LA: You were among the first group of students to study at
LA: Where did you live before going to the Institute?
|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**
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
1 Alfred Young Man, "Issues and Trends in Contemporary Native
Art," Parallelogramme 13, 3 (February/March, 1988),
2Alfred Young Man, in The Sweetgrass Lives On, edited by
Jamake Highwater. New York: Lippincott and Crowell, 1980, pp. 187-88.
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,
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
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,
_____, "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.