I’m Not the Indian You’re Looking For

I was born in 1954 in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, of Plains Cree, Scottish and Irish ancestry. I grew up in Cardston Alberta near the Blood Reserve, where at the age of eight I met artist Gerald Tailfeathers and decided that I, too, wanted to be an artist. As a child, my first art materials included the orange paper that was discarded in the processing of the Polaroid chest x-rays that we were subjected to annually as students in routine tuberculosis screenings; they collected the peculiar-smelling 18-inch squares of paper and gave them to my Anglican minister father for use in Sunday school. Early fascination with disease, First Nations living conditions, and settler/Native relationships informed by childhood experiences have become key elements in my creative practice, which has encompassed printmaking, painting, drawing, photography, and beadwork.

The 1876 Indian Act was passed into law as a means to protect, civilize and assimilate the Indian population. Today it remains a barrier to improvement in First Nations standards of living and a paternalistic system of governance devoid of transparency. My personal experiences with this system are reflected in work that throughout my career has included subjects such as “white liberal” attitudes towards Aboriginal women, the Canadian response to the 1990 Oka crisis, Mormon-Native relations in Cardston, Alberta (my childhood home), the diseases that ravished First Nations upon European contact, and the deplorable living conditions in Indigenous communities that exemplify the social issues that have affected Canadian First Nations people.

In my early work, I adopted a consistently anti-aesthetic stance, refusing to be stereotyped by forcefully rejecting the authority of both Western high art and traditional Aboriginal art and design. In true anarchic style, however, I borrow freely from both when it suits my purposes. This approach has allowed me to challenge mainstream perspectives on colonialism and the relationships between “settlers” and Natives, addressing the frictions between cultures, the failures of representation, and the political uses of anger in Canada, employing stylistic crudeness to counter the stereotype of Canada as the great polite nation. In my work, I challenge the status quo by exposing the inequities that have plagued for centuries Canada’s relationship with its First Peoples, while proudly claiming a complex and self-determined Aboriginal identity.

Adopting the traditional craft of beading in my recent work was a way to continue to centre the Aboriginal woman in my art while addressing other issues of concern. Maintaining the anti-aesthetic principles on which my practice was founded, I have traded crudeness of style for materials and techniques that have long been denied status as serious art. This shift has allowed for a more sophisticated end-product that capitalizes on my fascination with the attractive and repellant subject; the simultaneously beautiful and abhorrent. This dichotomous relationship between appearance and content, or between style and subject creates a cognitive schism; it is that gap that creates a space for contemplation about the work and what it means. Though humour softens the blow of a critical message, I have found that making work which confronts the most difficult truths about Canadian society and the impacts of colonization on Aboriginal people are made remarkably palatable when delivered in a strikingly seductive package.