(b. Buffalo, New York, 1956)
“Artist Greg Hill in His Cereal Box Canoe” (from the series Seize the Space)
Pigment print on archival paper
76.2 x 101.6 cm
© Jeff Thomas, courtesy of the artist
In 2000, Jeff Thomas photographed the artist Greg Hill in his cereal box canoe in front of the 1915 monument to Samuel de Champlain on Nepean Point, in Ottawa. The location, chosen by Hill (b. 1967) as the starting point for a performance, Portaging Rideau, Paddling the Ottawa to Kanata, was the very spot that had previously held a sculpture of a loinclothed Aboriginal scout kneeling at the foot of the French explorer. The performance continued with Hill portaging the canoe through Ottawa to the place where the stereotypical “Indian” had been relocated. By framing Hill in the canoe without showing Champlain, Thomas challenges the outdated view of “Indian-ness” in order to reconstruct Indigenous identity in today’s world.
Although the photograph by Jeff Thomas (Onondaga) and the performance by Greg Hill (Mohawk) date to 2000, these works fittingly represent 1915 here. That year saw the unveiling of the controversial monument to Samuel de Champlain. Defining himself as an “urban Iroquois,” Thomas explores the new Indigenous reality in cities in a practice that combines satire, anthropology and the intention to educate. In associating revisited traditional attributes (headdress and canoe made of modern commercial materials) with the monument commemorating the explorer, Thomas and Hill use parody in public space to expose and dismantle incongruous stereotypes inherited from Canada’s colonial past.
This monument to Samuel de Champlain has a turbulent history. It was unveiled in 1915 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the French explorer’s second voyage on the Ottawa River. Three years later, a crouching sculpture of a loinclothed Aboriginal scout was added on the base, below Champlain. In June 1996, Ovide Mercredi (b. 1946), Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, denounced this clichéd representation and covered the sculpture with a blanket in protest. On October 1, 1999, the National Capital Commission relocated the controversial sculpture to its current home in nearby Major’s Hill Park.