First Nations Identity
- Gary Wyatt (Author)
Mythic Beings: Spirit of the Northwest Coast. Douglas & McIntyre (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Judith Ostrowitz (Author)
Privileging the Past: Reconstructing History in Northwest Coast Art. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Basil H. Johnston (Author) and Jonas George (Wah-sa-ghe-zik) (Author)
The Star-Man and Other Tales. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Allan J. Rayan (Author)
The Trickster Shift: Humour and Irony in Contemporary Native Art. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Richard Van Camp (Author) and George Littlechild (Author)
What's the Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses?. Children's Book Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Jennifer Kramer
At first glance, these five books seem remarkably dissimilar in genre and anticipated readership, running the gamut from academic art criticism to Native-oriented oral narrative to children’s book, suggesting they were put together merely because of their First Nations content. This proves too swift a judgement, for they share an underlying focus on First Nations cultural expressions and can be productively reviewed under the rubric of contemporary Canadian First Nations identity construction. A refusal to be defined from external sources is a powerful, cohesive theme in these works. In an era when many are clamouring for First Nations voices to be heard in the literature, Johnston and Van Camp’s efforts contribute to a growing body of published Native authors. Likewise, although Ostrowitz, Ryan and Wyatt are non-Native and come from groups who have traditionally defined Native art and culture from the outside (art historians, anthropologists and art gallery owners), these authors have used Native informants and recognize the need for Native artists to speak about their own artistic productions. Although there is a certain amount of naivete in thinking that mere recording of words is enough to rectify power differences, the attempt to equalize voices should be applauded.
These texts also speak of the reality that First Nations identity is not made in a vacuum, and Native people must recognize the external sources which they are resisting. In a sense, production can not be understood without reception. All five of these books address this interaction between Native and non-Native people and reflect on the relationship of internal and external identity construction. They flip the stereotype of the Indian as objectified in the Euro-Canadian colonial gaze and turn the lens back onto the Euro-Canadian as tourist in a Native land. First Nations authors and artists in these texts are critical of being seen as the "other," but they make use of their outsider status. For example, Ryan describes how Plains Cree artist Gerald McMaster "interrogates the cowboy/Indian phenomenon—that curious coupling of a minor blue-collar profession with a complete race of people—to reconfigure Aboriginal history and comment on contemporary inter-cultural relations." McMaster plays with the prevalent stereotype in a series of works titled The cowboy/Indian show in order to undermine its power and to make space for alternative perspectives. Ironically, the very stereotype he is refusing becomes the foil for his own identity construction.
Basil Johnston has collected and published a slim volume of Anishinaubae (Ojibway) myths and legends titled The Star-Man and Other Tales. Johnston’s goal is to honour Anishinaubae elders by publishing their oral stories and to depict the continuity and power of the "spiritual past" for the present and future. Nine stories depict a wide range of adventures from supernatural, human and animal perspectives. Some display improper behaviour, where those who act in greed or stupidity are punished by their own comedy of errors. One story tells of a misunderstanding between a Christian bishop and an Anishinaubae community, reflecting how whether in the past or present, incorrect expectations of the "other" can create mutual distrust. The non-Native reader looking for the expected environmental or conservationist message might be surprised at some of the final endings. Although the stories twist and turn in unforeseen directions, suggesting inconsistency or broken linearity, the book’s very frustrations to a Western-trained, non-Native reader may be its teaching devices: here continuity and connection are expressed through chronological distortion, hybridity and thwarted expectations. Illustrated by Anishinaubae artist Ken Syrette, this is a visually pleasing book, which carries deeper messages than a quick perusal might suggest.
In Privileging the Past, Judith Ostrowitz asks why it is that First Nations Northwest Coast art gets valued as authentic only when it is perceived to be conservative in style and a reproduction of something made in the past. This fact is especially puzzling when one considers that the mainstream art world appreciates art only when it is fresh and original. To ponder the reasons for this historicism, Ostrowitz selects four case studies. Chapter one focuses on the repeated restorations of the Chief Shakes House in Wrangell, Alaska. Chapter two maps the planning and creation of the Grand Hall’s permanent Northwest Coast exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull. Chapter three studies the protocol and power plays at work to produce the Kwakwflka’wakw dance performance at the opening of the exhibition Chiefly Feasts at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Chapter four examines recent First Nations artworks inspired by objects in museum collections, which will be used for ceremony or sold for display.
Using careful archival research, a keen attention to photographic detail and interviews with Native artists and non-Native art patrons, Ostrowitz traces how contemporary First Nations Northwest coast replicas, restorations and reenactments are unique documents of cross-cultural process. She tells how Native artists are "cultural intermediaries" and the "near replicas" they make are generated from "cross-cultural dialogue." Ostrowitz pursues the important point that, although accurate replication is held up as the ideal, in fact it is not necessary in order to obtain non-Native appreciation for tribal culture. Following this revelation, she documents the move towards unification of smaller Native villages into larger national units so as to project the message of the strength of contemporary Native communities. Ostrowitz has provided us with a book, albeit using dense academic language and theory, which reveals the bridge between Native and non-Native ideology and links contemporary First Nations art and identity with non-Native perception and reception.
In his book, The Trickster Shift anthropologist Allan Ryan asks why humour has become a significant mode for First Nations artistic expression. His answer is that humour is both a critical strategy and a cultural world view. The extent of the works displayed in these pages (160 color paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures, performance pieces and installations) visually represents the outpouring of contemporary First Nations art in 1980s and 1990s Canada. The sheer exuberance and force of their critique bespeak a giant backlash building against non-Native stereotypes of Indians. Ryan’s book affords the opportunity for a mainstream audience to access these subversive works all in one place, where previously they were scattered in private and public art collections.
Ryan mimics the content of his text with a post-structuralist format or what he terms a "trickster discourse." His book is a collage that replicates with its design First Nations artists’ methods for post-modern art making: juxtaposition, layering, multiple competing voices. Ryan creates a space for the vibrant artwork to react with and against the words of the artists and his own organizing text. Elaborate and informative footnotes serve as factual backbone to aid in providing context and in pinpointing historical moments significant for his and the artists’ interpretations. Ryan achieves his aim: a discourse that is "[a]t once open-ended, unfolding, evolving, incomplete,. .. imagined in numerous verbal and visual narratives and a multiplicity of authoritative voices."
Evocatively, Ryan depicts First Nations artists as "warrior diplomats." Humour has become a diffusion strategy to disempower non-Native people who have attempted to define and limit First-Nations identity. Cleary, displaying art becomes a powerful tool for controlling one’s own indentity construction. In fact, one could even suggest that this text not only reflects pre-existing First Nations identity, but that it promotes growth of positive First Nations identity. Interestingly, Ryan does not reflect on his own role in this critical act. His text belies the fact that he is only a recorder of artists’ voices or a collector and displayer of their contemporary art. Missing from his text is a self-conscious analysis of his own participation in Native identity construction. Allowing the text to be heteroglossic does not in and of itself explain away the need for self-reflection or the effects of non-Native interpretation of Native art. Ryan’s organization of artistic material into four overarching themes of self-identity, representation, political power and global presence necessarily affects the way readers view and understand these works of art. This organization should have been discussed and perhaps deconstructed within the body of his book. This criticism aside, Ryan’s rich compendium of contemporary First Nations art will be seminal for teaching both Native and non-Native students about contemporary First Nations artistic identity.
Richard Van Camp’s What’s The Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses? is ostensibly a children’s book—simple text in bold font coupled with enticing, vivid paintings by famed Cree artist George Littlechild. However, this book’s terse text packs a punch on stereotypes about Indians. It depicts the ability of contemporary First Nations people to refuse to be boxed into categories under traditional labels. Van Camp allows us a peek at his life in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, where, as Métis persons of white and Dogrib heritage, his people both hunt caribou with dogs and watch the World Wrestling Federation on television. Van Camp’s engaging text opens up the possibility for learning from others cross-culturally. With easy grace, Van Camp maps a world of cultural differences yet human similarities. What chidren have not been embarrassed by their looks or asked questions of their family and relatives about their identity? Van Camp’s inclusive writing draws the reader into a friendly dialogue where one feels connected and appreciated for having an opinion and being unique. Van Camp ends this delightful feel-good story with the question: "What’s the most beautiful thing you know about you?"
Gary Wyatt, owner of the Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver, has compiled a gorgeous collection of 75 works of art by 34 First Nations Northwest Coast artists titeled Mythic Beings: Spirit Art of the Northwest Coast. Although this catalogue was made in the context of the commercial art world, no connoisseurship or stylistic jargon is employed. Instead, each boutique-lit colour photo is coupled with an explanatory description of the work’s meaning to the artist in his or her own words. A brief yet useful biography on each artist’s career follows at the end of the book, including artistic training and commissioned works. These are individuals, not representations of tribal identity. Yet claims are still made by Native artists about respect, spirituality, stewardship of the environment and ownership of culture. In Richard Hunt’s words, "I don’t think of what I do as art but as cultural property." The artists highlight issues of inter-cultural translation, repatriation and political self government. Although many of the artists’ self-interpretations have contemporary focus, Wyatt has chosen to divide these artworks into the four ahistorical categories of Sky World, Mortal World, Undersea World and Spirit World. These categories neither work well with the artists’ concerns, nor seem to get in their way. This art catalogue gives the reader a tantalizing visual and verbal introduction to the issues which matter to today’s First Nations Northwest Coast artists.
All of these authors are aware of what happens when Native artistic producÃs are read or viewed by a non-Native audience. Accessibility or the question of how much knowledge should be shared with non-Native people is a consideration in the construction of healthy, contemporary Native identity. These texts suggest in varying degrees of straightforwardness and circumspection that there are many layers of meaning behind any given artistic product, and that not all of these layers are accessible or knowable to a non-Native audience. Ryan mentions shamanic knowledge; Ostrowitz refers to rank privileges; Wyatt points to ceremonial functions that are not being fully explicated. And certainly Johnston’s stories evoke the feeling that there is a boundary to inclusiveness. This boundary is crucial for contemporary First Nations identity construction.
- Culture Up and Away by Len Findlay
Books reviewed: Concepts of Culture: Art, Politics & Society by Adam Muller
- Acts of Survival by Coral Ann Howell
Books reviewed: Myth and Fairy Tales in Contemporary Women's Fiction: From Atwood to Morrisson by Sharon R. Wilson
- The Soul of the World by Catherine Rainwater
Books reviewed: Earth's Mind: Essays in Native Literature by Roger Dunsmore and Reinventing the Enemy's Language: Contemporary Native Women's Writings of North America by Gloria Bird and Joy Harjo
- National Out-Takes by Adam Frank
Books reviewed: The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935 by Wanda M. Corn and Canadian Art: From Its Beginnings to 2000 by Anne Newlands
- Voices of Hope by Brenda Payne
Books reviewed: How to Paint by Chris Harris and bloodriver woman by Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm
MLA: Kramer, Jennifer. First Nations Identity. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #167 (Winter 2000), First Nations Writing. (pg. 126 - 129)
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