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Montreal exhibit examines complex heritage of indigenous artifacts

The McCord Museum in Montreal’s show hammers away at the principle that indigenous societies in Canada developed intricate systems for indicating status through dress.

In Of Montreal, Robert Everett-Green writes weekly about the people, places and events that make Montreal a distinctive cultural capital.

The McCord Museum in Montreal has one of the largest and most important collections of indigenous artifacts in Canada. The museum is justly proud of this, though it's an uneasy kind of distinction. Museums have always played a big role in storing and validating the booty of colonialism. The mere act of putting something in a display case cuts it off from the social context that gave it meaning.

The McCord's new permanent display of its First People's Collection is steeped in awareness of the problem. It's called Wearing Our Identity, and it strives at every step to help the visitor project the artifacts back into the societies in which they were created. Even the reference to "our identity" gestures toward yielding to the perspective of those who no longer own the items on view.

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The exhibition was assembled with the help of an indigenous advisory committee, and reminds us continually that indigenous textile arts are a continuing tradition. Century-old garments have been placed next to pieces by indigenous artists and craftspeople working today, selected by Algonquin artist-in-residence Nadia Myre.

The show hammers away at the principle that clothing has meaning, and that indigenous societies in Canada developed intricate systems for indicating role and status through dress. Some of the implications of this signalling could be cosmic. According to a note by curator Guislaine Lemay, Eeyou leggings were cut differently for men and women to make sure that caribou "would be able to recognize the male hunter, in order to give himself up to him."

Other items show the permeability of indigenous costume, through incorporation of European cuts or materials. A Haudenosaunee silk dress from the mid-19th century, for example, has puffed sleeves and a gathered waistline, though in other ways would never be mistaken for something worn in Paris. A sealskin amauti or parka made in Nunatsiarmiut in the 1890s is decorated with pewter spoons. According to Lemay, that decade marked the peak of an indigenous practice of integrating white elements of dress into traditional costume.

The fascination with otherness in dress worked the other way, too, at the very same time. Ladies' magazines offered their readers instructions on "how to make the Indian bead work," as a page from the Ladies' Home Journal put it in 1903. On another floor of the McCord, Myre has included that page and similar instructional articles in her exhibition, Decolonial Gestures or Doing It Wrong? Refaire le Chemin. To create the work in the show, Myre, who won the Sobey Art Award in 2014, invented a serious kind of game. She had an assistant read some of the magazine's craft instructions to her, leaving out the name of the desired item, then attempted to make the pieces solely on the basis of what she heard. She did not look at the pictures.

Of course she got it "wrong" some of the time, making one beaded bag, for instance, that looks quite unlike the one pictured. Her point is that a page of craft instructions used by a white woman in Ottawa or Boston to recreate an "Indian" bag could also only result in a mistake, culturally speaking. The original meanings about social position and the cosmos would be smothered by new ones about novelty and the exotic. The decolonial part of Myre's activity comes in reinstating the oral transmission replaced by publication, and in doing the beading as part of a living indigenous tradition, rather than as something appropriated.

Cultural appropriation always implies a power imbalance, which is why the word is applied at the McCord to Victorian ladies making "Indian" beadwork from the Ladies' Home Journal, but not to an Inuit amauti-maker sewing spoons into her work with linen thread. It may not be trivial to note that all these women were sharing something, however indirectly, with women unlike themselves. That aspect of the transaction doesn't really enter Myre's presentation, which is more concerned with white society's reduction of indigenous arts to a handful of decorative commodities.

It's also worth reflecting on other reasons why those middle-class white women spent so many hours bent over their inauthentic handicrafts. Most professions and many universities were closed to women in the 1890s. A woman who worked outside the home in Montreal or Toronto was assumed to do so from necessity, not ambition. We'll never know how much talent was squandered by a social order that imprisoned women in the front parlour, and in that way "did it wrong" for many generations.

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It remains true that in Victorian Canada, even the lowliest working white women could claim higher status than any indigenous person. Myre has dramatized the injustice of this continuing history in other works, including her powerful Indian Act (2000-03), for which she and some 230 volunteers beaded over all 56 pages of the federal law of 1867. The scope of that work was broader and more tragic than that of the reclaimed craft works of Decolonial Gestures, but the direction of Myre's effort is the same. In both works, she begins from an analysis of a great wrong and creates something that is both critical and hopeful. Traditional practices are regained and the bonds of community are reasserted. Even a white viewer like me is offered an invitation to refaire le chemin.

Decolonial Gestures or Doing It Wrong? Refaire le Chemin continues at the McCord Museum in Montreal through May 29. Wearing Our Identity – the First People's Collection continues indefinitely (musee-mccord.qc.ca/en).

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More

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