ART Insights

by | Jan 24, 2023 | Art Insights

Envisioning Cross-Temporal Collectivity in Indigenous Women’s Labor
Activism through Contemporary Artistic Practice

By Erika Kindsfather, PhD Student, Art History, Concentration in Gender and Women’s StudiesMcGill University—
Department of Art History and Communication Studies, Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies

A picture containing grass, outdoor, sky, tree

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Fig. 1. ReMatriate Collective, YOURS FOR INDIGENOUS SOVEREIGNTY, 2018. Appliqué banner. Collection of the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia, purchased with support from the Canada Council for the Arts, 2019. Photo: Rachel Topham Photography.

In 1971, three white Americans opened the Muckamuck restaurant in Vancouver, advertising Northwest Coast First Nations cuisine.[1] The owners hired mainly Indigenous staff.[2] From 1971 to 1978, many workers expressed grievances about inconsistent scheduling practices, fines, and the unfair firing of employees who advocated for better working conditions.[3] After the Muckamuck workers reported these issues to the Labor Standards Branch, they were told that union affiliation was required to assert their complaints.[4] In 1978, many staff members voted to join the Service, Office and Retail Worker’s Union of Canada (SORWUC), a feminist labor union that allied predominantly women workers in industries that were not organized by the major trade unions.[5] Indigenous women workers were at the forefront of this initiative and turned to SORWUC because of the union’s attention to the overlapping issues of gender and race within labor disputes.[6]On May 28, 1978, the unionized Muckamuck workers voted to strike.[7] The strike lasted for over five years, making it the longest in the history of British Columbia.[8] The Muckamuck restaurant closed in 1980.[9] In March of 1983 the Labor Relations Board ruled that the owners of the Muckamuck restaurant owed the strikers $10,000. This was never paid since the owners returned to the US with no remaining assets in Canada.[1]


[1] Janet Mary Nicol, “’Unions Aren’t Native’: The Mucamuck Restaurant Labor Dispute, Vancouver, BC (1978- 1983),” Labor/ Le Travail 40 (Fall 1997): 235.

[2] “Muckamuck Workers on Strike,” Kinesis: Vancouver Status of Women 7, no. 6 (June 1978): 2.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Nicol, 236.

[5] The industries encompassed by SORWUC have historically employed predominately women workers. Nicol, 236. 

[6] Nicol, 240. 

[7] Indigenous women were the main organizers and leaders of the Muckamuck Strike and were impacted the most by the discrimination and illegal practices of the Muckamuck owners and management, given the fact that women have historically accounted for the majority of service sector positions, especially hosting and serving. Julia Smith, “An ‘Entirely Different’ Kind of Union: The Service, Office and Retail Workers’ Union of Canada (SORWUC), 1972–1986,” Labor/ Le Travail 73 (Spring 2014): 42, 55.

[8] Ibid, 63.

[9] Nicol, 235.

At the Women’s Caucus for Art Panel held at the 2022 College Art Association Annual Meeting, I discussed a series of artworks that engage with the Muckamuck Strike to explore connections among moments in labor justice, feminist, and Indigenous sovereignty activist histories.”

Erika Kindsfather

A group of people holding signs

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Fig. 2. Dana Claxton in collaboration with Sean Griffin, Muckamuck Strike Then and Now, 2018. Photographic mural. Courtesy of the artists.

At the Women’s Caucus for Art Panel held at the 2022 College Art Association Annual Meeting, I discussed a series of artworks that engage with the Muckamuck Strike to explore connections among moments in labor justice, feminist, and Indigenous sovereignty activist histories.  Displayed at the Morris and Hellen Belkin Art Gallery as part of the 2018 exhibition Beginning with the Seventies: Collective Acts, artworks by Hunkpapa Lakota artist Dana Claxton, Vuntut Gwitchin artist Jeneen Frei Njootli and the Indigenous women’s activist group The ReMatriate Collective used the archives of the Muckamuck Strike to consider the complex and generative relationship between past and present activist initiatives. The artists established cross-temporal dialogues through creative engagements of archival materials, envisioning solidarity and collectivity among moments of feminist and Indigenous sovereignty activist activity across time. 


[1] Ibid, 249.

Fig. 3. Dana Claxton in collaboration with Sean Griffin, Muckamuck Strike Then and Now, 2018; and Dana Claxton and Jeneen Frei Njootli, The Sew In, 2018. Courtesy of the artists. Installation view, Beginning with the Seventies: Collective Acts (September 4–December 2, 2018), Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia.) 

cross-temporal dialogues through creative engagements of archival materials, envisioning solidarity and collectivity among moments of feminist and Indigenous sovereignty activist activity across time. 

Inspired by a 1999 article titled “Muckamuck: A Strike for Indian Self-Determination,” the ReMatriate Collective created the banner YOURS FOR INDIGENOUS SOVEREIGNTY, (Fig. 1) that hung on the façade of the gallery during the exhibition, accompanied by a black banner concealing the name of the gallery. The ReMatriate Collective was founded in 2014 by Vuntut Gwitchin artist Jeneen Frei Njootli and Taltan architect Kelly Edzerza-Bapty, who developed the organization to connect and empower Indigenous women and Two-Spirit people through social media activism.[1]  Their work communicates the shifting, yet enduring materialization of Indigenous sovereignty from the 1970s to the present day.[2] The banner draws from the language of archival materials the forms of communication that expressed the Muckamuck Strike’s political framework in its historical moment. Picket signs, leaflets, banners and newspaper coverage of the strike mobilized the activists’ struggle for justice and communicated their aims to the public. Bringing together the language of the newspaper article and the public-facing nature of protest materials, the banner reorients public space through its re-presentation of the rhetoric defining and propelling the politics of the Muckamuck Strike. The public statement and its reference point emphasize the significance of historical Indigenous political organizing to contemporary Indigenous sovereignty activism.[3] By revisiting the newspaper article, the collective declares an enduring connection among these initiatives and continued relevance of the strike’s politics.


[1] “Beginning with the Seventies: Collective Acts- The ReMatriate Collective,” Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, accessed July 20, 2021, https://belkin.ubc.ca/exhibitions/beginning-with-the-seventies-collective-acts/.

[2] “ReMatriate Collective at 259 Lake Shore Blvd E,” Toronto Biennial of Art, accessed July 20, 2021, https://torontobiennial.org/work/rematriate-collective-at-259-lake-shore/.

[3] Joanne Barker, “For Whom Sovereignty Matters,” in Sovereignty Matters: Locations of Contestation and Possibility in Indigenous Struggles for Self-Determination, ed. Joanne Barker (Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 21.

Fig. 4. Dana Claxton and Jeneen Frei Njootli, The Sew In, 2018. Ribbon, sewing machines, sheep skin, irons, ironing boards, tables, chairs and sewing materials. Installation view, Beginning with the Seventies: Collective Acts (September 4 – December 2, 2018), Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia. Photo: Rachel Topham Photography.
 

In the monumental photomural Muckamuck Strike Then and Now (Fig. 2), Dana Claxton inserts members of the ReMatriate Collective into an archival photograph from a newspaper article depicting protesters marching at a Muckamuck Strike picket action in 1978. Claxton’s addition of the ReMatriate Collective members to the group establishes a visualization of cross-temporal solidarity, inviting the viewer to consider the ways that gender justice and Indigenous sovereignty coalesce in diverse practices across time while emphasizing their relationship. The imagined collective of Muckamuck strikers and ReMatriate Collective members troubles conceptualizations of time as a linear phenomenon with distinct delineations of “the past” and “the present,” rather asserting the entanglements of historical activist thought and practice to contemporary social justice organizing. Claxton’s photomural shared the gallery space with The Sew In (Fig. 3 and 4)

Fig. 5. Dana Claxton and Jeneen Frei Njootli, The Sew In, 2018. Ribbon, sewing machines, sheep skin, irons, ironing boards, tables, chairs and sewing materials. Workshop, “Ribbon Skirt Making,” October 19, 2018 at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia as part of Beginning with the Seventies: Collective Acts. Photo: Michael R. Barrick.

This collaborative installation by Claxton and Frei Njootli consisted of an assembly of overturned tables, sewing machines covered in grey fabric cases, and chairs draped with colorful sheepskins. These materials were used during two public workshops— Ribbon Skirt Making and Ribbonizing a Shirt— held by Lakota Woodmountain artist and educator Kim Soo Goodtrack (Fig. 5).[1] The ribbons on a ReMatriate Collective member’s skirt are rendered in color in Claxton’s photomural and ribbons hang from the edges of the ReMatriate Collective’s banner, establishing a dialogue with the installation. This visual connection links ribbon garments and the process of their creation to other forms of activist practices centered on gender justice and Indigenous sovereignty.


[1] “Workshop: Ribbon Skirt Making,” The Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, accessed July 20, 2021, https://belkin.ubc.ca/events/workshop-ribbon-shirt-making/.; “Workshop: Ribbonizing a Shirt.”

Ribbon garments can signify Indigenous resilience against colonialism, the continuation of Indigenous knowledge and culture, and a reclamation of Indigenous women and Two-Spirit people’s agency, power, and self-representation.[1] The installation, workshops, and connection to the works referencing the Muckamuck Strike emphasize the politics of ribbon garments and their role in generating avenues of Indigenous knowledge-sharing, cultural continuation, and community collaboration. 

The artists’ engagements with the Muckamuck Strike establishes ground to relate historical and contemporary activist strategies and initiatives in terms that emphasize continuation and exchange across moments of social justice organizing. Through these imagined connections, the artists draw attention to Indigenous women’s leadership in activist activity across time, subvert the erasure of these histories from narratives of social justice organizing, and envision cross-temporal solidarity and relationality among people dedicated to Indigenous sovereignty and gender justice activism. 


[1] Kari-Dawn Wuttunee, Jennifer Altenberg, and Sarah Flicker, “Red Ribbon Skirts and Cultural Resurgence (kimihko sîmpân iskwêwisâkaya êkwa sihcikêwin waniskâpicikêwin),” Girlhood Studies 12, no. 3 (January 2019): 63–79.

Works Cited

Barker, Joanne. “For Whom Sovereignty Matters.” In Sovereignty Matters: Locations of Contestation and Possibility in Indigenous Struggles for Self-Determination. Edited by Joanne Barker. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 2006. 1-32.

“Beginning with the Seventies: Collective Acts- The ReMatriate Collective.” Morris and Helen   Belkin Art Gallery. Accessed July 20, 2021. https://belkin.ubc.ca/exhibitions/beginning-  with-the-seventies-collective-acts/.

Nicol, Janet Mary. “‘Unions Aren’t Native’: The Mucamuck Restaurant Labor Dispute, Vancouver, BC (1978- 1983).” Labor/ Le Travail 40 (Fall 1997): 235- 251.

“Muckamuck Workers on Strike.” Kinesis: Vancouver Status of Women 7, no. 6 (June 1978): 2. 

Smith, Julia. “An ‘Entirely Different’ Kind of Union: The Service, Office and Retail Workers’  Union of Canada (SORWUC), 1972-1986.” Labor/ Le Travail 73 (Spring 2014): 23- 65.

“ReMatriate Collective at 259 Lake Shore Blvd E.” Toronto Biennial of Art. Accessed July 20,  2021. https://torontobiennial.org/work/rematriate-collective-at-259-lake-shore/.

“Workshop: Ribbon Skirt Making.” The Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery. Accessed July 20,  2021. https://belkin.ubc.ca/events/workshop-ribbon-shirt-making/.

“Workshop: Ribbonizing a Shirt.” The Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery. Accessed July 20, 2021. https://belkin.ubc.ca/events/workshop-ribbon-shirt-making/.

Wuttunee, Kari-Dawn, Jennifer Altenberg, and Sarah Flicker. “Red Ribbon Skirts and Cultural Resurgence (kimihko sîmpân iskwêwisâkaya êkwa sihcikêwin waniskâpicikêwin).”  Girlhood Studies 12, no. 3 (January 2019): 63-79.

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