Dana Claxton, Buffalo Bone China, 1997, video and mixed media. Collection of the MacKenzie Art Gallery, purchased with the financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts Acquisition Assistance Program.

About the Artwork

In this work, Dana Claxton uses performance, found objects and video to strongly state her message. The work refers to British colonial policies that resulted in the decimation of the buffalo and had devastating effects upon Indigenous people who relied heavily on the buffalo for their survival. Buffalo bones were gathered into huge piles on the prairie and crushed bones were exported to England to be used in the production of fine bone china.

Curator Tania Willard states about the performance and installation of Claxton ‘s politically charged Buffalo Bone China, that “[a] more visceral sense of the political act in Dana’s work is seen in her 1997 performance and installation, Buffalo Bone China. In the performance Dana smashes pieces of china and later makes four bundles and places them in a sanctified circle while an experimental video of buffalo plays. Feeling the loss of the buffalo, the backbone of Plains spirituality and sustenance, the artist uses a rubber mallet to destroy plates and bowls. The breaking of the china refers to the use of buffalo bones in the making of bone china during the period of exploitation and decimation of the buffalo.” (Willard, 2007)

In an interview between the artist and Willard, Willard states, “[o]ur laughter, our cultures, and our spirituality are our survival and this survival becomes another layer, another part of the journey in Dana’s work. Her practice chronicles these histories – the personal and the political – in a way no textbook can ever retell these stories. She tells these stories with heart and spirit, bringing these histories to life, relating them to her own family and journey.” (Willard, 2007)

About the Artist

Dana Claxton was born in Yorkton, Saskatchewan and is a member of the Hunkpapa Lakota Nation. Her family is descended from Sitting Bull’s followers, who fled persecution from the U.S. Army in 1876 after the Battle of Little Bighorn by escaping into Canada. Claxton talks about her heritage and experiences as they relate to her art making: “I’m influenced by my own experience as a Lakota woman, as a Canadian, a mixed blood Canadian, and then my own relationship to the natural and supernatural world. So taking that whole bundle of experiences, it all goes into the artwork, I think that’s where the multi-layering comes in because I’ve had a very multi-layered life.” (Willard, 2007)

Tania Willard describes Claxton’s process and work : “[S]tarting from grandmothers and ancestors, land and sky, rage and beauty, Dana Claxton weaves images, sounds, and ideas together with a sense of balance, subversion, and hope. Dana’s work is situated in place, remembering, and history, bringing these elements together in surreal homages and explorations. Dana’s work is part of a journey – the journey of identity of self and Nation (both Indigenous nations and Canadian Nationhood), the journey of history, and the journey of the spirit.”  (Willard, 2007)

Claxton is a multidisciplinary artist, working in installation, performance and visual art. She is an artist whose challenging works have strong political messages. She is an active member of the arts community and has participated on juries, advisory committees and is involved in discussions, youth mentoring and curatorial projects.

Things to Think About

  • On the floor of the installation, Claxton places a pile of bone china that she broke into pieces in an earlier performance. What purpose would be breaking the fine bone china serve 
  • The year 2004 marked the return of the first herds of wild buffalo to the prairies. Why is this release of buffalo important in Saskatchewan history? 
  • Research imperialism, western development and Saskatchewan history. Have a conversation about the land, ownership, and how we treat it. 
  • Colonization is when one country or group of people tries to take over another country or group of people. It often includes trying to remove or push out the original people living in a place. It can also include trying to change their ways of life and thinking to fit with those of the colonizing group of people. Colonization has huge effects on people that last many generations. What does Dana Claxton’s artwork say about colonization? 

Post your artwork online using the hashtag #studiosundayyqr!

Studio Activity

Dana Claxton’s artwork retells stories and experiences from her own life and her culture. Create an illustrated poem about your life and your relationship to the environment.

Inspired by artist Dana Claxton’s work—create an illustrated poem.

What you Need:

  • Paper  
  • Pencil and eraser 
  • Pencil crayons 

What you Do:

  • On a blank paper, write down the first five words that come to mind when you think about where you live. Consider your current natural environment and you can also think about the history of the land, including Saskatchewan’s colonial history. For example: Someone’s words might be flat, green, lilies, sunlight, stolen, and treaties. Write these words down wherever you want on your paper. 
  • Think of a phrase that describes something that you have done or experienced for each of your words. These will be the lines of your poem. Write them on your paper, incorporating the words that are already scattered across the page. For our example, the person’s lines might look something like this: 

Walking flat fields, avoiding the cattle 

Surrounded by green grass meeting blue sky 

Finding lilies like tiny fires in the grasses 

Land that was stolen 

Treaties as bridges I walk along 

  • Illustrate the spaces on the paper around your poem. Draw what your poem makes you think of, perhaps filling in missing parts of the story or stories it tells.