The History of Indigenous Peoples performing cultural dances and practices for international and colonial audiences is an important part of Indigenous art generally, and performance art specifically. The Indigenous performers known as 'Indians' faced the conundrum of maintaining traditional cultural practices by perfroming them on stage while simultaneously having that performance fulfill the desires of a colonial imaginary. In Sovereign Acts, the artists Rebecca Belmore, Lori Blondeau, Robert Houle, Terrance Houle, Shelley Niro, Adrian Stimson, and Jeff Thomas, contend with the legacy of colonial representations. Drawing on the depiction of the imaginary Indian - the ahistorical, pre-contact 'primitivism' in popular and mass culture - they recover and construct new ways of performing the complexity of Indigenous cultures for a contemporary art audience. Their work returns to the multi-levelled history of 'Performing Indian' to recuperate the erased and objectified performer as an ancestor, an artist, and an Indigenous subject.
Sovereign Acts takes its point of departure from a new video installation by Vancouver-based Anishinabe artist Rebecca Belmore to losely trace a history of Indigenous performance from the 18th century to present. In the Wilderness Garden (Banff, 1997) sees Belmore pay homage to a captive Mi'kmaw man who was forced to perform a deer hunt in a Victorian garden in the 1700s. The Mi'kmaw man extended his performance by defecating after eating the deer, right in front of his 18th century audience. His act of resistance appropriated the ideas of the 'wild savage' to effectively defy the Victorian values of his 'hosts.' Belmore reads the Mi'kmaw man's action as te beginning of performance art, situating it within the trajectory of actions against the containment of Indigenous bodies and cultures.
Much of the work included in Sovereign Acts is embedded in a tradition of Aboriginal performers making a living when colonialism was in its most aggressive phase. Ironically, performing the very stereotypes of 'savage Indians' and 'princesses' allowed not only for the continuity of traditional dances and practices that were banned, but also a measure of economic independence and physical mobility that was denied many Indigenous peoples in North America who needed passes to leave the reservation.
Embarking from specific historical moments, the artists in Sovereign Acts seek to define themselves from in and outside colonial histories, and within constantly changing traditions of family, home, people, and territory. Performance is an act of cultural and political resistance as well as a means of rememberance and commemoration. It offers glimpses of a forgotten past, and uses creative fiction as a force against colonial narratives of capture, savagery, loss, and disappearance.
Wanda Nanibush is an Anishnawbe-kwe curator, writer and media artist. She is also the Executive Director of The Association for Native Development in the Performing and Visual Arts. Her writing has been published in FUSE, Literary Review of Canada and This is an Honour Song: Twenty Years Since the Blockades.
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