Indigenous Knowledge, Performance Art and the Faltering Act of Translation

Text: Lea Kantonen & Pekka Kantonen

Video: Pekka Kantonen

Photographs and graphical design: Pyry-Pekka Kantonen

In this exposition we feel the possibilities and limits of an intercultural, interlingual and interdisciplinary artistic collaboration. We consider the processes of collaborative knowledge-making and translation that took place in planning and carrying out a performance titled Translating Other Knowledge and other performances together with Wixárika teachers.[1] The term ‘other knowledge’ was borrowed from the Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos and Mexican anthropologist Xochitl Leyva Solano and it refers to knowledge production taking place in small communities, not recognized as such but often ignored or silenced. The aim of the performances was to highlight Wixárika knowledge expressed by Wixárika specialists and to find a decolonizing way to present Indigenous knowledge in a museum or conference context. We discuss the possibility of intercultural and interlingual performance in the context of artistic research, reflecting on our performances in the light of postcolonial research, Indigenous studies and performance studies. Our research questions in the context of this issue How to do things with performance art? are: How can networks of community museums be built using performance art? How does knowledge transmission and translation take place in this performative network-building process?

We have conducted artistic fieldwork at the bilingual (Wixárika and Spanish) Tatuutsi Maxakwaxi Secondary School in Tsikwaita, Mexico, since 1999, and since 2006 we have participated in the planning of the Tunuwame Community Museum, working closely with the school and the CEIWYNA community museum network.[2] The Siida Sámi museum has been an advisory partner in the project since 2012. Our collaboration with the network has taken place under the auspices of the Finnish NGO CRASH,[3] and since 2015 also in conjunction with Finnish universities.[4] We have given and arranged workshops on subjects such as photography, video filming, museology and performance at the Tatuutsi Maxakwaxi School. In collaboration with Wixárika artist-teachers and pupils, we have planned and carried out artistic performances in which video footage of pedagogical situations is filmed, and the artist-teachers explain and demonstrate to the audience what happens in the footage – in the words of the performance research pioneer Dwight Conquergood, the teachers “perform their own experience” (Conquergood 1991, cited in Arlander 2015, 14). The teachers present and contextualize the knowledge we have recorded with them in a fieldwork situation. As artist-researchers, we construct an event in which this kind of knowledge presentation is possible and translate the verbal communication into other languages in collaboration with the performers. Our Wixárika co-performers are specialists in Wixárika knowledge. They have been educated within two different knowledge systems, and they have either obtained, or are in the process of obtaining, both a university degree and an initiation at a traditional Wixárika knowledge institution.[5]

Tatuutsi Maxakwaxi School. Photo: Pyry-Pekka Kantonen


We present here[6] some introductory notes from the intersection of Indigenous studies and artistic research, based on our attempts to follow Indigenous methodologies (see for example Kovach 2009; Smith 2012; Virtanen et al. 2019) in an intercultural performance art project. Indigenous studies engage with the life of Indigenous peoples[7] by analysing Indigenous politics, history, culture, sciences, etc., and they are practiced from an Indigenous perspective (Virtanen, Kantonen & Seurujärvi-Kari 2013; Teves 2018). Indigenous methodologies highlight Indigenous self-determination and they emphasize reciprocity, dialogue, connectivity, collaboration, relationality, ethical reflection and sensitivity for Indigenous values and needs (Nakata 2007, Chilisa 2012, Marie Battiste 2017, cited in Virtanen et al. 2019). We also refer to writings of the interdisciplinary fields of performance studies, postcolonial and decolonial research. All these research areas are relatively recent in academia. They are not fixed but rather flexible areas, in many cases composed of supra-disciplinary or extra-academic [8] alliances beween specialists in- and outside academia, and they suggest new ways of arranging and classifying knowledge.

As artist-researchers, we find important reasons to engage ourselves with Indigenous communities and Indigenous methodologies. Firstly, Indigenous perspectives are to a great extent invisible in Finnish artistic research and performance studies, though there is an Indigenous people, the Sámi, living in the northern parts of Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia. In our time of environmental crisis, when there is urgent need to find better ways of living together with other species, the epistemologies and practices of Indigenous peoples can give us new insights (Kuokkanen 2010, Virtanen, Kantonen & Seurujärvi-Kari 2013).

When we, as non-Indigenous artist-researchers, work in collaboration with Indigenous communities and NGOs, we need to engage with Indigenous methodologies, etiquettes and epistemologies, recognize Indigenous authorities and decolonial movements (Leyva Solano 2017, Köhler 2017, Speed 2017). This has pushed us into an ongoing process of learning and reconsideration of our positioning and intentions. We see ourselves as “careful partial participants” (Brattland et al. 2018) in the community processes we study. We strive to choose our methodologies carefully and care for the commitments our research processes lead to. The fact that among the Wixaritari there are devoted artists and other cultural specialists but fewer scholars in the fields of art and culture emphasized this need.

Wixárika and Na´ayeri delegates and members of the Finnish ngo CRASH on the fieldtrip to visit community museums in Oaxaca, Mexico in September 2017. Photo: Pyry-Pekka Kantonen

Indigenous methodologies (see for example Kovach 2009, Smith 2012) recommend researchers to work together with Indigenous communities in the production of knowledge and to acknowledge the Indigenous etiquette of reciprocity (see also Hirvonen-Nurmi & al. 2018). When we start a research process in a community, we recognize that we are engaging in a long reciprocal relationship[9]. We need to give back the research results in a language that the community can understand. We recognize the partners that have helped and supported us in different ways during the research time. As artists and researchers, we have not been educated in this kind of reciprocity, and we have a lot to learn and unlearn (Guttorm et al. 2019). Indigenous methodologies have helped us to recognize that our work is dependent of the hospitability of our Wixárika hosts and their communities, of the work of academic and non-academic specialists, on NGOs, of land, waters, energy and more. The Sámi scholar Rauna Kuokkanen states that reciprocal practices would not only be beneficial for the programs of Indigenous studies but for the whole academic community. She suggests indigenizing academia (Kuokkanen 2004, 2010).

For obvious historical reasons, there has been a tension between researchers and decolonial Indigenous movements. Linda Tuhiwai Smith has said that “research” is probably one of the dirtiest words known in Indigenous communities (Smith 2012, 1). For many centuries, researchers have been entering Indigenous communities to “extract” knowledge from them.

Extraction leads to ownership and, in the wrong hands, slides in the impersonation and appropriation . . . The extraction places Natives in a lost past wherein they must constantly reenact this moment of extraction so that colonialism can “progress” and the Natives are left to perform their nativeness indefinitely. (Phillip Deloria 1999, cit. Teves 2018, 135)

Researchers have rarely returned to the communities after publishing their writings, and even if they have, they have usually only given back writings in a language that the people in the community cannot read (Leyva 2015, 205-206).

Practicing fieldwork in their own communities and institution-criticism in institutions, such as universities and museums, indigenous scholars have modified the idea of fieldwork. Questions of reflection, commitment and responsibility have been manifested in a new light as the scholars have carried out fieldwork in their own communities. Sámi artist Katarina Pirak Sikku has researched the photographs taken by racial biologists in her own community. She does not want to “re-evoke the colonial memories of scientific ignorance” (Guttorm et al. 2019) and expose the community members to the actual photographs, she rather invents artistic methods that protect the people at the same time than reveal the painful facts. In one case she composed a protective frame around a photograph taken of her aunt, in other case she fabricated colourful belts around photograph albums. (Heith 2016; Pirak Sikku 2019)

Many indigenous researchers have started calling their practice “homework” instead of fieldwork. There is also a need for non-Indigenous researches to do their homework and study the colonial baggage of their own institutions in order to understand their own possible biases and intentions. For example, some Sámi scholars have written about the need for scholars to do their homework (see Kuokkanen 2010).

The reading of performance studies texts has offered us a critical and theoretical perspective on how to interpret our fieldwork results. We noted with satisfaction that postcolonial points of view have been discussed in performance studies (see, for example, McKenzie 2006; McKenzie, Roms and Wee 2010; Arlander 2011; Teves 2018), especially after the PSi annual conference in the Cook Islands in 2005. The status of English as the predominant language of scholarship and the prevalent Western academic norms have been questioned (McKenzie 2006). We connected closely with two American pioneers, Dwight Conquergood and Diane Taylor, in particular. Conquergood asks questions about fieldwork that we had been pondering for many years and that we have tried to answer with the performances we have developed collaboratively with Wixárika teachers without being able to articulate them verbally. He asks:

What are the methodological implications of thinking about fieldwork as the collaborative performance of an enabling fiction between observer and observed, knower and known? How does thinking about fieldwork as performance differ from thinking about fieldwork as the collection of data? . . . What kinds of knowledge are privileged or displaced when performed experience becomes a way of knowing, a method of critical inquiry, a mode of understanding? . . . What are the rhetorical problematics of performance as a complementary or alternative form of “publishing” research? What are the differences between reading an analysis of fieldwork data, and hearing the voices from the field interpretively filtered through the voice of the researcher? For the listening audience of peers? For the performing ethnographer? For the people whose lived experience is the subject matter of ethnography? What about enabling the people themselves to perform their own experience? (Conquergood 1991, 96)

These words of Conquergood articulate the questions we had been asking ourselves during the performance workshops we have conducted. We had carried out fieldwork, collected interview data and observed pedagogic and ritual performances in the communities. We aspired to have our fieldwork results presented as performances: the Wixárika teachers would perform and interpret their own experience, and our interpretive voice would not be needed. The teachers had themselves chosen the issues to be presented. Some questions still remained: Who would choose the language(s) of the performance? If we merely performed Wixárika arts and teaching on stage without any explanation, it would turn into an exotic spectacle without an interpretative context. If the action were explained only in the Wixárika language, a non-Wixárika person would not obtain any relevant information. If we were to explain the context only in the colonial languages of Spanish or English, we would reproduce the authoritative voice of generic ethnographic cinema. Trying to avoid reproducing colonial patterns, we decided to offer translations in all the languages that were used in the process of planning the Wixárika museum.

The Mexican-American performance theorist Diana Taylor in her seminal article The Archive and the Repertoire – Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas draws attention to the fact that performance as an art form privileges forms of knowledge that are non-text-based and takes them seriously as practices and cultural expressions. It mediates knowledge in a non-written form. She claims that performance art can be a very powerful tool in remembering and re-vitalizing Indigenous knowledge. She plays with the idea that one of the concepts of Indigenous art forms; for example, for the Arawak the concept of areito (singing-dancing), could be used instead of performance:

This term is attractive because it blurs all Aristotelian notions of discretely developed genres, publics, and ends. It clearly reflects the assumption that cultural manifestations exceed compartmentalization either by genre (song-dance), by participant/actors, or by intended effect (religious, sociopolitical, aesthetic) that ground Western cultural thought. It calls into question our taxonomies, even as it points to new interpretive possibilities. (Taylor 2003, 15.)

Taylor recognizes that intercultural art translation always complicates things, while at the same time it opens new possibilities. The Indigenous studies scholar Helen Verran recommends that the friction created by translation efforts should be discussed in its full complexity instead of simplifying things by inventing soothing metaphors (Verran 2018).

We have earlier theorized our collaborative art projects with Wixárika communities by applying Jean-Francois Lyotard’s (1988) concept of differend, which emphasizes the power relations between stronger and weaker groups (P. Kantonen 2003, L. Kantonen 2005). The weaker groups do not have the words to express their feeling of injustice in the language of the stronger groups. Our conclusion from our collaboration was that there were spheres of Wixárika life that were opaque to us when they were transmitted to us in Spanish, the language of the stronger group. Today, the differend still exists, yet with Isabelle Stengers (2005), we recognize the practices of our collaborators by their strength rather than by their weakness or suppressed status. Indigenous peoples have demonstrated a strong resilience in a variety of circumstances, and they have knowledge about their environments. Indigenous languages have unique value. For example, the Wixárika language includes knowledge that recognizes the value of the earth, different kinds of wind and rain, animals and plants.

The Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) Indigenous studies and performance studies scholar Stephanie Nohelani Teves discusses Indigenous performances from a decolonizing point of view. She reminds us that settler colonialism has naturalized certain colonial performances that aim at the assimilation of Indigenous peoples. Indigenous performances, too, can be performed in a way that does not respect Indigenous struggles for sovereignty: for example, they are often performed in the context of the tourist industry in such a way that they seem to be mere spectacle, stripped of their relational contexts and their political and spiritual significances. For the performers, on the other hand, they can still be “real” and carry those significances. Indigenous scholars of performance studies tend to regard Indigenous performances as theory challenging prevailing academic underpinnings, rather than objects to be analyzed (Teves 2018, 136).

According to Teves, many Indigenous performers and scholars do not feel comfortable with the poststructural theories and concepts used in performance studies. The oversimplification of concepts such as “performative” (Butler 2006), “fluid identities”, or “imagined communities” (Benedict Anderson 2017) can make Indigenous people feel that their experience or even existence is ignored.

One of the biggest reasons Native studies is resistant to Performance studies is the relationship Performance studies has to poststructuralism. Poststructurialism debunks binary oppositions and any fundamental stability underlying such signs in general, including the supposedly stable and essential content of identity and subjectivity. What happens to the Indigenous identity if, as poststructuralists say, origins do not exist? This would obviously have alarming consequences for Indigenous peoples whose origins are on the land and who often base their cultural resilience on their ability to survive amidst multiple efforts to exterminate, remove, and assimilate them. Theorizing (non)origins has contributed to the erasure of indigeneity and its lived consequences. (Teves 2018, 136–137)

Indigenous performance studies scholars claim that their performances participate in real land-based relational networks between humans, ancestors and their ancestral land even when presented in non-traditional contexts. Some of them feel offended by hearing their traditions analyzed through alienating concepts such as “performativity” that seem to objectify their lived experiences instead of studying them within the framework of their relational contexts. Teves herself, however, is ready to critically consider and accept some poststructural frameworks into the discussions of Indigenous studies. For example, the concept of “performativity”, she claims, can add to the understanding of the ways in which indigeneities are produced and reproduced (Teves 2018). Teves recognizes that non-Indigenous scholars can write about Indigenous performances and “engage with Indigenous analytics” but cannot produce them. She advises scholars to “listen to Indigenous critiques, interact with Indigenous epistemologies as legitimate forms of knowledge and foster a commitment to decolonizing methodologies” (Ibid.).

There are other Indigenous scholars who are more inspired by poststructural theories. For example, the Sámi scholar Hanna Guttorm utilizes Deleuzean terms in carrying out experiments on writing. For her, writing is multiple and multivocal, it partipates in the word-making, always entangled with time, space, and materia (Guttorm 2017). In an article titled Encountering Deleuze: Collaborative Writing and the Politics of Stuttering in Emergent Language, she, together with various writers, experiments with collective multilingual creation, which is always imperfect and in the process of becoming. In her article Flying Beyond: Multiple Sáminesses and Be(com)ing Sámi she calls her writing poststructuralist autoethnographic writing and wondering.

Our generation of artist-researchers has largely been educated and produced as such by poststructural theory. We have been encouraged to doubt and deconstruct almost anything. However, when collaborating with Indigenous performers we do not feel it right to question their practices of performing but we rather doubt our own capacity of understanding and translating those practices. We agree with Isabelle Stengers, who writes that a practice should be “approached it as it diverges, that is, feeling its borders, experimenting with the questions which practitioners may accept as relevant even if they are not their own questions, rather than posing insulting questions . . .” (Stengers 2005). We feel a responsibility when framing performative co-existence as performance art, negotiating inclusions and exclusions, translating and presenting them in the context of art.

Boaventura Souza Santos writes that it is not possible to have economic and political equality without epistemological equality, and if we deal with Indigenous ontologies and epistemologies equally, we should take them seriously. He writes in favor of pluralistic thinking, which means for him that it is possible to participate in two or more epistemological systems at the same time (Santos 2007). Scientific knowledges and indigenous knowledges are needed for different purposes, for example, indigenous knowledge is important for understanding the biodiversities of a jungle (Santos 2019). When an Indigenous shaman has been educated at university, he or she does not forget the knowledge he or she has learned as a shaman. The converse is also true, as in the case of Eduardo, one of our co-performers, a Wixárika teacher of physics who later became initiated as a religious leader, a rukuri+kame. As a rukuri+kame he does not forget his education in physics. He can start translating the knowledge of the ancestors, but he needs a teachers´ community in order to develop his translations. The Wixárika teachers chosen to represent the community as performers were accustomed to speaking and teaching in Wixárika and in Spanish, to translating between knowledge systems.

The Finnish artist-researcher Mika Elo suggests in his article The Language of Photography as a Translation Task (2007) that it is possible to translate the “language” of an artistic medium, for example photography, just as it is possible to translate texts from one language to another. In his photographs, Elo himself translates ideas of sounds and “songs” into photographic language. Performance art, however, is rather unstable as an artistic medium, and there is not a clearly definable “language” of its own. For the artists of our inter-cultural performance group, there are many languages and “languages” to engage with; in addition to the five languages spoken in the performance, the Wixárika artist-teachers acquaint themselves with the languages of contemporary video and performance art, and the non-Wixárika artists with Wixárika ceremonies. Something like translation happens between performance art and Wixárika ceremonial art.

The Wixárika context

The Wixárika language is one of the Uto-Aztec family, and it is spoken by most of the 45,000 Wixáritari in Mexico. The Wixáritari appreciate the ability to speak eloquently (Hakkarainen et al. 1999; Corona et al. 2008), and they have two different registers. The everyday language is spoken at home, in bilingual schools, at informal gatherings and at the political gatherings of the agricultural authorities. An elevated register is spoken and chanted in ceremonial performances by the mara´akate (sing. mara´akame) and learned at the institution of rukuri+kate, a ritual community of traditional authorities that has pre-colonial roots (Liffman 2011). Traditional ceremonies, following pre-colonial ceremony practices (Taylor 2003), are arranged at different stages of the agricultural cycle by the rukuri+kate in the tuki (community temple) and by extended families at the xiriki (family shrine). The ceremonies connect arts that in the Western art world would be called poetry, singing, dancing, visual arts, food installations, architecture, and more (see, for example Lumholtz 1986; Neurath 2013).

Tsikwaita village. Photo: Pyry-Pekka Kantonen

The Wixárika landscape is mapped by sacred places and the routes between them. The sacred places are regarded as living beings and activated by ritual hunts and pilgrimages preceding or following the ceremonies. On the pilgrimages, every rukuri+kame (a member of the rukuri+kate) carries a ceramic bowl with sacred fluids in it, each of them representing one of the divine ancestors. In this way, the ritual community renews its right to use its ancestral land (Liffman 2011, passim). Participation in the rukuri+kate is laboriuous and time-consuming, as Wixárika ceremonies usually take two days and nights, and the hunts and pilgrimages can prolong the occasion for many more days. The rukuri+kate members seem to be almost constantly preparing offerings and getting ready for their next pilgrimage (Kantonen & Kantonen 2017 a).

First fruit offerings at the Tatei Neixa ceremony in the Wixárika community Guayabas in October 1985. Photo: Pekka Kantonen

There are devoted artists and other cultural specialists educated in the rukuri+kate institution. There are also university-educated lawyers and teachers, but fewer scholars in the fields of art and culture. Their cultural museums depend on the work of teachers, pedagogues, activists and numerous rukuri+kate-educated experts. The community of Tsikwaita started the process of planning a museum in 2006, and it invited the Finnish NGO CRASH and the Mexican Guadalajara-based university ITESO to help with the planning (Kantonen & Kantonen 2017 b). The Wixárika museum activists wanted to learn more closely from the experiences of other Indigenous museums and artists, but they could not afford to visit museums in other countries. Together with Wixárika teachers, we decided to prepare a performance lecture that would relate the experience of the museum-planning process. Using this lecture, we could apply for research and art funding for the Wixárika artist-teachers, who would then travel and perform their experiences in Indigenous museums and at museology and art conferences. Performance art has proved a functional tool for cross-cultural communication because it is not dependent on written language, a medium through which Wixárika knowledge is not characteristically transmitted, though a Wixárika alphabet has recently been developed and some textbooks have been written.

Because for economic reasons only one Wixárika expert could travel at a time, we decided to make a video that would include more Wixárika voices. We asked the teachers what kind of knowledge needed to be included in the video. “A ceremony, a dance, a sacred place, offerings, crafts, teaching at Tatuutsi Maxakwaxi School,” they answered. With the help of the community musician Heriberto de la Cruz and his family network, we were able to record footage of all the suggested topics, including a weeding ceremony at the xiriki of the extended family of Heriberto´s wife. A video of this material was then edited, and the first version of the performance was planned with Heriberto. In December 2015, Heriberto came to Finland, invited by the Helsinki Collegium of Advanced Studies, to perform with us. The name of the first performance version was The Great Grandfather Deertail Secondary School: An Ethnographic Performance. The audience members were first invited to follow a museology conference at the Wixárika school and to observe school lessons. Then they were led by the musicians on a pilgrimage, and finally they participated in a weeding ceremony, listened to Heriberto´s music and learned dance steps with him. All the dialogues in the videos were translated live into Spanish, English, Finnish and Sámi by four professional performers or performance art students.[10] So far we have performed five different versions of the performance on altogether ten occasions. The video recordings of these performances and the written backup translations of the speech in them comprise the data for this study.

Translating Other Knowledge performance lecture in the Arts Without Borders conference, in Helsinki October 2016. Photo: Pyry-Pekka Kantonen

The community of the teachers of the Tatuutsi Maxakwaxi School selects the performers for each performance or performance tour, and each teacher in turn has the possibility to travel nationally or internationally and visit other community museums (see, for example Cirimele 2015; Camarena Ocampo & Morales Lersch 2016; Rufer 2017). For every performance, a new, updated version of the video is filmed together with the chosen performer, and new video editions and translations are made accordingly. Every artist-teacher brings his or her special knowledge both to the performance and to the video: for example, the music teacher plays his violin and the craft teacher weaves. No final video product is completed, so every edition is shown just once or twice.

The Wixárika artist-teachers are constantly striving to improve themselves artistically and pedagogically. They also appreciate the opportunity to learn the new medium of performance art, and the possibilities it gives them for traveling and networking. However, they see the performance as a foreign art form, outside of their immediate cultural context. Their professional and ritual activities allow only limited time for the preparation, rehearsals and evaluation of the performance. For example, one of the performers canceled her participation in a performance tour when it overlapped with her ritual obligation in the Tatei neixa ceremony, the ceremony of first fruits.

As previously mentioned, the teachers were experienced translators, but they were not used to the standard Western way of translating in public situations. Each performed their translation in their own way. For those performers who were not educated in using the elevated register of Wixárika speech, the translation task was sometimes difficult. In case they did not hear or understand the Wixárika words pronounced in the video footage, they had a backup note with the speech translated in advance. Some performers unexpectedly gave longer and more thorough explanations than the original speakers and also explained the context of the situation, so it was necessary to pause the video until they were finished. Pausing and accelerating the videos – leaving space for improvisation – was also part of the tentative aesthetics.

Agustín’s lesson in Wixárika culture

The performance consists of three sections: School, Pilgrimage, and Ceremony, preferably performed in separate rooms. For this exposition, we have chosen to analyze three sequences on the basis of difficult or faltering translation. It is interesting that the Ceremony part, in which the ceremony participants communicated with the divine ancestors, was relatively easy to translate, while it was rather the translation of the everyday practice of teaching Wixárika art and culture that caused problems. The first sequence takes place in the School section when the teacher of Wixárika culture Agustín Salvador responds to the Sámi linguist Irja Seurujärvi-Kari at a museology workshop.

Lea translates Irja´s speech into Spanish at the Tatuutsi Maxakwaxi School. At the Helsinki Collegium, Hannah Gullichsen translates her speech into English:

This is the village where I was born. Here is Finland, Norway and Sweden. All this is Sámiland and all the names of the places are in Sámi. Before the nineteenth century there were no frontiers. In our language we have many words for a reindeer, depending on the color, on the age of the reindeer and the form of its horns.


In the next shot, we listen to Agustín commenting on Irja´s lecture in Wixárika (clip 1). Diana Soria Hernández had translated the Spanish translation into English for the backup:

I think reindeers are sacred, that they carry knowledge in their horns. Children, do you know why the deer have horns? I think that for us, the Indigenous peoples, there is a special reason for the existence of all animals, so they are all sacred. According to our culture, if a deer has horns with only one point, it is its pen or its feather. The horns with many points are the feathers that the singers use [for knowledge and healing]. I think that the knowledge of all Indigenous peoples of the world has a lot in common.

Heriberto translates Agustin´s response without the help of the backup, and the other translators try to follow him:

Heriberto: Los Sámi tienen animales en su terreno que piensan que son sagrados.

Diana: The Sámi have animals in their landscape that they think are important.

Hannah: Meille wirrarikoille kauriit ovat pyhiä. Lapset, tiedättekö miksi peuralla on sarvet?

Pinja: Mánát, diehtibehtetgo manin bohccuin leat čoarvvit?

Heriberto: Así como para nosotros los Wixáritari tenemos animales como el venado que es sagrado para nosotros.

Diana: Just like us have sacred animals like the deer.

Hannah: Minä uskon että kaikkien eläinten olemassaololla on erityinen merkitys meille alkuperäiskansoille ja että ne kaikki ovat pyhiä.

Pinja: Mun jáhkán, ahte buot ealliin máilmmis lea aibbas erenoamaš mearkkašupmi álgoálbmotolbmuide ja ahte dat buohkat leat basit.

Heriberto: Los Sámi tienen animales de colores, que significan algo para ellos.

Diana: According to our culture if a deer has horns with only one point, it is its pen or its feather.

Hannah: Kulttuurimme mukaan jos kauriin sarvessa on yksi piikki, se on kauriin oma sulka. Monisarvisten peurojen sarvet ovat kuin kyniä, joilla voi kirjoittaa.

Pinja: Juos ruiggus lea okta doalgi čoarvegeažis, dat lea ruiggu iežas dolgi min kultuvrra mielde.

Heriberto: Para los Wixáritari el venado es un animal sagrado. Sus cuernos son como plumas, puede escribir.

Diana: For the Wixárika the deer is sacred animal, and with the horns that are like pens, you can write.

Hannah: Uskoisin, että maailman eri alkuperäiskansojen tiedolla on paljon yhteistä keskenään.

Pinja: Jáhkán ahte máilmmi eará álgoálbmogiid dieđuin lea mánga oktasaš ášši.

The issue discussed at the museology workshop is the relationship between humans and certain animals with pointed horns. The number of points of the horns is significant for both the Wixáritari and the Sámi. The latter even have different words for reindeer depending on the form of their horns. For the Wixáritari, the deer is one of the kaka+yari, the deified ancestors, and the different shapes of their horns have different spiritual meanings. Wixárika language does not have a word for ‘sacred’. Agustín and Heriberto choose the Spanish word sagrado, ‘sacred’, to translate the word kaka+yari, they say in their translations that the deer is a sacred animal (see Hirvonen-Nurmi et al. 2018).

Agustín, when listening to Irja’s speech, can understand the importance of the shapes of the animal’s horns for the Sámi. He says that all the animals have special importance for the indigenous peoples and that is why they are sacred. He also explains, why the shapes of the deer horns are important for the Wixaritari (A. Salvador 2017). Later, after the workshop, the headmaster Carlos Salvador explained that there is nothing in Wixárika life that is not sacred. Everything is sacred: even the smallest everyday actions such as preparing corn dishes are connected to the divine ancestors (C. Salvador 2017, 26–27).

It is exactly the word “sagrado” that causes the translation to falter. Heriberto has earlier knowledge of Sámi culture and animals. He knows that white reindeer are traditionally sacred for the Sámi. He tells in his translation that the deer is a sacred animal for the Wixáritari and the Sámi have sacred animals, too. He says: “The Sámi have animals of colors that have some meaning for them”. The rest of the translation chain then becomes confused.

Those listeners who understand more than one of the translations soon notice that the chain of translations begins to falter more and more. Very soon the translations no longer sync. It seems that the translators cannot decide whether they should follow Heriberto or read the sentences from their backup notes. At first Diana follows Heriberto, but Hannah and Pinja read translations from the backup, and later Diana, too, starts to read the pre-translated versions.

We did not necessarily want the translations to be fluent, but rather to be transparent in the process of passing an idea from one language to another. We agreed that the translators can consult their pre-written notes at any time. We all knew that the translation would be very difficult between five languages, and that much of the content would inevitably be lost. In this case it was especially difficult because in the translation chain there were two Indigenous languages that are connected to Indigenous ontologies. For example, there is no word for “sacred” or “religion” in Wixárika because the Wixáritari do not make a binary separation between “sacred” and “profane”. Although the translations sometimes impeded each other, we hoped the auditive experience would be enjoyable for the hearers. At best, the audience would share and empathize with the translators in their struggle to convey the message. The distraction was not intentional but inevitable. As Taylor puts it:

“[T]he problem of untranslability, as I see it, is actually a positive one, a necessary stumbling block that reminds us that “we” – whether in our various disciplines, or languages, or geographic locations . . . ­-- do not simply or unproblematically understand each other.” (Taylor 2003, 15)

Like Taylor, we recognized that at every stage of the translation chain there is a possibility of misunderstanding and “stumbling”. This overwhelming task creates a tension in the performance dramaturgy: How could the translators ever succeed?

Apolonia’s crafts lesson

The second sequence takes place in the School section when the textile art teacher Apolonia de la Cruz Ramirez teaches her students under the trees and in the Pilgrimage section when she and her fellow teacher Viviana Ortiz teach weaving for the audience members. Apolonia teaches Wixárika grammar, crafts and biology at Tatuutsi Maxakwaxi Secondary School. She is formally educated in pedagogics and has been informally initiated as a weaver (Cruz 2014). Weaving is seen as an important task among the Wixáritari, and every detail of the loom has a special signification. Weaving was first taught to the Wixáritari by the goddess of creation Takutsi Nakawe, and the act of weaving is thus associated with the creation of the world. The vertical directions connect the Wixáritari to three separate worlds: Upper, Middle, and Lower. The act of weaving can momentarily connect those worlds together (Schaefer 1998).

In the video footage Apolonia teaches her weaving class under the trees beside the school (clip 2). She advises her pupils on how to choose a good place and how to tie the loom to the tree. She helps them to choose the colors of the threads. She gently manipulates the body position of her pupil so that the latter can feel how the threads are tensioned between her body and the tree trunk. A connection is formed between the teacher, the student and the trunk. If the threads between the tree and the body remain well stretched, the woman establishes a contact between the earth and the sky, she is physically united to the tree, and through the yarns she feels its movement and is thus connected to non-human climatic entities: the winds, the sun and the moon (Schaefer 1998). The event has a certain duration, and we can observe a change happening in the posture of the student. Other girls who have already advanced further with their work impatiently interrupt and ask questions.

During the performances at the Helsinki Collegium, Heriberto translated the dialogues without the help of the backup. The audience was able to follow Apolonia´s lesson on the screen and listen to her instructions in different languages (clip 2):


Heriberto: Levántalo con guidado.

Diana: Lift it carefully.

Hannah: Nosta sitä varovasti.

Pinja: Lokte dán várrugasat.

Heriberto: Lo voy a amarrar con este enlazo.

Diana: I will tie it up with this “enlazo”.

Hannah: Sidon sen kiinni tällä. . .

Lea: Nauhalla.

Hannah: . . . nauhalla.

Pinja: Mun čavgen dán gitta dáinna láiggiin.

Heriberto: Amárralo aquí mismo.

Diana: Tie it here right away.

Hannah: Laita se tähän nyt kiinni.

Pinja: Bija dán dása dál gitta!

Heriberto: Cuántos le pongo de naranjado?

Diana: How many orange threads should I take?

Hannah: Kuinka monta oranssia lankaa laitan?

Pinja: Galle oránšša láiggi bijan?

Heriberto: Póngale uno de azul y dos de naranjado.

Diana: You should use one orange and one blue.

Hannah: Siinä voisi käyttää kahta oranssia ja yhtä sinistä.

Pinja: Don sáhtát geavahit guokte oránšša ja ovtta aliha.

Heriberto: Mi compañera la tiene amarrado mas arriba que yo, es mejor así.

Diana: My classmate has it tied up higher, it´s better like that.

Hannah: Minun luokkatoverilla se on sidottu paljon ylemmäs, se on parempi niin.

Pinja: Mu luohkkáskihpáris dát lea čadnon bajábealde, dát lea dálle buoret.

Heriberto: Búscale esta manera, los que estan arriba, hilo por hilo.

Diana: Search in this way, so the threads that are higher. Thread by thread.

Hannah: Etsi langat yksi kerrallaan, ne jotka ovat korkeammalla.

Pinja: Oza láiggiid ovtta ain hávil, daid mat leat bajábealde.

Though there were small changes between Heriberto´s translation and the pre-translated version – the number and color of the threads varied – the translators were able to follow each other without difficulty. The overlapping changes from one language to another followed each other smoothly, and the backups were not actually needed at the time of translating, though it was helpful for the translators to have read them in advance.

The translated video footage gives the viewer an idea of the teaching of textile art among the Wixáritari. Apolonia instructs her students on the technical, aesthetic and theoretical aspects of viewing. As Teves suggests in her article, Apolonia performs theory, or as we also might say in research terms, she performs practice-based knowledge: How to create together with the Goddess of Creation, how to maintain a balance between the sky and the earth. She performs through her body posture, her instructions and the tone of her voice. In the performance Translating Other Knowledge, she repeats the same performative and pedagogic actions before the audience but she does not give verbal instructions (Clip 3). Even though the actions are performed at an art event and not in the Indigenous community, she is in contact with the same vertical directions: above and below, and the performance is real for her. The audience who do not share the Wixárika ontology do not understand the significations of her gestures, although they can sense something of their importance.

CLIP3 A & C 2

Heriberto’s music lessons

The third sequence takes place during the transition between the Pilgrimage and Ceremony sections, when Heriberto leads the procession to the ceremony room. In the footage, we see him teaching music to his son, his student and our teenage daughter Tyyni (clip 4). Heriberto is an elementary school teacher, an initiated Wixárika community musician and a member of the rukuri+kate ritual institution. Music played on a xaweri (a small violin) and a kanari (a small guitar) form a necessary and important part of most Wixárika ceremonies.


In video clip 4, Heriberto teaches music to his young son at a xiriki early in the morning during the cleansing ceremony. He places the bow of his xaweri in the hand of the child and says: “Now my son is going to play. Hold your bow properly.” The other participants in the ceremony jokingly follow the music lesson, and one of them comments: “Your son will take your violin from you soon – he plays it with love.”

Later during the same ceremony, Heriberto teaches one of his pupils. He plays the xaweri, and the student plays the kanari. The student only knows two chords, and he does not follow the rhythm of Heriberto´s xaweri. Heriberto takes the kanari from him and starts playing. Then he hands the instrument back to the student without any comment. We can observe how the pupil gradually learns the rhythm.

In the next scene, Heriberto teaches our daughter Tyyni. The tuning of the xaweri and the kanari is very difficult, they constantly fall out of tune, and they are re-tuned even in the middle of a musical piece. Heriberto carefully tunes both instruments, and Tyyni records the sounds. Tyyni tentatively tries to translate the tunes into Western musical terms: e, d, c, f, f. A hybrid pedagogical moment is witnessed in the footage: Wixárika and Western music learning methods become mixed and intertwined. We could interpret Tyyni´s translation as colonizing, but her attitude is quite submissive as Heriberto´s student, and the relationship is more complex. The origins of Wixárika instruments are colonial; the method of tuning a xaweri is the same as for a Western violin, but the tuning of a kanari has been “translated” to fit with Wixárika music. Then Tyyni tries to compare the different tunings. She does not forget her education in classical Western music while she is learning to play and think in terms of Wixárika music, as Santos (2007) suggests. In the last scenes, we can follow how Heriberto and Tyyni play together in the performance at the Helsinki Collegium. Heriberto lets Tyyni tune and play both instruments. She still has difficulties in keeping them tuned, but Heriberto does not interrupt the performance by tuning the instruments, though he might do so during a traditional Wixárika ceremony.

There is always somebody who translates.

Wixárika ways of knowing and acting are discussed and performed in the performance Translating Other Knowledge. At the same time, the possibility of translating Wixárika knowledge into other languages, whether Indigenous (Sámi) or non-Indigenous (Spanish, English and Finnish) is problematized. Each translator had to make numerous choices in translating, and we did not want to hide the tentative nature of the choices. Those audience members who could speak two or more of the five languages used in the performance could make comparisons and perceive how the ideas transmitted by the different translations were slightly different.

Viviana Ortiz reads the translation of the Wixárika text in Spanish in the contemporary art center Ex-Teresa Arte Actual in Mexico City. Photo: Pyry-Pekka Kantonen

Translation between different art and knowledge forms is laden with uncertainty. Aesthetics are involved In different written and spoken languages just as in artistic languages. A good translator can translate a dialogue or a song and express it eloquently in his or her own language. An artistic idea can also be translated into another artistic language. Elo refers to Walter Benjamin´s suggestion that artistic translation needs to be true to its “own” language in order to translate the poetics of a work of art. In the present case, different artistic and ritual elements get translated and find their place in a performance. However, this performance is not a very typical piece of performance art; rather it is in many ways a hybrid work and lies in between different art forms – it could also be described as “expanded cinema” or in its simplest form a “lecture”. There is no single art form with a language"of its own" that we could be true to. Different art forms and taxonomies have become entangled in the encounters and translations between peoples and languages.

Of the three sequences mentioned here, the audience was able to follow Heriberto´s teaching easily. There is very little explanatory information. Heriberto sings and plays his instruments, he then hands them to his pupils and lets them try to play. If the student cannot play the music, Heriberto plays it again and lets the student try until he or she learns. The issue of tentative translation became evident when Tyyni tried to translate the sounds of Wixárika instruments by Western musical terms.

We can mostly follow the translation of Apolonia´s craft lesson. We understand her advice on the choosing of colors, the posture of the weaver and the selection of threads. The spiritual content is, however, left unexplained and untranslated. Apolonia never included spiritual matters in her teaching when we recorded her lessons. We do not know whether she did so when the camera was not present.

In his commentary responding to Irja’s statement, Agustín explained spiritual ideas concerning the different shapes of deer horns to his pupils. The main audience for his lesson were his teenage Wixárika pupils. Maybe they understood the point of his exposition but we, non-Wixárika listeners, remained puzzled. Without any background information about the significance of the deer in Wixárika culture we could not follow his thought. The non-Wixárika translators – after listening to the Spanish translations by Heriberto – could not translate it, and they preferred to read the lines from their backup notes.

Our purpose in using these examples is not to demonstrate how technical issues such as weaving instructions can be translated or not even show that more complicated concepts such as the ritual meaning of the deer cannot be. Here, we do not seek to question the authority of ethnographic or cultural translation, which is usually needed in approaching “other knowledges” (Santos 2007; Leyva 2015). Our intention is to make visible the fact that there is always somebody who translates, a medium to make the translation possible, and a context in which the translation takes place. The combination of seeing an event and listening to an explanation is a standard method for the mediation of another culture in ethnographic cinema. The ethnographer who has studied and filmed the events assumes a certain authority. He or she is trained to make cultural translations. However, every time we see and hear Indigenous art and culture explained in a non-Indigenous language, we should remember that it is somebody´s translation and interpretation. The translation is sometimes accurate and sometimes erroneous. The translation of an Indigenous person, too, can be questioned because interests and interpretations among the Indigenous people also vary.

Faltering acts of translation and the possibility of decolonization

By presenting the translation process of other knowledge as a performance, we want to put on stage the power relations that always exist. We want to suggest, following Conquergood (1991), that experts in Indigenous knowledge can be invited to perform their own expertise. In our performance, Wixárika specialists have the authority to explain the events screened or presented. They can choose what is explained and what kind of information is left untranslated. Making the translation process present and visible gives the audience the opportunity to evaluate the given interpretations. Today there are more Indigenous specialists who participate simultaneously in different knowledge systems. The knowledge may be artistic and pedagogical, as in the case of our co-performers, or it can be something else. Co-planning and co-performing creates new kind of hybrid or entangled knowledge and makes it visible. Santos writes about the “ecology of knowledges”. Isabelle Stengers writes about different knowledge practices that may have different aims and narratives while still behaving in a diplomatic and hospitable way towards each other.

When we started planning the performance Translating Other Knowledge, our intention was to make a performance in which the Wixárika performers would interpret their knowledge systems in speech and the non-Wixárika performers would participate in the translation of them. The performance made evident the fact that translation is interpretation. Our attempt to abstain from exterior interpretations and to translate the spoken knowledge into several languages destabilized the epistemic monopoly of the two dominant languages. This experience might have appeared as disruptive and cacophonic for some audience members and polyphonic for others. The translation of Wixárika knowledge did not result to one but many simultaneous, equal, partly improvised and faltering interpretations.

In his writing on the ecology of knowledges, Santos makes a distinction between expected, routinized action and unexpected, non-conformist action. He dubs the latter “action-with-clinamen” (Santos 2007: 76). Clinamen is a term borrowed from the Latin philosopher-poet Lucretius (following the Greek Epicurus) meaning an undetermined event. In literary theory Harold Bloom (cit. in Santos 2007) defines clinamen as “poetic misreading”. The simultaneous live dubbing of Wixárika knowledge in the performance can be seen as an “action with clinamen”. As is apparent in our description of the three lessons of Wixárika knowledge, the live translations lead to unexpected conclusions. For Santos, in his ecology of knowledges, the acceptance of different, even contradictory knowledge systems, is the way to analyze processes of deviant knowing (ibid. 77).

The video footage showed a school, a procession and the destination of a pilgrimage, and a temple, three spaces in which Wixárika knowledge was both transmitted from one generation to another and from divine ancestors to humans. These recorded environments gained different significations according to the material spaces in which they were projected. There was a strong contrast between virtual and actual spaces especially in the contemporary art center Museo Ex Teresa Arte Actual (clip 5), located in an ex-convent. In the Pilgrimage part of the performance, the procession passed through the church hall, and the footage of the final destination, where the head of a deer was being buried in a cornfield, was projected instead of an altarpiece.


The question of decolonization cannot be addressed on the sole basis of a work of performance art as an end product of a collaborative act; rather we see the collaboration as a process of continuous mutual translation that has a common political aim. The work of performance art is a part of a longer effort of co-creation. The main aim for creating and performing Translating Other Knowledge together with Wixárika artist-teachers was to create networks for sharing knowledge between the Wixáritari and other Indigenous peoples in the context of community museums. Performing has given the artist-teachers the opportunity to acquaint themselves with museum practices in Sámiland, Aotearoa New Zealand and Southern Mexico. In the creation of the performance, therefore, we set the goal that the performance should be adaptable for numerous different audiences and places and realizable with different ensembles.

In terms of content, we considered that the performance should attract interest and questions about different aspects of Wixárika knowledge without giving many precise answers or interpretations – unless the Wixárika performers themselves should offer them. After every performance there has been a discussion that has given the audience the opportunity to ask questions and elicit clarifications. Often the overall significance of the performance has been debated in the discussion part. The themes of the discussions have been various. In Aotearoa New Zealand, the audience noted that the Wixáritari and the Sámi both have a strong connection with their natural environment. The Sámi performers and audience members paid attention to the strong position of the Wixárika language spoken in most language domains and the ritual communication between humans and non-humans. Museum workers have appreciated the pedagogical collaboration between the Tatuutsi Maxakwaxi School and the Tunúwame Museum.

The form of the performance Translating Other Knowledge has been intentionally created as hybrid. It is not immediately recognizable as performance art if the ideal is the art form´s “own” language in the Benjaminean sense. It speaks the languages of lecture, video and performance with multiple translations. We hoped that its hybrid nature would invite the audiences to ask any kind of questions without thinking about whether they were relevant or not. Thus the faltering act of translation would be the beginning of a fruitful dialogue.

We finish this article with a translation[11] of Heriberto´s song (Clip 6) about the deer that he sung during the performance:


Our big brother, the deer behind the mountain, is like the blue flowers of the invisible peyote cactus.

It’s difficult to hunt the peyote, and it’s equally difficult to hunt the deer.

It’s very difficult to hunt our big brother. He is very cunning when he is in the region where he lives.

That’s why we call him our big brother.

The blue flowers of Wirikuta communicate with ease with the blue deer, the peyote and the blue corn.

After eating the blue flowers and drinking tesquino I got drunk, and they did too.

That’s why tesquino is the drink of the gods, it is given to us by the gods.

Aren’t we fortunate that the Tatata Comisario exists! He is there for us,

and we take care of keeping the fire in this grate.


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Virtanen, Pirjo, Torjer Olsen & Pigga Keskitalo (upcoming) 2019. Contemporary Sámi research and Indigenous Studies in Sámi and Nordic Contexts.

Öhman, Mai-Britt 2019. “Sámeednama friddja universitehta: A jokk and a joik for free thought, research and understanding”. A keynote lecture at the seminar The Arts for Justice, Indigenous Coalition Building, and Artistic Practices at the University of Helsinki 15.4.2019.

  1. Ethnographic Performance Great-grandfather Deertail, Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies 2015; Translating Other Knowledge, Conference Arts Without Borders and the University of the Arts Helsinki 2016; Collaborative research: Translating Other Knowledge, University of Helsinki 2016. Traduciendo otros saberes, ITESO University, Tlaquapaque, Mexico; Traduciendo Otros Saberes, Centro Fotográfico Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Oaxaca, Mexico. Diálogo entre saberes: una aproximación de los saberes originarios de los pueblos indigenas con cultura wixárika y na´ayeri 2017; Ex Teresa Arte Actual, Recinto anfitrión, México, Mexico. A lecture performance: Traduciendo otros saberes. Evaluations of Indigenous Research Methods Used in Teaching, University of Helsinki. Tunúwame Community Museum – a collaborative and experimental video screening/performance. Conference Engaging with Communities, University of Auckland, NZ. ↩︎

  2. CEIWYNA functions under the auspices of ITESO university. ↩︎

  3. CRASH received funding for the community museum project in Wixárika and Na´ayeri communities from the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2012 and 2017. We thank the CRASH members Outi Hakkarainen, Pauliina Helle, Katri Hirvonen-Nurmi, Heli Kuusipalo, and Irja Seurujärvi- Kari for the collegial planning of the both development projects and for their participation in the performances. ↩︎

  4. Lea Kantonen was affiliated at The Theatre Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki (2014), she worked at the Helsinki Collegium of Advanced Studies, funded by the Kone Foundation (2015); the ArtsEqual consortium of the University of Arts Helsinki (2015­–2018); and the Fine Art Academy of the University of Arts Helsinki (2017–2018).

    Pekka Kantonen has worked at the Centre for Artistic Research (CfAR) at the University of Arts Helsinki (2018).

    Pyry-Pekka Kantonen has received funding from Aalto University (2016). ↩︎

  5. We call our Wixárika co-performers “artist-teachers” here because we want to emphasize their artistic training in the Indigenous education system. The artist-teachers themselves do not always agree on whether they should be called artistas in Spanish or not. The Wixárika performers in different performances have been: Miguel Carrillo, Apolonia de la Cruz Ramirez, Heriberto de la Cruz Ramirez, Manuel de la Cruz Muñoz, Eduardo Madera, Carlos Salvador, and Viviana Ortiz. ↩︎

  6. This research has been undertaken as part of the ArtsEqual -project funded by the Academy of Finland’s Strategic Research Council from its Equality in Society -programme, project no. 293199. ↩︎

  7. ILO convention 169 provides objective and subjective criteria for identifying Indigenous peoples. The subjective one is self-identification as belonging to an indigenous people. The objective criteria is “[…] people in independent countries who are regarded as indigenous on account of their descent from the populations which inhabited the country, or a geographical region to which the country belongs, at the time of conquest or colonisation or the establishment of present State boundaries and who, irrespective of their legal status, retain some or all of their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions.” ↩︎

  8. On supradisciplinary colloboration see Öhman 2019, on extra-academic knowledge, see Koskinen & Mäki 2016. ↩︎

  9. We have asked permission according to the etiquette of the Wixárika community of the principal agrarian authority, the authorities of the Tatuutsi Maxakwaxi secondary school and the divine ancestor and sacred place Turamukameta. According to the permission we have the right to record any event taking place at the context of the school and use the recordings in our research. During the year 2015, additionally, we had a permission of the agrarian authority to film other events taking place in the community, and we then filmed the pilgrimage and the performances of Heriberto. The authorities have not agreed to give a written permission. They have said that Wixárika knowledge is foremostly oral and an oral permission is equally valid as a written one. We recorded an oral permission with the school community 2017. ↩︎

  10. The translators in diffferent occasions have been Pedro Cayetano, Hannah Gullichsen, Lea Kantonen, Pekka Kantonen, Pyry-Pekka Kantonen, Pinja Pieski, Diana Soria Hernández, Katri Hirvonen-Nurmi, Mohamad Rabah, and Irja Seurujärvi-Kari. ↩︎

  11. Translated by Hannah Gullichsen. ↩︎