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Taxidermic Signs

Reconstructing Aboriginality

2008
Author:

Pauline Wakeham

Taxidermic Signs

A fascinating study of how taxidermy reinforces racial stereotypes of aboriginality

Pauline Wakeham decodes the practice of taxidermy as it was performed in North America from the late nineteenth century to the present, revealing its connection to ecological and racial discourses integral to the maintenance of colonial power. Moving beyond the literal practice of stuffing skins, Wakeham theorizes taxidermy as a sign system that conflates “animality” and “aboriginality” within colonial narratives of extinction.

Pauline Wakeham's work opens up new ways of thinking about colonial representation. Her fresh re-reading of the relation between the construction of the Aboriginal and the semiotics of taxidermy are exemplary for cultural studies.

Julia Emberley, author of Defamiliarizing the Aboriginal: Cultural Practices and Decolonization in Canada

Taxidermy—the preservation, stuffing, and mounting of animal skins for lifelike display—has been traced back over four centuries to imperial Europe. In the intervening centuries it has remained inextricably linked to the politics of colonial conquest, materializing Western fantasies of mastery over the natural world and control of unruly, “wild” bodies.

In Taxidermic Signs, Pauline Wakeham decodes the practice of taxidermy as it was performed in North America from the late nineteenth century to the present, revealing its connection to ecological and racial discourses integral to the maintenance of colonial power. Moving beyond the literal practice of stuffing skins, Wakeham theorizes taxidermy as a sign system that conflates “animality” and “aboriginality” within colonial narratives of extinction. Through a series of provocative case studies, Wakeham demonstrates how the semiotics of taxidermy travel across diverse cultural texts. From the display of animal specimens and aboriginal artifacts in the Banff Park Museum, to the ethnographic films of Edward S. Curtis and Marius Barbeau, to the fetishization of aboriginal remains in the Kennewick Man and Kwädāy Dän Ts’inchį repatriation cases, Wakeham argues that taxidermy’s sign system reinvents mythologies of disappearing wildlife and vanishing Indians while simultaneously valorizing the power of Western technologies to memorialize these figures.

Seeking to destabilize the hierarchies of anthropocentric white supremacy, Wakeham presents an analysis of taxidermy as both a material practice and a symbolic system foundational to colonial authority in North America and still vital to the maintenance of power asymmetries today.

Taxidermic Signs

Pauline Wakeham is assistant professor of English at the University of Western Ontario.

Taxidermic Signs

Pauline Wakeham's work opens up new ways of thinking about colonial representation. Her fresh re-reading of the relation between the construction of the Aboriginal and the semiotics of taxidermy are exemplary for cultural studies.

Julia Emberley, author of Defamiliarizing the Aboriginal: Cultural Practices and Decolonization in Canada

Pauline Wakeham’s Taxidermic Signs displays impressive depth, intelligence, and critical panache. Convincingly linking the colonial imaginary from the early twentieth-century with contemporary discourses, Taxidermic Signs arrives in the present as a devastating critique of ongoing racism across North America.

Canadian Literature

Her compassionate and imaginative book offers us ways to be cautious, discreet, attentive and sensitive as some of us accompany First Nations as they resist, affirm and negotiate their separations and interdependencies.

Topia

Taxidermic Signs performs a genuine service through bringing a fresh and destabilizing perspective on the technologies and politics of colonial mimesis. By insisting that the salient issues in her case studies are decipherable neither as mere politics nor as innocent representations, Wakeham positions herself in a venerable genealogy of semioticians who regard social life as always and everywhere constituted by the politics of signs and the signs of politics. Indeed, in its best moments Taxidermic Signs calls to mind Roland Barthes’s classic Mythologies, piercing the screen of everyday projections in order to shed light on hidden logics and the social forms they sustain.

Wicazo Sa Review