September 27, 2013

"Memory is Embodied:" Tanya Lukin-Linklater Interview

In Memoriam (2012) 

Alutiiq Artist Tanya Lukin Linklater originates from the Native Villages of Port Lions and Afognak in the Kodiak archipelago. Based in northern Ontario, her practice spans experimental choreography, performance, installation, text, and video. She has performed and exhibited at Images Festival/Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (Toronto), VI Mostra Internacional de Videodanca Sao Carlos (Brasil), Museum of Contemporary Native Art (Santa Fe), Culver Center of the Arts (California), Expanse Movement Arts Festival (Edmonton), Alaska Native Arts Foundation Gallery (Anchorage), Near North Mobile Media Lab + White Water Gallery (Ontario), TRIBE (Saskatoon), Sakewewak (Regina), and elsewhere. She studied at University of Alberta (M.Ed. 2003) and Stanford University (A.B. Honours 1998), where she received the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship & Louis Sudler Prize in Creative and Performing Arts. Tanya was awarded the Chalmers Professional Development Grant in 2010. She was nominated for the K.M. Hunter Artist Award in Dance in 2011 and received the K.M. Hunter Artist Award in Literature in 2013. She has collaborated with Duane Linklater on two projects: grain(s) in 2013 and Up River (2012). Her work has been generously supported by Ontario Arts Council and Canada Council for the Arts. You can view more about her amazing work at her website:

Q: How does being an Alaska Native contribute to the production of your artwork?

I originate from two small Native villages in the Kodiak archipelago of southwestern Alaska: Native Village of Afognak and Native Village of Port Lions. I currently reside in northern Ontario, Canada, with my family.

Initially, my performances (2005 - 2011) were generally more concerned with intimacy than spectacle in terms of subject matter (the experiences of women’s work, domestic spaces, and memory), and often centered on my research and investigation of traditional forms of Alaska Native song, dance, and language through a contemporary practice that posed questions surrounding the complexities of cultural revitalization. For example, I’ve directed contemporary dancers in movement investigations that deconstructed the principles of traditional dances in order to construct new dances. I’ve also performed works that engage with Alutiiq language and song and become an embodied investigation of the language, deconstructed, from my perspective as a non-speaker.

Site Sight (2011)
In recent years, my practice, rooted in performance and the body, has expanded to include video, photography, and installation. I am integrating my writing practice into these works, exhibiting text pieces alongside video installations and in other forms. I consider my practice experimental, process-oriented, and research driven. The questions leading my practice currently centre on images of the "Eskimo,” women’s stories, how (personal) memory is embodied and activated in the present moment, and all of these in relation to being-ness.

I keep returning to the relationship between indigenous peoples and museums and/or anthropology. Alutiiq artists from Kodiak Island have engaged with museums and anthropological collections for many years. The late Helen Simeonoff, my relative from Afognak, initiated Alutiiq engagement with specific collections and others like Doug Inga have traveled to museums to view Alutiiq masks, bentwood hats, baskets and other “artifacts” held in collections in France, Russia, and elsewhere. They describe the experience as transformative; while they hold these artifacts in their gloved hands (under the direction of museum staff) they experience strong emotional responses, often brought to tears.

Maggie Roberts Portrait by Helen Simeonoff
from Kodiak Alutiiq Dancers FB page
In this context, I consider my father, Ivan Lukin, who carves masks, bentwood visors, kayaks and other objects, by referencing anthropological texts. Otherwise he is self-taught. He described to me once the emotional response he had to different visual images, and that he knew which objects to carve based on his intuitive assessment of the image’s meaning (as we no longer know the meanings of the objects).

I deeply respect the art practices of those I mention above, as well as Coral Chernoff, Susie Malutin, Lena Amason-Berns, and others, as they are connected to our home and are engaged with cultural work. The work is often labor intensive (tanning fish skin, harvesting grasses, harvesting animals and tanning hides for furs, using sinew and other traditional materials rather than contemporary materials) and I feel strongly that the process is just as significant as the resulting object. This process hopefully (among other aims) embeds an Alutiiq worldview into the object.

Yet, I’m also compelled by artists that address and perhaps interrogate the relationship between tribes and museums and/or anthropology. James Luna’s Artifact Piece, 1985-87, is of course a very significant work in this regard. There is more work to be done in this area.

Q: Who most influences you as an artist?

I will, without hesitation say my husband, Duane Linklater. He is Omaskeko Cree from Moose Cree First Nation. We have the opportunity to dialogue about art, text, films, museum culture, indigenous languages, theory, indigenous and art and film histories on a daily basis. I see his process for each project; I understand his influences; we have collaborated on two projects (Up River, 2012 at a small indigenous collective in Saskatchewan and grain(s), 2013 for Images Festival + Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art); he’s been my camera operator on two projects (In Memoriam, 2012 and Untitled, 2013). Our collaborations are not always successful - we are still developing a process for working together. He understands and pushes my work like no one else.

Duane Linklater. For more information on his work please visit his artist page here.
Do you think that Indigenous art be produced in a formalist way without referencing Native history and culture?

I think that part of our role as indigenous artists may be to engage with indigenous concepts and conceptual frameworks. We are, also, often engaging with multiple frameworks and with European and American art histories. What sets us apart is our respective (tribal) conceptual frameworks, which may necessitate a reflection on our respective histories. Elizabeth Cook Lynn put forth the idea that all indigenous literatures should be, in some way, strengthening tribal sovereignty. I think that her assertion is specific and could be broadened to include the strengthening of indigenous languages, worldview, histories, etc. through our respective practices (in a non-prescriptive way).

 Tanya Lukin-Linklater: 2013 Literature Award Winner

When I consider my practice and other artists I look to, I’m often compelled by work that references histories. I’ve engaged with specific histories of my people from a contemporary perspective. I’ve also engaged with film histories, re-enacting scenes from films (The 400 Blows, Mouchette, Ivan’s Childhood, Nanook of the North, Woman in the Dunes) in live performance and in video works. I’m also interested in meaning making, so I feel that when we engage with history, we also make meaning of the history in our current context.

Duane Linklater often begins his artist talks with a projected image of a treaty medal. Treaty-making can trace its origins to the Royal Proclamation of 1763 by King George III, a document (some argue) that establishes indigenous rights to the land (including hunting rights) in North America. The Royal Proclamation established the British Crown as the sole entity to engage in land purchases in North America, and established the foundation for treaty-making with indigenous peoples in Canada. October 7, 2013 is the 250th anniversary of the Royal Proclamation. I find this significant and will mark the day by attending local events commemorating the day where I live in northern Ontario.

The text, Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan, outlines foundational spiritual beliefs within treaty-making processes through a series of interviews with elders from the four First Nation groups of Saskatchewan. It frames treaty-making as a covenant between respective First Nations, the Crown, and the Creator by examining the symbols and objects involved. This is significant because it examines a culturally specific perspective of treaty-making. I get uncomfortable with descriptions that place First Nations in Canada in positions of victimhood, citing starvation and illiteracy as the reasons that treaties were “signed” with X’s. These assumptions about treaties, while in some instances may be historically accurate, also have the possibility to undermine indigenous agency in this process.

Last winter the Idle No More Movement swept Canada (and parts of the U.S.) through teach-ins and creative forms of civil disobedience against environmental legislation that was enacted. The protests included round dances in shopping malls at Christmastime, and I remember many signs that asserted “we are all treaty people” emphasizing the significance of treaties in Canada, still today. Another favorite sign of mine was “Moose hide tanners against fascism” in Northwest Territories.

I personally like the specificity of artists engaged with their particular tribe’s histories or cultural objects and connecting those histories to the present moment. However, you can see from my own work that I also am influenced by Canada and its histories as I choose to make my home here, and I have relatives here.

Eskimo Kissing Booth (2012)
Are there any current affairs or political developments that are currently influencing your art?

In late 2012 I began writing a text, “Not like us” in response to the attempted assassination of girls’ education activist, Malala Yousafzai, in the region of Swat Valley, Pakistan. I was moved to write because of her commitment to education. I considered my girlhood struggles with the complexities of race, gender and poverty in America in the 80’s. As a child, I believed in education as an equalizer, even as I witnessed deep inequities around me. “Not Like Us” and “A girl” are poems that reference the breaking international story surrounding Malala’s attempted assassination. These works are unpublished, and I am currently developing their future forms as visual works installed in galleries.

Brief Malala Yousafzai story

Last winter I followed Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike, a 44-day action that began December 11, 2012. Originating from Attawapiskat First Nation in James Bay, Ontario, Chief Spence’s hunger strike took place not far from Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Victoria Island in the Ottawa River. The hunger strike was intended to bring attention to the treaty relationship in Canada amidst federal legislation that further eroded environmental laws in favor of expanding resource extraction, without adequate consultation with First Nations. Her action was a part of a larger indigenous rights movement in Canada and her continued leadership as Chief of her First Nation.

  Interview with Chief Teresa Spence
I came to see the mitts she wore in many of her press engagements as an important symbol for the people of James Bay. I began a series of interviews with my husband’s relatives, Agnes Hunter, Marlene Kapashesit, and Lillian Mishi Trapper, during January and February 2013 regarding the process for making traditional James Bay Mitts. I interviewed these extended relatives to ask them about their experiences tanning hides (caribou, moose, deer), sewing mitts and other garments, and beading.

“The harvest studies” is a long poem that came to include direct transcriptions of the interviews and in it, I create visual designs similar to beadwork. I am now preparing for a visual arts residency in northern Ontario and will engage with this text for the residency, likely to be installed in public places.

Performance by Tanya Lukin from WKP Kennedy at the Fair of Alternative Art of Sudbury 2010

I’ve been interested in Native women making “crafts,” beading intricate designs passed on from their relatives, sewing smoked moose hide into moccasins, and fur into mukluks, mits, toques, since I was very young. This functional art is practiced in the intimacy of one’s home, but also becomes a process of crafting for the public in a kind of performance of women’s work, of cultural work. Yet “craft” is de-valued in the hierarchy of art.

In 2010 I beaded an Alutiiq headdress while seated within a small installation in a train car during galerie du nouvel – ontario’s foire d’art alternatif de sudbury. My intent was to engage with the image of the Native woman as craftsperson within a hierarchy of art. Passersby stopped and conversed.

In 2014 I will perform for NM/Santiago (New Maternalisms III) at the Museum of Contemporary Art Santiago at the invitation of curator, Natalie Loveless. I will sort thousands of beads in various colors on moose hide into specific designs.

In Memoriam (2012)
The transitory nature of the art object (beads that are not sewn or fixed) relates to the transitory nature of performance. Indeed, the performance problematizes craft and art as commodity (and anthropological relic) because performative actions will become the art object. The performative identities of “craftperson,” “artist,” and “mother” will also be named through action.

Trade beads conjure a past of ill-gotten land gains in the Americas, international trade routes, and Indigenous women’s appropriation of trade beads in indigenous designs. The performance reminds us of a historical global economy through the intimacy of women’s work.

Culver Center of the Arts | Indigenous Choreographers Residency Featuring the work and participation of choregraphers Jack Gray, Rulan Tangen, and Tanya Lukin Linklater. Jacqueline Shea Murphy, coordinator. UCR campus and to Culver April 9-22, 2012.

Thank you Tanya for allowing me to interview you and feature your work here.

September 20, 2013

Green Imperialism in the Tongass National Forest


On August 20, 1902,  just thirty-five years after the nation purchased Alaska the homelands of the Native people on the panhandle below Canada became the Alexander Archipelago National Forest upon presidential order, which included approximately 4 million acres (vol. 32, stat. 2025). On September 1908, the project expanded to include 17 million acres altogether in the presidential pronouncement creating the Tongass National Forest. This action led to a decades long confrontation between Tlingit and Haida people with the United States. American West historians have of course covered developments surrounding this and how this legal battle led to the Tee Hit Ton v. United States case before the Supreme Court in 1955. The case involved the removal of timber from sites Natives claimed to be theirs. In response, the court proclaimed the Tlingit people held no actionable claim against the nation because the Congress had yet to recognize the Tlingit as holding possession of any right to the area. Following this ruling the nation and two regional groups finished working toward the Tlingit Haida claims settlement. With time, the broader Alaska Native population joined in and worked to settle land claims with the United States in 1971. This allowed for the drilling of crude on the region's north slope.

Felled timber at Helm Bay near Ketchikan, Tongass National Forest, Alaska, 1930. Description Title from photographic record  Scene showing an area that has been logged. United States Forest Service Photograph Collection, 1915-1976. ASL-P207-30-1 
On the ground during these sixty-nine years between 1902 and 1971 government agents, business owners, and individual actors asserted themselves upon the local Native communities in relentless ways. From just spending another couple of days in the archives rooting through the William Lewis Paul papers I am coming to terms with the high level of intensity which Tlingit and Haida people faced as functionaries usurped villages, stole their crest poles, and paid them low-wages. In 2008 the Forest Service acknowledged how in the early and mid-twentieth century their agents went through the Tongass National Forest, the Tlingit homeland, razing and removing indigenous fashioned cabins, smokehouses, and entire fish camps from the area.

"Alaska native fish camp. Crowd behind canoes pulled up on shore, tents, half-finished wood house, fish drying on racks."William R. Norton. Photographs, ca. 1890-1920. ASL-P226-427
The removal of Tlingit domestic architecture and lifeways from the National forest was acted out in the name of conservation. The work Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks by historian Mark David Spence details how the government turned Native villages in the contiguous part of the nation into national parks with such a chapter explicating the dealings with the Blackfeet and the establishment of Glacier National Park. Other works, such as Nature's State: Imagining Alaska as the Last Frontier help understand the ideologies national actors held as they assumed the Alaska region as their own to exploit or conserve. Reading the work of scholars Richard Grove in his Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860, and V.M. Ravi Kumar in Green Colonialism and Forest Policies in South India, 1800-1900, has me considering how the development of national parks and forest preserves in twentieth-century Alaska reflect a green imperialist agenda and how Natives responded to such actions. Historian Ravi Kumar traces the European colonial forest policies and the role "desiccationist narratives of colonial scientists and officials, which contributed to the extending of state control over forests in South India." Desiccation are the effects of deforestation on the larger climate. He argues "the colonial state reinforced its control over forests by brandishing a discourse centered on the influence of forests on the physical climate and irrigation systems (104)." The way Kumar considers the discourse of desiccation is as a form of control over indigenous land use. This proves to be a very portable conceptual framework.

For example the 2007 National Geographic article by Douglas Chadwick, "The Truth about
Tongass: Alaska's Tongass National Forest included the greatest tracts of rain forest outside the tropics. Subsidized logging is ripping them apart." The article is an adventure piece where the author also gives a praise worthy account of the battle between the logging industry, the forest service, and conservationists. The article makes the case that the Tongass is a national treasure that should be conserved at all cost. Pieces such as these leave me wondering (in the words of Rey Chow) "where have all the Natives gone?" The lovely journey he embarks upon in the story would undoubtedly make most people think about the amazing cultures of people who have always inhabited the area. In the reading this armchair adventurer found little signs of Native culture. Perhaps for non-Natives the indigenous people, whom still live in the region, come be what the Forest Service describe as the "former caretakers" of the area instead of intricate pieces of the regional ecology. It's impossible to separate them from those waters and lands. This omission arises because Chadwick centers his healthy and true concerns for the forest as a national possession be controlled by extractive/conservationist discussions. In fact through his explication of resource extraction history and the growth a movement to conserve the forest he writes, "it seems to have become a symbol in a much larger contest of beliefs about what frontiers are for and what the truest measure of a nation's progress should be." The nation should be judged, he asserts, by how it treats the forest, the "frontier." Perhaps if the nation could consider the forest not a frontier but a homeland to cultures whom have managed the region for thousands of years without ruining the ecosystem, then perhaps this contest of beliefs would relinquish?

September 12, 2013

Alaska Native Border Studies

A few years back I was delivering one of my first professional conference papers, entitled "Domesticating the Last Frontier," when an audience member earnestly questioned, what was the last frontier? I said, "Alaska." In turn the scholar replied, "Oh, you mean Palin-ville," shaking their head and causing a slight round of laughter across the room. The scholar was of course referring to Sarah Palin, who at the time, served as the governor of Alaska. The essay I was presenting was about the construction of Alaska as a "wilderness" that the nation would over time come to "domesticate" through settlement, a process displacing Native communities. The presentation had little to do with the polarizing figure so to stay on topic I shrugged and read the essay. Years later upon recounting this antidote to the Director of the American Indian Studies program at UIUC (giving credit to where it is due) at the time, he suggested that when people ask me about the former governor I should tell them I'm not a "Palin-tologist." This one-liner proves one of my favorite jokes and could be useful for any scholar active in Alaska Native studies.

Watch at your own risk

The greater public grew all too familiar with Sarah Palin in the 2008 presidential campaign when she acted as vice-presidential running-mate in John McCain's bid for president. I was busily composing a dissertation as the events unfolded and grew as bewildered as anyone else to the campaign's eerie journey. Please forgive me, but I would like to use an interview segment of one of Palin's many and infamous moments to draw out the issue of border studies and Alaska Natives. If you are faint of heart and the clip is too much, let me explain that during an ABC television interview Sarah Palin claimed that, "You can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska." This assertion made the American public uproar with criticism. Below is a photo of the governmental demarcation between Alaska and Siberia that also acts as the international dateline.

International Dateline between Siberia and America. Imaginary International dateline drawn on iceberg between Big Diomede and Little Diomede Islands. Identifier AMRC-b88-3-191

One international border adjacent to Alaska consists of a maritime division with Russia while the other to the east, trails across the continent forming a division between Alaska and Canada. This political map above displays the two demarcations. The graphic additionally leaves one unable to see how the international dateline divides the Aleutian Chain islands under both Russian and U.S. jurisdictions. In contrast, the Alaska Native language map below reveals the trans-Bering and transnational aspect of "Alaska Native" culture. Reading the map, Siberian Yupik and "Aleut" folks possess cultures that extend across the international dateline to the west. The Inupiaq and the inland indigenous cultures, as well as the southeastern groups articulate over the border to Canada.

"This unfortified boundary line between the Dominion of Canada and the United States of America should quicken the remembrance of the more than a century old friendship between these countries, a lesson of peace to all nations. Erected August 4 1957 Kiwanis International.Identifier UAF-2006-131-27
During the presidential campaign the discussion of the governor's ability to see Russia concerned her foreign policy experience. After this initial comment she continued making statements to the press about military air patrols guarding the nation's most western border, keeping the nation safe. In contrast, the plaque above makes visible an issue Alaska Natives studies shares with those who have interests in Mexican-U.S. border studies, the militaristic border between Alaska and Russia in comparison to the "unfortified" border between the state and Canada. This low-intensity conflict with Russia grew from the rise of the Cold War, after the region became fortified amid World War II. Many communities became divided as the the nation strengthened the border to Russia. In contrast to the eastern border with Canada which is less invested in such enterprise. The international dateline came into existence with the Alaska Purchase. leaving a reasonable amount of work that can be done exploring various issues involving Alaska Native border studies.

Recent developments along the Mexican-U.S. border have many members of the public questioning if the use of drones to patrol the border is good idea. I'm unsure if drones are being used along the U.S.-Russian border but the link below leads to a discussion about the use of drones in the Arctic. And this video clip discusses they can monitor the Trans-Alaska pipeline.

September 1, 2013

The Naturalization of the Great Land: "A confidence in our destiny."

Alaska Film Archives, University of Alaska, Fairbanks Elmer E. Rasmuson Papers 
Identifier AAF-8902

"What does it mean to be an Alaskan?" In 1968 Elmer Rasmunson rhetorically asked this question to an audience of children at a regional elementary school in the filming of this political advertisement. His explanation of Alaskan identity as "being born free" provides a moment for understanding how non-Native people imagined their lives in Alaska at the time. A campaign commercial, this one minute film was produced by lifelong Alaska resident Elmer Rasmuson (a banker, philanthropist, and politician) as he sought a bid for the U.S. Senate. Born in Yukatat, he spent his life tirelessly serving the Alaska community in a host of ways. He was the mayor of Anchorage during the city's reconstruction after the earthquake, a member of the board of regents at University of Alaska, and a dedicated philanthropist. Upon his passage he left his fortune to charity, establishing the Rasmunson Foundation. His good will and selfless service to community proves admirable and can be seen in his efforts here to include a brief lesson about Native people and language in regard to explaining how the word Alaska equates, in English, to meaning the "Great Land." The broader read of this film shouldn't undermine his integral devotion to the well-being of all Alaskans, past or present.

The film tells us that Alaskans "live free" and their ability to "contemplate the outdoors" help produced their exceptional character amid the 1960s. They held, the film argues, "a confidence in [their] destiny that [came] from shaping the new land." Along with the "shaping" of the "new land" Alaskans spent time "harvesting the seas for the human betterment." This service to humanity in turn lent Alaskans an "optimism" and "faith" in the future. The term the "new land" referenced the United States tacit investment in Alaska as the Last Frontier. For besides the "Great Land," Alaska was also known in this way. The Last Frontier embodied a place where the nation could "shape the land" and "harvest the sea" as it had done a hundred years earlier in where now sits the contiguous western part of the nation. The concept of the Last Frontier served as an extension of the western frontier invented in the nineteenth century during the nation's expansion across the continent to the Pacific shoreline. Building on the Last Frontier the national imagination could make a rightful operation of the continued mid-twentieth century Alaska project.

Alaska was not a new land to indigenous people of the region. For them, Alaska proved a geography of origin where the land and sea shaped their histories and cultures previous to statehood. This is apparent through Rasmunson's discussion about the word Alaska as possessing a Native root. There is an implication here that Alaska would be impossible without Native people. Undoubtedly, he grew up beside indigenous people, shared in their culture, and as a regional leader felt an obligation towards representing Native populations. Under that consideration, he should be applauded for taking what could been seen as a political risk in this acknowledgement. Native children, on the other hand, were forbidden to speak their languages in school. During the 20th century public policy forced indigenous kids to speak English and to quit learning their indigenous languages (or other languages they may have known). That is the intriguing part about the film, that children were being taught the meaning of the word Alaska yet in real life Native students faced an educational regime discouraging this type of knowledge. Schools set to normalize national belief systems and somehow reset indigenous culture to operate under a new set of rules. The long term success of this broad project is debatable but its results have been very harmful.

Truly one of the challenges in working with Native history lies in discentering these chronotopic notions of the frontier, or the "new land," that guide and police scholarship. Histories to regions like Alaska began before national settlement, or western exploration, and indigenous people as part of these histories operate under expansive cultures which may or may not reflect the set of ideologies that were imposed to naturalize the nation in the 'Great Land." With that in mind, I do think that he does impart some reasonable advice: "If you're going to live up to the name of our state," he suggests in the film, "you have to think big and act big."