INDIANacts: Aboriginal Performance Art

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New Traditions:
Post-Oka Aboriginal Performance Art in Vancouver
Archer Pechawis

Contemporary First Nations performance art. Indians stand up and claim space. In that space the stories are re-told, re-interpreting what was assumed understood. The performance space becomes part of the moccasin telegraph: a gathering place, a communal council fire. Grievances are aired. Relations are shown. News of the community is examined, the larger community of Indianness considered.

Aboriginal performance art is the high-heeled, steel-toed moccasin of the telegraph; a series of mountain passes known for extreme weather and dangerous curves. Here, First Nations artists hybridize the telegraph, distilling the information into communal hyper-parable, the issues couched in metaphor or served raw. The work offers a promise of the unexpected, of danger, but here the confrontational edge much performance art relies on is re-purposed. Vancouver actor Sam Bob once likened the life of a First Nations theatre artist to membership in a secret society, with its own terrible rites of initiation. Aboriginal performance art seizes these rites and drags them into the open, where it revels in airing dirty laundry. Attendees are challenged to help scour it on the rocks.

In traditional forms of ceremonial performance there is an enactment of collective unconscious, a reflection of communal dreams. Culture and community are reinforced. In contemporary First Nations performance art there is a continuation of this legacy. Artists from different nations address the concerns of equally diverse Urban Indian communities, re-inventing tradition. But the work speaks to two audiences; the issues facing First Nations people are inevitably valuated differently by non-Native people. In creating performance the artist must weigh any information meant for a Native audience against the presence of non-Natives in the audience. The artist becomes cultural cryptographer, encoding the work for reception by members of diverse communities. The cultural tools of the recipient determine the depth of information discerned.

The post-Oka period (1990 to the present) saw an explosion in Aboriginal performance art activity in Vancouver, a result of the Oka Crisis, political events in BC1 and the quincentennial of Columbus' landing. These events pushed First Nations concerns to the front of the public agenda, and this prominence was reflected in the arts. After decades of lobbying for access to public art institutions, Indians were suddenly "hot." In Vancouver the grunt and Pitt galleries, and to a lesser extent the Western Front, programmed work by Margo Kane, Dana Claxton, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Aiyyana Maracle, Denise Lonewalker, Marie Clements, Leonard Fisher, Warren Arcan, Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew, Neil Eustache, Michele Thrush, Zachery Longboy, Raven Courtney, Cliff Red Crow and myself.

In discussing post-Oka performance in Vancouver I will examine the work of two artists: Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew's infamous 1992 performance at the grunt gallery and BC artist Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun's 1997 "An Indian Act Shooting the Indian Act," which took place in England. These two performances can be seen as delimiters of First Nations post-Oka sentiment, the first an implosion of grief and the second an explosion of rage. They represent a binary: both actualize the pain and rage of contemporary Native reality, yet take opposite routes in both expression and conclusion.

Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew is a Cree/French Canadian half-breed from the Peace River region in Northern Alberta. He has established a practice as a media-integrated performance artist and writer while also working for the past ten years as an arts administrator. He has performed at artist-run centres in Vancouver, Quebec City and Regina, and served on a number of national and regional arts juries, recommendation committees, and advisory panels. His critical writing has been published in Mix Magazine and Fuse.

In Maskegon-Iskwew's 1992 performance the space was arranged as an installation of five small tipis bereft of covering, a metaphor of both the material poverty afflicting so many First Nations people and the naked pain of the impending ceremony. Suspended from the center of each tipi was a clutch of eagle feathers. Beginning with slide projections of the rock throwing incident at LaSalle,2 Maskegon-Iskwew smeared mud over the images, calling on the healing power of earth to both mend the wounds inflicted on women, children and elders and to avenge the cowardly actions of the racist mob. Finishing this he then sat in each tipi, took down a feather and sewed it to his chest, echoing the gestures of the Sundance. On completion of this ritual he offered tools to the audience, who were then taken outside to scrape a raw moose hide.

Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun has been painting since 1978 and graduated with Honours in Painting from Emily Carr College of Art and Design in 1983. His work has been written about in art catalogues, journals and magazines throughout the world. He has had exhibitions in Canada, the United States, Spain, Germany, Switzerland and France. Yuxweluptun's work is housed in university collections in Zurich, Arizona, Berlin and British Columbia, as well as the Vancouver Art Gallery, the National Gallery of Canada, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs and several major private collections.

In 1997 Yuxweluptun traveled to the UK to present his performance "An Indian Act Shooting The Indian Act." Yuxweluptun presented similar actions at two different sites, one in the south and the second in the north of England. In the performance he took copies of the Indian Act and literally shot them under controlled conditions, the first with a .308 rifle and the second with three 12-gauge shotguns.

From Yuxweluptun's artist statement:

"I have come over to this country to express my feelings towards the Indian Act, which was written by non-Natives representing the colonial interests of this empire. This performance is a symbolic act of how much hatred, anguish and anger that I have towards this legislation. I am symbolically trying to extinguish Canadian colonial supremacy over Aboriginal people by showing a physical act in spirit that some day this type of legislation will no longer exist on the face of this sacred mother earth. Aboriginal people are human beings and deserve the same dignity and equalities as all other Canadian citizens, we deserve the right to self-determination, self-government and self-rule."

In this case the performance depends on second-hand transmission to relate itself back to Indian country, where the predominant reaction was approving laughter. The sentiments expressed by Yuxweluptun in his performance and artist statement were clearly in line with the prevailing attitudes of First Nations people. In Maskegon-Iskwew's performance we see the artist present his body as the sacrificial canvas for the work. He offers his physical being as a symbol for First Nations people as a whole, suffering the atrocities of colonialism. The outrage is internalized, wrought concretely on the body of the artist. But at the end of the piece Maskegon-Iskwew has the attendees working together, flensing a hide. The gesture is redemptive; the mixed audience works together to effect change. In contrast Yuxweluptun projects his anger, delivering a symbolic deathblow to the colonial institution. The history of colonialism in the Americas is represented by the Indian Act itself. The rage is redirected outward. The statement is made plainly, with no room for comment, interruption or negotiation.

In both these performances the pain of contemporary First Nations life is distilled. The actions taken in Maskegon-Iskwew's work are private, shocking; as audience members we are given a sense of both voyeuristic privilege and profound unease. This public enactment of suffering triggered outrage, shock and grief among members of the audience, especially those of First Nations descent. Some Aboriginal people viewed the performance as a sacrilege of the Sundance. A line was crossed in which a representational facsimile of a sacred ceremony was shown. The mechanics of the Sundance are widely known, if not understood. In the repetition of this act the artist places himself in the hands of the audience, baring himself painfully. The act is one of protest against a racist attack on elders, women and children seeking refuge. But was it sacrilegious? Or in performing this act in a secular space does Maskegon-Iskwew create a new ritual of protest?

In Yuxweluptun's performance the message is clearly accessible for what was an almost entirely non-Native audience. But what does a predominantly white, English audience actually receive from this work? The Indian Act is unknown in the UK, an irony in itself as the legislation has its roots in the British North America Act, first enacted as The Royal Proclamation of October 7, 1763. As the birthplace of the legislation Britain was the logical place for the performance to transpire. As a political act the performance works strategically. By illuminating Canada's 18th century policies towards Aboriginal people and implicating England in their continued implementation, the performance both educates the audience as to their complicity and embarrasses the Canadian government.

In the debate over First Nations issues the history of colonial violence and injustice asserts itself in the public mind. The image of an angry Indian with a gun maintains a powerful hold on the popular imagination, an embodiment of the fear and guilt evoked by a shameful history and fear of the dark avenging other. This fear is compounded by the seeming inevitability of First Nations people achieving redress for ongoing injustices. By literally shooting the Indian Act Yuxweluptun transformed the figure of the angry Indian, re-directing the physical and cultural violence that has been inflicted on First Nations people onto an inanimate object that embodies the values of the oppression itself. The gesture is both graceful and unequivocal: the Indian Act is an archaic document with no place in a contemporary society.

In both these performances we see the artists address the pressing issues of the day, relative to their respective communities. While performance art remains a marginal practice, the importance of the form in current First Nations dialogue should not be underestimated. Unfettered by the demands of the marketplace or the tyranny of mass media homogenization, it is a bastion of unapologetic investigation into our condition as Native people. At the dawn of a new millennium First Nations performance art in Vancouver has maintained the dynamism of the nineties while undergoing a concurrent maturation in the work of its practitioners. The telegraph is strong, the moccasin is ready.


  1. Notably the Duffy Lake Road blockade, the standoff at Gustafsen Lake and the ongoing BC land-claims debate. back

  2. During the Oka standoff a caravan of Mohawk women, children and elders evacuating the Kahnawake reserve were pelted by rocks by a mob of whites at the Mercier Bridge at LaSalle. There were numerous injuries. The incident took place in full view of forty Surete du Quebec and thirty RCMP officers who did nothing to stop it. back