The Canadian Art Database

Charlotte Townsend-Gault

Kinds of Knowing

The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1992

from the catalogue for Land, Spirit, Power, The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1992
[ 8,623 words ]

You do not have to be an anthropologist to answer that the difference is cultural, nor an art expert to realise that cultural difference is also the reason why aboriginal art has been out of the field for so long. But you do have to be an artist of native ancestry to make the kinds of daring and inventive transformations of knowledge specific to given cultures that are evident in the exhibition. As someone who has some knowledge of both anthropology and art, I see these transformations as so many ways of maintaining and recovering control of culturally specific knowledge — of the language, mythology, history, the rules and their every nuance — which are fully comprehensible only to those who live them, a way of knowing that is both exhilarating and profoundly challenging to the outside observer.

Evidence of this way of knowing can be found in much of the art made over the last decade by artists of native ancestry across North America. It may form the substance of the work, it may be the source of its critical intent, it may be both. Although Land, Spirit, Power does not attempt to represent fully the diversity of North American native cultural expression, the works in the exhibition are representative of the search for ways to translate, transform, re-invent, protect, and sometimes obscure the knowledge that is integral to these cultures. An important manifestation of this different way of knowing appears in the artists' working through of their spiritual relationship to land, to show that 'land' and 'spirit' are not really separate terms. Yet theirs is not some diffuse and generalised spirituality, but is very specific and locally rooted. Their explorations are done in ways that position the artists within the discourse of postmodern art. In articulating their ideas, verbal as well as visual (which have shaped this essay), they illumine important aspects of the discourse, not by reproducing prevailing definitions, but by constructing them rather differently. They also position them within the much broader reach for cultural and political power currently being made by native groups across North America.

The power contained in knowing was unequivocally stated by Ovide Mercredi, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who put knowledge — knowledge of First Nations' distinctiveness, their difference — foremost on his agenda at a 1992 conference of Canadian First Ministers. In demanding acknowledgment of a difference that the colonial relationship had failed to recognise, Mercredi was establishing a position from which to counteract the ignorance and prejudice that has resulted.

This is an idea that takes many forms, and it has a history. A passage from the Two Row Wampum Treaty of the Six Nations, which was ratified by Gus-wen-tah, a mid-sixteenth century wampum belt, reads:

These two rows will symbolize two paths or two vessels, travelling down the same rivers together. One, a birch bark canoe, will be for the Indian people, their laws, their customs and their ways. The other, a ship, will be for the white people and their laws, their customs and ways. We shall each travel the river together, side by side, but in our own boat. Neither of us will try to steer the other's boat. (1) 

The passage underlines a concept fundamental to understanding cultural racism, a form of racism that cannot even be identified when the fact of cultural difference is denied. 'The ways in which minorities are stereotyped, marginalised and allowed to succeed only where they pay the price of disowning their origins, is much more to do with rejection on the basis of (mis)perceived culture than biology,' according to cultural analyst Tariq Modood. (2)  It may seem paradoxical that egalitarians have to emphasise what they would like to overlook, since difference can be so divisive.

Within this discussion, the contributions of artists have a special importance. James Lavadour has said: 'Art has a use as a force vital to society — in this way it is recovering its aboriginal function. Art shouldn't be an homogenising force worldwide, but be generative and illuminative in specific ways.' (3)  In Canada, particularly today, cultural knowledge is being used by First Nations representatives, both politicians and artists, to resist misperceptions and reshape their own social world (4) (a situation with contemporary parallels among marginalised communities in other parts of the world, such as Chile). (5) 

To appreciate what it is that the artists contribute to the taking of cultural power, it must be pointed out that the knowledge which First Nations people hold about themselves and their cultures has been obscured for too long by another kind of knowledge constructed about Indians by others. There is a place where aboriginal knowledge is used to contest this historical misconstruction and misrepresentation. It is a place where the first is lived, researched, re-invented, and the latter critiqued, deconstructed, exposed. Where, however, even if it is recognised that there are irreconcilable differences between the two, one cannot be jettisoned in favour of the other. It is the space in which artists, involved themselves, usually with some irony, in the latter, seek to reclaim the former. A space where the cultural knowledge that governed the making and use of medicine bundles, of masks, of parfleches and talking sticks, and the history that has purloined and labelled and enclosed them in museum vitrines, are both locked into a present politics of representation. Artists are among the many who are implicated in the discourse wherein the politics is engaged.

One of the more agreed-upon defining characteristics of postmodernism is its querying of reference, of how one thing can confidently be thought to stand for something else, of how signs signify, of the ways in which works of art refer to their objects. One of the tenets of that discourse derives from social philosopher Jean Baudrillard's view that mass representation has perverted reality, producing a simulacrum of the real that destroys reality. (6)  The perversion has furthermore infected the discourse of art, which cannot depend on reliable systems of representation; nor, therefore, can it subvert them — essentially what the inventions of modernism depended on. Indeed, Carl Beam, Jane Ash Poitras, and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith are among the many native artists whose work has been about exactly this, as they juxtapose signs of diverse origin, as if to enquire whether the technique can point up new meanings.

Yet, for all Baudrillard's insight into the disjunctures of contemporary culture, his critics have long pointed to the fallacy in the idealist notion that there can be, should be, or ever has been, a perfect mesh between form and meaning, between signifier a signified. Cultural theorist Linda Hutcheon, who has written on postmodernism, specifically in its manifestations in Canadian culture, states: 'There is nothing natural about the "real" and there never was — even before the existence of mass media.' (7)  This caution is doubly necessary in the age of the New Age, with its blandishments based on the idea of an Eden of perfect congruence, and the persistent belief that there is some necessary connection between aboriginal culture and a more natural way of knowing. Another form of idealism is at work in the notion that what is required is simply a peeling away of the distortions created by the lamentable history of misrepresentation to reveal a true, or historically pure, reality. This has been one of the staples of the definition of 'primitive' upon which rights to superior power for the 'civilised' were erected. (8)  It meets the non-native observer's need to believe in the possibility of an earthly paradise, to romance the other and the others meaning, to identify something 'Indian' and 'authentic'. A swift corrective is offered in native museum director and lawyer Dick West's brisk: 'I was born in a TV not a tipi.' (9) 

How First Nations artists choose to represent themselves and how they contest the representations of others in a world of cultural disjuncture, fall centrally into what it is that the postmodern queries. There may be little agreement on how to define it, and too much generalising social metaphysics, but what is useful is the querying of signification, because we need to ask to what extent 'meaning' depends on cultural difference. In my observation, aboriginal discourse does not seem to be lost in a morass of freely floating signifiers; rather, it appears to be able to replace this condition with one of a determined responsibility. It is as though First Nations artists, having access to what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has called 'symbolic capital' (10)  — their cultural knowledge — have determined to invest it for the benefit of quite distinct audiences. They are in a position to take advantage of the permissions opened up by certain aspects of the postmodern discourse, and then to stop. To stop, that is, before they reach the paradoxes of the deconstructive process eating its own tail, the contortions of Western rationality trying to critique itself, or the point at which, as Jimmie Durham puts it, postmodernism, with its indiscriminate attention to everything and nothing, becomes 'just another lock-out.' (11)  Given a set of circumstances, historical and political, these artists are making a space for themselves; challenging the colonial discourse, they undermine the authority of the signs that constitute its knowledge, and reassert the authority of the signs of their own rightful knowledge.

The situation is far too complex for their task to be a matter of the simple recovery of some 'ancient' knowledge, with which these representations can have perfect congruence. They reclaim, not some absolute knowledge, but their right to work with these now synthetic knowledges in a shared 'reality,' where such work is a way of 'really dealing with a lot of the pain and suffering involved in not being able to really act in your reality, or in your landscape,' (12)  as Carl Beam refers to his own struggle with the 'real' and the 'represented'. In the same way, Faye HeavyShield depends on an understanding of arrowheads for the Blood, Teresa Marshall on the cosmological significance of the turtle for the Micmac, and Truman Lowe on the spirituality of wood for the Winnebago, while in Kay WalkingStick's series Chief Joseph, the power of the bow is drawn upon repeatedly to pay tribute to a great chief. Such substances, objects, events, hold meaning for people inasmuch as they represent and encapsulate a system of beliefs, an ideology. They are the symbolic capital, amassed in both the past and the present. The artists are responsible for the synthesizing and are not victimised by it; they are able to hold some sets of signification in question while asserting others. The stripped willow withes in many of Lowe's sculptures reference the waterways where the artist paddles his canoe to recover another way of moving through, that is, of knowing, the land. Lowe says: 'I am interested in finding that point in time when "history" stops and "myth" begins. It is the time when a family's history leaves the page or the tribal record and becomes legendary. That realm approaches art. Then you begin to assemble images from somewhere in the deep recesses of your memory or that of an ancestor's mind.' (13)  Robert Davidson and Dorothy Grant transmit some of the 'meaning' of the Haida ceremonial blanket, worn at potlatches and naming ceremonies, into a non-ceremonial context. Seven Ravens was 'danced' (before it was framed for its own protection), and its story remains inseparable from the appliquéd forms, even in an art gallery.

The specificity of pieces like these evades the diffuse mystifications of a universal artistic shamanism based on the psychic unity of humanity, which was the premise around which the exhibition Magiciens de la Terre, (14)  held in Paris in 1989, was organised. Such exhibitions tend to weaken the very aboriginal identity that they are, with all good intentions, attempting to strengthen and celebrate. Specific meanings contest the open season on all systems of signification, and the patronising permissiveness of postmodern pluralism, which has replaced, in turn, a patronising primitivising born out of romanticism and guilt.

This is not at all to imply that there is a genre of contemporary art that can be labelled 'Indian', or even aboriginal. Such a notion has served a trivialising purpose in past history, as tokens of 'Indianness', for example, have been seen as the authenticating factor; has had an economic use, in making works marketable to non-native audiences as curiosities or worse; and even a culturally destructive one, in delimiting the bounds of the authentic. (15)  Yet it is not in 'Indianness' that the difference lies. Rather, it lies in the fact that the histories, conflicts, and subjugations of aboriginal peoples, which cannot be generalised across North America, are as integral to the work of native artists as their work is integral to their participation in a community with aims far beyond that of art world accreditation. Acceptance from the latter, by authorising, gives one kind of power to the work, but it is far from being the only power it commands. These are not commentaries on socio-political issues that can be 'read off' in any simple way, nor can they be best understood as art-with-a-message. These artists are making interventions into some of the most daunting ethical and epistemological issues of our shared time and space, including whether our ideas of that time and space are in fact commensurate and therefore can be shared. (16) 


The history of the construction of knowledge of and about indigenous peoples is the history of the exercise of power. The duplicity and complicity involved in the colonial relationship has resulted in a situation of 'dependency, coercion and domination,' historian Bruce Trigger's dismal trilogy of the effects of colonialism. (17)  Those who intruded upon, surveyed, and settled North America wielded intellectual, personal, administrative, and military powers that they seldom doubted were superior to, and more enduring than, the powers of those upon whom they imposed.

It is, however, not possible to generalise about a continent, nor is it simply a matter of tracing the history of the exercise of force majeure. The intruders were not 'Europeans', but Basque whalers, West Country English fishermen, Dutch traders, and French missionaries whose 'different natures and purposes' (18)  meant that they established different relationships with the inhabitants. Generalised indictments against Europeans miss this point. Furthermore, in stressing the persistence of separate and distinct forms of knowledge and of constructing reality of inhabitants and settlers, it should not be forgotten that a symbiotic relationship between the two has existed now for five hundred years. It might also be observed that, in human affairs, 'there is a case for coexistence effectively depending on mutual misunderstanding,' a statement that in no way judges the quality of that coexistence. (19) 

Many aboriginal groups at first welcomed the visitors, having things to teach, as well as to trade with them, and situations of mutual dependency developed out of commercial relationships and military alliances. Nevertheless, there are generalisations about the European societies from which 'settlers' have emanated since the sixteenth century that help to account for the history of difference that persists to the present. The Canadian historian J. R. Miller explains that these societies 'were highly stratified and their governments were coercive in nature. In all the Western European states there was a well established hierarchy of nobles, gentry, burghers, and common people. Though those of higher rank could have obligations to the less fortunate, individualism was more deeply ingrained among them than it was among the peoples of North America...European countries were not just structured societies and authoritarian polities; they were also acquisitive economies.' (20) 

Carl Beam has synopsized this as 'Man shall have dominion over the beasts and all the little fishes, and the clams, the lobsters, water and trees; everything was made for man's usage.' In contrast, he says:

The Indian viewpoint is that it was made for its own sake; man has to live in accordance with that structure. One system believes that you are a part of everything, and one says that you are on top of everything, and everything is there for your use — everything else is lower. The hierarchy is already set up. You are it, man! The world is yours! You just have to go out there and harvest everything! The sheep and cows and all the good wine, the cigarettes, the real estate — all the prime waterfront footage — it's all yours. The trees and water — if you want to dump all your chemicals in there you can just go ahead. Who else would lay claim to all of that, other than man, anyway? (21) 

In fact, the earliest accounts show Europeans grappling not with difference but with similitude. Most of those who wrote about the so called New World, the historians and theologians, were searching for ways to incorporate their 'discoveries' into their own existing conceptual frameworks. The reports, diaries, logs, and letters were intended for a readership somewhere else. As Anthony Pagden, the historian of those who thought they had discovered America, reminds us, 'the distance between the kind of explanatory accounts of Indian behaviour current in the sixteenth century and those which had come into use in the eighteenth must be measured in terms of historical changes which had little or nothing to do with the presence of the real world of America.' (22)  It is anachronistic to judge them by current standards of 'objective' accuracy. According to historian and philosopher Michel Foucault, it was not until the early seventeenth century that attempts were made to classify and describe difference and discontinuity. (23)  However, the experimental scientific methods of the eighteenth century were crucial to the development of the discipline of anthropology, which, systematically and for the first time, did attempt to deal with Pagden's 'real world of America'.

The results were, and are, complex and morally ambiguous. Some part of the anthropological project has undoubtedly contributed to the construction of 'Indianness', a concept which rivals that of 'Orientalism' as an artifact of Eurocentrism. Anthropology, until very recently, has been part of an all white history of the other. At times the whole enterprise has been seen as nothing more than a scapegoat for all the errors of colonial discourse. (24)  But anthropology can be defended: its practitioners have always known both that there were things it could not know, and that there were things accessible to its researches worth finding out. Among the more notable recording projects in North America was the publication, started in 1852 by the Smithsonian Institution, and continued by the Bureau of American Ethnology, of a long series of anthropological texts, many of them verbatim transcripts. Certain volumes preserve important parts of Haida oral literature, notably the words of John Sky and Walter McGregor, as collected by Swanton. (25)  Others constitute a record of Tsimshian and Kwagiulth mythology, much of the latter collected under the direction of Franz Boas by George Hunt, his Kwagiulth informant. Boas's record of the fishing grounds of Kwagiulth numayms has been used to confirm contemporary rights. This was not 'salvage anthropology,' (26)  as it has been sometimes dismissively termed, but simple preservation, followed in some cases by a synthesizing that made the world of the native more accessible than it had been to the immigrant population. For example, it was an anthropologist, Diamond Jenness, who observed, in 1930 when such a perception would have been a revelation to his readers, that, for the Indian, 'all objects have life, and life is synonymous with power, which may be directed for the Indians' good or ill. Just as man's power comes from his soul, or his intelligence, so does the power of the animal, tree, and stone. Therefore the Indians should treat with the respect befitting [it] a thing that has a soul and an image not unlike his own.' (27) 

Similarly, Ruth Benedict, the American anthropologist, was one of the first to promote the non-Eurocentric and non-hierarchical idea that a culture could only be understood in its own terms, and not through comparison, favourable or unfavourable, with any other. Ironically, Patterns of Culture, her very influential book published in 1934, did in fact allow for, even encourage, exactly this, giving contemporary North American society grounds to compare itself unfavourably with the cultures discussed, among them the Kwagiulth.

However, as historian Robert Berkhofer points out in The White Man's Indian, while shaking ethnocentric assumptions of centuries, Benedict did not question 'the basic moral and intellectual assumption of the idea of culture itself' (28)  — a concept which has only been queried in the last decades. Since the publication of Patterns of Culture, the focus in anthropology has shifted from a search for functioning systems, social control mechanisms, and static ideological maps to the study of non-order and of the dynamic parts of society — the indeterminate and marginal — with an appreciation of the essentially compromised position of the 'objective' outside observer. It is only very recently that an anthropologist has been able to point out that, 'what are opposed in conflict...are not the same societies at different stages of development, but different societies facing each other at the same Time.' (29) 

In fact, anthropology has a particularly self-conscious contribution to make to the discourse on discourse, having been implicated in, and having collected, discourse itself for decades. Anthropologists, responsible for some of the best informed and most subtle interpretations of culture extant, are having to concede that, along with other intellectual schemas such as cultural theory and textual criticism, even a self-reflexive anthropology must perforce use one form of knowledge to approach and frame another. What persists is the attempt to focus on what differentiates one society from another, its specificity.

This stance differs markedly from the one based on a non-specific, diffuse, and generalised understanding that has sufficed for many modernists interested in alien cultures, and that is apparent in the records of twentieth century art. Artist Henry Moore voiced a widespread view when he wrote in 1941 that, 'to understand and appreciate [primitive art], it is more important to look at it than to learn the history of primitive peoples, their religion and social customs...all that is really needed is response to the carvings themselves, which have a constant life of their own, independent of whenever and however they came to be made.' (30)  The exhibition 'Primitivism' in 20th Century Art: Affinities between the Tribal and the Modern at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1984 has come to be seen as the classic exercise of this approach.

Ron Hamilton, the Nuu-chah-nulth poet, scholar, and artist, has a clear position on this:

Lately the rule is, 'Don't interpret!'
It's all art now.
But that's an interpretation,
Not ours.

What the First Nations are up against is thus not only such romantic representations as the paintings of Paul Kane or the photographs of Edward Curds, but the legacy of a misrepresented history, and of representations that have successively conceived of culture as organism, as language, and as text, and which have all been prey to intellectual fashions. All habitually treat natives 'more like props than like actors.' (33) 

How then is history to be re-told, the misrepresentations re-presented, the knowledge re-stored? In the work and words of the artists in this exhibition, representative of many others, certain recurrent themes and shared strategies emerge: the recovery of history, and with it the contesting of stereotypes and the restoration and reinvention of tradition; the identification of a space from which to be heard, by various audiences; a stress on local knowledge to make specific what has been generalised, to make actual what has been essentialised. And, perhaps most importantly, what emerges is the understanding that there is more than one kind of knowing: that there exists knowledge that can be shared, knowledge that may be intimated, and knowledge that should be withheld, to control translatability, in respect for the final untranslatability of the essence of cultural difference.

It is no longer possible, if it ever was, to account for the construction of the colonisers' knowledge within its own terms. As discussed above, the ideology upon which such a way of knowing was dependent has been exposed. The way in which that knowledge, like its objects, was acquired and exploited has come under too much critical scrutiny. Its history now is the history of its revising. Mounting what could be termed an 'ethno-critique' by aboriginal peoples, the interrogation of their own misrepresentation in the inscription of history has been the driving force in the politics of representation. It is a politics that is played out in courtrooms and hearings, in classrooms and offices, as well as in museums and art galleries.

A telling example of rewriting is provided in the realisation by the Dunne-za / Cree that it was the hunting skills of their ancestors that kept the early traders alive. Chief Gerry Attachie, of the Doig River band, has talked about learning from a diary kept by Frank Beatton, who ran the Hudson's Bay Company post at Peace River in the late 1800s (where Beaver Indians had earlier made peace with Cree Indians): 'In the late 1800s our people were hunting for them...that's how they survived. don't read it in the paper...when I was reading the diary to our elders, I took them back, way back, and then, they remembered, when our people were hunting for early traders.' (34)  This kind of indebtedness is being put back into the histories, as part of a long tale of accommodation and intermarriage which counteracts the negative characterisations that suited the colonisers' purposes. This kind of retelling is providing material for a new generation of native artists.

While there were (and are) significant differences between the historical forces at work in the formation of Canada and the United States, there was an unfortunate similarity: it was referred to in the United States as Manifest Destiny, the misapprehension that a continent was there for the taking.

Jimmie Durham expresses it thus:

The Master Narrative of the United States proclaims that there were no Indians here, just wilderness. Then that the Indians were savages in need of the United States. Then that the Indians all died, unfortunately. Then, that the Indians still alive are (a) basically happy with the situation and (b) not the "real" Indians. Then, most importantly, that that is the complete story. (35) 

Carl Beam puts several sides of the story under erasure as he deconstructs the systematisation of Western concepts of the natural world. (36)  A work like Plexiglas Landscape conveys rather literally the shadowy hard-to-define relationships, the difficulty of establishing connections between conceptions of reality and their representations.

Over a long career, Alex Janvier has melded an indigenous narrative tradition, and the ancient double-curve motif, with linear pictorial conventions from both Western and Oriental art in order to tell the catastrophic story of cultural conflict.

Jane Ash Poitras elides her knowledge of early twentieth century European art with her knowledge of the educational system which came from the same place. Her exposure is constructed of fragments of photographs, writing, newspaper articles, news headlines, and passages of paint knowingly applied.

In both Canada and the United States new ways of doing post-contact history are being developed — there is a move away from narratives of great battles and prominent figures such as chiefs, generals, and administrators, to social and community histories in a context of ethno-history. The ever greater intervention into this process by First Nations people, including artists, is evident in the growing number of publications devoted to native oratory, poetry, life histories, reminiscences, knowledge of the land and animals, plant use, medicines, and spiritual beliefs. It is increasingly clear that a proper attention to myth, story, and cosmology gives the lie to a static, a-historical past, and shows that pre-Columbus North America was no more proof than the rest of the world against internal migration, contact, conflict, trade, domination, and subjugation. Origin myths may run counter to the archaeological record, but tradition and invented tradition have their own validity in terms of the construction of an identity for a people. (37) 

Many artists are doing their own socio-historical research into their own families and cultures. This may take the form of learning or improving a language; of becoming a student under ritual experts; of compiling meticulously documented family albums, like George Littlechild; of offering a reinterpretation of the ethnographies, as Colleen Cutschall has done in her series of paintings Voice in the Blood; of monitoring the incursions made by mining and logging companies into land that belongs to aboriginal peoples, as does Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun. It may take the form of observing the daily life of the reservation — its economic, religious and interpersonal pressures — of which the work of James Luna is compelling evidence. It may replicate the social setting of a way of life now displaced, as Sak Kunuk has done in Qaggia; or capture the present with a movie camera as contemporary conflicts unfold, as Alanis Obomsawin did at Restigouche or Oka. All this material, and the processes of accumulating it, is inextricable from the artworks produced.

For the need to collect and preserve in order to establish cultural identity is a conscious intention, neither natural nor innocent, as anthropologist Richard Handler has observed with reference to the formation of Quebec's patrimoine. (38)  For the First Nations, it feeds into their wider cultural project, the reintegration of disparate areas of life, and the reinstatement of many forms of aboriginal wisdom. As the Cree artist, curator, and writer Gerald McMaster says: 'The more I look back at the traditions of my people the more I see that they didn't specialise.' (39)  And as Canadian Mohawk and director of the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, Rick Hill, extrapolates: 'The interconnectedness of all Indian art is its perimeter of defence.' (40) 

Another form of historical imposition, that of alien names and boundaries on a map, is uncovered in a work that Edgar Heap of Birds has installed in a number of places, including New York, Minneapolis, and Vancouver. Roadside signs reveal, by reinstating them, the names that were there first, names to which surveyors and cartographers were oblivious. They also reveal the imposed ownership. The work recalls Durham's poem 'This Is Not New Jersey':

........ You made the wrong turn.
This is not New Jersey and this is not the new world.
You need to get your bearings straight.
We live here and u are scaring the fish.
See, we don't call this place New Mongolia, or New Jersey.

Reclaiming meaning involves, among other strategies, struggling with stereotypes — one-dimensional prototypes projected by European mythologising. Mohawk curator and historian Deborah Doxtator writes, 'Non-Indian images of Indians are either at one extreme of the 'ranking' spectrum or the other — either Indians are depicted as 'savages' below Euro-Canadian 'civilization' or as 'noble savages' who are more moral, faster, stronger, kinder than any Euro-Canadian. Rarely have Indians been treated by Canadian society as equals.' (42)  Heap of Birds identifies some stereotypes, and they are not trivial ones, in Telling Many Magpies, Telling Black Wolf, Telling Hachivi, Gerald McMaster's paintings set up both cowboys and Indians as fall guys in the narrative of the Wild West. Richard Ray Whitman's photographic series Street Chiefs presents real people, in knowing opposition to the generic Indian whose costume rather than identity constitutes the classic stereotype. Shelley Niro's photographs establish her own stereotypical Mohawk women: they are, unmistakably, having fun, not least at the expense of the stereotypers. Such counter-stereotypes parallel the native community's efforts to oppose and gain control over the representations of 'Indianness' and 'Eskimoness' used by tourist boards to represent the quintessence of the Canadian and American 'experience.' (43) 

It is, evidently, necessary to mount a defence in a world where modes of representation can themselves be the tools of predators. The view that appropriation in the arts is a form of predation is expressed by film-maker Loretta Todd:

The valorisation of peripheral cultures is frequently undertaken through acts of cultural appropriation. In an extension of the concept of property and colonial conquest, the artists do not value or respect cultural difference, but instead seek to own difference, and with this ownership to increase their own worth. They become image barons, story conquistadors, and merchants of the exotic. (44) 

Artistic appropriation has even raised questions within the native arts community. Rick Hill reported that Hopi people objected to students at the Institute of American Indian Art at Santa Fe attaching eagle feathers to their paintings. However, when appealed to, the elders approved of this reflection of sacredness and saw that it was not really a challenge to the sacred things themselves. Nor were they against contemporary art.

Indeed, Domingo Cisneros skirts the issue of appropriation altogether by offering a cosmology of his own devising. He draws out a kind of power from his materials and their positioning which pays tribute to the animist philosophy of the northern culture where he, Tepehuane from Mexico, has lived for so long. In doing so, he puts signs up about his awareness of the dangers of cultural trespass.

As Teresa Marshall has written, the settler culture has 'built distorted images and interpretations of Indians and Indianness that have, over the past five hundred years, supported the view of native culture as being primitive, artefactual, and collectable.' (45)  Her statement points to the dubious role of museums as ideological strong-boxes for the 'collectable,' in relation to the First Nations' struggle for control of their own history. Established museums everywhere are being challenged on their capacity to fossilise the past, to perpetuate the dubious opposition between modernity and tradition. Rather than calling for the abolition of the museum as an institution, an important part of the new move towards ethno-history has been the proliferation of local and tribal museums where displays and interpretations are directed towards specific audiences. Such museums use strategies that they share with artists and others involved in the politics of representation being played out in contemporary aboriginal culture. Among those in use at two West Coast museums, the Kwagiulth Museum and Cultural Centre at Cape Mudge and the U'mista Cultural Centre at Alert Bay, are: a deliberate redressing of the imbalances in the official telling of local history, to show that, more often, there are many histories, not necessarily linear; a disregard for, or subversion of the art / artefact or art / culture distinction as being an artificial imposition; and an intention to reach the audience to whom the things in the museum belong that surpasses any need for national or international status. (46)  Most of this is summed up in comments made by Chief Harry Assu of Cape Mudge, in his autobiography, about the museum's role in the 're-appropriation' of potlatch treasures: 'It has all worked out pretty well. All our stuff that was brought back from Ottawa is in glass cases in the museum according to the family that owns them. That's what the masks and other things mean to us: family ownership. We are proud of that! It tells our family rights to the people.' (47) 


Stand on the back of the Turtle, our mother, and look at the land and wonder what it would have been like if Columbus would have been successful in his pursuit of India and avoided the eastern shore of this continent. Wipe your Indian hands on your Levi jeans, get into your Toyota pick-up. Throw in a tape of Mozart or Led Zeppelin or ceremonial Sioux songs; then throw your head back and laugh — you are a survivor of a colonized people. (48) 

Now, nearly a decade since those words were written to celebrate survival in the midst of a jumble of signs of diverse origins, their precise meanings apparently evaporated in Baudrillardian flux, it appears that, along with survival, a reliance has developed on localizing strategies, cultural specifics. Out of a meaningless pluralism, new meanings are being synthesised and controlled. Fears of continental homogenisation are thus being arrested by an insistence on differential response and different ways of constructing reality. As the historian of anthropology, James Clifford, has put it, we may fear that Coca-Cola has spilt all over the world, drowning local differences. But Coca-Cola is consumed very differently in an African village than it is in Red Square. Playing different roles, it becomes effectively many substances. (49) 

The master narratives of European-based cultures are thus currently being displaced in favour of local ones: Tlingit oratory, the teachings of the Ojibwa midewiwin, and the revelations of the sweat lodge. Heap of Birds relates that he drove Lightning Woman, his grandmother, in his four-wheel-drive to look for hard weed — the plant with the straight, strong stem which was used to pin bison meat over the drying racks. In the text of the work Hard Weed (1991) he interprets the importance of this 'modern herbal resource' as being that it has always 'tested the knowledge, reverence and creativity of both tribe and individual.'

Another way of knowing, locally, is expressed by James Luna: 'I'm not interested in saving the world through my art. My first interest is working with Indian people to save themselves. The "Rez" is the most comfortable thing for me to make art about. I'm not a historian or a social scientist. I'm an artist and I stay close to the things I deal with every day.' (50)  In his installation, Wee Wish, Luna sets out the implements used to make a traditional Luiseño dish from crushed and cooked acorns. Alongside are the implements of a modern home, food processor, vacuum cleaner, etc. A placard reads: 'The Choice Is Yours' — but clearly it is not. A videotape, narrated by Adela Kolb, recounts the making of the dish, and would include the songs that her elders sang while cracking the acorns — if she knew them. This theme, of irreconcilable difference and cultural loss, could be universalised, but Luna chooses to deal with the power that resides in the objects he knows under a tight local focus.

The sweep of the bare basalt hills outside the window of James Lavadour's studio, in what used to be a church on the Umatilla reserve, is replicated in the sweep of his arm. It is the gesture that produces his paintings. He calls these gestures 'events of nature.' They implicate the artist with the land, not the landscape. Of the city Lavadour says, 'the city is like a monster that sucks the clouds out of the sky and drinks the river. Coyote gets swallowed by the monster and chewed away inside. I went into the city. I love my work. I think it has power. There was no power, no light, in those empty rooms in the city.' (51)  Another implication with an 'event of nature' is Lavadour's involvement with the return of the salmon to some local rivers, the result of cooperative management policies of the Riparian Zone Enhancement Project on which he works. He is passionate about his painting and about fishstocks, talking about them in the same breath and seeing both as part of the effort to restore a culture. 'We've had our apocalypse — now we are going to refresh, psychologically, the whole society.' (52) 

If the revision of history is integral to taking control, then so is the positioning of the reviser, the claiming of the voice, and the locating of an audience.

We are struggling to find our voice,
The right tone, the right pitch,
The right speed, the right code.
The right thoughts, the right words.

 — Ron Hamilton (53) 

The artist Kay Miller expresses the search in another way: 'I go to the edges of different cultures, all my life, and scout. But who do I report to?' (54) 

And in what tone? Last autumn, in the lobby of the Holiday Inn in Ottawa, Jimmie Durham was talking about his position and the need for a Cherokee-centric view of the world. Behind him, as he talked, was a Thanksgiving display incorporating an electric toaster circa 1951, an iron of similar vintage, and some Mackintosh apples that were not aging well — references to a history starting solely with European immigration. Durham said: 'I have decided not to be funny any more.' (55) 

Central to the de-colonisation project is the revival of tradition — the perceived need to perpetuate Tlingit oratory, for example, or to give expression to the relationship of the Haida individual's sense of self with the natural world. There is, however, a fine line between promoting a culture beyond its bounds and making a travesty of it, what social philosopher Homi K. Bhabha would call mimicry — all the colonial discourse is capable of. (56)  Robert Davidson is clearly one artist for whom tradition is an opportunity rather than a constraint. His collaboration with Dorothy Grant, his wife, who executes his designs in fabric, perpetuates a Haida tradition of cooperation between the roles of men and women. Grant speaks of the button blanket as a stage in the evolution of the woven ceremonial garment, from which a form such as that taken in Seven Ravens has evolved — in its turn, within a historical Haida context of experiments with materials and recombinant forms. For Grant and Davidson, positioning their work within a tradition is not a form of silent protest, (57)  but a form of intervention.

An often-noted contradiction between pride in ethnicity and the wish to prove that one can do without it, is resolved in the realisation that, in the postmodern discourse, it is not possible to be detached from the way in which any representation is arrived at, and that includes the audience. Deconstruction of a history does not deliver the deconstructor to a privileged position from which to make comment proof against deconstruction. Infinite regress is an epistemological conundrum. The critique of forms of authority must involve a critique of one's own.

A solution, postmodern in its self-reflexivity, is offered in a piece of Tlingit meta-oratory:

A person will often say
           'I am going to speak to you.'
Public speaking
           is like a man walking up along a river
           with a gaff hook.
He lets his gaff hook drift
           over a salmon swimming at the edge of the river.
When he hooks on it, the salmon way over there
           becomes one with him.
This is the way oratory is.
Even speech delivered at a distance
           becomes one with someone.

At a time of historical revisionism and the recovering of the collectivity, it has been asked whether, in discovering an individual voice, the artist forfeits the capacity to speak for the whole. Rick Hill asks whether the legitimacy of Indian art is its relationship to community; if so, does its success depend upon the closeness of that relationship? It has been pointed out by artist and theorist Jean Fisher (59)  and art historian Carol Podedworny (60)  that the individual stance is an alien mode of address in aboriginal society, and this is a commonly held view among non-native commentators. Anthropologist Marjorie Halpin offers a corrective:

...being Native is not, as in the western culture of imaging, a matter of appearances, stereotypes, and props. It is a way of being, and a matter of shared values: respect for the family, the old, and the land. Paradoxically, perhaps, being Native is also being highly individualized — personal differences are permitted to flourish in these communities, and personal space is respected by others, to a degree unrecognized by the outsider culture. (61) 

The idea that aboriginal society is communitarian at the expense of individualism does not recognise the possibilities within a discourse in which First Nations artists are able, through their specific, local, individual voices, to take control over the inscription of their own forms of knowledge — pure, impure, or synthetic as they may be. Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun gives as his reasons: 'You can file documents and hide them away, but my paintings are too big to hide away.' (62) 

Yuxweluptun's taunt is echoed in Heap of Birds's statement on finding a place:

At this time the manifestation of our battle has changed. The white man shall always project himself into our lives using information that is provided by learning institutions and the electronic and print media. Through these experiences the non-Indian will decide to accept or reject that the Native Americans are a unique and separate people with the mandate to maintain and strengthen indigenous rights and beliefs. Therefore we find that the survival of our people is based upon our use of expressive forms of modern communication. The insurgent messages within these forms must serve as our present day combative tactics. (63) 

In 1991, Rebecca Belmore used the technology of a two-metre-wide megaphone, with thirteen First Nations voices, to develop a mode of address aimed at the ultimate audience — the earth. In her own address she said:

My heart is beating like a small drum, and I hope that you mother earth can feel it. Someday I will speak to you in my language. I have watched my grandmother live very close to you, my mother the same. I have watched my grandmother shlass="thirdB">These artists choose to participate in the art discourse where they have made a space for themselves. Yet here too it is common to hear the caution expressed by performance artist Margo Kane: 'We have to beware of the tyranny of any one discourse shaping us and what we do.' (65)  It should be obvious that First Nations artists do not, and do not have to, speak with one voice. Nor do they have to address one audience. There are clearly several audiences among the native community. As Hill puts it, 'the need for art is the need for cultural therapy, therapy through satire, with artists the true Indian satirists.' (66)  This reintroduces the question of multiple audiences, a notion for which modernism had little use and which postmodernism can reduce to a flabby polyvocality. Carl Beam has suggested a radical redefinition: 'If we get past the idea of landscape, and of environment — environment for whom? For the humans? animals? fish? If someone could just bare their soul, and allow themselves to think in those terms, all kinds of discourse might be valuable.' (67) 

Evidently Beam's engagement with the Western avant-garde is hardly uncritical. But then, the Western avant-garde is critical of itself. Speaking of the apparently terminal inward-turning etiolation of its enterprise, social art historian T. J. Clark identified as an opposing tendency 'a search for another place in the social order. Art wants to address someone, it wants something precise and extended to do; it wants resistance, it needs criteria; it will take risks in order to find them, including the risk of its own dissolution.' (68)  The point is that railing against the hegemony of the avant-garde, or its attenuation, or its institutionalisation, does not need to be an end in itself for First Nations artists. It could be argued that they have precisely the criteria for which Clark calls. Yet the avant-garde is only one of the places where they belong, its audience only one of their audiences, which should make these artists proof against the probable waning in the current fashion for marginality. Durham has suggested the art audience is only concerned 'if our art is about our plight.' (69)  But there are others out there.


Long ago her mother had to sing this song and so she had to grind along with it. The corn people have a song too. It is very good. I refuse to tell it. (70) 

Many of the works in Land, Spirit, Power could be thought of as forms of translation, reaching across cultures on many different levels. They also show that this is a complex and subtle operation, and not a relatively simple matter of translation from language A to language B. It is more a matter of transforming knowledge — ontological mysteries and body language, historical representations and story-telling — in ways that are controlled by those who hold it. Knowledge is willingly being shared, but a point is reached where translation stops. This point should mark the beginning of a more broadly encompassing, necessarily humbling, appreciation of the knowledge of other cultures — of cultural difference.

Although, like Davidson and Grant, Dempsey Bob carves for his own people, he also works for a non-native audience of connoisseurs and the fascinated. One does not have to know much to know that the suave elegance of his carvings conceals as much as it reveals — essentially un-knowable to a non-Tlingit audience. Narratives recalling how the spirits were originally revealed to the clan are essential to these works, but cannot travel into a collector's home with a carving. Nor can the concept of at.óo'w, which is fundamental to Tlingit social structure, oral literature, and ceremonial life. At. óo'w cannot readily be translated into English, yet it remains the spiritual, social, and rhetorical anchor for oratory, carving, and much else. (71)  The limit is set not for the sake of mystification, nor as a hostile withholding for the sake of individual or group power, but it is set to protect a cultural power.

During an interview that Durham gave at the time of his show at Exit Art in New York, curator Jeanette Ingberman addressed the issue of translation and comprehension:

Ingberman: Can you tell me what the words mean?

Durham: No. (laughs) I'll tell you, but I don't want to be answering that question to everyone that asks.

Ingberman: Obviously a lot of people who come in to see the show won't know the meaning of the Cherokee words.

Durham: And I don't want them to know.

Ingberman: That doesn't matter to you?

Durham: What I want them to know is that they can't know that. That's what I want them to know. Here's a guy having his heart cut out with an obsidian knife and he's saying something in Cherokee and I don't want people that come into the gallery to know what he's saying...The first text is the real things, turquoise, words, gold, emeralds, obsidian and flint, the second text is the Cherokee counterpoint, and the third text is the fact that you don't know what the Cherokee means.

Similarly, few of the people who read the words tsitsitas and vehoe on Heap of Birds's Spectacolor Light billboard above Times Square could have understood that the words are Cheyenne for 'ourselves', and for 'spider' — the Cheyenne term for the whiteman, weaving his treacherous webs. Silence can be taken for capitulation. Their naming and their withholding reassert the words as a source of power.

In the end, cultural difference is expressed not by attempting to find common ground, common words, common symbols across cultures. It is finally dignified by protecting all sides from zealous over-simplification, by acknowledging a final untranslatability of certain concepts and subtleties from one culture to another. Despite the immense generosity, the ethical injunction to share, and the holistic, animist philosophies that are essential to aboriginal societies across North America, self-definitions rooted in cultural distinctiveness must retain their untranslatable difference. The works in this exhibition contribute to, but also significantly adjust, by expanding, the discourse. We can know many things, whoever 'we' may be. But we can never know everything.

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

Text: © Charlotte Townsend-Gault. All rights reserved.

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