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Dana Claxton: From a Whisper to a Scream

I can still remember my first encounter with Dana Claxton’s art. It was 1996, and I watched a copy of her video I Want to Know Why (1994) for an exhibition I was developing on the topic of art and the city. From its first moments, the short video radiates an electric energy that never lets up; tapping into the transgressive power of montage, it offers an opportunity for surprise learning that challenges viewers to think again about the history of colonialism in the cities they inhabit.

With the grainy, juddering look of archival film, the video moves through New York, Ottawa and Indian Head, Saskatchewan, at a fast pace, exploring seemingly benign representations of Indigenous people that adorn buildings in these cities. In urgent bursts of words, a voice-over tells the stories of three women—Claxton’s mother, grandmother and great-grandmother— who each died early as a result of harsh colonial conditions and the mistreatment of Aboriginal women. In a startling mix of imagery and personal testimony, Claxton highlights the history of what she calls “government-sanctioned oppression.” In one telling moment, the faces of the Statue of Liberty and Claxton’s great-grandmother are juxtaposed in close-up as the voice-over roars: “Mastincala, my great-grandmother, walked to Canada with Sitting Bull. And I want to know why!” It is a moment that reveals the violent paradox in white Enlightenment culture, which proclaimed liberty, justice and freedom for some while justifying the displacement and dispossession of others. At first lulled by a beautiful soundscape composed by Salish musician Russell Wallace, viewers quickly realize that something is wrong as the intensity and urgency of the repeated refrain “I want to know why” grows from a whisper to a scream.

Dana Claxton is a multimedia artist of Hunkpapa Lakota descent who has produced an impressive body of work in film, video, installation, performance and photography over the last 20 years. In 1990, the Oka crisis in Quebec mobilized her to contribute to Canadian society. At the time, the art world was seriously white. “I realized there was much work to be done,” Claxton says. “Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities were not communicating with each other. I asked myself: how could I facilitate this huge gap, in a meaningful way?” Two decades later, Claxton has fashioned a remarkable practice as a public intellectual who works to develop an Aboriginal voice in areas as diverse as exhibition, education, curation, community-based work and arts administration.

As an educator, Claxton is concerned with the still-lingering colonial procedures and content of mainstream education. In an effort to bring Indigenous knowledge into the academy, she has developed innovative courses in critical theory and contemporary Aboriginal art and screen culture (among others) for Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Simon Fraser University (where she held the prestigious Ruth Wynn Woodward Chair in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies from 2009 to 2010) and the University of British Columbia (UBC). Claxton was recently appointed to UBC’s distinguished Visual Art faculty, and will teach Advanced Digital Arts with an emphasis on installation, foundation studio and performance art studio and theory. She will also teach courses in video and new media installation.

As a curator, Claxton has worked with diverse communities to develop significant art events (conferences, panels, symposia, film screenings and group exhibits) designed to bring Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal audiences together to talk about urgent issues of social and cultural justice, and to develop a visual counterpoint that focuses on transformation and change. In 2002, for instance, she co-curated Indian Acts—the first conference on Aboriginal performance art in North America—with Lori Blondeau, the director of the Aboriginal arts organization TRIBE, and the support of Vancouver’s grunt gallery. This landmark event taught non-Aboriginal participants that scholarly work can only benefit from being disrupted. In this case, the disruptions consisted of dissenting live performance, critical cross-disciplinary dialogue, delicious food, tears of laughter and sadness, and challenging yet accessible visual work that moves Indigenous knowledge to centre stage.

In her art, Claxton has developed an aesthetic based simultaneously in traditional Lakota teachings and a rigorous critique of the violent colonization processes that have affected the lives of her family and community. Since 1997 she has, for example, created a number of video installations rooted in the Indigenous ecologies of the Great Plains. Buffalo Bone China (1997), Sitting Bull and the Moose Jaw Sioux (2004), Landscape #1 (2005) and To Mark on Surface (2008) build public memory about the Lakota Sioux in Saskatchewan and the Great Plains. Calling them “Plains projects,” she notes: “It is significant how this place shapes my work. My practice has been informed by growing up in Moose Jaw, driving around the Plains, and by Lakota spiritual and cultural teachings, some of which have come to me later in life—medicine takes time to grow.”

With these projects, Claxton queries and disturbs the mainstream settler-colonial discourse that conceals, erases or barely mentions the dispossession and oppression of the Indigenous Plains Nations that marked the ascent of settler societies since the end of the 19th century. Refuting the apartheid aspects of settler society in both the American and Canadian West, her projects develop an Indigenous-centered geography of the Great Plains based in the Lakota worldview of Mitakuye Oyasin or “All My Relations—everything is related,” whether “plant, human, animal, natural or supernatural world.”

Opening in Moose Jaw in 2004, Sitting Bull and the Moose Jaw Sioux was a powerful revelation of Indigenous presence, knowledge, metaphysics and spirituality. The video installation unsettled the origin stories that exulted the city’s various settler cultures. Drawing together connections otherwise kept apart in centennial memory, Sitting Bull explores the interconnected and overlapping relations between the Lakota Sioux and white settler society. In its depiction of a shared and contested colonial past, the work invites viewers to pay attention to issues of social and cultural justice in the colonial present.

Walking into the installation, the viewer is enveloped by sound and moving images. The cinematic scale is breathtaking. On one wall, a screen is split into three channels. Carrying a fast-flowing river of images, text, sound, music and spoken voice, the screen tells the story of Sitting Bull and the Lakota Sioux, who sought refuge in Saskatchewan following their defeat of Lieutenant-Colonel George Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Montana Territory, in 1876. On the opposite wall, a fourth screen slows the pace down: the camerawork moves through the tall summer grasses of the historic site of the Lakota Sioux’s winter camp in Moose Jaw.

Claxton grew up in Moose Jaw listening to family stories about her maternal great-great-grandmother, her great-grandmother and other relatives who walked to Saskatchewan with Sitting Bull, starving, in the spring of 1877. The history of the Lakota’s forced diaspora to Saskatchewan, and the winter camp they inhabited in Moose Jaw, was never acknowledged in the city’s public culture when Claxton was a child. “I have always wanted to go back to Moose Jaw as an adult, and make something that says ‘Here are the people of the camp. They are real people. Here is the place of the camp,’” Claxton explains. “This work is for my grandmother. It is because of her history in Moose Jaw that I wanted to tell this history, to celebrate it and to situate it in this city.”

The artwork is a memorial, a living history and an exercise in critical pedagogy. Realizing the power of visual testimony, Claxton searched for traces of Sitting Bull and the Lakota Sioux in Moose Jaw in public archives, museum collections, the Internet and the city. Drawing together a multitude of relics, she creates a “visual archaeology” that complicates history. At its centre is the oral testimony of three Lakota men (friends and relatives) from the Lakota First Nation in Saskatchewan. John LaCaine, Hartland Goodtrack and Francis Goodtrack are second-generation descendants of the people who lived at the winter campsite in Moose Jaw. At times, the men talk in English and Lakota (with subtitles); at others, their stories are carried in voice-over. Listening to their testimony brings the world of Sitting Bull and Claxton’s ancestors into the present. The men’s words are shaped by Aboriginal traditions of recording history, which, as the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples noted, is “neither linear nor steeped in…notions of social progress and evolution.” Rather, the “Aboriginal historical tradition is an oral one, involving legends, stories and accounts handed down through the generations in oral form.”

In the stories, the men move back and forth across the Medicine Line, travelling to the Lakota Nation’s ancestral homeland in the United States’ Black Hills, to Moose Jaw and to the Lakota First Nation at Wood Mountain, Saskatchewan, where Claxton’s grandmother and mother were born. All three storytellers bear witness to the violence of the era. They talk of broken treaty promises; the U.S. government’s expropriation of the sacred Black Hills after gold was discovered; and the people’s grief at the loss of their traditional hunting lifestyle following the massacre of the vast herds of Plains buffalo by settler society in the 1870s.

In one vivid moment, Hartland Goodtrack tells the story of the Battle of Little Bighorn, which he learned as a child listening to the “old people.” As he talks in the centre panel of the video, a crowd of images—archival photographs, Sitting Bull’s ledger drawings, and appropriated fi lm imagery—jostle for attention in the side panels. Pulsing to the beat of Russell Wallace’s soundtrack, these kaleidoscopic image-fragments create a “Sitting Bull homage.” In another riveting moment, archival photos of the Lakota Sioux—including a portrait of John Okute’s family in traditional dress, taken in a Moose Jaw studio in 1902—appear on the centre screen, while the names of the camp inhabitants (and their descendants) scroll silently on a lime-green background. In yet another instance, contemporary video footage of the Sioux campsite is juxtaposed with images of the “Indian heads” decorating the Fourth Avenue bridge in Moose Jaw. In the voice-over, Francis Goodtrack says: “They went and saw Father Bernard in Lebret. He gave them food. The RCMP went there and told them not to give them food.” This government-sanctioned policy of starvation (designed to secure Sitting Bull’s return to the U.S.), and its enforcement by the RCMP, is a silence within Canadian history and the myths of peaceful Western settlement. “In looking at the history of my mother and grandmother,” Claxton says, “I found all this material about Canada’s history of racial apartheid, and how the church and the government were implicated. It makes you think about Canadian identity.”

In recent years, Claxton has created a remarkable body of staged photographs, including On to the Red Road (2007), The Mustang Suite (2008) and Paint Up (2010), among others. In these images, Claxton creates allegories of the double experience of living within both Western postmodern culture and traditional Lakota ceremonial culture. Asked how the disparate influences of theatre, fashion and Lakota symbolic imagery come together in the “look” of the photographs, she notes: “I studied theatre in the mid-1980s at Spirit Song Native Indian Theatre Company in Vancouver. That experience influenced me greatly. I also have an interest in fashion and glamour, and purposely wanted to make Indian people glamorous. In the late 1980s I worked for Details, a New York–based fashion and art magazine. All of this experience comes together in the photographs. There is also a real element of the surreal. I have this innate connection with the unreal—it is an Indigenous thing—the seen and the unseen supernatural in the Indian world.”

In The Mustang Suite, Claxton appropriates commodity culture to create a new “Mustang” brand based in the teachings of the Lakota visionary Black Elk. “My starting point for The Mustang Suite was Black Elk’s dream of the horse dance,” says Claxton. “I was thinking about the horse as a symbol of freedom and mobility. And I wanted everyone to have family, freedom and mobility. To have traditional ties and to live in a contemporary world.” In the five-image suite, Claxton reclaims the Indigenous family from the colonial archive. The viewer encounters the members of a stylish Aboriginal family, each with his or her own personalized mustang, or medicine horse: twin girls sit on matching Mustang bikes; a man in traditional face paint stands beside his 1960s Ford Mustang; a young boy sits on a mustang horse, his striped Adidas track-suit resembling a Lakota warrior’s leggings; and, in a final image entitled Momma Has a Pony Girl… (Named History And Sets Her Free), a woman dressed in a red Lakota sun dance dress with over-sized feathered accessories sets her mustang—a prancing “pony girl” in blinders, bit and faux horse’s tail—free.

In Momma Has a Pony Girl, the Native woman, costumed as a sacred medicine woman, releases the pony girl with a hand gesture, as if to say: “As an Indian woman I am finished with your history of bondage. I am free of you.” In fashioning the suite, Claxton turns the colonial gaze back on imperial history and its crimes of representation.

As an artist, Claxton underscores the push-back power of Indigenous visual arts. Her art is, at times, fierce, sombre and filled with difficult knowledge; at others, it is elegant, playful and outrageously stylish. She makes an art to struggle with and to be seduced by, but it is also an art of visual storytelling that has the ability to engage and challenge its viewers. In the classroom or in the gallery, Claxton’s work stands as both a critique and a reinvention of North American history.

To see additional works by Dana Claxton, go to

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