Accomplice and Art: Indigenous Feminist Activism and Performance

Accomplice: a co-conspirator in a crime. The term usually has a negative connotation. But at a talk on Tuesday entitled “Accomplice and Art: Indigenous Feminist Rights Activism and Performance” it was developed a positive light. The talk was given by Maria Hupfield, a visual artist based in Brooklyn and a member of the Anishinaabe tribe, and Jaskiran Dhillon, a professor of Global Studies and Anthropology at The New School. They focused on settler colonialism, which is defined by the website Global Social Theory as a “distinct type of colonialism that functions through the replacement of indigenous populations with an invasive settler society that… develops a distinctive identity and sovereignty.” Essentially, when a group of people come to a new land with the intention of replacing, if not eradicating, the existing people and culture. The stories of modern North America, Australia, and South Africa can be defined by the narratives of settler colonialism; in all these places, the dominant culture today is one that was carried over by Europeans who fought long and hard to suppress the already-established indigenous cultures present.

The destruction of tribes and the mass killings of Native Americans are generally recognized today as an unfortunate part of our nation’s history, but Dhillon urged the audience on Tuesday to not confine thinking about indigenous people to the past tense.

“We live in a settler colonial present,” she said. This seems to be the primary task of indigenous rights activists today: to bring the ongoing struggles of indigenous communities to the forefront of the national consciousness. Many of us are quick to shake our heads in disapproval at previous generations for the atrocities committed against natives, but few of us seriously reflect on how our own lives and lifestyles contribute to the continuation of their displacement.

Hupfield and Jaskiran invited audience members to begin this reflection. Jaskiran began her speech by recognizing the indigenous inhabitants of this land, including the Mohegan and Pequot tribes. She then described her own background and explained how it led her to the work she does today.

“Thinking of oneself as a political accomplice requires, first and foremost, that you know who you are,” she said. Growing up in Canada with parents who had fled British colonial India, Dhillon didn’t always know how to describe who she was. Even though her family had made Canada their home, they were not granted a sense of belonging. Over time, Dhillon began to understand the complexity of the land that she called home, and began to unpack the uncomfortable truths that lie buried in Canada’s proclaimed “peaceful” history.

Dhillon identified several major turning points in her life that helped shape the convictions that guide her actions today. First, when she was 18 years-old and studying sociology at the University of Saskatchewan, she was taught by a Mohawk professor who challenged her to “leave everything (she) thought (she) knew about Indians at the door.” This created the humility that is a prerequisite for “waking up” to a reality that is incompatible with one’s established worldview.

Then in 2000, Dhillon participated in a women’s antiviolence movement in Vancouver that helped her to recognize that the fight for decolonization is inextricable from the fight against indigenous gender violence. Dhillon’s current view on the relationship between gender violence and indigenous rights is summarized in an article she co-wrote for The Guardian.

She writes, “Colonial acquisition of lands (in Canada) was enacted through targeted gender violence to destroy indigenous peoples’ connection to their territory by attacking those at the heart of that connection: indigenous women.” This legacy of racialized gender violence continues today; in December of 2015 the Canadian Prime Minister announced the launching of a national inquiry into the recorded disappearances/murders of 1,200 indigenous women and children that have occurred in the last thirty years. While long overdue, this gave a sigh of relief to many indigenous families who believed that the law might finally create closure. However, many doubt the government’s ability to deliver justice to indigenous communities. And so, the struggle against indigenous gender violence continues.

Another turning point was when Dhillon made the connection between indigenous and gender rights and the struggle to protect our environment. When talking about the fight against global warming, she said, it’s important to recognize that it is “not just a climate fight, but the continuation of a long fight about how we relate to the land.” European settler colonialism, argues Dhillon, brought to the Americas an industrial, capitalist way of regarding the natural environment; one that has led to its gradual destruction.

While Dhillon’s ethnic and cultural background has made it difficult to find a sense of belonging, she has come to the conclusion that where she truly fits is in the role of accomplice; accomplice in “the messy terrain of the unmaking of Canada…. In a decolonial social movement.”

But she cannot do the job on her own. As Dhillon said, “Decolonization can only happen in concert with indigenous peoples.”

On Tuesday we also heard from indigenous woman and visual/performance artist Maria Hupfield, who uses art as her weapon in the struggle for decolonization. She says she “doesn’t want to feel like a victim,” but instead wants to “create interesting and unexpected situations to present and challenge what we think of as authentic history.”

Hupfield does just that, not only by creating hand-crafted, contemporary clothing items that harken back to the traditional garments of her people, but also by “activating space” through performance. Perhaps her most notable piece is a nine foot birchbark style hunting canoe made out of industrial felt that she built for an art festival in Venice, Italy. There are few indigenous women who gain traction in the art world, but Hupfield is certainly one of them. By doing so, she reminds the public of the presence of indigenous people, and “inserts” herself and her people in the conversation.

Through their combined political and artistic efforts, Dhillon and Hupfield could be described as partners in crime. As Dhillon stated, “any kind of revolutionary always has a criminal relationship with the state and with institutions of power.” Only when we act as accomplices in action against unjust laws will we meaningfully change the systems that affect us.


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