Wednesday, December 2, 2015

You Don't Look Indian

Detail of Painting by Greg Deal.
During the recent American Anthropological Association meetings in Denver (Nov. 18-23, 2015) I took some time to visit the Denver Art Museum.  Leaving aside the touristic complements - it is a great museum- I was struck by the Native American art section, tucked discretely to the edges of the main complex. It is striking in its breadth and force of the works on display.

What caught my eye was the active installation by Greg Deal. He wasn't there during my visit but the studio and works underway touched on troubled issues of identity and who is the arbiter of our Indigenous identities.  This was an installation that gave me serious pause for thought.

All throughout my personal and professional life matters of my own social identity have lurked and disrupted. What child wants to be confronted with racialized slurs on the playground? More disruptive are the stories in families hidden in the background. It is as though they wait, like a malevolent being, for that moment to derange our sense of well being. Most people are familiar with these sorts of stories. Yet there is something about racialzied stories that intersect with and become entangled in the struggles of working class lives that feel heavy, they adhere to our own lives even as those childhood memories fade. One can close our eyes to these injuries but they adhere nonetheless.

It wasn't until I was in my late teens that my mother told my why it had been important to my father that I participate in Scouts. She told me this after some friends and I challenged what we felt was a racially discriminatory plan by our Scout Group's advisory committee.

My father sat at the dinner table saying nothing as my mother said "When your father was a boy his father took him up to the church to sign up for Cub Scouts. But within a few minutes of arriving your grandfather stormed out and took your father home saying that was  waste of time."

"Didn't want any half breeds," my father said.

"That's why we wanted you join Scouts," my mother said.

That was it. That was the story. There is so much more.  If only racial violence and discrimination was about joining or not joining Boy Scouts. As I grow older I have been able to review in my mind the many stories told to me, the things I have witnessed, the half finished accounts, the fragments of thought and see in them the violence of self doubt and self hatred engendered by the settler. Writing about this past, especially as it intersects with my present, is one way to excise the ghosts of racism and violence.

Several decades later I was sitting down with an uncle of mine. We were working together on a project concerning aboriginal rights and title in the Prince Rupert area. In preparation for a series of interviews with elders and hereditary leaders we were discussing the various questions we wanted to ask, how to best phrase them in our Indigenous language, and what issues best left to another time.

"Can you think of any special places, areas of town important to know about?"

"Well, my father always told us that when we got off the boat here at Cow Bay, to walk straight up town along 3rd. He told us about places not to go, where we need to keep away from. Some parts of town you had to stay away from. It wasn't safe."

From a conversation about traditional territory we shifted seamlessly to a story about navigating a dangerous settler landscape and keeping safe.

Racism is more than discrimination, it's a transposition of the landscape that we have sprung from. Racism is about challenging our right to name our places and to name ourselves. In the same manner that a new grid of markers and names have been laid overtop of our Laxyuup (land/home), so too settlers are constantly trying to lay new names and markers upon our very bodies.  "You don't look Indian. . ."

Greg Deal's art confronts playfully, sarcastically, pointedly, ironically, the hypocrisies and violence of the settler and their society.  Coming across his installation in Denver was a breath of fresh air that took me away from the injuries of race and class and allowed me to laugh with him at this common pain we feel as Indigenous people today.
NWC Diorama Denver Art Museum