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3rd Annual New Sun Conference on Aboriginal Arts:
Transforming Traditions
Carleton University, February 28, 2004

 
P r e s e n t a t i o n s
 

Darrell Dennis

            Actor, playwright, screenwriter, and television host Darrell Dennis of the Shuswap Nation emphasizes the dynamic nature of Indigenous traditions. Growing up on a small reserve in British Columbia, Dennis saw Indigenous peoples dichotomized into two extremes in the media: the noble savage of 19th century literature, or the urban, tortured alcoholic, torn between two worlds. Similarly, his early acting roles on the television programs Northwood and Neon Rider reproduce the stereotype of the dysfunctional, substance-abusing Indigenous male. Encouraged to grow out his hair and take advantage of the 1990s interest in Indigenous cultures, he was cast as either the warrior or the mystic, which he wryly refers to as his ‘buckskin roles.’ Beyond the buckskin, Dennis secured positive roles on The Rez and Dance Me Outside that were reflective of lived Indigenous experience. As a playwright, Dennis created Tales of an Urban Indian, which presents romantic images of Indigenous spirituality only to cast them aside as limiting stereotypes, instead following the life of his alter ego, Simon Douglas, to explore urban Indigenous life. While respecting and honouring his culture, Dennis stresses the importance of questioning traditions; as he shrewdly observes in Tales of an Urban Indian, “There’s a difference between being an elder and just being old.” Similarly, Dennis plays with traditions in his sketch comedy series Paint the Town Red. His script, Moccasin Flats, was an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival, developing into a dramatic television series focused on the lives of Indigenous youth on a Regina reserve, which balances disturbing realities with inspiring stories and strong characters.

 

Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm

            Anishinaabe writer, spoken word artist, and publisher Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm highlights the unique connection to the land held by Indigenous peoples, developed over thousands of years and reinforced through language, arts, and customs. Making a critical distinction between literacy and literature, Akiwenzie-Damm stresses that contemporary Indigenous writing is a continuation of the creative arts of oral tradition and traditional songs. Silenced in the colonial project, Indigenous voices continue to be contained, defined, and ignored by the majority culture; having been largely excluded from the Canadian canon, writers struggle to gain access to the public. To improve access to literary festivals for Indigenous writers, Akiwenzie-Damm has organized the Honouring Words: International Indigenous Authors Celebration Tour for two years running, which includes live readings, discussions, and broadcasts. In 1993, she established the publishing company Kegedonce Press to “make writing a viable career and not a frustrating phase” by developing, promoting, and publishing Indigenous writers nationally and internationally. Kegedonce has participated in groundbreaking work in international collaboration with its collections Skins: Contemporary Indigenous Writing and Without Reservation: Indigenous Erotica, as well as providing editorial advice to young writers. Kegedonce focuses on publishing poetry, as many Indigenous writers begin their careers with this form of expression. It has also broken into the graphic novel niche, hoping to expand its audience to youth and young adults. In her erotic writing, Akiwenzie-Damm celebrates Indigenous sexuality as an integral part of human experience. She has also released a CD of spoken word art, seeing it as an extension of the traditions of song and storytelling, creating a “communal experience through the sharing of words and breath.”

 

Rosalie Favell

            Métis digital photo artist Rosalie Favell collages family photographs and pop cultural images to explore and affirm personal and cultural identities. As a young woman, Favell struggled to locate role models before discovering Xena Warrior Princess, a recurring figure in her work. In the Longing and Not Belonging series, she locates heroes in the women of her family, juxtaposing family photographs with strong female pop cultural icons. Exhibiting the show in Taiwan in 1999, Favell was expected to be the spokesperson for all Canadian Indigenous people. With more than a little irony, Favell told media that “we [Indigenous people] may all have feathers in the closet, but we don’t always pull them out and wear them,” which, to her dismay, was taken literally and quoted in a local newspaper. In the Plain(s) Warrior Artist series, Favell becomes her own hero by digitally conflating her own image with figures such as Xena and Queen Amidala. From that series, Transformation explores identity through the layering of photographs of Annie Oakley, Xena, and Favell herself. In I awoke to find my spirit had returned, Favell suggests that the capacity for cultural revival lies within Indigenous people themselves. In Navigating by our grandmothers and For my best beloved sister, Favell explores her family history and its implications for her own identity. Other themes in the series include colonization, authenticity, appropriation, museum practices, Métis history, and sexuality. More recently, They Went Exploring is an act of imagining inclusion, depicting the artist as astronaut Roberta Bondar. Within the broader context of the conference, Allan Ryan suggests that Favell transforms tradition by infiltrating the Canadian historical narrative.

 

David Ruben Piqtoukun

            Inuit multimedia sculptor David Ruben Piqtoukun explores themes of identity, mythology, and tradition in his work. From a community on the Arctic Coast, Piqtoukun was sent to a residential school at age five where he received “an education in forgetting,” losing his language, customs, and culture. Introduced to carving in 1972, he was soon inspired by Inuit mythology, collecting stories in his travels across the Arctic and interpreting them in his work. Describing his artistic process, Piqtoukun states that stories develop and take shape within the dream world, which he then manifests in the sculptural form. He works primarily in imported materials such as Brazilian soapstone, African wonderstone, and Italian crystal alabaster, with sculptures ranging from miniature to monumental in size. Piqtoukun was selected as the Canadian representative to the Changchun International Sculpture Symposium held in China in 2000. Exhibited at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, his Between Two Worlds exhibition explores the loss of language and culture in residential schools. In Guidepost, a Christian cross merges with an inukshuk, illustrating that the new beacons of Christianity are leading Inuit away from the old signposts. In Airplane (past, present, future), he highlights the dramatic changes that have taken place in the Arctic in the past century. The series collectively addresses the lost connection to the ancestors and land, the imposition of Christianity, and shamanism. Piqtoukun speaks of the necessity of returning to the North to maintain connections, for many Inuit are losing their identities in the cities. Inspired by the creation of Nunavut, however, Piqtoukun completes the series with images of hope, which reconcile old traditions with new forms and celebrate cooperation between individuals and with the land.

 

Tamara Podemski

            Ojibwa-Israeli singer, songwriter, actor, and choreographer Tamara Podemski reinforces the importance of conferences such as the New Sun Conference in forcing artists to reflect on and situate their work in a broader social and artistic context. Podemski’s acting career has included roles in the film Dance Me Outside, the television program The Rez, and the Broadway musical Rent. Desiring to tell her own stories, however, Podemski  turned to music, releasing a CD as the lead singer for the Los Angeles band Spirit Nation. Observing that “in America, they tend to be a little less open minded about how they like to take their Indian,” she was surprised to be given the opportunity to sing in Saulteaux and Hebrew and create an album cover unadorned with Indigenous signifiers. For her second album entitled Spirit Voices, however, Podemski was restricted by label expectations of traditionalism. She has since founded the music production, distribution, and promotion company Mukwa Music, where she has complete control over the content and style of her music. Having struggled with her mixed heritage, Podemski uses music to explore this identity, helping to validate a shared dimension of contemporary Indigenous experience. Responding to the theme of the conference, Podemski affirms that some individuals are threatened by the transformation of traditions, which only inspires her to be more radical in her work. In applying for a grant to establish a contemporary Indigenous dance studio, Podemski was met with resistance from the jury panel of traditional Indigenous dancers, who viewed her work as too drastic and radical. While recognizing the importance of cultural preservation, she maintains that a distinction must be drawn between dance as community work and the creative exploration of an art form, both of which are independently valuable.

 

Synopses by Anna Eyler

 

 
Please note: All presentations have been archived on DVD and can be borrowed individually from the Carleton University MacOdrum Library.  
 
 
A presentation of the New Sun Chair in Aboriginal Art and Culture
with the support of the Dean of Arts and Social Sciences and the New Sun Fund
administered by the Community Foundation of Ottawa.