How pop culture stereotypes shaped Métis artist's self-identity

Comic books and plastic toys meld with family history in Kim Stewart's new exhibit in Prince George, B.C.

Comic books and plastic toys meld with family history in Kim Stewart's new exhibit in Prince George, B.C.

Kim Stewart drew comic book-style images of her father based on stories he told her about his life as part of an exhibit taking on stereotypes of Indigenous people in North America. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Growing up, Kim Stewart knew she had some Indigenous background, but she had little sense of what that meant.

So, she and her brother pieced together her own ideas through comic books, movies and other pieces of pop culture, such as the comic book series "Indian Chief," which portrayed men in headdresses wrestling grizzly bears and raising tomahawks in battle.

"We had no other way to know how to be Indigenous," she said.

That blend of identity and stereotypes is explored in a new exhibit at the Two Rivers Gallery in Prince George, B.C. titled "Injun-uity: Growing Up Pop," which remixes the pop culture of Stewart's youth with new creations.

Stewart collected portrayals of Indigenous people from stores, souvenir shops and garage sales across western Canada. She bought the plastic 'Wild West' toys at craft retailer Michael's in 2017, shortly before the item was pulled from stores due to complaints. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Today, Stewart self-identifies as Métis, but growing up in various communities around Alberta, she only had small hints of what that meant, such as her Michif-speaking grandmother and her father's lessons about berry picking.

"My parents hid that [my identity] from me as a protection for me and my brother," she said. "So that, when we grew up, we wouldn't experience the same kinds of problems that my dad did growing up."

She did experience some problems, though, such as an incident in school when her classmates called her "traitor" after learning of her Métis background, a reference to Louis Riel's resistance to Canadian government policies in the 1880s.

Pennants made of a Hudson's Bay Blanket and pieces of an old Canadian history book about Louis Riel's 'Revolt on the Plains.' (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Riel is present in some of the pieces in the exhibit, as is her father, who is depicted as a hero on comic book covers Stewart painted to display alongside real ones she had blown up for display.

Some of the images are based on stories he told her about his life, while others are based on her own memories, including one of two children in a crowd watching a classic western at a drive-in theatre.

 "My father was a projectionist, and he used to show a lot of cowboy and Indian shows ... in Grande Prairie," she said.

"So I created a scene where the "Indians" have ridden in to watch the cowboys on the screen."

'Injun-uity, or Growing Up Pop' is on display at the Two Rivers Gallery in Prince George, B.C. until July 8. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Stewart said while she finds the idea of Indigenous people learning their heritage through pop culture humorous, it's also not far off from her own experience.

The exhibit also includes objects collected from garage sales and thrift shops across Western Canada, such as a bust of a man in a headdress that doubles as a whiskey decanter.

Stewart said if she saw that object being sold today, "I'd be pretty horrified," but she also thinks it's important to collect the pieces, so their existence isn't forgotten.

Listen to an interview with Stewart.

The CBC's Andrew Kurjata speaks with Kim Stewart about her new exhibit at the Two Rivers Gallery in Prince George. 8:00

And not everything that might be deemed offensive is old. There are various scenes created using a set of "Wild West" plastic figurines Stewart bought from the craft retailer Michael's in 2017, shortly before they were pulled from shelves due to complaints.

Stewart said she views the exhibit as a combination of satire, education and remembrance blended with a sense of humour, something else she got from her dad who passed away 25 years ago.

"I thought about him many times [while preparing the exhibit]," she said. "I can hear him laughing at me." 


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About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

@akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is a radio producer and digital journalist in northern British Columbia, situated in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh in Prince George. Email: andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca | Twitter: @akurjata | Secure PGP: http://www.akurjata.ca