Col­o­nize that! Into the Fu­ture: Cul­ture Power in Na­tive Amer­i­can Art at The Mu­seum of In­dian Arts and Cul­ture


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INthe early part of the 20th cen­tury, white Americans and Euro­peans, from an­thro­pol­o­gists and art col­lec­tors to politi­cians and tourists, be­came fas­ci­nated by Na­tive Americans. Con­vinced that Na­tive lives were bound for ex­tinc­tion within a gen­er­a­tion or two, many peo­ple wanted sou­venirs from their jour­neys to In­dian Coun­try — the more in­ti­mate and sa­cred, the bet­ter. Some­times they stole from the com­mu­ni­ties they vis­ited. Some­times they of­fered enough money that cash-strapped Na­tive fam­i­lies were will­ing to part with pre­cious pos­ses­sions. And some­times what white peo­ple walked away with wasn’t ex­actly what they thought it was. To­day, the Mu­seum of In­dian Arts and Cul­ture (MIAC) has a collection of about 200 Zuni pots, dat­ing to the 1930s, that cu­ra­tor Va­lerie Verzuh told

Pasatiempo were cre­ated as “se­cret cer­e­mo­nial pots” to sell to the pub­lic.

“What re­ally in­ter­ested out­siders were parts of Na­tive peo­ple’s lives that they don’t usu­ally share, so th­ese pots sort of sa­ti­ated that in­ter­est,” she said. “They’re great art. They’re beau­ti­ful Zuni pots. But they’ve been ar­ti­fi­cially aged and they’re very ex­otic. They have th­ese lit­tle cutouts, which are noth­ing that has been seen on Zuni pots be­fore or since. They are a great ex­am­ple of how cre­ativ­ity comes out un­der duress.”

Three of the pots can be viewed in Into the Fu­ture: Cul­ture Power in Na­tive Amer­i­can Art, on ex­hibit at MIAC through Oct. 22, 2017. Verzuh ar­ranged the case in which they are dis­played to ex­em­plify the way pri­vacy that is in­te­gral to Na­tive cul­ture is of­ten vi­o­lated in the name of non-Na­tive cu­rios­ity. “At the heart of this op­po­si­tion is the dilemma of pre­serv­ing tra­di­tion, or keep­ing it alive,” Verzuh wrote in the text ac­com­pa­ny­ing the pots. “In the on­go­ing bat­tle for the pro­tec­tion of pro­pri­etary indige­nous knowl­edge, ob­jects have pow­er­ful voices.” The pots are jux­ta­posed with a paint­ing by Arigon Starr (Kick­apoo), Pue­blo Jones in Paris, which looks like the movie poster from In­di­ana Jones and the

Tem­ple of Doom, and ref­er­ences the spring 2016 sale of cul­tur­ally sen­si­tive Na­tive Amer­i­can ar­ti­facts by a French auc­tion house over the protes­ta­tions of the tribes. The ob­jects in the pri­vacy case show that nei­ther indige­nous peo­ple nor the theft of their cul­ture are relics of the past.

Into the Fu­ture in­cludes nearly 100 his­tor­i­cal ob­jects, con­tem­po­rary works of fine art, and more tra­di­tional art made by mod­ern Na­tive artists, some of which was in the MIAC collection and some of which came from pri­vate col­lec­tors and the artists. Verzuh looked for pieces that were highly nar­ra­tive to tell the story of how Na­tive cul­ture has per­ceived its in­ter­ac­tion with Euro­pean-Amer­i­can colo­nial­ist cul­ture — from the in­side out. “It’s a per­spec­tive that peo­ple don’t re­ally get, that col­o­nized peo­ple have opin­ions about you,” she said. In a case ded­i­cated to en­coun­ters with cul­tural out­siders are ce­ramic bob­ble-head caricatures made by Co­chiti artists to re­flect the strange new peo­ple who sud­denly ar­rived on their land when the Transcon­ti­nen­tal Rail­road was built in the late 1800s.

A ma­jor theme of the ex­hibit is cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion, which is the tak­ing of el­e­ments of a col­o­nized cul­ture by mem­bers of the dom­i­nant group. This is most rec­og­niz­able around Hal­loween, when nonNa­tive peo­ple wear In­dian head­dresses as cos­tumes, but man­i­fes­ta­tions of cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion are ev­ery­where, es­pe­cially in the fash­ion world, where non-Na­tive de­sign­ers of­ten use Na­tive de­sign el­e­ments or sa­cred cloth­ing out of con­text. “In all cul­tures, there is cloth­ing that is re­stricted to cer­tain oc­ca­sions or peo­ple,” Verzuh said. She went on to talk about the dresses sent down the run­way in 2015 at New York’s win­ter Fash­ion Week by Mar­jan Pe­joski, a Mace­do­nian-born de­signer liv­ing in Bali, that were a di­rect copy of a dress line by North­ern Cheyenne/Crow de­signer Bethany Yel­low­tail, whose work is in­cluded in the ex­hibit. Pe­joski called his work a trib­ute to indige­nous women, but didn’t seem to re­al­ize how the action of poorly copy­ing de­signs that be­long to Yel­low­tail’s fam­ily re­sulted in the op­po­site of his stated in­ten­tions. Verzuh also men­tioned the time John Gal­liano was roundly pil­lo­ried dur­ing Fash­ion Week in 2013 for wear­ing what ap­peared to be a high-fash­ion mock­ery of cloth­ing worn by Ha­sidic men, right down to the side­locks, known in Yid­dish as that are grown to sym­bol­ize faith. “He was os­tra­cized by ev­ery­one for this, but you can send a Vic­to­ria’s Se­cret model down the run­way in a head­dress,” she ob­served, re­call­ing the 2012 de­ba­cle for which the pop­u­lar lin­gerie com­pany had to pub­licly apol­o­gize to of­fended Na­tive com­mu­ni­ties.

“Ev­ery shape in a tra­di­tional Na­tive de­sign, all of the col­ors — this all has mean­ing to us. It may say that you are male or fe­male, or be­long to a par­tic­u­lar so­ci­ety, or you’ve re­ceived cer­tain hon­ors, or it’s your fam­ily’s de­sign,” Verzuh said. “If you take them out of con­text, if you don’t know how to speak the vis­ual lan­guage, then it’s re­ally dis­re­spect­ful of that fam­ily or cul­ture. It’s es­pe­cially stress­ful for col­o­nized peo­ple, who are try­ing to keep their cul­ture alive, to be strong in­di­vid­u­ally

and in groups. Den­i­grat­ing a sym­bol from a col­o­nized group is part of col­o­niz­ing. It means col­o­niz­ing is still hap­pen­ing, that you are col­o­niz­ing by wear­ing that head­dress.”

Na­tive cloth­ing, jew­elry, and ac­ces­sory de­sign­ers take a va­ri­ety of ap­proaches to us­ing cul­tural im­agery. Yel­low­tail, for in­stance, uses cul­tural sym­bols in her de­signs, whereas Vir­gil Or­tiz, from Co­chiti Pue­blo, trans­forms the sym­bols he uses on his edgy leather jack­ets, bags, and bracelets so that their ref­er­ences are less di­rect. Or­lando Dugi (Navajo) de­signs cou­ture gowns that in­clude feath­ers and com­pli­cated bead­work, but no cul­tural im­agery, be­cause he prefers to keep that within his fam­ily and com­mu­nity. Verzuh ex­plained that the idea that sym­bols be­long to a group — and not to any sin­gle in­di­vid­ual to use to turn a profit — is part of the ar­gu­ment against the Paris auc­tion of Na­tive ar­ti­facts. “You have to con­sider the in­ten­tion of the maker when you’re buy­ing and sell­ing th­ese things. Where do they be­long? What do they mean to the com­mu­nity? How did they leave the com­mu­nity? Dur­ing the Holo­caust, so many pieces of art were taken from Jewish fam­i­lies il­le­gally, and what we’re say­ing is that this is sim­i­lar. Th­ese items left our com­mu­nity un­der duress, we’ve man­aged to stay alive and vi­tal, and now they need to come home.”

One room of Into the Fu­ture, di­rected at younger mu­se­um­go­ers, is pop­u­lated by ge­o­met­ri­cal ta­pes­try weav­ings of Dis­ney char­ac­ters and sev­eral ver­sions of SpongeBob SquarePants, in­clud­ing one of him as the gi­ant clasp of a bolo tie made by Ken Wil­liams Jr. (North­ern Ara­paho/ Seneca). “Ac­cul­tur­a­tion has been a big deal in the his­tory of this coun­try. Peo­ple come here and it’s sup­posed to be a melt­ing pot; you’re sup­posed to melt into this non­de­script An­glo-Amer­i­can-what­ever,” Verzuh said. “Ob­vi­ously, that’s never been a suc­cess. I just love the trans­for­ma­tion of pop­u­lar cul­ture into Na­tive Amer­i­can cul­ture, and what kind of com­men­tary that be­comes. SpongeBob is very pop­u­lar with kids, so how do you in­te­grate that into their life on the pue­blo? You have him and his friends do a Corn Dance. This is what I call re­verse col­o­niza­tion — when you bring your cul­ture to the cul­ture that has col­o­nized you, and trans­form that cul­ture.”

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