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Allan J. Ryan, The Trickster Shift: Humour and Irony in Contemporary Native Art. – Tiina Wikström

The Electronic Journal of the Department of English
at the University of Helsinki

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume 3, 2004

Literary Studies

© 2004 Tiina Wikström



Book Review:

Allan J. Ryan, The Trickster Shift: Humour and Irony in Contemporary Native Art. Vancouver: UBC Press and Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1999. 320 pages, 8″ x 11″, 100 colour, 60 b/w illustrations



Tiina Wikström



Allan J. Ryan’s The Trickster Shift is a richly illustrated presentation of originals of contemporary Native North American art produced over the last two decades. Ryan is known as a graphic designer, television satirist, singer, song maker, recording artist, and as a professor of Native Studies, Anthropology and Art History. Currently, he is Associate Professor in the School of Canadian Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario and holds the position of New Sun Chair in Aboriginal Art and Culture.

What are “tricksters” and what does Ryan mean when he talks about “the Trickster shift”?

Tricksters, which basically exist in all cultures throughout the world, are especially important to North American and Canadian Native peoples. Some of the best known tricksters are, for example, Loki in Norse mythology, Hermes in Greek mythology, Monkey King in China, Agu Tomba in Tibet, Ananse the Spider in West Africa, and Maui in Polynesian mythology, whereas in the Native American tradition there are such tricksters as Coyote, Raven, Hare, and Blue Jay.

Tricksters can be described as in-between figures of balance and transformation in a comic drama. They keep people alert to their own survival and powers to heal and support survival through humor. Many of these trickster figures are on the one hand involved in mischief and gambling, and on the other to the bringing of fire, the notion of mortality, the power of wind and creating and saving the earth. (The Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology 123, 266, 268).

In terms of Native American culture, the trickster stories that appear in practically all tribal traditions share many common features, although each tribe has added something new to the oral trickster tradition. In the Native American context, the term “trickster” refers to a complex figure known for its tricks, jokes, and even crude behaviour. However, the trickster is also respected as a teacher, culture hero and creator, and stories about him (more rarely her) are told throughout Native North America (Gill, Dictionary 308).

As Allan J. Ryan claims, tricksters, with their comic adventures and questionable behavior, “have entertained and educated generations of Native peoples” (5), and this has naturally influenced “the work and practice of many Native artists” as well (6). Since tricksters are known for their curiosity, (sometimes twisted) sense of humor and playfulness and, especially, for their ability to survive, it is natural that many Native artists have been inspired to follow in the footsteps of the trickster to study the multiple meanings of symbols, multiple voices and alternative realities and interpretations influencing the formation of self (selves) and others.

Tricksters and trickster artists encourage viewers and readers to question the traditional, often uncompromising concepts of art and truth or permanent, solid cultural interpretations. Jokes tend to replace formal and organized ideas with informal and uncontrolled or vital and dynamic energies, so tricksters – and trickster artists – show that many officially accepted patterns and structures can and should be questioned. In this way, systems of representation and symbols of power and control are revised, subverted and recontrolled. So, the concept of “Trickster shift” naturally develops from the very nature of the trickster. The term itself was introduced by Ojibway artist, Carl Beam, at the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s, and it can be translated as “serious play, the ultimate goal of which is a radical shift in viewer perspective and even political positioning by imagining and imaging alternative viewpoints” (Ryan 5).

Ryan’s book is full of these seriously playful and politically aware trickster artists, members of the “Art Tribe,” so to speak (xiv). Ryan first develops the notion of the Trickster shift and then he divides his material into four key themes: The Re/Creation of Identity, Subverting the Systems of Representation, Subverting the Symbols of Power and Control, and Double Play on the World Stage, thus developing trickster dialogue and discourse from microcosm to macrocosm, from the individual to the global level.

Ryan freely crosses borders and enters and re-enters the open-ended worlds of image and written word, thus creating a third dimension, an interactive process of visualized text where “the small things”, such as footnotes, are as important as “the big ones”. Concerning the footnotes that are abundant in this book, Ryan quotes in his Postscript Vine Deloria Jr, who says: “The difference, then, between Pure and Applied research is primarily one of footnotes. Pure has many footnotes, Applied has few footnotes” (284).

The reader, or viewer, is invited on a visual journey, from image to image, images which occasionally converse with one another. A good example is Carl Beam’s (Ojibway) Self-Portrait in My Christian Dior Bathing-Suit (1980), which mocks the mainstream society’s values and plays with the word ‘Christian’ as well (Ryan 46). This painting is alluded to by Ron Noganosh’s I Couldn’t Afford a Christian Dior Bathing Suit (1990) and Viviane Gray’s Carl, I Can’t Fit into My Christian Dehors Bathing Suit! (1989) (Ryan 48-49). Here it is worth noticing that the word ‘horde’ refers to a wandering troop or gang, especially, a clan or tribe of a nomadic people migrating from place to place for the sake of pasturage, plunder, etc., and in French ‘dehors’ refers to ” ‘outside’, to emphasize further the suit’s limited ability to accommodate her figure” (Ryan 50).

Ryan has chosen a wide and representative selection of artists to present the idea of the trickster shift. In Chapter 2, “The Re/Creation of Identity”, he presents such artists as Bill Powless, Gerald McMaster, Woodrow Crumbo, Carl Beam, Shelley Niro, and Rebecca Belmore. These artists recreate and redefine their identity by using photo emulsions and ink on wooden cabinets, by etching, by water colours, sewn fabrics, hand-tinted black-and-white photographs and mixed media. Through such media these artists tell suprising, personalized trickster stories.

The theme of Chapter 3 is “Subverting the Systems of Representation”. Here we meet Jane Ash Poitras, Ron Noganosh, Bob Boyer, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Carson Waterman, Jim Logan, Joane Cardinal-Schubert, and Harry Fonseca, among others. Through irony and comedy, viewers are reminded of the Native reality and alternative interpretations that question the mainstream culture and its systems of representation.

Chapter 4, “Subverting the Symbols of Power and Control”, continues with the ideas of de/reconstruction, recontextualization, and border crossing. Such artists as Edward Poitras, George Littlechild, Beau Dick, David Neel, Peter B. Jones, and Ya’Ya, as well as many of the previously mentioned artists use cartoons, red cedar, wall installations, and stoneware to create new mental connections by playing with language to question political realities and to seduce and shock the reader to go beyond conventional interpretations.

In Chapter 5, “Double Play on the World Stage”, many previously mentioned artists comment on issues that are more global than tribal. The Native American element, however, is still strongly present in their way of approaching the post-modern world and the moment in history when we humans are gambling this time with our lives and the life of Mother Earth.

However, when you gamble or toss coin with the trickster, you have to be prepared that there is more to it than just heads and tails. Nothing is ever good or bad, or black and white, for the trickster. Rather, one is always forced into a third dimension of mixed colours. Maybe con/temporary trickster truth can be found somewhere in the grey tail of Coyote or in the colours of a contemporary trickster artist.

Ryan ends his book with a quotation from Cherokee writer Thomas King, and a drawing by Harry Fonseca (1993) of the Trickster wearing a leather jacket and earring. The mythic figure has entered the modern world, ready to create new trickster stories, new images, new realities.

My friend, Nampiao, put the pot on for some tea.
I clean up all the coyote tracks on the floor.

-Thomas King


Gill, Sam D. Dictionary of Native American Mythology. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1992.

Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. London: Chancellor Press, 1996.

For a list of Publications by Allan J. Ryan, provided by Carleton University’s School of Canadian Studies (see