Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

Gail Tremblay

Image of And Then There is the Hollywood Indian Princess basket

And Then There is the Hollywood Indian Princess; 2002; Sculpture 16 mm film, metallic braid 9" x 7.25" x 7.25"

Image of The Empty Fishtrap installation Image of The Empty Fishtrap Installation detail

Left: The Empty Fishtrap, Mixed Media Installation; 1993; right: The Empty Fishtrap, Mixed Media Installation; 1993; (detail)

By Jennifer C. Vigil

Onondaga and Mi’kmaq writer, teacher, and mixed media artist Gail Tremblay was born December 15, 1945 in Buffalo, New York.  She graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 1967 and received a M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Oregon, Eugene in 1969. Tremblay teaches English, Native American Studies, Art, and Art History at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, where she joined the faculty in 1981. Her advocacy for Native people, Indigenous issues, and women artists is advanced through her published articles, essays, and participation in Native arts organizations including the Women’s Caucus for Art (President, 1999-2000).  As an educator, she has influenced more than a generation of Native and non-Native students and has been instrumental in building Evergreen’s focus on Native arts and Native Studies.

Tremblay blends traditional styles with modern materials in her installations and mixed-media works, creating complex postmodern compositions that critique stereotypes, colonization, environmental degradation, and the displacement of Indigenous peoples.  Her installations combine traditional forms that are ecologically rooted in connections to land with audio and video clips that offer critical contrasts to her elegant forms. In The Empty Fish Trap (1993), two woven fish traps are suspended over a dry riverbed with four cedar stumps. Dried salmon skins hang from stilts below the fish traps and above the riverbed. The unsettling scene of empty traps with desiccated salmon floating just above an arid riverbed alludes to some disaster—in this case the effects of financially motivated and unsustainable fishing and manufacturing processes. The audio accompanying the installation relays Skokomish stories about salmon ceremonies, information about how to care for fish, water, and trees, and Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission facts about the decline of salmon populations.

In the 1980s, while she was teaching a Third World and Feminist Film Theory class, Tremblay began weaving baskets out of scrap 16mm film, old movie trailers, and outdated educational films. In perfect postmodern irony, Tremblay, who has been making baskets since childhood, utilized materials from a medium that often originated and propagated stereotypes of Indigenous people in order to create “traditional” baskets that critique those same stereotypes. Her titles often allude to the film source, which is frequently obscured by the weaving. In And Then There’s the Hollywood Indian Princess (2002), she mixes the red leader film with the dark film to create a basket that integrates traditional Mi’kmaq and Onondaga basketry techniques with a twentieth-century medium.  he use of red leader scraps, while offering visual interest, also can have symbolic meaning—as a color associated with one of the cardinal directions for various Native nations and as a wryly subversive reference to the “red” Indian.

Tremblay does not see her three careers as writer, educator, and artist as being separate, but rather understands these as interconnected facets of her life’s work. Each offers her a different way to address critical issues, providing her a greater impact on a wider audience. What previously were localized environmental concerns—such as declining salmon populations—now combine to create global problems needing immediate attention. The power of Tremblay’s work is that it focuses attention on individual elements that, if addressed collectively, affect significant global change to the environment and/or to society.