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Exploring the Sacred in Aboriginal Performance Art
by Kristin Dowell

Aboriginal performance art reclaims the space of the Western art gallery to articulate Aboriginal stories, voices, and experiences. Aboriginal performance art also transforms the mainstream art gallery institution into a space that is responsive to and accessible for Aboriginal audiences. Within walls of the "white cube" (Claxton 2004) of the Western art gallery Aboriginal artists confront colonial histories, enact Aboriginal aesthetics, reflect Aboriginal cosmologies, and sustain Aboriginal communities. Cree performance artist Archer Pechawis declares:

Contemporary First Nations performance art. Indians stand up and claim space. In that space the stories are re-told, re-interpreting what was assumed understood. The performance space becomes part of the moccasin telegraph: a gathering place, a communal council fire. Grievances are aired. Relations are shown. News of the community is examined, the larger community of Indianness considered (Pechawis 2000: 137).

Aboriginal performance art is a widely varied practice, often encompassing many genres and media including theater, song, dance, film, video, and new media. In this paper I will discuss a performance piece, Ablakela, performed in 1999 by Dana Claxton, a prominent Hunkpapa Lakota interdisciplinary and performance artist, with peyote singers Johnny Mike (Navajo) and Verdell Primeaux (Lakota), for Vancouver's Western Front Gallery as part of the "Live at the End of the Century" performance series hosted by the grunt gallery . (1)

One of the striking ways in which Aboriginal performance turns the art gallery space into an Aboriginal space is through the incorporation of Aboriginal cultural protocols to reflect Aboriginal cosmologies. Ablakela is a piece about wakan¸ the Lakota concept of the sacred. Through the various elements of the performance—i.e. the braiding of sweetgrass and the use of ceremonial peyote songs—Claxton imbued the gallery space with elements of Lakota cosmology. The incorporation of Aboriginal cultural protocols and spiritual practice into performance art often involves negotiation around the boundaries between the sacred/ceremonial contexts in which these practices generally occur and the secular gallery context. It is precisely in these moments of negotiation that an Aboriginal performance artist creates limits around Aboriginal cultural/ceremonial content in a performance and the capacity of the Western art gallery space to encompass particular sacred/ceremonial practices.

Dana Claxton is a prominent media artist, performance artist, and teacher based in Vancouver, B.C. She grew up primarily in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Wood Mountain Reserve in Saskatchewan. Her family is descended from Sitting Bull's followers, who fled persecution from the U.S. Army in 1876 after the Battle of Little Bighorn by escaping into Canada. Her media work confronts the Canadian and U.S. colonial histories, interrogating the devastating impact of these policies within Indian communities. Her media work also examines Aboriginal relationships to the land and reflects Lakota spirituality and cosmology (2). Ablakela is an exploration of the elements contained within wakan, as well as how to translate wakan to an art gallery audience. Glen Alteen, a curator at the grunt gallery, writes, "In Ablakela, Claxton reconfigures the Western performance art medium within Lakota spiritual practice, blending traditional actions and music in a new ritual which speaks to healing at the end of the 20th century." (Alteen 1999) Claxton conceived of this piece as an offering to the arts community which has supported her prolific art career in Vancouver for so many years. Ablakela means calm in Lakota, and Claxton wanted to create a piece that was calm and soothing because of all the frantic concern around the year 2000. She stated:

I wanted to do this performance it was "live at the end of the century" and it was all the hype around 2000 and everyone was panicking and so I wanted to do something very calm that's why it was called Ablakela which means calm in Lakota. I also wanted to give this offering to the arts community who's been very good to me. I wanted to give them something and I wanted it to be ceremonial but not crash too many of the sacred boundaries. (Interview 4/21/04).

The performance involved Claxton braiding "sweetgrass", making offerings of various objects—including a feather, stones, and a small woven basket—while Primeaux and Mike sang healing and ceremonial peyote songs. There was also a large video projection on a screen behind Claxton which displayed close-up shots of Claxton's hands as she braided the "sweetgrass" and made her offerings.

Claxton's concerns around "not crashing too many of the sacred boundaries" were negotiated primarily around whether or not to use actual sweetgrass. She decided on using beargrass from California which looks similar to sweetgrass, because using actual sweetgrass, a central element in Lakota ceremonial practice, would be too much of a transgression. To use actual sweetgrass would enact the sacred as opposed to representing the sacred act of braiding sweetgrass by simulating the practice through the use of beargrass. She explained:

The performance was a live feed of emulating that I was getting ready to prepare sweetgrass to braid. But of course I didn't want to use real sweetgrass…. I'm still not quite prepared to bring in sacred objects or things that we use into the performance space. So I used beargrass from California instead which is long and has the same appearance and I was sort of preparing this "sweetgrass" for braiding and then Primeaux and Mike [the peyote singers] were there and so that was very much about Lakota spirituality and bringing that into the performance space. (Interview 4/21/04).

The use of peyote healing and ceremonial songs sonically recontextualized the gallery space as an Aboriginal space through the use of sacred song and melody that reflect Lakota spirituality. She commented on the tremendous impact of the songs on the audience noting, "[t]hey sang very beautiful healing songs and sacred songs. The whole audience, it was packed at the Western Front, and people just couldn't helped but be moved by it. It was very beautiful." (Interview 4/21/04)

The artistic engagement with the sacred often involves negotiation by the artist around decisions relating to what to reveal and what to leave private or silent. For Claxton's performance piece she substituted beargrass for sweetgrass in the performance in order to "not crash those sacred boundaries," but she also jokingly commented on how she asked Primeaux and Mike to bring a sacred water drum into the performance space. She explained:

I couldn't touch the sweetgrass but I could ask Primeaux and Mike to bring the water drum all the way from the Navajo reservation! You know realizing oh my god, this is a sacred drum that they've taken to their lodge and all this stuff right. So they had to ask permission from the Native American Church people, the elders there if they could bring this drum to Vancouver to work with this Lakota performance artist. So they said we could and that we would have to get it blessed by the ocean because it's a water drum and it actually has a little shell on the inside. (Interview 4/21/04).

This reveals that a primary way in which Aboriginal artists, including Claxton, negotiate the engagement with the sacred in a performance art context is through the incorporation of cultural protocols within the planning and enactment of the performance. Although she laughs at the irony of feeling uncomfortable using real sweetgrass but asking the singers to bring a sacred water drum, she and the singers followed protocol by asking permission from the elders to bring this drum into a performance art space. In this way the presence of the water drum at the Ablakela performance enacted a blessing by the elders on the performance piece itself by providing permission to allow the water drum to travel to Vancouver for the performance.

Through the creation of a performance space that reflected Lakota spirituality through the elements of healing and ceremonial peyote songs and braiding "sweetgrass", Ablakela created a contemplative and calm experience for those in the audience. Creating a performance art piece as an offering, as a chance to meditate upon ideas of the sacred and allow Lakota spirituality and wakan to imbue the performance space is also an enactment of Lakota cultural practices in which honoring community members and giving back to the community are highly regarded values. Claxton's artistic practice incorporates Lakota spirituality and cosmology by exploring boundaries of the sacred, through the process transforming the Western art gallery space into a distinctly Lakota space that also reclaimed this space for Aboriginal voices, cultural values, histories, and artistic practices (3).

Dana Claxton Interview on 4/21/04 in Vancouver, B.C. with Kristin Dowell.
Pechawis, Archer.
"New Traditions: Post-Oka Aboriginal Performance Art in Vancouver" in Live at the End of the Century: Aspects of Performance Art in Vancouver. Ed. Brice Canyon. Vancouver: Visible Arts Society, 2000. P. 136-142.

Kristin Dowell is a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at New York University. Her dissertation, "Honoring Stories: Aboriginal Media, Art, and Activism in Vancouver" is based on thirteen months of fieldwork with Aboriginal filmmakers and activists in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her dissertation examines the emergence of Vancouver as a centre for Aboriginal media in Canada and the role of Aboriginal media production in strengthening community ties, cultural identity, and Aboriginal storytelling traditions among Vancouver's diverse inter-tribal urban Aboriginal community.


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