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Talk Indian To Me #3

Âhasiw Maskêgon-Iskwêw, 1996

* wîmistikôsiwi-mîci: Cree Noun, Inanimate: White-Man's food as opposed to nôhcimihk-micim or just mîcim: bush food or country food. This apparently simple distinction is perhaps one of the most important pointers to the profound cultural differences between Western European and First Nations cultures. Prior to contact and for a long time after (to the present day for many), First Nations material culture, especially food, originated from and represented negotiations with the land and all of the spiritual forces inhabiting it — only some of whom are human. This is a major difference from Christian concepts that all human prosperity originates from a single spiritual force that created all things on earth for the potential benefit of people. All of the First Nations beliefs, ceremonies, rules and taboos concerning obtaining, preparing and handling food and other gifts from the spirits of the land differ deeply from those involving the bread host and wine as the body and blood of the human spirit Christ, the only Christian reference to a spiritual presence directly represented by food. The only Christian reference to animal spirituality is the Old Testament Golden Calf and its associated "Pagan" rituals which were characterized as a tragic mistake and completely forbidden and eradicated.

The recent birth of the white Buffalo calf in Wisconsin has a very powerful and complex spiritual meaning for plains First Nations. Some have said that an important part of this message is that the time for cultural healing and respect has begun. It is First Nations peoples who have been forced to become bilingual and do the difficult translations of a foreign culture in order to survive. But we insist on much more than mere survival. It is now the turn of Euro-Canadians who must also become bilingual and contribute their share to the work of translation and understanding which may also, hopefully, transform their relationships to the land and all our relations living there.

Sometimes the situation in which I find myself of writing about First Nations art feels to me similar to the situations in which First Nations people found themselves in seventeenth-century New England. The missionaries and ministers took the statements of dying people who had been converted to Christianity (thereby avoiding any possibility of backsliding), translated them, edited them heavily and sent published versions to England to encourage more funding support for the continuing work of replacing First Nations religion, language and culture with European Puritan models. When subsequent First Nations people from these converted communities learned to write English, they were taught to do so by the same missions to assist in their work. The writings of these first English-literate First Nations people were also edited, published and distributed in Europe for the same purpose — to show the success of the Christianizing and "civilizing" process in the name of obtaining further support for it. For these writers, however, particularly Samson Occom and William Apes, this new ability to write for a relatively wide White audience also provided the opportunity for ironic and subversive condemnation of White colonialization through the language of Christian ethics itself 1 — unfortunately, to little or no effect. This one-sided and oppressive bilingualism has continued to the present day, resulting in the extinction of far too many First Nations languages and the endangerment of others.

The comparison of these examples with my own experience arises from acknowledgement that many First Nations writers have also had to become extensively literate in an enveloping foreign culture in order to be just barely heard and to try to break an easier trail for the next generations. Trailbreaking involves three main tasks: negotiating the removal or reduction of often overwhelming academic and professional requirements and barriers that have little or no relevance to our cultural practices or histories; caching resources along the way in the form of speaking with our own cultural voices in the documentation of our struggles, successes and failures; and giving honour and acknowledgement to the previous First Nations trailbreakers and their allies who made our present work possible, even as far back as Occom and Apes. They fought for the rights of their people by writing in White Christian language and vocabulary to a White audience because it was the only language that White culture would acknowledge.

In the recent past, especially over the past twenty years, we have seen examples of the often dramatic successes that have been brought about by this multi-generational struggle, but these are always accompanied by tragedies that will not let us rest. Understandably, as with any long and often exhausting struggle, there are those in First Nations communities, especially among some of the lucky young who have benefited from this work in a consistent and deserving way, who now are able to question the need for continued struggle to change White attitudes and value systems. Thankfully, they have been well prepared to begin speaking in their own voices to their own people.

But twenty years of success have produced only a fragile patchwork of understanding and commitment within the non-First Nations arts community. This is due to the fact that twenty years is a very short time for us to heal deep cultural wounds, to revive teaching practices, to reassemble dispersed historic cultural materials and to renew inspiration from our own languages compared to the huge and growing body of hundreds of years of continuous work that supports and validates the White arts community.

In the broad diversity that may be loosely conceptualized as the non-First Nations Canadian contemporary arts community there are certain strong threads common to almost all of its elements. Each particular self-defined community within it, whether formed through regional, thematic, theoretical or stylistic commonalities, relies on a strong relationship with a history of origin that stretches far back beyond the time of contact with Turtle Island. These relationships may be oppositional — working to revision this history — or collaborative — in support of the development of certain historic movements — or, most often, varying degrees of both.

Whatever the approach, there are massive amounts of historic materials that can be drawn upon to support all manner of strategies of contradiction, ambiguity and continuity by non-First Nations artists. These threads are also evident in the range of institutions, agencies and professions that support and thereby, to a certain extent, regulate the practices of artists. 2

One of the basic requirements for entry into arts professions in Canada is to have an accredited and demonstrable understanding of European art history and the subsequent preservation and contemporary expression of it in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. This is also true of artists who support their practice by working in other professions such as teaching, etc. Thus, arts professionals must be fully equipped with a set of historical resources that sometimes formed the foundation for, arose out of or were developed parallel to the active and unapologetic eradication of living First Nations cultures and the exclusion and silencing of the voices of living First Nations cultural practitioners; actions which are still in living memory for some, and form a large part of the still-recent legacy of almost all First Nations. An ironic exception is the work of early (and not so early) anthropologists who practiced what they termed "salvage ethnology," collecting and documenting what they thought of as the last fragments of our living cultures before we would inevitably be extinguished. (A fragment of a conversation was related to me by a friend which took place with a highly respected and definitely well-educated arts professional a couple of years ago:

"Where did you get that amazing archival material [photographs, footage]?"
"I made it myself this summer on my reserve.")

The well-rounded accreditation of non-First Nations arts professionals for the most part does not require even a rudimentary understanding of First Nations post-contact political history, let alone the basics of historical and contemporary First Nations cultural practices, and certainly not any of the most crucial understanding of how our unique languages and oratures shape and guide our diverse cultures. Thankfully, the professionalism and respect of many individuals in the non-First Nations arts community compels them to undertake personal research into these areas so that they have a deeper understanding of the rapidly growing community of First Nations artists with whom they are working and transforming the institutions in which they work. That understanding is, however, inconsistent, idiosyncratic and fragmentary when examined across the broad scope of the general community of contemporary arts professionals. The political will of everyone in the arts community is now required to transform the academic art and art history community to ensure a consistent and growing focus on First Nations art and culture as a fundamental requirement of an adequate arts education for arts professionals in Canada.

Dr. Olive Dickason, a Métis elder, was awarded the Order of Canada in January of this year for her work in education. In 1972, she earned a Master's Degree in Canadian Studies, taking as her topic the French and Indians at Louisburg. At that time, in order to negotiate her degree, she had to overcome a great deal of institutional resistance toward inclusion of First Nations topics in the study of Canadian history as well as to negotiate recognition for herself as a Métis and as a woman in a field dominated by White men. They tried to insist that the histories of First Nations were topics suited only to the field of anthropology. The award recognized her crucial leadership over the past two decades in helping to establish the study of First Nations history into what is now one of the most rapidly developing fields of study in Canada. The Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, an independent college federated with the University of Regina, was established in 1976 and has experienced rapid growth every year. In 1988, the University of Alberta established its School of Native Studies independent from its Faculty of Arts. One of the most important struggles for First Nations is to regain, rebuild and support fundamental roles for teachers in our cultures. The ability to transmit culture to a wide audience through diverse teaching strategies is essential to functioning in a self-determined way. A vital part of what occurs downstream from this is the support for and recognition of the work of First Nations people engaged in sustained, consistent and rigorous study, research and analysis of First Nations art and culture.

Unfortunately, most art history educators can still safely omit any references to First Nations art practice, and First Nations art history courses taught by First Nations people are still non-existent in many art education departments and institutions that perceive their offerings as adequate and well rounded. Every institution that has a mandate to serve or contribute to the general Canadian arts community must realize and act on the full implications of their responsibility. The most important task at this historical moment is to contribute to the re-establishment of the cultural leadership of First Nations people.

Twenty years of achievement toward an in-depth and self-determined focus on First Nations cultures is only a small beginning. Regaining our voices over the past two decades has only just begun to resolve centuries of imposed and corrosive silence. We are still swallowed up in the flood of non-First Nations culture. But Wacaskwa (muskrat) has returned from his long swim, bringing up to us a little piece of earth from which we are beginning to rebuild our cultural Turtle Islands.


  1. David Murray, Forked Tongues: Speech, Writing and Representation in North American Indian Texts (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991), pp. 34-35, 63.  back

  2. In this discussion of the non-First Nations contemporary Canadian arts community I refer primarily to artists and arts professionals of European ancestry working from a background of Western art traditions and historical resources, The struggle of First Nations cultures to be heard in the midst of often deafening White culture and media noise has much in common with other strong communities formed on the basis of historical marginalization such as the Asian, South Asian, Black and Gay and Lesbian communities. Many people from these cultures have done important work for their own communities that has also contributed to the growing foundation of tolerance, respect and acknowledgement that also benefits First Nations cultures. However, there is one element many of them have in common with Western European immigrants, and that, to a large extent, is that they can also look to many generations of cultural development and historical support from homelands elsewhere than Turtle Island. Communities of colour with long cultural histories of urbanization, agriculture and written literature appear to us far more similar to Western European culture than to First Nations cultures. The traditional cultural roles of what may be badly translated as First Nations Gay and Lesbian people are certainly far different from those in lists of "Famous Gay and Lesbian People" (almost always only White and often predominantly male). First Nations people are required to be bilingual in terms of the global cultures of our allies to form successful coalitions to continue our common struggle but far too few of our allies are taking on the task of becoming bilingual in First Nations languages, cultures and the complex relationships to the lands we now share. It is certainly not required as a condition of a full education.  back

Âhasiw Maskêgon-Iskwêw (1958 - 2006) was a Cree/Métis writer, editor, performance and spoken word artist, video and visual artist, curator and teacher. A graduate of Emily Carr College of Art and Design (now Emily Carr University of Art + Design), Maskêgon-Iskwêw was a participant in the two year Equity Internship Program at the Canada Council for the Arts that included work with the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, Circle Vision Arts Corporation, and the Aboriginal Film and Video Art Alliance. He then became Program Coordinator and Assistant Editor of the Talking Stick First Nations Arts Magazine and later developed the position of Production Manager for SOIL at Neutral Ground Digital Media Production Suite. He also worked as web editor for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. His critical writing has been published in Mix and Fuse Magazine and in the anthology The Multiple and Mutable Subject: Postmodern Subjectivity and the Internet (2002), published by the St. Norbert Arts Centre. His fictional work Cannibals was presented by the Art Gallery of Calgary as part of the Storybook Story project.

In describing rooms he created for CyberPowWow, an Aboriginally Determined Territory in Cyberspace, Âhasiw said, “They form a constellation that attempts to tell one complex story. There is a desire to say things in a more complete way, to leave a legacy.” His work has left everyone who experienced his art or read his words a rich and complex legacy of their own.

A full bio can be found on the home page.