When the Manitoba Metis Federation recently announced that it was going to
actively pursue a settlement with various levels of governments, for land claims
issues that stretch back some 140 years, the public reaction was hardly
surprising, though perhaps no less tragic for that. Within days, both
major local dailies in our city were flooded with letters to the editors,
spouting the usual rhetoric about government handouts, perpetually unsatisfied
special interest groups, and old (and therefore, the assumption seems to run,
irrelevant) history. It was a vivid reminder (if we needed one) that
racism at worst, indifference at best, is alive and well in the 21st century,
even in Winnipeg, city of multiculturalism, Folklorama, and the largest ratio of
First Nations peoples of almost any city in the world. It was also
interesting to note that the Metis Federation's announcement came only a few
months after a study declared that, by the year 2020, as much as one quarter of
Winnipeg's population will be, to varying degrees, people claiming First Nations
status, whether it's as "Indian" or as Metis. So what does all this mean for us here and now? What is our obligation
to the mistakes of the past?
Arthur Renwick's exhibit Delegates: Chiefs of the Earth and Sky, addressed
some of these issues, through a study of the South Dakota landscape that formed
the basis of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, signed by delegates of the U.S.
government and various First Nations groups (now generally lumped under the
not-entirely-accurate labels of "Sioux" and "Cheyenne").
The treaty, signed by such legendary delegates as Sitting Bull and Crazy
Horse, guaranteed the native inhabitants of the area exclusive rights to the
land. Those rights were respected for all of a decade or so, before gold was
discovered in the Black Hills, and prospectors moved in, demanding protection
from the U.S. government. General Custer and his troops followed soon after,
and then thousands more troops after them, so that the very same people who had
so recently signed the Fort Laramie Treaty were forced off the land at gunpoint,
herded onto tiny reserves.
Renwick's work, gorgeous black and white photographs that are void of much
human presence, shows the land as it would have looked back then, complete with
grazing herds of bison in one work. Above the photos, suspended in the
sheet that replaces the sky, are various punctuation marks, indicating the
language and syntax of the treaty.
It's a reminder that, on one level, half of the delegates
were signing a treaty in a language they neither spoke nor
understood, that the punctuation was as meaningless to them
as the Plains Cree names, provided as alternate titles to
the works, are to most of us today.
| Virtual Gallery
It's also a reminder that the punctuation has the
effect of causing the speaker or reader to pause, even for a
moment--a suggestion of silence. That's an important point, since
silence seems to be the overwhelming feature of Renwick's work.
There is no suggestion in any of the photographs of any sound or
activity whatsoever--it's mostly just the land, sitting there being
land, doing what one Canadian poet described as: "Staring at the sun
in a huge silence, endlessly repeating something we cannot hear."
The artist, born in 1965 in the Haisla village of
Kitimat, British Columbia, has exhibited widely, and worked as an
artist, curator, and teacher, with much of his work addressing the
historical and modern-day complexities of the relationship between
native people and the larger community. Although he has exhibited
widely, for many years, this particular exhibit was perhaps
Renwick's most widely discussed work, with some of the country's
major media outlets covering the show. And some of the reactions to
it, again, while not entirely surprising, were (again) no less
tragic for that. The Globe and Mail's senior art critic, while
admitting the work was "handsome", still dismissed its theoretical
base as "just about the silliest thing I've ever seen." According to
our nation's leading art writer, native land claims, as presented in
Renwick's art, are "scarcely a situation high on most of our lists
of social and political evils to now be fretted over and redressed."
Thankfully, the review was met with a storm of indignation, and
subsequent letters to the Globe suggested, among other things, that
perhaps the critic in question should have just taken that day off
and stayed at home in bed. Another major media outlet, our country's
leading visual arts magazine, also reviewed the show, with a more
insightful bit of criticism from a leading scholar in postcolonial
theory. Nevertheless, her review stopped somewhat short of
addressing what seems to me to be the heart of Renwick's work--the
historical injustices that his photographed landscapes represent.
Yet the land, this reviewer claimed, "remains a place beyond
language, untouched by all the words that seek to regulate it."
She's right, of course, but it's a point that you'd have a hard time
selling to those who signed a legal treaty, guaranteeing them rights
to it in perpetuity, only to be forced off it at gunpoint a few
years later. Similarly, you'd have a difficult time selling this
viewpoint to those involved in the ongoing struggle to settle the
Metis land claims against the provincial and federal government. In
both cases--locally, and in the South Dakota landscape that Renwick
captures so beautifully--the land has remained anything but
untouched by words, guns, and laws.
Land as History, Land as Power. That phrase
is a fitting description of something that angry
letter-to-the-editor-writers, and disinterested, glib reviewers have
ignored--the fact that history, and land, have long been controlled
by those with the power to dictate its terms and conditions. As the
latter reviewer pointed out, the land itself is eternal, and may
rise above our attempts to control it, but those who have lived on
it, and in some cases signed treaties giving them ownership of it,
haven't always been so fortunate. Renwick's exhibit, by focusing on
the silence, on the pauses in the midst of all this language, leaves
the viewer waiting for an answer, a solution of some sort. By
providing none, by leaving the physical symbols of silence hanging
there above the empty landscapes, Renwick leaves it up to the viewer
to search for the words, if in fact there are any, that can somehow
heal or address these ongoing issues.