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Manitoba History: Fluffs and Feathers: An Exhibit on the Symbols of Indianness

by Peter Geller
Department of History, Carlton University

Number 26, Autumn 1993

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Fluffs and Feathers: An Exhibit on the Symbols of Indianness. Produced by the Woodland Cultural Centre, Brantford, Ontario (Deborah Doxtator, curator). Mounted at the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature. 1 July - 3 October 1993.

Museums, as purveyors of cultural and historical memory, are part of the complex of institutions that contribute to public perceptions of race and ethnicity. The Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature (MMN), in its sweeping attempt to portray the varied aspects of the province’s natural and cultural history, provides the visitor with an opportunity to view artifacts and displays representing a variety of ethnic groups. From the opening diorama of a leather-clad Indian on horseback in pursuit of buffalo, images of Aboriginal People form an important part of the MMN’s story of Manitoba’s past. Yet how do the befeathered Indians in the Museum’s galleries contribute to our knowledge of the history of First Nations? Fittingly, Fluffs and Feathers, displayed in the Museum’s Alloway Hall, challenges the visitor to rethink these and other popular images of the “Indian.”

The Ladies Home Journal cover (October 1900), private collection. An example of one of the over 200 artifacts displayed as part of the Fluffs and Feathers exhibit at the MMN. Here an “Indian brave” protects the vulnerable “Indian princess” in this cover from a turn of the century American magazine, illustrating typical forms of masculine and feminine “Indian” imagery.

Fluffs and Feathers presents an array of symbols that have come to stand for “Indian” across a variety of cultural forms, from the museum display to the Hollywood movie. Originally produced at the Woodland Cultural Centre (WCC) in Brantford, Ontario under the curatorship of Deborah Doxtator, Fluffs and Feathers was remounted as a travelling exhibition with the collaboration of the Royal Ontario Museum. As a First Nations cultural institution, the WCC set out to explore the issue of stereotyping from an Aboriginal perspective. The resulting exhibit, of interest to non-Native and Aboriginal peoples, provides a challenging look at a disturbing aspect of our social practice.

According to Fluffs and Feathers interpreter Derek Hart:

It is first of all a very one-sided exhibit on the way Native people have been stereotyped. That’s what a lot of people ask - they’ll say “well how come they don’t they show the real image of the Native people.” But this is the only way that Native people were shown to the general public... and this is the only way people believed they were and so we are showing these to try and get rid of the stereotypes ... to show how false these images are. It’s supposed to make the people that go through curious about what is the real Native; to make them try to find out for themselves.... And also what I hope it does is that when people see how Natives have been falsely stereotyped they start thinking how other nationalities have been stereotyped as well.

The exhibit’s opening section, on “The Idea of Indianness,” introduces these major concepts that are explored in the display cases of artifacts and full-colour reproductions of “Indian” imagery that follow. The visitor is first presented with a prominently displayed feathered headdress in all its beaded splendour, perhaps the most universal “Indian” symbol. A text panel (unfortunately bypassed by the visitor following the prescribed flow of the exhibit) discusses the word “Indian” and its connotations. As the exhibit copy notes, the images of “Indians” that are most widely circulated are created by non-Natives who have little knowledge of how Aboriginal People see themselves. Furthermore, these outsiders’ images are caught up in relationships of power: “Stereotyping occurs when a group, for their own purposes, tries to define another people, and in so doing, sets boundaries and limitations for them.”

The following section, “Indians on Exhibit,” introduces the viewer to two prominent aspects of the ways in which Native peoples have been perceived. “The Cabinet of Curios” places the contemplation of attributes of “Indianness” within the context of Victorian attitudes towards the collection of the “exotic.” Beaded mittens, woven baskets and necklaces are displayed alongside specimens of rocks and shells, these “curiosities” of natural history all enclosed behind the glass of the cabinet doors. The connection between the collecting impulses of Victorian science and the representation of Native People in the contemporary natural history museum is highlighted by the photograph of a 1980s Royal Ontario Museum Plains Indian display.

Movie poster for Geronimo (circa 1962), Woodland Cultural Centre collection. Fluffs and Feathers situates the Hollywood movie industry as a prominent purveyor of the Indian stereotype, and of the blood-thirsty “savage” in particular.

A wall of late nineteenth century Wild West Show posters and an accompanying rodeo show outfit (once worn by Joseph Stacey, a “performer from the Kahnawake Indian Reserve”) suggests that not only were Indian artifacts collected, but that Native People themselves were on display. As the violent imagery of the posters demonstrates, the promoters of these shows pictured Indians as wild and war-like, and at the same time subdued by the victorious Buffalo Bills of the western frontier. Whether objectified by the classifictory schema of Victorian amateur science or participating in the touring re-creations of “actual historical events” [1] of the wild west, Aboriginal Peoples were imagined as fitting into the mould created by non-Natives.

The next four sections further explore these varied images of “Indian” across a wide spectrum of cultural productions. “The Borrowed Indian: Indians as a Cultural Resource” sets out to explore some of the ways in which symbols of “Indian” have been used by artists, musicians, writers and poets while “Fantasy and the Indian Myth” focuses on the depiction of Natives in movies and paper-back books. The display of movie stills and posters situates the motion picture industry in particular as an influential purveyor of popular mythology.

Part of the “Fantasy and Myth” section is devoted to exploring the construction of a typical “look,” complete with costume and gestures. The visitor, asked to identify “Who in these photographs is really Indian?” lifts up a flap to expose the name and identity of the person portrayed (as in: “Jack Palance. No he is not an Indian. He is an actor in the role of Toriano in the movie Arrowhead.”) Yet the two “real Indians” identified, Jay Silverheels in the role of Tonto and Molly Nelson in a publicity shot for Land O’ Lakes Butter, look conspicuously like the “fake” Indians in the other photographs. In fact, both of them are “playing Indian,” using the language and symbols instantly recognizable as “Indian” in the terms of the dominant culture. As in the Wild West shows, Native People were caught up in the exhibition and performance of “Indianness.” Although the exhibit is mostly concerned with non-Native representations, these examples suggest a more complex history of the “Indian” stereotype which includes the participation of Aboriginal Peoples. [2]

Another way in which expectations of the “Indian” were clearly written into the history of Native-white relations is found in the photographs depicting eager tourists posing with costumed Indians during Banff Indian Days in the early years of this century. “That’s Me With the Chief: Indians and Tourism” highlights this use of Indian symbols (and “real Indians”) to promote Canadian tourism, from postcards to souvenir items. “How Much Is That Indian in the Window?” further extends the commercial use of “Indian” imagery into the realm of colouring books, children’s toys, sports team paraphernalia, advertising posters and product packaging. This seemingly endless variety of “Indian” images offered up to the buying public ranges from the offensive to the clearly ridiculous.

This exhibit, however, is not just about twentieth century stereotypes of the “Indian” but attempts to convey something of their background as well as persistence. The second last section, “Once Upon a Time: Historical Views of ‘Indians’“ includes a selection of negative portrayals of the “Indian” in the past, from a seventeenth century engraving depicting cannibalism to the drawings of “Ugly Customers” in the 1870 The Child’s History of Canada and “Indian Loafers” from the 1871 Canadian Illustrated News. The copy for this section asks important questions about the underlying attitudes that form the sub-text of historical representations of Native people:

History tries to present reality rather than fantasy. But whose reality? And for what purpose?... The way history has been presented influences how people perceive Indians, and how we see ourselves. The histories of the First Nations are usually told exclusively by other people. Why should that be, and what does it mean?

Viewing the material in this section, however, provided me with little in the way of answers, and failed to go beyond the generalized view of “history” that emerged from the rest of the exhibit.

In fact, Fluffs and Feathers conveys little sense of change over time. While it is clear from the display case of recent romantic fiction that the language of “civilization” and “savagery” lives on, and the cowboy and Indian figurines are a testament to the continuing exposure of “Indianness” to the children of the 1990s, it is unclear if and how these current examples of stereotyping have evolved from their seventeenth century predecessors. Is it merely a case of updating the “savage” to meet the demands of modern marketing techniques? Or do images of the “Indian” change to reflect the nature of Native-white relationships in a given historical period? This lack of a historical focus is further augmented by the uneven inclusion of information for the material displayed. Without knowing the date of many of the artifacts it is even more difficult for the curious visitor wishing to build a chronology of “Indian” imagery.

Bell Telephone System advertisement (circa 1962), private collection. This image presents a caricature of “Indian” symbols, including the beaded headband and the upraised hand. It also suggests that “Indian” stereotypes were not only visual, but were complimented by a written vocabulary, including the racist “honest injun.”

The accompanying Resource Guide by Deborah Doxtator supplies this missing historical background. [3] Copiously illustrated with black and white photographs and drawings, the Resource Guide’s chapters follow the thematic organization of the exhibit, with the addition of a more fully developed historical context and analysis than is possible within the format of the museum display. Material not provided in the exhibit is included, which is especially important for the visitor lacking previous knowledge in the area. Grey Owl, for example, appears in Fluffs and Feathers with little biographical information given. The Resource Guide discusses Archie Belaney’s adoption of the Grey Owl persona and addresses the question of the public acceptance of Belaney’s identity as an “Indian.” Another area covered is that of Native involvement in the Wild West shows and some of the reasons behind this participation from the Aboriginal point of view. The foreword by Woodland Cultural Centre Executive Director Joanna Bedard briefly suggests the cultural importance of symbols, while Museum Director Tom Hill sketches in the story of the exhibit’s conceptualization. A fairly extensive bibliography provides suggestions for further readings.

In the final section of Fluffs and Feathers, curator Doxtator attempts to go beyond the stereotype and suggest, however briefly, some aspects of “Being Indian.” Photographs of a woman ritualistically putting on make-up alongside examples of contemporary Native art suggest that symbols of Indianness, although appropriated by non-Natives, continue to have cultural meaning for First Nations. Despite the overwhelming bombardment of the “Indian” in the mass media a space exists for Aboriginal Peoples to reclaim their own image.

At the same time as these positive images are presented, the exhibit concludes with a reminder of the continuing negative impact of stereotypes and of the need for change. Returning to the issue of power, the text notes:

Since their first contact with Europeans, Indians have rarely been treated by society as equals. This one fact alone is probably the key factor in understanding the destructive effects of the images created by non-Indians. It is not right that anyone should define someone else, tell them who they are and where they are and where they “fit in....” You cannot exert control over another person, another group of people, unless you think of them as inferior and of yourself as superior. At the beginning of the exhibition, the introductory panel asked you to think about your image of Indians. What it is really asking is “How do you see yourself?”

A mirror underneath the panel serves to underscore this point.

Interestingly, the exhibit covers much of the same terrain as The Imaginary Indian, Daniel Francis’s recent popular history of the Indian image in Canadian culture. [4] Many of the examples chosen by Francis, and illustrated in his book, appear in the exhibition. Taken together, Francis’s book and Fluffs and Feathers implicitly suggest that images of “Indians,” while tied up in the construction of that ever amorphous entity, the Canadian identity, are also transnational, resonating throughout western societies. And both adopt a thematic approach to their subject, attempting to separate out the strains of Indian imagery in art and literature as distinct from popular culture.

Free Style Singers Drum Group, during the Museum of Man and Nature's “Living Traditions” program (15 July 1993). Photographer: Rob Barrow. Accompanying programs extended Fluffs and Feathers' examination of Native stereotyping to include contemporary perspectives on First Nations artistic and spiritual practices.

The arrangement of Fluffs and Feathers attempts to guide the visitor through its themes section by section. Yet some confusion occurs as the sections overlap both spatially and conceptually. Why, for instance, are romance novels included in the section on “Fantasy and the Indian Myth” instead of in “The Borrowed Indian,” which devotes considerable space to the representation of Native Peoples in nineteenth and twentieth century fiction? Likewise, “Tintin Goes to America” (which portrays the popular hero of these illustrated adventures tied to the stake as an Indian warrior brandishes his tomahawk and points menacingly) winds up in the “Borrowed Indian,” yet children’s stories and comic books are displayed in the section on merchandising and advertising.

In another sense this overlap of sections highlights the way in which stereotypes appear across a variety of forms, and the difficulties in categorizing them. Although cultural theorists may try to distinguish between high and low art the selection of artifacts that make up Fluffs and Feathers indicate that symbols of “Indianness” cross over such boundaries. In our consumer culture a Norman Rockwell Boys Only magazine cover from 1936 (featuring a group of boys and their headdressed leader seated around a campfire) is, arguably, both art and marketing.

Fluffs and Feathers is particularly effective in conveying the pervasiveness of the “Indian” stereotype in North America (and beyond). It is also clear how the “Indian” is portrayed within a narrow range of possibilities. Most common, and particularly prevalent in the advertising genre, is the rugged and stoic “Indian head,” only complete sporting an ornate headdress. Other aspects of masculine imagery can be seen to grow out of the “Indian head” in two conflicting yet related forms - the wild Indian warrior and the romanticized noble savage. Feminine images seem to be even more limited, revolving around the Indian princess motif. In contrast to the warrior’s positioning within a wild nature, the princess often appears against the backdrop of the encampment, identifying her with domesticity.

We continue to be fascinated, perhaps obsessed, with these visual signs of “Indianness.” Yet there is a certain ambiguity about any image; depending on its context, it can disempower or act as a symbol of empowerment. The feather provides one example of this: sacred within First Nations cultures, it has become appropriated by non-Natives to stand for a variety of things “Indian,” often in a ridiculing or unsympathetic light. The framework of Fluffs and Feathers highlights the interrelationship of all these images of the “Indian” and their cumulative cultural impact. What is much more difficult to evoke is the individual instances, the specific contexts of production and circulation, and the link between these images and their effects.

There is also a certain staticness to the exhibit, one that in many ways reproduces the feel of a “traditional” museum gallery despite the challenge to received tradition which is Fluffs and Feathers’s purpose. While placing “ordinary” objects behind glass does have the effect of viewing them in a different light, the display cases of “Indian” likenesses lack the visual and historical context to ground them in specific experiences of everyday life. Instead of the cigar store Indian resting in a glass case, why not have it displayed in front of a mock-up of a store complete with advertising images of the “Indian” from a particular era? Screening scenes from popular westerns on a video monitor would more adequately convey the performative aspects of the Hollywood “Indian” than the display of posters and stills does. Similarly, album covers and reproductions of sheet music fail to communicate the sounds of the “Indian” stereotype. Part (although not all) of the answer undoubtedly lies in budget constraints and the logistics of mounting travelling exhibits.

The Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature’s programming and interpretation presented in conjunction with Fluffs and Feathers helped to extend the exhibit’s themes and bring them to life. Derek Hart, the Museum’s on-site interpreter, gave a brief introductory talk to visitors, and a more detailed tour for groups and interested individuals, providing descriptive material for what he characterized as an “abstract” exhibit. Raised in a family that values its cultural heritage, Hart further contributed to the exhibit’s Native perspective.

The various public programs also worked towards suggesting some aspects of “being Indian” today. Organized by the MMN in conjunction with the Manitoba Indian Education Association, the “Living Traditions: Cultural Awareness Program” included an opening pipe ceremony and the presentation of drum groups, fancy dancing, songs, and pipe-making throughout the summer. These programs provided the opportunity for visitors to see beyond the stereotype by meeting members of the Aboriginal community who presented demonstrations and performances related to Native art and spirituality. Artist May Louise Campbell, for example, emphasized the evolving nature of “traditional” Native forms in her art, and also discussed the need for First Nations to control the marketing of their artwork.

Also part of this effort to broaden Fluffs and Feathers’ message, the Museum commissioned the Ininiinsak puppet theatre company to produce a family play about Native stereotypes. “Myth Makers/Aadisookaanensag” (presented from August 9-27) featured Native characters discussing their reaction to the type of “Indian” imagery found in the exhibit and sharing some of their own symbols, including the pipe and the feather, with the audience. This puppet play, unfortunately, had difficulty in communicating its message to younger children, as the characters tended to explain, rather than demonstrate, the concepts presented.

How to adequately convey the notion of stereotyping to children, and to encourage them to critically view the products of popular culture remains a difficult task. Derek Hart related the story of how one young child, after a tour of the exhibit, said: “You know all the Indians are dead,” only able to conceive of Native People as living in the past. I watched one group of children race through the exhibit area making “Indian” war cries as they passed by the cases of plastic totem poles and ceramic canoes. Later, a mother exclaimed to her son, in front of the same case: “Oh, how cute.”

To its credit, the Woodland Cultural Centre, in producing Fluffs and Feathers, and the Museum of Man and Nature, in hosting the exhibit and in its related programming, have opened up discussion about a troubling area of Native-white relations. Stereotyping is not just something someone else does to other people. As one of the opening panels asks: “What is ‘Indian’ to you?” Like all good educational projects Fluffs and Feathers is not devoted to lecturing its audience. Rather, it seeks to impart understanding through active questioning. The visitor is not only presented with information but asked to participate in the questioning of these stereotypes, both of those within the exhibit as well as those that we all carry about with us, and that stay with us after leaving the museum’s galleries.

Notes

1. From the poster “The death of Chief Tall Bull” (circa 1887), collection of the Buffalo Bill Historical Centre, Cody, Wyoming. Other Wild West show posters in the exhibit are from the collection of the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.

2. For an insightful account of the role of non-Natives and Natives in the creation of the cultural construct of “Indian” see Rayna Green, “The Tribe Called Wannabee: Playing Indian in America and Europe,” Folklore 99,1 (1988), 30-55.

3. Deborah Doxtator, Fluffs and Feathers: An Exhibit on the Symbols of Indianness, A Resource Guide (Brantford, Ontario: Woodland Cultural Centre, 1992 [revised edition]).

4. Daniel Francis, The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1992).

Page revised: 11 April 2010

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