Indigenous (re)memory and resistance: video works by Dana Claxton.
"Starting from grandmothers and ancestors, land and sky, rage and beauty, Dana Claxton weaves images, sounds, and ideas together with a sense of balance, subversion, and hope. Dana's work is situated in place, remembering, and history, bringing these elements together in surreal homages and explorations. Dana's work is part of a journey-the journey of identity of self and Nation (both Indigenous nations and Canadian Nationhood), the journey of history, and the journey of the spirit." (Willard 2007)
The multifaceted artistic practice of Hunkpapa Lakota artist Dana Claxton intertwines her Indigenous (1) worldviews with contemporary Aboriginal realities to create a visual language that exposes legacies of colonization, critiques settler histories, and asserts previously silenced Indigenous perspectives. Although her vast body of work includes films, installations, performances and photography, her intricately layered video pieces are some of the most salient examples of her activist practices. In this paper I explore the ways that Claxton re / frames archival photographs and film, personal interviews, contemporary music samples, and iconic images to simultaneously critique and create. A key aspect of her decolonization project is the sharing of Indigenous stories, a strategy that foregrounds (re)memory and resistance. She incorporates Indigenous bodies for the sharing of Indigenous perspectives and mines the archive to assert Indigenous histories. Taken together, I argue that Claxton's videos function as vehicles toward indigenizing social memory--a role that is rooted in sovereignty, self-determination, and survivance. (2)
The theoretical framework underpinning my paper draws on the writings of two prominent Indigenous scholars, Steven Loft (Mohawk) and Jolene Rickard (Tuscarora). In his article "Sovereignty, Subjectivity and Social Action: The Films of Alanis Obomsawin," Loft argues that discussions of Aboriginal filmmaking "must take place within a theoretical framework based on the political, social, historic and artistic realities which face Aboriginal people" (61). In "Sovereignty: A Line in the Sand," Rickard suggests that,
The work of Indigenous artists needs to be understood through the clarifying lens of sovereignty and self-determination, not just in terms of assimilation, colonization, and identity politics ... Sovereignty is the border that shifts Indigenous experience from a victimized stance to a strategic one (207).
Building on the perspectives of these important scholars, this project explores Claxton's work through frameworks of sovereignty and self-determination. I proceed from the premise that her videos make space for the imperative acknowledgement of the continued negotiations made by contemporary Indigenous peoples, and, specifically, Indigenous artists of colonial histories and contemporary experiences. More broadly, sovereignty and self-determination are lenses through which contemporary Aboriginal art can be explored in order to highlight Indigenous artists' agency, autonomy of Native world-views, and the sophisticated and political artistic strategies of sharing stories and experiences. By approaching Claxton's work within this larger theoretical structure, the complexity of media and meanings in her videos can be understood as tools for responding to and participating in the multifaceted project of reclaiming and revoicing Indigenous histories.
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Claxton's Buffalo Bone China (1997) (Figure 1), a video, performance, and installation, recalls the infinite impact of the extermination of the buffalo on Indigenous life and the historical use of buffalo bone to make fine china. A dynamic interweaving of artistic media, Buffalo Bone China is an example of Claxton's use of artistic production to reveal and challenge nationalist narratives and foreground occluded histories and silenced voices. At the same time, it functions as a site for mourning and remembrance of not only the loss of the buffalo but of the way of life the buffalo supported and generated for Plains Aboriginal peoples. This multitude of meanings and messages is made possible through the use of the archive and the body, tools which Claxton strategically employs throughout her work. By juxtaposing imagery from archival film footage with live-feed imagery of the Aboriginal body, Claxton's approach brings the past into the present, complicating settler histories and asserting Indigenous perspectives.
In the video component of Buffalo Bone China (12 mins), Claxton presents archival footage of running buffalo herds that are intersected with looped and interspaced film images of a white man with a gun, a falling buffalo, and an Indigenous man yelling. These scenes are followed by a photograph of a buffalo skull overlaid on the moving image of stacks of pink, gold, and white china on a table. Later in the work, hands touch and caress the stacks of china, and the scene shifts to an Aboriginal man seated at the table with the china laid out in front of him. Actor, Anthony McNab Favell, yells at the table of china and then sits mournfully looking at the evidence of the Buffalo extermination. After this, the camera follows the long black hair of an unidentified individual as it is slowly swept over the stacks of china on the table. Slow-motion images of running Buffalo then return to the screen.
Tania Willard describes the interconnections between politics, spirituality, memory, and anger in this performance/ video installation and in Claxton's work more generally:
Dana smashes pieces of China and later makes four bundles and places them in a sanctified circle while an experimental video of buffalo plays. Feeling the loss of the buffalo, the backbone of Plains spirituality and sustenance, the artist uses a rubber mallet to destroy plates and bowls. The breaking of the china refers to the use of buffalo bones in the making of bone china during the period of exploitation and decimation of the buffalo. This rage can be seen to ebb and flow in Dana's work. (Willard 2007).
The presence of the china and the Buffalo imagery function as documents that allude to colonial histories. Their inclusion introduces audience members to lesser known events that are then interrogated by the artist through the insertion of individual Indigenous bodies--her own, and Favell's. Screaming and breaking of china is set in contrast with more subdued forms of mourning, a juxtaposition that highlights the complexity of individual responses to colonial impact. This pairing of the archive and the contemporary Indigenous body opens up a conversation that complicates existing discussions and asserts Aboriginal self-determination. As a result, Claxton's work calls for the rememory of the past and the creation of new stories in the present. These works are not reactionary but, instead, they promote Indigenous perspectives and reframe settler/Indigenous histories in North America.
As described in the preceding example, the archive is an important tool that Claxton uses to reconfigure social memory from Indigenous vantage points. Her videos subvert colonial representation tactics by employing similar strategies in new ways. Both film and photographs were frequently used by colonizers to document, record, produce, and construct Aboriginal peoples according to preconceived Western ideas about identity and race. Marcia Crosby argued over fifteen years ago that a large amount of contemporary Aboriginal art is produced as an attempt to reclaim the image of the 'Indian' from the ethnographic context of the salvage paradigm (Crosby 271). She explained that Indigenous peoples have been collected theoretically and physically by Europeans who 'salvaged' their material and visual culture and placed it in museum collections (271). A number of contemporary Indigenous communities are now mining these archives and using photographs, film, newspaper articles, and objects to critique the past, reclaim histories, and emphasize cultural continuity.
Claxton has drawn heavily on film archives in her reclamation project. Her work along with other Aboriginal filmmakers and artists, asserts Indigenous presence and experience while it also contests and displaces stereotypical imagery produced in mainstream films. In one of the first comprehensive anthologies on Aboriginal peoples and film, The Pretend Indians: Images of Native Americans in the Movies,
Lakota scholar and activist Vine Deloria, Jr. explores the complex relationship of Indigenous peoples with film and video in North America. He writes,
Therein lies the meaning of the white fantasy about Indians--the problem of the Indian image. Underneath all the conflicting images of the Indian one fundamental truth emerges: the white man knows he is alien and he knows that North America is Indian--and he will never let go of the Indian image because he thinks that by some clever manipulation he can achieve an authenticity which can never be his (Deloria xvi).
In other words, the representation and image of Aboriginal peoples in film has a long standing history, which, along with other types of media, are strategic vehicles that supported and maintained colonial agendas. Maori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith, warns that "Western culture constantly reaffirms the West's view of itself as the centre of legitimate knowledge, the arbiter of what counts as knowledge and the source of 'civilized' knowledge" (Smith 45). Claxton's practice intervenes in the colonial rhetoric of stereotypes and racist representations by presenting perspectives, histories, and images through an Indigenous lens. In this sense, her film and video work participates in the displacement of colonial and national/ist histories, which historically delegitimated, ignored, erased and silenced Indigenous experiences.
Claxton's multi-sensory video strategies challenge colonial historical and stereotypical representations of Aboriginal peoples. She accomplishes this reclaiming of the images of both Indigenous men and women by her inclusions and uses of Aboriginal bodies in her video works. This strategy of inclusion is exemplified by The Hill (2004), which includes an Indigenous actor as the focus of the video narrative. The body is the site for articulating Indigenous lived experiences and stories. In a recent interview with the artist, I discussed with Claxton the role of the body in her video, performance and photographic works. We discussed how her videos create a space for a very positive representation of the Aboriginal body (Claxton and Taunton 2009). Claxton stated that she wanted to create representations that showcased "the beauty of the Aboriginal body and of the beauty of Aboriginal existence" (Claxton and Taunton 2009). Drawing upon performance artist James Luna's (among other artists and scholars of performance and video art, such as Rebecca Belmore and Lori Blondeau) understanding of body politics and the human body as a 'social instrument' for resistance and activism, the inclusion of Indigenous bodies into works by Indigenous artists can vocalize critical discourse (Towsend-Gault 55). In this regard, Claxton's inclusion of Aboriginal bodies challenge representations and histories of Indigenous peoples presented and maintained by popular culture.
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The Hill (3min 45sec) (Fig. 2), a short two channel video, places an Indigenous woman on Canada's Parliament Hill in Ottawa. In the right channel, the camera follows a woman, actor Michelle Trush. The audience watches her as she walks the grounds of the parliament buildings; at one point she attempts to open the doors into the buildings, but the doors are locked. This action alludes to the exclusion of Indigenous peoples in Canadian nationalism. The focus on the left channel are the late nineteenth century neogothic buildings of the parliament, showcasing the monumentality of the central Peace Tower and other architectural details, such as the carved reliefs of Aboriginal peoples. Claxton's close-up on these representations alludes to the racist and Eurocentric attitudes during the founding of the nation. Like Edward Curtis' photographs, these stereotypical representations of the Noble Savage, created in stone, participate in the collecting of Indigenous peoples due to the nineteenth century erroneous opinion that the Indigenous peoples of North America were vanishing. Here, in the monumental stonework of the symbol of a nation, the iconic image of an Aboriginal man in headdress is placed on display, as a relic of times past. The artist's incorporation of this imagery through the lens of her camera reclaims and contextualizes their presence, and for the unknowing viewer raises questions as to why these relief representations are on the parliament buildings. The juxtaposition of the imagery of the Aboriginal woman and the relief carvings alludes to a history: Aboriginal people were not incorporated into governance of Canada but rather forcibly placed into controlled reserves. As a result, the architectural imagery is continuously contextualized and simultaneously challenged by the presence of the image of the Aboriginal woman. This video places the Indigenous body on the site of Canadian government, a place and space that historically has violently oppressed and attempted to control all aspects of Indigenous life (as exemplified by the Indian Act and the Residential School legislations).
The presence of the Aboriginal woman's body by Claxton can be argued as commentary on the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the Canadian government. The very fact that she could not open the doors to the parliament buildings--the site of decision-making--overtly elucidates the ongoing struggles and challenges Aboriginal peoples face in relation to Canada, and their ongoing efforts to assert sovereignty over lands and government. The Hill is a visual representation of contemporary issues faced by Aboriginal peoples and the legacies of colonization. It is an explicit example of Indigenous survivance, which claims rights and visibility in Canadian government and also in Canadian society. Claxton's imagery offers an opportunity for reflecting on Canada as a settler-nation and Indigenous experiences with Canada. Witnessing such a staging, an Aboriginal woman walking Algonquin ancestral land now commonly known as The Hill, which is a site that historically excluded Indigenous peoples, conveys a powerful self-determined message of Indigenous activism. The Hill uses the body emphasizes the presence of Aboriginal peoples in Canadian history.
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Claxton's inclusion of Indigenous bodies in her video work is an act of re / claiming the image and experiences of Aboriginal peoples that tells an Indigenous story for Indigenous audiences and challenges the representations of the Indian Princess and Noble Savage, or as Marcia Crosby acutely argued the 'Imaginary Indian' of settler society which continuously appears in popular culture (Crosby 1991). Claxton's work also asserts an opposition to the history of displaying Indigenous bodies and cultures for settler consumption at World Fairs, Wild West shows, vaudeville and burlesque shows and in Hollywood films, simultaneously participating in the history of Indigenous peoples' strategic use of performance as a site of socio-political resistance and cultural continuance. (3)
Her Sugar Is? (2009) (Fig. 3), one of Claxton's most recent videos, is linked to the histories of Indigenous performance on settler-stages. The Aboriginal woman's body is not overtly included, the stereotype, however, is explicitly explored through the use of archival film of burlesque shows. Claxton investigates and complicates the history of white women dressing as Indian Princess'. In this way, Her Sugar Is? strategically intervenes and resists stereotypical representations of Aboriginal people by not including the Aboriginal body with this type of iconic imagery. The artist alludes to the relationship between stereotypes of Aboriginal women and their origin, settler narratives and popular culture.
Her Sugar Is? (2:41min) world premiered at the 10th Anniversary ImagineNative Media and Film Festival held in Toronto (October 14th-19th 2009) in the short-experimental program. This video pointedly and playfully incorporates archival film footage of burlesque shows. Using the iconographic and highly sexualized imagery of the Indian Princess and the Cowgirl along side other images of showgirls and dancers, Claxton complicates and challenges stereotypical representations of women and the exotification of the Aboriginal woman's body by dominant settler culture. (4) In this short video, a three channel screen becomes centre stage for topless women dancers. The focus in the centre screen is black and white film footage of an 'Indian village' burlesque show. On the stage White women are dressed up as stereotypical icons of the Indian Princess. A topless woman costumed in a headdress dances in the centre channel, which is juxtaposed by mirroring images on the two side panels. The side channels, which present rotating footage of white women dressed up as cowgirls seem to serve as the backup dancers of the central show, the Indian Princesses. At one point, a blonde naked woman appears, dancing in slow motion holding a semi-automatic weapon as her stage prop. The juxtaposing images of the 'Indian Village' burlesque show and cowgirls convey commentary on the interrelated histories of Indigenous and settler peoples. The imagery of Her Sugar Is? exemplified by the dancing woman with the gun, also alludes to the violence of both colonialism and of stereotypical sexualized representations of Aboriginal women.
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The music produced by Russell Wallace creates the beat for all the channels' dancers, including the background screen, where a woman dances in a red sequined dress. The archival footage of all the screens is slowed and synchronized to dance to the incorporated music. The imagery of the topless women dancers evokes experiences of Aboriginal performers in burlesque shows, vaudeville theatre and other settler-stages, making connections between the history of exhibiting and sexualizing Indigenous women's bodies as well as the relationships between women bodies, violence, colonialism, resistance and entertainment. This work is quintessential Claxton, as it is a multilayered video that uses the body and archival footage as strategies to reclaim, reveal, critique and complicate.
Many of Claxton's works, such as I Want to Know Why (1994), and Sitting Bull and the Moose Jaw Sioux (2004) mine the archive for traces and recorded documents of Indigenous experiences. In her later work, Claxton incorporates live-feed images of the stacks of archival newspapers and other documents that she uncovered during her research. Sitting Bull and the Moose Jaw Sioux (2003) (Fig. 4) one of Claxton's more recent video works is a four-channel video installation that was commissioned by the Moose Jaw Art Gallery. The video is described as "A contemporary view of a historical story" comprised of interviews, landscape imagery, live-feed images of archival newspapers, stills of historic photographs and appropriated film footage. The history Claxton explores and reveals is personal as well as communal. Claxton's great-great grandmother, as asserted in her film I Want to Know Why (1994) (Fig. 5), fled the United States, her ancestral lands, during the Indian wars of the 1880s, which was a period of heightened American land expansion and significant colonial violence against Indigenous peoples. The history of the US federal governments deceptions, the breaking of the Fort Laramie treaty in 1874 due to the discovery of gold, along with the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876, are intimately explored in the storytelling voice-overs and through the visual imagery of photographs of Sitting Bull, and other Lakota men and women who experienced the violence and occupation of the establishing American-state. In an interview, Claxton recalls the mass hanging of Dakota men in Minnesota, which remains one of the largest mass hangings in US history. She says, "When the people saw that--if you can imagine seeing 39 men being hung--you just knew it was no longer safe for you and your homeland" (Willard 2007). Sitting Bull and the Moose Jaw Sioux vocalizes this period in American history and the subsequent re-settlement of Lakota and Sioux in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
As Tanya Willard states, "Dana's family reserve in Wood Mountain, Saskatchewan is an area of Lakota settlement; her family traces its roots to the migration of Sitting Bull and Dana's great-great grandmother's journey" (Willard 2007). On the central screen, a black and white image of Sitting Bull is flanked by images of Claxton's archival research, piles of newspaper clippings from the Moose Jaw Times. Lynne Bell's account of this video installation in "The Post/Colonial Photographic Archive and the Work of Memory" describes in detail several opening scenes of the video,
As the camera sifts through piles of yellowed newspapers in the side channels, I watch glimpses of banner headlines proclaiming "Custer massacre refugees given aid by Moose Jaw" and "Kingsway Park once site of Hundreds of Wigwams." The grainy news photos depict Lakota men, women, and children. In a voice-over conversation, two Sioux storytellers recall family stories, accounts, and legends of Sitting Bull and the Moose Jaw Sioux. An English translations runs across the bottom of the screens. As the camera pans over a photograph of Sitting Bull on the centre screen, images of the land of the Black Hills of Dakota flash past on the side screens: the voice-over states: "They owned that land of the Black Hills.... They called that the heart of the earth. That was their homeland.... But gold was discovered ... and they broke the treaties (160-61).
In Sitting Bull and Moose Jaw Sioux Claxton makes public the histories of the Moose Jaw Sioux and their migration and subsequent settlement of the Wood Mountain Reserve, as well as, the experiences of the Sioux people during the late nineteenth century in the United States. The focus of this video on Sioux experience from Sioux perspectives counters the commonly known narratives of this era of North American History.
Such an approach complicates social memory and as David Garneau's review "Dana Claxton: Sitting Bull and the Moose Jaw Sioux", points out,
Claxton's strategy is both good historical storytelling and creative art. The narrative is layered rather than linear, dialogic rather than authoritarian, and open-ended rather than contained. At least four accounts unspool at any one time. While they always complement each other and advance the story, the gentle polyphony encourages repeated viewings and the sense that we can gather only glimpses and should not imagine ourselves completely informed. Unlike conventional documentaries, there is no narrative arc, rising tension, climax, and denouement. In fact, the initiating event, the Battle at Little Bighorn, does not get told until near the end, and its central antagonist, Custer, is barely mentioned. This is the Sioux account of the battle and their subsequent lives. It is eventful, but, until now, only a footnote to settler history (93).
Claxton achieves this telling of Lakota histories of colonization and the contemporary relevance of these stories through her inclusions of contemporary imagery from Moose Jaw with story voice-overs. In one section of the video, in the centre panel, film footage of the original Sioux campsite in Moose Jaw is juxtaposed with images of moose, buffalo, and the iconic architectural details of "Indian heads" which decorate the Fourth Avenue bridge in Moose Jaw. The voice-over states:
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They went and saw Father Bernard in Lebret. He gave them food. The RCMP went Bernard in Lebret. He gave them food. The RCMP went there and told them not to give them food. Sitting Bull's tribe came back to Moose Jaw ... Father Bernard brought some food to them. The RCMP went there and said, "You're not going to give this tribe anything ... "The following scene incorporates yet another contemporary image of Moose Jaw which symbolically evokes a message of contemporary relevance of the history of the Sioux in North America. In the side screens, Claxton's camera shows a close-up view of a city street sign, "Sioux Crescent" (Fig. 6) which is juxtaposed by the centre panel's images of the Saskatchewan landscape and antelope. These images are further contextualized by Claxton's strategic inclusion of the voice-over, stories from interviews that the artist has conducted. As Bell writes, "the Lakota people's migration south in the summer to hunt antelope in the hills and of the close and peaceful relations existing between the Sioux and the early settlers in Moose Jaw" (Bell, 160-61).
One of the key sites that Claxton turned to in search of documents to reconstruct, re-tell and remember the history of the Sioux in Saskatchewan is an archive of late nineteenth and early twentieth century photojournalism from the Moose Jaw Times. According to Lynne Bell "This media archive clearly reveals the epistemic violence at the heart of the colonial encounter. In the Moose Jaw Times archive, we see how the captioned photograph was used at the turn of the last century to give tangible form to a proliferating set of stereotypes that marked the Sioux as the racialized 'other' of the white settler community in Moose Jaw" (162). Consequently, Claxton's exploration of the archive and subsequent inclusion of her found records with Indigenous-based interviews/oral histories contextualizes the representations of archival photographs and newspaper articles thereby indigenizing the historical record of the Moose Jaw Sioux (Fig. 4). Sitting Bull and the Moose Jaw Sioux complicates understanding and sodal memory of Sioux experiences by incorporating stories of Moose Jaw Sioux people. The oral memories of the history of violence in the United States, the resulting migration and the subsequent oppressions, marginalizations, and systemic violence endured in settlement in Canada create a history that is not commonly known. Claxton's engagement with and inclusions of archival film footage and other material documents inserts her artistic practice into the larger project of indigenizing the archive. She combines tactics, inherent of the archive in creating and maintaining social memory with those of Lakota storytelling. In an interview with Curator Tanya Willard and Claxton, they explored Sitting Bull and the Moose Jaw Sioux and discussed the role of the artist as historian within the context of the postcolonial project of decolonization. As Willard notes, "Dana comments on the way many Aboriginal artists become historians in some capacity, uncovering the truths of Aboriginal experience that are buried under layers of colonial histories" (2007). Curator, Jason St. Laurent's curatorial essay "History in Parts: The Work of Dana Claxton," draws similar attention to Claxton's artistic aesthetic and her use of artistic practice to voice histories that are not nationally remembered:
Dana Claxton's work is esthetically innovative, brilliantly written and expertly paced. The thrust of her practice is political, spiritual and social, making it an essential contribution not only to the field of media art, but generally, to a more honest sense of history (2005).
Her video works, therefore, visually create history, displacement national narratives, while simultaneously creating Indigenous re/memory, a strategy of decolonization.
Claxton's works, such as The Hill, Sitting Bull and the Moose Jaw Sioux, I Want to Know Why and 10 (2003) reveal the many silenced histories of violence and systemic racism in relation to North American colonization and its ongoing legacies. Violence against Indigenous peoples and their bodies is a theme that Claxton explores and gives voice to in both explicit and implicit ways. The visual exploration of violence against Indigenous bodies, minds, cultures, and knowledge is interconnected to the tactics of colonization. Many of these histories of violence are not part of North American social memory and national narratives of nationhood. 10, a 7.20 mins video, showcases while complicating Agatha Christie novel, and the film adaptations, 10 Little Indians. It was Agatha Christie's best selling novel, first published in the United States in 1940 under the title And Then There Were None. A mystery novel, the storyline of the book follows the experiences of ten guests who have been invited to an isolated place only to find that an unseen person is killing them one by one. This video implicates Christie's novel and the commonly known nursery rhyme, after which her book is named, in the violence against Indigenous peoples and the ongoing silencings around these histories and contemporary experiences. Claxton incorporates the technique of jump cutting to move between three different versions of 10 Little Indian films from three different periods of American film history. During this short experimental work, the nursery rhyme is repeated, over and over again. The words of the nursery rhyme become more aggressive through the repetition of the rhyme revealing the overt racism and violence denoted through the words of the rhyme, 10 exposes the power of language and images and how popular culture and stereotypes are a form of systemic racism and violence.
Dana Claxton's video work, as well as her performances and photographs, draw from the film archive as part of her agenda. The archive, like all colonial entrenched institutions, is currently being decolonized, through not only engagement with its settler-colonial based structures, as Diana Taylor suggests, but also through cultural continuities and continuance of Indigenous storytellers and artists (Taylor 19). In her pivotal study on performance in the Americas and its relationships to memory, history-making, and knowledge, The Archive and the Repertoire, Diana Taylor defines 'archival' as memory that exists as documents, maps, letters, literary texts, archaeological remains, bones, videos, films, cds. These understandings of the archive, a tool in national-memory making, are related to a Western concept of memory and history writing, whereas within the structures of Indigenous cultures, memory and history writing is connected to oral transmissions of events and stories. As Diane Taylor's work argues, throughout colonization Indigenous knowledge, oral history and memory have been rendered invalid, silent and forgotten. The written document and the writing of history as a discipline have served as strategic tools for colonialisms project of conquest, extermination, expansion, and assimilation.
Despite colonial tactics of rendering Indigenous knowledge systems like storytelling subordinate to written based knowledge, oral traditions have endured and continue. By revealing the impact of colonization on Indigenous memory-making, such as storytelling and the oral tradition of history writing, as well as the ways in which settler-society constructs memory, through films, monuments, archives, and museum collections, the project of decolonization of Indigenous cultural knowledge complicates the history and function of the colonial archive in settler-nations. Embodied performance, as Taylor argues,
has always played a central role in conversing memory and consolidating identifies in literate, semiliterate, and digital societies. Not everyone comes to 'culture' or modernity through writing ... We might look to past practices considered by some to have disappeared. We might look to contemporary practices by populations usually dismissed as 'backward' (Indigenous and marginalized communities) (Taylor xix).
In this sense, the oral history within Indigenous communities, which have largely been de-legitimated by colonial agendas, are stories and the performance of stories, which artists like Dana Claxton are continuously revealing to both her Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences. In many ways, oral histories are currently being decolonized by acts of reclaiming and re-telling. Although the strategies Claxton incorporates, meaning contemporary art, may differ from historic ways of transmitting stories, her use of video (performance and photography) for the telling of histories and experiences links her to the history of storytelling by Lakota elders. The incorporation of Indigenous stories and oral memories into the works of Dana Claxton, therefore, create visual documents of Indigenous lived experiences.
Claxton's videos contribute to the decolonization of Indigenous social memory as well as national social memory by strategic use of Indigenous stories. Her identity as a Lakota woman and her family's and community's experiences with social injustices in colonial and more current times inform her artistic practice and her strategies of unraveling and revealing silenced histories. Willard extends this point in her description of Claxton's video I Want to Know Why (1994) (Fig. 5), where the artist's voice is a fundamental part of work's sound, creating a rhythm that contextualizes of the imagery:
[H]er heritage is linked to an important historical injustice spanning the US and Canadian colonial borders: the migration of Sitting Bull and his people to Canada. The effects of colonization, discrimination, and systemic racism on Aboriginal people and on the artist's own family history fueled her early work. In an early single-channel video work, I Want to Know Why (1994), Dana screams, "I want to know why!" In her cry for answers, the injustice and colonial foundation of Canada and the US is revealed within the personal tragedy of her mother's and maternal grandmother's early deaths and her great grandmother's migration to Canada. Dana frames the suffering of her grandmothers and her mother within the context of Canadian colonialism and the injustice of American history. (Willard, 2007)
The recognition of performance, or, in the case of Claxton's work video-narratives, as a continued site for transmitting Indigenous experiences, fostering memory and history-making lends urgency to acts of Indigenous video art as well as other artistic practices, such as the performance art of artists like Rebecca Belmore, Lori Blondeau, Cheryl L'Hirondelle and Skeena Reece (as well as other forms of Indigenous performance, such as theatre, dance, and music) as a viable and contributing medium for Indigenous cultural continuance. Indigenous contemporary art, such as Claxton's videos, which use strategies of storytelling, can be vehicles towards displacing colonial and settler-narratives, thereby contributing to the Indigenization of the archive and social memory/ies.
Anishnabe scholar Gerald Vizenor argues that Native stories are stories of Native survivance, which he defines as being "more than survival, more than endurance or mere response; the stories of survivance are an active presence" (Vizenor 15). In other words, in Vizenor's view, Native stories are the traces of Native experiences and are the evidence of Native survivance. Jean Fisher discusses Coco Fusco's storytelling practice as a site where the act of witness may enable audiences to "rediscover [their] potential as agents of change" (Fisher 228). Fisher argues that storytelling "has special poignancy for those peoples for whom the trauma of racial violence has yet to be healed and adequately narrativized" (228). Live and or video-based Indigenous installation art can offer to local, national and international audiences a site within which to bear witness to the current realities of Indigenous peoples and to take notice of the trauma that marks the Aboriginal body. At the same time, it also contributes to the discourse of Indigenous decolonization, whereby self-determined Aboriginal voices are indigenizing spaces, such as the gallery. The result is a reclaiming of once victimized bodies, lands, and stories marked by colonial history to a position of Indigenous sovereignty.
It is significant to see the story (the narrative or performance) as a sovereign agent of reclamation and decolonization. In relation to employing Indigenous video and other artistic practices, such as performance art, as a tactic for Indigenous resistance, Steven Loft's argument is very insightful; he states, "the strength lies not in the telling of the story, but in its power to assert meaning" (Loft 93). In this sense, the performance of storytelling is a process that can be employed in order to complicate, interrupt and intervene in colonial histories, to re-establish self-determined representations, and to provoke political resistance. Anishnaabe writer Kateri Aikiwenzie-Damm emphasizes the power of telling stories:
When we express ourselves and we listen to the creative and cultural expressions of others, we must do so from an informed position so that we do not contribute to the confusion and oppression but instead bring into sharper focus who we are. By freeing ourselves of the constricting bounds of stereotypes and imposed labels of identity we empower ourselves and our communities (24).
The video works by Claxton that I have explored here are powerful experimental short videos, which are re-tellings of shared colonial settler/Indigenous histories as well as specific Indigenous experience and successfully displace the legacies of colonial narratives by offering new multifaceted Indigenous frameworks saturated in conversations of decolonization, sovereignty, self-determination, memory, and resistance.
Arguably, Claxton is a storyteller who intertwines histories, experiences and stories using visuals from her own directed film footage, popular culture, and the photographic and film archives. Buffalo Bone China (1997) exemplifies Claxton's aesthetic established in her earlier works that she has further pushed and developed in her more recent works. Claxton's visual language identified by her strategic and sophisticated loopings and layerings of images that contest and reclaim, creates powerful narratives that overtly assert Indigenous perspectives. In her essay "Worlds in Collision: Dana Claxton's Video Installation's," Monika Kin Gagnon discusses Claxton's use of storytelling and the collisions between technology and cultures in her video installations Waterspeak (2000) and The Heart of Everything That Is (2000). According to Gagnon,
Claxton's works evoke such collisions in their exploration of storytelling. Specifically, in their fragmented allusions to Lakota creation stories and relations to the earth, these installations reconfigure and reflect on well-trod tensions in the reception of Native art concerning traditional and contemporary practices. These installations bring the relevance of such stories into the present, and bring for mediation through storytelling and video-making as not simply transparent, but as processes in themselves (Kin Gagnon 70).
Dana Claxton's re/memory and resistance work is intrinsically connected to acts of reclaiming and revoicing. Within an exhibition space, Claxton's video-art and video installations, such as Sitting Bull and the Moose Jaw Sioux, create a site from which the artist, curators, as well as, the audience can participate in the project of decolonization. Her works become a site for witnessing testimony of both contemporary and historic Aboriginal experiences. The selection of stories and histories elucidated in Claxton's work contributes to the post-colonial project by the ways in which they reveal and resist colonial legacies that remain embedded in Canadian dominant culture. For the settler non-Indigenous audience member, Claxton's video art is a site for displacing many erroneous yet perpetuated understandings of Indigenous peoples, cultures and artistic production. With this in mind, Claxton's multifaceted art practice is a significant example of contemporary Aboriginal video that presents without compromise her perspectives to explore contemporary and historical stories and experiences. In this way, her video can be seen as vehicle for Indigenous intervention. By recognizing, as Ruth Phillips has, that ultimately museums can only be platforms for disruptions of tired stereotypes and spaces for challenging old ways of knowing, highlights the significant role Indigenous video can play in Indigenizing social memory in North America and for the telling of silenced Aboriginal histories and experiences. The exhibition and screening of videos, by Claxton and her contemporaries, such as Shelley Niro's The Shirt (2003), which is a live-feed video that explores Indigenous sovereignty and impacts of colonialism and Rebecca Belmore's Vigil (2002) that exposes the contemporary history of missing Aboriginal women in Canada, in gallery spaces provides sites for bearing witness to contemporary Indigenous realities.
During a second year course on 19th century Canadian art history that I was teaching last fall, I incorporated contemporary Aboriginal video art at the beginning of most classes to contextualize the legacies of this era of North American history that as scholars of Indigenous art, culture and politics in Canada we continue to negotiate, confront and complicate. As a non-Indigenous scholar of contemporary Indigenous art I am keenly aware of my limitations but also my responsibilities, as both a writer and a University level instructor, in relation to settler-Indigenous histories and Aboriginal cultural production. During this course at Queen's University, I attempted to convey and inform to both my Indigenous and non-Indigenous students to the ways in which national / ist narratives have silenced, displaced and erased Indigenous histories of colonization and attempted to claim and collect Indigenous cultural knowledge as a part of Canadian identity without recognition of Indigenous sovereignty, self-determination, autonomy and agency.
In one lecture, I introduced the students to the concept of revisionist histories and Ian McKay's call for the production of studies of Canada by post-nationalist historians who critically re-examine the consequences of instituting a Liberal political order in northern North America (McKay 1998). With this in mind, I introduced my students to the video work of Dana Claxton, aiming to address the specific affects Canadian nationalism(s) has had on Indigenous nations and their peoples, and how artists have employed artistic practice to respond, intervene, and resist colonial and national rhetoric. I was hoping to convey the contemporary relevance of this era of Canadian history to my students. First, I screened Buffalo Bone China, followed by her work, Sitting Bull and the Moose Jaw Sioux. My students engaged the knowledge put forth by Claxton's experimental videos to contextualize and complicate several of the late 19th century paintings of Plains Aboriginal peoples by Paul Kane, a settler-painter who participated in the salvage paradigm by representing through his Eurocentric lens, the life and cultures of North American Aboriginal peoples. The visual strategies incorporated into Claxton's video works were visual examples of the tactic of displadng and complicating histories. Although she was not in my class during the screening, her voice and the stories she gave testimony to were witnessed and clearly acknowledged.
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--"Artist Statement." Waterspeak. Vancouver: Artspeak Gallery, 2000.
--"Artist Statement." Starting From Home: An online retrospective of Dana Claxton. Vancouver: Grunt Gallery, 2007. http://www.danaclaxton.com/index.html. Accessed: January 5, 2010.
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(1) In this paper, I will use the commonly recognized terms in Canada, Aboriginal and Indigenous, interchangeably, to discuss the Native peoples of North America.
(2) In Manifest Manners: Post-Indian Warriors of Survivance, Vizenor argues that Native stories are stories of Native survivance, which he defines as being "more than survival, more than endurance or mere response; the stories of survivance are an active presence." In other words, in Vizenor's view, Native stories are the traces of Native experiences and are the evidence of Native survivance. Gerald Vizenor, Manifest Manners: Post-Indian Warriors of Survivance. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1994. 15.
(3) For more information on the use of performance as a tool for resistance, see: Trudy Nicks, "Indian Villages and Entertainments: Setting the Stage for Tourist Souvenir Sales," Unpacking culture: Art and commodity in Colonial and Postcolonial Worlds. Ed. Ruth B. Phillips and Christopher B. Steiner (Berkeley: U of California P, 1999); 301-315; Ruth B. Phillips, "Performing the Native Woman: Primitivism and Mimicry in Early TwentiethCentury Visual Culture," Antimodernism and Artistic Experience: Policing the Boundaries of Modernity. Ed. Lynda Jessup (Toronto: U of Tornoto P, 2001) 26-49: and Paige Raibmon, "Theatres of Contact: The Kwakwaka'wakw Meet Colonialism in British Columbia and at the Chicago World's Fair," Canadian Historical Review 81 (June 2000): 157-190.
(4) For an extensive investigation of Aboriginal woman and stereotypical representations in film, see: E. Marubbio, Killing the Indian Maiden: Images of Native American Women in Film, 2006.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2010|
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