Interviews By Larry Abbott
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Richard Ray Whitman
Yuchi


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LA: Your series of six photographs from 1993 are large-format computer-generated monotones on vellum. Could you describe some of these?

RRW: I photographed Carter Camp and a man named James Whole Eagle for We Are the Evidence of the Western Hemisphere. James passed away a few years back. He was one of the oldest living Lakota at the time and the photograph validates the continuing presence of indigenous populations in the Western hemisphere.


"States of Pervasive Indifference," 1993, photograph

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**All images courtesy of the artists**
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State(s) of Pervasive Indifference was photographed in '92. A group of us went down to the Columbus Quincentennial ship landing celebrations in Corpus Christi, Texas. It's a shot of a young man we met there who's wrapped in an American flag. I put the words "Earth," "Air," "Water," and "Fire" on the image. In indigenous cultures we're not only concerned with human to human relationships, but also our relationship with the environment. I wanted to ask the question of how we can develop our responsibility to other forms of life.

In The Absence of Our Presence I'm making reference to billboard advertisements and advertising campaigns. The images and symbols from our cultures are taken into the media, popularized, and then lose any real reference to ourselves. These ads divert attention from the real issues, like land resources, health care, education, and our sovereignty, that should be prominent. It's easier to talk about Pocahontas. Those are the so-called real Indians that the media is caught up in. I was laying my response, my text, over theirs, and I wanted to go more to scale and make it look a little slick, even if it doesn't look as aesthetically photographic.

In Look at Them Looking at Us Looking Back at Them I was looking back at the viewer, challenging the idea that Indian people are merely subject matter. It's a very familiar image from my student days at the Institute of American Indian Art, a group shot, from 1969 or '70. I printed the negative to make the people in the photo more anonymous Indians. But it's also about how people look at other cultures with preconceptions that inhibit real interaction, and the effects of representation on our perceptions, especially as we cross cultural boundaries. In terms of our image we are always spoken for by the corporate world; the media systems speak for us in their public messages. I'm doing a big-scale painting of this image as a tribute to the people in the group who are still active today in the art world or in education. One man is deceased so it's a tribute to him, too.

LA: You used this group shot in the 1990 Do Indian Artists Go to Santa Fe When They Die?

RRW: On this particular day the group, two other guys, myself, and three women, were going to a ladies' club in Santa Fe for a "cultural exchange." The women were going to do some dances while we gave commentary. We set the camera up on the hood of a car. It's a color lithograph.

LA: You also added some tribal names, like "UTE" and "ARAPAHOE," and your Yuchi name, T'so-ya-ha. On the bottom panel you have a United States map and two circular designs, one of them labeled "allegorical circle."

RRW: On that map I've written in the word "Homelands" and colored Oklahoma black. Some of the other states are colored in yellow, blue, and red. It refers to State(s) of Pervasive Indifference, too. The tribal names on the map represent all the tribes that were relocated to Oklahoma. Most people don't know it but tribes were removed all the way from California. The circles refer to the idea of connection, but they also look like the designs used when TV stations sign off.

LA: That U. S. map appears in a number of your works.

RRW: It's about where I live. It's from the Homeland Series, and it refers to the original Southeast homelands and the removals, not just the Southeastern removals or the Trail of Tears but the continued displacement of Indian peoples from their respective areas to Indian territory which is now called Oklahoma. Indian Territory was the dumping ground for tribes who resisted, tribes who were in the way of progress, the Siberia, if you will, for dissident tribes who held fast or challenged American policy. It wasn't like Oklahoma was this ideal place where we all wanted to be. All roads lead to Oklahoma, you know! The tribes jump-started their lives once they got here. There was a move by the Indian nations here to create an Indian state, the state of Sequoia. That idea was quickly squashed by the politicians at the time. There is continuing denial about the premises of Oklahoma history and the creation of Oklahoma.


"Street Chiefs," black and white photograph
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LA: With that in mind, could you talk about the Homeland Series?

RRW: It's ongoing. It's very simple on the surface, but it's complex underneath, exploring landlessness and homelessness in my own homeland. I offer myself up for that. The Pueblos, the Hopis, the Navajo are in their home areas, but in Oklahoma we've all been displaced from our original areas, so there's a different dynamic. It's about the constant struggle of remaining in a place when you're totally surrounded by people who reduce land to real estate, and knowing that we don't have access to land. What's Indian country, and what isn't? It's a real issue in Oklahoma. In other parts of Native America there are large tracts of land which remain basically intact, but the Allotment Act in Oklahoma was disastrous. That was part of its intent, so it's not like it was a mistake. But somehow we manage to have a piece of it. Indian values have survived, the call to conscience about how we are doing irreversible damage to the land, to the environment, what our actions and deeds are today in terms of economic development, and what effect that will have on the generations that are coming.

LA: A lot of your photographs have to do with the image of the Indian and also with the contrast of images. This came out in one of the Street Chiefs pieces, "Buy Oklahoma," from 1986, where you have corporate and commercial Oklahoma, and by extension America, represented in a billboard, contrasted with the street chief underneath the billboard. This contrast also comes out in one of the computer-generated images, The Absence of Our Presence.


"Self Portrait:  Homeland Series" 1986, photo collage, mixed media
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RRW: The first piece took off from a "Buy Oklahoma" billboard and is more specific to Oklahoma, I think. There has been a lot of attention paid to Native Americans but it is still a non-Indian image or a promotion that is happening. Currently in Oklahoma we're experiencing a tourist campaign called "Oklahoma Native America," and it's a big deal all over the state, but in a way it's a play on words, and a reminder to us how many times they've used the language against us. Sometimes we feel that maybe it's even a moot point to call ourselves "American Indians" or "Native Americans" or "indigenous people" because in our own languages we are specific in reference to ourselves. It's just the obvious contradiction or ethical paradox that in this state, when the suppression of Indian people is a daily occurrence, and our status, and our recognition, and our sovereignty, and our land base is very much threatened at every turn, at the same moment the state does this campaign of "Oklahoma Native America." We're invisible, dangerously invisible, until they want us to sing and dance and be tourist attractions. So this campaign is used against us. Technically, anyone can be Native American if you're born in this country, or Native Oklahoman if you're born here. We know it has special connotations, a special reference to us, during this time in history when our people struggle for our cultures to survive, and now for non-Indians to somehow say that anybody can be Native American, you know, is such a slap in the face to us and to our ancestors, too. They paid the price for us to be here today. Fifty years ago, in this state, it wasn't good to refer to yourself as an Indian, or to claim any of your Indian blood, and now it's just a very trendy kind of thing. It's too much of a slap in the face for me to let it slide by without commenting on it.

LA: What is your feeling on Public Law 101-644? There seems to be two opposing groups, one which sees tribal enrollment and identification as a defense against fake Indian artists, and the other which sees the law as a form of McCarthyism.

RRW: I know people in both camps and maybe even I find myself in both camps, but ideally Indian or non-Indian art would stand on its merit. I know many non-Indians from the Southwest, where there's a different marketing strategy. I don't live there, so more power to the people who want to market their work that way. But we shouldn't feel surprised that the art and culture wouldn't escape a kind of paternalism, with people masquerading as Indian artists. The non-Indian has projected himself into or interfered with every aspect of life; the U. S. Government has affected every part of our lives. Given the monetary benefits of Indian marketing, I'm sure it attracts phonies. We see it in the selling of our spirituality and the marketing of that by non-Indian people. But, I also know that there are many traditional Indian communities, especially in Oklahoma, which didn't participate in the enrollment process. Our fullbloods are Indian people, but their grandparents didn't participate in the enrollment because they were very suspicious about the manipulation that was going on. Every time you touched a pen or a piece of paper there was more loss of land, more loss of rights. So, a lot of the elders and leaders of that time didn't participate. Now there is the circumstance where their grandchildren and great-grandchildren do not have enrollment benefits. It's not a fault of the people today. I've never really marketed myself as an Indian artist, and I've never downplayed my Indianness, but I have always said, "I am a Yuchi person and an artist at the same moment." Everyone has his own options and I hope now that non-Indians and young Indians would choose their own options. But I see too many young Indians, or even Indians my own age, who don't believe enough in themselves, meaning their own ideals, and they fall into the trap of marketing themselves as Indian artists. My art and my Yuchi individuality have been about educating myself through my art process and my artmaking, and it's helped me believe in my ideals, to trust in myself. The marketing is secondary to me. I know that too often we gauge our success by marketing and I am not a believer in that. But I also know the economic reality of trying to live from your work.
"Self Portrait:  Homeland Series" 1986, photo collage, mixed media

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**All images courtesy of the artists**
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**All reproduction rights controlled by the artists**

LA: Your work represents a self-exploratory process, yet has a politicized content. Would you say that those two dimensions go together or are they separate categories for you?

RRW: I guess the question I am asked many times is, "do I consider myself a traditional Indian or a contemporary Indian?" Well, I consider myself both at the same moment. Our traditions and our experiences in contemporary life are here at the present time. Our ancestors left us a way which has been brought right up to this moment, to this very moment that I speak to you. So, from the time we are born we are political. Because we have been colonized, the nature of our experience is political, but it doesn't lessen our experience, though. Many of our Indian people have been beaten down, conditioned, brain-washed, if you will. We have to live the lie in order to survive, but we have survived. We've all made concessions, I've made concessions, but I've also made the effort to resist becoming an ingredient of the mainstream. There's no denying that we are a political entity by our very status in America, our dual status. I'm a tribal citizen and also I have American citizenship, so there's a lot of things to consider whether the work is obviously political or not. Sometimes you make very simple paintings, very simple statements saying, "This is who we are. We are still here." You can put that in the obvious political context, and I think the fact that we express ourselves by saying, "We're still these people," is a political statement.

LA: Do you feel that your work is a method of cultural maintenance or cultural continuation? In a way it says, "I'm doing this work, therefore I am here."

RRW: Yes, I think that's very important. In our particular instance, with our tribe, it's a very fragile thing. Regarding our culture, our traditions, our ceremonies, it's not up to our generation to weaken them and somehow say we can play with this, manipulate this. As I said earlier, our ancestors, our immediate ancestors, paid the price for us to remain together and to keep these traditions and ceremonies together. They paid the price in blood. I'm always reminded of that and I never take it lightly. I'm an artist with my people and the challenge for me is how to be within my community, with my people, and still interact with the larger art world or the larger non-Indian context.

LA: In a number of exhibitions of your work, like Makers [1988], Eight Native American Artists [1987], and We Are Always Turning Around on Purpose [1986] you've included poems. Do you do write separately or are the poems connected to photographs?

RRW: I've been inspired by the people in the photographs, and by the images. From early on I've been interested in the power of expression whatever the vehicle is. All the work I do is therapeutic in a sense; it helps me thrive. Photography is a different language, and is unique in that it's able to offer things that the writing doesn't. I don't think of myself as a pure photographer or a pure writer. I don't put a prestige value on one over the other. I just hope that I can do them justice. I know when many of us first arrived in Santa Fe in 1968, we'd been limited to consider ourselves Indian artists only if we were painters. Of course, we found these other disciplines, like creative writing, theater, drama, sculpture, film. My introduction to 16 mm. came in the early '70's in a community film workshop. I began to explore these other fields and integrate media. Maybe I'm still looking for my medium or my discipline. I haven't really settled on anything particular, although I've been experimenting in video, incorporating image, text, and voice. But my approach to video is as a painter.

LA: You are probably best known for your photographs, but did you start as a painter?

RRW: Yes, and I still consider myself a painter. I think that there is nothing that will ever replace the feeling of just me in front of a blank canvas or a blank sheet of paper or a blank space. It's just you and that space, and that is just very organic and very primal. I don't think that feeling will ever be replaced.

LA: Do you see yourself as more of an intuitive type artist, or do you tend to work more methodically when confronting that blank space?

RRW: I would like to say that I'm both, but I can be pretty lazy, too! You know, circumstances have their way. I think you have to push on to make the work. It's easy to settle in and avoid it and it's probably what I have done at times. I'm making other work with the photographic process but I still consider myself a painter, among other things. Sometimes when I take the photographic process to a certain point I pull back and then I pursue the writing some. Then, I'll run into a dead-end and do video. My process is to be conscious of what's speaking inside me, and to put that into an artistic context. The creative process is a way of living. You work on behalf of your people. You're doing the work individually, but with the understanding that it's for the community, the people, the tribe, the larger group.

LA: Could you talk about what you've been doing with video?

RRW: My brother Joe [Dale Tate Nevaquaya] is more the working writer and works at the craft of writing more. We grew up within our Yuchi community and with our language, so we've been working with that. Our language isn't written, so we have been exploring some of the possibilities of phonetically describing our language so it can continue. The reality of some concepts and ideas in our language aren't translatable, and in fact don't have to be translated. So much is lost in the translation anyway. Beyond this, aspects of our language don't have to be explained to non-Indians. But there is the possibility of translating it to a non-Indian phonetics. I think video can be interesting in how it can serve us, how it can be of use to our community, to our families and extended families, how it can be accessible to Indian people at large and also to non-Indians. I think I'm looking now toward Indian audiences because some of the work is open-ended enough. Much of the video work that I'm seeing is experimental, not done by filmmakers or videomakers but by artists, writers, sculptors or painters. I like that approach. I think that if you can process your ideas the expertise of accessing the technology is not that difficult. The concept is primary for me. You can find the expertise or find people to handle the technical side. Let the technical take care of itself rather than getting all the technical down first and then saying, "What am I going to do now?" I have seen many filmmakers and videomakers who are very technically-skilled, but they've run out of ideas or they don't have the ideas.

We've been approached by a number of non-Indian filmmakers and videomakers who are very interested in our work. We have to weigh what the trade-off is, what we're sharing and what they're giving back, what we're giving and what they're taking. We've had to re-define the collaborative process. We've been collaborating with a French videomaker, Pierre Lobstein, for a number of years. We've continued that collaboration, but we want to insure that we get equity in the process. We feel as individual Yuchi people that we have certain things to protect and certain philosophies that we can share, and I have always been willing to share, but we also feel that sometimes we give too much ground and give up our ideals and concepts and other aspects of our culture or traditions to non-Indians for their interpretation. Sharing is essential for the culture to continue, but a lot of what we've shared has been used against us. And that's . . . well, I just believe that we need to have equity. My work all of these years has been about the creation of a more Native self-determined image of us, coming from us, acting and speaking for ourselves.

LA: One of your recent videos is The Grand Circle [1994]. Could you discuss how you developed it? A skull is the central, unchanging image, except you project different images through the eye sockets. You have text that goes in a circle around the skull.

RRW: As I mentioned I've been working with Pierre for the last seven years and my brother Joe has been working with us the last five. On our Yuchi side my brother and I are from the Mound cultures in the Southeast. So the video is about being part of something very ancient, very old, and also about our removal from the Southeast, which has become known as the Trail of Tears, to Indian Territory, which is now called Oklahoma. So it's about us returning as individuals and to somehow reconnect. It's an individual endeavor. We didn't necessarily travel as representatives of the tribe; we tried to go back as individual artists and to get the feel of it. But we have also returned there with our tribal members who make yearly pilgrimages.

We thought about retracing some of the removal routes. The Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, Muscogees, Cherokees each had different routes, northern and southern routes, all across the Mississippi at different points. I'm sure we crossed over some of those, but our intent was not necessarily to retrack or retrace, but anywhere that one crosses the Mississippi or any parts of the homeland, our people's footprints, presence, blood, and deeds are in the land.

We had the premise of setting one camera on the dash, going forward, looking ahead, and a camera in the back to look at what we were leaving. The idea of our people having to look back, or not look back, and to go ahead, to move ahead, forced removal in this case, was what we were showing. But as the footage went on it became too much of a road movie. There's no narration, no one leading you, no guides, except for the sound track and the text. We wanted it to be a little more ambiguous, abstract, where the viewer has to open up and come more than half way to meet the images, instead of being led. It's also about the premise of being cultural guides. In our collaboration with Pierre we couldn't necessarily be his culture guides. There had to be some balance here, some trade-off. It's our experience, our concept of returning, but in another real way it's a universal concept for artists.

We had thought for several years of the skull. The most obvious reference, I think, is the sacrifice of cultures, of the Mound cultures, but it's a more open-ended metaphor. It was important for it to be ambiguous, where one has to view it a number of times. Even me! There are some familiar elements in there that are some reality checks that bring you back. They're just hints for the most part, little hints throughout.

LA: The sound track is abstract, except for a few identifiable sounds, like gunfire, fife pipes, and children crying.

RRW: The pipes are the sounds of military campaigns that are still part of the tradition today in different military ceremonies. In this case the pipes refer to the military campaigns that were carried out against Indian peoples throughout this country. I also wanted to make the connection that it's not about past atrocities, but the ongoing atrocities in this country and against our brothers and sisters to the south, against the people of Africa, the atrocities that are carried out this very day, this very moment, against indigenous populations. Our Mound cultures have a very close connection to the cultures to the Maya and Inca, and even further south in South America. There is a campaign being carried out against the children there and we should be aware of it. It's part of our American government policy, the activities that are carried out today under the CIA. We discovered in making the video that one of our ancient mounds is under Fort Benning, Georgia, the U. S. Marine Base, which is also the home of the School of the Americas, which trains and supports dictatorships in areas to the south of us. So without risking the cliche of that paradox, you have the CIA-supported School of the Americas sitting on one of our ancient mounds, which has largely been looted and excavated, while supposedly being protected for future generations. The issue is when did "our" culture become "their" culture, under "their" ownership? This mandate, this campaign, that's carried out against indigenous populations is coming from the marine base sitting on top of a sacred site. For me, that was part of the skull. It's very disturbing to me today, this campaign being waged against indigenous populations. So part of the intent is for the video to be disturbing. People are experiencing disturbing circumstances in their lives.

LA: The campaign against Native peoples is usually thought of as being in the past, while it's a continuing process.

RRW: Part of that is America's denial. America is supposedly the model of democracy for the world, the role model that is offered up to the rest of the world. At the same moment, indigenous populations are the other part of the reality. America's longest "undeclared" declared war is on the indigenous populations. Somehow we can't exist if America exists. Our very existence challenges the notion of the model democracy. At the same moment, my personal philosophy is how can one, as an individual, as an artist in this case, refuse to participate in the victim/victimizer role. That has become our assigned role, to see ourselves as victims. People seem to be more comfortable with you if you are merely a victim. At the same time, America wants to have a clean slate, so if you have no victims, then there are no crimes and nothing has been carried out. That becomes a burden on us as well. We get blamed. It's our fault because we missed our opportunities; we didn't know how to get with the program. In other kinds of ways I've tried to resist being a mere victim. That's been our assigned role, to feel victimized, and I don't like that assigned role, but the fact is that a large part of our experience has been as victims. It's a no-win situation. But how can we transcend that today in terms of new energies? I think it's important for young Indian people and young non-Indian people to resist those precepts of being victim and victimizer and how it keeps all of us further entrapped, needless to say. The guilt obviously doesn't do any of us any good. How do we transcend that to somehow work in some commonalities? I hope some of the work can inform that.

LA: You're probably most well known for your Street Chiefs series that goes back to the early '70's through the '80's. How did the series evolve? It's been said that you are "in a strong documentary tradition that embraces such chroniclers of the American scene as Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee and Margaret Bourke-White." 1 Did you take a documentary approach in that series?

RRW: I don't know if I could be compared to those photographers from the Depression Era. I would say the main distinction between them and myself is that I'm not a visitor to my experience and I don't see my people as merely subject matter. I didn't arrive on the street and make the images and leave. When I first saw a street chief, I was on my way to Santa Fe to the Institute of American Indian Art in 1968. I had a brief layover at the bus station in Oklahoma City and it was my first experience of seeing a highly visible number of Indians on Skid Row there. It was very shocking to me to see Indians in that setting, on sidewalks and in front of the high-rises, just a high proportion of brown bodies. That image stuck in my mind. Three or four years later, I came back to Oklahoma City and began to take photographs. I never knew what my intent was, but I ended up hanging out on the streets myself there for about a year, which was 1973. I had just returned from South Dakota, from Wounded Knee, in 1973, and I had been packing a camera for a number of years. It was my intention to document what was happening there. I think even though I was an Indian there was still a lot of mistrust and suspicion of me carrying a camera. Of course, it was the climate of the times, too. A lot of profiteers, a lot of agent provocateurs, were around then, you know, so there was suspicion within the ranks. In all the years with the Street Chiefs many times I had to stand beside the work and explain it to non-Indian curators and even the viewers. In some instances the work is misread. I didn't want the work to be considered in the context of the recent phenomenon and concern about homelessness in the '80's and '90's, homelessness in Philadelphia or New York or whatever major metro area you want to name, but to bring out the idea that America is based upon and built upon displacement, displacement of indigenous people, the host people of this country. I focused on Oklahoma. Oklahoma became the dumping grounds for many of the tribes who stood in the way of progress. Indians were taken out of the East Coast, the Southeast, and west of the Mississippi. I wanted to consider the Street Chiefs in that context, not just recent homeless issues. The context was the removal of Indians, always pushing them off their land. I gained a lot from the people I photographed. Some of the people in those images are deceased. It was a very moving experience for me there. I met many of my own relatives. I never went there with a telephoto lens, and I didn't leave when I finished shooting. It was a part of my experience. The photographs bring up the contradiction of being landless in your own land.

I talked to many of these men and told them what I was trying to document. I had taken some images in Denver and Los Angeles, cities that had been used in the 1950's for relocation, an experiment on Indian people to relocate them from Indian country or from the reservations to large cities, supposedly for jobs and education, but it wasn't quite the way it was supposed to be for the people when they arrived. It was more of a culture shock. But I was able to grow in my own way, to see certain dynamics in Indian culture, that even an urban setting didn't make us less Indian. We gained another kind of questionable status, urban Indians as opposed to reservation Indians. What was the responsibility of the government in the creation of urban Indians? It wasn't the result of misunderstanding, you know. It was a policy that was being played out and experimented with at the same moment. The government was trying to renege on their trust responsibility. In the government's eyes they became less Indian as they became urban Indians. The government said, "Well, you are out of your service area, you're out of reservation boundaries, so we have no responsibility toward you." There was a systematic attempt not to develop any economic opportunities where Indians lived, or near the reservation communities, but to force them away from their homes. It was another step in breaking the cohesiveness of communal living and the communal responsibility of tribalism. I began to be involved in the urban experience myself and I was able to see another dynamic. I saw urban Indians who were very proud of being Indian. Of course, you see the confusion that goes along with that, but I was able to see that that experience didn't make us less Indian. I was able to see that urban Indians were capable of doing some very dynamic things, which they did and currently are doing. So, the Street Chiefs fits into that. I gained a lot from from the many people that I met in those early years. They had the spirit of resistance, and many of them still spoke their language. The one image that I remember is a Choctaw man and a Chickasaw man who each spoke their language. Their language is a dialect apart, but it's the same basic language. Of course, when you are living on the streets there's a certain street code, a survival code, and they knew that, but they also had brought with them an earlier alliance from their homelands. They were speaking their language, and they were able to maintain another kind of code, an indigenous code. It was built into their language, their Native language, so it was able to help them function, I think, or survive even more in another way. I'm not talking about just surviving, knowing where to go to get the next meal. It was more of a survival of the spirit. Then the other street survival code was more about how to hustle your next meal, to panhandle for money, get your next next drink or find out where the Salvation Army was. That's one kind of survival. But, these guys had another kind, one of resistance and spiritual strength.

LA: In Relocation Assimilation [1989] you used Street Chiefs #1 and a photograph of the two men who were in Smoke Break (n.d.), and added some text, some newspaper articles, and an excerpt from a statement by Edgar Heap of Birds, and encased this in glass. You're collaging a lot of different materials. Could you talk about how you went from the photographs to creating the boxes?

RRW: This was early on. It was part of the same ideal but then I began to see the boxes. I was trying to understand the linear thinking of the non-Indian world as opposed to the circular thinking of the indigenous cultures. I began to see the box as representing more of our identity today, as dictated by non-Indians. I began to see the box as kind of a colonizer, an enforced identity. The box is a linear enclosure, entrapping us, keeping us contained. It was more symbolic, or metaphoric, I guess you could say. We have to struggle to push through the colonizer's identity model. We can't answer up to that model. That's their model, and it's totally out of context. It is out of our reference. It's about what they want us to be, what they think we are, what they wished we would be. So, that's a work basically directed toward non-Indians, but at the same moment I wanted the work to inspire. I wanted to inspire Indian people and at the same time to challenge non-Indian attitudes. I wanted to somehow inspire our people, our young Indian artists, our younger generations, to sound the challenge, too. The work was pretty busy, and I found myself pretty busy. My work, and my personal self, were real scattered, with a lot of loyalties, so I was pulled a lot of ways. When I look back today, it's probably a pretty fair reflection of me.

LA: You've worked with other Oklahoma artists, and did a booklet called Makers [1988], that included a couple of other Oklahoma artists [Shan Goshorn, Edgar Heap of Birds, Joe Dale Tate Nevaquaya, Patricia Mousetrail Russell]. You've also done a show with Joe, and continue to do things with Edgar [Indigenous Investigations]. Is there something about Oklahoma Native artists that links you together?

RRW: Well, of course, I have the reference to Oklahoma, but I have shown in artist co-ops with non-Indian people, too. My work is really content-oriented, and I'm comfortable there. I also feel a responsibility, too, to show in a context with indigenous artists who are pushing the boundaries and experimenting and talking about issues that are facing Indian communities today. So, I'm quite comfortable either way. I've been in artist co-op shows on the east coast with white artists, artists of color, women. . . . Basically, my pieces are works of content, and people don't care about your gender or race. They care more about the work and where the work is going. I think that I am seeing more artists that have shown in group shows, and Indian artists that are doing work that is more personal. I think that is what I was saying earlier about believing in your ideals, your concept, and about believing in your experiences and that your experiences are valid. I see other artists who are working that way. I like being in that company.

LA: Do you see a split between "American art" and " ethnic art?"

RRW: That's not only a question for museums and curators, but also for ourselves. The "official" art world makes those distinctions, and we react to them. In my cultural context these aren't categories apart. We've always said it's been a question of access for us. From 1990 to 1992 I'd gotten calls from galleries who would never be in touch with me normally, but those were the years for the Columbus Quincentenary. The joke among us was to see if the these calls would continue in '93 and after. What is the interest going to be after you do your Indian show? However, I think our work can hold up anywhere. The work should stand on merit. In the case of "American art" does the word "American" have a reference to indigenous people? People seem to forget that there was a land here before there was a United States. It can be a minute point; it becomes a distraction to keep us at each other where we don't look at the bigger issues. I think it's a question about what the future role of museums will be. They have to ask themselves some questions. I know in Oklahoma it's a constant reminder. We have the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City which represents all the Western states' cowboy and Western history, and over the years we have asked them to show our work, but they've only recently shown Allan Houser and T. C. Cannon in the context of Indian artists. Well, Indian people come under Western heritage and Western history; when you say cowboy you almost say Indian in the same breath. It's like we're teammates.

LA: I'd like to talk about your curatorial efforts and what you try to do in those shows.

RRW: I was thinking about the question of access and that we have not had opportunities because we supposedly didn't have the qualifications. But, now, of course, many of our people have Master's degrees that open a lot of doors, but at the same moment we are qualified to address our own experiences and to present our own work. Many times we not only see people who are masquerading as Indian artists but others who are masquerading as Indian art experts as well, going on lecture tours and talking about our work. Some of us have had the opportunity, shall we say, to be in the audience when someone is talking about our work. But there is also a handful of people, non-Indian people, who have worked among Indians who are basically very fair to the work and to the artists. However, I think we wanted to open up the curatorial process to our people and to develop top positions in key areas of curating and critical writing. I was lacking in some areas and we have much to do to go forward, but I'm very encouraged. There can be an ongoing discourse about our work between artist, curator, and audience, but there can be a problem with being understood. I think Theresa Harlan, Edgar, Rick Hill, myself, are among the people now who are pushing themselves to incorporate critical writing and curating. It's a question of the balance of museums today and if they feel threatened. The curator thing is hard for them to give up.

LA: To finish up, what have been some of the major influences on your art?

RRW: I spent some time at Wounded Knee in l973. That influenced my art and my role as an artist, a culture worker, and a tribal citizen. I had left Santa Fe for Cal Arts and then went to Wounded Knee and never returned to art school. I began to see the artist's role in the context of the struggles at that time, the ongoing struggle, and at that time it was confrontational, but I always felt that the artist, and when I look to Central and South America at the indigenous cultures there, the artist, the poet, the writer, were always in the forefront and part of the larger vision for the people, and, of course, they are the ones who are usually assassinated or who become the political prisoners. I don't see enough artists in North America who are doing the real work that has been assigned them. Rather, the artist seems to do marketable work of safe images to hang on the wall, not work that is engaging and saying something about how it is with us today. So going to Wounded Knee had a very strong impact on my life. It changed my life completely. That experience still sheds light on what I do today.

I've always admitted openly that my influences have been non-Indian as well as Indian artists, because the non-Indian experience was part of my experience, too. I like Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, probably for putting text into paintings. I was influenced by my own people, artists like T. C. Cannon, more for his writing than his art, as well as by my grandmother and other people who were remembering the future. When I was in Santa Fe for those years, you could go to the honors collection or the storage gallery and see all the early works from '63 and '64. I liked the idea of text and image, the play of moving paint and colors and moving text around. I did abstract work. In '73, we had our work in Santa Fe destroyed in a fire. That was the work from the early '70's, so I have no reference to the paintings from that time. I had another fire a few years ago that destroyed much of my work up to that time, so that's been kind of a cleansing for me and I've started new work.

NOTES

1 Emily Kass, "Eight Native American Artists: Vision and Reality," in Eight Native American Artists. Fort Wayne, IN: Fort Wayne Museum of Art, 1987, p. 16.

 SELECTED EXHIBITIONS

Image and Self in Contemporary Native American Photoart, group exhibition, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, 1995

STAND: Four Artists Interpret the Native American Experience, group exhibition, Bruce Art Gallery, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro, PA, 1994

Indigenous Investigations, two-person exhibition, The University of North Texas Art Gallery, Denton, TX, 1993

Green Acres: Neo-Colonialism in the U. S., group exhibition, Washington University Gallery of Art, St. Louis, MO, 1992

 Makers, group exhibition, Oklahoma City University, Oklahoma City, OK, 1986

 SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Aperture, No. 139 (Summer, 1995): pp. 92, 94-97.

Richard Ray Whitman, "Artist's Statement." Image and Self in Contemporary Native American Photoart. Hanover, NH: Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, 1995, p. 17.

_____, "Artist's Statement." Exposure 29, 1 (Fall, 1993): pp. 22-23.

Theresa Harlan, "A Curator's Perspective: Native Photographers Creating a Visual Native American History." Exposure 29, 1 (Fall, 1993): 12-22 [see especially pp. 15-16].

W. Jackson Rushing, "Street Chiefs and Native Hosts: Richard Ray (Whitman) and Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds Defend the Homeland." Green Acres: Neo-Colonialism in the U. S. St. Louis: Washington University Gallery, Washington University, 1992, pp. 22-40.

"Richard Ray (Whitman)." Eight Native American Artists. Fort Wayne, IN: Fort Wayne Museum of Art, 1987, pp. 27, 42-43.

SELECTED FILMS

1994 The Grand Circle (co-produced with Joe Dale Tate Nevaquaya and Pierre Lobstein)

1992 Humanity's Voice (co-produced with Joe Dale Tate Nevaquaya and Pierre Lobstein)

1990 Carriers of the Light (co-produced with Joe Dale Tate Nevaquaya and Pierre Lobstein)

 FILMS ABOUT

1988 Five Portraits (includes Bob Haozous, Edgar Heap of Birds, Dan Lomahaftewa, Emmi Whitehorse, and Richard Ray Whitman)

OTHER

1993 Mazerunner: The Life and Art of T.C. Cannon. Produced and directed by Philip Albert. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. T.C. Cannon poems read by, and additional dialogue created by, Whitman

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