Interviews By Larry Abbott

Alfred Young Man
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LA: You were among the first group of students to study at IAIA.

AYM: I got sidetracked when I was fifteen or sixteen years old. I was on my way to Flandreau Indian School to go to school to learn a trade, mechanics or something. They didn't have any space so they sent us to Oklahoma to await placement in another Indian school. After a couple of months we discovered that there was a new school opening in Santa Fe called the Institute of American Indian Arts. So they bussed us to New Mexico and we were enrolled there as students. And I spent the next five years there, from '63 to '68. I was fortunate enough to have been in the original crop of students. I didn't know anything about art, of course. I was just a young kid and I didn't know that I was an artist. But like all Native children I was told that I had some kind of a special talent, some kind of artistic Aboriginal artistic chromosome. As it turned out that was the right thing for me to do. There were students there from all over the U.S., some my age, some older, up to about 21 years old, who wanted to start this new art school. It was based on the old Santa Fe Indian School studio campus. It was a very nice campus but it was a BIA government-run school and we all had to conform. We were at odds with what they thought art was all about anyway, so we had to kind of fight that. I was able to explore who I was, and also the idea of Indian art. Even back then people were asking what Indian art is, how you do it, are we Indians, are we not Indians. I used to play around with that idea a lot.


"Portrait of My Family," 1967, acrylic
Click link or on image to see larger size
**All images courtesy of the artists**
All images copyright of the artists
**All reproduction rights controlled by the artists**

LA: Where did you live before going to the Institute?

AYM: I grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation in East Glacier. We were one of several Indian families in a predominantly white reservation town and were always at the lower end of the pecking order. I grew up on the outside of town, across the river, set apart from the rest of the city. The rest of the town could look across the river at those Indians living over there. So from this start we were always outsiders. But we didn't know why. My very early childhood was formed by my grandfather and uncles. We used to do sweats back in the hills. I spoke Cree but as a child was sent to boarding school and forced to speak English. These early experiences informed what my art was about. By the time I got to Santa Fe it was great because even though I was home sick, having been away from home for so long, I spent the next five years learning about Native art. And during all that time no one could ever definitively describe what Native art was. It was something that we were searching for, and today I find out we're still doing that.

LA: Who were some of your influences at the institute?

AYM: I was really impressed by people like Kevin Redstar, Tommy Cannon, who were contemporaries of mine, and Earl Eder, and David Montana. They just blew my mind. They seemed to be approaching things with a freshness that I could very easily fall into as I began to explore my own possibilities as an artist, as a painter. To me, these are the true geniuses of that time period. They set the stage for everything thereafter. They seemed to stand out above all the others. And as it turned out, I was learning to play the guitar and Earl, Tommy, and Kevin formed a band and asked me to join them, and I was the youngest one in the group. Earl took me under his wing and taught me. Tommy used to be the lead singer and he was already well along the way into showing genius in music as well. He loved Bob Dylan and could do Bob Dylan better than Bob Dylan did Bob Dylan, I thought. Those four were the primary influences.

LA: Much of your work seems to have a political edge.

AYM: I don't feel I'm a political artist at all. I feel that we were and are victims of politics so we have to respond to it. We are essentially aboriginal people who have lived on the land for thousands of years. We were invaded, we didn't invade anybody, so our reaction is to address the invasion, and politics is part of this invasion. The imagery of the modern world we live in is part of this invasion. That imagery was never here before, so naturally we address it, and when we address it those people who live within that sphere look at us as being political artists. I suppose that's the only way they can identify what we're doing within their limited frame of reference. I have always been visually-oriented. I've looked at art, ever since I learned to talk about it, in high school, as something that is a language. It's a visual language and the way we use that language is our way of communicating. I communicate through that language, and it's been my priority ever since I got into art to study different ways of getting that language across. If it happens to contain political messages that's just the way it is, because virtually every piece of work ever done by an artist is political to some person or another. There's no such thing as apolitical art. I think that's a fallacy. Artists cannot be apolitical. They have to be political at some point, like it or not. It's not me who's being political, it's me who's responding to the politics. So paintings like The Vacation was done because there are tourists who flood out here by the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions every year from back east and from all over the world. One of the things they want to see is the savage Indian. That's one of their favorite stereotypes. They come to the reservations and crowd around with their cameras and their camcorders and generally make nuisances of themselves because they want to take back to where they're from pictures of savage Indians or primitive Indians that reflect their understanding of Native people. I wanted bring that out, so I depict an Indian saluting the flag with a picture of a car and a postcard of Chief Mountain. I also put a bumper sticker on the piece which reads, "You Are Now in Indian Country," because paradoxically, and probably fortunately, my years in London taught me, if anything, that North America is Indian country. It was discovered by a wayward sailor who happened to hit the right ocean current and didn't know where the hell he was going. He called us Indians. I wanted whoever saw that painting to know that you are indeed in Indian country wherever you are in North America.

I'd Love My Mother Even if She Was Black, Brown or White was done back when I was in high school at the Institute. It was during that very tumultuous time when Kennedy was killed and racism was rampant. That had a great effect on me because on the one hand we always had this stuff coming over the television that we live in a free country and on the other hand, you had people that couldn't even drink at the same water fountain. We were segregated on a school campus and couldn't go downtown without an escort. We were behind wire. The local townspeople didn't like us. They didn't like Indian art in Santa Fe in that time. We couldn't even get shows downtown. They didn't want anything to do with us. The only people that had anything to do with Indians were studying them, the anthropologists, and giving the world their general idea of who Indian people were. We never had a chance to talk, to tell them who we were. All of that had an effect on me. Also, I was becoming of draft age, and my friends were being drafted. My classmates who went to Vietnam would come back and tell me that it was a bogus war. It's like shooting at Indians over there, it's shooting at ourselves when you shoot at the Vietnamese, they would say. They told me that Indian people were being used by the government, by Nixon, even by Kennedy, and that we shouldn't really have anything to do with it. Although they were more than willing to go and fight for their country, they told me not to do it. I didn't know whose freedom Nixon was talking about; he wasn't talking about mine. Up to that point my life had been defined by some outsider, some politician, some political bureaucrat in Washington, D.C., and my art work tended to reflect that. So that painting and others that I did that came out of that era reflects that feeling. I'd Love My Mother was done in response to racism.

LA: In some of your paintings from that period, like Three Creeks, a Ute and a Negro, Family Painting and Six White Men and One Indian the faces are blurred.

AYM: I love to paint and I was exploring new ways of painting, and at the same time I didn't want to put a face on any of my figures because I felt we were being treated, essentially, as faceless individuals anyway. Up to that point I just never felt that Indian people had a face, that's all. I didn't have an urge to paint a face on anything. If there are any kind of faces at all they are very, very subtly painted in. One of my students at the university told me he didn't think I knew how to paint faces. (laughter) Well, maybe. Actually, I had drawn faces before and I had no desire to do it. When I went to London, where I was treated with a bit more respect as a human being, I put faces on my works.

LA: The sense of irony and opposition in your art also comes out in your writing. Do you see Native art in opposition to mainstream Western art?

AYM: Following the Native perspective there is something called "Native art." Although "Native art" might not be the best way to describe it, it is, nevertheless, the only way we can describe this thing. It's not so much in opposition as it just is. It's a given. People ask me what the Native perspective is. I respond this way: What is the Western perspective? Academics refer to Western man, Western history, Western society, but they've never bothered to really define it. If you were to ask what Western Society is, what a Western man is, what would be the answer? In fact, Jimmie Durham, the radical artist, went so far as to say there is no Western culture. And I think he's probably right. There's a power structure that is in place that tends to be considered Western culture. But you can't really define it. It's made up of a series of interlocking facets that go on and on. I see the Native perspective in the same fashion. You can't ultimately describe it because it comes out of a very long history and it's going into an infinite future. There's no way you can describe something that is still alive, that's still growing and viable. Most of the professionals that I know, Native professionals and others, disagree over how to describe Native art. So I don't bother myself too much with trying to define it or worry too much about whether or not it is in opposition to this or that. To me it's a sovereign idea, and so much the better.

LA: Given that, can you describe any of the elements of the Native perspective?

AYM: Your question comes straight out of the ethnocentrism of Western society. I expect it to be that way, so I won't try to answer it. Just let me say that the Indian aesthetic from the Native perspective is there and it will always be there. One of our architects in Canada, Douglas Cardinal, who's Metis, as Crees up here are called, has designed some of the most astounding buildings in North America, if not the world, one of his best known being the Canadian Museum of Civilization. His sense of aesthetics comes right out of an Indian sensibility. I don't think it's something that you can quantify or isolate, in the sense that you can quantify the Western aesthetic under a formal classification. It's feeling, it's intuition, it's a lot of things that are probably not as scientifically-wrought as people in the academic world want it to be. And the academic is what you're talking about here. I'm not so much concerned with academics as I am in freeing ourselves to explore and live in this world any way we can.

LA: In addition to painting, you also do photography.

AYM: I've used photography for a number of years to complement my words. When I was in London going to the Slade School I needed to use photography to get across the idea that painting is a visual language. I was exploring ways of finding out how to present that the best way I could and photography became a part of that. In the process photography became a vital part of my painting, but finally I no longer needed it because it wasn't giving me as much as I wanted. I still feel that the human brain is much more complex than a camera, than something that can be mechanically produced, and I wanted to reproduce these complexities on canvasses as best I could. London was an interesting place to study because they consider themselves to be the center of the universe, literally. I mean, New Yorkers think they are, but the mascot for Slade is the post office tower, which is a cylindrical building that goes up about fifty stories. The top ten or fifteen stories consist of microwave dishes pointed in the four directions receiving information from satellites from all over the world. This information is fed into Fleet Street, fed into the local news media, and it would come out the other end as print or images, so we would get instant information from China or Vietnam or South Africa, or wherever. You would get a photograph instantly that was taken somewhere else. That had a tremendous impact in terms of how language as a visual medium was transferred from one people to another and that began to appear in my work.

LA: You studied anthropology at Rutgers and completed your doctorate there.

AYM: I would say that anthropology is studying me. Anthropology has been studying Natives for decades. The basis for American anthropology is the American Indian, and I had to get into this as a response. I had no choice and I don't think any Native person in North America has that choice. We have to respond to those ideas that impact on us. That's just the human thing to do. So I went to do a doctorate at Rutgers so that I could write a piece on Native art. At that time there were no Ph.D.'s in Native Art; in fact, there were no Ph.D.'s in Native Studies. Since I went to Rutgers a few have opened up. But the doctorates in Native Art are few and far between, and even fewer Native artists, Native people, do these things. I do have to look at anthropology and the impact it's had on Native art and artists over the past century. One of the highlights of my brief stay of nine months in New Jersey was being able to visit the Heye Museum's warehouse in the Bronx. It must be a block square and three or four stories high, chock full of millions of pieces of Native art that's never been displayed. I was lucky enough to be guided through by Raymond Gonyea, who was working there at the time. He showed me Native art that no one has ever laid eyes on. In fact, he told me that the people who work there, who collect it, curate it, and conserve it don't even know what's there. It's like our libraries have been tucked away in some warehouse. Is there any reason why Native people shouldn't have any problems? You take away a people's culture, their history, their religion, their language, and then tell them to go out there and survive. That is what anthropology has done.

LA: You've taught in Canada for quite some time. What do you see as the similarities and differences between First Nations art and American Indian art?

AYM: Many Indians up here in Canada see themselves as Canadians, but at the same time they see themselves as Native people, just like in the States. A lot of Native people down there see themselves as U.S. citizens, Americans. It really depends on who you talk to. Personally I see myself as a Cree Indian. I live right along the border. My ancestors were from up here, but they were down south before either country was formed. So we're closer to the formation of who we are in this area than I think a lot of Native people back east, who have had a longer association with these two governments in their various forms. For instance, my grandmother was alive when Custer got it, and that history is fairly recent. I don't recognize the borders at all, except that I'm forced to by the governments. That is reflected in my work, what I do, and how I perceive myself. But there are other Native people who live further away from the borders, and the further you get away from the border, the 49th parallel or the medicine line, the more they become nationalistic, and there is less commonality between the two groups of Indian people. They tend to become regional, I think. Canadian Native artists, and I know a lot of Indian artists in the States are going to hate me for saying this, are better organized. We don't have so much in-fighting here. I notice in the States that Indian people, Indian artists, are still fighting each other, for crying out loud. And I don't know why. They would be so much further ahead if they would work together, although I've been told that they do. Well, they do on some things but I just can't understand the fighting against themselves. Up here we have a group called SCANA that's been organized right across Canada, the Society of Canadian Artists of Native Ancestry. It's been going now for at least 30 years. It's composed only of Native peoples, Native artists, Native professionals, and our objective is to promote Native art and to defend Native art if it has to be defended. Right now we're trying to organize a show at the National Gallery of Canada, which is equivalent to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. They both refuse to acknowledge Native art. There are people out there who simply refuse to recognize Native people as a reality and as far as I'm concerned that works in our favor because it just gives us more ammunition if we need it to throw at them. When we stop meeting a force out there then our job is probably finished, but that won't happen for several generations. I think that Canadian Native artists are setting the tone for where Native art should be going in both countries.

LA: Do you feel that the political situation in Canada is responsible for that?

AYM: The Indians in Canada are sovereign peoples and there are probably more of them per capita. There are probably more Indians up here in relation to the population, so they have a greater impact. When the government wants to do something and Native people as a whole don't agree, they will raise their voice and their voice will be listened to. That doesn't happen in the States. If anything, Indian people aren't even recognized in Congress except by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and when it comes time to budget time all they do is rubber stamp it. Our issues don't get heard in Congress, whereas up here Native people have a more direct effect. For instance, they were trying to several years back to pass a new Constitution. And because it didn't sit well with Native people, one Native person brought the whole thing down, Elijah Harper.

LA: The character of Many White Horses appears in a few of your essays.

AYM: Yeah. My grandmother was Cree, and she only spoke Cree, which really made it difficult for her. She and I didn't communicate. But she was married to a Blackfeet Indian from Browning, Montana by the name of Don't Talk Many White Horses. As a child, he was quite old when he died, but as a child back in the late 1800's he contracted scarlet fever and he couldn't talk, but his name became Many White Horses. We were more or less raised by them and my older brother used to stay with him all the time. We learned how to talk with him through sign language in the traditional Indian way. I use his name out of respect for him and my grandmother. Out of respect I've taken his name. I've also got several other names, Eagle Chief, Sau-sti-quanis Kiu'kgima'aw, Little Yellow Head, besides Alfred Young Man, so I have about four or five different names that I'm known by, and Many White Horses is another one. It's not really a persona. It's just another way of saying I'm writing about myself and that's who Many White Horses is.

LA: How do you see the evolution of your work?

AYM: It's a personal exploration into the nature of my vision, the nature of language, what language is, and how people perceive. It's been an exploration of what the Indian image is. It's examined the nature of how language is transferred from one place to another, exploring feelings of paint, and how information is moved electronically. It takes an abstract form. It goes in one end as a pure idea, it changes form into electrons, and comes out the other end somehow as an image. To me that's amazing. I don't think anybody's ever thoroughly explored where that image goes, what happens to it. It starts as an image, it disappears and then it comes back as an image that we then interpret in our own ways. Some of my work had to do with how we make images, how we then recycle these images in our brain, how they come out on a canvas, and how you as a viewer is going to read that. It's a very complex idea. I've been exploring that, and I still explore that to a degree today because I think that has a lot to do with how we are perceived as Native people. The image has nothing to do with what we are.

There's a statement by Claude Levi-Strauss that I mention in one of my writings 1. Charbonnier asks him what are the fundamental and structural differences between the societies he studies and those of our own, meaning Western Society. And Levi-Strauss responds, that, in essence, we don't really know who we're talking about when we're talking about Native people because the forms of their societies are so remote from ours. Native people are electrons, they are molecules, they are atoms, they are spirit. They're not going to sit still for anybody, whether it be you, an anthropologist, or even me, to define them. They're an essence, always moving. They're always creating. In a sense, they're beings without form except the form they give themselves. We may never know what that is, and that's where the art work comes in. And that's why Native art is being discovered every ten years. It was true when I was a student and it's still true.

LA: Can a work of art be considered a glimpse or a window into this constantly moving spirit?

AYM: One of the things I learned when I was in London was that art work should be made to last, so I make my art to last for five hundred years. That's why I paint in acrylic. It will look contemporary five hundred years from now. So in a sense I'm painting for the future. Whether or not art can actually end up being that, I don't know, maybe in another medium such as lasers. If you can put an artwork in a laser beam and store it, five hundred years down the line someone could view the laser and see what the artist had to say. When you're dealing with paint and canvas you're kind of limited, but you also have to explore the future. Someone said painting was dead when photography was discovered, but I don't think so. I think painting may be the only truly long-lasting communication we are ever going to have because it's basic, it's something people have done forever. With the electronic image, you lose the key, the code, to break into it and you ain't got nothing. And we're not sure at all that down the line all this stuff isn't going to end up in a dumpster someplace and no one will ever see it again anyway. We don't know. That's why paint to me is so interesting. It's something that's come from a long way back. Indian people have been using it here for thousands of years and it was used in Europe for thousands of years. To me it's still a good medium.

LA: In addition to your painting, teaching and writing, you've also curated some exhibitions.

AYM: I have curated a few traveling shows in Canada. I look for stuff that is out of the ordinary, obviously done with some talent. I look for the artist who has a lot of energy, who has some street smarts I suppose you might say, an artist who's mature. I recently worked on a show with Bob Boyer on the Cree artist Allen Sapp. I wrote for the catalogue. I'm planning to curate a show traveling through Europe, hopefully in the next couple of years. In that show I'll be looking for commonalties of perspective, of where we're all going, how much we know about each other, whether or not these artists are even up on what's going on in the rest of the world, and how that comes out in their work and in the media they're working with. I'll bring all of my experience in Native art to bear on this show, and that includes all the work I've ever looked at in anthropology and contemporary Native art, and see how that all works together, which is a considerable mass of information, I think. What needs to be done in the future, and needs to be done badly, I think, is for there to be a major Native art show curated around the history of Native art, extending all the way from the very first archaeological artifact ever uncovered, which may be anywhere from, depending on who you believe, 15,000 years ago to 200,000 years ago, and link that up with what's happening today in Native art. It would cover thousands of years, bringing the history of North America back to North America. And it has to be held in a national venue, like the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., or someplace in New York City. Something like this was done in London with African art, going back a half a million years, starting with the very first artifacts found in Olduvai Gorge, and going up to contemporary African art. The same thing has to happen here. I'd love to see that happen.

LA: Do you find it a problem in Canada that historians and critics put Native work into categories of "art" and "craft," or "art" and "artifact"?

AYM: As far as I'm concerned, it need not even be a question. It's not even a question, it's as non-issue. If the people who do that would analyze where that comes from, where their idea of art comes from, they wouldn't be able to do it. Art critical methodology, how it goes about defining what art is, comes from anthropology. It came from Louis Henry Morgan and people like him. They can't really expect to understand anything about Native art if they're going to use anthropology. It won't work.

LA: You once wrote that, " . . . I feel that my statements are Indian; and while they are not like those of older Indians they as real and honest a reflection of me as an Indian in my time as they were of them in their time." 2

AYM: Everybody is just a link in the chain of time. That's all. Were Indian people who lived at Columbus' time more Indian than the Indians of the generation before me? This idea that you're more Indian than someone else just doesn't make any sense to me at all. We're all products of our own time. My children after me will be Indians in their own time in the way they find themselves. We're undergoing change all the time. The idea that there's an ethnographic-present Indian out there is a myth. There never has been and the people who are looking for one are looking for pie in the sky. I see Native people all the time and they never seem to fit those stereotypes at all, at least not from my point of view. I don't believe in the idea that I should somehow be the same type of Indian as, say, Sitting Bull in order to be an Indian. That's not the issue. Sitting Bull was a great man in his time and that time is gone now. The buffalo were there then but they're not here any more. We're finding and recreating our world the way we want it to be. That's what we're here for and that's what I'm here for.

LA: Following that a bit, do you think people tend to see art from an earlier time as "authentic" Indian art and contemporary art as "inauthentic?"

AYM: Well, they can say what they want to say. They have an agenda and a vested interest in that classification, for the most part. A lot of them collect "authentic art" and know the provenance of it. It brings in a lot of bucks when they take it to auction houses. That's their forte. To me, that's not a concern, because I'm not in that business of finding out who the authentic Indian is. It is no concern. But at the same time I think I know how they feel because when I went to Japan a three or four years back to teach I was looking for samurais. The Japanese were laughing at me because there are no samurais there any more. So it's the same thing. We get hooked onto a romantic image of a culture that we identify with and then when we run across real people from that culture who are in a different space in a different time, doing differing things, then we feel insulted. We have to look for a reason. We're not satisfied that, hey, things change. Time moves on. We need to get on with life. We can't spend our whole life looking for imaginary Indians who aren't there any more.

LA: To finish up, you wrote some years ago that, "I am concerned with auto-biographical expression. . . . My work is both Indian and non-Indian."

(from Contemporary Indian Artists, 1972, p. 78)

AYM: From the point of view that it's a play on words, I'm Indian in a sense that if you want to call me an Indian, sure I'll be an Indian, even though Columbus didn't know what the hell he was saying. But on the other hand, I don't see myself as an "Indian" because I'm not the Indian he or anybody else thinks I am. I'm me, I'm Cree, and I'll make it what I want it to be. In other words, I'm going to define what my work is and you've got to leave it up to me because I'm the artist. You can come along and play these word games with me if you'd like, you can play semantics, but in the final analysis, you're going to have to listen to me.

NOTES

1 Alfred Young Man, "Issues and Trends in Contemporary Native Art," Parallelogramme 13, 3 (February/March, 1988), p. 26.

2Alfred Young Man, in The Sweetgrass Lives On, edited by Jamake Highwater. New York: Lippincott and Crowell, 1980, pp. 187-88.

SELECTED EXHIBITIONS

Creativity Is Our Tradition, group exhibition, Institute of American Indian Arts Museum, Santa Fe, NM, 1992

Radicals and Renegades: American Indian Protest Art, group exhibition, Institute of American Indian Arts Museum, 1990In the Spirit of the Lubicons, group exhibition, Wallace Gallery, Calgary, Alberta, 1988
No Beads, No Trinkets, group exhibition, Palais de Nations, United Nations, Geneva, Switzerland, 1984
Confluences of Tradition and Change, group exhibition, C.N. Gorman Museum, University of California, Davis, CA, 1982

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Alfred Young Man, The Socialization and Art-Politics of Native Art, Ph. D. dissertation submitted to the Department of Anthropology, Rutgers University, 1997.

_____, "An Historical Overview and Perception of Native Art, Culture, and the Role of the Native Curator: Non-Fiction Story," New Territories 350/500 Years After. Montreal: Maison de la culture Mercier, 1992, unp.

_____, "The Metaphysics of North American Indian Art." Indigena: Contemporary Native Perspectives. Hull, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1992, pp. 81-99.

_____, "Teaching North American Indian Art in Native American Studies," Gakuen Ronshu, No. 73 (September, 1992): 71-82.

_____, "The Savage Civilian and the Work of Rebecca Belmore." Between Views. Banff, Alberta: Walter Phillips Gallery, 1991, pp. 36-39.

_____, "Token and Taboo -- Academia vs. Native Art," European Review of Native American Studies 5, 2 (1991): 11-14 [this is a revised version of the essay that originally appeared in Fuse Magazine 2, 6 (July, 1988): 46-48].

_____, "Issues and Trends In Contemporary Native Art," Parallelogramme 13, 3 (February/March, 1988): 24-32.

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