2. Dylan A.T. Miner, Creating Aztlán: Chicano Art, Indigenous Sovereignty, and Lowriding Across Turtle Island

by breavman99

creating aztlan

This past semester, I took a graduate-level visual arts course called Group Studio. That course ended last week with a critique by the faculty in the Department of Visual Arts of my photographs of and text work about my walk to Wood Mountain. One faculty member suggested that when a settler walks, he or she is inevitably claiming territory that is rightly Indigenous. The argument, as I understand it, is that because walking is a way of moving slowly across the land, it is therefore equivalent to lowriding—either with lowrider cars or bicycles—which is, according to Dylan Miner, a way for Indigenous people to claim (or possibly reclaim) territory. For that reason, I decided I would take a look at Miner’s 2014 book Creating Aztlán: Chicano Art, Indigenous Sovereignty, and Lowriding Across Turtle Island to make sense of that critique and possibly formulate a response.

I must admit, I didn’t read Miner’s book carefully. Instead, I did what my PhD supervisors have suggested, and I “gutted” it: I read the introduction and conclusion, took a look at a review, skimmed the chapters, and looked up every mention of the word “lowriding” in the index. Nevertheless, I got a clear sense of how Miner uses that term. He equates migration, lowriding, and moving slowly across the landscape, and he argues that all of these are inherently Indigenous and central to his own methodology in the account of Chicano art as Indigenous sovereignty:

For many participants in lowrider culture, the process of lowriding engages traditional migration patterns, yet employs late-capitalist machinery to traverse colonized landscapes. While our ancestors moved slowly from one place to another, establishing deep roots along the way, contemporaneity and coloniality presuppose that we must hurriedly rush from place to place. Instead of hastening from one place to another, lowriding, as an Indigenous ontology, actively engages the process of slow-movement. Through this intentional slowness, lowriding seamlessly repositions us between various temporalities, moving among multiple spaces in and out of disparate social structures. Lowriding becomes methodology and framework as we investigate Aztlán and Chicano art, as well as migrate across Turtle Island or the Americas. (3)

Miner’s interest is primarily in his socially engaged art practice of building lowrider bicycles with Indigenous youth (the MacKenzie Art Gallery brought Miner to Regina for one of these projects in 2016). Those projects, he writes, constitute a collective confrontation with colonial power structures: by building lower bicycles with Indigenous youth, “we upheld Indigenous sovereignty in a profound way: we worked collectively and, in turn, built community” (5). These bikes, he continues, “materialized Indigenous knowledge in the present,” by combining “ancestral knowledge with contemporary technologies, concretizing Indigenous culture in the guise of lowrider bicycles” (6). 

Miner mentions lowrider cars only a couple of times in the book. But lowriding functions metaphorically in Creating Aztlán, I think, through the creation of the nexus of lowriding/migration/slowness as an Indigenous ontology and methodology. “Although created sometime in the late twentieth century, decades after lowrider cars,” Miner writes,

lowrider bicycles are the epitome of contemporary Indigenous movement. They are simple machines with two wheels. The wheels must be kept moving if the bike is to remain upright. Constant rotations of the wheels keep the rider in a stable and mobile position. When the wheels stop rotating, the bike becomes static and the rider will eventually fall to the ground. This could be read as an Indigenous story about the need to maintain equilibrium in the world. Unlike the desire of a traditional cyclist, whose hope it is to move as quickly as possible, the lowrider’s only goal is to move as slowly and as intentionally as viable. Lowriding is about moving through space, while being cognizant of the journey and migration itself. (23-24)

I’m not sure how his description of how a lowrider bicycle remains upright differs fundamentally from the way an ordinary bicycle works, except that the goal with a lowrider bicycle is apparently “to move as slowly and as intentionally” as possible—an intentionality that is apparently self-reflexive and that conflates the specific journey with the broader experience of migration. Such journeys or migrations are apparently circular, in both time and space, and related to story as a way for Indigenous peoples to “slowly and intimately relate to one another” (88). Later, Miner writes, “lowriding is about slow movement, in which the lowriders themselves get to know the space and move through it in intentional ways” (115); here, slowness is an essential part of coming to know the space through which the rider is moving. 

Lowriding, as Miner defines it, and walking clearly share a similar velocity: both are ways of moving through a space (whether urban or rural) slowly. However, I don’t see anywhere in Miner’s book where moving through territory is defined as claiming or reclaiming territory. Maybe I missed it. If I didn’t, then I’m not sure a critique of my walk to Wood Mountain as a colonial claiming of territory works if it is based in Miner’s literal or metaphorical discussions of lowriding, since that idea doesn’t appear to be in Miner’s book. It might appear in something else he’s written, but if it does, I can’t find it.

Lowriding (on bicycles or in cars) obviously shares a certain slowness with walking, but there are significant differences between those practices. Although Miner says he first encountered lowrider bicycles in rural Michigan when he was a child (5), I would think that as a mode of transportation lowrider bikes are primarily an urban phenomenon—at least in this province. Can one move through space slowly if one is travelling the kinds of distances between communities that exist in a place like Saskatchewan? Are the youth who built lowrider bicycles with Miner here in Regina really riding them outside of the city? Maybe they are. Nevertheless, on my walk to Wood Mountain I encountered only one cyclist, and he was riding a mountain bike (which is a practical way of dealing with the drifts of gravel one finds on grid roads).

Moreover, the bikes Miner built at with his participants in this city were meant to be looked at; they were colourful and incorporated Indigenous design elements, patterns, and references (photographs of those bicycles are available here). They are both a mode of transportation, a form of display, and an assertion of Indigeneity on multiple levels. Is that true of walking? It could be, if the walker, like the runner Brad “Caribou Legs” Firth, wore traditional regalia, but I would never do such a thing (it would be an obvious act of cultural appropriation). In fact, I cannot imagine anyone wanting to look at the dull-coloured, dirty walking clothes and Tilley hat I wear when I am walking. Everything about the walks I make is pragmatic and functional (the clothes I wear, the pack I carry); walking long distances in this place is impractical enough. In other words, when I walk there is no attempt at becoming visual spectacle, even though my presence surprises passing motorists. Besides, walking and cycling—even cycling on a lowrider bike—are distinctly different activities. Cycling—even on a lowrider bike—involves a degree of technological intervention that isn’t present in walking. (After all, people walked long before bicycles were invented.) 

It is true that part of the reason I choose to walk is as a way of getting to know the land, the space through which I am moving, but is that necessarily an assertion of sovereignty over that land? I don’t think so. I happened to have lunch with an Elder last week and I talked a little bit about walking to Wood Mountain and the notion that by walking I’m claiming ownership of the land. “No,” she replied, “the land is teaching you when you walk.” Besides, she continued, nobody ought to be claiming territory: the earth owns us, and we don’t own it. I do learn from the land when I walk: it teaches me about scale, about flat plains and hills, about wind and rain, about heat and cold and thirst. I met Dylan Miner when he was here, and I told him about the project I was then getting ready for: my walk in the Haldimand Tract. He thought it was a good idea, something that I should do. He didn’t accuse me of trying to claim that territory. I’m grateful for that response, which demonstrated an understanding of what I was trying to do in that project. I was deliberately not claiming territory: I was acknowledging the thefts of land that my settler predecessors had committed in that place. My PhD research has a similar motivation.

Miner’s use of lowriding as a conceptual framework in his book is interesting as a metaphor, and the equation he makes between slowness, migration, and coming to know the land is thought-provoking; although not all forms of slow movement are necessarily migration, slow movement is definitely one way of coming to understand the land. But I’m not sure one can use his writing as a way to critique walking. Walking and lowriding share a similar velocity, but there are significant differences between those practices, and ignoring those differences is, in my opinion, a mistake. And it leads to a larger question: is any engagement with land by a settler descendant—landscape painting or photography, sculptures about forests, writing about grasslands—necessarily a way to claim territory? If not, what is it about walking in particular that generates this political critique? That question remains unanswered; all I can say is, that critique isn’t articulated in Miner’s book.

Work Cited

Miner, Dylan A.T. Creating Aztlán: Chicano Art, Indigenous Sovereignty, and Lowriding Across Turtle Island, U of Arizona P, 2014.