Stewart Steinhauer of The Dominion asks the question “What is genuine indigenous art?”
Gifted with a white privilege suit on his Birth Day, Steinhauer has been slipping back and forth across the invisible boundary between Turtle Island and Canada, since 1952, in his lovely birthday suit. And this is what he saw.
KUTENAI TERRITORY, TURTLE ISLAND—The day after my first child was born, I carved my first piece of sculpture from a piece of tree root that caught my attention as I sat by a fire. I had been a devout atheist since an early teen rebellion against forced Christian indoctrination, but the finished carving was, in my heart, a spirit guardian for this incredible fresh new human being who had come so profoundly into my life.
Growing up on Cree reserves and in small Canadian towns in Cree Territory, I had never seen anyone, other than the Dene painter Alex Janvier, making what Canadians called “art.” On the prairies, unlike the west coast, there was no cultural tradition of carving. Why I suddenly pulled my pocket knife out and began carving a tree root is mysterious, though looking back thirty-six years later I can see by the timing that it obviously had something to do with the birth of my first child.
The death of my second child, in a car accident, at age three, shook my atheistic view of the universe, at least on an emotional/spiritual level. The action of carving, now stone instead of wood, 14 years on, became a space where my atheistic mind-chatter faded back into oblivion, while my body, heart and spirit worked cooperatively to give physical form to the anguish I experienced with that beloved child’s death.
When an Elder came to me and said he had a message from my dead child, which he had received in a sweat lodge ceremony, I placed a mental pause on my atheism and started attending indigenous ceremonies, a wandering circular journey around and back to where my long-ago ancestors had been driven off of their path.
Births and deaths jostled me along, until I was fully engaged in my own traditional ceremonial life, still a devout atheist whenever the topic turned to Christianity, but now something else as well, most vividly revealed in my stone sculptures. The process of working with stone still felt like time off for good behavior from the ceaseless chattering of my mind, but now my life was suddenly full of Elders and other cultural teachers and mentors. These folks began to explain to me what my sculpture in stone was all about.
They would point out things in my work which I hadn’t seen until they did so, but which were completely obvious. My Elders could read them as expressions, literally utterances, of the Rock Spirit. Also, things like why the spiritual pipe bowl is made of stone, and why the pipe stem is made of wood, were explained. The role of the stone in ceremony, particularly the stone’s special function as spiritual spokesperson for a stumbling, bumbling, stuttering, inchoate humanity, patiently working away at getting the message right, became clear to me.
Twenty years on as a stone carver, and professionally so, but with no formal exposure to western theories of art, I began to encounter non-indigenous artists, and hear their opinions about what they did and why they did it. As my profession as a stone carver advanced, I gradually became aware that most artists, even indigenous artists, if trained in a real art school, took personal responsibility for designing and constructing their art work.
Thirty-six years on as a stone carver I see that the I/me/mine theory of western civilization is shaky, shaken, while still running on blindly over its evolutionary cliff-edge. The lemmings in the middle of the pack are making an anxious discussion about their short-term futures, shouted exchanges are heard above the general din of the stampede, and a few margin-dwelling souls are bolting off in different directions.
The Rock Spirit uses me like any one of the tools I use on my tool trolley, when I roll out into my studio yard. The Rock Spirit pounds on me, knocking off little chips here and there, gradually shaping my consciousness over time. The Rock Spirit contrives to have me leave messages for her/him, in a geological time-scale medium, granite; should there happen to be future human generations, they can contemplate what she/he is saying to them.
Indigenius socialism, through practiced humbility, re-directs the I/me/mine human tendency towards a mother earth/great mystery consciousness. I see this phenomenon as the watermark proof of authenticity of what I’ll risk calling genuine indigenous art.
Western societies appropriate indigenous cultural phenomena while almost unthinkingly crushing indigenous realities. A current example is the adoption of various indigenous themes as winter Olympic mascots. By invoking mistanapew, mosom maskwa, mosom mikopeheysew and other indigenous spiritual beings as plush toy souvenirs of the 2010 Winter Olympics, while the entire region where the Olympics are being held is illegally occupied by Canada, is mocking both the notion of law as vigorously promoted by Canadians, and the spiritual relationship between indigenous peoples and the land which Canada claims as its dominion.
All of this passes below the level of consciousness for most Canadians, except, of course, the folks at the Dominion, of Canada.