Performance is not for the faint of heart. Performance Art intensifies this truism: it takes guts to be a performance artist. Perhaps the most marginalized art form, Performance Art attracts an odd collection of rebels, misfits and geniuses, who act as both viewer and practitioner (it is commonly observed that the demographic constitution of a 'performance art crowd' or audience are other performance artists).

Preaching to the converted? More like choir practice. So why bother? There's no money in it, and even less chance of becoming 'famous'.

Being an Indian is not for the faint of heart either. 'First Nations Performance Artist' is a singular category: we are studying a rare breed. Native performance artists are messengers of truth unencumbered by commercial considerations of form or content—they lay it out bare, take it or leave it. In this process of frank examination moments of transcendent beauty and truth occur.

This site showcases the work of three female First Nations artists: Reona Brass, Dolores Dallas and Cheryl L'Hirondelle. Aesthetically these artists share little in common, yet all three mine the same earth: a point of view from Canada's most oppressed class, the perspective of a woman who is unafraid of her own voice and unconcerned with the reactions of those who hear it.

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Reona Brass

Reona Brass' performances embody her self-styled genre: "Aboriginal New Ritual". Her works frequently seize upon the female body (her own) as a site of transgression, suffering, endurance and transformation - detailing the struggles of Indigenous womanhood within a contextual framework of colonialism and oppression.

Brass often presents the viewer with juxtapositions of incongruous imagery: the maternal with neglect, domesticity with shock, the horrific with the mundane. Though disturbing, her performances are never gratuitous or random, but calculated to substantiate the issues she is addressing. In her work 'Everything to Know about Nothing' (1999), Brass expresses milk from her lactating breasts into a bowl, adds a mouthful of beer and slowly washes her feet with the mix, then lifts the bowl to her lips and drinks in a stunning ritualistic offering. This overtly shocking act was foreshadowed earlier in the piece when Brass stretched a baby bottle nipple over the neck of a beer bottle and guzzled the contents. When interviewed Brass explained that this was based on her childhood memories of alcoholic mothers quieting their babies with beer. While we would rather not contemplate this appalling behavior, Brass fearlessly brings it to the fore—obliging the viewer to face one of the 'every-day' atrocities of life for a colonized people.

The meta-narrative in Brass' performance works deals with the internal and external struggles of First Nations people: dealing with the crippling dysfunction of our communities on one hand, fighting battles against racism, globalization and the relentless encroachment of the dominant culture on the other, and the tension created by this ongoing resistance.

In her work 'Dawn 2' (2005) Brass exploits two colonial icons: a bottle of Coke and a copy of the 'Good News Bible'. Binding her feet in plastic food wrap (symbolizing a disconnection from the earth), she writes in chalk "We have taken what is not ours" in Portuguese (the language of Brazil's colonizers). She then crawls across the plaza dragging the chalk, delineating the line of contact, at the end of which she fastens her head, the Coke bottle and bible to a tree using the plastic wrap. She then sings a traditional song, her voice muffled and pathetic. 'Dawn 2' exhibits the economy of Brass' work: 500 years of history literally 'wrapped up' in a ten-minute performance.

Dolores Dallas

Dolores Dallas has been creating solo theatre and performance art works since 1995. Her work addresses personal issues which are also present in the larger community: sexual abuse, the lingering effects of residential school, the trauma of watching loved ones struggle with drug addiction and the loss of Native identity. Despite the serious nature of these enquiries her work is suffused with a comic sensibility, alternating moments of delicate poignancy with interludes of unexpected hilarity. The recipient of a BFA from ECIAD in Media Arts, her performances feature video and still projections that critique and support the narrative and sub-narrative elements in her work, which are often delivered in a poetic style. In her recent performances Dallas has found her voice as a visual storyteller, creating startling images to support the content of her work.

In her 2003 performance "An Apple Is An Apple"1 Dallas placed a reconstructed powwow drum over her head while dancing to a powwow music track. This image was completed with a video projection onto the surface of the drum, creating both an arresting visual and a stunning commentary on the role of the drum as a tool for cultural transmission.

As the title of the piece suggests "An Apple Is An Apple" was a wry investigation into the ways Native folk determine "Indianness" in themselves and others. The narrative thrust of this examination was advanced with a projected video depicting the protagonist (himself very "native looking and sounding"), being charged with "finding an apple that doesn't grow on trees". His search takes him to an Apple computer store where he meets a young man of indeterminate race who says, "I know what you are looking for. I'm an apple, you're an apple", much to the amusement of the primarily First Nations audience.

It is this easy humour, combined with potent images and content, which makes Dallas' seemingly naïve work so compelling. Her performances deal with serious issues (childhood sexual abuse, heroin addiction, homelessness) without rancour or judgment, provoking both heartfelt laughter and deep reflection. Her 'even-handed' style creates an accessible body of work that speaks to a broad demographic, however this quality does not weaken its impact or render it 'unworthy' of a place within the 'serious' canon of Performance Art.

Cheryl L'Hirondelle

Cheryl L'Hirondelle is a trans-disciplinary artist, equally celebrated for her music, .net and performance art. L'Hirondelles art works embody the concept of "nêhiyawîhcikêwin" (or Cree teachings), and examine the place of traditional ways in a post-industrial world. "In a manner more aligned with tradition, from a critical distance but certainly not isolated from academia, waynohtêw's devotion to "nêhiyawîhcikêwin" (Cree teachings) is precisely that -- a practice of the Cree way, of Cree culture. She grounds it in face-to-face relationships with discussions both 'trivial and sublime,' visiting and learning from Elders, close relationships with friends and family, inscribing her experience within creative projects and, 'always, the ceremonial life'."2 In her 2001 performance "Cistemaw Iyiniw Ohci" she reenacted "running done two generations earlier by Cistemaw Iyiniw, a Cree man who delivered tobacco from community to community to ask for their attendance and support at ceremonies"3, bringing performance art to Makwa Sahgaiehcan - a remote reserve in Northern Saskatchewan. In this performance L'Hirondelle illuminates the themes that run through her work: nêhiyawîhcikêwin, intervention in "public" space and disregard for accepted notions of "audience".

In her 2004 performance "awa ka-amaciwet piwapisko waciya/climbing the iron mountains" L'Hirondelle "reclaimed" urban airspace for the birds. She states:

"I intend on infiltrating highrises [any office bldg, apartment/condo, hotel, hospital etc over 3 stories] as a commentary on ownership of air. Once inside, I will scale the centre of the buildings stairwell ascending and descending and will leave a chalk tag of Cree syllabics saying: e-kisinawatastihk piyesisak ohci (this still belongs to the birds) as symbolic evidence of this commentary/reclamation. I will also use low watt radio equipment to broadcast a variety of audio at selected locations as part of this activity."

"I do this in order to honour and symbolically re-claim the air above the land where these structures currently exist. It is arrogant of governments to zone that which is not theirs! I do this for the birds - it is still their domain!"

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"Guts" is a celebration of three artists united by race, gender and medium. It is my sincere desire to see their work disseminated as broadly as possible, and it is my hope that young Aboriginal women and men will find the inspiration here and in the rest of the First Vision site to delve into the world of art production.

I would like to extend my thanks to Glenn Alteen, grunt gallery and the Department of Canadian Heritage for the opportunity to showcase the work of these remarkable women.

All my relations,

Archer Pechawis
Spring 2006


1. The term "apple" is a dire insult in Indian country, denoting a person that is "red on the outside and white on the inside".

2. Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew - "waynohtêw and the âpihtawikosisân Infiltration of Deep Structure", Caught in the Act edited by Johanna Householder and Tanya Mars.

3. Candice Hopkins - Interventions in Traditional Territories: "Cistemaw Iyiniw Ohci," A Performance by Cheryl L'Hirondelle