tenuous lines of descent: indian arts and crafts of the reservation peri .2013-11-04 · tenuous


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    GERALD R. McMASTER,Curator of Contemporary Indian Art,Canadian Museum of Civilization,241 Boulevard Cit des Jeunes,Hull, Quebec,Canada, K1A 0M8.


    Over the past century notable changes have taken place in the appreciationof Indian arts and crafts in Canada. From a period of represion when all ele-ments of Native cultures were discouraged, through occasional encourage-ment by craft organizations, to the present, Native art has survived, grownand developed.

    The Canadian Journal of Native Studies IX, 2 (1989):205-236.

    Au cours du sicle dernier, des changements remarquables ont eu lieu dansl'apprciation des arts autochtones au Canada. A partir d'une priode derpression quand tous les lments des cultures autochtones taientrepousss, et travers l'encouragement intermittent par les corps de mtier,jusqu' prsent, l'art autochtone a subsist, s'est agrandi et s'est dvelopp.

  • 206 Gerald R. McMaster

    They were robbed by law or circumstance of most of the old,and they have been prevented by the same forces from acquir-ing the new.1

    This sentiment expressed in 1949 by the Federation of Canadian Artistsin a brief submitted to the Royal Commission on Arts, Letters and Sciences,characterizes a time of transformation of the cultural life of Canadian Indians.During this period the material culture also changed: from a strict culturalcontext, to curio, ethnography, and art.

    In the years from the 1870's to the 1950's there were rapid changes anddevelopments in the relationship between the Euro-Canadian and the Na-tive Canadian: social, political, economical and cultural. In those 80 yearsthe Indian people had to survive overwhelming changes, moving for betteror worse from a dependence upon the land and sea, and their own resour-ces, to an economic base similar to that established by the Europeans,which brought with it commercial attitudes founded upon possession, profitand achievement, and which ruthlessly undermined Aboriginal customs andvalues. Forced to abandon the old way of life after several unsuccessful at-tempts to retain it, Indians became so increasingly isolated from the rest ofCanada following the early fur trade that they soon became heavily depend-ent upon traders and the government. Further isolation and dependence oc-curred when Indian people were placed on reserves as wards of thegovernment, following the establishment of the Indian Act of 1876. This Actwas not substantially revised until 75 years later in 1951. This period will nowbe referred to as the "Reservation Period", with implications of imprison-ment and the extinguishment of religious and cultural freedom.

    The Object Transformed

    During the 19th century many European travellers and explorers had apenchant for collecting objects from foreign lands, especially souvenirs.Often objects created by Indians for traditional purposes were highly valued,and found their way into many European public and private collections. Boththe 19th and 20th centuries, the era that Bazin called "The Museum Age"(1967:193), saw the development of conservation and the growth ofmuseums, for which voluminous quantities of material were collected andstudied under the three rough divisions of art, history and science. Art col-lections were usually confined to European cultures and their historical an-tecedents. It was the museums of natural history that found room for thestudy of African, Oceanic, and North American Native collections. Ratherthan attempt to assess these objects primarily for their artistic merit, the Na-

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    tive arts were judged according to their ethnological value. But the arbitrarycatagorization of the material went even further than that.

    During this time some museums, such as London's Victoria and Albert,acquired examples of Canadian Indian artifacts for collections of commer-cial materials made of animal products. These objects provided little inter-est to the ethnologist, however, because of their non-traditional nature. Theirsignificance lay in the fact that they were examples of objects made duringthe early period of assimilation into the dominant Euro-Canadian culture,and thus documented the process of cultural change.

    Indian people quickly adapted foreign-made materials to their needs.When tourists demanded authentic artifacts, however, the Indiansresponded quickly to provide them. To the Indian, the importance of theseartifacts lay not so much in whether they were ethnographic or artistic, butrather, that they were commodities, which is what they eventually became.Subsequently, the production of these commodities became an importantbusiness to many Indians across Canada, as early as the mid-19th centuryin the Maritimes, and later in the rest of the country. Since they were usual-ly small items, the returning traveller could easily pack them.

    Traditional objects were unquestionably transformed. No longer didthey symbolize the pride of generations of utility and significance but, rather,they became commercialized objects, evaluated within a wholly alien,western framework as artifacts which were "exotic," "primitive," "original,""decorative", etc. The very concept of tradition grew problematic as a resultof such influences. From the Indian perspective artifacts of this kind -produced to be sold, often accommodated to the tastes of the foreign pur-chasers and lacking any cultural context (e.g. masks without ceremonies ordances) - appeared frequently "in-authentic." Ethnologists and westernconnoisseurs by contrast often preferred "artistically" formed works forreasons of personal taste; the authenticity of such artifacts could be sub-stantiated, among other considerations, by the fact that in them Indian aes-thetic attitudes, themes and forms were developed to the maximum possibledegree. Obviously, therefore, concepts such as "tradition" and "authen-

    ticity" thereby lost clear meaning.Of prime interest in this connection is the transformation of the tradition-

    al artifact into a souvenir. This process is important for the issue of the recep-tion of Indian art, as in Canada these are available largely on a regional basis,without much distinction between (often cliched) handicraft products andart proper. Art and handicraft alike have come under the influence of westerndealers, western culture and western ways of thinking. The two major in-fluences, pervasive and affecting changes at every level of Indian society,were the government and the churches, with their programs of directed cul-

  • 208 Gerald R. McMaster

    tural change. Beginning with an amendment to the Indian Act in 1884, thegovernment forbade freedom of cultural expression and instead enacted aprogram of assimilation. 2 The government also gave churches the respon-sibility of educating Indian children. Most Indian children were removed fromtheir families and sent to church-run boarding and industrial schools to be-come "civilized," which deprived them of the chance to have a traditionaleducation. Other issues that affected major changes in Indian arts and craftsat that time were industrialization, with virtually everyone influenced by thenew technologies; mass production (although Indian artists, in companywith other artists, found it difficult to compromise to achieve low-cost massproduction) and westernization, the social developments of.which have car-ried the Aboriginal artists into the general traditions of Western Europeanart. Global factors also proved to have a major effect: the Depression andtwo World Wars affected the societies and artistic activities of Indians justas they did the whole of the western world. Indian people, moreover, lack-ed the experience and money needed for the active organization or culturaldevelopment of market-oriented artifacts which took such outside Influen-ces as Native traditions into account. Indeed, the gradual proliferation of im-itation, counterfeit, and "made in Japan" objects took business away fromIndian artists and crafts people.3

    It is in this context that a brief history of the Indian art and craft move-ment of the 20th century will be given. Three main institutions have playedan essential role in this connection. The Department of Indian Affairs andtwo private lobby groups, the Canadian Handicraft Guild and the BritishColumbia Indian Arts and Welfare Society were moving forces behind therise of Canadian Indian arts and crafts during the first half of this century, al-though the latter's activities, beginning well before the Second World War,were confined to British Columbia. Brief histories of the first two bodies fol-low in order to present Indian arts and crafts during the Reservation Periodinto its context. The subject will then be examined on a province by province

    The Department of Indian Affairs

    The government's involvement in the Indian art and craft industry, whichbegan in the late 19th century, has continued until today. At first, during thelate 19th and early 20th centuries, the Department's interest in Indian artsand crafts was minimal. Their policies stressed acculturation rather than thepreservation of Ind