First Nations Culture: Who Knows What?

Charlotte Townsend-Gault (University of British Columbia)

Abstract: Located in the context of discussion in urban British Columbia as to whether contemporary First Nations art should properly be referred to as "art" in the Western sense or whether it is, rather, the repository and communicator of culturally specific knowledge, this paper considers the ways in which both Native and non-Native observers are negotiating their various rights to this very public visual culture.

Résumé: Cet article se situe dans le contexte de discussions dans la Colombie-Britannique urbaine sur l'art contemporain autochtone : devrait-on qualifier celui-ci d'"art" au sens occidental du terme, ou est-il le recueil et le communicateur de connaissances culturelles spécifiques? Cet article considère les manières dont les observateurs tant autochtones que non-autochtones sont en train de négocier leurs droits divers à cette culture visuelle très publique.

Rhetorical -- and unanswerable -- as the question First Nations Culture: Who Knows What? is intended to be, it points to the contest over knowledge that takes place alongside the contest over power -- over autonomy and land -- at a time when First Nations culture is in the public realm as never before. By "culture" I mean that whole conglomeration of beliefs and behaviours, and their various expressions, that is implied in the current demotic usage of the term. But it must also be clear that culture is a social process, a process of invention and reinvention, in a country which is -- everywhere differently -- working its way through its colonial, and colonizing, state. As such, it is a process in which those who are not members of that First Nations culture are implicated. Their response is part of the process. Extended in this way, culture becomes a subject, a point of view, a site of contest and of action.

Baldly stated, First Nations people have been challenging the monopolies exercised over their visual culture, its classification and value, by colonizing powers. Consequently, the monopolies have fractured. It is a process which can be observed in quite concrete terms in British Columbia. For example, it is evident in the institutional politics playing out in both public museums and commercial galleries across the province. Whether they are Native-run, like the U'Mista Centre at Alert Bay and the Kwagiulth Museum at Cape Mudge, or provide for frequent collaborations, like the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, or enter into custodial relationships with the Native owners, as happens at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, they are responding to the contest.

I will attempt to point, speculatively and in an abbreviated way, towards one of the effects of this contest, as far as I am able to observe it, in the field of contemporary art. I want to suggest that in the process of reconstituting itself First Nations culture shifts everyone else's paradigms and destabilizes definitions of art. The implication here is that there is no single way of understanding "art." No one holds a monopoly. In a multicultural society there cannot be a definition of culture as a finite body of knowledge shared by all members of a culture. This does not, however, prevent people from speaking in absolutist or exclusionary terms about it. At any time, there are aspects of a culture's knowledge about itself, or other people's knowledge of it, that are in the ascendant. The impact of Christianity, or of ethnography, are fairly clear examples of intrusions about which there is no consensus, although the most audible opinion might be against them. Here are found the now-familiar debates about authenticity (Gelder & Jacobs, 1995; Houle, 1992), cultural relativism (Clifford, 1988; Geertz, 1973), and appropriation (Crosby, 1991; Todd, 1990).

Essentializing "the West" and all its denizens, although it has been fashionable, can hardly be accurate. It certainly undermines the requirement for anything like empirical or objective evidence. These qualities stand discredited in some of the same quarters, however. Yet demands for respect for the integrity of another culture must work both ways -- or how should tolerance be asked to tolerate intolerance? This widespread debate has a local variant in B.C. (Crosby, 1991; Francis, 1992; Todd, 1992) where one answer lies in the not-too-distant past in what Robin Fisher describes as the "pattern of dominance" that was firmly in place from 1880. Fisher quotes the Indian Agent on the West Coast as frequently lecturing the Indians "on their foolishness and ignorance" (1992, p. 206). Dominance here -- of the settler over the Aboriginal -- meant a monopoly of "knowledge" over "ignorance"; "coercive tutelage" is Noel Dyck's term (1991, p. 8).

However, this shameful attitude cannot be corrected by new forms of censorship that narrow the field which is patently one of intercultural connections -- economic, political, and aesthetic -- and seek to close down any forms of dialogue and exchange. The obvious point that dialogue is slow and contingent is illustrated by the phases through which the reading of Emily Carr's use of "Indian subjects" has passed since the 1920s, a local reminder of the hazards of the fixed position. As she set out on her first sketching trips, Carr was interested if uninformed, where most non-Natives were ignorant or prejudiced. Eventually she found a pictorial language for the coastal forests of B.C. and their inhabitants. In doing so, Carr's contribution to the Group of Seven's project of giving Canada an art of its own was the crucial one of showing that the Canadian "wilderness" had never been an unpopulated place. In the 1980s, Carr was judged to have misrepresented and appropriated the Indian. Most recently, there are calls for a polyvalent reading of this aspect of Carr's work: "As the Canadian state today faces the problems of ethnic co-existence, Carr's work offers much more than a `fantasized reconciliation.' It offers the challenge that Canadians accept the authority of native traditions, as Carr herself did" (Moray, 1996, p. 26).

There is another sense in which the injustices of the past are not to be overcome by restricting exchange in the present. Artists as different as Robert Davidson and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, while adamant about the Native status of their work, quote and incorporate modes from Western art history at will. They are allowing themselves to make new meanings for new audiences, Native and non-Native. While the relationship of their work to the past and to the political present is very different, it shares an epistemology. It is a way of understanding the impetus for cultural expression that cannot mesh very exactly with the categories of Western visual art. Whether this disjunction will disrupt the categories in the long term or settle down as one more episode in the West's periodic flirtation with "primitivism," these artists are not to be controlled by policing for authenticity.

The protocols that surround academic discussion of Native matters, including and especially of Native art, are delicate. Marcia Crosby represents one aspect of Native opinion when she states:

Increasingly, we as First Nations people assert our national and cultural differences against the homogenizing effect of academic discourse, mass culture and government legislation.... Despite the West's recent self-critique of its historical depiction of "the other," I am not entirely convinced that this is not just another form of the West's curious interest in its other; or more specifically, the ultimate colonization of "the Indian" into the spaces of the West's postmodern centre /margin cartography. (1991, p. 267)

Gerald McMaster, Plains Cree artist and anthropologist, takes up this distinction in a more positive way. McMaster identifies what he terms a "border zone" of "ambiguity and indeterminacy" for Native artists and intellectuals: "a heteroglossia of languages and styles as contemporary [Native] artists manoeuvre to control and determine meanings" (1995, p. 84). A clear instance was Indigena: Contemporary Native Perspectives, an exhibition that McMaster co-curated with Lee Ann Martin, which included works of " `resistance' and the articulation of `self-identity' in the postmodern and postcolonial world" (McMaster, 1995, p. 75). Meanwhile, the fact that Indigena took place within and under the aegis of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, a federal institution, attests to the implication, in the present, of both Native and non-Native in the construction of each others' ways of knowing.

One non-Native position is represented by Jane M. Jacobs' (1996) work on Aboriginal sacred / tourist sites in Australia. In scrutinizing the ways in which both Aborigines and tourists are implicated in the construction of the new meanings that the sites acquire, she shows that both designations of the sites are upset. She has combined ideas drawn from Trinh T. Minh-ha (1989) and Homi Bhabha (1994). Bhabha writes: "the struggle is often between the historicist teleological or mythical time and narrative of traditionalism -- of the right or the left -- and the shifting, strategically displaced time of the articulation of a historical politics of negotiation" (1994, p. 35). Having any truck with "their" signs, metaphors, and narratives is, in this view, incorrectly written off as incorrect. Such representations are not there only, or even mainly, for sale, nor are they at risk from cultural theft. They are there for assertion and negotiation. An example of this is the negotiation that surrounded the return of a Nuu-Chah-Nulth house screen from the Andy Warhol collection to a new arrangement whereby it would be owned by descendants of its original owners but housed and cared for by the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria (Hoover & Inglis, 1990).

When the Hatzic Rock, a glacial erratic on a terrace of the Fraser River in Sto-lo territory, was "recognized" by an archaeologist and rescued from the developer's backhoe, the silence of those amongst the Sto-lo who professed to have always "known" about its significance as a sacred site led some to question the reliability of their knowledge. In the silence of forced amnesia, fear of persecution, religious conversion, and the need for privacy from an invasive, uncomprehending culture lie the reasons for suppressed knowledge. Today their knowledge is being recovered while the Hatzic Rock site is rehabilitated and acquires a new layer of meaning as a destination for cultural tourism. A comparable argument over who knows what has been raging around the "women's business" that some Aboriginal groups, but not all, claim should protect Hindmarsh Island in the Lower Murray River region of South Australia from development.1

Let me just state where I stand on the fact of being non-Native, since this line of enquiry cannot be pursued usefully while the study of anything pertaining to First Nations is attacked as the product of liberal guilt (Gellner, 1995; Mays, 1992), as a spurious form of second-hand redemption, or as a way for non-Natives to replenish their own dwindling supplies of cultural capital -- a kind of relevance envy. Between the solipsistic deconstruction of self and a disingenuous social objectivity, I can either insist on a contingent right to respond or be silent /silenced. So I will say that it is hardly possible to live in this province, to walk around in this city, and not respond to things that are invitations to a response, whatever else they may be and no matter who you are.

The foil for one culture is another. Cultural psychology is beyond the scope of this essay, but I will venture that if the metaphor of a culture "finding its voice" is pursued, then listeners are required, or, it could be said, self-definition needs an audience. Historically, the oratorical and visual address of Northwest Coast cultures has long been, in its dependence on an audience, both exhortatory and pedagogical and, if a value judgment may be ventured, continues to be successful on both counts for an extending audience. As Barbara Saunders explains this with particular reference to the Kwakwaka'wakw: "Essentially, a cultural image and its modes have become the critical means (though not the only means) by which Kwakiutl [sic] people maintain their morale and capacity for action, most especially political action, towards the encompassing Canadian world, enabling them to produce and imbue with new meanings their own forms of life" (1995, p. 40). Are the masks carved by contemporary artists like Beau Dick and Art Thompson an in-your-face assertion of difference or an invitation to share in a different way of knowing? There is, of course, no simple answer and it is not to be found in the put-down of "commodification."

As for the non-Native audience, the encompassing Canadian world, Nicholas Thomas writes that colonialism has "always been imagined and energised through signs, metaphors and narratives" (1994, p. 2). These apparently opposing sets of representations meet, as it might be said, dialectically. Much of the inescapable and bewildering force of the current situation arguably derives from the dialogue set up between these modes. The fertile idea of dialogic modes (borrowed from the Russian literary critic Bakhtin) also implies great self-awareness on the part of the users of the representations. But who are these people whose representational modes are in dialogue? How exactly does it work, and where?

The history of the construction of knowledge of and about First Nations is a history of the exercise of power. The duplicity and complicity involved in the colonial relationship resulted in a situation of "dependency, coercion and domination," Bruce Trigger's (1996, p. 37) dismal trilogy of the effects of colonialism. Those who intruded upon, surveyed, and settled North America wielded intellectual, personal, administrative, and military powers which they seldom doubted were superior to, and more enduring than, the powers of those upon whom they imposed. It continues, as the saga of Hydro Quebec and the James Bay Cree illustrates:

The Cree also have assumed that there will always be food from the land, so long as the Eeu -- the Cree -- do not abuse their part of the relationship to the animals and the land.... To me this is the essence of culture and the essence of the meaning of life. From where I sit on James Bay, it seems almost trivial to talk about other things -- so called religion, literature, spirituality, and economics ... if [due to the activities of hydro Quebec and Ontario Hydro] there are no longer six seasons of the year, the waters no longer flow in their order, and places where people have prayed, been buried, and harvested their food cease to exist as "land," is that not the essence of cultural destruction . . . ? (La Duke, 1991, p. 43)

That "culture" cannot be understood as separate from "land" is made very explicit in First Nations' self-representation: "Our stories, both traditional and contemporary, emerge within a specific territory, and among all of creation within that territory" (introductory note to series of talks, "Storying Our Experiences," given at the First Nations House of Learning at U.B.C., March 1995).

Land claims have been identified by many First Nations groups as the fundamental political issue upon which all others depend. Many non-Natives would concur. Even British Columbia, which resolutely refused for over 100 years to consider land claims, is now doing so through its Land Claims Commission. However, Marcia Crosby is not alone in pointing out that "land" does not address the lives of urban Indians. She warns that where land and resource disputes between First Nations and Canadian governments are the only situations in which Aboriginal people are perceived as having "authority," and where "the signposts of clearly defined `difference' are still determined by the conventions of authenticity, origins and tradition," "land" then becomes the measuring stick for Indianness to the exclusion of so much else that it is, finally, impoverishing (Crosby, 1996, p. 23). There are clearly more ways than one in which the relationship between land and power is volatile and perilous.

The Comanche writer Paul Chaat Smith has observed that "virtually every aspect of being Indian in North America has been highly politicised" (1994, p. 42). It could also be added that virtually every aspect of this politicization has been technologically enabled. That technology has reorganized knowledge is a truism. It finds its counterpart in the reorganization of people's relations among themselves and with others, both intra- and intercultural relations (Strathern, 1995). In such a context, consider walking into a Cowichan longhouse through a work of virtual reality called Inherent Visions, Inherent Rights made in 1992 by Yuxweluptun. The moonlight is replaced by firelight and the drumming gets louder as you get closer to the masked dancers; or consider the paintings by Yuxweluptun and Jim Logan, incendiary in their denunciation of the havoc wrought by colonialist policies; consider the restoration, after nearly total loss, of weaving techniques and designs by Debra and Robyn Sparrow and other Coast Salish women; consider Robert Davidson's chocolate Haida moon and frog (after the longhouse in Masset that he had recently completed, its façade carved with an elaborate frog design, burned down in 1981, what came to him was the image of a blackened frog); consider masks housed in museums with strings-attached agreements that they can be borrowed back at any time; consider the soul-catcher-like object known as the Queen's baton, medals, and logos made for the recent Commonwealth Games in Victoria and, thanks to its role in the opening enactment, the Sisiutl, or double-headed serpent of Northwest Coast mythologies, well on its way to joining the pantheon of internationally known mythical beings; consider Susan Point's twin welcome figures, six metres high, that rearrange historical components of Coast Salish design for the new circumstance of greeting international arrivals at Vancouver Airport.

Such cultural representations are inseparable from the assertions of cultural identity and the reinterpretations of history that are taking place in the face of decades of discrimination, marginalization, and ignorance. They may well also be the sites where the meanings of identity, tradition, or authenticity are disputed. The art, "traditional" or otherwise, for all that it demands to be judged by incompatible standards, is implicated in a consequent politics of images. The production and reception of these images, their appropriation, misappropriation, consumption, and classification are all contingent on that politics. The term "discursive representations" (Barrell, 1992) seems closer to what is meant than "art," though it embraces art. It is also better able to accommodate the understanding that place, site, and social relations, which includes what I would call the relations of reception, must be integrated into any notion that tries to escape the objet d'art constructed by individualized perception. Recent work by Jane M. Jacobs (1996), Howard Morphy (1992), and Nicholas Thomas (1991), with instances taken from different parts of the world, is evidence of the productivity of this approach.

At this point, the problem of intercultural interpretation, and its limits, arises. The need, or the strategy, to limit translatability or to withhold translation was pithily expressed by Jimmie Durham, artist and Cherokee. Asked about the meaning of a text in Cherokee, which many people would not know, he replies: "And I don't want them to know" (Durham & Ingberman, 1989, n.p.). Asked whether that matters to him, he says: "What I want them to know is that they can't know that. That's what I want them to know ... the third text is that you don't know what the Cherokee means." Here is a point where transcultural incompatibilities are not going to be negotiated any further, a position of power for one who speaks the language, who knows the secrets. Durham's assertions about cultural absolutes is complemented by the display of his untranslated, sculptural assemblages, as a kick in the face presumably, amongst other things, to fashionably avant-garde audiences in New York, London, and Berlin. Against this withholding might be set the re-formatted interpretations of Hatzic Rock and the no-less-strategic cross-cultural communication achieved by the use of Rebecca Belmore's megaphone work, Ayumee-Aawach Oomama-Mowan: Speaking to Their Mother, outside the Prime Minister's official residence.

Belmore is among those who see such episodes as signs of the strengthening power base of First Nations discourse in Canada. The conversation has moved out of the art gallery and into more fully public spaces, which parallels a move from decontextualized objects (of ethnography, of art, or of commerce) as the focus of the argument to sites and contexts such as airports, shopping malls, and recreation centres. The question to be asked, then, is: Are these places of capitulation, where capitalism embraces and effaces all, or sites of struggle, where the Aboriginal insertions are able to reconfigure the context? If the latter, then these places, where objects are displayed and knowledge is acquired, are the places where who knows what, and who has access to what, is negotiated. Negotiation here means a process of give and take, a reasoned debate, essentially an enlightenment project. Following Nicholas Garnham, I would distinguish between this effort to sustain social bonds against the manifold forces that threaten them from that of "scientific rationality and the hubris of human power that accompanied it" (1992, p. 374). The latter is commonly used to characterize the colonizer and is opposed by a very different model of Aboriginal worldview and pedagogy. The thing to guard against, it seems to me, is the reinstatement of a rationality-versus-irrationality polarity which, on examination, appears to underlie much of the rhetoric about colonizers and the colonized in North America.

The situation is too complex for it to be a matter of the simple recovery of some "ancient" knowledge, with which these representations can have perfect congruence. There is a form of idealism at work in the notion that it is a matter of peeling away the distortions created by the lamentable history of misrepresentation to reveal a true, or historically pure, "reality." This has been one of the staples of the definition of "primitive," upon which rights to superior power for the "civilized" were erected (Hiller, 1991; Kuper, 1988). It meets the non-Native observer's need to believe in the possibility of an earthly Eden, a continuing need to romance the other and the other's meaning, the need for something "Indian" and "authentic." Speaking at a symposium at the Heard Museum in Phoenix in 1991, Richard West, Director of the new Museum of the American Indian in New York, offered a brisk corrective: "I was born in front of a TV not in a tipi."

Kenneth Coutts-Smith, artist, historian, and commentator on contemporary Canadian art and culture, incorporated the following into a graphic work in 1972: "The concept of an internationale of visual culture in modern art is essentially a colonialist notion, since the history of art from which modernism has sprung, and from which it still nourishes itself, is nothing other than the history of European culture." As the stranglehold of modernism has been loosened, one of the consequences seems to have been that different kinds of links between different modes of representation, with fewer prescriptions and a loosening of hierarchies, can be apprehended. It could also be expressed as a reduction of the distinction, as pointed out by Pierre Bourdieu, between the "field of restricted production" in which cultural goods are produced for a limited public of other producers of cultural goods and "the field of large-scale cultural production," which is organized around the production of cultural goods for non-producers, who he glosses as "the public at large" (1993, p. 115). It would, however, be naïve and contrary to what can be observed everywhere to picture a free-for-all in which multiple meanings co-exist peacefully. It is all too easy within postmodern discourse to be engulfed by "too many meanings" (James Weiner's phrase) or ensnared by "the promiscuity of objects" (Nicholas Thomas' phrase). The only recourse seems to be to try to focus on what Lila Abu-Lughod has called "ethnographies of the particular" (1991, p. 138). The particulars, in this case, are the new relationships that are being established between forms of cultural representations and their sites and contexts.

This is my main point. It seems to me that if you look at how First Nations artists -- weavers, carvers, dancers, designers, storytellers, jewellers -- choose to represent themselves, and how they contest the representations of others in a world of cultural disjuncture, you see a challenge to the strictures of modernism, many interconnections between media, and appeals to audiences that cut across the old distinctions. Arguably, this is how a shared epistemology manifests itself. They make aesthetic and ethical demands to which, on the whole, the Western art tradition over the last 200 or 300 years has become unaccustomed. Indeed, modernity can be defined by its resistance to ethical imperatives and moral certainties. Native cultures, as they gain their right to join the discourse, are upsetting the modernist certainty of uncertainty (Townsend-Gault, 1993). With this must come a shift in the classification of the components of culture. Much has been written on the need to correct the focus on looking and the focus on objects of contemplation (Bryson, 1983; Podedworny, 1991). However, Yuxweluptun's paintings, the sculpture of Davidson, and the Nuu-Chah-Nulth screens carry a freight of knowledge that looking alone will not unload.

These works force reconsideration of how the reception of First Nations art has been framed by categories extrinsic to First Nations history and to their contemporary project -- for example, high, low, commodity, ethnographica, and so forth. These items are variously dismissed as fragmented descendants from some primitive authenticity, as having sold out to market forces, or as being merely superficial responses in superficial times. What they (these discursive representations) have in common is that they are "objectifications of local or national identity projects" (Keesing, 1994, p. 44). As such, they mark the conflicts inherent in the relations between First Nations and the dominant society; this is their message: assertion of rights, protest at the disjunction between the rhetoric of rights and the reality of continuous repression, denigration, hybridization, marginalization -- a domain of disputed social relations. They show First Nations taking back control over the representation of their culture. It does not just mean owning the copyright to the pictures and the designs. It means having control over issues of ownership, authenticity, and appropriation; over secret knowledge and the limits of its translatability; over the retrieval and reinscription of history; and over the parameters of reconciliation. These are matters that have been expunged from Western "art."

I will try putting this in another, and more critical, way: The bad ethics of the not-yet-post-colonial situation are not improved by fixing on a frozen concept of Aboriginal rights nor by a vacuous celebration of Native "art," nor by harping on the glories of the past, of which anything that happens today is a pathetic remnant. What is the point of perpetuating a category called "Native art," when the work is irreconcilably diverse and the category restrictive or discriminatory? It is not an art category at all, but the outcome of a socio-political situation constituted by a devastating history, by tribal and local Canadian politics, by the shifting demographics of the non-Native population in a pluralist society, and by the worldwide ethnic revival. In the rehabilitative discourse of a younger generation of First Nations artists a continuity can be perceived between the treasures of the past, the ceremonial regalia of the present, masks carved to be hung on a wall rather than worn, poles carved for parks and private homes in other countries, and the designer sweatshirts. This seems to be corroborated by remarks made by Davidson on an audio tape that accompanied his exhibition in the summer of 1993:

I see the art form as really objects from the supernatural ... and actually solutions to life came through dreams. And so a lot of images were placed in front of certain people and those people became the medium to express what they saw so the world can see it. A lot of times I feel I'm the medium for those ideas. And I really, strongly believe that each one of us is a medium for the supernatural world to express their ideas.... And so, after contact, there were other new images that were added to the vocabulary of what we call cultural images. The Haida people were always adapting. It was not a fixed culture as I was led to believe by anthropological attitudes and ideas. The culture was very tangible. It was always evolving with the time. I really believe that it is up to our generation that's inheriting that old knowledge to give it meaning for us. So that we can identify with it. I feel my grandparents did the same thing when they learned it from their grandparents. (Davidson, 1993)

This is Davidson's struggle with the problem of becoming modern while remaining the same. In the multicultural, hybrid, and internationalist arena of contemporary British Columbia, it is one of the frames of reference through which First Nations culture is filtered. Amongst others: New Ageism, with its fascinated patronage of Native spirituality; an uneasy association with environmental movements; scholarly reassessment of cultural specifics; revelations of grotesque mistreatment of generations of Native children in residential schools; and the inquiries of the artists themselves, who, with pain and painstakingly, investigate their pasts and construct their presents. Disparate forms and multiple meanings notwithstanding, the cumulative effect is an emphasis on the inseparability of all these forms of cultural expression from their shared ethical aspect. It is its unassailable historical and political existence which must surely prevent the cultural expression of hitherto marginalized people from being monopolized again, absorbed as one more effete wrinkle in the consumption pattern, one more abandoned bandwagon.

While multiple meanings, often disputed, characterize the reception of their work, as producers Native artists should not be understood as mere illustrators of social issues -- not only because that would be to sideline them, all over again, as a mere social phenomenon, and not only because most of them would denounce such a view, but because that is not how their work comes across. Their voices are unavoidably coloured by the diverse aesthetic choices and constraints that they share, in a polyphonous environment, with everyone else. What is different is a set of aesthetic and ethical demands made of their audience and based in their history. The demands that I have particularly wanted to point to here are those signalled by changes in the relationships between cultural representations, and the sites where they are contested -- gallery, mall, heritage site. This is not to point to a sloppy democracy where everyone might seem to have an equal right to understand or misunderstand Native culture as they wish. It is rather that, as the definitions of art broaden, the terms of reference have changed and, with them, the apportionment of knowledge.


This argument has been followed since 1995 in a number of issues of Anthropology Today. URL: http: // /rai


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