The Arty Semite

Where Jew and Mohawk Meet

By Michael Kaminer

  • Print
  • Share Share
Courtesy of TIFF

For “Home on Native Land,” a beautifully presented show of provocative new work by Indigenous and Aboriginal artists at Toronto’s Bell Lightbox cultural center, curator Steven Loft channeled his Mohawk heritage. But the exhibit’s dominant themes — home, roots, historical injustice — might also speak to Loft’s Jewish identity. Aboriginal on his father’s side, Loft is the son of a Jewish mother whose parents escaped Germany before the Holocaust. By day, Loft is a Trudeau National Visiting Fellow at Ryerson University in Toronto, where he researches Indigenous art and aesthetics; until 2009, he was the Curator-In-Residence of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa. He talked to The Arty Semite about the intersections of Jewish and Aboriginal culture, First Nations art and how his parents met.

Michael Kaminer: First of all, can you talk about your background? Even in New York, we don’t often meet Mohawk Jews.

Steven Loft: My mom was a bit of a rebel, and was a bit of a handful for my grandparents. At 16, she met a dashing young man at a local dance. His name was Howard Loft, and he was a Mohawk, living in Hamilton [Ontario], but originally from the nearby Six Nations Reserve. I was born the following year.

Did each side of your family accept the other? Did the Jews embrace the Mohawk, and vice-versa?

Because my father left when I was so young, we really had no contact with my Mohawk family after that. My mother completely supported my exploration of my Mohawk heritage and encouraged me to reconnect with the Loft family and meet my father. I was able to really feel connected to that part of my heritage, having not grown up with it. I began to understand (intellectually and personally) what it was to be an Aboriginal person in Canada — the issues, the history, the social dynamics and the destructiveness of colonialism.

Some of the themes in “Home on Native Land” seem to have particular resonance for Jews, especially notions of home and roots. Is it fair to look for parallels?

Absolutely. Notions of home, place and sovereignty figure prominently for Aboriginal people and Jews. In many ways there are many historical parallels to the struggles, oppression and attempted genocide of both peoples. When I talk to Jewish people about the history of colonialism in this country they are generally astounded at the violence committed against Aboriginal people in this country (and others) and, of course, can relate it to Jewish struggles around the world.

Jews have always responded to a tragic history with humor and a kind of sweet melancholy. How would you characterize First Nations’ response to tragedy and historical injustice?

Again, very similar. There is rage and anger, but it is often related through humor. It is often an edgy humor, challenging and “in your face” — but, I don’t think, pedantic. I think it is similar for other oppressed people, although with its own particular aesthetic and intellectual qualities.

There’s a striking piece in the show featuring a cowboy nailed to a lit-up crucifix that floats through space. What kinds of reactions are you getting to the more provocative work in “Home on Native Land”?

We are getting very good responses. There has been a great deal of change in Canada over the last couple of decades as people become more aware of Aboriginal issues and history, and this has helped the dialogue around these issues. Aboriginal art, too, has been seen more within our mainstream institutions over the last 20 to 30 years, and art has become an access point to create dialogues around these issues. Works like the one you mentioned don’t evoke the same kind of contentious response they might have before, and generally people are more interested in the meanings behind them, and the realities that are behind them.

In Canada, were there historic or cultural intersections between Jews and First Nations people?

Not that I am aware of… unfortunately. Because the issues of Aboriginal people had been so successfully muted, repressed and ignored by Canadian governments, the awareness level among Canadians of the issues, histories and realities of Aboriginal people were not well known or regarded. This too, is a colonial strategy, and one intended to negate any large-scale movement for change. I think had Jewish people in Canada been more aware of what was really going on, there could have been many strategic alliances within the communities, but as it is, there is still much misinformation — and some distrust — among them.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Steven Loft, Interviews, Michael Kaminer, Exhibits, Home on Native Land

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.