‘Women Created Our Worlds:’ Native Art Reclaims Its Power

There’s a direct line from missing and murdered indigenous women to the repression of Native women’s contributions to art and culture, but those long-silenced voices are now making themselves heard.

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | June 2019 |  7 minutes ( 2,039 words)

The final report of the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls is 1,071 pages of 2,380 people — from survivors to their family members to community Knowledge Keepers — outlining how colonialism’s resolve to split First Nations communities from their culture has led to gendered violence that continues to this day. “To put an end to this tragedy, the rightful power and place of women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people must be reinstated, which requires dismantling the structures of colonialism within Canadian society,” one commissioner said. “This is not just a job for governments and politicians. It is incumbent on all Canadians to hold our leaders to account.” That involves voting for those (preferably Indigenous, preferably female) politicians who support this dismantling, not to mention hiring Indigenous women, especially for positions of power. Instead, Canadians quibbled over whether or not the whole thing could be categorized as a genocide. The response was a chef’s kiss, a perfect example for why the inquiry had to be conducted in the first place: Indigenous women, women who originally had as much power as men, who imbued their community’s art with this power, are universally overlooked. Except this time it’s in the public record.

A third of the people cited in the report were allowed to testify in the form of art, which ended up in the National Inquiry’s Legacy Archive, a collection of more than 340 pieces by more than 800 people that serves as a historical record of myriad Indigenous identities. “We characterize these expressions, through art, as the act of ‘calling forth,’” the report explained. “This includes calling forth the legacies of those who no longer walk among us; calling forth awareness that leads to concrete action.” Calling forth also confronts the embarrassing (and persistent) colonial tradition of ignoring Indigenous voices. Of, for instance, starting public events by acknowledging the First Nations land on which they are being held, but without actually providing the First Nations people much of a space for their work. But Indigenous artists, women in particular, are refusing to be shut out; see the recently announced Netflix partnership with three Indigenous Canadian organizations or the first major North American retrospective of Native women’s work, Hearts of Our People, at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. “It has to be said that none of our communities need an exhibition at a fancy art museum to tell them that their women are important and what their women do is important,” cocurator Teri Greeves tells me. “This exhibition needs to happen in an art museum for the broader audience so, hopefully — my prayer — that they understand what we’ve always known, [which] is that these women created our worlds.”

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A quick Canadian history lesson for those of us who only remember Louis Riel and that book by Tomson Highway: The white settlers, armed with Christian patriarchy and blunderbusses, entered Indigenous communities hundreds of years ago and saw matrilineal societies in which power and money were passed down through women, and they were like, wha? They saw men and women with complementary roles that were equally respected and were like, wait … ? Then they saw women as advisors and policymakers and that was it. Civilization said women were designed to pump out babies and keep house and these Natives were fucking it all up with progress. So in order to convince everyone these people were better off with him, the white man came up with some bullshit about there being two kinds of Native women, the pure Pocahontas types who had the good sense to want to be civilized (read: subservient), and the Squaw, whose off-the-chain libido had to be contained in order to protect the settlers’ fragile morality (guess the ball-busting bitch wasn’t sexy enough to get her own stereotype). As laughably reductive as all of this was, it had staying power. “The myth of the deviant Aboriginal women continues to plague us, reinforced by dominant cases that coalesce prostitution and Aboriginal women into a single entity,” Lubicon Cree scholar Robyn Bourgeois said in 2011. “Contemporary Canadian society dismisses violence against Aboriginal women and girls today on the basis of these perceived deviances.”

The Indian Act officially cut down women by shifting all of their power — political, financial, familial — to men. Until 1985, First Nations women could only really define themselves through a man. Even when women were the breadwinners, their rights and recognition remained limited. Instead they became the target of their men’s resentment, and their wider invisibility made them highly vulnerable to serial killers like Robert Pickton. Convicted of murdering six women in 2007, he admitted to killing 49 in total, having preyed predominantly on sex workers on the east side of Vancouver, a group in which Indigenous women were overrepresented — another reflection of the obstacles faced by the community. For more than a decade, activist groups like the Native Women’s Association of Canada have been unofficially tracking missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. According to the National Inquiry, they are 12 times more likely than other Canadian women to be killed or disappeared. But it wasn’t until 2016, a year after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report advised it, that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau launched the national inquiry. (In the U.S., meanwhile, since 2017 lawmakers have been attempting to pass Savanna’s Act, which would establish a law enforcement database to track disappearances.)

“The borders between the U.S. and Canada weren’t created by indigenous people, but by outside influences,” Jill Ahlberg Yohe, cocurator of Hearts of Our People, told The Guardian earlier this month. “All this work is connected to our history, whether it was made in 1500 or 2019.” Several years ago she asked Kiowa bead artist Teri Greeves to advise on a different exhibit, and out of their conversations came the realization that Native women’s art, as a whole, had never been surveyed. “She was shocked by this,” Greeves tells me. “I was not.” Greeves’s mother had a trading post for more than 25 years where her daughter noticed that the women on their reservation made everything. It turned out the iconic Native American art — beadwork, baskets, ceramics, textiles — was a way for these women to communicate. Greeves’s mother, who her daughter refers to as a “Native fashionista,” looked for literature on these textiles but found nothing. So she conducted her own research and put on educational fashion shows everywhere from museums to the YMCA. But it was more than fashion, just like the ceramics and the baskets were more than housewares. “There are layers of meaning in all this stuff,” says Greeves, “and if that’s what you mean by art with a capital A then, yes, that’s what our ladies are doing, they’re making art.”  

Not that any gentlemen cared. At the turn of the century, concerned that the destruction of Native culture would mean the destruction of Native art, a bunch of institutions sent students to save it. (Apparently the people who made the art were less important — artists were rarely, if ever, identified.) These young men all went to the same places and gathered the same objects, which is why so many of us can only call to mind a few types of Native art — Sioux warrior shirts, for instance — while the real scope is more vast and variable. (Alongside Canada’s 600+ First Nations, there are 577 federally recognized Native American tribes in the United States.) The collectors also dealt primarily with men, even though the women were making most of the work being sold to the white man. “If they weren’t even seeing their own white women,” says Greeves, “how were they seeing the Native women?” Today, when you walk through Native collections in museums and galleries the (limited range of) objects are often only identified by tribes, but were largely made by women. “It’s just that no one’s said it,” says Greeves.

But over the past few years, Canada’s art institutions have started to. In 2014, the Canadian Museum of Human Rights exhibited Winnipeg-based Métis artist Jaime Black’s REDress Project, an installation made up of donated red dresses that symbolize missing and murdered Indigenous women. First created in 2010, it has since traveled to the Smithsonian and red dresses have become a recognized symbol in Canada of this exploited population. In 2017, the National Gallery of Canada established the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries, which house almost 800 works, while Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario launched a department for Canadian and Indigenous art. Retrospectives of the works of Annie Pootoogook, Rebecca Belmore, and Christi Belcourt followed, and last year a nationwide project, “Resilience,” included 167 billboards exhibiting the work of 50 female artists. Film and television have been slower to adapt — Netflix just announced the cancellation of Chambers, their only original series (and one of my favorites) starring a Native American lead, San Carlos Apache actress Sivan Alyra Rose. In Canada, however, Indigenous Screen Office (ISO) associate director Kerry Swanson says that the Truth and Reconciliation report was “a watershed that shifted the dialogue.” The ISO was formed two years after that and this month — seven days before Chambers got the axe — Netflix unveiled a partnership with the ISO, ImagineNATIVE and Wapikoni Mobile. The deal involves six initiatives for First Nations producers, directors, and screenwriters, which wasn’t necessarily out of the goodness of Netflix’s heart — it was part of their five-year $375 million agreement with the federal government, which includes $19 million to develop Canadian talent.

Twelve Canadians will also be included among the 115 artists making up the millennium-spanning Hearts of Our People retrospective. Asked around five years ago to help curate the collection, Greeves, despite being an artist (not a curator), said yes in order to continue her mother’s legacy. But because she could not speak for other Indigenous groups, and because, not being an elder, she couldn’t even speak for her own, Greeves and Yohe gathered 21 artists and academics, mostly Native, to circumvent the trap of curatorial tokenism: “Museums are colonial institutions, so we’re working within a format that is set up to not listen, and we’re all aware of it because we’ve all been silenced.” With no men present, recreating the gendered spaces they form on their own reservations, the women felt comfortable enough to freely exchange ideas. The result was a show organized into three loose themes: Legacy, Relationships, and Power. The first refers to the knowledge passed down through generations, the second to the relationships that include but also extend beyond the natural world, and the third to the power of Indigenous women, in all areas of life.

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When you think about what art’s supposed to be — how much it should mean — and then you think about Native art and how its meaning transcends not only us, but also space and time, it starts to look like it belongs in galleries and museums more than anything else. Not only was each work of the past sacred, but each existed to be disseminated; Indigenous work was not generally considered the property of any one individual. What it does need, however, are women, because women are the keepers of its history. If they disappear, the art disappears and vice versa. Each work not only serves to preserve Native history, but the voice of the woman who makes it and all the women who came before her. “When I go to make something, I am praying on it,” Greeves tells me. She prays for the animals that gave up their lives for the materials she uses, for the person she is making the work for, for where it goes after that, the same way the women did before her: “When I look at the historic stuff, what I know is that all that stuff was made in prayer.” And when you look at all of that work together, when you acknowledge that you don’t know about the culture that is all around you, that the pieces the women have poured themselves into are teaching you what you thought you knew, the voices of Indigenous women become so loud they’re no longer possible to ignore.  

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.