Accepted Paper:

To break a copper: protocol risk, performance art, category paradox  


Charlotte Townsend-Gault (University of British Columbia)

Paper short abstract:

Breaking a Kwakwaka'wakw copper enhances the status of its owner while casting aspersions on the status of the fragment's recipient. Artist Chief Beau Dick's unprecedented public enactment before the British Columbia legislature activated regimes of validation from art, ethnography and politics.

Paper long abstract:

Sanctioned variously in Kwakwaka'wakw practice, memory, and ethnographic record, the breaking of a copper, ultimate symbol of wealth, has long enhanced the status of its owner while casting aspersions on the status of the recipient of the broken fragment. In September 2013 artist and chief Beau Dick (Namgis of the Kwakwaka'wakw) broke a copper on the steps of the British Columbia Legislature in the capital of a Canadian province notorious for its failure to settle Native land claims. The ceremony never before performed in public also drew attention to the dwindling stocks of Pacific salmon. The Face book announcement superimposed a famous Edward Curtis photograph of a Kwakwaka'wakw man holding a copper against the ornate colonial architecture of the Legislature. Image and idea sent a frisson though communities and social media: breaking a copper in public was either breaking a taboo, or setting a precedent in using the hitherto protected power of an Indigenous practice to demote that of the colonial authority, or it was performance art before a local audience historically primed for the affective dimension of any public appearance of 'the Native'. Since Hal Foster identified 'the artist as ethnographer', and Fred Myers drew attention to conflicting 'regimes of value' around Indigenous art, it is argued that this public breaking of a copper activated what are better termed regimes of validation as community debate, ethnographic turn, and contemporary art theory act, or fail to act, together.

Panel P021
Converging worlds: anthropology and art history (JASCA panel)