Someone is always “the other.” If we’re categorized as Caucasian, we’re the other to people who are indigenous to or descendants from Africa, Asia, Pacific Islands, and so on. If we’re Jewish or Buddhist, we’re the other to those who are Hindu, Catholic, Muslim. Even within the same nation or religion, we can be the other, such as the Tutsi and Hutu of Rwanda or the Shia and Sunni of Islam. There’s nothing wrong with being “the other,” unless that designation is used as a weapon of discrimination and persecution, leading to violence and genocide. Ultimately, of course, no one is truly other because we’re all human beings, given to sorrow and joy, vulnerability and strength. But how we represent other people in the arts might reflect our ignorance of them and, thus, our prejudices.
This fact was obvious in some exhibits I viewed during a brief visit to the state of Washington in late April. They raised a contentious issue: What is our responsibility as artists in depicting people whose ethnic culture is different from our own? How divergent are the images when those people tell their own story? Don’t we all want to be shown accurately, as we wish to be seen, known as who we are rather than who we’re imagined to be?
Some contemporary Native artists are challenging what has been incorrectly assumed for too long. They are resisting the misappropriation by reclaiming their identities through artwork. In their own styles and mediums, soberly and humorously, they ask us to reconsider images of indigenous people and overcome cultural misunderstandings. Gregg Deal, a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, has stated in a TED talk that if he does anything different from what Westerners expect in Native American art, it’s inherently a professional risk, but one that he decided he’s willing to take. He says, “What does contemporary indigenous art look like when it is not informed by a Western buyers’ market?”
An enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and also of Métis and Shoshone descent, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith turns on its head the old saying that describes Native Americans as a “vanishing race.” Were they? Are they? It turns out it wasn’t true in the past and it isn’t true today. In Smith’s The Vanishing American, created with acrylic, paper, cotton, printing ink, fabric, chalk, and graphite on canvas, native populations are growing and white populations are fading as intermarriage and other demographic factors contribute to the “browning of America.”
In I See Red, Smith addresses the inaccurate and obsolete colonial stereotype of the “red Indian,” “red man,” or “redskin.” Ironically, the red snowman has a feather on his head. “Simply red,” over the face of the snowman, speaks to the fact that identifying the numerous tribes as redskins is not simple but simplistic.
Even naming indigenous peoples of North America as American Indians or Native Americans is problematic because, as one speaker notes in the documentary This Is a Stereotype, it is “a simple, lazy summation of more than 500 different peoples with different languages, beliefs, and ties to the land.” Another commentator says, “I don’t like the idea of an all-encompassing umbrella. It strips away the diversity and uniqueness of each tribe.”
Contemporary Native artists contest the artwork of earlier times that offered limited, even distorted, perspectives about indigenous people. For instance, the Plains Indian war bonnet was often shown without regard for its cultural value and sacred meaning. It was indiscriminately and mistakenly applied to indigenous groups across the country, rather than to the select tribes that actually created and wore them.
During my visit to the Tacoma Art Museum, I saw paintings by immigrant artists who idealized the West and rendered Native people as stereotypes, including the “vanishing Indian” and the “noble savage.” French artist Henry Farny (1827-1916), was captivated with painting indigenous life that he encountered when he traveled westward after moving to the U.S. In the 1900 portrait above, he romanticized his subject rather than depicting the situation as it was: he identified neither tribal affiliation nor the harsh realities Native Americans faced. While the image was likely not authentic, it appealed to non-Native viewers at the time. European artists freely mixed such items as beaded jewelry, buckskin clothing, and feathered headdresses, whether they were used by a particular tribe or not.
Irish-born, Canadian artist Paul Kane (1810-1871) is known for his paintings of First Nations people. During two trips through the Canadian northwest in the mid- to late-1840s, he made more than 700 sketches of what he witnessed and then created paintings upon returning to Toronto. When comparing the drawings with the oils, it is noticeable that he embellished the former to create more dramatic scenes in the latter.
What compelled him to follow this subject matter was an argument by George Catlin (1796-1872), who had made his career painting Native peoples on the prairies. In his book, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs and Conditions of the North American Indians, Catlin asserted that the cultures of Native Americans were disappearing and should be recorded before passing into oblivion.
Some 20th-century American artists perpetuated misinformation in their paintings. John Clymer (1907-1989) used Chief Joseph (1840-1904), a Nimi’ipuu or Nex Perce leader as his subject. Also known as Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain, Chief Joseph opposed the U.S. government’s containment of Nez Perce people on a small reservation in what is now Idaho and participated in an unsuccessful rebellious 1,400-mile journey towards freedom in Canada. There are many legends about Chief Joseph, but he was not a war chief. Yet Clymer portrays him as leading a call to arms.
Similarly, Bert Geer Phillips (1868-1956), although regarded for his amicable relationships with many Indians in the Taos, New Mexico region, drew on such popular motifs as chiefs and war bonnets, reducing Native life to commercially viable themes.
Apsáalooke artist Wendy Red Star, from Billings, Montana, uses humor and irony to address pigeonholing and fictionalizing of Native people. After seeing displays of them as inanimate artifacts of the past at natural history museums, she staged her own dioramas. In Four Seasons, she wears an elk tooth dress, hair wraps, and beaded moccasins while sitting on artificial grass surrounded by fabricated plants and animals in a simulated mountain lake scene.
A member of Siksika First Nation, artist Meryl McMaster is also of British and Dutch descent. In her Ancestral series of 22 photographs, she references the “vanishing race” stereotype by appropriating work from both painter George Catlin and photographer Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952). She fuses historical portraits of Native Americans with stage photographs of herself and her father.
Since art can play an important role in dispelling myths about “others,” doesn’t it behoove artists to truthfully depict the life someone else lives? I am reminded of the The Potato Eaters (De Aardappeleters), lithograph and painting by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890). In Letter 497 to his brother Theo, he explains that he wanted to represent peasants as they really were. Thinking that they would be natural and unspoiled in his artwork, he intentionally selected coarse models and didn’t prettify them:
You see, I really have wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labor and—that they have thus honestly earned their food. I wanted it to give the idea of a wholly different way of life from ours—civilized people. So I certainly don’t want everyone just to admire it or approve of it without knowing why.
Van Gogh considered the painting a success, but not everyone was similarly impressed. Perhaps they preferred an idealization rather than the stark reality of peasant life.
Questions & Comments:
When you view a work of representational art, do you believe it is an accurate and truthful image? In your own work, do you try to create precise portraits?
Think back to images of Native Americans that you’ve seen in paintings, books, cartoons, dioramas, TV, movies. What impressions did they leave you with? How are they different from any Native Americans you know today?
Representing others than ourselves is a thorny issue in all the arts. Are we limited to create only from our personal experiences? How well do we step into someone else’s shoes through imagination? What role does compassion or empathy play in capturing another person artistically?