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Exhibit explores frontier stereotypes.


A unique travelling exhibit organized by Vancouver's Presentation House Gallery opened in Winnipeg on Sept. 18. Indian Princesses and Cowgirls: Stereotypes from the Frontier is an exhibition of more than 200 antique prints, postcards, calendars, sheet music, playing cards, black and white photographs and other items using images of Indian princesses. The display at the Winnipeg Art Gallery reveals when, how and why the public began to stereotype Aboriginal women.

According to Gail Valaskakis, co- founder of the exhibit, it all began in the first half of this century when merchants began to sell commercial images of fair-skinned Native women who wore low-cut dresses and were often made to look exotic and sexual. The pictures further glorified Native women as princesses or chieftains' daughters. Many of these women featured on various items were used to sell a variety of commercial items.

"The portrayal of Aboriginal women in the pictures were false. They were made to look erotic. The non-Aboriginal population believed that Aboriginal women wore clothing like that while they lived in the woods," said Valaskakis. "Realistically, Aboriginal women at that time would have been chastised for dressing like that. Aboriginal women then wore long dresses made out of animal hides. They did not dress in tight low-cut dresses with a feather boa," she said.

Valaskakis said the images had little if anything to do with the Aboriginal women and their real experiences, how they lived and loved among their people.

"These pictures had nothing to do with reality. Like the way I saw the Native women I knew, like my grandma," said Valaskakis. "What really struck me as a child was that the Aboriginal women I knew were powerful women. The Aboriginal women in the images, decorated in various ways, did not represent the women in my community. The women on my reserve had dignity and were respected. The women in the postcards did not project that image," she said.

Valaskakis, an Aboriginal women from the Lac du Flambeau band in Wisconsin, began to collect Indian princess memorabilia when she was a young child.

"One day my dad came home and he had one of these Indian princesses who had a big head-dress on. It looked like she was drawn in a pencil sketch with her hand over her eyes," she said. "He said `you ought to collect these Gall, these are important' and that is how it all began," she said.

The area she grew up in was a tourist area where postcards of Indian women from the northwood areas were often sold to the visitors.

"For many years society has had such a distorted image of Aboriginal women, so stereotypical. This image really affected the way non-Native people viewed them and how they even started to view themselves," said Valaskakis. "However, I found that there is a resilience here that the Native women always had. They are starting to believe in -themselves again. They kept their tremendous strength through an invisible thread. No matter what, they managed to keep the dignity of mothers and grandmothers," she said.

Valskakis quotes a writer who wrote an article titled The Pokohontas Perplex, as saying that `the real cruelty of the Native women was that they were made to represent both the princess and the squaw image in the same person'

`These images were made to look at Native women as always in relation to men, as being someone who would give up who she is for a man," said Valaskakis. "Aboriginal women at that time did not have to change who they were, because they knew who they were," she said.

These pictures of the women began in the twenties, and yet you can still find them on commercial products today.

"I call them the tipi-creeping princesses. They always have this dreamy look, with long messy hair," said Valaskakis. "Aboriginal women of today are still struggling with the image of being cast as erotic or risque and as a squaw," she said.

In the show, Valaskakis uses those postcards to contrast with real images of Native women.

When Valaskakis met Marilyn Burgess, who had a collection of Cowgirl paraphernalia, they got together and formed the exhibit.

In the cowgirl display, Burgess links how the public viewed Aboriginal women as masculine, wild and savage with the cowgirls who rode on bareback and looked and dressed like men. Earlier photos showed women wearing mannish-looking garb and performing dangerous stunts on horses and were somehow associated with the wild Native woman. In the cowgirl myth, Aboriginal women are portrayed as being harsh, not gentle.

Included in the exhibition is the screening of two videos -- Lorraine Norrgard's Indian Princesses Demystified, which Valaskakis narrates, and John Paskievich's If only I were an Indian. This film documents the journey of three Manitoba Aboriginal Elders who visit the Czech Republic where they got to meet Czech hobbyists who spend every summer recreating Indian camps and living as they believe Indian people live.

An Indian Princesses and Cowgirls: Stereotypes from the Frontier discussion forum was held on Sept. 26 at the art gallery. The forum was open to the public and was attended by a number of Native women and non-Native people from the community.

"It was very informative. We had a few guest speakers and the women got a chance to discuss their feelings, hurts and their pain associated with this stereotyped image," said Catherine Mattes, First Peoples Curator in residence. "It felt good for the women to air out their feelings. A number of Native women found it difficult while going through the exhibit because it reminded them of when they were younger, because it brought back the pain and hurt for them," she said.

The traveling exhibit, which has already been in Vancouver, Regina, Banff and Brantford, Ont., will be at the art gallery in Winnipeg until Jan. 2, 2000. It will then go on to the Mendle Art Gallery in Saskatoon.

"We are getting a good response from the people who view the exhibit. It sure creates a lot of conversation among the visitors," said Mattes.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Gladue, Yvonne Irene
Publication:Wind Speaker
Date:Nov 1, 1999
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