A pivotal moment for Yukon First Nations is explored in five installations at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.
IN AUGUST 1977, then Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau was on vacation in the Yukon. At the Yukon Indian Centre in Whitehorse, he met with five Yukon First Nations leaders, who stated their concerns about the proposed Mackenzie Valley Pipeline. At the end of the meeting, Trudeau was presented with a photograph of a local man named Scumbullah. Trudeau was told Scumbullah was over 100 years old and still lived off the land using a bow and arrows. “It’s a beautiful photograph and a very striking face,” said Trudeau. “I know his face is asking me more questions than you are.”
The questions Trudeau refers to are revealed in the minutes of a 13-page document available as you enter To Talk With Others, an exhibit at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. In the minutes, First Nations leaders speak clearly about the importance of land claim settlements. They believe settlements will further self-governance and social advancement. Trudeau puts forward the importance of the economic benefits of development, coming from the pipeline, citing roads and infrastructure. One poignant counter-argument comes from Willie Joe, president of the Yukon Native Brotherhood. He offers to take Trudeau on a tour of the local Whitehorse Indian Village, just metres away. The village, situated in a “developed” urban area, has sub-standard living conditions. “We don’t even have running water in the place,” Willie Joe says, “and we are in the 20th century.”
Daniel Johnson, chair of the Council of Yukon Indians, offers Trudeau a different perspective on “opportunity.” Trudeau views the pipeline as an opportunity for advancement. Johnson would favour an opportunity to improve social conditions and cultural practices in his community. Johnson queries Trudeau about the in-migration population who make money from business deals—and then leave. “This is our home,” says Johnson, “we don’t have any place to go back to.”
It is interesting to note that in June 1977, the Berger Inquiry (commissioned in 1974) had already recommended a ten-year moratorium on the pipeline, citing environmental and social concerns. We wonder why Trudeau, two months later, is still pro-pipeline?
The minutes reveal a pivotal moment for Yukon First Nations. They have rallied and organized, using the power of written statements and confident dialogue to present their viewpoints.
Valerie Salez is To Talk With Others’ project coordinator and one of five artists in the show. In 2009, she worked as a collections assistant for the heritage branch of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nations. While sorting, she came across the minutes of the 1977 meeting with Pierre Trudeau. “This was a time before political correctness,” she says, “and I was struck by the degrading and patriarchal tone of Trudeau’s comments.” She was also struck by the relevance to current issues. The elder Trudeau’s remarks about the Mackenzie pipeline echo in Justin Trudeau’s statements to First Nations about the Trans Mountain Pipeline. Salez pondered the historic significance of the document for several years and envisioned an artistic response. Three years ago, Canada Council funding and artist support for To Talk With Others came together. Salez asked Indigenous artists to interpret and articulate the conversation in their own way. Five unique responses are shown in the exhibition, which has toured the Yukon and is now at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.
Artists in the exhibition include: Ken Anderson, Lianne Marie Leda Charlie (Tagé Cho Hudän, Big River People), Valerie Salez (first-generation Canadian), Doug Smarch Jr. (Tlingit), and Joseph Tisiga (Kaska Dene).
Visitors to the show are greeted with a series of eight beaded face portraits. They honour the seven present at the meeting, as well as Scumbullah. These exquisite portraits by Yukon traditional beaders were commissioned in 2018. Biographies accompany the portraits of the attendees and the beaders.
Ken Anderson has two eloquent pieces in the show. “I wouldn’t want one through mine,” shows a black pipe surrounded by a white picket fence. The “grave” nature of exploiting Earth’s natural resources is suggested. Anderson’s “the mosquito becomes me” is a beautifully-carved face mask. (The artist has requested lower case.) Mounted on a pipe, visitors can stand behind the mask for an interactive experience (and a selfie).
Doug Smarch Jr is an artist and designer from Teslin, Yukon. His mixed-media series “Closing Old Fences” refers to the sensory confusion resulting from human relocations, habitat loss and uncertain times.
Joseph Tisiga uses two installations (“The Human Scale” and “Opportunity for Shifting Perspectives”) to chronicle stressful relationships amidst clashing cultures.
Untitled installation, Joseph Tisiga, 2018, paper on board, collage, watercolour, ink and acrylic
Salez is a first-generation Canadian with Polish and Spanish ancestry. She spent her formative years in close connection with Yukon First Nations: sharing friendships, challenges and ceremonies. Having lived in the Yukon for 40 years, she’s familiar with all the artists in the show. When her family left the Yukon to move to Victoria, Salez chose to stay in the Whitehorse area. “My heart is in the Yukon,” she says, “and this documentary is my love-letter to the Native people and their homeland.” In her film Non-Negotiables, Salez queries the value system driving resource-based industry in the Yukon. What is not for sale or trade at any price, and why? Her documentary features a home-made yellow pine table, suggesting a board room or bargaining table. “The table was driven, dragged and carried to several remote locations,” she says.
“Non-Negotiables” by Valerie Salez, 2018, video and yellow pinewood table
Salez uses a mesmerizing mix of aerial views and closeups to reveal the people and places of the Yukon. The film points out the priceless nature of Yukon’s pristine wilderness. Using a drone with a licensed operator, Salez takes us skyward, offering panoramic views of the landscape. Then the drone descends into a location where the pine table has been placed, acting as a sort of small stage for various activities, including Indigenous dancing, beadwork, moose hide scraping, mountain-bike jumping and mask carving. In a barren landscape altered by mining, the table top spells out the word Ganeix (recovery) in Tlingit. Seeds gathered to replenish the land form the letters.
First Nations communities remain greatly impacted by inter-generational trauma. Sadly, this results in too many deaths. One village was in mourning and unable to participate in their traditional “stick and bone” gambling game at the table. Instead, their dark coats are draped on the surface, a reference to emptiness and loss.
Salez appreciates the macrocosm/microcosm aspect of Non-Negotiables. On the ground, we live in a complex world of actions, words and policies, she explains. “Looking from above gives a different perspective,” she says, “and shows the precious and precarious nature of our surroundings.”
Exhibitor Lianne Marie Leda Charlie is an Indigenous Governance instructor at Yukon College, as well as a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Hawaii. Her striking sculpture called “Bull’s Eye” is a hot-pink moose with golden antlers. “I had no idea how to construct this being,” she admits. Therefore, “Bull’s Eye” was a community effort, using the skills and knowledge of all present at each working session. The pink hide of the papier-mâché moose is made from pages of the Umbrella Final Agreement (1990). The 309-page document is the framework for modern treaty-making in the Yukon. For Charlie, the sculpture amalgamates two opposing world views: Indigenous ways of being, in balance with the environment; and a modern treaty-maker, overwhelmed by paper and procedures.
She plans to use the moose as a teaching aid. “Bull’s Eye” embodies the main concepts in her thesis, which is about 300 pages in length. Charlie’s dissertation examines the Umbrella Final Agreement’s ongoing impact. “Today in BC,” she says, “there are many current challenges in treaty negotiations.” Charlie’s “Part of the Land” and “Baby Belt” also use paper metaphorically to describe the tense narrative of contemporary life. In “Part of the Land,” a paper landscape, stretched on copper piping, stands in for a traditional hide. First Nations have limited access to fur and hide, she notes, natural products that endure and protect. Charlie laments the loss of skills needed to process a moose hide and make useful items. “Instead we use paper products to make flimsy replicas of reality,” she says, noting “you can’t carry a baby in a paper belt.”
Charlie appreciates the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria hosting this travelling exhibition. She hopes To Talk With Others increases understanding of complex issues and situations. At the AGGV opening on November 1, elder Shirley Adamson spoke about being politically active in 1977. Over the years, she worked hard to facilitate the Umbrella Final Agreement. Having an elder present gives a sense of hope and continuity to youth, notes Charlie. “The younger generation bear the weight of responsibility,” she says, “making the guidance and presence of elders most important.”
To Talk With Others runs at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria until Feb 23, 2020. 1040 Moss Street, www.aggv.ca.
Kate Cino holds a History in Art degree from University of Victoria. Her writing about the arts can also be found at www.artopenings.ca.