INDIANacts: Aboriginal Performance Art

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NDN AXE/IONS—a collaborative essay
Dana Claxton & Tania Willard

“I have my own Indian Act.”
George Johnston, Tlingit Photographer1

INDIANacts: Aboriginal Performance Art (2002) was a three-day conference concerned with Indigenous actions and performance practices, produced by grunt gallery and TRIBE. The title of the conference, INDIANacts, references a legacy of settler legislation governing Indigenous peoples: The Indian Act. A sense of irony is manifest in the naming of the conference and this subversion can be seen throughout Aboriginal performance as a creative intervention of the oppression of Aboriginal people(s). Through deconstructing and re-appropriating elements of dominant culture, INDIANacts transformed ideas around performance art within an Indigenous context. Exploring themes related to the diversity of Indigenous culture, ceremony, aesthetics, spirituality, pedagogy and activism, this conference was largely driven by its participants and their practices. This landmark event was one of only a few conferences/gatherings that have specifically explored performance art from an Indigenous perspective. Similar conferences like the Première biennale d'art actuel de Québec: de la performance à la manœuvre, 1990, at Le Lieu in Québec, were cited by Reona Brass, Rebecca Belmore and James Luna as important influences2 and recently Action and Agency: Advancing the Dialogue on Native Performance Art at the Denver Art Museum negotiated themes similar to the INDIANacts conference. Gatherings like these have continued to have resonance in Indigenous art practices nationally and internationally, and have articulated and located an Indigenous performance art path.

Although the work of artists attending the conference and other contemporary Indigenous artists who use performance in their artistic practices relates back to their heritage, and in some ways frames their practice, its influences and origins need to be looked at outside of a wider survey of performance art. Indigenous orality, culture and spirituality from diverse Indigenous peoples can be seen as being as central to some artists’ work as new media, technology and mainstream cultural references might be. The starting point for most Indigenous performing art practices is not Cabaret Voltaire; rather, its roots are in Indigenous ceremony, struggle, beauty, thought and the “Indian experience,” in all its many manifestations.

Vancouver's Aboriginal performance art practice can be seen as stemming from experimental theatre practices. Although wildly divergent from bourgeois theatre, Spirit Song Native Indian Theatre Company began in Vancouver in the mid-1980s and was a training program for urban youth who had creative inclinations. The influence of Spirit Song Native Indian Theatre Company resulted in a panel, Differing Perspectives: Experimental Theatre and Performance Art, which looked at the trajectory of Aboriginal performance artists who started with conventional theatre, and then crossed over to performance art. Although the panel members were mostly theatre artists, it was clear that theatre and performance in the Aboriginal community are two very separate practices. It was evident that although both communities acknowledge each other, the practices are solidly entrenched in the traditions of each genre. Several Vancouver-based artists (Warren Arcan, Dana Claxton, Marie Clements and Russell Wallace to name a few) are alumni of Spirit Song. These creative thinkers have infused their practices with both traditional elements of Indigenous theatricality and practices of conventional theatre and performance art traditions. What has been created in some instances is a form of Aboriginal performance that collapses and combines both traditional performance practices and an Indigenous approach to those practices.

Archer Pechawis and Aiyyana Maracle have played pivotal roles in crossing over from theatre to performance art, and as a bridge to bring Indians to grunt gallery and the grunt to Indians. Grunt gallery’s interest and commitment to performance art has spanned over twenty-five years3 and has accumulated into Canada’s most expansive and impressive archives on Aboriginal performance art. In addition to producing projects, this history brings us to a culmination of interest in performance art, cemented by bringing people together for the INDIANacts conference. Plans for post-conference activities originally included a publication, but for a number of reasons the publication never came together. When grunt recently began exploring its own archive with the exhibition Activating the Archive - part one: Testing the Water (July August 2010) and, more recently, with the larger Activating the Archive online curatorial project, there was an opportunity to breathe life back into the archival material from the INDIANacts conference. We saw an opportunity to gather the rich ideas, dialogue and conversations from INDIANacts, as well as to fill a need for more writing about and recognition of Indigenous performance art and artists, and a chance to outline a sense of history and perspective to a community of younger Indigenous artists. In bringing together content for the site we recognized the need to feature a TRIBE stream within the mapping of Aboriginal performance art, as TRIBE was a co-producer of the conference and this site, in addition to maintaining a fifteen-year history of curating Indigenous performance art in Saskatoon. This site is an Indian Act in and of itself, a chance to continue the heart journey that was the original INDIANacts conference, and to carry that heart to others who could not attend the conference but whose own hearts may be ignited by this archive and who can witness this conference through the material within this site.

“From an Indian perspective, this legislation represents nothing less than a conspiracy. Examined as a whole, it exhibits a clear pattern founded on a conscious intent to eliminate Indians and ’Indian-ness‘ from Canadian society…The Indian Act was repeatedly used to destroy traditional institutions of Indian government and to abolish those cultural practices that defined Indian identity.”4
Chief Joe Mathias and Gary R. Yabsley, 1991

What is an Indian Action and why were Indian Actions criminalized in Canada for over 80 years? What is the threat of dancing and singing? These difficult questions and Canada’s difficult history have produced some exceedingly difficult knowledge and it seems that we must address these issues in order to arrive at INDIANacts: Aboriginal Performance Art Conference, held in Vancouver in 2000, if we are to determine the meaning and purpose of this international event.

Our grandmothers and grandfathers, our mothers and fathers, our aunties and uncles were all subjected to a form of structural dehumanization that legislated the criminalization of Indian Actions. This is the only comment we will make on the topic; we encourage readers to further research the Indian Act of Canada. The United States has an equally insidious history and the Bureau of Indian Affairs played a key role in the subjugation of American Indian people.

What is Indian performance art? Is there such a thing as Indian, Aboriginal, First Nations, Native American, American Indian, Native performance art? Do a group of artists of Indian descent who practice performance art constitute a movement or the naming of a movement? And who has the authority to say this is so?

What is an Indian Action? Shaking a rattle, shaking a tent?

What is an Indian Action? Beading, drumming, singing, dancing, praying?

INDIANacts was originally curated by Dana Claxton and Lori Blondeau (TRIBE) and coordinated by Daina Warren at grunt gallery; the INDIANacts conference was really a continuation of contemporary Aboriginal art events that were happening across the country since 1992. The de-celebrations of the so-called ‘discovery narrative’ featured contemporary Aboriginal art that critically situated history in its implicated place and fueled counter-narratives in Aboriginal visual and performance art.5 Grunt gallery had staged its first program of First Nations performance art, curated by Aiyyana Maracle, in 1992. History, so to speak, had finally arrived again in Aboriginal cultural and political production. Woven through these precursor events and exhibitions, identity art, social activism and cultural hybridity were themes within Indigenous art that were surfacing as critical counterpoints to dominant culture and institutional understandings of Indigenous art. Colonial trauma and injustice, ceremony and spirit framed a context within which to witness Indigenous performance art, and the conference would see a number of these ideas translated and expanded.

Nadia Myre's visual art exhibition, Indian Act, opened the conference; her process of making the work was literally an Indian Action: the artist and over 230 participants beading all 56 pages of the Federal Government’s Indian Act. First exhibited in 2002 at Oboro Gallery as part of the exhibition, Cont[r]act, Myre’s work has become iconic, modeling a sense of collaboration and dialogue in sharp contrast to The Indian Act - a piece of autocratic colonial legislation. The Indian Act exhibition, the associated INDIANacts conference and performance practices were guided by thought, spirit and intuition; The Indian Act legislation is based in control aptly framing the conference around the double meaning in INDIANacts. When we revisit the conference by following along with the conference archive, important interventions in the construction of the conference proceedings reveal a subversion of the conference itself, divergent performances and actions by artists that steered the canoe down an Indian river.

Many of the panels were performative, beginning with the keynote address by James Luna, then Lori Blondeau, Reona Brass, Dolores Dallas and Rebecca Belmore: all performed actions ending with Bentley Spang’s request to everyone at the conference to shake hands as he stood at the exit door embracing everyone who left. The old Indian one-shake handshake, a must at any Plains give-away ceremony, or the familiar intertribal Round Dance gesture to send everyone away with a good heart, and to acknowledge all the participants and their offerings and that they travel home safely, ended the INDIANacts conference in Indian style. Indianizing the conference itself was braided together throughout the three days.

The panels of live actions, micro-performances and the cabaret in the evening gave way for creativity to flow at will, without limitations or restrictions. Within that sense of exploration and expression, conversations surfaced around cultural protocol, use of ritual, the sacred in performance practice and the innovations and risks inherent in accessing the spiritual.

Indeed, a theme of Indigenous artists engaging their communities and cultures through their practice was discussed at the conference - from James Luna's performances at La Jolla Indian reservation to the omnipresent considerations around the use of ritual in performance. The use of ceremonial or sacred objects in performance was a theme introduced by a video of a False Face Mask in a performance screened by Guy Sioui Durand in his conference presentation. This dialogue around the use of ritual in Indigenous practice can also be seen in Ahasiw’s earlier performance, White Shame, during the First Nation Performance series curated by Aiyyana Maracle at grunt gallery (1992), where he pierced his chest in a manner similar to sacred ceremonies like the Sundance. It became clear during the conference that some Aboriginal performance practices are closely aligned to traditional practices and, in some cases, this is what creates such beautiful work - but there are considerations and negotiations artists have to make when dealing with spiritual practices and artists make these negotiations in different ways. Elder and Scholar, Dr. Bea Medicine, commented that as practitioners we must be careful of the fine line between commodifying our culture as art and keeping sacred practices in their proper places.6 The root of these discussions continued to weave through the conference along with related themes of home, community, colonization and protocol; these ideas were all unpacked within the dialogue around the production of art and culture making. The production of art and culture making are two different ways of doing, and within the realm of contemporary art, these two ways of doing, which are aligned to ways of being, collapse and collide.

Contesting ideas of static cultures, this conference came to exhibit Indian actions as thoughtful, shifting and full of spirit. The context of love as framing truly inspirational practice capable of inspiring or instigating change was explored in several artists’ addresses to the conference. Ahasiw spoke about love as being more difficult to channel and to operate within; it was easier to work with anger. James Luna also discusses this in his work, as an impetus to performance practice. This sense of outrage and exploration of injustice has fueled many artists’ work practices that looked at Canada’s colonial history. However that same outrage was seen as limiting and many artists spoke about a need to work from a spirit of love as a way of shifting the performance itself and the societal context.

There was deep humour mixed with deep pain in Lori Blondeau’s performance, which dealt with how traditional food was destroyed by colonialism; she substituted buffalo meat and fish for a dozen or so fast food hamburgers and as she chewed and chewed on the processed food, she began to gag from over-consumption, bad food, and the sheer reality that Indigenous natural food sources have been destroyed through systems of abuse. We listened to and through grief as Ahasiw situated the experience of Aboriginal generations after the onset of colonialism as refugee children who carry their history in their back pockets, but have lost much of their cultural roots, and how we need love and the practice of love as an urgent and critical practice. As Ahasiw indicated, our survival depends on it7 - the love of each other, our families, our communities. How has Indian love of self and family been destroyed through imperial practices? Indian bodies continue to be at risk, performance artists place their bodies in the making of art, the trauma runs deep, and at the end of the performance and at the end of the conference and at the end of our research and at the end of this sentence, we are reminded that we must continue to walk with hope and beauty knowing that one day, one of these days, that love will flow in the four directions.

This site contains all the transcripts from the panels at the conference, short video clips and selected images. We have chosen to bring forth the entire read of the transcripts of the three-day conference so viewers of this site can dig deeply into the essence of the conference, which will provide a glimpse into Aboriginal thought concerning performance art in very real terms. We have also featured two performance works curated by Lori Blondeau from the archives of Saskatoon-based TRIBE: A Centre for the Evolving Aboriginal Media, Visual and Performing Arts Inc. In the essay (originally written for the INDIANacts post-conference publication) “High Tech Storytellers, Unsettling Acts, Decolonizing Pedagogies,” by Lynne Bell and Lori Blondeau, the authors discuss and interpret performances from the High Tech Storytelling Festival (2000) in which Rebecca Belmore’s Indian Factory was performed. Video documentation of this performance is featured on this site. Belmore’s Indian Factory performance represents the artist’s emotional exploration of the freezing deaths of Aboriginal men and the culpability of the police in Saskatoon. Another excerpt from TRIBE’s archive is Buffalo Bone China (1997), by Dana Claxton: in this work the artist smashes a set of Royal Albert dishes to a synthesized mourning song by Russell Wallace, and then creates a mixed-media video installation honouring the Buffalo. The last video from TRIBE documents a collaborative performance between James Luna and Guillermo Gómez-Peña, curated by TRIBE in the spring of 2011. The video documentation exhibits iconic actions and performances of both of these established artists as they engage in their practices; we witness a performance art throw-down from one artist to the other and back and forth - perhaps the first of its kind - and we witness two masters and their refined craft. TRIBE’s work to promote and further Aboriginal performance art has been central to the development of Indigenous performance practice, as well as critical thinking and curating around performance works. We bring you a sneak peak at some important, earlier works as well as the recent collaboration between performance legends from TRIBE’s archive.

The iconic performance works of James Luna (Artifact Piece) and Rebecca Belmore (Fountain) continue to influence and fuel younger practitioners and it is this history that makes this archive site necessary. INDIANacts - the conference and online archive project - are meant to bring research, information, knowledge and experiences to those interested in Aboriginal performance art and some of its history. History is a funny, complex thing and frankly we are unsure of what history really means, other than to say: these events happened, we have some documented information pertaining to the events, we witnessed some of the events, we have thought about the events, and we have reviewed an archive full of the events. Now we have brought our analysis of the events forward to the Internet, and by doing so we have partially mapped Aboriginal performance art and have located a practice that developed here on the West Coast.

One of the questions that we pondered is: Why Vancouver? What has made this place so conducive to Aboriginal performance art, so conducive to contemporary Aboriginal art production? It would seem that cultural politics have played a significant role in fueling this reality: the province’s engagement with land claims and the assertion of unceded territory by a majority of Nations within the provincial boundaries, and the very emblematic aesthetic of Northwest Coast iconography combined have all lent well to maintaining an “Indian” presence. Despite the imagery, the essence of “Indian” is so deeply rooted in this place called Vancouver that Aboriginal people from all over this province and from across Canada have arrived here in this metropolis to find their own kind through artistic engagement. The impulse to create and to create from an Aboriginal perspective, and, in some cases, to create works that maintain Aboriginal imperatives, has flourished in this place. This place, this place—cradled by the ocean and the mountains—has nourished, shaped, healed and inspired many artists.

This lovely village houses urban First Nations from all over Turtle Island and is the ancestral land to the Coast Salish people. Amid this diversity of Indigenous peoples it seems inevitable that Aboriginal contemporary art would flourish in a place where ancient ancestors have dwelled for so long. How could we not succumb to the creative autonomy that dwells in the mountains and flows through the Capilano River? This ancient homeland to ancient civilization(s) bears witness to all the practitioners who have walked upon this place long before any Indian Act was written and any art gallery existed. NDN AXE-ions continue to move with land, sky and water, and what is so evident is that generations and generations of culture makers continue to flow through this special place called Vancouver, creating new and ever-shifting Indian Acts.

Performance, no matter how it is mixed with contemporary and traditional references and meanings, makes more sense as a way for me to feel useful to my community in my role as a maker of things.

My official statement “I have with me the influence of my Cocum ( grandmother) and my mother. I look at my hands and I am aware of their hands. That is how I wish to work”.
Rebecca Belmore 19918


  1. Picturing a People: George Johnston, Tlingit Photographer, Written and Directed by Carol Geddes, National Film Board of Canada, 2005. back

  2. Precursor conferences were discussed by several participants, INDIANacts: Aboriginal Performance Art conference transcripts, Panel 3: Performance of Trauma and Testimony November 30th 2002, CD 4A, track 5 (12:00), transcribed by Warren Arcan for grunt gallery, 2002. Excerpt, REONA BRASS: “All my relations. I’m so honoured to be here. I thank the organizers of this historic event for inviting me here. I’m going to stand here because I need something to hold onto. I’m not an academic, although I’ve attended many years of university and Art College early on in my career. In fact, it was ten years ago this year that I left post-secondary education to begin making performance art. It was in 1990 when I was an art student in Toronto that I was invited to what I found to be an equally historical event in my life, when I was invited to go to Quebec City to attend the International Performance Art Festival hosted by Le Lieu which Guy Sioui Durand mentioned in his presentation. And at the time it was both an artistic epiphany and a cultural epiphany for me.” back

  3. Link to a PDF of grunt’s First Nations Performance ( back

  4. Jensen, D., & Brooks, C. (Eds.) (1991) In Celebration of Our Survival: The First Nations of British Columbia. British Columbia: UBC Press. back

  5. For example Indigena, curated by Gerald McMaster and Lee Ann Martin in 1992 at the National Gallery, also Aiyyana Maracle’s First Nations Performance series at grunt gallery in 1992. back

  6. INDIANacts: Aboriginal Performance Art conference transcripts, (2010, November 29). Panel 1: Mapping the Movement, CD 2B track 8 (00:09), Excerpt: “DR. MEDICINE: I just want to say one thing, that when we talk about these things we have to contextual(ize) them, there are certain things that are sacred and they remain sacred and certain things that are secular. It all depends upon one’s commitment to one’s community and their ritual as opposed to the commodofication of art - we have to look at this — [INAUDIBLE] — I think this is something that we need to discuss more. Because it comes up in every art conference and it’s never going to be solved — and it is something that we have to discuss. The contextualization of art — the commodofication of art or rituals and where they are rightfully practiced.” Transcribed by Warren Arcan for grunt gallery, 2002. back

  7. INDIANacts: Aboriginal Performance Art, conference transcripts, Panel 3: Performance of Trauma and Testimony, CD 3B, track 3(5:14) (2002, November 9), AHASIW: "An important thing about expression, one of the unique things about this whole conference I think, is that for some of us, certainly me, I’ve never had an opportunity to speak to this kind of an audience before, in terms of what, what it represents, and conceptualizing the audience about the idea of love. About the idea of the cherishing of, of culture. How you give that. Most of I guess, talking about refugee children, most people who grew up like that are feeling like they will never find their community and of course the idea of violence and anger becomes the only thing because that’s all that they believe that they will ever be able to expect. And that they will never find their community, they will never find their audience, and so it becomes this habit, I guess. But to be in a situation where you have the opportunity to express and to receive love, is, so… It’s unexpected. You feel like you don’t deserve it, but it sure feels good." Transcribed by Warren Arcan for grunt gallery, 2002 back

  8. Richard, A. & Robertson, C. (Eds.) (1991) Performance au/in Canada: 1970-1990 (pp. 308) Québec, Canada: éditions Intervention. & Toronto, Canada: Coach House Press back