Stereotypes from the frontier

Indian Princesses and Cowgirls, a collaborative publication by Marilyn Burgess and Gail Guthrie Valaskakis, with a bookwork by Rebecca Belmore, originates from the exhibition of the same name. Mapping post-colonial North American identity through the archetypes of the fair Indian princess and subversive cowgirl, the authors use archival images, stories and testimonies to re-appropriate the appropriation of First Nations culture.

Luscious illustrations testify to the proliferation of the Indian princess and cowgirl icons in popular culture since the turn of the century. Valaskakis investigates the glaring discrepancy between real First Nations identity and that created by White culture. As a fabricated archetype and White mainstream fetish, the alluring sexual mystery of the “savage” princess served to maintain the status quo and regulate the “other” through sexual spectatorship.

Belmore’s bookwork presents a contemporary imaging of the First Nations woman. Five Sisters, a series of five photographs showing a spectrum of identities, refreshingly questions the positioning of twentieth-century First Nations feminism.

Burgess traces the roots of the cowgirl in the “white savage” – the “wild” White girl brought up by Indians and returned to the White milieu. This blurring of identity, at once White and Indian, masculine and feminine, intriguingly transgresses normative gender roles. That women are the site of such popular cultural appropriation should be of no surprise, for it serves to contain a potentially dangerous cultural and gender “other” in masculinist national ambitions. The location of this very design within a feminist postcolonial perspective extends Indian Princesses and Cowgirls into a new frontier of cultural criticism. V. L.