In the Face of a National Myth

** Image Caption: ssipsis.  Turtle Sheild, 1996. 
Courtesy: Abbe Museum, USM Gallery, and Carolyn Eyler.**

In the Face of a National Myth: The Turtle/Television Island Project
University of Southern Maine Art Gallery
24 September – 10 November, 2010.
Curated by Carolyn Eyler

review by Wahsontiio Cross

The Turtle/Television Island Project features the work of two contemporary aboriginal artists: James Luna, of the Puyoukitchum (Luiseño) nation, who is based in La Jolla, California; and ssipsis, of the Penobscot nation of Indian Island, Maine. Both of these artists use contemporary media to critically reflect on and repair the often static ways in which Native Americans are portrayed by the white/Western world.

Upon entering a gallery divided in half, you immediately encounter a television set that plays a film of ssipsis recalling a story about the “Eviction Letter,” which the artist wrote on a piece of leather in 1970, addressed to the residents of Old Town, a non-native community that was on an [expired] piece of leased land that belonged to the Penobscot First Nation. The letter says, “Hello, Bangor Daily News. My name is ssipsis. I’m going to give Old Town an eviction notice tomorrow. They have 30 days to move. The lease is up.” This opens up the context for ssipsis’ work and shows us the culture and land she had been fighting for. Containers, a top hat and replica canoes made of birch bark are juxtaposed with old photographs of Penobscot women wearing hats, including Molly Molasses, a 19th-century woman whom ssipsis considers a source of inspiration.

ssipsis’ writing (including her book Molly Molasses & Me: a collection of living adventures, 1988) and documentation of activist interventions in the form of newspaper clippings are also included. The most powerful piece on display is Turtle Shield, which is comprised of 13 birch bark panels arranged to form a large turtle shell. Each panel is hemmed with fragrant sweetgrass and carefully etched with images of local practices such as hunting, fishing, dancing, ceremony, wigwam construction, and the forests and rivers of Maine. The exhibit display is multisensory: we are confronted by the smell of the healing sweetgrass, the sound of ssipsis making a moose call, and a section of a birch bark wigwam wall, which all recreate the environment that the artist seeks to protect. These objects enrich the video, where we can hear the stories from ssipsis herself, and make a strong statement about survival, resilience and resistance.

A video documenting installation and performance artist James Luna’s 2007 Eiteljorg performance is projected on the opposite side of the wall against which ssipsis’ wigwam section rests. He also included objects from various installations, such as Wet Dream Catcher (1990) and High-Tech Peace Pipe (2004). In the latter, referencing the sacred tobacco offerings that many tribes partake in, he humorously comments on the commodification of Native crafts and sacred objects by playing with the term “smoke signals,” placing a galvanized pipe decorated with beaded designs atop a touch-tone telephone. On an adjacent wall, We Become Them (2010), Luna’s most recent work, is a series of photographs using diptychs of color self-portraits placed side-by-side with black and white images of ceremonial masks. This idea of experiencing “Indianness” is meant to disrupt the distorted view the white/Western world has of Native Americans: “When all that changes, I’ll be out of work. But for now I’ve got a lot of work,” Luna comments.

The political aspect of this exhibition goes beyond these two artists and their work. According to curator Carolyn Eyler, this is the only contemporary Native American art exhibit ever mounted in southern Maine. It began not only as an investigation into the work of these two artists, but as part of a state initiative (the Wabanaki Studies Law or LD 291), which rules that children in grades K-12 must learn about Wabanaki [1] culture in their schools. What better way to educate than to show the work of living Natives and the objects of their cultural production? Exposing viewers not only to the visual, spiritual and linguistic culture of the people of Turtle Island, but also to the realities that contemporary “Indians” face today. Luna and ssipsis mix “traditional” forms of creation and material with contemporary media, reflecting a living contemporary identity. The Turtle/Television Island Project could work at other galleries across Turtle Island, even abroad. The gesture of this exhibition being shown in a smaller gallery, not a large metropolitan center like New York or Toronto, shows that we are making progress towards bringing Native perspectives to the centre. By allowing us to tell our own stories, and assert our history and identity, this show has left a positive and lasting impression.


“Wabanaki” is the collective term that refers to the 4 tribes of Maine: Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy.

Wahsontiio Cross is a Mohawk artist and an M.A. candidate in Art History at Concordia University in Montréal. She recently produced essays for the Virtual Museum of Canada’s Canada’s Got Treasures!, and also had an essay published as part of Concordia’s Palimpsest project on architectural history, available online.

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