[Originally published: “Dana Claxton: Sitting Bull and the Moose Jaw Sioux.” Vie des Arts #197 2004: 93.]
Since 1997 Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, has attracted tourists to its prohibition-era Tunnels tour. Costumed actors lead visitors from basement to basement under the historic and well-preserved downtown while regaling listeners with tales of smuggling and a rather sketchy link to Chicago’s Al Capone. It’s a neat idea, but after seeing Dana Claxton’s Sitting Bull and the Moose Jaw Sioux (September 9 to October 24) at the Moose Jaw Museum & Art Gallery, it is clear that a more dramatic regional story has been overshadowed by a near-fiction.
Dana Claxton’s four channel video installation tells the little known story of Sitting Bull and his band’s exodus from the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn (Custer’s last stand) to Moose Jaw where many of their descendants continue to live. Among the exiles were the artist’s great, great maternal grandparents. Sitting Bull and the Moose Jaw Sioux consists of four digital projections. The first appears on a stand-alone wall in the middle and a third of the way into the large, dark room. It features footage of the local landscape: verdant hills and fields, tree lined paths, and the river—said to bend like a moose’s jaw. The scenes are unremarkable, but as the exhibition unfolds and the viewer learns that this was the site of Sitting Bull’s winter encampment, the images resonate with meaning and feeling. The moving camera becomes the artist searching for a connection to her past and to this place.
The three other projections are arranged into a theatrical-sized, floor-to-ceiling triptych. It begins with an image of Sitting Bull in the center panel and old newspaper clippings to the right and left. The clippings are accounts of the Sioux in Moose Jaw over the last century and some. Laid over these pictures is a scrolling text translating a conversation, in Lakota, between two elders, Hartland and Francis Goodtrack, who relate their families’ experience in the Moose Jaw area after the migration. They recount both the hardships and more positive aspects of the resettlement.
Claxton’s strategy is both good historical storytelling and creative art. The narrative is layered rather than linear, dialogic rather than authoritarian, and open-ended rather than contained. At least four accounts unspool at any one time. While they always compliment each other and advance the story, the gentle polyphony encourages repeated viewings and the sense that we can gather only glimpses and should not imagine ourselves completely informed. Unlike conventional documentaries, there is no narrative arc, rising tension, climax, and denouement. In fact, the initiating event, the Battle at Little Bighorn, does get told until near the end, and its central antagonist, Custer, is barely mentioned. This is the Sioux account of the battle and their subsequent lives. It is eventful, but, until now, only a footnote to settler history.
The rest of the projection is a collage of historical documents and images interplaying with reflections of the Sioux elders. While there are stories of starvation, deprivation and the broken treaty promises familiar to people around here, Claxton does an affecting job of pairing the grand historical passages with more homey personal accounts. There is no gloating over the slaughter at Little Bighorn by the victors (the Sioux), rather the story centers on the aftermath and Sitting Bull and his band’s crossing the into Canada to avoid reprisals. Surprisingly, while there are allusions to hardship, Claxton also records stories of the people being well treated by Canadian settlers. Francis Goodtrack recounts that his father told him that the Lakota who worked in Moose Jaw worked side-by-side and made friends with white men.
For me, the most resonant aspect of the show was the frequent pairing of the elders’ Lakota and English voices over images of the river and trails. Claxton gently lays an Aboriginal view of history and personal experience on the land. I doubt anyone experiencing this exhibition can look at their local landscape as they once did. Ghosts and the stories of their descendants now inscribe it. Driving through the area shortly after seeing the show, I was struck by the sensation that the farms were a thin veneer that only recently covered these older stories. Claxton inscribes fills this seemingly empty landscape with living memories and offers Moose Jaw a much more compelling story than the maybe visit of a Chicago gangster.