columbus's report of his voyage to America. One depicts Ferdinand V, Columbus's ships (the Santa Maria, Nina, and Pinta), and the first Caribbean people of the Greater Antilles. The other has Spanish seamen going ashore to offer gifts to the Tainos. Variations of these woodcuts were used in other editions, including a quarto entitled Mundus Novus (c. 1504). In it, Amerigo Vespucci (in Latin, Americus Vespucius) boldly announces:

These regions which we found and explored...may rightly be called a New World. Because our ancestors had no knowledge of them...this transcends the view held by our ancestors...that there was no continent beyond the equator but only the sea which they called the Atlantic...In those southern parts I have found a continent more densely peopled and abounding in animals than our Europe, Asia or Africa...Part of this new continent lies in the torrid zone beyond the equator toward the Antarctic pole... (20) 

Between the first appearance of Mundus Novus and 1529 some sixty accounts of Vespucci's exploits in this hemisphere came from presses from all over Europe except for England and Iberia, first individually, then as part of Martin Waldseemüller's Cosmographia Introductio. Waldseemüller was one of those people with a penchant for making up names; and on one occasion of name coining, he introduced this famous passage:

Toward the south Pole are situated the southern part of Africa recently discovered, and the islands of Zanzibar, Java Minor and Seula. These regions have been more extensively explored, and another or fourth part has been discovered by Americus Vespucius, as may be seen by the attached charts; in virtue of which I believe it may be very just that it should be named Amerige ['ge' in Greek meaning 'of'], after its discoverer, Americus, a man of sagacious mind; or let it be named America, since both Europe and Asia bear names in the feminine form. (21) 

In the recently translated Columbus: The Great Adventure, Paolo Emilio Taviani, a leading expert on the Columbian voyages, describes the first encounter:

He stepped on the fine white sand, kissed it, raised his eyes to heaven, thanked God, and wept. That emotional and joyous crying in which the Genoese and the Spanish captains joined, before an awestruck crowd of naked men and women — that crying summed up the outstanding significance of the most important encounter in human history. Encounter is more accurate than discovery because it was not humanity discovering a new and deserted land but two portions of humanity, two worlds, coming together that morning on Guanahani — San Salvador. (22) 

There is much speculation about whether Columbus, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, knew of the great landmass to the north or that what he had reached was a great chain of land that linked two of the earth's seven continents. He died in 1506 believing that he had reached Asia. Walt Whitman, one of the first truly indigenous American writers, imagined Columbus on his deathbed, in the throes of self-doubt, seeming to anticipate the vicissitudes that lay ahead in his passage through history:

What do I know of life?
           what of myself?
I know not even my own
           work past or present;
Dim ever-shifting guesses
           of it spread before me.
Of Newer better worlds.
           their mighty parturition,
Mocking, perplexing me.

In the first chapter of America before 1492, N. Scott Momaday recounts an incident from the Log of Christopher Columbus: 'Then, at two hours after midnight, the Pinta fired a cannon, my prearranged signal for the sighting of land.' (24)  Momaday describes that moment as one that changed the history of the world forever. That early Friday morning of 12 October 1492, the signal was one of the most deafening sounds ever heard by the ancient ones. Metaphorically, it has become one of the most ominous, for not only did it announce the arrival of strangers, but it signalled the departure by extinction of many who heard. And it is one of the saddest realisations of human history to know that, since that time, others have been annihilated because the land which had nurtured them, and with which they had developed a spiritual connection, was wanted by another. Everyone would like to believe that the story of the Western hemisphere after that October signal is a straightforward chronology of events leading to the present. It is often said that history is written by the winners, but after they have recast events to show themselves in a favourable light, it usually resembles nothing so much as an apology for their shortcomings.

By the time of Giambattista Tiepolo, the Venetian stories and images of the Mundus Novus had become part of the European world, although with somewhat limited visual data. The new continent had become the 'natural resource' (25)  with which to bankroll kings, queens, and empires; the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, and France all had territorial interests and commitments there. Tiepolo spent three years in Würzburg, the capital of Franconia, from 1750 to 1753, where his task was to take the four parts of the known world and magnify them into a kind of pagan and Catholic cosmography. In his fresco, Tiepolo blended the tradition of high baroque illusionism with the pageantry used by Paolo Veronese a century and a half earlier. Above the continents painted on the ceiling over the Grand Staircase leading to the Kaisersaal of the Episcopal Palace, he placed a whole emporium of mythological and allegorical personifications which symbolized and exalted the humanistic aspirations of the eighteenth century. In the variety of its themes, this ceiling, a pictorial idea, may almost be considered as an iconographical encyclopaedia of the Age of Enlightenment. It is both a joy and a concern to see the grace and felicity of 'America', in her nakedness, straddling an alligator, symbol of her rule over the natural world; in direct contrast to 'Europa,' richly clad, and seated on a throne before whom bow the Sciences and the Arts. A joy to see a naturalness devoid of affectation; a concern to know that this personification has continued to disinherit the identity of aboriginal peoples — especially native women. It is an unabashed Eurocentric view of the universe. There exists an earlier allegorical America in the feminine form in an engraving by Phillip Galle done around 1580. It depicts her with a similar headdress, accompanied by a variety of fauna, flora, and aboriginal peoples ranging from Inuit to Brazilians. (26) 

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Benjamin West was unquestionably the world's most famous American-born painter, a recognition earned because he held two significant posts: official painter at the Court of St. James, and president of the Royal Academy of Arts. These honours had come to him after successfully exhibiting several grand-style history paintings, one of which was The Death of General Wolfe. West painted four large versions of the piece; the original was donated to the Canadian government in 1918 by the Duke of Westminster, and now hangs in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. (27)  This painting, which was influenced by the 'academic' theory of Poussin, combines archaeological detail — the figures were from Antiquity — with a contemporary setting. At the time this painting was created this was quite revolutionary, because the innovation of combining classical and Christian iconography with familiar popular imagery allowed 'democratic ideas' to be expressed. West always took pride in the New World background that enabled him to make a contribution to the growth of the romantic movement.

Despite its visual delights, The Death of General Wolfe is not an accurate historical documentation of an event, but rather a startling, operatic, tableau vivant. His allegorical, pensive 'Indian' is perhaps the most enigmatic figure, to Canadians of the ubiquitous linguistic divide between French and English, and to the members of the First Nations, who have had the role of voyeurs of Canada's history. In one sense he stands for the Mohawk and Delaware who helped British forces in Pennsylvania during West's boyhood. For West, the Chief, synonymous with the American wilderness, was modeled after classical statues. This personification, a patriarchal one, balances Tiepolo's matriarchal 'America'. We now have the first inhabitants of the New World allegorically cast in both the feminine and masculine forms within the European psyche. The warrior was also clearly the most logical and poignant personification of Great Britain's conquest, because the warrior symbolically affirmed the identity and place of the English on the continent.

François-René de Chateaubriand, one of the French literary giants who dominated the romantic novel, wrote his famous Atala in 1801 based on his five-month visit to America in 1791. Probably his trip was confined to the territory between Baltimore and Niagara Falls. Within a year of its publication it boasted five French editions, and Spanish, Italian, German, and English translations appeared in quick succession. Atala, a truly romantic New World tale, appeared at an opportune moment in France's history: New France, her last dominion in North America, was lost to the English, and now the French could take the time to look back on a long period of glory and suffering. France, of course, could not forget the brilliant heritage of Louis XIV, Raçine, and Bossuet; she had spread her intellectual and political hegemony over most of Europe in the seventeenth century, and in the following century, that of Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau, she had been at the centre of a passionate search for new answers to age-old philosophical and social problems: what is humanity's place in the cosmos? how must one view God? is civilization a blessing or a curse?

All these questions are echoed in Atala, which was to become, along with Chateaubriand's earlier work, The Genius of Christianity, the spiritual guide and manifesto for the coming romantic movement. The author has one of his characters say, pessimistically, in Atala:

We are all that remain of the Natchez, when our nation had been massacred by the French to avenge their brothers, those of our brothers who escaped the conqueror took refuge with the Chickasaws, our neighbours. We stayed with them quietly for some time; but seven moons ago the white people of Virginia seized our lands, saying that these had been given to them by a king in Europe. We raised up our eyes to heaven and, bearing the remains of our ancestors, we took our way across the wilderness. I was brought to bed as we travelled; and, soured by grief, my milk brought death to my child. (28) 

The scene is from the Epilogue; it describes, in the grand, melodramatic style of the time, how one walks between one's ancestors and posterity, between memory and hope, between lost country and future. This was indeed the birth of the noble savage, but the Natchez had by then lost their identity.

The aristocratic Natchez lived along the lower Mississippi River, on land that is now part of the states of Mississippi and Louisiana. They spoke an isolated language referred to simply as Natchez. Eyewitness accounts of their lifeways by early French visitors provide an unusual glimpse into the older Mississippian world. They had a rigidly stratified, four-class, matrilineal society, with an asymmetrical system of marriage and kinship in which all three upper classes were required to 'marry down'. This meant that, while the child of an upper-class woman inherited her class, the child of an upper-class man belonged to a class one step lower than that of his or her father. The highest office was inherited by the Great Sun's sister's son.

The French had constructed Fort Rosalie overlooking the Mississippi and the main Natchez village around 1713. In 1729, Sieur Chepart, Governor of Louisiana, wanted the site for his plantation and ordered its immediate evacuation. A revolt broke out, but was ended by two invading French armies. Natchez captives were sold into slavery in the Caribbean; others hid among other tribes (such as the Chickasaw), but gradually became extinct. (29) 

Chateaubriand continues, somewhat inadvertently prophesying the impending doom of the Natchez blood: 'Man, thou art but a passing thought, a grievous dream; thy life is all misfortune; only the sadness of thy soul and the unending melancholy of thy thought dignify thee.' (30) 

In 1835, Eugene Delacroix, the great neo-baroque romantic artist, exhibited his painting The Natchez at the Salon of that year. According to the Salon livret, the scene represented is from the above-mentioned quote from Atala. Delacroix had decided on the subject of the painting as early as October 1822; obviously his sympathy with Greek Antiquity did not prevent his sharing the enthusiasm of fellow romantics for other exotic places and peoples. He had sought refuge from the turmoil of the industrial revolution by recapturing what the romantics believed to be natural man with all his nobility, which to Delacroix exemplified the ultimate victory of the spirit. His vision of primitive nature, its gift of spiritual perception, is passionately alive in his allegorical Natchez family.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the mode of representation, hardly ever neutral, had firmly established and defined the subject — the noble savage. Tiepolo's America (1751), West's Warrior (1770), and Delacroix's Natchez (by 1835) provide some of the most enduring romantic images. Baumgarten's Monument (1984) was constructed more than two hundred years later on the base of those same stereotypes. Alas for the artists in Land, Spirit, Power, this is the monolithic image, somehow permanently etched into Western thought, that they must transcend — a noble effort. Fortunately, Barnett Newman's two triangular paintings, Chartres (1969) and Jericho (1968-69), opened a door through which they can enter the twentieth century. The works explored the possibility of reading into a new area of experience; both try to destroy the wall and the triangle as object, as a vehicle for subject. It is this transformation of a shape into a new kind of totality that already exists independently in the old Kwagiulth sense of visual phenomena.


In spite of works such as Jericho, allegorical and metaphorical representations like those of Atala continue to be the cultural raw material from which modern perceptions of First Nations are made. Romantic images continue to govern the ways in which the identities of the artists in Land, Spirit, Power are perceived and constituted. One only has to look at the dismal statistics of social, economic, political, and spiritual deprivation to see what disinheritance by colonization, marginalization, and invalidation has done to aboriginal societies. It is a pitiful picture, painted through the spiritual transgressions of others. Nowhere have these been more persistent than in the area of the seizure of ancestral lands and territory. And to the indigenous people of the New World, loss of land has meant not just the losing of farmland, hunting grounds, and fishing areas; it has simultaneously led to the physical / environmental and spiritual / philosophical destruction of aboriginal peoples and their homes through desecration.

In the catalogue for Our Land / Ourselves, a recent exhibition of aboriginal art at the State University of New York at Albany, guest curator Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, herself an artist, writes:

Euro-Americans often wonder why the American Indian is so attached to the land. Even after Indians have lived in an urban environment for two generations, they still refer to tribal land as home. This continuum is made tenable by several factors. Each tribe's total culture is immersed in its specific area. Traditional foods, ceremonies, and art come from the indigenous plants and animals as well as the land itself. The anthropomorphism of the land spawns the stories and myths. These things are the stuff of culture which keep identity intact. (31) 

There is no word for 'landscape' in any of the languages of the ancient ones still spoken. In Ojibwa, whenever the word uhke is pronounced, it is more an exaltation of humanness than a declaration of property. And Paula Gunn Allen writes of the feminine landscape of ceremony:

The earth is the source and the being of the people, and we are equally the being of the earth. The land is not really a place, separate from ourselves, where we act out the drama of our isolate destinies; the witchery makes us believe that false idea. The earth is not a mere source of survival, distant from the creatures it nurtures and from the spirit that breathes in us, nor is it to be considered an inert resource on which we draw in order to keep our ideological self functioning, whether we perceive that self in sociological or personal terms. (32) 

Sadly, racism, as imagination, (33)  has a grammar and a syntax, a pervasive and impermeable narrative power; the enduring image of the 'noble savage' is an empowerment that has led to disinheritance from identity. Look at the annexation elsewhere of the tribal names carved into Baumgarten's Monument. There is, for example, the 'tomahawk chop' cheering chant of the Atlanta Braves — supposedly just an innocent tribal ritual at a baseball game to encourage a home team. To an Arapaho, Black-foot, or Cheyenne this is an outright racial slur, made even more insulting because the fans do not see the pervasive perversity in perpetuating the 'wagon-burner' image of us, the Hollywood distortion. As long as society continues to condone such insults through its power-producing apparatus, the enfranchisement of one's name, the appropriation of identity will continue, because that apparatus cannot be separated from any part of the cultural or economic base. The continued popular and commercial annexation of another's identity, and the acceptance of such activity as normal business practice, is like using racial stereotypes of the English, the French, and the Spanish, to promote and sell First Nations products. This could, of course, never happen because First Nations peoples have no access to the cultural apparatus.

This is not to refute the homage accorded to us as the original inhabitants of a geographical area in the naming of places that we have relinquished by treaty. A case in point is the province of Manitoba. When it joined the Canadian confederation in 1870, Treaties Numbers 1 and 2 were made and concluded between the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland by her commissioner, Wemyss M. Simpson, and the Saulteaux and Cree. Following is an edited description of the land ceded in Treaty Number 1, transforming the District of Assiniboia into a new province:

Beginning at the international boundary line near its junction with the Lake of the Woods, at a point due north from the centre of Roseau Lake;...thence northwest to the centre of White Mouth Lake, otherwise called White Mud Lake;...thence by the Winnipeg River to its mouth; thence westwardly, including all the islands near the south end of the lake, across the lake to the mouth of Drunken River; thence westwardly to a point on Lake Manitoba half way between Oak Point and the mouth of Swan Creek; thence across Lake Manitoba in a line due west to its western shore; thence in a straight line to the crossing of the rapids on the Assiniboine; thence due south to the international boundary line; and thence eastwardly by the said line to place of beginning. (34) 

There is a spiritual place in Manitoba known as the Narrows of Lake Manitoba where the water beating against the resonant limestone cliff and pounding along the pebbled shore creates the sound ke-mishomis-na-ug (literally, 'our ancestors'), believed to be the voice of Manitou. It was and still is a sacred place, a power place whose hierophantic messages compel Saulteaux who continue to live nearby to offer tobacco; and many travel to it seeking renewal, as a Muslim will travel to Mecca. To the Saulteaux, the Narrows are known as Manito-waban, meaning the 'divine straits' or 'the place where god lives'. In 1858 the community of Portage la Prairie, through its leader, Thomas Spence, used 'Manitoba' in reference to both the lake and the land surrounding it. Ten years later, Spence and others from Portage formed a provincial government and advised the British Colonial Office that the district was to be known as the Republic of Manitobah. The government was not recognized but the name endured. In 1870, Spence joined Louis Riel's Metis Council on a delegation to Ottawa to negotiate the transfer of 'Assiniboia,' the name given by Lord Selkirk, to Canada. When John A. Macdonald entered the House of Commons on 12 May 1870, he announced that a new province had entered Confederation under the terms outlined in The Manitoba Act. (35)  Indeed, the descendants of the original peoples of Manitoba are proud to have our metaphysically charged place accorded such an honour.

In the nineteenth century, most Euro-North Americans came to believe that it was God's will for them to rule. Canada's motto was A Mari usque ad Mare (from sea to sea); while the United States had its Manifest Destiny. Any neighbourly coexistence between the original inhabitants and the pioneers was already a dead dream. By the end of the last century, the final series of campaigns to wrest their tribal birthright, the traditional land base, from its holders, had been accomplished. But perhaps one of the saddest stories of disinheritance is the one about the Sioux and their Black Hills in South Dakota.

The legacy of the Sioux and their Black Hills, the Sapa, is one of transgression and desolation, both spiritual and territorial. The story begins in 1775 when Standing Bull and his followers, the Teton Sioux, reached the hills, a source of fresh mountain streams, scarce lodgepoles for the tipis, and the medicine plants that healed them. These dark hills became a holy place, a place for vision guests, home to Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit, the sum of all that was powerful, sacred, and full of mystery. Legend told the Sioux that it was there the thunder-being told a chief named Red Thunder that the Black Hills were the heart of the earth; and that someday they would return and live there. The name comes from the colour; the slopes and peaks are so heavily wooded with dark pines that from a distance the mountains actually look black. According to another tribal legend, these hills represented a reclining female figure whose breasts flowed with life-giving forces, and the Teton went to her as a child to its mother's arms.

Sometime about the year 1874, when Custer found gold in the Black Hills, the long decline to indignity began. Soon the United States declared war against the Teton Sioux in order to establish complete control of the area. After this led to the illegal annexation of their lands, the Sioux were massacred at Wounded Knee on 29 December 1890. Nearly three hundred dead were counted in the carnage.

Most of the slain were believers in the Ghost Dance, a messianic religion that had promised return of the land to its original inhabitants. Although participation dwindled after the massacre, the influence of the Ghost Dance continued to be felt long after its highpoint. Edward Lazarus, in Black Hills White Justice, describes the founder of the Ghost Dance and its message:

And then word came from the south, word of an Indian prophet, and hope was reborn. His English name was Jack Wilson, but to the Indians he was Wovoka, a Paiute, and he preached a new religion, essentially Christian, distinctly Indian, which filled the crushed Sioux with joy. A new world was coming from the west, a regenerated world to arrive in the spring of 1891. This new world would roll back the teeming swarms of white men and push them back across the ocean. In the cleansed land left behind, only Indians would live, all the Indians who had ever lived — friends and ancestors, past and present, at home once more with the buffalo, eternally happy. (36) 

To add an aboriginal Lakota voice, here is a chant sung during the Ghost Dance:

A / nani / sa / na, a nani / sa / na.
          Ni / na / nina / ti / naku / ni / na na / ga gu.
Ni / na / nina / ti / naku / ni / na na / ga gu;
          Ti / naha / thihu / na / nisa / na,
Ti / naha / thihu / na / nisa / na,
          Hathi / na He / suna / nin,
Hathi / na He / suna / nin.

My children, my children,
          It is I who wear the morning star on my head,
It is I who wear the morning star on my head,
          I show it to my children,
I show it to my children,
          Says the father,
Says the father.

The defeat at Wounded Knee represented the death of the last hope of the Sioux Nation for a return to the way of life they had followed before the incursion of the pioneers.

Indignity was added to humiliation when, during Calvin Coolidge's presidency (1923-29), the government established 'a distinctly national monument' (38)  in the midst of the Black Hills. American sculptor Gutzon Borglum carved busts of four presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and T. Roosevelt) into a stolen cleft of Mount Rushmore, known to the Sioux as the 'Six Grandfathers' (fig. 13). However, to Euro-American tourists, this gigantic bas-relief on the cliffs now became a symbol of their 'democracy'. The Mount Rushmore National Memorial was finished in 1941.

This symbol of a new republic's venture into and conquest of the wilderness is also in some ways an outcome of the American obsession with emulating Europe's grand monuments to national achievements. America's myth about itself had to be given a concrete form. This takeover is in line with the practice of conquerors throughout history of appropriating sacred or religious spaces such as synagogues, churches, and mosques to their own uses. Ironically, after the Second World War, a request was made by Chief Standing Bear to convert an entire mountain range into a single statue in-the-round of Chief Crazy Horse; this absurdity, with all its implications, is still in progress.

It is unfortunate that virgin territory, a place where physiography and spirituality can be completely interwoven, must so often be stamped with civilization's egocentric trappings. To the Sioux, the Black Hills, specifically the Six Grandfathers, is where the voice of the wind, the formation of the clouds and the sight of eagles hovering are mnemonic signs that their grandfathers, the ancient ones, are still with them. In America, Baudrillard caustically observes of aboriginal lands:

Doubtless the original decentring into virgin territory gave it this wildness, though it certainly acquired it without the agreement of the Indians whom it destroyed. The dead Indian remains the mysterious guarantor of these primitive mechanisms, even into the modern age of images and technologies. Perhaps the Americans, who believed they had destroyed these Indians, merely disseminated their virulence...

They have not destroyed space; they have simply rendered it infinite by the destruction of its centre...In so doing, they have opened up a true fictional space.

Baudrillard's 'mysterious guarantor' had already been prophesied by Seattle, chief of the Suquamish and Duwamish, who delivered a speech sometime after the Washington Territory was organized in 1853, in response to a visit and speech given by the Governor of the territory. Seattle's speech was transcribed by Dr. Henry Smith from the Duwamish language. Seattle knew of the imminent destruction of sacred places. He said:

...and when the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White Men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children's children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude. At night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land. The White Man will never be alone.

Let him be just and deal kindly with my people, for the dead are not powerless. Dead, did I say? There is no death, only a change of worlds.

Fortunately, there are some wise people out there who are beginning to understand just how important it is for modern society to recall and to ask the same question Paul Gauguin expressed in his work From Where Do We Come, What Are We, Where Are We Going? (1897). For example, in the final chapter of Millennium, Jacques Attali talks about the abandonment of sovereignty; the simultaneously shrinking and expanding world; the increasing irrelevance of national borders; and the 'self-determination' cries of tribalism in a world whose planetary problems make them meaningless. He concludes that, in order to create a civilization that will endure, humanity must reconcile itself with nature and with itself. For the winners and losers in the coming world order, he advises:

ABOVE ALL, a new sacred covenant must be struck between man and nature so that the earth endures, so that the ephemeral gives way to the eternal, so that diversity resists homogeneity. Dignity must be supported over power and creativity must substitute for violence. In this new spirit, the wisdom of humanity — and not just the intelligence of machines — must be developed. No one should be reduced to a spectator watching his own consumption. Individuals should be empowered to contribute to the heritage of civilization by giving it direction through the exercise of their liberty, aspiring to make their own lives a work of art instead of a dull reproduction. (41) 


The mere fact that there is an aboriginal population today proves that the invasion of this hemisphere has not been a total success. This is especially true if one looks at the picture of the aboriginal world as painted from our perspective — one that has been etched into our psyche and into the land itself.

Native people cannot forget the electronic images of frightened women, children, and elders during a racist, stone-throwing incident while being evacuated from Kahnewake — a scene that clearly demonstrated the entrenched hatred aboriginal people have to endure. Nor can that sad moment, a psychological trauma, be forgotten as long as there continues to appear supremacist demagoguery in newspaper editorials and the media. This deep-rooted hatred for the First Nations comes from a conditioning accomplished largely through the celluloid narrative of the 'western' genre, the Hollywood gaze, which was based in turn on the nineteenth century Eurocentric nationalism that sees aboriginal people as an impediment to nation building. It is something we will remember for a long time; and yet another reason why we must ask whether the destructive nature of humankind is in fact inherent, or the result of centuries of such images.

Our ancestors have wandered and paid homage in every region: the sacred BlueLake of the Taos Pueblo of New Mexico, the sacred Black Hills of the Sioux of South Dakota, the ceremonial earthworks of the Hopewell, the mnemonic petroglyphs of the Ojibwa of Ontario, the burial grounds of the Mohawks of Quebec, the majestic cedar forests of the Haida of British Columbia. But such liberty of land and spiritual space is no longer available to their descendants. Faced with the impossibility of living in the old way, and yet a need to make peace with the current culture, there is only one alternative the artists in this exhibition have left to them: beginning from scratch — the new aestheticism that can be found in invoking the ritualistic and shamanistic art of the ancient ones. In an opening paragraph from a statement by Barnett Newman in the exhibition catalogue, Northwest Coast Indian Painting, he wrote:

It is becoming more and more apparent that to understand modern art, one must have an appreciation of the primitive arts, for just as modern art stands as an island of revolt in the stream of Western European aesthetics the many primitive art traditions stand apart as authentic aesthetic accomplishments that flourished without benefit of European history. (42) 

Like Newman's inheritance from the Kwagiulth, these artists, as direct descendants, can find clues to the sublime achievement of beginning a new history of art, an art whose polemics should begin with honouring their birthright.

Perhaps there is an inherent contradiction in thinking that any 'new' art can be 'indigenous'; but so are the current art polemics used in this essay to try and contextualize the 'contemporary' artists in this exhibition — both new, and indigenous at the same time. There is, of course, the inevitable observation that anything new means, in dictionary terms, 'having never existed, occurred, appeared' before. Undoubtedly this becomes quite problematic if that art is not based on a revolt against its visual heritage. The revolt by these artists is against their exclusion from Western art; it is like a palace insurrection whose artisans want to create narratives different from those surrounding the residing, foreign, queen.

Any rethinking of the history of modernism has to include the question of whether Western art now includes indigenous art, particularly the contemporary art in question. Another important question, perhaps more immediate, is whether postmodernism, to reiterate Durham's cynicism, is just another fiction intended to exclude and protect: 'There is no Western culture, but a power structure that pretends to be Western culture.' (43)  The real challenge facing these artists is to question all of that history; for one thing, they have never been part of it. They know why they have been excluded. The next question is, are they included in the current art discourse? Can they question a history they are not part of? Delacroix could express doubts about the growing academic tendencies of neo-classicism by looking back to Antiquity. Why can't these artists seek the truth about who they are, where they came from, and where they are going, by looking back towards their own 'antiquity' of 'classic' native art? Is this exhibition the beginning of that dialogue? Do these artists who have been disinherited by history really have any room to manoeuvre?

Because, paradoxically, any refutation of this stance would be a denial of any history before 1492 — the year of a historical / philosophical demarcation. The precarious dilemma is compounded by two factors: first, the use of revolutionary rhetoric, the need 'to start from scratch,' one of the fundamental tenets of modernism; and second, the conservative implications of an art based in believing in the traditional teachings left by the ancient ones, the 'autochthonous.'

No apologia is needed for any native aesthetics at work in the creative processes of these artists; that their indigenous inheritance is part of a continuum, especially within the context of the modernist heritage which informs all contemporary art, is unequivocal. Nevertheless, they straddle not only two cultures, but two histories; the first, the modern / postmodern dichotomy, and the second, that tension between the contemporary world and that of the ancient ones.

To understand their art one does not need anthropological / sociological insights, but one does need an openness — much like that of Jackson Pollock to Navajo sand painting, or that of Pablo Picasso to African sculpture — in order to appreciate the inherent sensibilities, laced with knowledge and perception, which have developed over several millennia right here on this continent. It is important to acknowledge the basic fact that the spiritual legacy of art from any one culture offers reassurance that the human species has some commonalities which are important to knowing who we are, where we are, and where we are going.

The art tradition with which these contemporary artists identify and in which they continue to invest flourished for thousands of years without the benefit of European history. And that is not rebellion, only the status quo. But having said that, the artists' knowledge acquired through art schools (sometimes minefields netted with trenches of assimilation, discrimination, and oblivion), combines with their unique legacy to prepare them to create a new plastic language that has a spirit. A contemporary art, which is both new and indigenous, full of the richness and vigour of twentieth century images and forms combined with mystical and existential visionary iconography from an antiquity that is not Greco-Roman. In a recent column, art critic John Bentley Mays writes: 'It's a mixed heritage, full of misunderstandings, one that they cherish, question, dislike and like by turns. It is also a heritage they are consistently committed to understanding in the material media that art provides.' (44) 

Land, spirit, power — those gifts left us by the ancients, the 'antiquity' of this hemisphere — are the cornerstones upon which their descendants, the artists in this exhibition, the first international exhibition of contemporary native art at the National Gallery, have built a monument to those benefactors. There are other markers: this year is the tenth anniversary of a previous, international exhibition of this stature wherein the forty-ninth parallel was symbolically erased to join the First Nations of Canada and the Native Americans of the United States at the Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina; (45)  this is also the one-hundred-and-twenty-fifth anniversary of the Confederation of Canada at a time of constitutional crises and discussions in which First Nations are being actually heard for perhaps the first time; and it is the quincentennial of the voyage of Columbus, in his attempt to find a new European trade route to Asia after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, (46)  which led to a world that has never since been the same.

After ten years, have the artists of 'mixed heritage' in this exhibition been accepted into the mainstream? Do they have the the right to challenge their exclusion from modernism and question the sophistry of postmodernism? After a century and a quarter, will the inherent rights of these artists be recognized and upheld? And, after five hundred years of colonization, will these artists be given the right to lay to rest the 'noble savage'?

In 1967, on the occasion of the centenary of Canadian Confederation, Chief Dan George made a speech in Ottawa which still, twenty-five years later, gives vibrant voice to the way in which the artists in Land, Spirit, Power see themselves allegorically — their continuity with the past. He said:

I was a born a thousand years ago,
          Born in a culture of bows and arrows,
But within the span of half a lifetime
          I was flung across the ages
To the culture of the atomic bomb —
          And that is a flight far beyond
A flight to the moon.

(from the catalogue for Land, Spirit, Power, The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1992)

Text: © Robert Houle. All rights reserved.

The Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art
The Canadian Art Database: Canadian Writers Files

Copyright ©1997, 2020. The CCCA Canadian Art Database. All rights reserved.