Artist Feature: Mary McPherson

Artifact, Excavated from White Settlement by Mary McPherson

Artifact, Excavated from White Settlement is meant to challenge the power structures put into place by the use of museum displays. The sculptural work is a porcelain teacup, placed in a display case, labelled “Artifact, excavated from White settlement, early 2000’s.” The work is placed next to anthropological displays, located in the Braun building.  These display cases hold the material culture of Indigenous peoples, including a birch bark basket and pottery. The contemporary material culture that is placed in these display cases are interpreted as “artifacts”, continuing the false narrative that Indigenous peoples are a vanishing race who are incapable of producing contemporary art. Western society, by placing our work into these cases, enforce a western hierarchical interpretation of art upon our peoples, viewing us as “objects of study” rather than contemporary human beings.

PC: Sarah McPherson

The Western structures of perceiving art privilege the art of white men, while demeaning the art of Indigenous peoples. These art structures have western philosophical foundations. Phillips and Steiner (1999) summarize Kantian philosophical interpretations of the purpose of art by stating:

Human Beings, according to Kant, are fettered by their physical dependency on Nature, but are free in their exercise of Reason…Within the realm of the aesthetic, therefore, the highest forms are those that are most free – ‘art for art’s sake’ – and the lowest are those that are the most utilitarian. (Phillips and Steiner, 1999, p. 6)

Indigenous artworks, such as birch bark baskets and pottery, are considered simply utilitarian in Western philosophical traditions and are thus interpreted by the dominant society as the lowest form of art. In reality, our material culture is indicative of our value systems. The incorporation of time and thoughtfulness when creating everyday tools adds value and shows respect and appreciation to the materials.  Indigenous peoples do not feel “fettered by their physical dependency on Nature”, but rather engage responsibly while living with nature and with what the world has to offer.

PC: Sarah McPherson

As a result of the imposition of Western hierarchies, oppressive structures are put into place. Often times, Indigenous cultural materials were stolen and placed into museum display cases as artifacts. Indigenous communities who try to repatriate their cultural materials face great difficulty. Not only this, but the continuation of museum displays allows a non-native audience to view Indigenous material cultures through an objective lens, as they are separated from the so called “artifacts.” The late Viola Cordova (1997), the first Native American woman to receive a PhD in Philosophy, summarizes how the objective lens of the Westerner continues to silence us today:

The contemporary Native American cannot speak, despite his life-long evaluation of Western ideas, actions, and goals. He supposedly lacks the critical and ‘abstract’ skills for such an evaluation. Any attempt to say something about the dominant culture from another perspective is met with cries of, ‘You failed to understand!’ – ‘understanding’, in this circumstance, being synonymous with ‘acceptance’, Nor can the Native American speak for himself. He is plagued through ‘intellectual pollution’ or, worse yet, he is ‘too subjective’ to analyze his own culture. The Westerner, of course, never suffers from ‘subjectivity.’ (Cordova, 1997, p. 41)

In this sense, Indigenous artworks placed in museum displays allow Westerners to “study” us objectively, giving them a presumably more authoritative voice over our culture then our own. Indigenous peoples are considered too “tainted” by contemporary life to be able to speak with authority about who we are. A Westerner who has studied us through objectivity is listened to, whereas an Indigenous person who has experienced a lifetime of Indigeneity and colonialism is silenced. In Indian on the Lawn: How are Research Partnerships with Aboriginal Peoples Possible? McPherson (2013) brings more context into how the Westerner interprets Indigenous peoples as objects of study:

For the most part, indigenous or Aboriginal students in mainstream institutions spend most of their time in argument or debate defending their right to exist in this world. Their struggles add to their frustration, anger, and rage. It is an activity they are forced to engage in, which is extremely detrimental to their own learning. They quickly become the “Indian” expert in the classroom, teaching others what others should have learned in their earlier educational experiences. And it is all so easily understandable. Just ask yourself the question, where would an Aboriginal person (or an Indian) go to receive an education as an Aboriginal person (or Indian)? You may be surprised with the answer. Nowhere! Even though there is a proliferation of “studies” programs across Canada. Native studies this and Indigenous studies that. It goes to the point I mentioned earlier about the focus of research ON Aboriginal peoples as objects, as things to be studied. We, as Aboriginal peoples or as Indians, have been studied to death.

PC: Sarah McPherson

The situation that McPherson describes back in 2013 is extremely similar to what Indigenous students now face as a result of the mandatory Indigenous Content requirement courses implemented by Lakehead University. Are Indigenous students being treated as “objects of study” rather than students who come here to learn like everyone else? Is the use of the display cases by the anthropology department simply an example of this white supremacist practice?

Indigenous material culture – extensions of who we are today – are placed in a box where we can be studied, controlled and subjected to outside perceptions and stereotypes. This practice has detrimental effects as Indigenous peoples can sometimes internalize the outside perceptions of the colonial society, allowing the dominant society to tell us who we are. Artifact, Excavated from White Settlement simply does to Western society, in the tiniest way, what western society has done and continues to do to Indigenous peoples today.