Invisible Geographies New Media Exhibition



Kwanxwala-Thunder by Sarah Shamash


Brazil/Canada, 2016 | Sarah Shamash (password: thunder)

Kwanxwala-Thunder is a study of the Kwakwaka’wakw, a Pacific Northwest Coast indigenous people, through a women’s football (soccer) team in Alert Bay on Cormorant Island in British Columbia (Canada), where half of the population is indigenous (First Nations).

The film evokes the violence against the Kwakwaka’wakw by foreigners who came to study them, not only the notorious photographer and ethnographer Edward S. Curtis, who monitized salvage anthropology as “exotic” images for a film, titled In the Land of Headhunters aka In the Land of War Canoes (1914), but also by Franz Boas and Robert Gardner, whose more sensitive depictions nevertheless removed evidence of the contemporary struggles faced by the Kwakwaka’wakw.

By appropriating images from Curtis’s film, then layering First Nations voices over the images to offer a counter-narrative, Shamash reclaims history. Her film unsettles assumptions about so-called participatory ethnography, familiar in films by Robert Flaherty and Jean Rouch. As scholars and practitioners of Indigenous media have argued, much cannot be translated into the language of the foreigner with the power and the camera.

The film itself contains original and archival footage, conveying a historical sense of community and sport. Diane Alfred (Honey) explains how the Alert Bay Thunderettes, a team that she founded, traces its roots to the Flying Hens in the early 1950s.

Community elder, Sharon Whonnock, remembers when her grandfather played football in bare feet, on dirt fields, in uniforms hand-made from cloth bags. Another community elder, Pauline Alfred, remembers how few women participated in the past, while William Wasden explains how warfare between tribes would resurface in the football matches.

Younger generations also have their stories. Member of the Thunderettes team, Sydney Cook, describes how her grandfather was the first Native to play on the team at the University of British Columbia — and one of the first Natives to attend the university.

Entwined in this history of women’s football are the histories of forced assimilation by the Canadian state, including instances where children were forcibly removed from their families to attend residential schools where speaking Kwak’wala or other Indigenous languages was forbidden. At the same time, Kwakwaka’wakw youth, male and female, learned football from British missionaries and incorporated it into their culture. The competition of June Sports merged into celebrations marking the beginning of the fishing season.

As football was indigenized, Indigenous rituals were also affected by transnational encounters. Once lasting an entire month, a potlach (meaning “to give”) ceremonial feast, is now condensed to one or two days to accommodate busy work schedules. The ritual is an expression of gratitude to the creator, the planet, and community that involves feasting, singing, dancing, and listening to speeches. The potlach of today thus differs from the one observed by Boas in the 1890s.