All My Relations X Two

“Poetry of Joseph E. Big Bear,” Frank Big Bear (Chippewa)

I ran across this image when I was searching for information about a book All Our Relations by Winona Laduke (Anishinaabe). There is a new art gallery in Minneapolis that I would love to visit. Below is some information from FeatherSpeak’s Facebook post for my fellow American Indian art enthusiasts.

All My Relations: a new gallery for new Native American art

Posted to Minnesota Public Radio by Marianne Combs, March 23, 2011

“One of the great joys of covering the arts in Minnesota, is that through the artistic lens, I also get to explore and celebrate our state’s cultural diversity. And so it was with great pleasure that I went to visit “All My Relations” gallery, the new home to contemporary Native American art, on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis.”

It’s located in the same building as the offices of NACDI – the Native American Community Development Institute – and is a key part of NACDI’s efforts to revitalize the Franklin neighborhood.


Jim Logan (Yukon) Métis

Jim Logan is appropriating Edouard Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass” from 1862. In the original Manet painting, the artist has a female nude gazing at the viewer and two clothed men. In this reversal by Logan, there is a shift of geography and gendered roles. The woman is the background is picking wild rice; in Manet’s painting the woman in the background is bathing. In Logan’s foreground there are small baskets of blueberries juxtasposed with Diet Coke cans. Logan is cleverly blending tradition with present-day reality. Logan’s inversion has ironic potential to challenge conventional ideas about cultural, class, and gender roles.

Terrance Houle Kainai/Saulteaux/Ojibway

Terrance Houle’s art series “Urban Indian” plays with irony and stereotypical depictions of “Indianess,” which he juxtaposes within everyday scenes. His humor dismantles romantic Western notions and breaks the stereotypical myth of what a modern Indian is supposed to look like and be engaged in. He insists on a lively future and public debate.

The series shows Houle modeling a busy day as he heads off to work, rides the bus, shuffles papers in the office, and shops for produce, and so-forth. He is wearing his full powwow regalia (Hill 2008, 65). By encouraging an ironic gaze Houle asks us to be critical viewers of cultural stereotypes.

Faye HeavyShield Kainai (Blood)

Faye HeavyShield’s work consists of personal and powerful imagery influenced by her Catholic and Kainai (Blackfoot) upbringing in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, which is near the northern border of Montana. Her installations seem to be reflective of the human body and appear to mirror some of her personal experiences. According to Lee-Ann Martin (Mohawk): “Faye HeavyShield’s work speaks to a multi-sensory, multi-disciplinary art practice. It is about stories—listening and hearing, it is about aesthetics—the physical and conceptual process of building up and scaling back”.  HeavyShield’s work offers a contemporary example of First Nations traditions. For example, she addresses oral and performance traditions in her installations and through her poetry. Ties to family, language, land, women’s experience of birth and renewal in the way of direct lived experience are all present in HeavyShield’s work.  However, some scholars have indicated that HeavyShield’s aesthetic is as a result of her colonial education and not her culture. Arguably, HeavyShield’s work is representative of her complex influences rather than a surface reflection of her colonial education.
HeavyShield’s Catholic boarding school experiences provide a source of constant conflict in her work and life. HeavyShield addresses these experiences in a conceptual way; through her work she explores conflicted identities—dominant Catholic ideology and Blood traditions. HeavyShield uses text (poetry), which informs her visual imagery.  HeavyShield also draws upon her Kainai tradition of performance. She hybridizes her experiences, identities, and methods in a contemporarily unique way. HeavyShield’s minimalism is not austere and sterile, but speaks volumes. For example, in her 2002 installation entitled aapaskaiyaawa  (They are Dancing) (see image above), HeavyShield integrates viewer performance into her minimalistic sculptures. The installation consists of twelve, live-size, canvas covered, sculptures the color of ripened wheat. The abstracted sculptures, which are suspended from the ceiling on clear nylon lines, have a conical top and an inverted triangular base. The ethereal sculptures float a foot above the gallery floor. The sculptures seem to refer simultaneously to both Niitoyisi (tipis) and papooses, both of which are present in Kainai traditions. HeavyShield weaves her through the twelve sculptures and appears to be walking with her ancestors’ shadows while simultaneously engaging with the representations of her living family—she is the third youngest of twelve children. HeavyShield says of this work: “They dance … because they feel great about where they are, they are grateful to the maker, they are moved by the wind … they are home”.
HeavyShield attempts to decolonize her experiences without denying the internal conflicts created by a hybrid identity. In The Location of Culture, cultural critic Homi K. Bhabha uses the term “hybridity” to explain cultural contact between the colonizer and the colonized that can lead the way to a form of self-determination creating a “third space of enunciation”.  HeavyShield’s work appears to occupy this fragile space.

La Frontera Revisited

Last month I featured the work of Gloria Anzaldúa (see post of March 26th). Today, I learned something I did not know. Fortunately, that happens a lot and is what makes life interesting. I learned that a majority of people read at a fifth to seventh grade level. I have a clearer understanding of why it is so important to be able to communicate clearly, and I have a new appreciation for what E.B. White wrote in The Elements of Style–do not use a 10 dollar word when a two-cent word will do the same job (Strunk and White, [1918] 1979). Granted, White is considered an ‘old-school’ grammar guy, but you can still learn something useful from the ideas underneath.

This is not to disparage having a developed vocabulary, nor is it to be a source of embarrasement if one does not. It means that you need to consider your audience needs before your own.

I was discussing this exact problem with a colleague. I acknowledged that learning new words and forms of communication is intoxicating. What I mean by this is that you can get so involved with the substance contained in new words that you forget your public responsibilities.

In that spirit, I would like to revisit Anzaldúa’s book and offer an Amazon-like customer review.

Gloria Anzaldúa’s 1987 book Borderlands La Frontera: The New Mestiza is a place of conflicting voices that all belong to one person. She explores her identity as a Chicana woman living on the Texas border with Mexico. The book is autobiographical. She writes poems and essays to explain where she is coming from and where she would like to end up–accepted and happy. Anzaldúa offers a place where stories help readers consider alternative realities that might have been foreign to them.

If you like switching languages between mostly English and Spanish and you want to think about what it is like to be outside of mainstream U.S. culture, then this is the book for you. I do not think this is an easy book to read, but it is an interesting way to learn about somebody else’s perspective.


American Indian Film Festival

Harold of Orange is an award winning film that was shown at the 1984 American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco, CA. The script was written by Gerald Vizenor (Chippewa) a writer that I featured in an earlier post. The comedic actor is Charlie Hill (Oneida).

The heart of the film pivots around Vizenor’s trickster and “postindian” discussions in his book The Trickster of Liberty: Native Heirs to a Wild Baronage, a 1988 University of Oklahoma press publication. Lucy Lippard, a scholar of Contemporary Multicultural Art, indicates that the protagonist, Harold, is the fully updated, if not futurist, trickster (Lippard, 213). I haven’t seen this film yet, but cannot wait to watch it. It is available from VisionMaker Video.

“Tribal trickster Harold Sinseer and his Warriors of Orange make an unusual proposal to the white board members of the Bily Foundation. After having received a grant to grow miniature oranges at their Great Lakes region reservation, they now plan to get funds for growing pinch coffee beans and building coffee houses on the reservation. Their postcolonial, postindian scheme is sympathetically executed as they take the board members on a teasing teaching tour throughout the area that includes an urban tribal naming ceremony, session at the university anthropology museum and race-defying softball game. In the end, everybody has won something and a love affair of the past has failed to receive final closure.” Written by Judith Rinner
If you have seen this movie, let me know what you think.

Source: Lippard, Lucy. Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America. New York, NY: The New Press. [1990] 2000. (Print)

Literature & Writers of the Chippewa

Lenore Keeshig-Tobias (Chippewa)

“Born in Wiarton, Ontario, to Keitha (Johnston) and Donald Keeshig, the eldest of ten children, she is a member of the Chippewa of Nawash First Nation on the Bruce Peninsula. She attended elementary school on the Cape Croker Reserve and received her high-school education at Loretto Academy, Niagara Falls, and the Wiarton District High School. In 1983 she received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from York University. She has been a staff writer for The Ontario Indian, editor of Sweetgrass, and co-founder of The Magazine to Re-establish the Trickster: New Native Writing, as well as a founding member of the Committee to re-establish the trickster, and the founding chair for the Racial Minority Writers’ Committee in the Writers’ Union of Canada.”

In Stop Stealing Native Stories, Keeshig-Tobias challenges mainstream Canadian versions of native stories that are shallowly portrayed in film and other media. She writes that this is a theft of something that should be earned and fought for. With a few exceptions, I think the same is true in U.S. versions of film and media.  While I understand where she is coming from, as best as my non-native perspective allows, I think the challenge is fraught with complexity and colonial history.
I find as I attempt to research and learn about indigenous people that it is difficult and non-native people generally don’t care very much. Keeshig-Tobias writes: “If you want these stories, fight for them. I dare you.” The challenge is not to find something worth fighting for that is everywhere in this domain. The challenge is doing it well for a audience that doesn’t trust you, with good reason, and will get angry if you screw it up even if you have good intentions. Most people will not find the fight worthwhile because they can find something else to engage their attention.
While I enjoy an ethical fight and a worthwhile challenge, when you dare someone you have to accept that there are consequences to that dare. One of those consequences is that people with no dog in the hunt will say “thanks-but-no-thanks.” Maybe confrontational tactics are necessary to get people’s initial attention, but I am not sure that in the long run it solves any real problems. That would seem to be an inside job.
Source: Keeshig-Tobias, Lenore. “Appropriation in Art and Narrative,” in Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation. Eds. Bruce Ziff and Pratima V. Rao. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 1997.