The Vibrant Art of Indigenous People Tells a Story of Survival

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Indigenous people reclaim their cultural identities through art.

A voice is invaluable, and being able to tell one’s story is the key to cultural survival. However, in the case of America’s first people — or indigenous people, a rather simplistic term used to identify over 500 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. — their stories have been censored by the powers that be.

Yet a volatile history hasn’t stopped indigenous people from creating a thriving contemporary arts scene.

Their stories are worth sharing.

A Brief History of Indigenous People in the U.S.

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United States Department of the Interior via Wikimedia Commons

In the book Manifestations: New Native Art Criticism, Stephen Fadden and Stephen Wall suggest the relationship between the U.S. government and indigenous people can be broken down into three eras: Formative, Allotment and Reorganization.

During the Formative Era (1776-1810), indigenous people fought to maintain sovereignty of their homeland. As the U.S. government grew, its efforts to dominate the land through Manifest Destiny led to war, genocide and subjugation of indigenous people during the Allotment Era (1810-1832).

At this time, the government worked to assimilate instead of outright terminate indigenous people. This is when the “reservation system” began, forcing tribes to live in small segments of the territory they were granted in their original agreements with the government. Indigenous children were sent to boarding schools, where they were taught to forget their cultural heritage and become essentially white in all respects.

Wall and Fadden write, “The Allotment Act and its assimilationist policies were devastating.” Across the reservations were “extremely high rates of glaucoma, infectious diseases, tuberculosis, high unemployment, no economic opportunities, and young adults returning from boarding schools with insufficient education for employment.”

The horrible conditions of the reservations became the catalyst for the Reorganization Era, spurred on by President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s. Tribal governmental authority was reestablished, along with an emphasis on cultures and languages, economic development and educational reform.

However, with little improvement in conditions for indigenous people, by the ’60s and ’70s there was increasing political unrest among groups like the American Indian Movement (AIM). AIM members led activists in seizing Alcatraz beginning November 20, 1969, and occupying Wounded Knee, South Dakota, beginning February 28, 1973. On March 27, 1973, Marlon Brando, an AIM supporter, refused an Academy Award for his performance in The Godfather in protest of the film industry’s treatment of indigenous people, asking a young Apache woman named Sacheen Littlefeather to speak on his behalf.

While AIM was officially disbanded in the late ’70s, the problems they protested persist in the U.S., resulting in recent protests like Standing Rock in North Dakota, where activists and artists like Nahko Bear helped renew national awareness of the concerns of indigenous people.

The Modern Movement of Arts & Expression for Indigenous People

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T. C. Cannon - Self-Portrait

The U.S. government nearly destroyed the cultures of over 500 tribes, and that history influences the lives, stories and art of indigenous people still today. “This history is the foundation for expression by Native artists and the economic, legal and political environments in which that expression takes place,” wrote Fall and Wadden.

Art is an expression of identity. If one’s identity has been systematically erased, art becomes a way of reclaiming it.

The Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, opened its doors in 1962 with the goal of empowering indigenous people through education, economic self-sufficiency and awareness of artistic and cultural traditions. It is the only higher education institution dedicated exclusively to providing art education for indigenous people.

“IAIA is different in the fact that from day one, it was an intertribal entity,” said Eric Davis, marketing and communications director for IAIA. “It was a magnet school to kind of encourage Native Americans from different backgrounds and areas to share their history and tribal stories and their culture.”

According to Davis, the whole idea behind IAIA was “getting away from the traditional Native American art…and to really embrace the changing environment in their world both artistically and politically.” While the art of indigenous people had gained some traction by 1962, it was generally traditional expressions. It was also often exploited, with many non-Native artists masquerading as indigenous people to sell goods to the general public.

IAIA founders — including the first famous Native American fashion designer Lloyd Kiva New — believed indigenous people had a voice in the contemporary arts movement and that traditional forms of expression, while incredibly valuable, were not the only way they could express themselves. They also believed that indigenous people could make a living with their art and that their art should not be exploited. It was out of the Institute of American Indian Arts that the modern movement of indigenous artistic expression truly began to thrive.

Famous indigenous artists like T.C. Cannon, David Bradley, Kevin Red Star and Earl Biss studied at IAIA, while Fritz Scholder was one of the school’s many teachers who became nationally known. In the ’70s and ’80s, their artwork gave voice to the stories of indigenous people in a new way, daring people to view them in the context of their painful history alongside their modern struggles and triumphs.

“The contemporary Native Art movement started here, lives here, and all of the early works of artists from the very beginning are part of the school’s heritage,” said Davis.

Artistic Expansion & Growth in the Late 20th Century and Beyond

In 1972 the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) was established in affiliation with IAIA in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The museum now holds a collection of over 7,500 artworks from indigenous peoples around the world.

“We show indigenous people from America, Canada, South America, New Zealand and Australia,” said Patsy Phillips, director of the MoCNA and member of the Cherokee Nation. “Mostly our emphasis is in the United States, but we always incorporate indigenous arts from other countries.”

Other museums that tell the first-person stories of indigenous people emerged from the ’70s to the ’90s, but few contemporary art museums exist that exclusively feature indigenous artists. Many major museums portray indigenous people’s art through a Western-centric lens, but the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) made great strides when it opened its doors in 2004, according to Phillips.

“That’s the first national museum dedicated to Native arts and cultures,” said Phillips. “They have shown some important artists, and that’s educating. The world goes to Washington and to the Smithsonian.”

Phillips also pointed out growth in many other areas. In 1999 she helped arrange the first indigenous people’s collateral exhibition Ceremonial at the Venice Biennale — the premiere contemporary arts event in the world since 1895. Ceremonial included works by popular artists like Frank LaPena, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Kay WalkingStick and Richard Ray Whitman.

“There’s a lot of work being done by a lot of people in the country,” said Phillips. She said that interest in indigenous artwork is increasing and noted a growing number of university programs, including the Yale Group for the Study of Native America at Yale University and the UCLA American Indian Studies Center.

Progress Made, More to Do for Indigenous People

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An up-close photo of ‘House of Constant Rotation’ by C.Maxx Stevens

C.Maxx Stevens has been an artist since the ’70s. Of Seminole/Muskogee descent, she has exhibited artwork in numerous museums both nationally and internationally, and she has earned prestigious recognitions, including the Andrea Frank Artists Foundation Award and the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Inc., Painters and Sculptors Grant. While she believes great strides have been made for indigenous people and artists in the modern era, she still sees a lot of work to be done.

“Standing Rock and Wounded Knee are all important in contemporary history,” she said. “But I don’t really think these issues make a dent in how non-Natives see what is happening in the Native world. There are so many stereotypes and uninformed people out there that it’s like the tip of the iceberg.”

Stevens, an associate professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Colorado Boulder, believes more honest and inclusive education surrounding indigenous people is vital to helping the general population learn stories they may not have been exposed to before.

For example, “In art history, I notice that everyone of culture has their ‘place.’ Fred Wilson, Black; Frida Kahlo, Mexican,” she said. “With Native artists, do you see Native artists intermixed in museums with contemporary artists, or just in the ‘Indian Art’ section?” Stevens believes an inclusive environment, where all ethnicities and stories are given equal space, is vital to progress.

Misinformation, cultural appropriation and inequity are lingering problems for many indigenous people. But art is one way to express those stories, which is why it’s so important. “Artists in a lot of respects are teachers,” said Davis, marketing director for IAIA. “They’re showing you something that you may have never seen before, or at least a perspective that you may not have looked at before. And indigenous artists bring a different background, a different history, and a different dynamic that’s part of their makeup…. The more that you understand about the art, the more you understand about the artist.”

Phillips agreed that art can help change people’s perspectives. “We’re living in a really difficult time,” said Phillips. “And I think that the more we understand other cultures and other people, the more accepting we can be — not just of other people, but even of ourselves. And I think that’s what art can do for us today.… Art crosses all boundaries, and I think it’s a way really to make people understand others.”

Phillips also noted that actually asking indigenous people their views about their history, art and culture is so important. Instead of making assumptions, direct communication and a willingness to listen are always best. “I think to disregard or not pay attention to what the Natives are saying is very damaging,” she said. “Consult with them, authenticate [with them].”

In this day and age, listening to each other’s stories may be the most helpful way to move our world forward. As indigenous people express their stories through art in the modern era, we all should listen and learn, for their stories are vital to our complex, collective heritage. end


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