Oka Crisis, the Champlain Monument, and the Art of Acting out Change (without erasing the past)


This long article centers on artworks by artist Greg Hill. Here is a link to the artist’s website: http://homepage.mac.com/gahill/Menu14.html

The Scout Series[1] 

Real Live Bronze Indian is one of a constellation of artworks that Greg Hill has created that revolve around this sculpture of an anonymous Indian scout.  In order to fully discuss the performance Real Live Bronze Indian, it is necessary to look at other permutations of this work, and the community furor over this sculpture Both the installation Monument ForeigN ation and the performance version Real Live Bronze Indian used a video loop taken from a previous performance by Hill, which was titled Joe Scouting for Cigar Store Lasagna, so it is important to analyze this initial manifestation of the work.

The title of the initial performance at the site of the Champlain Monument, Joe Scouting for Cigar Store Lasagna, is packed with references.  Hill gives the name Joe to the otherwise anonymous Anishinabe Scout, but why “Joe?”  It’s a common name, encouraging familiarity and a certain folksy-ness.  Hill’s choice of the name Joe is also a reference to Joseph Brant[2], a Mohawk leader, Anglican missionary, and British officer who led a group of Mohawks from New York north to the Grand River area in Canada.  One of the poses that he takes during his performance is an emulation of a painting of Joseph Brant.  These references are made clear at the beginning of the video version of the performance, which juxtaposes this particular painting of Joseph Brant with a photograph of the bronze Anishinabe Scout.  This is followed by a second split-screen juxtaposition of a photograph of a wooden Cigar Store Indian sculpture with an photograph that is emblematic of Canada’s Oka conflict of 1990The words “Cigar Store” in the title refer to cigar store Indians, the painted wood sculptures that commonly stood at the entrance to tobacconists shops, but are now collectibles worth as much as seventy to eighty thousand dollars.  Like the Anishinabe Scout statue, cigar store Indian statues are also anonymous and nameless – one figure standing in for an entire continent of diverse peoples, collapsed into a single racialized designation.  Cigar store Indians were also treated very casually, rather than as works of fine art.  That is,  until they started to become highly collectible during the past few decades.

Cigar store Indians were mercantile signs, advertisements for the tobacconists’ products, which associated the merchant’s product, tobacco, with a unique, exotic, and authentic  American-ness.[3] The pose of the typical Cigar store Indian is very recognizable.  This type of carved and painted wooden sculpture, depicted wearing Plains Indian clothing and feather warbonnet, typically stands with one hand raised to shade his eyes, with his gaze fixed in the distance, scouting for… something.  This is one of the poses that Hill assumes for video shots, photographs, and in person during the performances related to the relocation of the Anishinabe Scout.  I remember seeing these Cigar Store Indians throughout my childhood and my teens.  The physical scale of the sculptures were often slightly smaller than life-size.   Adults and children touched these sculptures very familiarly.  I remember many of them being chained to some immovable object to prevent theft.  There were places were the paint had been worn away and the wood underneath worn smooth by the touch of many hands. When Hill, as the “Anishinabe Scout,” invites people to come up and have their photograph taken with him, he invites the kind of intimacies that were formerly taken with cigar store Indians, and that were also taken with the Anishinabe Scout while in its original location, as we see in newspaper photographs in Figure 9.

The final word of the title Joe Scouting for Cigar Store Lasagna is a reference to the Oka conflict in 1990, which will require some explanation and historical background.  First, it is important to look at the community controversy that arose during the 1990s over what seemed to many in the community to be an innocuous bronze sculpture.


Newspaper: Champlain article

Figure 3.  Ottawa’s Monument to Samuel de Champlain prior to the removal of the Anishinabe Scout sculpture.


“The Battle of Nepean Point”

The bronze sculpture Anishinabe Scout, which was placed at the base of the monument to Champlain in 1918, several years after the installation of the Champlain Monument itself, had been the source of controversy in Ottawa for some time.  This kneeling, anonymous “scout“ was placed at ground level some sixteen feet or so beneath the bronze figure of Samuel de Champlain, who was a French explorer and founder of the colony of Quebec in 1608.

In October of 1996, the National Capitol Commission (NCC) agreed to remove the Scout in response to complaints from Ovide Mercredi, Assembly of First Nations chief, that the sculptural arrangement presented a degrading image of aboriginal people.  A heated debate was played out in the pages of the newspaper The Ottawa Citizen.  The paper invited callers to comment on the planned alteration and reported that three-quarters of their nearly 500 callers objected to the plan to move the bronze Indian from the monument.[4]  Many of the objectors claimed that removing the scout from the sculpture would be re-writing history. Some suggested that the scout was crouching, rather than kneeling, and suggested that the he was helping Champlain find his way.  And Champlain certainly needed help finding his way, as the astrolabe in his outstretched hand is pointed upside-down.

A descendent of the artist who created Anishinabe Scout, Charlene MacCarthy, found nothing offensive in the arrangement of the sculptures and believes her great-great-grandfather meant the work as a “testimony to the partnership Champlain and the scout enjoyed.”[5]  In the same newspaper article, MacCarthy  continued on to say, “I see nothing degrading about this statue.  The Indian Scout is not kneeling to Champlain or else he’d be facing him and not looking away… It looks like he is leading Champlain and they are working together.”

Ten Little Indians = One French Explorer   

I have some observations about MacCarthy’s defense of the sculpture. Firstly, the scout is unnamed.  If the sculpture truly depicted a partnership, it would ideally identify both partners.  In an attempt to counter the objection to the kneeling posture, MacCarthy makes the observation that the scout faces the same direction that Champlain faces.  However, the differences in scale and vertical positioning make it perfectly clear that the scout is in a subordinate position.  The body of Champlain is physically depicted as being 1.5 times the scale of the body of the Anishinabe Scout.  It is clear that the scout was executed on a much smaller scale and is in fact physically dwarfed by Champlain in addition to being placed quite near to ground level in comparison to the approximately sixteen feet of pedestal which elevates Champlain’s bronze figure.  Champlain’s sculpture is mounted on a high, unreachable pedestal.  The scout perches on a low outcropping at the base of the pedestal where it is accessible to visitors, as we see in these newspaper photographs.  It is not possible to take such liberties with the sculpture of Samuel de Champlain.  In an ironic twist, ten Anishinabe Scouts in this genuflecting  pose and scale would be just about equal to the height of the Champlain Monument’s total height if the scouts were mounted one atop the other.

Formal analysis of the arrangement of the two sculptures reveals a colonizing, dominating relationship between Champlain and the Indigenous population.  As a monument in the modern landscape, it reads not just as a monument to Champlain, but is a depiction of First Nations peoples as subservient, and in an inferior position not just in relation to Champlain, but in relation to Canadian government.  The sculptural arrangement implies the racial inferiority of Indigenous peoples, while also endorsing Champlain as discoverer/appropriator by portraying the anonymous scout almost as if the scout is “gifting” Champlain with the land spread out before Champlain’s fixed bronze gaze.  The intended meaning of the sculpture was not the cooperative partnership that the artist’s descendents wishfully promoted during the course of the community debate.

There is a somewhat similar monument to Champlain in Plattsburgh, New York.  I provide it as an example that this is a not-uncommon sculptural arrangement for monuments to Champlain. The following text is directly from the Battle of Plattsburgh Association and Interpretive Centre’s website description of the monument shown in Figure 4.

“A bronze monument  was dedicated on July 6, 1912 to the memory of Samuel de Champlain.  It is 34 feet high and rising 61 1/2 feet above the level of the lake.  The plaque was unveiled on July 19, 1959 by the citizens of Plattsburgh to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Discovery of Lake Champlain.  The memorial to Samuel Champlain consists of a statue and pedestal standing on a terrace of Massachusetts pink granite, in a park over-looking Lake Champlain. Its base is surrounded by a granite seat and ornamented in front by the figure of a crouching Indian with bow and shield, carved in granite; at each side by a canoe prow with trophies typical of America in Champlain’s time; and at the rear by a bronze tablet bearing the names of the Commissioners.  The canoe prows were chosen because the birch bark canoe is one of the highest achievements, both constructively and artistically, of any primitive race[6], and is typical of Eastern North America.  Strongly and ingeniously made of materials found in the woods, seaworthy, capable of carrying a heavy load, and so light that it could easily be carried from one waterway to another, it provided the quickest and easiest means of travel for the Indians and for the explorers of this part of the country.  The upper part of the pedestal is decorated with carved garlands of Indian corn.

 The statue of Champlain, which is nearly 12 feet high and of bronze, represents him in his soldier costume holding in his hand the arquebuse of which he speaks in his memoirs.  This and his breastplate, helmet or morion, cloak, doublet, boots, and sword follow carefully the style of the period.”[7]

That final comment makes me wonder how accurately the granite Indian’s clothing and accessories followed the style of the period.  Why there was no praise of the fineness of the sculpturally rendered Indian crouching at Champlain’s feet.[8]

Plattsburgh Monument to Champlain

Figure 4. Monument to Samuel de Champlain at Plattsburgh, New York, erected 1912.

I found it astonishing that a modern website by a community association continues to describe Native Americans and First Nations peoples as a “primitive race,” and does so specifically in the context of a monument to Samuel de Champlain.  Nevertheless, this quoting of their text is useful in illustrating the original context and meaning inherent in such monuments, and provides evidence that this meaning is still being articulated today.

The Scout in its new location


Figure 5.  The Anishinabe Scout in it’s new location.

Returning to the Ottawa Monument to Samuel de Champlain, I think it is important to observe the differences in clothing worn by the two men.  Champlain is elegantly dressed whereas the Scout is nearly nude.  The Scout should be wearing leggings in addition to the breechclout.  Additionally, a blanket was often worn draped over the shoulders. [9] He is scantily clad and his musculature is depicted in great detail. Whether or not the artist intended his sculpture of the Indian scout to be symbolic of an exotic, sexual “other,” many people do seem to relate to the sculpture as such.  Notice how the newspaper photographs show women casually draping an arm over the shoulder of the sculpted figure in Figure 6? In the one photograph where a man is also posed with the sculpture, he makes no such intimate contact. The women are clearly responding to the Indian scout as a sexual object of desire.[10]  So far, we are operating within the familiar territories of theories of spectatorial desire applied to a sexualized, racialized other.

Even though public opinion in general was against any alteration of the Champlain Monument, the NCC adhered to their original decision to remove and then relocate the Anishinabe Scout.  One of the primary justifications made to the public was that the Scout was not part of the original sculptural program, but was a later addition, and was only partially completed at that.  The sculptor’s rights to the work had expired fifty years previously, and thus there was no legal barrier to the removal of the bronze Indian from the pedestal base.[11]

In the end, the Anishinabe Scout was moved to a new location overlooking the Ottawa River, a solitary figure placed amongst landscaping done with native plants.  The photograph gives a somewhat inaccurate impression of the environment the Scout was installed in.  It is very near a busy roadway.  In Hill’s performance video, the ambient sound is that of heavy traffic moving at high speeds.

Joe’s Connection With The Oka Conflict

The word “Lasagna” in the title of the performance video Joe Scouting for Cigar Store Lasagna is a reference coming out of Canada’s Oka Conflict.  “Lasagna” was the nickname of a Mohawk warrior involved in that conflict.  In their archived documentation of televised events from the Oka crisis, the CBC observes that a September 1, 1990 event captured on camera, a chilling stare-off between a Canadian soldier and a Mohawk warrior nicknamed Lasagna[12], has comes to personify the gulf between the native and non-native populations in Canada. Although the actual confrontation lasted mere seconds, the image would become a lasting symbol of the stand-off.[13]  In the footage, a Mohawk man in camouflage army fatigues, bandana tied over the lower portion of his face, and a hat with eagle feathers tied with a bit of red cloth to the back of the hat, stands toe to toe with a Canadian military officer while the two men trade strong words. The Mohawk man in the CBC footage was misidentified as Ronald Cross.  The true identity of the warrior has not been publicized, but the misidentification stuck, and brought Lasagna much notoriety.  In the absence of a corrected identity, the name Lasagna is still used in connection with this incident.  Ronald Cross died in 1999 of a heart failure at the age of 41.   His early death may be a factor in the continued association of his name with this pivotal confrontation, primarily as a means of honoring the memory of the deceased.

Go to http://www.davidneel.com/dneelart/Portfolio.html#PhotoArt

Figure 7. David Neel, Oka (Life on the 18th Hole, 1990, serigraph based on the image of “Lasagna” in heated verbal confrontation with a Canadian soldier. David neel has done additional artworks based on the Champlain Monument. See http://www.rabble.ca/news/steeling-gaze

The Oka conflict, which took place over the course of eleven weeks during the summer of 1990, stemmed from the proposed expansion of a municipal golf course onto traditional Mohawk burial grounds that were part of an ongoing, unresolved land dispute.[14]  Mohawks protested the development and the federal government’s failure to either resolve the land claim or halt development until the claim could be resolved.  Provincial police and the Canadian military engaged in heated and sometimes violent conflict with the Mohawk people who had gathered there to physically block access to their burial grounds in order to protect them from imminent destruction by the developers.  Quebec police in riot gear charged the defenders’ barricades in a hail of bullets and tear gas on July 11th.  The only fatality was one of the police officers.  Both sides claim the other fired first.  The crisis continued until the Mohawks surrendered on September 26, 1990.  The effects of the Oka crisis were not limited to immediate area, but sparked sympathy protests elsewhere in Canada, some of which resulted in riots and violence.  The Oka conflict is credited with a 32% increase in voluntary military enlistment for the month of August 1990 over the same month the previous year.[15]  Oka has had ongoing effects in Canada, as evidenced by the CBC’s periodic revisiting of the crisis through radio and television broadcasts such as Oka: a Year later, and Oka: Five Years Later, and Oka: Ten Years Later[16].

The events at Oka have had profound effects on Native communities in Canada and land claims problems and protests continue.  A number of Native artists have used the events at Oka in their work.  In his book The Trickster Shift, Alan J. Ryan looks at Oka as a theme in individual works by Bill Powless, Bob Boyer, Gerald McMaster, David Neel (Figure 7), Rebecca Belmore, Ron Noganosh, and Shelley Niro, among others.

Greg Hill brings Oka into his performances Joes Scouting for Cigar Store Lasagna and Real Live Bronze Indian by wearing camouflage clothing rather than approximating the clothing (or lack of clothing) depicted on the Anishinabe Scout.  In these performances, Hill uses references to Oka to link land claim issues with the visual relationship between the monumental representation of Champlain and the trivializing placement of the unidentified Anishinabe Scout at the base of the monument.  In the case of the Anishinabe Scout, the local First Nations communities succeeded in altering an objectionable Canadian national monument, a very different outcome than at Oka, where even though the mayor eventually decided not to proceed with the golf course, the First Nations communities did not feel any sense of closure. Legal proceedings dragged on.  Shortly after the end of the Oka crisis, the mayor of Oka (Jean Oullette) publicly stated that he stood by his decision to call in the Quebec police and that he would not do anything differently. He was reelected the following year. http://archives.cbc.ca/war_conflict/civil_unrest/topics/99-583/

Canadian and provincial government spent ten times the annual federal budget for resolving land claims and the $200 million dollars spent trying to remove the Mohawk resistors from their burial site far exceeded the value of the land. http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/41/350.html The issue was not resolved until 1997, when the federal government purchased the disputed land and permitted the expansion of the Mohawk cemetery.

Enacting Knowledge: the Past within the Present

Greg Hill’s performance Joe Scouting for Cigar Store Lasagna is a metaphorical re-enactment (or an enactment) of the move of the Anishinabe Scout into its new position.  By assuming the Scout’s identity, Hill animates and humanizes the statue.  He makes tobacco offerings at the beginning and ending of the Scout’s journey.  This is an honoring of the Scout, a form of spiritual and personal exchange, of gifting, a deep indicator of respect and part of a conceptual transfer from Anishinabe Scout as an object to the Anishinabe Scout as a an embodiment of Indigenous agency, a being possessed of power, agency, and will.  I find it significant that Hill chose to assume the Scout’s kneeling position oriented in profile against the base of the monument, rather than facing the same direction as Champlain.  This small alteration of orientation implies two men, or two cultures, at cross-purposes, rather than united in Champlain’s exploratory and appropriative mission.  This is a subtle refutation of the “partnership” readings placed onto the former configuration by the artist’s descendents.

Rather than staging a literal re-enactment of the move with the required heavy equipment, workers in hardhats, and the trappings of a construction site, Hill uses his own body to stand-in for the presence of the now-absent Anishinabe Scout.   Through Hill’s actions, the Anishinabe Scout is understood to have walked, of his own volition, the route to his new site.  Hill stops periodically and assumes the static pose of the scout, kneeling on sidewalk, grass or street for several minutes before continuing on.  When he pauses in the middle of the street, he aligns himself so that he faces in the same direction as the double yellow dividing line that he kneels upon.  The yellow lines beneath him have been altered though: they have each been covered over with a stripe of deep purple.  This is an important symbolic gesture.  He has managed to transform the double yellow line that in traffic parlance means “do not cross,” or “no passing zone” into a reference to the Two-Row wampum belt which symbolizes two canoes, or two cultures, traveling down a river.  They are separate, but both travel the same direction, both using the currents of the river, both dependent upon the river.  In this fashion, the relocation of the sculpture is contextualized as an act of self-determination, symbolic of the Native community’s own self-determination.  He also invokes the Two Row Wampum belt for its ideological purpose of modeling peaceful coexistence despite cultural difference.  The implication is that the shifting of the Anishinabe Scout is a small move toward a better relationship between Canadian and First Nations peoples.

Real Live Bronze Indian

Hill uses slides and video footage from Joe Scouting for Cigar Store Lasagna as the backdrop for his performance Real Live Bronze Indian, and thus brings in the complicated series of references I have detailed above  While the real-life Greg Hill stays relatively motionless on the pedestal in the gallery, the Scout projected over him and onto the wall behind him takes on life and moves to the new site.  Hill himself is stationary in the gallery, and for most of the performance he mimics the pose of the bronze Anishinabe Scout, that kneeling posture with one knee on the ground, the other foot planted on the ground so that the knee rises to form a right angle.  One hand has odd grip on open air.  The other hand holds a staff planted in the ground.  The odd hand position is a result of the failure of the fundraising organization that gifted the sculpture to raise the funds to complete the work.  The Anishinabe Scout was supposed to be positioned kneeling in the bottom of a bronze canoe, holding a paddle in his hands.   The sculpture was put into place at the base of the Champlain Monument without these accoutrements .

Hill’s work with the Scout as (a) subject continues to take new forms.  The most recent addition to this particular body of work is a temporary and unauthorized placement of a canoe at the base of the Champlain Monument, seen in Figure 6.  The canoe is made of modern materials: cereal boxes, which Hill associates with modern life, particularly with the domestic material and detritus that arises from his own daily ritual of breakfast with his children.  Here, too, Hill has placed the canoe cross-wise in front of the monument.  The canoe crosses Champlain’s path rather than serving as a vessel for his economic and colonizing missions in the region.

Greg Hill, Cereal Box Canoe, 2000

Figure 8. Greg Hill’s cereal-box canoe temporarily placed in front of Ottawa’s Monument to Samuel de Champlain. For a video of a performance using a cereal box canoe, see : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W-1_N9ZlJPM

Through this body of work, Hill performs knowledge: the knowledge of the previous relationship between the Champlain Monument and the Anishinabe Scout, the community debate over that sculptural relationship, the partial completion and alterations to the monument over the years that occurred first as a result of omission, then as a result of Indigenous activism, the relationship between that conflict and the larger and more deadly Oka conflict, and the removal and new installation of the Anishinabe Scout as a single work in dialogue with a landscaped environment. The Scout finally stands apart from the ethnocentric glorification of French “discovery” and appropriation of lands and the subjugation of its indigenous peoples that was the beginning of the life of this sculpture.  Hill’s performances based on this monument unite past and present.  One of the criticisms that Ottawans made of the alteration of the monument was that First Nations peoples were trying to re-write history or erase the past.  Hill’s performances keep the past alive in a way that it never was before.

Hill assumes the Scout’s posturing and holds it for and extended period of time:

“I decided it would be interesting to turn the tables on the audience—the scout refuting its position as a passive object—and became instead an obnoxious subject.  While remaining in the scout pose, I began to shout at the audience, heckling them to come back and take pictures of me (with a camera that I supplied).  I was acting out what I imagined the scout would feel—frozen there, in bronze—and used as a popular prop for tourist photos.”[17]

Hill plays with the Scout as a static, passive object and as a symbol that has a life in the imagination of the community in which it is located (and re-located).   He imbues the Scout not only with agency, but with humor and irony.

With his personification of the Anishinabe Scout, Hill has stepped outside of Western theory and is engaging in a performance, an enactment of memory in which the sculpture (perceived through non-Native eyes as being an object) is revealed as a subject, a subject whose agency, whose ability to act is created by a fundamental conception of the being-ness of all things, that is, there is no thing.  There is no it.  There is presence inherent in all about us. Hill’s performance stems from a world-view in which all “objects” are inhabited and therefore are subjects, and he has made artistic decisions in the concepts, enactments and evolutions of this set of performances that take the debate about the alteration of the monuments into an entirely different philosophical and metaphysical realm. This body of work by Greg Hill calls the foundations of Canadian Nationalism into question, and so much more.  He not only enacts the past by offering himself as the embodiment of the mobile Anishinabe Scout, he also draws in his audience, the community, into re-enacting their previous proprietary relationship with the sculpture by inviting, even heckling them to have their picture taken with him, the Real Live Bronze Indian.

Photograph from The Figure 9. Ottawa Citizen newspaper (10/4/96) Photograph by Bruno Schlumberger

[1]I have not seen this performance for myself, but have I have twice experienced the work through another kind of performance: on two occasions, I have seen the artist make excellent, detailed presentations of this performance using slides and video.  The first time was for a small audience of only twelve people hosted by the Otsego Institute of Native American Art History in 2001 in Cooperstown, New York.  The second time was for an audience of over one hundred people for the IndianActs conference in Vancouver, Canada in 2002.  The artist described the work and showed slides and video from the performances, provided an artist’s statement, and answered questions.

[2] Personal communication, December 2004.

[3] Here, I have used the term American-ness to designate the continent as a whole, rather than referring only to the country of the United States.

[4] The Ottawa Citizen, “The Battle of Nepean Point,” by Kelly Egan, Friday, October 4, D3.

[5] The Ottawa Citizen, “Sculptor’s FamilyVows to Fight NCC,” by Jack Aubry, Monday October 7, 1996, D2.

[6] My emphasis.

[7] http://warof1812trail.com/champlainmonument.htm  (please note that the original link I had here has been updated. This is a Boy Scouts of America website and the original url changed recently. This link works again as of July 11, 2010).

[8] Perhaps an Indian scout is just one of those necessary accessories for any European explorer.

[9] Xxx.

[10] For an extensive analysis of the Indian male as sexual object, see.  Dressing in Feathers: The Construction of the Indian in American Popular Culture, Elizabeth Bird, ed. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996.)

[11] Jack Aubry, “Indian Scout Figure on Disputed Statue was a Late Addition,” from The Ottawa Citizen, October 3, 1996, C1.

[12] Ronald Cross earned the nickname “Lasagna” from his mother’s frequent  Italian cooking.

[13] From commentary accompanying the documentation of a September 2, 1990 broadcast segment “Oka Stare-Off.”

[14] Ryan, 69.

[15] Ryan, 238.

[16] Ryan lists a number of sources for insider’s account of the events at Oka in a footnote on page 226 of Trickster Shift.

[17] Greg Hill, Artist’s Statement, 2002.