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What happens when indigenous artists repurpose Hollywood’s old tricks

The Invisible Warrior

Jay Soule

What Hollywood has done to North America's indigenous people over the years, artist Jay Soule is doing right back. In a series of fictional movie posters showing at Toronto's A Space Gallery through Saturday, Soule (a.k.a. Chippewar) imagines indigenous horror flicks such as Bride of Frankensioux starring Raven Bravehorse and Honey Featherheart or Tribe of Dracula starring Max Thunderbird.

The indigenous movie monsters represent some satirical payback for the Hollywood Indian, that cultural stereotype exemplified by the savage warrior and the noble brave – and so definitively exposed by filmmaker Neil Diamond in his 2009 doc Reel Injun (which you can find on the National Film Board of Canada's website).

Soule, who belongs to the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation near London, Ont., is making his cheeky statement in a period of intense discussion about how native imagery should be used in art and popular culture. Why is it okay to wear one of Soule's T-shirt versions of his movie posters with their pictures of feathered warriors, but not the Chief Brave or Pocahontas Halloween outfits available from a local costume shop?

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"There is a very fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation," notes Inuit filmmaker Nyla Innuksuk in a new video on the issue just released by the Ontario Arts Council.

The video, dryly titled Indigenous Arts Protocols, is an attempt to start a conversation with artists who want to use indigenous music, stories, themes or images in their work and provide them with some broad guidelines. Council staff have found themselves swamped with proposals that include references to indigenous culture – perhaps that speaks to increasing Canadian engagement with indigenous issues – but despite good intentions, the projects don't always show much sensitivity as to how these elements will be used.

A best-case scenario is a project such as Secret Path, Gord Downie's new album, animated film and graphic novel marking the 50th anniversary of the death of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old Ojibwa boy who died running away from a residential school: It's a multidisciplinary effort that has been made in consultation with First Nations leaders.

A worst-case scenario is one such as of the North, a collage film about Inuit life that the Quebec filmmaker Dominic Gagnon made using found videos and which unleashed a torrent of criticism last year because it included many unpleasant scenes and much drunkenness.

The OAC video declines to give firm rules on how to avoid such unhappy situations – Sara Roque, the council's indigenous arts officer who initiated it, points out that indigenous nations have varied practices and thus different requirements – but it sets down some broad guidelines. One is that indigenous culture should not be removed from a community without contact but instead should be borrowed through a process that includes listening, permission and an equal exchange where the artist's contribution to the community is as significant as the indigenous contribution to the artist's work or career.

"We are very much positioned as something that can be extracted or taken," author Leanne Betasamosake Simpson says in the video. "Our artistic practices and our cultural practices are also sort of seen as being there for the taking."

And technology has made that taking so much easier. The controversy that erupted over of the North, which was intended to be sympathetic to the Inuit but which Gagnon made without visiting the North, underlines some of the difficulties of maintaining respect in a fast-and-furious mash up culture where imagery of all kinds is available at the click of a mouse.

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Gagnon, a respected experimental filmmaker who had made several similar collage films in the past, had found his material freely posted on YouTube – that was part of the point of his project.

But critics noted that he had never sought permission from the people who were portrayed in the film, many of whom had not shot or posted the videos themselves.

If the cross-pollination of mash up culture proved dangerously distancing in that instance, it is also providing great opportunities for indigenous artists to place their culture in a vigorous contemporary context – just as Soule does with his movie posters or the electronic group A Tribe Called Red does when it samples indigenous music.

"It was one of the first questions we had to ask ourselves when we decided in A Tribe Called Red to start remixing powwow music," group member Bear Witness says in the video. "What does this mean? What does it entail as far as getting permission for these songs?"

The Hollywood Indian – and the Halloween costumes that descend from it – present images of indigenous culture as historic and static, something frozen in a lost past. Nothing could be further from the reality of contemporary indigenous art.

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