Spotlight on Research: Malissa Phung on Indians on Tour

Malissa Phung is a second-generation settler descendant of Sino-Vietnamese refugees who have resettled on the territories of the Cree, Blackfoot, Métis, Nakado, and Tongva peoples. She is honoured and privileged to now live and work as an uninvited guest on the territories of the Huron-Wendat, Mississauga, Haudenosaunee, Anishnaabe and Algonquin peoples. Her research focuses on Asian-Indigenous relations, Asian diasporic culture, decolonial advocacy, and anti-racism in an intersectional framework. Having completed her PhD Dissertation—Reaching Gold Mountain: Diasporic Labour Narratives in Chinese Canadian Literature Film—at McMaster University, she currently teaches English and Communication at Trent University and Sheridan College.

Unpacking the Parallel Layers of Sino-Indigenous Absence in

Jeff Thomas’ Indians on Tour and First Spike Series

By Prof. Malissa Phung (English)

This past year, I was fortunate to have been invited by Marsya Maharani, Assistant Curator at Sheridan’s Creative Campus Galleries, to be part of their Winter 2018 Lunch and Learn sessions. This was a wonderful program of speakers and event programming organized in collaboration with the Centre for Indigenous Learning and Support around the gallery’s exhibition of Jeff Thomas’ Indians on Tour series. Having acquired five images from his larger series, the gallery planned to kick off the exhibition with a series of public talks and film screenings that used the images from his Indians on Tour (which can also be viewed here from his website) as a springboard to initiate a public dialogue on Indigenous art, history, and ways of knowing with the wider Sheridan community.


As demonstrated by the Creative Campus Galleries program listed here, this was an impressive line-up that featured important documentaries such as Neil Diamond’s (Cree) Reel Injun (2009), Alanis Obomsawin (Abenaki) Trick or Treaty? (2014), and Sarah Roque (Métis) Six Miles Deep (2009), a public screening of must-see docs for students and faculty members interested in learning about the history of the reductive and harmful representations of Indigeneity in Hollywood cinema; the signing of Treaty 9 and the Canadian government’s failed obligations to the Indigenous peoples of present-day northern Ontario and Quebec; and the contributions of a group of women leaders from Six Nations to the land defense actions organized by members of the Haudenosaunee peoples in 2006. If you haven’t yet seen and weren’t able to see these films due to the middle-of-semester crunch, I would highly recommend that you watch them on your own time, as it is important to learn about these histories and perspectives as residents and guests on these lands.

Sandwiched in between these film screenings were also discussions led by a diverse array of Indigenous guest speakers: such as Chief Stacey LaForme of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation as well as Indigenous arts and media practitioners Bonnie Devine (Anishinaabek descendant of Serpent River First Nation); Meagan Byrne (Métis); Couzyn van Heuvelen (Inuk), whose public art installation Nitsiit, is currently on display at Sheridan’s HMC campus; and of course, Jeff Thomas (Iroquois) himself! I mean, how cool is that? Talk about Indigenizing the academy!

As the only non-Indigenous person in this line-up, I was tasked to use one of Thomas’ photos (Buffalo Dancer at the New Chinatown Arch, Ottawa) as a jumping point to link the research that I have done on conceptualizing and building Asian-Indigenous relations. Marsya had come to know of my work through a well circulated essay of mine that was published by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation in a cool collection featuring people of colour’s thoughts on building reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. The volume is entitled Cultivating Canada: Reconciliation through the Lens of Diversity, which is provided for free here by the organization. In my piece that appears in that 2011 volume—“Are People of Colour Settlers Too?”—I asked a rhetorical question: could we consider visible minority communities to be settlers? This has been a question that raised much controversy and contention over the usage of the term within and beyond the academy since critics of the terminology would argue that settlement implies a choice. To be sure, not every migrant is an economic migrant who moved to Canada to pursue better job or business opportunities; and not every migrant or refugee would be privileged enough to even choose or be allowed to enter Canada. And of course, on these points, I would agree. But for me, adopting the term settler or settler of colour is more about building relations. It’s about building solidarity and improving relations between Indigenous and visible minority communities. It’s also about acknowledging our status and complicity in the building of a nation that is predicated on the ongoing displacement and dispossession of Indigenous peoples, regardless of the lack or presence of colonial intent or military and legal participation in obstructing Indigenous claims to autochthony on these lands.

I should also mention that the conceptual framework of this essay has come to inform my larger research on remembering and honouring Asian-Indigenous relations through literature, documentaries, and public monuments. In my PhD dissertation—Reaching Gold Mountain: Diasporic Labour Narratives in Chinese Canadian Literature and Film—I looked at stories about Chinese railway workers, stories about Chinese restaurant owners, essentially narratives about the Chinese Head Tax generation, the early Chinese immigrants who had to pay a prohibitive immigration fee simply because they were Chinese. In this study, I was curious about the ways in which contemporary Chinese Canadian authors and artists remembered and honoured the labour contributions of the early Chinese immigrants. On the one hand, I understood that it is important to commemorate these stories when the labour of these migrants, especially that of the Chinese railway workers, was not even included in official Canadian history nor was their labour properly remunerated as these workers were often paid a fraction of what white men were paid for the same kind of work. But on the other hand, I kept returning to a question informed by a settler of colour critique. I asked that when we go about memorializing these stories, when we go about asking for national recognition and belonging, what else do we end up celebrating? In short, I claimed that in asking for political recognition and inclusion by the nation state, we end up supporting and legitimating the structures and institutions of settler colonialism that have worked to displace, dispossess, and disrupt Indigenous peoples and their ways of living off the land.

Informed by this research background, I began my contribution to the Lunch and Learn sessions by analyzing the historical layers that resonated for me in Thomas’ Buffalo Dancer at the New Chinatown Arch, Ottawa. To briefly contextualize, Thomas’s Indians on Tour features a plastic toy “Indian” figure placed prominently in front of iconic and often urban Canadian landscapes, such as Toronto’s CN tower or Ottawa’s Parliament building. Much of his fascinating photography raises important questions about Indigenous absence from Canadian history, documentary photography, and art; but his visual practice also works to create a visual archive that reinserts and emphasizes Indigenous presence and priority into iconic visual landscapes typically associated with Canadian national identity. In short, the appearance of his toy “Indian” figures makes a necessary intervention that unsettles the ways in which we have become accustomed to thinking about Canadian nationalism, contemporary landscapes, and tourism. So for me, the questions that Buffalo Dancer at the New Chinatown Arch, Ottawa raises about the Chinese Canadian community’s complicity in naturalizing Indigenous absence or irrelevance are provocative and necessary to think through even when one takes into consideration the history of Chinese exclusion and racial discrimination in Canada.

In my talk, I also brought in an image from Thomas’ First Spike series (available here) in which he positions Buffalo Dancer in front of an iconic symbol of Canadian nationalism and modernity, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), to ask compelling questions about Canadian history and nation-building. As he puts it, “What role did Indigenous people play in railroad history?” More than that, he asks how does combining historical research and photographs of contemporary railroad sites across the country inspire “a conversation about historical narratives that extol nation building yet leave out stories of Indigenous people who were ‘in the way’ of the transcontinental railroad route [ignoring] how badly they had suffered” as a result” (Thomas para. 2)?

As Thomas has been working on these sets of questions, asking about the absence of Indigenous presence and priority in Canadian narratives and symbols of national unity and progress, Chinese Canadian authors and artists have been asking similar questions about another absence, that of the Chinese labourer, in particular, the Chinese railway worker. In Canadian railway history, there is this famous photograph taken in 1885 known as The Last Spike (available here), in which Donald Alexander Smith, a CPR financier, drives in the so-called Last Spike to commemorate the completion of the transcontinental railway. It should be noted that Indigenous people are ostensibly absent from this photograph, and so are the Chinese railway workers who worked on the most dangerous stretches of the CPR. Yet this photograph has taken on enormous significance in Canadian history, for it is commonly stated that without the completion of the railroad from coast to coast, Canada as we know it today would be very different. In fact, Vancouver and most of British Columbia as we know it would probably be American!

Now, what’s interesting about thinking through Chinese Canadian history alongside Indigenous history is that here we have these parallel histories of absence and oppression in Canadian railroad historiography and documentary photography and yet they are hardly discussed in relation to one another. In historical accounts of the Chinese contributions to the completion of the CPR, much is established of their dangerous and exploitative working conditions. Hundreds of Chinese died on the job as they were assigned the most dangerous work and were often paid a fraction of white wages at the time. But as the Chinese were being imported as cheap and disposable labour, Indigenous nations and communities were displaced and uprooted through an uneven treaty making process to make way for a public and private enterprise to increase, preferably white and non-Indigenous, settlement across the prairies so as to curb potential invasion of these territories by foreign and American settlers. Without any consultation with the Indigenous communities and nations living there, it was simply decided by the Dominion government that the prairies were free lands that could be given away to the CPR to assist in the Confederation of all the Canadian provinces. As a result, Indigenous peoples like the Blackfoot, Cree, and Métis were forced to relocate. Although some were offered reservations, many communities did not believe that their land and sovereignty rights were going to be protected, so they organized an armed five-month resistance, well known in Canadian history books as the North-West Rebellion, that basically scared the bejesus out of government officials in Ottawa.

Many Canadians may have been taught this history. But what does not get emphasized enough in these history books is the pivotal role that the CPR played in securing the power of the colonial state. Indeed, without the offer of the CPR’s partially completed line to quickly move 3000 soldiers westward from Ontario, the North-West Rebellion, or North-West Resistance, would have turned out very differently as “it was the railway, rather than the military, that tipped the balance of power with Indigenous peoples and made the outcome of the struggle for the western territories inevitable” (Francis 66-67).

In thinking about these parallel railroad histories, it becomes apparent that bringing attention to the exploitation and exclusion of Chinese migrants in the nation’s historical record takes on a complicated and multiply layered moral register. These migrants were not the only community who were subjugated and disavowed in Canada’s railroad history. And while their historical experience was certainly unjust, leveraging claims for Chinese belonging and recognition for being indispensable nation builders overwrites the experiences of Indigenous displacement and dispossession that were central to the building of the railway in the first place. One history could not have happened without the other, which makes the histories of these communities not equal but parallel and interconnected.

If Thomas’ Indians on Tour series works to incorporate and emphasize the presence and priority of Indigeneity in urban Canadian landscapes, the images of Buffalo Dancer placed in the foreground of the CPR and the Chinatown archway in Ottawa invite a reading of another significant absence: that of the Chinese migrant/settler community in Indigenous resurgence and reconciliation projects. These are two communities who rarely get discussed in relation to one another in mainstream society, let alone get placed in juxtaposition to each other in Canadian visual art and documentary photography. So when this juxtaposition occurs, it becomes a striking and provocative pairing that has the potential to spark a much needed dialogue between these communities if we are taught to see and understand them as interconnected peoples. From my viewpoint, there is an invitation here to unpack and learn about their historical parallels, to elicit further understanding of settler responsibilities to Indigenous peoples, to hopefully foster more relation building between these communities, and to no longer see visual representations of Indigenous absence as inevitable or irrelevant to the contemporary urban landscapes through which we all move.