Taxidermic Signs: Reconstructing Aboriginality

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 travels 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 Kwaday Dan Ts'inchi 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. Pauline Wakeham is assistant professor of English at the University of Western Ontario.