The Politics of Erasure
The Politics of Erasure: Reclaiming Aboriginal Women's Art History
By Emma Bonnemaison
Although Aboriginal women were active participants in a number of methods of cultural material production post-contact, they are rarely accounted for within Canadian art history literature. Recently, Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars, curators, and artists have challenged continued erasure by recognizing the ways in which women were actively engaged in material and cultural art production post-contact and have questioned why Aboriginal women’s art was, and continues to be, undervalued in comparison to male dominated artistic practices, like painting or carving. Despite living under a harsh colonial regime, Aboriginal women were active agents in art production during times of great social, cultural, and economic upheaval.
Beyond the intersections of race, gender, culture, and class, Aboriginal women’s legal status in Canada, shaped by colonialism and patriarchy, must be understood in relation to the systematic marginalization of their work. Women artists working between the mid 1880s and 1970s lived under a colonial regime that influenced many aspects of daily life. Considered as ‘non-citizens’ First Nations were socially, economically, and politically marginalized by the state. The embodiment of colonial power existed in the form of the Indian Act whose assimilationist mandate was to “get rid of the Indian problem.” Provisions within the Act included the powers to determine a person’s Indian status (as late as 1985, Aboriginal women who married a non-Indigenous person were stripped of their Indian status), the outlawing of traditional ceremonies, dance, and Indigenous languages, restricting movement of First Nations through the implementation of a ‘pass system’, and in 1921, the powers to restrict unsanctioned public appearances in traditional dress.
What is widely referred to as the ‘culture ban’ endowed the state with strict surveillance powers and regulated the ability of First Nations to openly practice many aspects of their culture. Within the colonial state, compounded by Victorian systems of patriarchy, Aboriginal women’s lives (and their work) were regulated and documented very differently from their male counterparts. Recognition of individual women artists during this time poses an arduous challenge to art historians as it is difficult to gather and construct even basic biographical information.
Western classifications of art, gender bias, and white supremacy, all converge and implicate the ways in which Native women’s art has been perceived, evaluated, defined and documented within the Canadian art history. Although issues of erasure affected all Aboriginal people, it was especially rare for women to be recognized and documented as individual artists. Due to narrow western classifications of ‘art’, Aboriginal women’s art production was often seen as "craft" or “ethnographic material culture”, categorized witin the 'domestic' and dismissed as non-art. In contrast, the work of male artists like carving and painting, fell more easily into Western classifications of ‘art’ and was more readily recognized and documented.
European categorizations of Aboriginal women’s art as ‘craft’ was informed by Victorian ideologies and imported from the imperialist hegemon. There exists an important connection between the hierarchy of the arts and the sexual categories of male/female. The development of Victorian ideologies of femininity, coincided historically with the emergence of a clearly defined separation of ‘art’ and ‘craft’. The art/craft hierarchy emerged within the Renaissance during a time when ‘craft arts’ like embroidery was popularized by working class or disadvantaged middle-class women within the private sphere.
Rosika Parker suggests within the Western art/craft hierarchy, “art made with thread and art made with paint are intrinsically unequal...the former is artistically less significant.” In other words, embroidery and craft arts were associated with the ‘second sex’, the private sphere of domesticity, and the working class and therfore, bereft of artistic value. It was painting and sculpture that was revered, associated to the privileged classes and practiced by the rational male ‘genius’ within the public economic sphere. It becomes clear that these limited ideologies directly informed European reception and appraisal of Aboriginal women’s art. Caught within a gendered hierarchy, Aboriginal women’s cultural and material production was dismissed as domestic ‘craft’ and remained undocumented by male ethnographers and art historians in the late 1800’s.
The erasure of individual women artists from historic museum collections cannot be avoided within the discussion of Aboriginal women’s art history. Curators made little effort to credit individual works or provide any social context with which they were made. Made clear by Ruth Phillips, the conventional museum strategy, informed by superannuated nineteenth century ideologies, “create domains of inclusion and exclusion that continue to inscribe colonial attitudes about race, patriarchal ideas about gender, and elitist notions about class.” Additionally, broad cultural identifications combined with a lack of information act to “effectively erase the human maker.” Sherry Farrell Racette expresses this best when she exclaims (sarcastically) that individuals rarely enter a museum and say: “Wow! Look at all the amazing work of Aboriginal women artists,” even though “many, and possibly the majority of objects in museum collections are the products of women’s artistry and creative work.”
As Racette has noted, although the publication of Franz Boa’s Primitive Art (1927) encouraged spectators to appreciate museum pieces (previously perceived as ‘ethnological specimens’) as works of art, it simultaneously alienated the pieces from the individuals who actually produced them. In 1927 the National Museum and the National Gallery of Canada curated The Exhibition of Canadian West Coast Art - Native and Modern, which placed the paintings of Emily Carr in relation to many works produced by Aboriginal women including baskets, masks, and Chilkat blankets. However, the appreciation of these objects based purely on their aesthetic value and “detached from considerations of what First Nation art meant to the First Nation people,” once again erased the individual women who created them. Ruth Phillips and Janet Berlo have recently challenged this practice of erasure in the book Native North American Art (1998) by simply inserting the word artist into the captions and the word people after naming their respective tribe or clan. Racette comments that this is a “subtle strategy, but it serves to evoke the presence (although genderless) of the individual who envisioned and executed the work and the human context of creation.”
Indigenous Women's Resistance
Despite the devastating impact of smallpox and a rapid period of cultural and economic changes between 1870 and 1910, many First Nations women developed new modes of artistic creation for economic survival as well as remained responsible for the maintenance and continuation of cultural knowledge and tradition. Women from the Haida, Tlingit, Ntlakyapamuk, and other Nations from the pacific Northwest participated in “vigorous trade in basket forms developed for outside consumption.”
During this time, women in many regions either adapted traditional forms or developed new ones for economic purposes. Tlingit baskets shifted in production from utilitarian objects to items for sale and trade within tourist and other markets. Although Haida basketry also adapted in part to tourist markets, they did so less in comparison to Tlingit basketry. However, Christian symbols, European textile patterns and new forms were adopted to some small extent to increase their public appeal for the market. For example, Haida weavers reduced the size of berry and rattle-lid baskets for trade. They also experimented with different forms such as cups, saucers, and covered bottles. Florence Edenshaw, daughter of Isabella Edenshaw remembers this period:
My mother used to weave baskets and hats all winter long... She worked all day, day after day, from the time she finished picking berries till the spring. It was just like having a business. When she finished a hat she put it in a dark place and then my dad would paint a design on it. Sometimes he painted mother’s baskets, too. My mother used to weave everything--placemats, hats, baskets with covers, seaweed baskets, baskets for carrying water. She even used to weave around bottles. She learned to decorate her baskets with grass from a Tlingit lady in Ketchikan. What my mother wove all winter long she sold in June when we went to the mainland to work in the canneries. She sold her work at Cunningham’s store in Port Essington. She used to get five dollars for a finely woven, painted hat. Mr Cunningham paid her cash for her work and she bought our winter coats there. Mr. Newcombe used to come here from Victoria to buy things from my parents, too (see Blackman 86).
Racette has made clear how women’s art production grew increasingly important to the economic survival of the community and in some circumstances allowed for a certain amount of freedom from colonial regulation and interference. Seeing basketry as mere ‘craft’, the state overlooked how women’s basketry was a strong signifier of identity and cultural tradition. Despite the culture ban, women continued to produce basketry not only as a means of earning an income, but also to ensure the protection and maintenance of their cultural heritage. Isabella Edenshaw’s basketry included unique characteristics like the hat brim finished in a four-strand braid and a four pointed star on the top; Selina Petrovich's with the skip-stitch pattern on the brim; and Isabel Rorick starts her hats and baskets with three concentric circles in skip stitch, a pattern representing her three sons. The process of weaving from maintaining respectful relationships with the environment when harvesting materials, to exchanging stories and songs when producing basketry within the home, all serve as methods of cultural reproduction. Overall, women were able to earn an income through their artistry while also preserving essential aspects of their culture in the face of poverty and assimilationist policies.
Up until 1895, basket making was an integral industry to the economic sustainability of many Nations including the Haida, Six Nations, Chippewa, Munsee, and Oneida. Women from many Nations, including weavers like Isabella and Florence Edenshaw took their goods directly to store shops and consumers to exchange their work for hard currency. However by the turn of the century, Racette explains the sale of these goods decreased due to increasing control of “spectators” controlling the marketing of goods, as one Indian agent reported: “beadwork and basket making” were “positive indicators of industriousness, but women were no longer able to ward off the poverty with their active hands.”
The silencing of female indigenous art history was a function of European gender bias but also existed within a larger project to rationalize colonialist hegemony and nation building projects. In her landmark essay, The Construction of the Imaginary Indian (1991), Maria Crosby traces Euro-Canadian constructions of the ‘Imaginary Indian’ throughout Canadian art history as a function of settler colonialism. Stereotypes ranging from the 'bloodthirsty savage' to the passive colonized ‘other’ to the ‘dying Indian’, make up a composite ‘Imaginary Indian’ which positions indigenous peoples as the “West’s opposite, imagined and constructed so as to stress their great need to be saved through colonization and civilization.” In other words, when a culture is represented as ‘dying’, the obvious thing to do is to save or salvage it.
The erasure of female presence, artistry, and their socio-economic importance is predicated on the concept of the ‘dying Indian’ whose culture is in need of “saving”. The salvage paradigm continues to limit the understanding of female indigenous histories of production. As Crosby has made clear, “the portrayal of indigenous people as victims, contaminated by European culture and dying rather than changing” functions to maintain salvage paradigms and rationalize colonialist hegemonic ideologies still embraced by some art historians and government officials.
The myths of a ‘dying people’ compounded by the erasure of indigenous women within art production continue to reflect and inform present day attitudes toward First Nation female artists. According to Crosby the salvage paradigm must be replaced with modes and models of continuity to in order to better contextualize Aboriginal art history. For example, the smallpox epidemic that greatly reduced the Haida population along with the more negative impacts of colonialism should not be understated within Aboriginal women’s art history. However, it would be inaccurate to assume that these factors completely eradicated artists' agency, acts of resistance, and their artistic practices. Instead, traditional knowledge was kept and passed on through the dedicated efforts of women.
Teachers like Selina Peratrovich (1889-1984) who have passed on the Haida art practices to current generations of weavers in Haida Gwaii and Alaska should be celebrated and her story of resistance and perseverance told. Rorick describes her as “strong” and “energetic” harvesting materials and weaving well into her nineties:
We continued harvesting roots together. She was very strong for her age. Tramping through the woods was no problem for her. A lot of times she went ahead of me. She was a lot of fun and was always happy. We have a lot of good memories of her. She wore several layers of clothing. Sometimes she’d wear a dress over her slacks, long granny stockings, and often she wore high heel shoes. Her last harvest trip with us was in 1984, a few months before she passed on.
A master weaver, teacher, and mentor, Selina Peratrovich should be honored and remembered within Aboriginal and Canadian art history.
Aboriginal women’s art production like weaving, breaks through and works beyond narrow western classifications of ‘art’. Elysia Poon explains, “historically, art and history have been defined as something that is largely linear, created by the [white] male genius at work, and documented by [white] men”. Poon explains that Aboriginal women’s art production works at “redefining art as something that is not simply a narrow range of visual expression, but a set of practices that permeates a culture and encompasses language, music, dance, and much more”(68). What constitutes ‘art’ is more than just the finished, visual object, but also includes creative expression and process; from harvesting natural materials, to the act of weaving and passing down cultural knowledge, to using basketry for ceremonial or domestic purposes, all center art making on the “way in which things are done” and may be “more significant than what might be termed content” (Townsend-Gault 235).
The great spruce root weavers mentioned throughout this essay, past and present, are a testament to the powerful female presence of Indigenous women within art history. Contemporary master weavers' creative abilities, technical skills, and traditional knowledge inherited from past weavers disrupts the notion that Aboriginal women were not actively engaged in material and cultural art production post-contact. Their artistic skills were not only a means to ward off poverty and provide economically for their families and communities, but also provided a way to protect and pass down cultural knowledge in the face of the colonial state. The process of weaving becomes more than just the production of inanimate objects. The fine basketry that women weave represents an “unbroken line” of female art histories, their stories, designs, and heritage passed on and woven into new art forms by the hands of their ancestors.
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