Native American Art, Part One

NATIVE AMERICAN ART AND ARTISTS

The “art world”—based in New York—was defined by exclusion: the exclusion of women, people of color, and certain kinds of art making. “Craft” is not considered “fine art,” and it is interesting to note that craft is often produced by women and/or low income people, outside of the mainstream. The prejudice against “craft” has less to do with what the artist is making and more with who makes the object. For example, if the Bernstein Brothers made, or crafted, objects for the Minimal artists, such as Donald Judd, an all male enterprise, the resulting works are consecrated as “fine art.” In contrast, women and lower class people were associated with “craft” or objects that have utilitarian use or “Folk Art” or art made by “outsider artists” (outside of urban areas).

Of all of the artists designated as the Other, because of their race, gender, or the kind of objects they make, the Native American artists are the most outside of the (white male) mainstream. Few, if any of these individuals, are known outside of the narrow and confined world of “Native American art.” Native American art is usually a local phenomenon and the artists, no matter how schooled in the “fine arts,” rarely leave their designated space. These artists have a distinct collector base and specific exhibition sites and are known by specialists and scholars in “Native-American” (not “American”) art. However, these most American of artists share one major characteristic with the Other artists—-their work of the post-World War II period is marked by the impact of the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights movement inspired “Red Power,” a version of the Black Power movement. Unlike the largely apolitical art of the mainstream art world, the art of the Others was a political act of pride and identity.

To understand the art of the Native Americans, it is necessary to understand that today there are some 554 tribes still extant, scattered throughout American, but mostly in the Southwest. But in 1943, the federal government became concerned at the conditions of the reservations and decided that the Native Americans would be better off if they left their reservations. In fact, the reservations were designated native lands and it was corrupt federal oversight, not necessarily living on a reservations per se, that was the root of the problem. However, President Eisenhower signed the Termination and Relocation Policy of 1953. For a small tribe, “termination” would be extinction. As Native Americans moved out of reservations and into mainstream society, they were assimilated into the urban mainstream to a certain extent, often concealing their cultural identity—until the Civil Rights movement, when college-educated Indians began to become politically active and set out to reclaim their lands and their rights as Native Americans.

Ironically, it was the most assimilated, not the most pure, Indians who were best positioned to defend their heritage through political activism, such as the Indian occupations of Alcatraz Island in 1964 and twice in 1969, and legal actions against the treaties broken by the United States government. In response to these civil rights activities, President Richard Nixon reversed the Termination and extended Native American self-determination in 1970. From the 1960s on, Native American art splits into two segments: art that recreates traditional Native American art forms, such as blankets, baskets, pottery, jewelry, in other words, “craft,” and art that is made according to Western fine arts, such as painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, and performance art. Within the second group are “fine” artists who reinforce the Western stereotypical ideas of Native Americans and those artists who seek to critique and counter these misapprehensions about the Native peoples.

Early twentieth century Native American art was craft orientated and frequently anonymous, often made by women, including blankets and Kachina dolls sold to tourists coming to the Southwest pueblos. The Indians in the pueblos of Arizona and New Mexico were fascinating to the (white) visitors who thought they were seeing “real” ceremonial dances and were buying “real” artifacts from the “vanishing/vanished” Americans. The Native American peoples were, in fact organized and trained by whites, such as anthropologists who did not want ancient skills or craft objects to be lost to modernity. Well-meaning whites thought of Native Americans as being “naturally” talented in “making” and sought to alleviate the poverty of the reservations.

Revival of crafts seemed to be the answer and these “authentic” objects could be sold to the tourists who began to flock to the Southwest in the 1920s. In their own self-interest, many artisans cooperated and began to sell crafts and perform for the white tourists. In fact, the actual ceremonial dances were performed in secret, what the tourists witnessed were staged theatrics. The blankets and rugs woven by Indian men and women were based on quilts made by white women and Asian (“Oriental”) rugs—-all seen and copied by the Native American women at the military forts where they were corralled at the end of the nineteenth century.

For the tourists, the Southwest experience is a manufactured version of what whites expected from Indians. So how authentic is “Indian art?” Because the whites attempted to systematically wipe out the culture of Native Americans, there are few actual artifacts left and those are carefully preserved in museums in the Southwest. But some artists have recreated facsimiles of indigenous art, based on archaeological discoveries. The craft artists who are the best known in Indian art are the women potters, Maria Marinez, Lucy Lewis, and Rachel Nampeyo. The art of making pottery had been neglected when the Native Americans were moved to reservations and were given access to Western containers. However, anthropologists and traders and train stations in the Southwest encouraged the women to revive pottery making so that the tribes would have more income. The potters worked from ancient potshards found by archaeologists and shown to the women. They relearned the process of digging the clay and firing the coil-work pots in fire pits.

Each pueblo developed its particular style of pottery. For example, San Ildefonso, the pueblo of Maria Martinez (who is the founder of a dynasty of potters, male and female) creates black pottery with shiny and matte designs, while Santa Clara pueblo potters sculpt their pots with high-relief designs. Lucy Lewis of rhe Acoma pueblo also founded a dynasty of potters but the Acoma designs are very different from the black pottery tradition and are a revival of ancient Mimbres patterns. Rachel Nampeyo, who also founded a dynasty was a Hopi potter whose designs are more figurative in comparison to Lewis’s abstract drawings. Unlike Native American artists who have moved into the mainstream culture, these artists stay on the pueblos, because their living presence in traditional homelands, making pots in the ancient ways, bring an important aura to their works. To be “romantic” to the white buyers, these men and women must remain on reservations.

The Santa Fe School was founded in 1932 by Dorothy Dunn who taught Native Americans to paint in what she termed a “flat” or “primitive” style, based upon the linear style of Indians, as seen in examples of ledger art or the drawings on teepees. The so-called “ledger art” were drawings done by Native Americans on ledger paper at American military forts. These drawings were narrations of their lives under guard, awaiting transfer to designated reservations. The Santa Fe style was not, however, a recreation of a genuine Native art, as with the pottery of Maria Martinez. The Santa Fe style was a white idea of how Native Americans should paint, in simple line drawings filled in with colors, and the imagery produced also fed into the stereotypes of Indians held dear to Anglos: The Noble Savage frozen in time—a time before the settlers arrived and the American government sought to exterminate the “primitives.” Detractors referred to the work of Dorothy Dunn’s students as “The Bambi Style” because of the close resemblance to the art coming out of the studios of Walt Disney. Although he was a self-taught artist, the nostalgic paintings of Blackbear Bosin are excellent examples of the Bambi style and his warriors exist in the timeless paradise of life before the white settlement or “taming” of the west.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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