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Ahasiw K. Maskegon-lskwew
White Shame 1992

Marcia Crosby

In Ahasiw's performance, he creates an installation of five uncovered tipis, and begins by reading poetic prose: “Dreams desire Columbus …tight hard dreams …Queen Isabella …Indians killed…You have to tell… She draws the hate like pus…” He sketches, writes and scribbles over slide projections of images and words in Cree and English. "Suicide." "Filthy." "Superstition and Christianity…”, each layering obscuring the previous original act as he moves from 1592 to the 1990 Oka crisis. Ahasiw smears mud over the final picture of the Sureté du Quebec (S.Q.) who stand by as over 250 protesters stone the people of Kahnawake who are leaving the reserve in a convoy of 60 cars. He then enters a tipi.

He takes charcoal from a bowl, piece by piece, and crushes it between stones. Each handful of powder goes back into the bowl. Hands blacken. The room becomes thick with the sound of crushing. It's a long slow process. Crushing completed, he mixes water and black powder into paste on stone. Preparation continues. He smears himself with the black paste under cover of a blanket, brings a white bowl into the tipi center and washes his upper body. He takes a long needle, hands shaking, and pushes its tip into a fold of flesh on his chest. My hands begin to shake with his. Its initial entry shocks my body. He pokes into skin through to the other side, and pulls through a thin string of sinew tied at the end with a feather. I can hardly breathe as the needle penetrates; my body contracts, tightening with his every gesture. Still shaking as he moves to each of the other tipis, he pierces his body a second, third, fourth, a fifth time. I sit riveted, eyes on each piercing.

I watched, caught in the uncertainty of the performance, anxious, but willing to experience Ahasiw's action as far as he was willing to take it. 1 I wasn't an informed audience at the time, so I didn't think of his work in relation to the history of performance art or those who may have informed his work. 2 Later, I remembered the media coverage of the Oka crisis in the summer of 1990, including the stoning of the Mohawks. It felt dangerous to be an "Indian" travelling in B.C. then. At the gas stations in Burns Lake, Prince George, Lillooet and other small towns, BCTV news was continually showing relentless stereotypes of the drunk, violent or victimized “Indian”, their implicit message: "These are people who cannot govern their own bodies, much less form political bodies of self- government." On September 2, 1990, Joe Armstrong, a 71-year-old man who was a victim of the Oka stoning, died because of the injuries he received while leaving the Kahnawake reservation. 3

As I felt Ahasiw pierce his chest, I saw in my mind glimpses of other men suspended from piercings, which I remembered later as fleeting images on archival film I'd reviewed for the Native Studies courses I taught. i Although we don't teach the largely aboriginal student body about ceremony, the course content surveys and investigates the colonization of aboriginal ceremony through various levels of Western institutional practice. The Canadian ban on Potlatch and Sundance was just one law of many intent on colonizing aboriginal bodies.

Ahasiw concluded his action by offering tools to the audience and asking, "Who will work?" Those who accepted the metal scrapers followed him to the alley behind the gallery, to a stretched moose hide. Scraping the hide gave the spectators an opportunity to allow the trauma to leave their bodies, and to integrate its memory. However, despite the artist's attempt at redemptive closure through his and the spectators’ conclusive action, "[his] public enactment of suffering triggered outrage, shock and grief among members of the audience, especially those of First Nations descent." 4 It seems to me there are at least two overlapping aspects of the performance that triggered this reaction. They are found in what Archer Pechawis describes as an act of redemption, in Ahasiw’s "offering of his physical being as a symbol for First Nations people as a whole, suffering the atrocities of colonialism"; and in his body as the site upon which a "representational facsimile of a sacred ceremony was shown." Ahasiw presents, as described by Malcolm Green in Writings of the Vienna Actionists, "the body as self and the body as object: …the body as mine and the body as yours; the body as I and the body as not I…; the body as proof of doing and authorship, and the body as evidence against you; the body as a non-referential singularity, and the body as multiply-encoded social referent." 5 Because Ahasiw’s body is presented as a paradoxical site for both the sacred and the profane, some aboriginal people viewed his symbolic sacrificial wounding as "a sacrilege of the Sundance." 6

Besides the ethical question raised by the audience regarding the use of traditional ceremony in a public art performance, the transgressiveness of his response to "the atrocities of colonialism" raises another question: How can such a wounding both symbolize great loss (loss that has included the purposeful intent to destroy aboriginal ceremony), and yet avoid undercutting any and all meanings? Perhaps this question is linked to the issue of how the force of shock and self-mortification may further destabilize an already uncertain, and even sometimes dangerous, present for an aboriginal artist and audience.

However, if we consider the performance action as that which is: "…not about ‘truth’: [but as] …one event that is written across the palimpsest of the performer's self… [in which the] performer becomes a manuscript that has been written on repeatedly, with the previous lines incompletely erased and often still legible…" 7 Ahasiw's body, his performance is the collective loss of colonization. He both represents and is the cultural and intellectual void left in the wake of this history. His performative "facsimile of a sacred ceremony" is, itself, an aspect of the irreplaceable loss of culture and knowledge, his body a part of the void. At the same time, he writes a public history across his body, which becomes entangled with his own name and history; all possible meanings or experience of the performance break through any existing rational historiography of 1492-1992. Through the self-consciousness of performance, spectators grasp that a particular history is being told and remembered by someone in a particular time and place for a reason. This work is, among other things, an anti-celebration of Columbus’ "discovery". Thus Ahasiw contributes to a "multi-vocal history, where no single, overarching meaning emerges unchallenged." 8

In some Northwest coast communities, certain people sing crying songs. In Tsimpshian territory, a / limxooy is a "crying song" sung in the Feast Halls; they are histories of loss which are enfolded into the present.

In 2002, at the INDIANacts Aboriginal Performance Art conference (November 29, 30 and December 1, Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, ECIAD), Ahasiw stated that some of his past performances put him "into greater and greater danger, [in] speaking so much about grief and loss." Besides the experience of grief, he explains, "I went to places where I went without really thinking about who could hold my hand when I was there. I found myself really in some incredibly dangerous places… Then, there was always recovery afterward…" 9 What Ahasiw points to is the possibility for either artist or spectator to fall into a trauma being enacted. An artist may consciously choose to enact a trauma, or a spectator may choose to shift from watching to experiencing the performance's unfolding. But some part of it may register as an original moment of terror, panic, or anger, a moment caught in past time. ii

“There is between the play and the reality a very thin line which is very easily crossed when one remembers that in the Tsimpshian cosmology all representations, all images of an event or entity call the power of that event [entity or person] back into action.” iii


  1. Whether one has experienced trauma as a single event (“Trauma 1"–sudden injury, death, natural disaster), or as prolonged injury of abuse over time ("Trauma 2"), he or she may fall back in unconscious time, assuming the position of a learned "seething state of watchfulness" or what has also been described as "autonomic hyperarousal" with its associated self-protective state of quiet immobility. Judith Herman. Trauma and Recovery The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, 139.

    Although there is no telling when or to whom this will happen, given the history of aboriginal peoples in Canada, it follows that the possibility of being re-traumatized is high for a First Nations spectator.  back

  2. Brus, Muehl, Nitsch, Schwarzkogler: Writings of the Vienna Actionists; Karen Finley's Shock Art; Stelarc's body in suspension with meat hooks inserted into the skin in Art Action I958-98. (pp. 186-191); Fakir Musafar in Modern Primitives: An Investigation of Contemporary Adornment & Ritual, ed. V. Vale and Andrea Juno (San Francisco: Re/Search Publications. 1989).  back

  3. Christopher Komuves. "The Columbus Quincentennial: Celebrating 500 years of Oppression." originally published Rutgers Review, April 16. 1991; updated and available from : Internet; accessed 16 November, 2004.  back

  4. Archer Pechawis. "New Traditions: Post-Oka Aboriginal Performance Art in Vancouver." in Live At the End of the Century; Aspects of Performance Art in Vancouver, ed. Brice Canyon (Vancouver: Visible Art Society. 2000), 140; see also Aiyyana Maracle. Performance Art & The Native Artist: an Evolutionary Mix?" in Canyon, 98-106.  back

  5. "Introduction: Hall of Mirrors," 16.  back

  6. Pechawis, 140.  back

  7. John Freeman. "Writing for Performance: Performatised Secrets, Performatised Selves," Scene4 International Magazine of Theatre, Film & Media, November 2003, available from ; Internet; accessed 16 November, 2004.  back

  8. Friedlander, quoted in James Young, rev. of Memory, History, and the Extermination of the Jews of Europe, Criticism, Winter, 1996, available from m2220/is_nl_v38/ai_18125697: Internet; accessed 16 November, 2004.  back

  9. INDIANacts conference, Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, 2002. INDIANacts CD Track 5A, grunt gallery archives.  back


  1. I have been teaching at Vancouver Island University (formerly Malaspina), Nanaimo, BC since 1996.  back

  2. This is an excerpt of a larger essay titled, Ethics, Audience and Trauma in Performance Art.  back

  3. This quote refers to halait performances that were enacted in the Tsimpshian Big House as a staged show or as profound religious experiences. Margaret Anderson & Marjorie Halpin, Potlatch at Gitsegukla: William Beynon’s 1945 Field Notes, ed. Anderson & Halpin (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2000), 25.  back

Marcia Crosby is of Tsimpshian and Haida ancestry. She completed an MA in Art History (UBC), and a BFA, with a Minor in English (UBC), for which she received an award for Most Promising Student in Canadian Literature.

Crosby has been an instructor in First Nations Studies and the English Departments at Malaspina University College, Nanaimo, B.C.- now Vancouver Island University. She has written and published essays about art, art practice and theory in books and catalogues, many of which have been presented at national and international conferences. Her first published essay “The Construction of the Imaginary Indian” (in Vancouver Anthology Ed. Stan Douglas, 1991) has been republished in other texts and is still currently used in art history courses in North America and Europe. She has written seminal essays for numerous exhibition catalogue publications, including The Group of Seven in Western Canada (2002); The Legacy of Bill Reid: A Critical Enquiry (2004); Emily Carr: New Perspectives (2006), Rising to the Occasion, Vancouver Art Gallery, 2008); and the forward to Unsettling Encounters: First Nations Imagery in the Art of Emily Carr (Gerta Moray, 2006). Her work focuses on uneven power relations, racism, ongoing forms of colonialism and the formation of contemporary aboriginal histories in art practice.