I'm Only Going to Show You Once, Now You Try: Alyssa "Sikapinakii" Duck Chief
by Steph Wong Ken
At the opening for their show, Alyssa ‘Sikapinakii’ Duck Chief laid out a box filled with handwritten notes and a family photo album, decorated in fabric and lace. Two photographs taken by Duck Chief, of a family member and a landscape on the Siksika reservation, hung on the walls, as well as a Pendleton blanket covered in framed photos, including individual family members in framed letters that spelled out “LOVE.” The notes in the box were written like entries in a journal: “DUCK CHIEF, What does it mean to have my ‘father’s’ last name”; “Why should I be so affected by something I have no control over?” But rather than keeping these notes in a personal place, Duck Chief offered them to visitors to read and take—a communal approach to intimacy and trauma. I’m Only Going to Show You Once, Now You Try was Duck Chief’s first solo show, and continued their practice of exploring Indigenous histories and stories. A member of the Siksika First Nation, part of the Blackfoot Confederacy in southern Alberta, Duck Chief worked primarily in drawing and illustration before shifting to text and photography. With this project, Duck Chief integrated family heirlooms and items into their practice, creating an intimate and inviting space.
Mirroring the process of healing over time, Duck Chief’s show was durational, with new photographs and text added as the show progressed. At each visit, I discovered different notes in the box, as well as beaded bracelets and small paper zines filled with photographs, erasure poems and statements like “I cannot continue to be the echo of him.” The zines recall Duck Chief’s previous text and collage projects, including a publication for Stride Gallery in 2019, It’s Never A Good Idea / Mohkinstsis Kikskanisto’p, created as part of the #callresponse exhibition, which supports the work of Indigenous women and dialogue on, among other things, reconciliation, resilience and accountability. In these projects, Duck Chief explored the effects of colonial trauma at both an institutional and a nuanced, personal level.
I’m Only Going to Show You Once, Now You Try references a phrase Duck Chief heard often from male elders who shared with them cultural teachings and values: practical skills such as mending a fence, and also emotional coping mechanisms. The absence of Duck Chief’s father was marked in the show, an ever-present void. It is apparent that in his place, Duck Chief’s mother, stepfather, uncles, cousins and grandparents have become father figures and caretakers, creating a community for Duck Chief, though the absence of their father still has an impact on their family narrative.
Each photograph was a framed closeup of the face or hands of a family member in a domestic setting, creating a sense of closeness with the subject. Duck Chief also included memories around each image in white chalk, braiding together photography and text to create a larger story, a possible reference to the work of Mohawk artist Shelley Niro, who also integrates family photographs and text in her work. During the final iteration of the show, Duck Chief added a pair of leather work gloves and beaded leather slippers. They also wrote the title on the wall in Blackfoot with chalk in block letters: Sopoyaapistsiiyit Kaikitanists.
In the context of the gallery space, these family items, images and words became sacred objects, to be looked at, held and considered as part of a larger whole. The ability to touch these objects made them accessible in a gallery space, often a charged space for Indigenous art that can desacralize sacred objects. Though these objects carried a sense of nostalgia and recognition, both for Duck Chief and a visitor to the space, they also constituted a reframing and retelling of Duck Chief’s family’s story, in part as a form of healing. As Duck Chief notes in It’s Never A Good Idea / Mohkinstsis Kikskanisto’p, “For once a story is told, it cannot be called back. Once told, it is loose in the world.”
With I’m Only Going to Show You Once, Now You Try a story was put out in the world—of Duck Chief’s ruptured upbringing, but also of what is inherited by and in spite of colonialism. By creating a tactile space of wood, leather, beads, paper and chalk, Duck Chief moved beyond theorizing identity and trauma, toward the personal and specific. Like the healing process, the show’s final iteration had a quality of accumulation, looking backwards and forward at once. One of the notes I took from the show and saved reads, “My trauma is your trauma and theirs before us.” Through this show and the sharing it invited, Duck Chief demonstrated what healing could look like.