Interviews By Larry Abbott
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The premise of this volume of interviews with contemporary Native American artists is that their words can help us to understand their images. The interviews attempt to dispel misconceptions about Native art generally and these artists particularly. Overall, the interviews, conceived more as conversations, offer the reader the opportunity to listen to a diverse group of artists discuss their working methods, their creative processes, and the meanings of their work.

Artists often prefer to let their work speak for itself, believing that what is made of stone, wood, silver iodide crystals, magnetic particles, or any of dozens of other media should not be explained, or possibly undermined, by providing a meaning which could foreclose interpretation. It is not the job of the artist, some feel, to tell the viewer what to think or to provide a conclusion. All artworks are open to many interpretations, with the artist's being just one (albeit a privileged one, perhaps).

Yet, with all art (and not just "ethnic" art), there are possibilities of meaning which the artist can help us discover. There are personal and cultural dimensions interwoven in a work of art, dimensions which are so personal or so specific that only the artist's clarification can help us in the process of discovery. The artist can provide us with a map to guide our understanding, or better yet, a frame which offers a context for the individual vision that is manifested in a particular work or throughout an oeuvre.

Not to go too far afield, but the artist can help us to understand the schema of his or her art. According to various studies of "knowledge frames" by the cognitive psychologists Walter Kintsch, Teun van Dijk, Edith Greene and others, there are underlying structural patterns embedded in texts (for their purposes, written texts, but I believe that their theories can be applied to visual texts) which aid (or interfere) with the comprehension of those texts. Kintsch and Greene write that, "When someone reads or listens to a long text the difficulty of comprehension is determined not only by local effects at the level of sentences or paragraphs, but also by the overall organization of the text. . . . The point that is important here is that story schemata are culture specific." 1

Coming closer to our immediate concerns, Jarold Ramsey touches on this idea of cultural specificity in his discussion of oral literatures from Oregon. He notes that "these stories, even to the critic and ethnologist, are like pictures that lack frames to limit and orient their meanings. Even the most enigmatic picture by Klee or story by Kafka is limited and clarified by the cultural 'frame' around it--that is, the context of cultural assumptions and conventions we share with the artist." Ramsey goes on to write that oral stories from Native Oregon, like petroglyphs and pictographs, are "vividly there, but unlocated, unlimited in their implications." 2 (Of course, for the Native viewer or reader the "frame" may be implicit because of "inside knowledge" about the cultural references embedded in the text. This sense of the "implicit knowledge frame" became clear to me during visits to the Jemez Pueblo for the Corn Dance and the Pecos Bull Dance, held in early August. In part of the Bull Dance, the bull [a costume invigorated by some community members] visits the babies and toddlers, who are placed on the bull's back for a short but very animated ride. As an outsider I could observe what was being done and the expressions on the young faces, but I could never experience the sensation the child feels, the particular sensation of riding the bull, just one of many sensations this day). My point in this discussion is that contemporary Native visual arts emerge from culturally-specific and multiculturally-specific schemata, and the artist's elucidation of his or her work can help us grasp the schemata embedded in works of art. Rennard Strickland talks about the interconnectedness of art and culture this way:

Native American art is an integrative social phenomenon, a complex creative collage of song, dance, ceremony, myth, prayer, and vision. The visible "art object" is but a small part of this cultural experience. . . . we have a rich storehouse of insights preserved in painting and pot, song and poem, myth and oratory. Together they give us a glimpse of holistic Native America.

Properly viewed, Native arts should not be divorced from the complex totality of the cultures out of which they arise. At the same time, it must be remembered that the unmediated culture did not produce the artwork; an individual artist did.

Although much of Native art explores common, and what might be termed pan-Indian, themes -- personal and tribal identity and survival, the effects of the interaction with the hegemonic culture, the loss of homelands and languages, the ravages of alcohol and unemployment, substandard education and health care, the continuing attempts to destroy religions, the deafness of corporate America to complaints about exploitation of Indian people, images and symbols on commercial products (like Crazy Horse Malt Liquor) -- these themes can emerge both in individual and tribal-specific ways. Harry Fonseca's series The Discovery of Gold and Souls in California comes out of the experience of California Indians with the colonization efforts led by Junipero Serra in the eighteenth century, while some of Bob Haozous' steel sculptures (Apache Holocaust) reflect on the attempts to eradicate the Apache. On another level, knowing that Bently Spang uses sinew from animals he and his family have hunted, and that the hunting tradition lies at the heart of his Northern Cheyenne people, gives a deeper resonance to his work. The artist can make us aware of the personal, tribal, and historical experiences which inform his or her work, thus helping us to avoid "contextual disharmony, the misweaving of perceptions or ideas." 4 Contextualization is not a substitute for interpretation, but a foundation for interpretation. And I believe it essential that one of the voices in the contextualization process must belong to the artist.

Thorough contextualizing of an artwork can assist the viewer in coming to an understanding of that work. Allow two examples to indicate how "misweaving" has contributed to misunderstanding of specific works: the first involves George Longfish, the second Bob Haozous. In an interview with Kay WalkingStick, Longfish points out that a critic had written that some circles in a painting resembled bomb sights 5; in Haozous' case, The Discoverer was spray-painted with graffiti reading "Cultur [sic] Rapist," apparently by someone who thought that the large steel piece celebrated the Spanish conquistador Juan de Onate. Haozous was bemused, although it is hard to see this work as commemorative, what with the hacked-off limbs in steel attached to the base of the sculpture. 6

Or consider contemporary Native photography. Although Indians have been on the receiving end of the camera since the middle of the 19th century 7, Native people, such as George Johnson (Tlingit), Horace Poolaw (Kiowa), Lee Marmon (Laguna), and Murray McKenzie (Cree), have been behind the camera since the early years of the twentieth century. There was a Native-situated photographic tradition, much of which was intended to document individuals, families and communities 8 ; according to Rick Hill, "photography has been among Indians for a long time. Indians have been having their picture taken for personal reasons, as every Indian family has an oral history based upon the photographs they have." 9 Shelley Niro, for instance, uses family photographs in her triptychs, giving them an extended life and creating a connection between family past and personal present. Similarly, Bobby Martin uses his grandmother's photographs in his paintings as a way of remembering and commemorating his ancestors. However, to the mainstream culture "Indian photography" meant photography of Indians, as in the work of Edward Curtis, Adam Clark Vroman, Cosmos and Victor Mindeleff, and others. Photography was considered a "non-traditional" art form for Indians. A number of factors were responsible for this, including cost, historical reality, and the art market. According to Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie:

The delay of Native photography as a valid form of communication to the outside world and as an art is a result of not only history but the medium itself. Photography is not the instilled idea of traditional marketable "Indian Art ("I see the silver but where's the turquois [sic]?"). Images created by Native photographers did not follow the already established images of the vanishing race. 10

Indeed, Joseph Kossuth Dixon's book of photographs, done between 1908 and 1917, is entitled Sunset of a Dying Race. The photograph from which the book is titled depicts a lone warrior riding off into the mists of history. This type of representation, paralleled in James Fraser's sculpture The End of the Trail, became the paradigmatic portrayal of "the Indian," and a portrayal that artists have sought to question.

One photographer who confronts the stereotypical imagery of "the vanishing race" is Richard Ray Whitman. His portraits of "street chiefs" depict Indians living at the extreme edge of the border, the dispossessed, the homeless, the survivors. But to read these photographs solely as faces of the homeless is to miss Whitman's intent. Rather, the photographs are meant to bring forth the broader issue of dispossession of Native people from their homelands and the problematic efforts of relocation and assimilation. The photographs comment on the false promises held out by America to indigenous people. Although the black-and-white Street Chief photographs and other works like Relocation Assimilation (which re-present some of the street chiefs in boxes and collages) are gritty and hard-edged, there is a celebratory dimension to them as well, testaments to the endurance of Native people, the host people, in what has become a hostile land. For W. Jackson Rushing, the street chiefs represent "the tangible legacy of rampant colonial violence followed by doggedly persistent cultural imperialism." He continues:

That any Native peoples have survived in the Columbian era is astonishing, and Whitman's photographs, therefore, celebrate the miraculous presence of this "urban tribe," who must endure life in a society whose madness and cruelty appear incessant and inexplicable. 11

Shelley Niro's photographs also center on individuals, and are as focused on issues of identity, cultural persistence, and the realities of Indian life as are Whitman's. However, her work, usually multiple-paneled, some with text, some hand-tinted, some sepia-toned, features the photographer, her mother, or her sisters in contemporary "poses" which stand in direct contrast to the posed Indians of Edward Curtis. The photographer's subjects lounge on car trunks (The Rebel), cavort through the streets of Brantford, Ontario (Red Heels Hard;Standing on Guard for Thee), or sit beneath a home beauty parlor-style hairdryer (The Iroquois Is a Highly Developed Matriarchal Society). Although the hallmark of Niro's work is humor through irony and juxtaposition, much of her work raises more probing questions. In the latter work, Niro desires to portray "the world the way we see and experience it" and plays with the "anthropological notions . . . of what other people say about the society I come from." But at the same time she says:

Since I come from a reserve where domestic violence is high, I wanted to ask, "If we are a matriarchal society why does all this violence happen? Why doesn't anyone put a stop to it and really make our society a matriarchal society?" 12

The issues raised by Tsinhnahjinnie about Native photography in her essay and in her own work, along with that of Whitman, Niro, and scores of others, lead to a recurrent question that has bedeviled Indian artists and inhibited to some degree the understanding of the art: What is (or should be) Indian art? The desire to define and categorize the art of indigenous peoples, especially since the time of Dorothy Dunn's Studio in Santa Fe (run by her from 1932-37), has been a way for non-Indians to not only channel artistic production but, more importantly, to keep the Indian time-locked. This process has turned on what is meant by "traditional Indian art."

A backward glance at T.S. Eliot's well-traveled essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," might be of some help in coming to a sense of how "tradition" might be understood in relation to contemporary Native art. If "traditional art" is seen as a replication of styles and images associated with the work of the Kiowa Five at the University of Oklahoma beginning in 1926, the Dorothy Dunn Studio in Santa Fe from 1932-37, or the art program established at Bacone Junior College in 1935, 13 and if this art is seen as the template against which contemporary art is to be judged, then the viewer's response to newer art will be foreclosed. Rather, art traditions (and not just Native art traditions) should be seen as fluid and evolving, an ongoing process of creating tradition. Eliot writes that "if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, 'tradition' should positively be discouraged." Eliot goes on to aver that "the poet [or artist, in this case] must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career." 14 If I can argue analogously from Eliot's focus on poetry to the visual arts, the tradition of Native art is not a fixed entity which begins and ends at a certain definable point (with newer arts deviating in unacceptable ways from the established paradigm), but is rather a progression where the "pastness of the past" is articulated in the present by the artist, who contributes to the forging of the continuing tradition. In Rick Hill's words,

Tradition is commonly thought to be a style, a technique or form of expression that is tied to the past. To Indians it is dynamically expanding, a way of thinking passed on from our ancestors to which we are bound to add our own distinctive patterns. 15

Wrongly conceived, "traditional art" becomes a pair of blinders for the viewer who insists that Indian art must portray Plains warriors on horseback, domestic and ceremonial scenes, or other images which reify convenient and comforting, yet distorting, stereotypes. T.C. Cannon, whose influence remains strong since his death in 1978 at the age of 32, asked, "and what of the argument of tradition in art?" He answered his own question in this way:

WE are the EMBODIMENT of TRADITION at this very moment. thru our present work will evolve those inevitable nuances and mannerisms that the far future will praise or abolish, leaving only those few shadowy sparks of what they choose, just as some of us do now. . . . TRADITION is not necessarily a remnant of the PAST carried on and on. . . . TRADITION does not necessarily come from a different time and stay there. if it did, then painting itself would have had no point in persisting beyond the caves of Lascaux or the petroglyphs of Ojo de Benado. but of course it did. . . . TRADITION in art is NOW for the simple fact of TOMORROW. 16

This is not to say that "the past" is not a subject for Native artists. Indeed, in literature and the other arts the mythic past and the historical past inform much of the work. Artists continue to interpret ceremony and the symbology of religious practices, to explore the continuity of community, and to visualize the cohesive myths around which ceremony is ordered. Similarly, artists continue to bear witness to events that affect Native communities, from Wounded Knee to Oka to tribal casinos to the imprisonment of Leonard Peltier. I believe that it would not be too much to say that the history of Native America can be seen in the works of its artists. In this way the narrative dimension of contemporary Native art tells the story of Native America through the vision and creativity of her artists. Therefore, the question is not if the art is "traditional" or "non-traditional," but how the art -- paintings, videos, photographs, sculptures, monoprints, beadwork, weaving -- furthers the "tradition of creativity" that was the premise of the inaugural exhibition at the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum in Santa Fe in 1992. Rick Hill, curator of the exhibition, explained the tradition this way:

Each generation of American Indians and Alaska Natives interprets and defines the relevance of our culture. That everchanging evidence is found in the arts. . . . A correct assessment of Indian art must be based on the concepts of creativity which expose deep cultural, religious, educational, political and economic influences to the Indian soul. 17

Gregory Stevens, in his essay "Native Narrative Pictographs as Folklore Symbolism and Coherence: Reading the Photo-montages of Walter BigBee," writes that Native narrative photography "is a continuation of traditional literacy and storytelling as expressed and perpetuated through petroglyphs, pictographs, birch bark song scrolls and wampum belts and strings. Symbols are equally used to convey stories in contemporary Native photographs, or pictographs as I like to think of them." 18 I would extend Stevens' comments about photography to include other Native visual arts. What is sometimes difficult for the viewer is the understanding of the story being told, of the symbols being used, and their underlying meanings and structure (the schemata). The symbology may not be solely derived from the artist's personal life, but also from the artist's relationship to his or her culture. Indeed, this is probably the case with all artists -- the interaction of self and culture -- but for Native artists the cultural connections and expressions, the symbols, may be remote to the non-Native viewer. Paula Gunn Allen brings us again to the concept of culturally-derived schemata in discussing the differences between Native and non-Native stories:

What differs is structure and the respective communities' sense of the aesthetic. What also may differ are the experiences themselves. Indian experience is different in a variety of ways from non-Indian experience in the Americas . . . . Significance, what moves a person to the core, what instructs a person, and what enables a person to transcend the constricting limits of everyday concerns, is largely a culturally defined matter. 19

It might now be the time to lay to rest the arbitrary division between "traditional" and "contemporary." All art is contemporary at the time of its production: a basket-maker, a weaver, a potter, a painter working in the 1990's all create contemporary art. Yes, older images or forms may be involved, but the context and the creative act are perforce contemporary. Frank LaPena writes:

One of the more frustrating influences has been the emergence of a school of thought that labels the new style of art "contemporary" and the old style "traditional." These labels limit our appreciation and understanding of what each represents.

Every new movement or type of art is limited by the label contemporary. . . . Time in a linear sequence--past, present, and future--conflicts with the tribal notion of time. In native thought, everything is constant and part of existence from the moment it takes place. . . . This difference in how time is perceived allows all events and issues to be accessible at any one time as subject matter for art or to gain perception of an issue. 20

The label "contemporary" in Native art (even in the title of this book) may be another constriction, precluding the viewer from understanding the diversity of artists working today. If contemporary art is expected to have a certain imposed look, the viewer's appreciation and understanding of Native art will again be circumscribed.

In discussing the oral tradition, N. Scott Momaday talks of the power of words, of language. He writes:

At the heart of the American Indian oral tradition is a deep and unconditional belief in the efficacy of language. Words are intrinsically powerful. They are magical. By means of words one can bring about physical changes in the universe. . . . Indeed, there is nothing more powerful. 21

Because I believe that the Native oral and visual traditions have equal efficacy (inseparably mirroring each other) I would extend Momaday's argument to include belief in the efficacy of the image. There is a restorative function to art, and the necessity to create, to have an effect on the universe, cuts across national boundaries. For Australian Aboriginal artists, "the requirement to do this is much more than some obscure urge. It is an imperative." 22 With this in mind, it might be more advantageous to approach the arts of Native America with the words of Mohawk poet and artist Alex Jacobs in mind:

it is a time

of visions

it is a time

of painting

no more do we

hide our dreams

we wear them

on our shirts

round our necks

they make music

in our hair 23

 

NOTES

1 Walter Kintsch and Edith Greene, "The Role of Culture-Specific Schemata in the Comprehension and Recall of Stories." Discourse Processes 1 (1-13), 1978, pp. 1-2; Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation. Other works in this area, which often use Native American stories to test the "cultural schemata" hypothesis, include: Kintsch, The Representation of Meaning in Memory (1974) and "On Comprehending Stories" in Cognitive Processes in Comprehension (1977), edited by Just and Carpenter; and, van Dijk, Text and Context (1977).

2 Coyote Was Going There, compiled and edited by Jarold Ramsey, University of Washington Press, 1987, p. xxii.

3 Rennard Strickland, "Native American Art: The Great Circle and the Power of Dreams," Address to the Heard Museum Board of Trustees, n.d., p. 7.

4 Ben-Ami Scharfstein, The Dilemma of Context. New York: NYU Press, 1989, p. 4.

5 see "Like a Longfish Out Of Water," Northeast Indian Quarterly [now Akwe:kon Journal] 7, 3, Fall, 1989, pp. 16-23.

6 see David Steinberg, "Artist Unfazed by Graffiti," Albuquerque Journal, Sunday, May 10, 1992, p. G7. As the article points out, the sculpture focuses on the punishment de Onate meted out for a 16th century Acoma Pueblo uprising.

7 In The North American Indians in Early Photographs, Paula Fleming and Judith Luskey reproduce a photograph of Reverend Peter Jones, taken in England in1845, and indicate that it is the first of an American Indian. The full-body, obviously-posed stance of Jones, looking away from the camera (holding a tomahawk and dressed in regalia), became one of the prevailing modes of portraiture. It is interesting to compare this1845 photograph with a painting by George Catlin from the same period. In The White Cloud, Head Chief of the Iowas, the subject (in a head and shoulders "shot") also faces slightly away from the "camera eye." The staged nature of photographs and paintings of Indians became the norm for the visual expression of these subjects.

8 Rick Hill, "A New Light for Indian Artists: The Emergence of American Indian Photographers." Unpublished essay, dated November 19, 1991, unp. Hill provides an overview of the history and development of twentieth-century photography by Indians.

9 Rick Hill, "A Day in the Life of Native Americans," slide/lecture presentation at the conference Representing Native Americans, New York University, April 3, 1992.

10 Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie, "Compensating Imbalances," Exposure 29, 1 Fall, 1993, p. 30.

11 W. Jackson Rushing, "Street Chiefs and Native Hosts: Richard Ray (Whitman) and Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds Defend the Homeland," in Green Acres: Neo-Colonialism in the U.S. St. Louis: Washington University Gallery of Art, 1992, p. 28.

12 Shelley Niro, Artist's statement, Watchful Eyes: Native American Women Artists, Phoenix: The Heard Museum, 1994, p. 29.

13 see Myles Libhart, Contemporary Southern Plains Indian Painting, Anadarko, OK: Southern Plains Indian Museum and Craft Center, 1972, for an overview of the development of the art from the Southern Plains; see Winona Garmhausen, History of Indian Arts Education in Santa Fe, Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 1988, for a summary of Dorothy Dunn's program.

14 T. S. Eliot, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," The Sacred Wood, London: Methuen and Company,1920, p. 43.

15 Rick Hill, Creativity is Our Tradition, Santa Fe: Institute of American Indian and Alaska Native Culture Arts Development, p. 10. This discussion is not meant to denigrate the so-called Studio artists, who include Allan Houser and Fred Kabotie. Their watercolors and paintings of this period are invaluable visions of Native America, as well as documents of individual and cultural persistence. What many critics question is the ways in which this work became the accepted standard of Indian art.

16 T. C. Cannon, quoted in T. C. Cannon , New York: Aberbach Fine Art, 1979, pp. 62, 64, 66, 68, 70.

17 Rick Hill, Creativity is Our Tradition, p. 10.

18 Greg Lloyd Stevens, "Native Narrative Pictographs as Folklore, Symbolism, and Coherence: Reading the Photo-montages of Walter Bigbee", Native Indian/Inuit Photographers' Association [NIIPA] 10th Anniversary (Winter/Spring, 1995), p. 19. In a letter to me dated April 25, 1995 Stevens wrote: "It strikes me that folklore, being central to one's ethnic identity, is what makes Native art explicitly distinct from contemporary mainstream art. But whether ethnic or cultural folklore is central to Native art remains a question in my mind. . . . minority status, racism, and differential treatment are components of the Native experience and that these create the differences between Natives and non-Natives." See also his essay "The Positive Native Aesthetic: Redressing, the Ideology Behind Native Photography," published in association with NIIPA, April, 1995.

19 Paula Gunn Allen, Spider Woman's Granddaughters, New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1989, p. 8

20 Frank LaPena, This Path We Travel: Celebrations of Contemporary Native American Creativity, New York: National Museum of the American Indian/Smithsonian Institution, 1994, p. 4.

21 N. Scott Momaday, "The Native Voice in American Literature," n.d., p. 5. I refer to the manuscript copy I obtained from Momaday in 1991.

22 Lin Onus, "Introduction," New Tracks Old Land: Contemporary Prints from Aboriginal Australia, Surry Hills, New South Wales: Aboriginal Arts Management Association, 1992, p. 5.

23 Alex Jacobs, "Darkness Song," Akwesasne Notes 5, 5 (Early Autumn, 1973), p. 48; rpt. in American Indian Prose and Poetry: We Wait in the Darkness, ed. by Gloria Levitas, Frank Robert Vivelo, and Jacqueline J. Vivelo. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1974, p. v.

 

READERS PLEASE NOTE: This book is offered without cost to those interested in contemporary Native American art. It is a "sequel" to my 1994 collection of interviews from the University of Nebraska Press, I Stand in the Center of the Good. Feel free to download. The interviews span the years 1994 to 1996, and as such are "dated" in terms of discussions about the artist's most recent work. However, the interviews do focus on important works in each artist's oeuvre and on general ideas about sources and techniques.

Because of the exigencies of getting this book out before too much more time passes, not every interview has an introduction or list of exhibitions. I hope that you will overlook this inconsistency in the presentation. However, the bibliographies and exhibitions lists are as complete as possible up to the dates indicated.

I would ask that readers consider sending a donation to a Native arts (or other) organization, such as the American Indian Community House (708 Broadway, NY, NY 10010), ATLATL (PO Box 34090, Phoenix, AZ 85067) or the Sacred Circle Gallery/Daybreak Star Arts Center (Discovery Park, PO Box 99100, Seattle, WA 98199). Those wishing to contact me please e-mail: laabbott@cushing.org. If you are interested in slides of the artists' work please let me know and we'll see what can be worked out. Again, I wish to thank all of the artists involved in this project for their patience and support of the publication of this project in cyberspace.

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