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Biography 24.1 (2001) 242-258

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Autoethnography and Material Culture: The Case of Bill Reid

Joel Martineau


The Haida and Canadian sculptor Bill Reid (12 January 1920-13 March 1998) is best known for the massive works completed during his final years. Those sculptures became powerful interventions in Haida and Canadian politics and cultures, and helped initiate changes in the ways relations between the cultures are negotiated and understood. His sculptures continue to change identities and serve as correctives to hegemonic power. Reid was also an eloquent writer and orator, who pleaded for a halt to destructive forestry practices and refused to complete The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, which had been commissioned by the federal government and is arguably his most overtly political work, until the Canadian federal and British Columbian provincial governments agreed to address Native land claims.

I argue two mutually reinforcing points in this essay. First, Mary Louise Pratt's theories of autoethnography offer a productive framework for analyzing several important junctures in Reid's artistic career. And second, by considering the material objects Reid produced as autoethnographic texts, much as we might approach written autobiographical works, we can understand more fully the considerable impact of these texts on the cultures they address. I believe in short that the case of Bill Reid extends our notions of autoethnography.


Two primary meanings have evolved for "autoethnography" since Pratt brought the term to widespread attention in 1992. 1 In one meaning the prefix auto refers to the ethnographers, those who observe from outside, so that the term describes the methodology they use to explore the borders between themselves and their subjects of inquiry. As the formerly stable distinctions between familiar and foreign, between observer and observed, dissolve, [End Page 242] writing ethnographies of contemporary life becomes problematic. In response the observers become autobiographical, directing their gazes at their own ethnographic processes. Ideally, they recognize their own lives as stories, which by arranging and linking events, allow the observers to sort through questions of identity. Awareness of these autobiographic impulses enables the observers to analyze cultures critically while taking into account the concreteness and specificity of their own experiences. 2 Deborah E. Reed-Danahay points out that no matter how we define autoethnography, one "of the main characteristics of an autoethnographic perspective is that the autoethnographer is a boundary-crosser, and the role can be characterized as that of a dual [or multiple] identity" (3).

My concern is the other principal meaning of autoethnography, the definition Pratt advances in Imperial Eyes. She directs the prefix auto toward the former object of the ethnography, who reclaims representational space from the ethnographer. Autoethnography is thus a mode by which members of a minority resist a dominating discourse. Pratt lists three requirements for a work to be autoethnographic. First, colonized or neo-colonized subjects must "undertake to represent themselves in ways that engage with the colonizer's own terms" (7). They must return the gaze by writing back. They must seize the means and media that their dominators have used to describe them, and redirect the descriptions. "If ethnographic texts are a means by which Europeans represent to themselves their others," Pratt writes, "autoethnographic texts are those the others construct in response to or in dialogue with those metropolitan representations" (7). Her second requirement is that autoethnographic texts must leave behind autochthonous forms of self-representation to collaborate with and appropriate, at least partially, the idioms of the dominant culture (7). Third, she turns from the production to the reception of such texts, arguing that they "are typically heterogeneous on the reception end as well, usually addressed to metropolitan readers and to literate sectors of the speaker's own social group, and bound to be received very differently by each. Often such texts constitute a group's point of entry into metropolitan literate culture" (7-8).

There are problems with Pratt's formulation. First, it emphasizes the moment of entry into the colonizer's world of textual production, and deflects attention from earlier texts that may have circulated for long periods and achieved...


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