We acknowledge that we live and work on unceded Indigenous territories and we thank the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations for their hospitality.


Switchbacks: Art, Ownership and Nuxalk National Identity

By Jennifer Kramer

November 4, 2013

Review By Judith Ostrowitz

Jennifer Kramer’s book describes some recent negotiations of public representation and the incipient construction of national identity through the disposition of works of art by the Nuxalk people of Bella Coola, British Columbia. This book appears during what may be described as a “post-celebratory” phase of scholarship regarding artistic revival in the Northwest Coast region. Many anthropological and art historical works have been dedicated to the identification of proper standards of authenticity for Northwest Coast art since the mid-1960s.1 The delineation of stylistic criteria was considered necessary when art professionals first sought legitimization for these works in order to honour the achievements of master artists of the region and to ensure their inclusion among venerated art traditions the world over. However, since the 1990s, greater agency has been claimed by Aboriginal players, resulting in greater scholarly attention to the powerful influence of transcultural negotiations within complex social environments on artistic production.2 In Switchbacks, Kramer focuses upon such negotiations among contemporary Nuxalk people as they struggle to conceptualize a new type of sovereignty – namely, the authority to regulate the proper context for works of art in traditional style for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal consumption.

Kramer discusses a “fear of theft” that has developed among the Nuxalk in response to historical loss not only of works of art but also of language, ceremonial practices, the land itself, and a generation of children. The latter was “lost” to the residential schools, where children were distanced both physically and mentally from their origins under the supervision of non-Aboriginal authorities. Today, contemporary Nuxalk artists must consider these histories and their consequences when faced with the opportunity to display and sell their work to outsiders under the sharp (and sometimes critical) gaze of their home community, whose members have powerful memories and opinions. One result is that Nuxalk chiefs, both elected and hereditary, now take their roles as custodians of traditional territory and as the proper arbiters of cultural representation quite seriously.

Kramer carried out fieldwork in the Bella Coola Valley over a sixteenmonth period, observing as the Nuxalk made and remade aspects of their own public identity. Most interestingly, her experiences caused her to consider the possibility of cultural appropriation as an aspect of her own research and writing project. In Switchbacks she fearlessly examines the implications of her own processes. Some community members had insisted that she justify her work. They suggested that the infor mation she sought would become her own valuable property to be used to earn her university degree and, ultimately, to qualify her to earn a good living and to claim a prestigious title. She was also required to address accusations related to any profit that she might eventually gain by publishing her book (an unlikely scenario for an academic book, no matter how positively received). Her introspection about these matters grew as she observed the strategies of community members who knew the power of information and the repercussions of its dissemination. Kramer came to understand the meaning in silences as well as she understood the information that was shared with her. As she succinctly puts it, “How did I deal with Nuxalk reactions of avoidance, anger and silence? I made them the centre of my study” (21). Her understanding of these processes as “content” is at the core of Switchbacks.

Kramer concludes that her writing about Bella Coola is indeed a type of theft (21), and this results in a great deal of reticence on her part. She decided not to include any photographs in the book and to omit personal names unless an individual was deceased and had already been mentioned in earlier publications (22). This strategy is difficult to evaluate. Kramer’s scrupulous avoidance of appropriation, acts of disrespect, and, of course, public censure is laudable. Yet images of specific objects are unique and important historical markers of the cultural processes that she describes, and they would have provided an added dimension to Switchbacks, although they certainly would have been problematic. However, it is possible that, through a process of respectfully negotiating permissions, additional insight might have been gained. In addition, when specific objects are not illustrated and individuals are not named, a certain generalization about “the Nuxalk” is constructed, as though there were consensus among them (Kramer clearly conveys that this is not the case). This parallels the development of a national identity, a process that is now usefully embraced by the Nuxalk themselves and allows them, as Kramer shows, to achieve important goals. However, any suggestion of unity or of the anonymity of particular artists or other culture-bearers in ethnographic literature is a different matter and an inadvertent product of this approach. For example, Kramer uses the outdated term “informant” rather than naming her sources, and this is reminiscent of the unfortunate absence in the historical record of the names of individual Aboriginal artists and other participants who made important contributions to the publications of anthropologists in the nineteenth century as well as to the cultural practices of their own communities – yet another kind of theft that has since been justly criticized. Interestingly, on page 105, Kramer herself discusses this approach as a historical phenomenon, making it clear that she is well aware of the loss of information consequent upon its use. At the very least, as a result of Kramer’s decisions, some nuance is lost in the historical documentation of shifting notions about ownership among specific Nuxalk thinkers during the last decade of the twentieth century.

Strategic generalization of identity among the Nuxalk themselves is a different matter. Kramer reports some new public presentations of hereditary dances as common property in Bella Coola. For example, play potlatches are held for educational purposes at the local school. In this environment, some dances have been treated as though they were communal property. Although there is no consensus on this topic, some Nuxalk fear that restricting dance display at these events according to traditional prerogative might cause proscribed examples to be forgotten entirely. Kramer also suggests that excessive emphasis on the exclusivity of crest art prerogative and dance privilege might reflect what are actually Western academic definitions of Nuxalk art – definitions that are more relevant to the evaluations of authenticity made by outsiders than they are to the Nuxalk (10). It is worth noting that preservation of traditional criteria for such prerogatives varies greatly from group to group in the region. It remains a central concern for many.

The current use of collective ownership as a strategy for nation building among the Nuxalk themselves constitutes genuine cultural practice. Tactics like these reflect legitimate efforts by community members to become more effective gatekeepers, although they may be inconsistent with traditional practices. However, Kramer astutely observes that gatekeeping itself is somehow conceptually related to traditional ideas and practices of privileged access to images, songs, and dances among important groups and individuals on the Northwest Coast. In doing so, she provides her readers with additional insight into the contemporary translation of traditional cultures among First Nations of the region. At each turn in these ongoing processes, circumstances are rigorously negotiated because they are considered crucial by members of living communities. Kramer’s observations on these vital activities and opinions are enlightening, challenging, and exciting to read about, even as circumstance change before our eyes.


[1] Foremost among sources for the delineation of formalist criteria for Northwest Coast art are Bill Holm, Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1965); Peter L. Macnair, Alan L. Hoover, and Kevin Neary, The Legacy: Tradition and Innovation in Northwest Coast Indian Art (Vancouver and Toronto/Seattle: Douglas and MacIntyre/University of Washington Press, 1984); Steven C. Brown, Native Visions: Evolution in Northwest Coast Art from the Eighteenth through the Twentieth Century (Seattle and London: Seattle Art Museum in Association with the University of Washington Press, 1998). Several contributions by Robin K. Wright focused upon delineating stylistic evidence for works of traditional Northwest Coast art by particular master artists. Among these are “Anonymous Attributions: A Tribute to a Mid-19th-Century Haida Argillite Carver, the Master of the Long Fingers,” in Box of Daylight: Northwest Coast Indian Art, ed. Bill Holm (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1983); and “Two Haida Artists from Yan: Will John Gwaytihl and Simeon Stilthda Please Step Apart?” American Indian Art Magazine 23, 3 (1998): 42-557, 106-7.

[2] A great many works that have provided new insight into social contexts for the production of Aboriginal art and strategies for public display, not just in the Northwest Coast region, might be mentioned here. Among these are James Clifford, Routes: Travels and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1997); George E. Marcus. and Fred R. Myers, eds., The Traffic in Culture: Refiguring Art and Anthropology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995); Judith Ostrowitz, Privileging the Past: Reconstructing History in Northwest Coast Art (Seattle and London/Vancouver: University of Washington Press/UBC Press, 1999); Ruth B. Phillips, Trading Identities: The Souvenir in Native North American Art from the Northeast, 1700-1900 (Seattle and London/Montreal and Kingston: University of Washington Press/McGill- Queen’s University Press, 1998); and Ruth B. Phillips and Christopher B. Steiner, eds., Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in Colonial and Postcolonial Worlds (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).