Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Myth making and keeping

Over the break I read "Re-Constructing the Colonizer: Self-representation by First Nations Artists" by Shandra Spears.  This piece inspired me so much that I took time from reading and created a picture to respond to the Canadian colonial gaze she describes. I tried to represent the stereotypes, both good and bad, of indigenous peoples, and the reality of a modernized people/culture who are alive and changing.
In this article she begins by examining the tensions of producing humor that balances the "laughing with" and "laughing at" where laughter can be a tool that reminds the other that we (indigenous peoples) are still here and thriving, but where these moments can also be co-opted or perceives as performative caricature.  She speaks to the dueling nature of art as educator, healer, politician or just  a thing in itself that is beautiful or humorous.  Does art/humor without meaning betray the indigenous people?  Does the indigenous artist/comic need to represent a pan-Indian experience or can they personalize their creation and connect to the wider indigenous experience as a colonized and oppressed person?  She also poses the question as to what comes first, the artist or the indigenous person and she raises some really interesting questions as she covers this ground.

She expands the discussion to addresses the same questions from the perspective of an indigenous feminist.  She explores how you can tell stories of victimization, while not creating victims.  "Some stories can erase us and make us fell invisible... Some stories can hurt us or limit our sense of what is possible.  Some stories can make injustices visible that have been ignored or forgotten.  Stories can set us up to reach for an imagined Native identity or female standard of beauty.  Stories can also elevate us."  Clearly how we tell our stories matters and it is all stories right?

The middle part of the paper gets into the construction of the mythology that has shaped the lives of indigenous people called "colonization".  She says that "This mythology is so strong that a colonizer can walk past thirty Native people on the street, and only the see the one who is passed out on the sidewalk, because that one Native person confirms the colonial myth system." She concedes that if they came by in a canoe and buckskin they might also be recognized.  I think about that sometimes as I walk. 

She describes how the colonial gaze is similar to the male gaze in "its assumption of maturity and superiority and in the way that it objectifies and eroticizes that which it captures."  She notes that we can get caught in seeing ourselves in this gaze and then reproducing these same ideas of worth or beauty.  We can get caught up in judging other indigenous people's with that lens or trying to refute it in our own lives by working extra hard to show the colonizer that we don't fit a certain stereotype.  This passage really struck me given my response to the Winter Gathering a few weeks ago as well as my own struggle in claiming my culture as I was "not passed out on the street corner" or "living off the land" and was thus not a real indigenous person.

She translates this self gaze problem back into the creation of art, "we have a strong cultural traditional or humor, yet we want to avoid trigger colonial myth-systems.  Our artistic work is created around an obstacle course of colonial misunderstandings, cultural protocol, ethical concerns, community lateral violence and funding categories which sometimes attempt to determine the "Aboriginalness" or the work."  What a great articulation of a complex issue. 

From this discussion she segways into a more academic discussion around the creation of meaning systems which is interesting.  She then comes back to focus on the "Canadian Colonial Gaze" which inspired my drawing.  She outlines the multitude of role an indigenous person might be ascribed too in any moment and the interconnectedness of these stereotypes to the modern constructions of racism in Canada which are rooted in the deep mythologies that allowed for the killing and dispossession of millions of people as they were seen by the colonizing gaze as less than human.  At the core, these ideas continue to exist in the modern questions about who is "Indian" and who is not.  She covers how this myth was strengthened through early photograph of indigenous peoples and then moves back into the academic constructions of myth and the "safe other" (thanks bell hooks)
Christmas day outing to the park
In concluding the article she returns to the question of creating art/humor and how the very creation of these things situates the maker in a particular historical context, raises questions of identity, and may ultimately empower the creator to challenge these perceptions and historical creations.  There was a lot packed into this article and the contrast between the more personal chatty sections and the more traditionally academic text worked well.  The author situated themselves well within the discussion through the use of a few personal details.  This was a smart, challenging paper that touched on a lot of issues I have been exploring slowly here and also proposed some useful ideas and frameworks for continuing the conversation. 

As I was creating my picture Runa asked me what I was drawing and from my answer she understood that I was creating a story with pictures.  She later asked me to "read" it to her.  We talked about the words and symbols I had used.  When I mentioned that the turtle on the bottom left hand corner represented our brother and sister animals and moved on to the next item, she directed me back "Mom, remember that turtle is special cause he made our land."  These moments, when I know it is getting through to her, warm my heart and give me the energy to keep going.  The myths matter.  How we tell the story matters.

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