For his latest performance and gallery installation, Terrance Houle draws inspiration from his Blackfoot name, Iinniiwahkiimah. Translated into English as Buffalo Herder, the work is emblematic of Houle’s prolific and provocative body of work. Throughout his career, Houle has employed at his discretion performance, photography, video/film, music, painting, and tools of mass market dissemination including billboards and vinyl bus advertisements, to amplify and investigate issues of colonization, racism, cultural difference and the representation of Aboriginal people in popular culture.1
The often irreverent, humorous, and always astute trajectory of Houle’s work has its roots in his upbringing. As a youth, Houle traveled with his family to reservations throughout North America to participate in Powwow dancing and native ceremonies, which instilled in him a lifelong engagement with Aboriginal communities. Parallel to these experiences were public school incidents that magnified the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. Houle recalls a Thanksgiving pageant in the first grade where he and his fellow students made Pilgrim and Indian costumes where the Indian ‘regalia’ was misrepresented and inaccurate (not to mention another country’s settler story). “I told the teacher ’This isn’t how we dress,’ and I ended up having to stand in the corner while all the other kids made their Indian suits.” 2
Stories like these trigger waves of collective knowing nods within the Aboriginal community. They also became the foundation for various series of works within Houle’s repertoire including the 'Landscape' and 'Urban Indians' series that humorously magnified the intersection between the Indigenous and the non-Indigenous and the ongoing negotiation of expressing a contemporary cultural identity with a mainstream society obsessed with an arrested and/or romanticized view of the Aboriginal community.
Within the 'Landscape’ performance/video/photo series, we see Houle in Indian regalia face planted on the ground in a series of familiar urban contexts including parks, baseball diamonds and downtown streets. In the ‘Urban Indian’ series, we see him fully dressed in Grass Dance regalia taking mass transit, working in an office cubicle, shopping for groceries, taking a bubble bath, etc. As with these previous series where Houle ‘Indianed up’ the manicured parks & baseball diamonds and office cubicles, Iinniiwahkiimah does the same within the contemporary gallery space.
Developed during a residency in August 2010 at Oxygen Arts Centre in Nelson, British Columbia, the backdrop for Iinniiwahkiimah are stark, black and white images of stenciled buffalo spray-painted onto the gallery walls. Referencing a renegade graffiti aesthetic, they also reference North American history and the importance of the buffalo to the First Peoples of the plains region. The buffalo supplied virtually everything that Aboriginal peoples of the plains needed to survive – food, clothing, tools, housing, and spiritual sustenance. For millennia, they lived nomadic and migratory lives following the buffalo herds. With colonization came the decimation of the buffalo herds. The slaughter of buffalo was a colonial and joint tactic co-engineered by settlers, government, the military, railroads and bankers to rid the plains of the buffalo and its First Peoples.
The performative element of Iinniiwahkiimah involves Houle navigating the contemporary/traditional aspects of his own culture/identity to ‘herd’ the buffalo (and spectators) within the space. Referencing collective and personal histories, the action, the intervention, and the juxtaposition of herding buffalo within the gallery space becomes a humorous but nonetheless clever attempt at reconciliation of history and its influence on contemporary identity, narrative, self-determination, and self-representation.
Elwood Jimmy Director, Sâkêwêwak Artists’ Collective