The Art of Offering: A Woodworker’s Lessons on Collaboration
This past winter, woodworker Benjamin Wooten travelled from his Nova Scotia home to take up brief residency in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Art Department. I met him on an unseasonably warm afternoon in the campus wood and furniture studio, its sawdust-coated decor kindling fond recollections of an old boat shop. Sinewy and bearded, Wooten was hunched over a table transcribing words onto wood with a wood-burning pen. He was recording the 1816 Treaty with the Winnebago onto eight bundles of pine firewood, his pen painstakingly skirting the timber’s knots and heeding its undulating grain. The words of the treaty are not his, but he is part of its legacy.
While the treaty purportedly reinstated “peace” and “friendship” between the Winnebago Nation—an American Indian tribe that eventually split into the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin and the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska—and the United States, “peace” and “friendship” did not preclude subsequent decades of Indian removal. The U.S.’s cunning is unexceptional when placed within the historical context of Euro-American settler deceit. Wooten envisioned his residency as a way of reckoning with this history of theft. Symbolically, Wooten directly engaged the words of the treaty, and he chose eight firewood bundles, a deliberate reference to the Seven Fires Prophecy of the Anishinaabe.1 According to Ojibwe-Anishinaabe educator Edward Benton-Banai, the prophecy foretells a period of Anishinaabe revitalization at which time a “light skinned race” will encounter a crossroads. If the path followed is one of integrity instead of iniquity, an eighth and final fire will be set alight, forging an enduring brotherhood and sisterhood amongst all peoples. Wooten completed his eighth bundle at the UW/Native Nations Summit on Environment and Health where he presented it to Ho-Chunk Nation president Jon Greendeer.
While his time at the University of Wisconsin culminated with a gift, Wooten hoped that, in its entirety, his residency would constitute an offering. Wooten recalled how “the words and deeds [of his ancestors] shaped policies of Indian removal and white privilege in what would eventually become the State of Wisconsin.”2 In turn, he sought to “give something, even if only symbolically, as a means of cultivating a spirit of generosity…instead of running the risk of taking, asking for, or expecting.” By giving an offering, Wooten resolved to work against a long history of Native dispossession.3
Also a photographer, Wooten appreciates the effect of adjusting aperture—of opening or closing the space through which light can pass. By way of his residency, Wooten opened a space in which an examination of settler-indigenous relations could take place. By exploring the language of government treaties, as well as personal correspondence between Indian agents, military personnel, and politicians, Wooten sought to reveal how settler-indigenous histories are entangled in unsettling ways. While the firewood bundles are meant to signal to these histories, it was the process of his residency—more than the product—that cast the greatest light on how these histories are ongoing.
As Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson has articulated, acts of narration and recollection—which in the end are acts of representation—have significant consequences for indigenous peoples who strive for autonomy over their own histories.4 In other words, it is not only the story that is important; meaning resides also in how the story is told and in who is telling it. To retell indigenous people’s histories and in terms other than their own is an act of theft, even if the story stems from a place of goodwill. To this end, while Wooten sought to recognize the stories of Ho-Chunk peoples, he did so by focusing on his own story and on how it overlaps with theirs. The silent process of transcribing the treaty—a treaty fabricated in settler terms—reinforced his intent. “[From] the moment I open my mouth on their experience,” he writes, “I have abandoned the essential act of offering, which is first and foremost an act of letting go.”5
How is offering an act of “letting go”? That offering entails letting go is, perhaps, a product of its precariousness. In the end, there is little control over how any offer might be received and over whether or not it will be accepted. What if what is offered falls short of what is needed? What if the offer—both the product and the process—is burdensome for the recipient? These uncertainties demand that anyone who makes an offer must consider what it also means to receive the offer. In other words, the act of offering must be collaborative. While the notion of offering compelled Wooten from the beginning of his residency, its implications expanded as his project developed.
Wooten first proposed problematizing the trafficking of First Nations women from Canada to the United States by way of the Duluth, Minnesota/Thunder Bay, Ontario shipping corridor. As part of this endeavor, he envisioned transcribing onto a wooden surface the names of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. When the wood-burned names covered the whole surface, Wooten intended to remove the text with a hand plane, allowing the shavings to gather in his workspace, after which he would repeat the process on the freshly planed surface. In Wooten’s words, he conceived the act of “using the names temporarily, inscribing, erasing, and re-inscribing, both as [a] critique of the privileged tendency to forget or avoid uncomfortable realities, but also as an act of maintenance, of trying to keep [the women’s] names visible.”6
For Wooten, a critical component of this act of maintaining the memory of missing and murdered Aboriginal women was that it be performed in silence. While he intended to provide a written explanation for viewers, his primary objective was to “disappear in [the] process” of his performance. Wooten explained this silence as an attempt to push back against settler-indigenous relations in which the former purport to speak for the latter.
When Wooten sought guidance from UW-Madison faculty prior to his residency, his proposed silent recollection of Aboriginal women prompted considerable concern. Wooten was cautioned against orienting his artistic intentions toward individuals and communities with whom he had little standing—that is, with whom familiarity and trust had not been fostered. Even as Wooten desired to shed important light on the experiences of Aboriginal women without speaking for them, in the end, he still would be acting in their names. In transcribing these names, Wooten would have been crafting on his own terms stories that were not his to tell.
Surely the well-intended objective to not speak for others need not necessarily amount to removing oneself altogether from discussions of what is at stake. Indeed, as Wooten remarked, turning away forecloses opportunities to “engage in different actions that might eventually lead to different, enduring, and helpful ways of thinking.”7 Ultimately at issue was not that Wooten could not address settler violence, but rather that, without knowing the women whose names he invoked, he should not. When relationships are cultivated over time and without haste, they tell us what to say, but they also tell us what is unspeakable.
The Art of Offering
I am not an artist; I am an anthropologist. But, I find the practice of offering particularly compelling. While, at its best, fieldwork—and not strictly fieldwork of the anthropological sort—entails the cultivation of relationships, it can also efface them. The work in front of us, be it artwork or fieldwork, implicates the people whose lives compel the questions we ask as well as the narratives we fashion. When anthropologists and artists tell and retell stories about the lives of others, we lay claim to these lives. Thus, we are also accountable to them. In turn, the notion of offering, as taken up by Wooten, encourages anthropologists—and scholars of a different ilk as well—to consider for whom our research is meaningful.
I am spending this summer in Alaska developing dissertation research that regards Alaska Native sovereignty, specifically concerning how tribal environmental governance and ways of relating to the land are structured by state courts. These issues are as fraught and troubled as the ones with which Wooten dealt during his residency. In the end, what can I offer the individuals who share their lives with me? I am not sure yet. For now, what Wooten’s residency evidences is that the art of offering is a process rather than an event. Offering calls not only for cultivating relationships, but also for tending to them; it demands making myself useful now, not gift-wrapping my dissertation later; it means recognizing that the inroads to trust are slow-going; and it involves making meaning in terms that are not mine alone. In the end, it means allowing that there is more at stake than any story I write. It means embracing the fact that some stories are not mine to tell.
Featured image: Wooten wood-burning the treaty into the eighth bundle at the UW/Native
Nations Summit on Environment and Health. Photo by Jim Escalante.
William Voinot-Baron is a doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Presently based in Alaska, his dissertation research focuses on how Alaska Native land claims are articulated within the state’s legal landscape. Contact.
Wooten’s project was largely galvanized by his exposure to the work of Nova Scotia-based Mi’kmaq artist Ursula Johnson, Toronto-based settler artist Leah Decter, and Dr. Carla Taunton of The Nova Scotia College of Art & Design University, who collectively constitute part of an emergent movement of artists, curators, and scholars shedding light on histories of colonialism and ongoing settler-indigenous relations through art. ↩
Benjamin Wooten, email message to author, April 6, 2015. ↩
Benjamin Wooten, email message to author, June 28, 2015. ↩
Audra Simpson, “On Ethnographic Refusal: Indigeneity, ‘Voice,’ and Colonial Citizenship,” Junctures 9 (2007): 78. ↩
Benjamin Wooten, email message to author, June 9, 2015. ↩