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Seeing and being seen in media culture: Shelley Niro's Honey Moccasin.

In the work of Mohawk visual artist Shelley Niro native stereotypes are deconstructed while at the same time racial identity is not taken as historically fixed and timeless. Rather, identity is understood as an ongoing formative process whereby the vitality of culture is measured in the creative energy of adaptation and appropriation (among other traits) in the expression of tradition and in the face of the consequences of contemporary history. As a reviewer of her photography series Mohawks in Beehives notes: "[Niro's] work is situated in a contemporary reality of what it means to be a First Nations woman. Her references to soap operas, the Canadian national anthem, Hollywood and fifties' lifestyle complete with hairdryers, articulate an identity that has to do with lived experience rather than some essentialist or nostalgic cultural identity." (1) At the same time her artwork provides a vital critical engagement with western hegemony, humorously sketching the kitsch of consumerist media culture as marker of the more oppressive and assimilationist political project. While the above reviewer's description of the artwork suggests a postmodern appeal to the surfaces of consumer culture, what also emerges is an understanding of identity that consists of more than fashion and artifact. Indeed, it is the very subject of identity rather than "difference" that troubles the seductive surfaces of the postmodern.

In Niro's films It Starts with a Whisper (co-directed with Anna Gronau, 1993) and Honey Moccasin (1998) the grim stereotype image of the disenfranchised native typically found on Canadian television is replaced by characters who have a sophisticated historical consciousness and desire to navigate the flux of identity formed out of tradition, everyday reality, dominant media culture, and the creative process of change. (2) In contrast, mainstream or what I call the "good liberal" narrative of First Nation experience, while often examining the important issues of residential schools, racism, and the economic dislocation of many reservation residents, often also articulate the native as a sad figure of traditional culture unable to adapt to contemporary reality and accordingly doomed to disappear. As Daniel Francis points out, the prediction of the vanishing native informs the historical breadth of contact with white Europeans, notwithstanding the necessity of native assistance to early settlers and participation in the fur trade. The narrative of a vanishing people becomes especially dominant as Canada shifts from a fur-trade and resource colony to an agricultural and increasingly industrialized political economy by the end of the nineteenth century. With settlement emerges the culture industry and the museumization of the native as noble figure of the past. According to Francis: "While artists like Emily Carr lamented the fate of the Indian, their success was predicated on it. Having first of all destroyed many aspects of Native culture, White society now turned around and admired its own recreations of what it had destroyed. To the extent that they suffered any guilt over what had happened to the Native people, Whites relieved it by preserving evidence of the supposedly dying culture. Whites convinced themselves that they were in this way saving the Indians." (3) As a kind of antidote to the history of this bad medicine, the spirit voices who visit the main character Shanna in It Starts with a Whisper quietly urge: "Shanna don't be sad we made it through another year, a short five hundred years. Next year will be better." It is this irony, subtle wit, and assertion of the complexity of identity in relation to the long road of history that characterizes Niro's films. It is an identity which is not simply a reproduction of the grim Canadian cultural cliche of survival; rather, it is shaped by a self-referential awareness of process and change emergent with the creative act of performance and perception.

In a curatorial statement from 1994 Shelley Niro affirms the longstanding importance of image-making in First Nations culture, from the design of Iroquois wampum belts to record legal transactions to the importance of totem poles for west coast natives: "Art was not a superfluous pastime but part of peoples' own physical reality. Everyday existence was intermeshed with the lives or spirit lives of passed-on ancestors. So the idea of knowing where one came from, and where one is, is a continuity." (4) The images of culture are not simply markers of the past but are a means of expressing and adapting to historical change and as such are integrated with the material conditions of the present. Art is neither simplified as craft nor objectified as aesthetic commodity in the European sense, it is instead integrated with material and spiritual aspects of life. But image-making in the contemporary era is dominated by the structuring force of media culture. Honey Moccasin is a film about the challenge of seeing and being seen in media culture and the negotiation of identity in the face of mass media-reproduced stereotypes of the Native reservation.

Gerald McMaster explains the complex role of the territorial reserve in ascribing Native identity: "It is a negotiated space set aside for Indian people by oppressive colonial governments to isolate them, to extricate them from their cultural habits, and to save them from the vices of the outside world. Paradoxically, isolation helped maintain aboriginal languages and many other traditional practices. The reserve continues to be an affirming presence despite being plagued by many historical uncertainties ..." (5) McMaster goes on to describe the concept of place in contemporary Native art which neither romanticizes an essentialist reserve nor does it ignore the historical circumstances of reservation formation (as a form of prison) such that the articulation of community remains bound up with the complexity of place. Place in turn is produced through the relation between particular experience and social and historical forces. McMaster takes the title for his landmark exhibition of contemporary Canadian native art, for which his text was produced, from the opening description in the script for Honey Moccasin: "The locale ... is a Reservation X otherwise known as the Grand Pine Indian Reservation." (6) He explains the title as signaling an interconnection of fiction and reality as well as marking the historical swindle of treaty negotiations for which "Indian chiefs had their hands held in order to sign an X as a mark of their consent and understanding of the political process." (7) Niro's film, in turn explores the marking of community identity in relation to this mediated figuration of place. The name Grand Pine also echoes an important place-name in the violence of genocide, namely the Pine Ridge reservation, location of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre of a small Lakota band by the U.S. 7th cavalry. What the film suggests is that place is a contested ground bound by the violence of dominant hegemony inscribed in blood upon the land, but place also invokes resistance, and that history is a narrative of struggle informed by tradition and the experience of violence as much as by the contemporary exercise of autonomy.

While mass market stereotypes of native culture collapses the specificity of place and nation, this imagery likewise casts the native in the far-off locale. The reservation in Honey Moccasin, however, exists in dialectical relation with the metropolis. Similarly, Shanna in It Starts with a Whisper listens for the whispering spirit voices and contemplates the near-disappearance of the Tutelo who had lived along the Grand Pine River in the area of the Six Nations Reserve (near what is now the town of Brantford in southern Ontario). But Shanna also works at an office in Toronto and has to reconcile the need to remember this past and to live her life in the present in the face of overwhelmingly negative stereotypes of natives in the mass media. It is precisely this advice that she is given in a dream image whereupon she is visited by contemporary Canadian native political figure Elijah Harper who tells her: "We must fight these negative stereotypes ... [but] stop feeling guilty about your existence. You are here to live your life." The appearance of Harper invokes the fact that history is made, it is not simply fixed and set in the past. The film was produced immediately following the failure to legislate the Canadian constitutional changes known as the Meech Lake Constitutional Accord in which First Nations autonomy would be diminished. Harper was an elected member of the legislature in the province of Manitoba and provided the sole dissenting vote preventing the required unanimous provincial legislative consent for constitutional changes. While mainstream Canadian media tends to elide this important intervention of First Nations political will for the sake of the ongoing narrative of the constitutional debates between the federal government and the province of Quebec, it serves to demonstrate how the determination of place within the narrative of national history may be disrupted.

The borders of the nation-state remain a contested political frame in spite of the naturalizing force of dominant ideology. Moreover, technologies of travel and visualization complicate, though do not eliminate, spatial isolation. The people affected by colonialism also, as Homi Bhabha argues, cross borders of geography, culture, and power, in turn changing their own culture as well as that of the dominant society. Shanna is able to overcome her sense of alienation by engaging with the vitality of the present. While the film invokes the beauty and sense of spiritual energy she finds along the Grand Pine River, Shanna is also literally able to play her drum during the New Year's eve conclusion to her road trip to Niagara Falls with her eccentric aunts (identified in the credits as Matriarchal Clowns/Aunts), one of whom won the romantic getaway trip at a bingo game. These women manage to match the kitsch of the Falls but the film asserts, as Paul Chaat Smith suggests in his commentary on Honey Moccasin, that "At a time when pan-Indian pop has become a tidal wave and Indian identity seems like a question many of us answer with skilful accessorizing, Honey Moccasin suggests that being Indian takes more than feathers and beads." (8)

This second of Niro's films again seeks to transform native stereotypes in a narrative of the hybridity of border crossing. The main character Honey is a single parent who runs a successful club, the Smokin' Moccasin, performs with her own band, Honey and the Mock-A-Sins, and, when the community needs help to solve the mysterious theft of pow-wow outfits, she transforms herself into a detective. Her chief rival is Zachary John, the son of the couple from whom Honey bought her club with money she won in the lottery. Zachary feels "robbed" of the club that he believes he should have inherited; in response, he has opened up the rival Inukshuk Cafe, hoping to steal away Honey's customers, and to turn her club into the "Token Moccasin," by outfitting his place with the new technology of a Karaoke machine and the sale of health food and bottled water. Of course, inheritance and the shifts of taste within the marketplace are as random as bingo and lottery. Success at these games of chance are one of the few ways that ordinary people can transform their economic condition but these are predicated upon the redistribution of wealth among class-bound participants rather than through social justice. In any case this twin theme of wealth and robbery is measured against the film's invocation of the wealth of tradition--a tradition itself measured not simply in material artifacts but in the creative process of community formation.

The style and thematic concerns of the film are humorously signified in the design of the opening credits. Names of the lead performers are formed out of rope work, and these are illuminated by an unseen man holding a match. He voices emphatic expressions of approval as he illuminates each name, and expressions of surprise each time the match he is holding burns down to his fingertips. He lights a new match several times, finally resorting to a flashlight to illuminate the film's title. What is suggested is the resourcefulness of the hand-made object, an extension of tradition, and the self-effacing joke of the crude technology of the matchstick combined with the complex ideologically-determined apparatus of cinematic representation. This concern with representation is central to the film's efforts to subvert conventions of looking at native peoples. Following the opening credits, we see the broadcast of the Grand Pine Reserve "Native Tongue News" program. The technology of power and control is appropriated for use by the local community which, ironically, broadcasts in English. Here, we learn of the pow-wow costume thefts. The broadcast then continues on a television visible in the background of Honey's club, with a story commemorating the contribution of natives to the military forces during World War II, an interesting choice given the marginalization of native veterans and the relationship between war and the colonial conquest of space, suggesting the larger political and economic forces which come to bear upon the production of space and place. These forces are brought into the reserve through systems of power and mass media representation and are then used in the formation of community, raising the question of how identity is spatially maintained and transformed.

We see Honey in the foreground as the television plays. She begins to tell a story of origins, of her birth and then of her parents' death, an oral passing-on of knowledge against the spatial presence of the mass-mediated grand narrative of official history. Her story is entirely bound up with language as a system of power, and the mediating process of the mass media. After she is born in a hospital located off the reserve, her father brings some fruit for her mother and asks what she would like. The very white nurse enters and asks what the baby's name shall be as the mother quietly says, honey, melon. The nurse cheerily notes the uniqueness of the name and declares that she will change melon to Melanie. After she leaves the room, the father deadpans: "I'm glad I didn't bring any bananas." The sly joke points to the embeddedness of colonial power in the control of language. This funny scene continues the critical project of undermining the function of language in the erasure of culture. As James Patten suggests in commentary on an exhibit of Niro's photography: "Niro's unconventional construction of image and identity points to a more ominous aspect of Native history. Her use of novelty and spectacle point ironically to a history of misrepresentation of native culture in late nineteenth century photography. Posed by whites for a mass market, Indians were often depicted in a pastiche of tribal costumes staged to achieve the highest degree of exoticism." (9) It is the production of a usable, and indeed spectacular, self-image on the part of the Grand Pine community that is set against mass-mediated identity in the events that follow.

But first, Honey recalls that her parents watched a lot of television in her formative years, and, in the cold war context, it seemed to convey important information. That is to say, history and value happened elsewhere in the grand events of imperial conquest whether in the narrative of missions to outer space or on the ground during the Cuban Missile crisis. Absent from the media narrative is of course the important resistances to imperialism on the part of aboriginal people throughout the world. In the story she tells, her parents were on their way to town in order to purchase a new television antenna when their truck stalled on the railroad tracks just as a train approached, marking the discord of the native community with the spatial reorganization accompanying these systems of communication: the railroad and the mass media. Television remains a determining influence of Honey's and when she begins her sleuth work to find the pow-wow costumes we see quick shots as she goes through several costume changes, each obviously appropriated from television iconography, and suggesting the constructedness and performance of identity. She pauses at the Wonder Woman inspired outfit and then opts for the faux masculine authority of a Sherlock Holmes-style coat, hat, and oversized magnifying glass. In this way she provides an antidote to television's accelerated cooptation of the world. If the film on the one hand suggests the loss of tradition in accord with the disposability of images within media culture, it also suggests the creative force of appropriation.

On the trail of cultural theft, Honey traces a path of feathers to Zachary's Inukshuk Cafe. The cafe logo is an Inukshuk figure dressed in chef's hat and holding a knife and fork. Just as Zachary hopes to steal Honey's customers, he has appropriated this icon of traditional northern culture and refashioned it in accordance with his needs. While one could, on the one hand, describe this appropriation as inappropriate and inauthentic, First Nations culture must not be simply understood as connected with the notion of timeless tradition signified by traditional iconography. In any case, the appropriation is a double-displacement, as this icon is foreign to the more southerly located First Nations, belonging to the Inuit. Cultural survival and growth is, as I have suggested, marked by adaptability to circumstance. Zachary's cafe is not drawing in large crowds, but his initiative is tolerated with good humor by the members of the community. He sells products brought in from outside the local community, while an Inukshuk is erected with material close at hand (rocks, blocks of ice, or snow), but the long history of First Nations contact with European society involves the continual negotiation of appropriation and transformation. This creative hybridity is emphasized by the community's subsequent adaptation of found objects as material out of which the stolen costumes are refashioned.

The fashion show fundraiser held at Honey's club is a transformation of the traditional pow-wow into a spectacle through which cultural tradition can continue. The wake of southern culture's ephemera forms the material for the new costumes, with beads replaced by Fruit Loops, lollipops serving as feathers, bottle caps for the woman's jingle dress, and a suit of armor made out of inner tubes, among other spectacular costumes. This mise-en-scene suggests both the resilience of native culture and the impossibility of living that culture separate from white influence. What is important here is that "influence" is not understood in a master-slave hierarchy but as a presence that is encountered and reconstituted in the ongoing formation of community. As Deborah Root points out, when the Canadian government banned the potlatch ceremony and confiscated ceremonial objects under threat of imprisonment, communities well understood that they could always make more objects, but that they could not make more Elders. (10) Beads were objects of exchange before the influx of currency, but now cold cash is required to heat up the process of costume making. When the collection hat is passed through the crowd and Zachary reluctantly reaches for his wallet, he mistakenly drops a few feathers. These objects force recollection of the swindle by which much First Nations land has been appropriated through token payments.

The legacy of colonialism is, in turn, the subject of Mabel Moccasin's performance art, as the announcer states: "Honey's daughter, little Mabel Moccasin, will now show us what she does at film school." What she demonstrates is a creative navigation through tradition and the new, using the tools of mass media representation and her own body as a screen for the projection of cultural images. Her act also speaks to the inter- generational continuity and change of the historical narrative. Mabel is dressed in a costume shaped like a teepee, and recites the lyrics to the pop song "Fever" as slides representing the effects of colonialism, residential schools, and cultural genocide are projected onto her. Chris Gittings describes the performance as cultural resistance: "These images of the 'doomed primitive' are denaturalized as fallacious colonial discourse by Niro's incorporation of them in living, contemporary Aboriginal culture performed by a living Aboriginal artist for a living Aboriginal community." (11) Gittings emphasizes, and I agree, that the integration of performance in "lived" space set against the colonial ascription of native culture as of the past, draws attention to the material and performative processes through which culture is created and maintained in dynamic encounters with other social forces rather than as something that is fixed and undialectical. But while on the one hand the song references the power and energy of First Nations peoples, it is a pop song metonymically connected with the structuring force of the system of power overlaid onto indigenous space, even as it is metaphorically an expression of personal desire. (12) As Mabel sings the first lyrics "Never known how much I love you, never known how much I cared. When you put your arms around me, I get a fever that's so hard to bear" an image of several nuns holding native children is projected onto her body and the energy of "fever" is revealed as the virus of assimilation. Yet it is not presented as a simple dichotomy. The song is about desire and connection, and the multiplicity of images prevents a singular view of native experience. We see that the image of tradition is not formed in a discrete space but is bound up with the present.

Culture is demonstrated as something that is performed, whether literally through the surfaces of the fashion show or in the depths of analysis provided by Mabel's act. This performance forms a particular understanding of place. The powwow costumes must be recovered as they are identified, by Zachary's father, as necessary to the preservation of tradition, but culture is about change--it is the performative response to circumstance. If Mabel's act is more complex than the fashion show, it is another instance of culture as performance, as a surface through which we navigate the depth of history. What follows is a Karaoke performance at Zachary's cafe, the assembled audience members laugh hysterically at the awkward performance. While this act is, on the one hand, merely a bad rendition of an already tedious country and western song, it functions as a means of binding together members of this community. It is, in the very least, a use of mass media that, while transmitting cliche, is less alienating than privately-viewed television. These space-binding activities are public performances set against the following scene of Zachary, alone in the basement of his cafe, performing in drag with the stolen costumes. The scene begins in a way that mirrors Honey's earlier transition into sleuth by trying on different costumes, and then involves the taking of Polaroid self-portraits, like homespun narcissistic pornography. He is literally wearing tradition on the surface of his body, and his performance is a navigation through multiple positions of identity, as First Nations man and as homosexual, as a drag performer and bourgeois small business owner. Spatial relations are integral to the formation of identity, first as something that is relational and literally in this case as something formed in private space and at odds with the community. The subsequent reintegration of Zachary into the community is instructive in the narrativization of relations between identity, technology, and spatiality.

When Zachary is caught and arrested, he states that he should move back to "Pluto," the other-worldly referent that is given to a nearby urban centre (Toronto?). His rehabilitation into the community is not through banishment and the experience of dislocation but through forgiveness and public confession. He participates in a telethon-style television broadcast in which costumes are presented and owners are invited to phone in to reclaim them. Here, the mass media is used to reintegrate the community and while the costumes are returned to individuals, the public broadcast privileges the collective over private ownership. Zachary's "Fever" is the greed of private property and corresponding alienation, and the cure is public performance. In turn, there is no indication, within the diegetic fantasy space of the film, of hostility or isolationism expressed toward Zachary in response to his sexual identity. The film concludes with a title card indicating one year later and the presentation of another of Mabel's film school projects, a black and white film called "Inukshuk" featuring Zachary as lead performer--fully integrating the creative application of communications technology with markers of tradition in order to articulate contemporary cultural experience.

This experimental film poem (using text by the poet Daniel David Moses) explores the theme of identity and urban alienation, with the character of Zachary performing the search for cultural markers of belonging. The anthropoid shape of the Inukshuk suggests an internalization of this search process, and as we see a shot of Zachary the voice-over states: "You were built from the stones, they say. Positioned alone against the sky here, so they might take you for something human" in turn relating identity to the physicality of place and the land as the literal ground of meaning against the postmodern tendency to constitute nature as sign. The images begin with remote landscape and then cut to desolate urban places, and the poetic narration links these together like a gentle breeze, suggesting that identity is formed through a process of seeing (while we also see discarded papers blowing along the city streets). References to hunting are juxtaposed with images of reproduction and self-destruction. The figure in space, the Inukshuk and Zachary's body, are the vertical extensions between earth and sky, simultaneously held up and cast down by the materiality and desires of culture. At the conclusion of the film we see Zachary embraced by his father, linking the disparate spaces of Native tradition and urban experience. The non-narrative film within the film is at odds with the spatial and temporal coherence of the main narrative, yet it is another way of using media representation to articulate the flux of identity formed in the dialectical relation between history, tradition, community, and place.


(1) Lloyd Wang, "Mohawks in Beehives," Fuse 16:1 (Fall 1992): 38.

(2) These films are available for distribution from the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre and from Women Make Movies

(3) Daniel Francis, The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1992), p. 36. The author makes a useful distinction in the use of the terms Indian and Native. The former refers to the stereotypical construction of identity in dominant North American society.

(4) Shelley Niro, exhibition catalogue, From Icebergs to Iced Tea, co-curated with Victoria Henry (Thunder Bay and Ottawa: Thunder Bay Art Gallery-Carlton University Art Gallery, 1994).

(5) Gerald McMaster, "Living on Reservation X," Reservation X, ed. Gerald McMaster (Fredericton and Hall: Goose Lane Editions-Canadian Museum of Civilization), p. 19. this important exhibit of contemporary Canadian native art was held at First Nations Hall, Canadian Museum of Civilization in 1998.

(6) Ibid., p. 20.

(7) Ibid., p. 21.

(8) Paul Chaat Smith, "Shelley Niro: Honey Moccasin," in Reservation X, p. 111.

(9) James Patten, catalogue essay, Shelley Niro: Sense of Self (London, ON: London Regional Art and Historical Museums, 1994), p. 5.

(10) Deborah Root, Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation, and the Commodification of Difference (Boulder CO: Westview, 1996), p. 192.

(11) Christopher E. Gittings, Canadian National Cinema (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 239.

(12) The distinction between metaphor and metonymy, the latter connected with material reality (a part related to the whole), the former an imaginary construct which substitutes for and idealizes the material world, is made by Michael Ryan and Doug Kellner, Camera Politica (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), p. 15.

Darrell Varga has a Phd from the Department of Social and Political Thought at York University and is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication, Popular Culture, and Film at Brock University.
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Author:Varga, Darrell
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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