Native American Art and Contemporary Issues

The famous IAIA, the Institute of American Indian Art, was founded in 1962 as a counterweight to the Santa Fe School and its artificial construction of “Indian art.”  In contrast to those who preserve ancient arts or those who present the pretend styles, there are those Native Americans who have adopted white Western easel painting but have used the Western tradition to subvert the Anglo ideas about “Indians.”  One of the most interesting and militant political artists was the late T. C. Cannon, who died in 1978.  Cannon, who was a student of painter, Fritz Scholder, at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, often made fun of the way white people collected Native American art by portraying Native Americans as collecting art by white artists, such as Vincent van Gogh. Fritz Scholder and his student T. C. Cannon, worked in a Western style as well, but their style was n keeping with what Paul Schimmel, once the curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, termed “Hand-Painted Pop.”

Both artists were “easel artists” who dedicated their oeuvre to showing the plight of Native Americans from their encounter with white settlers to their lives today on isolated and socially troubled reservations.  Scholder, who died in 2005, showed a Native American chief wrapped in an American flag, reminding the viewer of who the First Americans are and did a series of lithographs of Native Americans suffering from social traumas, nervous breakdown, and alcoholism.  Cannon painted General Custer as a Zero Hero, telling the story of the Battle of Little Big Horn from the standpoint of the Native American. This movement in Native American protest art came of age in the Eighties but the artists did not benefit from the art boom in New York city and remained dedicated to using Modernist art to critique mainstream white culture.

Jaune-Quick-to-See-Smith was one of the many activist Native American artists and this artist, who has supported many environmental causes in her work. Quick-to-See-Smith was an interesting contrast to Alan Houser  whose work is far less confrontational to whites. Not all Native American artists are politically provocative and these artists, from the artist of the 1930s, such as the painter, Oscar Howe, to Houser, are often placed outside of the mainstream, joining the potters and the basket makers as “pueblo artists” catering to the tourist trade.  However, there are some artists such as Dan Namingha, a Hopi artist, who uses Western style painting to paint his culture in an up-to-date unsentimentalizing fashion that is more neutral in content. His beautiful landscape paintings are abstractions in the intense bright colors of the Southwest, examples of “Indian Modernism.”

Randy Lee White(horse), a Sioux artist often bases his art on the famous Ledger drawings, first collected when the Indians were herded into forts, awaiting relocation to reservations.  White  understood that ledger art was related to the way the Plains Indians decorated the surface of their teepees and adopted this indigenous style.  The simple straightforward and often humorous paintings by White seem to fit into a Western context but they do so because they remind Anglos of artists with the same kind of simplified style, such as Cy Twombly and Jean-Michel Basquiat. White wittily re-imagined the Battle of Little Big Horn, “Custer’s Last Stand,” as ledger art, as if retold by a Native American witness in modern times. The Battle is re-fought in a parking lot, with Cherokee Jeeps confronting Army Jeeps, but  the outcome is the same: Custer lost.

All of these artists are caught between two worlds: the world they inherited, the Native American world with which they have been trusted, and the Anglo world, which marginalizes them.  They are all faced with the question of whether to enter into the mainstream Anglo art world, leaving behind the Indian world and obliterating their ethnicity or retaining their heritage and thus marginalizing themselves into a world of specialized art: “Native American Art.”  Their choice (or lack of choice) is one faced by all the Others.   The 1970s was an even more activist period for Native American artists.  Some of the anger these artists felt was the result of the clash between Native American protesters with the FBI at Wounded Knee and some of the anger was the continued disappointment over the difficult conditions on Native American reservations.

Working on opposite coasts, performance artist, James Luna, and installation artist, Edgar Heap of Birds, took up where the late artists, Scholder and Cannon left off.  Their art is confrontational and provocative, reminding Anglo audiences of their complicity in stealing Native lands and carving out reservations, and then forgetting the Native Americans.  These are two artists who have “crossed-over” because their art is conceptual and does not use Native American imagery but appropriates Anglo political tactics in Anglo terms.  In an interview, Edgar Heap of Birds noted that the logo for the American Indian Movement (AIM) is the upside down flag: the symbol for America in distress.  Many of these politically minded artists link the American Indian with America itself.  As long as the Forgotten Americans are ignored and disregarded the nation will never heal its self-inflicted wounds and forgive itself of the crimes against the First Americans.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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