Ryan has a Ph.D in Anthropology from UBC and he has been a University of Victoria instructor. He is the author of:
The Cowboy/Indian Show: Recent Work by Gerald McMaster. McMichael Canadian Art Collection, 1991.
The Trickster Shift: Humour and Irony in Contemporary Native Art. UBC Press, 1999.
The Trickster Shift (UBC Press $65)
As native artists and curators assertively reclaim their culture, it is sometimes deemed ‘politically incorrect’ for non-Natives to meddle in the sensitive process of interpreting the lives and work of Natives.
W.P. Kinsella, as a storyteller who seeks mainly to entertain, has been taken to task for presenting Native characters. As a provocative feminist, Anne Cameron has responded to similar criticism by deciding not to retell any more Native mythology in her adult fiction.
Meanwhile, in the field of creative non-fiction, Allan J. Ryan and Robert Bringhurst have produced in-depth studies that will make them leading experts in Native art criticism and Haida mythology and linguistics.
Who draws the line between cultural appropriation and responsible inquiry? Does a racial minority ever have a patent on knowledge about their culture? Can scholarship ever be analogous to archeologists plundering treasures from the pyramids?
These unanswerable questions hang in the air as the Nisga’a Agreement moves British Columbians inexorably towards new guidelines for mutual respect and cooperation.
Should a non-Native author ever feel obliged to ask for ‘permission’ to address Native subject matters? Do Native groups ever have the moral right to withhold ‘artistic license?’ Should non-Natives ever feel obliged to share any of the professional benefits that might accrue from studies of Native cultures?
Hundreds of books about Native culture by white authors in British Columbia during the past 30 years have contributed enormously to the development of deeper understanding of this province’s colonial and racist foundation. Allan Ryan and Robert Bringhurst are two more authors continuing within that tradition.
Analogous to some degree to the Western tradition of the jester—exemplified by Shakespeare’s Falstaff or the ‘wise fool’ of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales—the Trickster occupies a position of much greater importance in the stories of North America’s indigenous peoples.
“In the same sense that Jesus Christ stands at the very, very centre of Christian mythology,” says Cree playwright Tomson Highway, “we have a character in our mythological universe, in our dream-life as a people, who stands at the very centre of our universe, and that character is the Trickster.”
In The Trickster Shift (UBC Press $65), Allan J. Ryan explores the presence of the Trickster in the work of more than a dozen contemporary Native visual artists.
Ryan shows how the principal attributes of the Trickster—irony, punning, teasing, surprising associations and compassion—continue to permeate Native cultures today, nourishing, empowering, and protecting those who are able to appreciate the Trickster’s often subtle teachings.
Often incorporating self-ridicule, the Trickster imparts his ‘lessons’ in a variety of guises and forms, usually without didacticism, during his often outrageously humourous adventures.
Looking beyond simplified portrayals of the trickster as ‘Coyote’ or ‘Raven’, Ryan reveals the pervasive scope and influence of the Trickster in creations by Carl Beam, Rebecca Belmore, Bob Boyer, Joane Cardinal-Schubert, George Littlechild, Jim Logan, Gerald McMaster, Shelley Niro, Ron Noganosh, Jane Ash Poitras, Edward Poitras, Paul Powless and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun.
As well, Ryan includes commmentary from the artists, elders, writers, linguists, curators and art histories. “You can always go head on at something, and try to wrestle it to the ground and choke it to death,” says Lawrence Yuxweluptun, “as opposed to setting a trap for it, and opening it up and catching it off-guard.” The Trickster teaches and triumphs with the second method.
Abundantly illustrated with approximately 160 photographs (half of these in colour), The Trickster Shift is not a formal, purely academic study. Its author sees it as “a discourse among tricksters, about tricksters, and even as trickster...” Whenever possible, he has allowed for the voice of the Trickster to assert itself. 0-7748-0704-0 ---By Kevin O’Keeffe
[BCBW SUMMER 1999]