Skip to main content
Adrian Stimson (Saskatoon)
November 2nd to December 8th, 2012.



On the Trail of the Woodcraft Indians
Glenn Alteen Interviews Adrian Stimson

It’s hard to keep up with Adrian Stimson! You have to keep moving. Whenever you think you have a bead on him he shows up somewhere else doing something completely different. You never really know where you’re headed. It’s enough just to follow and keep up- if you can!

I’ve worked with Adrian three times in this past year: on the Ghostkeeper Project where he recreated a 1992 performance work of Ahasiw Maskegon Iskwew at VIVO/OnMain; last April on a project commissioned by grunt gallery; and (as of this writing) he is installing the exhibition Holding Our Breath at grunt- a show that reflects his stint as one of Canada’s official war artists, which brought him to Kandahar a few years ago.

Lately it’s The Shaman Exterminator, a project mounted both at Platform in Winnipeg and at PAVED Arts in Saskatoon. It starts out being about the Spirit Sands but quickly morphs in other directions and changing in scale and scope. We conducted this interview in the dying days of 2012, just as the Idle No More movement was in its genesis, providing an important counterpoint to Adrian’s new work. As we email back and forth the movement gains momentum. There is round dancing in the malls before Christmas, along city streets, and there is the prolonged hunger strike of Chief Teresa Spence.

Glenn Alteen: I’m wondering where to start here. In the Spirit Desert? Burning Man? The Woodcraft Indians? The Shaman Exterminator? The Return of Buffalo Boy? It’s a bit overwhelming! Can you take us through this rich landscape of contrasting ideas and images?

Adrian Stimson: I’ll start at the beginning: Carberry, Manitoba. I really did not know how to proceed with this residency that Platform1 created. Originally, it was going to be a Buffalo Boy performance in the Spirit Sands. Yet the logistics of that became a little daunting, so I decided that it would become a photo/video shoot that would later become performative. Collin Zipp (my assistant provided by Platform) and I headed out on a two day exploration of the Sands. Before we went to the Spirits Sands Park, we decided to stop in Carberry to look for accommodations for the night, which brought us to the Seton Centre, a small museum, art gallery, and gift shop on the main street, dedicated to the life and works of Ernest Thompson Seton. I had no idea that Seton had lived in Carberry. I have used a number of Seton quotes over the years, specifically his calculation that there were 75 million bison in the Americas before contact. This coincidence began the formation of the exhibition. The museum contained many of his writings. Titles such as “The Gospel of the Red Man” and “Woodcraft Indian Lore” excited me, they were totally ripe for the taking or shall I say “re-appropriation” by Buffalo Boy and the Shaman Exterminator. So the stage was set and, since this was a journey, I decided on the idea of “On the Trail.” Where that trail would take me I did not know but trusted that something would form… and it did.

We managed to shoot a lot of video and do a photographic shoot of the Shaman. I was thinking about mystery, the absence of the bison on the landscape, mythology and how stories are created. I was also thinking about the spirits in this land and how it was and is a visioning space where ceremony and quests happen. All these ideas started to form the narrative of my project and the journey.

Once we were out of the desert and I started looking at the video and photos, I began more research into the Woodcraft Indian movement and discovered all its branches, including the Boy Scouts of America. A narrative of colonization, appropriation and dressing up as Indian started to emerge. As I have done a lot of research on this topic over the years I started to form a thesis that the Woodcraft movement and Seton’s books were part of the appropriation of Indian regalia, stories etc, but with an interesting twist: New Age spiritualism. I could see the tenets of religious practice emerging in the writings, yet they had an indigenous flavor, very weird. Anyway, the Shaman Exterminators’ purpose is to bust up or interfere with New Age spirituality, so more of the trail was revealed. It really felt like I was on a journey that was unfolding itself and that I was a vessel being guided somehow.

As this was a journey of coming to know the history of the woodcraft and its various manifestations, it made sense that a performance in Santa Fe and my annual trip to Burning Man would be included in this exploration. Both locations are in deserts, which fit the desert theme, and both deal a lot with appropriation andor the exploitation of indigenous life and material culture. In Santa Fe, I would dress up as a Colonial Ranger, Irish man, White Santa Fe woman stereotype, and finally Indian appropriations and re-appropriations. It was great as the annual Indian market was on, where you could see the spectacle, white privilege, consumption, power and control. At the end of the performance, Terrance Houle, Jamison Chas Banks and I were dressed in loin cloths (car chamois) and fake kids headdresses bought in the market, we circled each other then wrestled each other to the ground, an internal and external struggle. Are we fighting ourselves, each other or the colonial project? Again, the development of “Manifest Destiny,” the taking of the hide but not the meat or the spirit of the animal.

I decided to include Burning Man as I have been going out into the desert annually for the past 12 yearsBurning Man is also rife with appropriations, yet in some weird way it becomes acceptable in the desert. Well, it doesn’t yet. We as a group suspend our judgement for that week and allow radical self expression, which of course includes radical appropriation- I still need to think this one through as I am personally conflicted about it. I do realize that there are a lot of theoretical problems with Burning Man, yet it sure is fun.

So basically that was the journey I videoed and photographed all these places, in hope of somehow weaving a story together. Once back in my studio, I started to stalk the internet for regalia appropriations, to see how the Woodcraft could have manifested into other movements. This is where I started to make the connections to Germany, Hippies, Survivalists, Hollywood, politics and such. It just so happened that a number of fashion houses were being called publicly on their appropriations and had to make apologies – the timing was right as it seems to be a current trend. Several Facebook groups have formed to combat appropriations of indigenous culture. The journey was overwhelming as there was so much to work from; I tried to distill it, yet there are so many images to choose from. My use of the images is also an appropriation, without permission and blatant. Yet I hope it strikes a chord with viewers, so they understand the history and hopefully discover more, which of course is what being On The Trail is all about – discovery.

Glenn Alteen: One thing I do notice though, is how your interests fit into a trend of recent work around the appropriation and misrepresentation of First Nations in early 20th Century children’s education and literature. Your piece is at least somewhat about Ernest Thompson Seton and his Woodcraft Indians, an early version of the Boy Scouts. Recently I read about Kent Monkman’s work around Karl May’s characters Old Shatterhand and Winnitou and just saw Terrance Houle’s exhibition on Indian Leg Wrestling, a practice invented by the Boy Scout Movement. It seems like there’s something in the air. I’m curious where that is coming from?

Adrian Stimson: I think it has always been there, simmering under the surface. All of our work has played with this subject and it also seems to be a big part of popular culture right now, with the emergence of the Hipsters and the fake headdresses, and various fashion designers ripping off indigenous designs, as well as in the movies, it seems now more than ever that indigenous artists comment. I just saw a trailer for the movie, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, where where white women are Indian warriors.2 It just never ends…

Glenn Alteen: The way this switches into the Seton stuff seems amazingly serendipitous providing an amazing focus for all these divergent elements. Though I do understand what you say about it simmering under the surface. It seemed an earlier generation of First Nations artists were looking at the “disappearing Indian” through artists Like George Caitlin, Edward Curtis and Emily Carr, who were presenting a colonial narrative of the fading and assimilated First Nations. This work seems aimed at the childhood education of that colonial history presented through children’s literature and different scouting activities. Both narratives present a romanticized and idealized vision of First Nations. Representations of the Hollywood Indian (or the Boy Scout Indian) seem to perpetuate heroic views of First Nations at the same time as legislators through the Indian Act are attempting their assimilation. And given the recent events this week around unilateral changes to the Indian Act by the Harper Government those attempts at assimilation are ongoing. How do these appropriations play into these legislated attempts at assimilation and disappearance? It’s as if by mythologizing First Nations they can hasten their extinction. I remember an article in The Walrus a few years back where these German Karl May Indians were flying to Canada and being met by Cree elders. The Germans got off the plane in full Plains regalia to be greeted by the Cree in jeans and cowboy boots. The German’s questioned whether they were “real” Indians.

Adrian Stimson: I think in a weird way it legitimizes assimilation, kind of like we honour your culture by imitating it, therefore it’s okay to take whatever we want, only “the good parts” (in the settlers eyes) and the rest should be forgotten… especially the land and resources. Yes, turning us into myths is a good way to extinction. When I think about what a “real” Indian is, I too have that colonial image seared into my mind, the first thing I think of is feathers and buckskin, the romantic ideal. I know first hand the tenets of brainwashing, I experience this every day, and it started in residential school. Its diabolical really, subtle and constant. It has taken me a life time to what I like to call “change my mind,” kind of stalk it to notice when the colonial program kicks into action, then reprogram. This all kind of sounds like the plot of The Matrix, but I really do feel that we have all been programmed and duped into this Western experiment – media is the pacifier and controller, constantly sending messages that keep us in our place, reinforcing colonial ideas, similar to the Borg, “resistance is futile,” which most of us believe. This is where I see indigenous artists pushing back or reprogramming, maybe even inserting a virus to crash the system. This is where the Shaman Exterminator comes into play. While he/she has parallels with Plains tribes buffalo shaman and dancers, the shaman exterminator is a “virus” inserted into the program to mess things up, to confuse, to scare, to intimidate and ultimately to laugh at. To expose that everything is a construction within the mind and that there are many programs to choose from, not just the colonial project.

Glenn Alteen: And of course this all plays out in Santa Fe and in Burning Man. While your re-appropriations are skillful at turning these images on their ear, is there a fear that it’s only the First Nations audience who get what you’re doing? Given how unconscious most North Americans are to these representations in the first place one wonders if they will get what you are doing and why you are doing it.

Adrian Stimson: For a while I was concerned that non-indigenous viewers would not get it, that I am preaching to the converted or an art theory savvy crowd. Then something happened… I stopped worrying whether people got my work or not. This happened over a period of time of hearing many views of my work, convergent and divergent, I realized that I have absolutely no control over what and how people think, nor should I. I have confidence that the viewer, should they be interested, will find out more about the work. Hopefully my work will trigger something inside, confuse the program and result in a disturbance that ultimately “changes their mind”. Yet I also know that the Colonial Project is a big monster that is relentless and that many people will never get it and that things will never truly change. I’m not naive to this reality, nor do I have delusions of grandeur that my work will change the world. I am but a small story in a huge memory board, and perhaps one day that story will join others to become an agent of societal change. In the meantime, I will continue to play in my own way, and have fun doing it.

1. Platform centre for photographic + digital arts in Winnipeg hosted a residency with Adrian Stimson and co-commissioned this interview with PAVED Arts.

Gallery Hours: Tuesday – Friday, Noon – 6 pm; Saturdays Noon – 4pm.

For more information, contact either: David LaRiviere, Artistic Director, PAVED arts, (306) 652-5502 ext.1

PAVED Arts and AKA Gallery: 424 20th Street West Saskatoon SK. S7M 0X4

Free admission to the public with barrier-free accessibility.

PAVED Arts acknowledge the support of our members, volunteers and partners, and of our principal funders: Canada Council for the Arts, Saskatchewan Arts Board, SaskCulture, SaskLotteries.