Indigenous art with Jeneen Njootli

Maddie Margioni, Contributing Writer

Jeneen Njootli, a Vuntut Gwitchin artist based in Canada, presented a talk in the Elaine Langone Center Forum on March 26. The talk was part of the University’s Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity & Gender (CSREG) series entitled “Indigeneity: Making the Visible Seen.”


Associate Professor of History and International Relations Cymone Fourshey, a John D. Macarthur Chair of History and International Relations, began the night by stating the mission statement of the CSREG. Their ultimate goal is to “support faculty development, scholarship, and interdisciplinary exchange and collaboration on issues of race, ethnicity, and gender and their intersections with other aspects of difference.”


In introducing Njootli, Fourshey described Njootli’s art as a means of exploring the culture and politics involved in indigenous art through drawing on academic theory and lived experience. “These experiences are not separated from her art, but embedded within it,” Fourshey said.


Njootli recounted growing up in a Vuntut Gwitchin household in Canada where she and her family were “always making” various things. Through that experience in her childhood, she learned that “you can always be the one to change your environment,” which inspires her artwork to this day.


Njootli explained how “bushed theory” is essential to understanding her art. Bushed theory is “a radical, grassroots way of being; one that requires getting some caribou blood and fish guts on your hands.” She also described the phrase “bushed” as a “psychology and way of being rooted in the land.” Njootli explained this central part of her identity led to a culture shock when she began her studies in Vancouver.


Njootli received her master’s degree from the University of British Columbia, and it was during her time there that she became “troubled by the baggage that language has to describe indigenous art.” However, she discovered decolonial theory around this time and felt satisfied with her own history; she likened the experience to “when you read a text and you feel full.” Njootli felt “liberated reading about decolonial theory,” but she also found that she had a different relationship to it than the traditional geopolitical meaning of the idea, which was rooted in Latin America.


One paramount difference related to repatriation that she noted from the standard words used to describe decolonial theory was that Njootli “didn’t feel like the work we were doing was connected to that patriarchal relationship.” As a result of this, she founded the ReMatriate Collective, which is an indigenous women’s art collective that connects people, particularly indigenous people, through art interventions.


Another key point to Njootli’s talk was the focus of nature in her own Vuntut Gwitchin society. Her community is located in the Yukon in Canada and is self-governing. In the harsh climate, nature is an important part of her community’s daily life. Njootli feels that “there are problematic ways which we consume land” and in which we treat nature in modern society.


To showcase the importance of nature in indigenous life, Njootli showed a short film she made, entitled “Being Skidoo.” The film detailed the creation of traditional blankets for skidoos, which are an important mode of transportation in the Yukon. This film also displayed the “contemporary dog sled” and the vital role it plays in Vuntut Gwitchin society. Njootli’s goal with the film was to “show the interdependence” between nature and her own society. She gave the example that the tracks the skidoos make in the snow are used by animals to maneuver around the difficult environment.


In describing her artwork, she spent time on an exhibit of steel, which is used for beadwork transfers. These transfers are of beads that Njootli’s family made. To create the artwork, Njootli presses the beads on her skin and then transfers them to the steel. She stated that this art “has agency over how it’s presenting” as steel rusts over time and adds a new layer to the art.


Additionally, a critical element to Njootli’s art is sound. Most of her art is centered around performance, not just something hanging on a wall. Njootli loves to “turn something into a sound tool,” like her own voice, antlers, an axe, or even a dehumidifier.


“Jeneen Njootli is a very inspiring individual who seeks to both represent as well as protect her indigenous culture through performance, art, and sound. Her art raises interesting discussions about what it means to be indigenous and how self-expression of that heritage is vital when faced with societal stereotypes and viewpoints,” Amy Yowell ’21 said.

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