The Earliest Adapters

Survivance in Indigenous Media Arts

Wanda Nanibush

Indigenous media art encompasses a large field of activity, including performative and experimental video, sound and radio art, media-integrated performance art, [1] and new media installations. Artists working in these mediums are often practicing what Gerald Vizenor calls survivance, a neologism which combines “survival, resistance and presence.” [2] This term describes practices that rewrite colonial histories from the perspective of Indigenous experience, visual culture, and oral history. In a media arts context, survivance also incorporates experimentation with medium in order to represent Indigenous worldviews which often favour non-linear narrative; visual abstractions of historical events; interconnectedness of body and mind, nature and culture; the politics of space; as well as cyclical and geological philosophies of time. Additionally, it can refer to practices that challenge stereotypes and molar identifications [3] based on colonial understandings of who and what Indigenous means.

Indigenous media artists have to contend with over 500 years of colonial representations that have reduced their subjectivity, histories, and cultural continuity to an absence. Indigenous people just don’t count in the flow of time because our authenticity and identity were defined by our culture before contact with Europeans. We just don’t count in the configuration of space except as a necessary obstacle to progress. We just don’t count in the narratives of the present except as a statistical embarrassment to modern democracies. Media artists are part of the resistance to the colonial frame, and part of the processes of decolonization that root out internalized colonialism in ourselves. With profound determination and active imaginations, they create new ways of being Indigenous today.

Some media artists use or commune with technology as a way to communicate with the spiritual realm of ancestors and manitous. [4] Media artist and theorist Victor Masayesva defines the Indigenous aesthetic as “the language of intercession through which we are heard by and commune with the Ancients.” [5] Visual artist and theorist Robert Houle seconds this formulation in his seminal essay “The Spiritual Legacy of the Ancient Ones,” in which he describes contemporary Indigenous art as being continuous with the ancient traditions of our peoples. In his words, “Land, spirit, power—those gifts left us by the ancients, the ‘antiquity’ of this hemisphere—are the cornerstones upon which their descendants, the artists [...] have built a monument to those benefactors.” [6] These theoretical approaches to dealing with colonialism’s interruption of Indigenous temporal, spatial, and cultural flow here on Turtle Island shift the discourse from one of loss to cultural continuity and survivance. Media allows for Indigenous voices and ways of being to become present within contemporary art worlds and yet also challenge its very boundaries. Additional boundaries challenged by this presence are the West’s definition of Indigenous pre-contact tradition, and any internally colonized positions that don’t allow for cultural change. The challenge lies in articulating the concepts of change, chance, and transformation at the heart of Indigenous traditions without resorting to an apolitical position where culture is completely up to the (post-modern) individual’s creative prerogative. Tradition in this sense becomes an ever-changing process (rather than static information transferred generationally) that is checked against actual living individuals with historical and cultural memory. Artists need freedom from rule-bounded understandings of culture, and knowledge keepers within the culture need verification of what artists call tradition. Ultimately this push and pull with tradition, and colonialism’s interference in it, is part of the creation process for artists, and it influences some of the most exciting work being made today. A complete history of this growing field is necessary, but is impossible for the scope of this essay. Nor can I give a complete index of media artists; rather, I will concentrate on some of the artists whose work I have seen, worked with, curated, and been inspired by. [7]

A constant source of inspiration for contemporary artists is the work of Mi’kmaq, Beothuck, and Euro-Canadian artist, Mike MacDonald (1941–2006), from Nova Scotia. He was the first Indigenous artist working in media arts in the country now called Canada. MacDonald experimented with television monitors and used them to create a Gitxsan Wetsuwet’en-style totem pole in Electronic Totem (1987). Marie Morgan described the work from her point of view as follows:

Mountains, an old woman drumming and sing-speaking stories, totem poles, longhouses, the living animals depicted on the totems, and lots of clean, clear water; a simple memorable piece which omits the painful side—the material poverty, scarred forests, and inferior land on which most Natives live. The political goal is to build a sense of self-worth which people do not get if the places in which they live are continually reflected to them in the negativity of mass media. [8]

The video playing on the monitors shows community members and the animal life of their lands. In 1977 the Gitxsan declaration stated that:

Since time immemorial, we, the Gitxsan and Carrier People of Kitwanga, Kitseguecla, Gitanmaax, Sikadoak, Kispiox, Hagwilget, and Moricetown, have exercised Sovereignty over our land. We have used and conserved the resources of our land with care and respect. We have governed ourselves. We have governed the land, the waters, the fish, and the animals. This is written on our totem poles. It is recounted in our songs and dances. It is present in our language and in our spiritual beliefs. Our Sovereignty is our Culture. [9]

MacDonald portrays the viewpoint carved onto the poles in a beautiful visual language rendered via video and monitor. In other words, the totem pole is one example of the Gitxsan Wetsuwet’en people of British Columbia’s relationship with their land and how that land structures their relationship with each other. When the land is threatened their sovereignty is threatened.

MacDonald’s interest in using technology as a conduit for examining our relationship with the earth and non-human beings is accomplished through sculptural metaphors. In Seven Sisters (1989) seven monitors of various heights are placed in a row on the floor. The installation of monitors simulates the elevation of the Seven Sisters mountain range, which also gives its name to the work. Videos of the life found in the mountains, from animals to plants, is accompanied by the songs of Gitxsan elder Mary Johnson. The land, Gitxsan lifeblood, is also shown following the clearcutting of its forests. The installation is a strange coalescence of nature and technology. Much of Macdonald’s work deals with the destruction of the Earth facilitated by a human-centred worldview, which is also the purview of environmentalism. However, he goes further than the environmental movement typically does because he shows how Indigenous cultures are attacked along with the land from which they spring. Colonialism in its contemporary form is still about land.

MacDonald’s work is often described as being concerned with nature and the environment, but this misses the fact that he expresses a worldview in which humans are not separate from the environment, or nature from culture. His concerns are the interdependence and interconnectedness of living things—be they human, animal, or the Earth—and the destruction of the biosphere. As an urban artist, he sees the loss of this worldview or its absence in modern cities and uses art to communicate a different way of being. Like media artists Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew (1958–2006) and Cheryl L’Hirondelle, he attended bush school and learned by listening to elders’ stories and teachings. One of his most famous works, The Butterfly Garden, came from his acquired knowledge of Indigenous medicines. He discovered that butterfly nectar plants often have medicinal value, and created a series of butterfly gardens in urban centres starting in the 1990s. MacDonald said of this work, “You know with these new gardens, I am hopefully providing a space where people can focus on and think about questions that I feel we need to think about so as to come up with some better alternatives. Our cities are becoming pretty ugly in terms of what happens there.” [10] He actively exhibits the applicability of Indigenous knowledge for the present. His media installations, like his gardens, create environments where audiences can contemplate nature more in depth. In 1994, he created a single channel work, Touched by the Tears of a Butterfly, in which visitors could sit in a rocking chair and watch a video of the lifecycle of a butterfly, from chrysalis to flight, as well as a group of butterflies feeding. In 2001, the work was installed with seven rocking chairs painted according to the video colour bar, drawing attention to the ideas of reference and reproduction in re-presented life via technology.

Cree media and performance artist Archer Pechawis honoured MacDonald in a media-integrated performance, For Mike, in 2010. I had invited Pechawis to create a new work in response to the twentieth anniversary of the Kahnesatake resistance of 1990 (the Oka Crisis) as part of a larger curatorial project, Mapping Resistances. On a base of synthetic golf green, he set up four TVs playing a segment from Alanis Obomsawin’s Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance in which non-Native Quebecers threw rocks at the Mohawk people crossing the Mercer Bridge, near Kahnawake. It was an instance of violent hatred against Indigenous People which the police did not nothing to suppress. All the violence was for a golf course, which dramatically underscores our vulnerability and invisibility to Canadian society. Pechawis proceeded to smash the screens with a golf club in a moment of intense response and cathartic release. Afterwards, the audience was led into a dark room where the same video clip was played in reverse so that the rocks flew back into the hands of the throwers, and were then placed on the ground. This image of peace was heartbreaking for its very unreality.

Performance art and video have been bedfellows ever since Nam June Paik videotaped the pope in 1965. [11] The use of performance in media art brings the body into play, and often makes visible the repercussions of the past within the present. In the case of Archer Pechawis’s work, it can also go further and speak to the future, or even from the future. In For Mike, the future could be defined by an end to the violence against Indigenous peoples and the suppression of our sovereignty. In 2012, Pechawis created Our Beautiful Future for another large performance art curatorial project I did in Toronto called House of Wayward Spirits. In this work, he chose to speak from the future. The audience watched a live feed of small plants growing in a desolate landscape. Pechawis appeared as the voice of the live feed, the one controlling the camera, showing us the new world. The premise was that he had left us all behind in order to travel to the future and was telling us how it was there. This future comes after the destruction that MacDonald’s work speaks to. In a utopian spirit, Pechawis says “I’m calling you from the future, and the news is good. All the trouble with colonialism is over.” (At this the audience laughed). “We got our land back.” (Again much laughter). Pechawis shows that even if the future doesn’t look good, “this meagre garden is a miracle.” The poignancy of the performance came through a lot of laughter by drawing attention to the deep desire for a “beautiful future” where colonialism was over and “the future is green.” The beauty of technology is this very ability to time travel in the present, to collapse the distances between people and places, and in so doing, make desire visible.

The trauma of colonialism that lives in the body of the colonized and is passed down generationally has been the subject of many artists’ work, starting with one our best theorists of Indigenous new media, Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew. Maskegon-Iskwew also uses the image of the 1990 Kahnawake stoning in his media-integrated performance White Shame (1992). After reading aloud a long prose work on the history of colonial violence, he smears mud on a projected picture of the Quebec police who allowed the stoning to take place. It’s important that he uses the word shame and not guilt, because as many Indigenous and artists of colour have pointed out, guilt leads to inaction whereas shame requires a certain taking up of responsibility for the event. After the cataloguing of events that should give rise to “white shame,” he goes into a more ceremonial mode, crushing charcoal between stones, painting his body, and finally literally sewing feathers into the flesh of his chest. Symbols wrought in pain are used to suture the images and words from the first half of the performance onto his body, and by empathetic extension those of the audience members as well. [12] Marcia Crosby, in her review of the performance, concludes that:

Through the self-consciousness of performance, spectators grasp that a particular history is being told and remembered by someone in a particular time and place for a reason. This work is, among other things, an anti-celebration of Columbus’ “discovery.” Thus Ahasiw contributes to a multi-vocal history, where no single, overarching meaning emerges unchallenged. [13]

Throughout the performance, Ahasiw repeats the word free, which stands out as a call to action, an ironic remembrance, and a plea. The feathers in his chest speak to the strength and resilience expressed by our efforts to attain a freedom we always had prior to colonialism. Decolonization requires the very unearthing of that freedom from within the bodies that carry its loss.

In an art world that still marginalizes Indigenous production of and ways of conceptualizing art, Indigenous artists write their own art history by theorizing, contextualizing and reviewing each other’s work in the written form, and also by citing and remaking each other’s work. For instance, one of the next generation of artists, Siksika artist Adrian Stimson, has returned to Ahasiw’s work by re-performing and re-contextualizing it for the twenty-first century, specifically in the work White Shame Re-visited (2012). Stimson re-presented elements from the original performance in which Ahasiw worked with clay, wrote over images, and pierced his flesh. I saw the installation version in Elwood Jimmy’s exhibition Lovesick Child, produced by imagineNative Media Arts Festival and A Space Gallery in 2015. For Stimson, “This gentle yet visceral performance struck a cord, it spoke to shame, our combined histories, the church, intergenerational pain, conflicts such as Oka, it spoke to acts of sacrifice for the greater good, the idea of transcendence, the seven generations, it was an act of revealing, regeneration and renewal.” [14] Stimson is an artist who understands the connections between our bodies and the destruction of the land and way of life. For instance, he has worked extensively with the spirit and history of the buffalo, creating an awareness of the relationship between their destruction and the destruction of the Blackfoot people.

Anishinaabe multidisciplinary artist Rebecca Belmore creates single and multiple channel media installations in which her body becomes a presence and force against the erasure of Indigenous bodies in general. She uses her body like earth, as a tool of creation and transformation. In Apparition (2013), she stares at the viewer through the video screen with her mouth duct-taped. This enactment of silencing speaks to her own loss of her mother tongue, which takes place for many us because of the incarceration of generations of First Nations people in residential schools. The looped video shows Belmore moving from a cross-legged seated pose to a prostrated prayer pose, which implies the violent imposition of Christianity. Residential schools were one such place this imposition took place. The forcing of the body out of its Indigenous state, seated cross-legged on the floor, into Christian prayer viscerally renders colonialism written on the body. Belmore uses her body in a deeply personal way, as a site of trauma, memory, and witnessing. Violence is not an abstraction; colonial violence is concretized in names, bodies, objects, colors, and actions. However, the looping video allows for the narrative to also run in the opposite direction, so that the prayer pose is shifted back into cross-legged state, implying that the Indigenous body also contains resistance and knowledge, not just violence and loss.

As a philosophy student and a former Anishnaabemowin speaker who had her language stolen, I have always understood the loss of languages to be the loss of alternative worlds. Mixed-blood Cree Métis media artist Cheryl L’Hirondelle works from within a Nêhiyawin perspective (Cree worldview) which she learned from elders in Northern Saskatchewan and by delving into the language. L’Hirondelle’s work opens up the complexity of her culture’s conceptual universe to an audience or participant through combining song, cultural symbols, her own body, and technology. In an eloquent and moving essay, “Codetalkers Recounting Signals of Survival,” L’Hirondelle connects ancient Indigenous practices (some still practiced today) to technologies like the web. An example she uses is the fact that the physical makeup of the first telephone lines used for the Internet were placed along roads that were in turn old colonial trade routes that were in turn pre-contact survival and communication routes for Indigenous nations. She takes this further, into the conceptual realm, by showing these routes to be modes of communication and connection like the web that they gave birth to. In her own words, “The World Wide Web continues to be a place where we act out age-old ways and protocols as much embedded in that source code as in our own genetic make-up.” [15] And as Jason Lewis and Skawannati Fragnito point out in their work with AbTeC: Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace, [16] it is important for Indigenous people to be the creators not just of content but also of the technology itself, and every link between the two, because the worldview of the creator will determine the boundaries of what a technology can do. [17]

L’Hirondelle’s essay belongs to a collection edited by Steve Loft and Kerry Swanson that contains a number of essays theorizing media art from artists’ perspectives. In fact, this field has largely been theorized by the artists themselves. The artists Jackson 2Bears, Pechawis, and L’Hirondelle have raised the question of whether technology has a spirit or not. In most Indigenous languages, the world is divided into animate and inmate. In general, the animate are those things with spirit (I understand this from within an Anishinaabe point of view and can not pretend to know all the many nations’ ways of understanding this idea). The concept of inanimate things having spirit poses a problem for western theorists that is best summed up by Elder Basil Johnson:

Perhaps, instead of regarding “Indians” as superstitious for positing “spirits” in trees or in other inanimate or insensate objects, they might have credited them with insight for having perceived a vital substance or essence that imparted life, form, growth, healing, and strength in all things, beings, and places. They might have understood that the expression “manitouwan” meant that an object possessed or was infused with an element or a feature that was beyond human ken; they might have understood that “w’manitouwih” meant that he or she was endowed with extraordinary talents, and that it did not mean that he or she was a spirit. [18]

Jackson 2Bears, speaking from a Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) perspective, looks at the way False Face masks created by hand can take on spirit. “To my ancestors, these masks were considered to be living entities, animate artifacts, and sacred technologies that we used to access the spirit world for the purpose of healing and to ask for guidance.” [19] Colonial thought often assigned our inferiority based on a denigration, and in some cases fear, of the way we speak of inanimate things as having a spirit. As quantum physics has come closer to an Indigenous understanding of the universe, it becomes possible for artists to bring aspects of their practice that do not fit western rationalism or Christian perspectives to the fore. Blackfoot thinker Leroy Little Bear has a unique place speaking between science and Blackfoot thought and has had a strong influence on the contemporary validation of Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing. Ironically, the more we destroy the Earth the more science turns to Indigenous people for knowledge of it. Science was used to argue that Indigenous people were uncivilized and not fully human, which aided in the dispossession of Indigenous lands. As peoples who are completely comfortable with the unknown, the mysterious, the invisible, the bodily, and do not want to separate themselves from it, but understand it as intrinsic to our own survival, the idea that life is sacred in all of its manifestations may save us all. It’s old technology but it may be better than waiting around for new technology to clean up the mess we made. Can we decolonize how technology itself is framed?

Technology is not a thing but a potentiality activated by what it is in relation to, such as the body of the artist or a spirit derived from a specific context and location, like the tree that lends its spirit to the mask in 2Bears’s story. Part of the discourse on modernity has been technology’s ever-increasing reordering of human bodies, capabilities, and perceptions as well as its role in mediating (disconnecting) relationships. The techno-lovers speak to its utopian capacities to unite people across distance and difference, its potential to clean up the mess it creates. However, the development of technology and its uses are driven by market forces and new discoveries. The users only come into play once the technology is developed. A devastating example is nuclear energy, which produced both the atom bomb and supposedly clean energy. That so-called clean energy produces the most indestructible and toxic waste ever known to humans, not to mention the threat it poses to our water supply if/when the nuclear plants break down. The use of the technology wasn’t questioned before the drive to split the atom. Seventy percent of uranium deposits worldwide are on Indigenous lands, which is a direct threat to our bodies and our cultures. Indigenous communities suffering from cancer, birth defects, and destruction of their traditional food sources caused by uranium mining and nuclear waste disposal feel a kinship with the Japanese survivors of the atomic bomb, and now of the Fukushima reactor meltdown. If progress, profit, and discovery (colonial approaches) were not the driving forces, would we have split the atom? Indigenous peoples have always been early adapters to technology, but with cultural survivance and the value of life at the forefront. It is not the technology itself that is important but what kind of life it facilitates. Whether the tech is wood, metal, analogue, digital, a network, a computer, a pipe, etc, the Indigenous worldviews that animates it will continue. The technology in this way becomes the conduit for an Indigenous future. Hopefully, it’s green and we get our land back.


[1] This is a term I use to describe a performance which incorporates time- or screen-based media as an essential element.

[2] “Up Close with Gerald Vizenor,” Legacy Magazine (University of Minnesota: Summer 2015). See also Gerald Vizenor, Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance, (Hanover; London: Wesleyan University Press, 1994) and Fugitive Poses: Native American Scenes of Absence and Presence (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998).

[3] For a discussion of molar identification in Gilles Deleuze see Arun Saldanha and Jason Michael Adams, Deleuze and Race (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013), 146.

[4] Manitou is a word in Anishinaabemowin (Ojibway language) and other Algonquian languages for spirit. It is hard to translate into English. Anishinaabe elder Basil Johnston says it could mean “Mystery, essence, substance, matter, supernatural spirit, anima, quiddity, attribute, property, God, deity, godlike, mystical, incorporeal, transcendental, invisible reality.” Basil Johnston, The Manitous: The Supernatural World of the Ojibway (Toronto: Harper Collins, 1995), 242.

[5] Victor Masayesva, “Indigenous Experimentalism,” Magnetic North: Canadian Experimental Video, Jenny Lion, ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 232.

[6] Written as a catalogue essay for the first major exhibition of contemporary Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada, Land, Spirit, Power. Robert Houle, “The Spiritual Legacy of the Ancient Ones,” Land, Spirit, Power (Ottawa: The National Gallery of Canada, 1992).

[7] I started curating/programming media arts in 2001 in festivals and galleries.

[8] Marie Morgan, “Revisions,” Vanguard 17:2 (April/May 1988): 18-19. Quoted in MacDonald’s biography.

[9] Karen Wonders, “Skeena River Totem Poles,” Cathedral Grove (October 2010).

[10] John Grande, “Mike MacDonald: Healing Garden,” Landviews Online Journal of Landscape, Art and Design.

[11] Tom Sherman points out the myth of this origin story in “The Premature Birth of Video Art,” Experimental Television Center (2 January 2007).

[12] See Archer Pechawis, “New Traditions: Post-Oka Aboriginal Performance Art in Vancouver” Live At the End of the Century: Aspects of Performance Art in Vancouver, Bryce Canyon, ed. (Vancouver: Visible Art Society, 2000).

[13] Marcia Crosby, “Ahasiw K. Makegon-Iskew: White Shame (1992),” Ghostkeeper.

[14] “Ghost Keeper,” On Main Gallery.

[15] Cheryl L’Hirondelle, “Codetalkers Recounting Signals of Survival,” Coded Territories: Tracing Indigenous Pathways in New Media Art, Steve Loft and Kerry Swanson, eds. (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2014), 153.

[16] Jason Lewis and Skawannati Fragnito, AbTeC: Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace.

[17] Jason Edward Lewis, “A Better Dance and Better Prayers: Systems, Structures, and the Future Imaginary in Aboriginal Media,” Coded Territories: Tracing Indigenous Pathways in New Media Art, Steve Loft and Kerry Swanson, eds. (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2014), 55–77.

[18] Basil Johnston, “One Generation from Extinction,” Native Writers and Canadian Writing W.H. New, ed. (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1990), 11–12.

[19] Jackson 2Bears, “My Post-Indian Technological Autobiography,” Coded Territories: Tracing Indigenous Pathways in New Media Art, Steve Loft and Kerry Swanson, eds. (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2014), 17.

Wanda headshot

Wanda Nanibush is an Anishinaabe-kwe image and word warrior, curator, community organizer living in her homeland Beausoliel First Nation. Nanibush currently works at the AGO and is finishing a film and a book. She has a masters in visual studies from the University of Toronto and was the 2013 Dame Nita Barrow Distinguished Vistor at the Ontario Institute for the Studies in Education. While at OISE, Nanibush taught two graduate courses on Indigenous Women's resistances and residential schools. She was Curator in Residence at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery. Wanda Nanibush has over 15 years experience in Canada's arts sector. Nanibush has worked in non-profit arts organizations such as the Ontario Arts Council, Canada Council for the Arts, ANDPVA, Peterborough Arts Umbrella, imagineNative film and media arts festival, ReFrame, and LIFT. She has published in many books and magazines including C Magazine, FUSE, Muskrat, the book Women in a Globalizing World: Equality, Development, Diversity and Peace, and This is an Honour Song: Twenty Years since the Blockades, and co-edited InTensions journal on The Resurgence of Indigenous Women's Knowledge and Resistance in Relation to Land and Territoriality: Transnational and Interdisciplinary Perspectives.