Terrance Houle's The National Indian Leg Wrestling League of North America grapples with identity

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Turns out Terrance Houle and I have some significant points of connection. Yes, we come from different generations and diverse cultural backgrounds—he’s a celebrated artist of Blackfoot descent and I’m a white critic—but, hey, we were both born in Calgary and we both harbour a great fondness for Stampede Wrestling.

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Houle, whose darkly humorous practice includes performance, video, film, photography, and installation, is speaking to the Straight by phone from Cowtown, which is his home base when he’s not travelling the country and the world with his acclaimed art. It’s also where he’s installing the second incarnation of his funny and provocative project The National Indian Leg Wrestling League of North America. The first is on view at the Burnaby Art Gallery.

So, yeah, we’re reminiscing. In my late teens and early 20s, I was a fan of Stampede Wrestling, which produced one of television’s earliest professional wrestling programs and was a forerunner of the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment). Houle remembers it from his childhood, especially during his Blood grandfather’s visits to the family.

“The first thing that he wanted to watch when he arrived was Stampede Wrestling,” he says. Of course, the young Houle viewed the spectacle with his beloved elder. “It was always enjoyable, growing up, to see different wrestlers with Native personas. They had a real power, being warriors again—but warriors in the ring.”

Something of that warrior tradition inflects The National Indian Leg Wrestling League of North America (which rolls off Houle’s tongue as an acronym pronounced “nill-will-na”). The BAG installation consists of a small but functional wrestling ring surrounded by large, wall-mounted photographs of Houle and his fellow NILWLNA participants, all (but one) aboriginal artists. Each is cloaked in a fictional wrestling persona and costume, and each demonstrates the fierce expression and defiant stance of a WWE competitor. Among the nine portraits on view, Sonny Assu (Kwakwaka’wakw) is “Totem Tom Billy”, Peter Morin (Tahltan) is “The Bannock Bruiser”, and Jordan Bennett (Mi’kmaq) is “The Mighty Culloo”. Houle, clad in a wood and leather breastplate and very little else, is “The Blackfooter”. As the work travels, he notes, the “league” will expand to include other artists and incorporate wrestling performances.

The wobble in this work is that it’s not WWE–style wrestling that’s the essential metaphor here, although it is certainly a model for Houle and the artists who collaborated with him on the project. It’s Indian leg wrestling—which isn’t Indian at all. That popular childhood competition, in which opponents lie on their backs, lock legs, and try to flip each other over, originated with the Boy Scouts, Houle says. It endures as yet another example of colonial culture misrepresenting indigenous peoples, which means that, among its hilarious features, NILWLNA also broaches issues of indigenous identity, cultural stereotyping, and the aboriginal body as the repository of a painful history.

“A lot of my work addresses aboriginal positions both historically and present,” Houle explains. “I’m not trying to propose answers, I’m trying to have my audience come into the issues with an empathetic view.” He uses humour as a prime strategy for creating that empathy. Laughter, he explains, is remarkably close to crying as a way of connecting emotionally with his audience, whatever his subject, “whether it’s health and wellness, the idea of land or history or First Nations positions within Canadian society”. Despite their comical and mocking appearance, the images in NILWLNA serve as an assertion, a declaration. In the portraits, the artist explains, “Everyone is strong and confident. They know where they’ve come from and where they’re going.”

These are the same words he uses to describe the sense of identity his parents instilled in him as a child. His father was a sun dancer, a marksman, and a sergeant in the Canadian army; his mother was a fibre artist who taught Houle stitching, beading, and cooking. Both produced ceremonial regalia, took their family with them as they participated in powwows across North America, and demonstrated that it was possible every single day, in inner cities and on army bases, to learn ceremonies, practise traditions, and honour their origins.

“I grew up with punk rock, skateboarding, and powwow dancing,” Houle says. This complexity has fed his art.

In honouring his parents and their history, Houle set aside his humorous strategies for a few years. “I’d been doing a lot of serious, poignant work based on my family,” he says. “Things around reconciliation, my parents’ own experience within the residential-school system, and the tragedies that came out of that. But also looking at them as people who raised aboriginal children in a place that is not inherently aboriginal—in a space that doesn’t recognize indigenous identity. After that, I wanted to get back to my generation—and to look at identity in a humorous way.” Indian leg wrestling, he observes, was “a catalyst for that, for looking at ego, strength, and vulnerability”.

Elements of that ego and vulnerability were on view during the show’s opening-night performance. Dressed as their NILWLNA personas, Houle and Morin confronted each other in the ring, with BAG director-curator Darrin Martens acting as referee.

“The audience loved it,” Houle remarks. “They were chanting. It was like a real wrestling match.”

“Who won?” I ask my fellow Calgarian.

Houle chuckles. “The Blackfooter won.”

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