Session 3. Iseechigehina: Actions with Impact

Convened by Sherry Farrell Racette Associate Professor, Faculty of Media, Art and Performance, University of Regina.
Report completed by Daniela Perez Montelongo, doctoral candidate, University of British Columbia.

In her introductory remarks, session moderator Sherry Farrell Racette addressed some of the demanding challenges faced by Indigenous arts in Canada, such as recent instances of cultural appropriation.1 Acknowledging how these challenges often dominate the discursive field of Indigenous art, Farrell’s session emphasized the importance of redirecting attention to significant Indigenous artistic and curatorial projects transforming the academic and institutional world. The underlying question proposed to the session was: what other achievements are being overlooked? Put more directly; “What aren’t we talking about and what should we be talking about?”

Farrell then unpacked the word Iseechigehina; the Cree concept that gives the session its name. The concept refers to a strategy-oriented way of thinking, which always implies action. As this report will outline, some of the most salient characteristics of the “actions with impact” presented included: a will to acknowledge and/or draw attention to previously erased Indigenous histories, the development of Indigenous pedagogies with a commitment to educate both Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences, and finally, a sustained collaborative relationship with Indigenous communities. Offering a counterpoint to the general negativity generated by failed court cases and cultural appropriation, Farrell opened space for the discussion of three cultural projects that epitomize “ways of moving forward” in the not-yet postcolonial contemporary moment.

The three lead presenters were Dana Claxton (Associate Professor, Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory, University of British Columbia); Heather Igloliorte (University Research Chair in Indigenous Art History and Community Engagement, Concordia University); and Jordan Wilson (Independent Curator). Stakeholders for this session included: Jaimie Isaac (Curator, Indigenous and Contemporary Art, Winnipeg Art Gallery); Kristina Huneault (Professor, Department of Art History, Concordia University); Michelle McGeough (then Assistant Professor, Art History, Visual Art and Theory, University of British Columbia); and Carmen Robertson (Professor, Art History and Indigenous and Canadian Studies, Carleton University).

Hidden Histories - Acknowledging Erasure

The presentations made clear that the occlusion of Indigenous histories results from their entanglement with specific colonial power relations that have facilitated the predominance of some narratives over others. Panel presenters Heather Igloliorte (Inuit) and Jordan Wilson (Musqueam) shared their experience as co-curators of community-based exhibition projects that aim to call attention to overlooked histories within their communities. The travelling exhibition, SakKijajuk: Art and Craft from Nunatsiavut, curated and discussed by Igloliorte responded to the unequal attention given to Inuit art from Nunatsiavut, a disparity and isolation arguably resulting from their particular experience of colonialism. Also from a curatorial perspective, Wilson discussed the ways in which the three-sited collaborative exhibition, c̓əsnaʔəm: the City Before the City, intended to call attention to Musqueam histories and ancestral sites that have been not only disregarded but also physically destroyed by the urban development Vancouver, as evidenced by the condominium construction undertaken on the burial site of c̓əsnaʔəm.2 From the perspective of artistic practice, Dana Claxton’s (Lakota) four-channel video installation titled The Sioux Project – Tatanka Oyate also results from a sense of occlusion. Indeed, Claxton’s departing question sets the tone of her project and aligns it with Igloliorte and Wilson awareness of a problematic “absence.” Some of Claxton’s research questions were: “Where are Sioux aesthetics located in South West Saskatchewan? Where are our artists?”

Igloliorte discussed the paradoxical history of the Nunatsiavut Inuit, who, despite having been the first Inuit in what would later become Canada to establish contact with European cultures, have received very little attention in comparison with Inuit artists from Nunavut. Though Inuit art from Labrador was one of the first from Inuit Nunangat to be integrated in museum collections, Igloliorte suggests that as a result of the early evangelization of the territory, Inuit art from Nunatsiavut has been considered less “authentic,” and thus less marketable. Subsequently, the arts from the region didn’t participate in the so-called revival of Inuit art and the emergence of an Inuit art market beginning in the 1950s. This exclusion, she explains, has resulted in the long-term marginalization of Nunatsiavut Inuit art and a persistent lack of funding for the arts in the region. Igloliorte prefaced this history, by translating the Indigenous title of the exhibition SakKijajuk: “to be visible.” Indeed, the project’s goal seems to reside in taking the arts of Nunatsiavut out of invisibility.

Igloliorte’s observation extends beyond the realm of Nunatsiavut’s art and points to a more generalized issue: the use of categories such as “authentic” and “inauthentic” based on the degree of western influence on Indigenous arts. Avoiding the reproduction and reinforcement of such essentializing binaries is a crucial aspect of contemporary decolonial curatorial practice, such as Igloliorte’s.

Claxton’s presentation focused on her four-year research project, which took place in rural and urban Sioux communities in Saskatchewan. Claxton shared the initial motivations behind the project, mentioning the surprisingly limited visibility of Sioux aesthetics in her home territory, compared to the ubiquity of Northwest Coast formline designs in urban centers such as Vancouver, where the artist is currently based. Claxton stated: “Sioux aesthetics are not commercially available.” The Sioux Project however, did not intend to redress this absence by commoditizing and circulating Sioux art in the market or displaying it as fine art in a museum gallery. Rather, Claxton created a space for Sioux cultural practices through interviews with a broad variety Sioux artists who diversely shared their knowledge, stories and/or art. Sioux aesthetics, as Claxton stressed, are embodied and therefore predominantly found outside of the gallery space. Claxton’s project introduced Regina to Sioux art forms previously absent from conventional cultural spaces in the region. The response of one of the curators of the exhibition in Regina re-stated this sense of absence: “I’ve lived in Saskatoon my whole life. Why have I never encountered Sioux aesthetics?”3

In his presentation, Jordan Wilson contended that an essential aspect of the exhibition c̓əsnaʔəm: the City Before the City was to expose the erasure of at least 9000 years of Musqueam history through the material destruction of ancestral sites on their traditional territory. Wilson mentioned the deliberate attempt to silence Musqueam claims over the ancient village of c̓əsnaʔəm, through the circulation of archeological narratives ironically suggesting that the Musqueam did not in fact originate in the area but rather displaced other peoples originally occupying that land. Wilson’s presentation emphasized the sense of responsibility to redress this circulating misinformation by working with the community. The educational objective of the exhibition was further supported by the documentary film with the same title, which broadened the possibilities of circulating the oral history documented in interviews conducted for the exhibitions. Wilson mentioned the resistance encountered by the exhibition from official authorities, made evident through the lack of financial support in the early stages of the project. Finally, although not explicitly mentioned by Wilson, his discussion of the occlusion of Musqueam histories could be connected the constructed hierarchy of Northwest Coast First Nations, through which the northern nations such as the Haida have come to dominate the discourse. In some ways, the destruction of Musqueam heritage sites appears symptomatic of such hierarchy.

An interesting strategy that c̓əsnaʔəm shares with The Sioux Project is the decision not to display cultural belongings, thereby privileging storytelling and testimony as the main component of the exhibition. Indeed, Wilson stated that the curatorial team decided not to display the more than 10,000 Musqueam belongings from the archeological site, but rather focus on the values, oral history, and intangible culture provided by numerous interviews with community members. Similarly, although Dana Claxton had an interest in showing Sioux aesthetics in the gallery space, she recognized that this was not necessarily a priority for the communities she worked with, which made her question the very idea of “making space for isolated artists.” Her reflections pointed to the fact that revealing hidden histories can present its own problems.

These decisions and thoughts significantly question the necessity to exhibit cultural materials in order to generate knowledge and educate the public, bringing forward yet another Indigenous curatorial strategy.

Indigenous Pedagogy and Mentorship

Following Farrell Racette’s remarks in the abstract and introduction, throughout the session importance was given to Indigenous forms of education and the development of strategies, like the transfer of artistic skills to Indigenous youth. Methods and strategies aiming to tackle those questions were evidently essential if not altogether constitutive of some of the projects presented.

Throughout her presentation, Claxton made clear that the very process of making Tatanka Oyate4 was as meaningful as the final result, particularly the involvement of Indigenous youth from the reserves of Standing Buffalo and White Cap. Claxton organized video boot camps to provide young participants with the necessary knowledge to become the shooting and editing crew for the final video installation. In doing so, Claxton’s project became a means to transfer some of the skills she uses to produce her own video work to Indigenous youth, positioning herself as a mentor for Indigenous youth.

Seconding Claxton’s emphasis on mentorship, Michelle McGeough (Metis) stressed the importance of creating training programs to “indigenize curatorial practice.” Through her involvement in developing one of the first Indigenous curatorial programs at the Institute of American Indian Art, in Santa Fe, McGeough has strived to provide hands-on experience for Indigenous youth, hoping to encourage graduating students to return to their home communities and continue developing their practice according to the specific needs of those communities.

Indigenous Protocol and Ceremony

Another approach to Indigenous ways of doing that emerged from the presentations was the question of protocol. In her intervention, Jaimie Isaac (Anishinaabe) presented a number of exhibitions that speak to her research around decolonial curatorial practices. One of the examples that stood out was her discussion of the opening of the exhibition We Are on Treaty Land, at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 2016. Isaac maintained that honoring protocol and acknowledging the territory on which the gallery is located were major concerns for her as curator. For the very first time at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Chiefs and council from treaty 1 territory were invited to be present at the opening ceremony. Community members were also invited, as well as a women’s drum group and a young dancer. The exhibition opening, Isaac contented, transformed the gallery space into a “culturally safe place.”

Isaac’s suggestion that the gallery space can be transformed through Indigenous presence and protocol, resonated with Carmen Robertson’s (Lakota/Scottish) commentary on the opening of The Sioux Project exhibition at the Mackenzie Art Gallery. Robertson described the gallery as a “ceremonial space,” based on the sacredness of the images, the colors, and the resonance of Claxton’s immersive work with the four-direction space of the Sun Dance. The event was also marked by the presence of community members who shared sacred knowledge and told stories. Robertson characterized the feast at the opening as a means to “give back” to the community, foregrounding reciprocity. The centrality of feasting and gathering was also exemplified by the Wopila feast organized for Claxton to introduce herself to the community of Standing Buffalo, at an earlier stage of the project.

Far from being secondary, the engagement with each community’s specific protocols is central to decolonizing both artistic and curatorial research. Indigenous protocol establishes a framework within which culture can be shared and displayed. Commenting on the shared decision-making process established for the exhibition c̓əsnaʔəm: The City before the City, Wilson said, “things take time.” Navigating Indigenous protocol presents challenges, however the projects presented during the session confirmed that this is the most fruitful path forward.

Collaborative Methodologies and Community-based Projects

Arguably the most salient feature of all three projects is their commitment to collaborative methodologies. These collaborations are grounded in Indigenous communities to which all three presenters belong. The presentations shared the procedures adopted by each of their projects, emphasizing the adoption of Indigenous methods and protocols as organizing principles.

Claxton’s project consistently involved her community from beginning to end. Her rapport with the community of Standing Buffalo, for example, was initiated with an artist talk at the school gym in order to share her goals and interests with the community. Claxton’s interest in developing strong and sustained relationships with communities was reinforced by the numerous visits she made to Standing Buffalo during the four-year project.

Another stage that involved the larger Sioux community of Southwest Saskatchewan was the open call for artists and cultural practitioners to share their stories, which successfully resulted in thirty-six interviews. In her presentation, the artist emphasized the openness of the space provided by the setting. The diversity of the cultural practices documented (from star quilt maker to the ceremonial maize provider), the open dynamic of the interviews, and the involvement of Indigenous youth point to a form of distributed authorship of the project, whereby Claxton de-centers herself as artist and invites multiplicity into her practice.

Like The Sioux Project, SakKijajuk: Art and Craft from Nunatsiavut also originated with community visits, which in the case of the arctic represent an enormous financial investment. It was through these visits that Igloliorte, her colleagues, and the community determined that the exhibition wouldn’t be medium specific but would be open to receive any work provided by the participants. The exhibition was in this sense “community-led.” Indeed, similar to Claxton’s interactions with the Sioux artists, Igloliorte gave the participating artists total autonomy. The project provided the necessary materials for artists to produce their work and the final exhibition featured work for sale with an established minimum prize. These initiatives clearly aimed to support the artistic community of Nunatsiavut. Through writing, Igloliorte has continued to critically reflect on the process of developing the exhibition around the guiding questions: “how to do things in an Inuit way?” and “how to take Inuit knowledge into Western institutions?”

Like SakKijajuk: Art and Craft from Nunatsiavut, the development of c̓əsnaʔəm: The City Before the City was based on principles of collaborative research. Wilson explained that this entailed shared power to make decisions and constant involved the Musqueam community. More specifically, Wilson explained that the exhibition had an “advisory group” of six community members to guide the process. This practice was reiterated in the session by McGeough’s strategy of creating two curatorial committees for the exhibition, Through their Eyes: Indian Painting in Santa Fe 1918–1945, one comprised of elders and the other of contemporary artists. Further, the research process for the c̓əsnaʔəm: The City Before the City was based on attentive listening to the elders’ stories and knowledge, an extremely enriching experience which strengthened Wilson’s ties with his community. Indeed, like The Sioux Project, c̓əsnaʔəm: The City Before the City was predominantly constructed upon numerous interviews with Musqueam elders.

Pointedly, McGeough suggested that an Indigenous curatorial practice has the responsibility to respond to the specific needs of each community and consequently, curatorial models need to be adjusted to very different needs. Wilson’s presentation made clear that c̓əsnaʔəm: The City Before the City was a community-led and community-based exhibition, which addressed the urgent issue of raising attention and educating the public about the Musqueam burial sites being destroyed and desecrated.

The collaborative processes exemplified by the projects presented seem to epitomize crucial aspects of critical Indigenous curatorial and artistic practices today: the de-centering of the dominant figure of artist or curator in order to bring forward the community both as a source of knowledge and as a decision-making agent, as well as the predominant role and authority given to Indigenous oral history and story-telling.

Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Collaborations

Robertson’s comments on Claxton’s project, from the position of curator of the resulting exhibition at the Mackenzie Art Gallery, elucidate another aspect of Claxton’s collaborative methodologies. Her intervention stressed the richness of the dialogue created during the symposium by the confluence of community members, knowledge keepers, students, artists and scholars. Robertson pointed out that although some community members perceived the participation of non-Indigenous scholars and academics as problematic, the overall dialogue was productive. Claxton intervened and confirmed the value of engaging in dialogue with scholars who have dedicated their lives and work to better understand Indigenous cultures, confirmed the importance of this collaboration.

Similarly, Wilson emphasized the importance of the collaborative relationship of the Musqueam with historian Susan Roy, a non-Indigenous scholar specialized in c̓əsnaʔəm and the history of removal of remains and belongings undergone by the site for decades. Wilson also mentioned the emergence of an sincere solidarity between the Musqueam people and an important number of Vancouver residents as a result of the protests organized by the Musqueam community to prevent the destruction of the site, which could be considered another form of meaningful collaboration potentially further reinforced by the exhibitions. Finally one could also perhaps argue that the institutional collaboration between the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, the Museum of Vancouver and the Musqueam Cultural Centre that resulted in the three-sited exhibition is also a form of Indigenous/non-Indigenous collaboration.

This approach to the practice of collaboration clearly resonates with Kristina Huneault’s intervention. From her position as a settler scholar, Huneault introduced the key question of “the ethical space occupied by those assembled in this room.” Aware of the challenge presented by the decolonization project in academia, Huneault argued for alliance and collaboration. She pointedly stressed the importance of thinking and talking about settler-colonial art histories, critically addressing complex and intertwined histories. Methodologically, she suggested that perhaps deep change might begin with a careful application of western conceptual frameworks to Indigenous arts. Is the use of western concepts to discuss Indigenous art always a form of epistemological violence? Or could it be a point of entry to encourage encounters and productive debates?

In their diversity, each of the projects discussed established collaboration and community engagement as the basic tenet of Indigenous curatorial, artistic, and research methodology. In order to create meaningful and respectful relationships non-Indigenous scholars, artists, and curators should engage with such critical methodologies and be open to disrupting colonial and colonizing ways of engaging with Indigenous art.

  • 1 Farrell specifically referenced Jimmie Durham (b. 1940) and Sarain Stump. Durham’s retrospective opened at the Remai Modern in Saskatoon in March 2018, after being shown in at least four major institutions in the United States. The controversy around the exhibition, Jimmie Durham: at the Center of the World, began as members of the Cherokee nation publicly challenged Durham’s claims of Cherokee ancestry. Sarain Stump’s (1945–1974) exhibition Mixing Stars and Sand: the Art and Legacy of Sarain Stump at the Mackenzie Art Gallery is currently open from March to June 2018.
  • 2 Located in the area commonly known as the neighborhood of Marpole in Vancouver.
  • 3 Quoted by Claxton.
  • 4 Which translates as “Buffalo People” or “Buffalo Nation”.