After performing a dance at the 40th Elder’s and Traditional People’s Gathering at Trent University, Emily Henderson was asked a difficult question about non-Indigenous involvement in Indigenous art forms. Now, she is looking for answers through her research at the University of Manitoba’s Department of Native Studies.

In February 2016, Emily Henderson was granted the honour of dancing at the 40th Elder’s and Traditional People’s Gathering at Trent University. At a panel discussion the next day, an audience member asked her what right she, a non-Indigenous person, had to perform an Indigenous dance. Despite having received the blessing of the Indigenous choreographer, the headlining act and the Indigenous Performance Department, Emily felt that she “didn’t have an answer for him”.

She has been considering his question ever since, and is currently researching non-Indigenous engagement with Indigenous culture through the arts at the University of Manitoba’s Department of Native Studies. Is there a way for non-Indigenous people to engage respectfully with Indigenous art forms that avoids misappropriation, racism and caricature – and if so, could it help Canada move forward in achieving reconciliation?

Emily’s preliminary research focussed on the art of Irish-Canadian Paul Kane. In the mid-19th century, Kane embarked on an unprecedented journey westward, from Toronto, Ontario to Fort Vancouver in modern-day Oregon. He sketched countless scenes of Indigenous life along his journey, and after returning to Toronto, he turned hundreds of these sketches into paintings. Many of these still hang in the Royal Ontario Museum and the National Gallery of Canada.

Kane is recognized for creating one of the most extensive visual records of North America in the 19th century, but Emily decided to examine his body of work more closely. In comparing his original sketches with the final paintings, she found, in her words, “extreme misrepresentations of Indigenous people”. In a painting of the Assiniboine Chief, Mah-Min, Kane added numerous “cultural” objects that were not Assiniboine, and altered his face to make it seem more aggressive and harsh. Kane was enamoured with the Indigenous women of Fort Edmonton, which resulted in a painting of an Indigenous woman as a flawless sexual object.

Continuing to display works like “Mah-Min” and “Cunnawa-bum” in Canada’s major art museums is problematic. Emily explains that they are a misrepresentation of Indigenous people and their culture, but that “people accept them as accurate historical representations”. Kane’s art reinforces negative stereotypes of Indigenous people and presents these stereotypes as historical fact.

Emily made the change from English to Indigenous Studies at Trent University after learning about residential schools, the Indian Act and missing and murdered Indigenous women in the first-year Introduction to Indigenous Studies course. Expressing disbelief that she had never heard of these issues before the age of nineteen, Emily considered it her “responsibility as a Canadian citizen” to educate herself about the history of Indigenous people in Canada.

Next up, Emily will draft her thesis proposal, which will focus more heavily on performance arts. She looks forward to consulting with Indigenous and non-Indigenous performers in Winnipeg to explore whether there is an appropriate way for non-Indigenous people to participate in Indigenous art forms. Emily recognizes that the Indigenous community may need space and time to strengthen their traditions after centuries of cultural genocide. As a former competitive dancer, however, Emily hopes that the performing arts could be the ideal way to “break down barriers”, and to gain “a deeper perspective about the Indigenous experience in Canada”.

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Profiles: Emily Henderson
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