Spotlight 7/2/11: Finding Voice

Today is lovely. I was awake early and, camera in hand, went to the river. The sun was still low on the horizon, and mostly obscured by cloud. Birds still sang. There were few people out in the world, but a pair of Guinea fowl were out exploring the world.

For some reason, perhaps having to do with the July 4th weekend, I donned a Native tee-shirt. The tee shows four Native Men, and reads, “Homeland Security: Fighting Terrorism Since 1492.” July 4th is another of those awkward holidays that has a multitude of meanings, not all pleasant for Indigenous peoples in the U.S.. Like most of life, “it’s complex”. That very complexity suggests we may only understand the issues inherent in the holiday if we have a multitude of voices speaking to them. Yet racism often erases minority voices, thereby creating images of cultural homogeneity that are both inaccurate, and harmful.

One of the arenas where diverse points of view may be heard is the Internet. Native bloggers, and persons blogging about Native issues, have been unusually active of late. Colonialism and racism, and their effects on Native families and communities, has been a central theme. Native bloggers are are also chronicling the efforts of Native people to present to the world our needs, beliefs, and experiences through the arts and activism.

CarlosQC spoke to the necessity for Native Persons, and other people of color, to join the blogisphere. He is, of course, right. Yet a focus on obvious differences in skin color is problematic. There is, as always, the real risk that light skinned persons of Native, African-American, Asian, or Hispanic descent, will be lumped into the “White” catagory, and thus, silenced. Carlos says:

In the always changing world of social media and blogs, there is a big need for more “people of color” or non-White communities as bloggers and online activists.

Non Whites are widely underrepresented by the corporate media in the U.S. Therefore, our stories are not told and our voices are not included. It’s our very own responsibility to change that, starting with blogs and social media.

This is a brief conversation with Neeta Lind, a Navajo (Dine) blogger who I met years ago at the Netroots Nation conference. This time we decided to do an interview -watch the video in this post- and talk about the importance of online exchange and support for Native American blogs by commenting and linking our websites. “We need to act online by spreading our messages, our blogs” says Neeta.

Giving context to our need to find our voices, Indian Country Today presented a devastating article discussing the rise of hate crimes against Native people in the United States. The article says Natives are the targets of the most hate crimes per capita:

But one of the few large-scaled studies of hate crimes conducted in recent years indicates that only 10 percent of hate crimes against Natives are reported to law enforcement authorities, according to Barbara Perry, a professor at the University of Ontario who interviewed nearly 300 American Indians in border towns. She said the low reporting rate was largely due to “historical and contemporary experience with the police, and the perception they do not take Native American victimization seriously.”

Eye for Equity wrote about the difficulties we face when our experiences are represented in museums and mass media. Eye’s focus was on the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

Upon my own recent visit to the museum, which may have changed in the years since the thesis was written, I noticed that there was an exhibit highlighting the accomplishments of contemporary Indigenous individuals, which might be seen as an effort in acknowledging the continuing presence of Indigenous peoples. Still, even this exhibit seems to aim for a presentation of Canada as a just society for all, neglecting to address the ongoing racism and injustices faced by Indigenous peoples. The issues pointed out by the students in Shielded Minds and by Ksonzek remain very apparent.

For these reasons, I would encourage everyone visiting museum to remain critical. The presentation of knowledge in these institutions is far from neutral, and we should continue to question the power relations at play.

“The museum as a spatial project stands in a place where First Peoples lived. But more, it spatially re-organizes meaning through discourses and representations which valorize the history of state making. In this way, there is a constant conquering, a constant invasion, a constant justification of racist practices that were there at the outset of the colonizing expansionist mission and continue in these present racist knowledge practices.” (Ksonzek, 2007, p. 82)

Of course, these issues are not unique to this one museum, or to Canada. I have visited many museums this spring (mostly art museums), and the overarching presentation style was artifactual. One would assume from the exhibits that Native peoples no longer made art, created crafts, or indeed, lived in the world.

Decolonizing the Screen reviewed several Native films, including Four Hands of History. One of the films also grapples with the tendency of museums to use representation of Native works to erase contemporary Native experience:

Loretta Todd’s Hands of History was of 4 indigenous women’s stories weaving together to create sense of home and belonging, emotional tie to each women and idea of reclaiming identity. Todd uses four different women to create her voice. She uses different techniques to show four different women in the film. First woman described in the film was a mask maker who also make traditional robe. Her presence in conference talking, experience as a child with art forms, picture of her husband and her, her story about reawakening the indigenous art, zoom up of her curved art, description of her time as student of art school, ceremony films to enhance the idea of what she has been observing creates her story in the talking circle. Rena Point Bolton, a woman who make baskets and have stood up to re-situate the potlatch ceremony, she first saw what she has been doing as her duty not an art form and something that she has to pass on to generation to come. Her story is supported by old archives of indigenous women weaving and knitting to create the sense of how this creation of such an art form that is not being recognized has been and will be passed down to generation to generation. Third women’s impression in the film is oil painter as majority of the time she was presented in the film, she is drawing on canvas. She creates possibility of the way in which art could decolonize and deprogram indigenous people. Her story is mostly of her arts forms and interview. Fourth woman in the film presents modern women who makes collages. Her story is told through herself in the nature, in exhibition and her story seems to represent newer generation who will pass on the knowledge to next. Idea of anthropologists mentioned in What More Do They Want? By Loretta Todd herself was also in the film. She showed anthropologist looking at mask as if it was of extinct people’s work. This use of anthropologist man in that semi-dark, examining the indigenous mask visualized the problem of indigenous art not recognized as art in contemporary western way….

Yet, as also voiced in thazt film, we are still here, in all our complexity. (I remain, after many years, indebted to, and grateful for, Bill T. Jones for his dance-theater piece, Still Here.) Joing a growing list of theatre workers bringing Native voices to the stage, Naked Journey has been working on the play, The Dreamcatchers, a new work by a group of Toronto teens that is on it’s way to the Edinborough Fringe Festival.

The company of 17 students and 2 teachers developed a production that was truly Canadian, contemporary and relevant.
Inspired by the recent G20 riots, Canada’s First Nations heritage and the Ipperwash Inquiry, the ensemble collectively created a riveting new and original script.

The Dreamcatchers tells the stories of a young O.P.P. officer and a student eco-activist and how their paths violently and tragically collide.
We had our “world premiere” performance on May 5th to rave reviews.  THE DREAMCATCHERS was described as “visually stunning”, “mature” and “complex on many different levels”.  The company and I were proud of what we had achieved despite the challenges and obstacles we had to surmount.

Lastly, we turn briefly to the visual arts. Gay Highwaymen spoke about an exhibition of Australian Aboriginal Art that opened recently in San Fransisco.

Tomorrow (Thursday) 5-7pm is the opening of an exciting new art exhibition at Stanford. Several Martu Aboriginal artists (who I had the good fortune to stay with and learn from in Parnngurr Aboriginal Community in 2009) are exhibiting their strikingly beautiful paintings of their homeland, Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

Here is a description of the show provided by Doug Bird, a Stanford anthropologist who has been working with the Martu for over 10 years:

“Waru! Holding fire in Australia’s Western Desert – a unique exhibition merging science and indigenous art marking the lived relationships among indigenous Martu of Australia’s Western Desert; their foraging economy, ritual arts, the expression of these on the landscape, and their links to desert biodiversity. The nexus of these relationships is distilled in the concept and practice of waru, which translates as fire. Here, Martu have chosen the title of the exhibition for its many meanings: Martu artists are cultural ambassadors, to spread, like fire, knowledge of their heritage and land; moreover, Martu artists are the literal agents of fire, applying fire to their country in the course of their daily foraging practice, resulting in the maintenance of key components of arid grassland biodiversity.

May we each find a voice filled with spirit and truth. May we work together in cooperation and reciprocity. May the Great Spirit Bless you and those you love.

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