The following is an interview with artist Bently Spang, whose work appears in the Brooklyn Museum’s current Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains exhibit. For more documentation of the Brooklyn Museum show, which features 160 objects from the Brooklyn Museum’s collection of Plains material, as well as selected works from other museums, objects by contemporary Plains artists and three full-size tipis, see our previous posts.
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Joscelyn Jurich: In your essay for the Brooklyn Museum exhibition catalog, you described misconceptions about the tipi. What are the main misconceptions about tipis?
Bently Spang: Let me first say that I don’t speak for my people, the Northern Cheyenne, I only speak from my own personal experience and from what I was taught growing up. One of the main misconceptions I have experienced about the tipi is that all tribes lived in a tipi. Even in our own history, there’s variation. We [Cheyenne] first lived in permanent, wigwam-like dwellings and came to the tipi when we became more nomadic. Because Hollywood and the media focused mostly on Plains life and because we were one of the last of the tribes to be put on a reservation, this misconception continues. Another misconception is that the tipi is a primitive form from a primitive culture who were not very with it intellectually. In fact it’s one of the most brilliant architectural forms ever conceived. A tipi could be put up and taken down very quickly – it would consolidate into a small package very fast. Your whole life could be packed up pretty quickly into a small space and the objects inside were very well suited for movement. You had to be pretty brilliant to create a complete package like that that addressed all your needs. The form of the tipi is also one of the strongest architectural forms. My family has three tipis and they never blow down, whatever the weather. It really is built to withstand a lot. There is also the misconception that all tipis have some sacred or ceremonial use. Tipis were used for council meetings but primarily their function was to protect the core of the community, the family. Our community and the love of our community is what is reflected in the tipi for me.
JJ: In your essay in the exhibition catalog, you also argue that misconceptions about the tipi are “cut from the same cloth” as misconceptions about Native Americans. Explain how the two are connected.
BS: The number one misconception is that all Native people are Plains Indians and dress the same way and have the same value systems. Another misconception is centered around the idea of authenticity which is cut from the same anthropological cloth as misconceptions about the tipi. The need to define a group or a person or an object as authentic is really a problematic thing for us because we have never defined ourselves in those terms. Even our name, Cheyenne, is not our name but a name assigned to us. Cheyenne is really an adaptation of a Lakota phrase — when they described us to the white man, the white man turned it into “Cheyenne.” Another stereotype is that we’re very stoic and very humorless — there is the image of an Indian man who is very stoic and looks kind of mean. The most humor I’ve ever experienced has been in my own community. The funniest and most clever people are all my relatives.
We get hardly any coverage in the national media. I think the awareness is growing but we’re still kind of a mystery to people. There’s an image of either anger or mysticism, and the notion that our people were and are primitive.
JJ: You write about the fact that the very word tipi is problematic, and that in your own language, Cheyenne, the name is ve-eh. How is the word tipi incorrect?
BS: Just the word tipi doesn’t address [the concept's] complexity. Each nation had its own word for what is now called exclusively the tipi. There is a notion that you can assign a single name to a dwelling that was different for each tribe. Even today, if you go to buy a canvas tipi they will have multiple styles of tipis — Sioux style, Blackfeet style — styles that come from the past and were based on the needs of each individual nation.
JJ: You were a consultant for the Brooklyn Museum exhibition and have two works exhibited in it, “Tsistsistas Summer, 2010” and “Modern Warrior Series: War Shirt #3”. When you saw the completed exhibit for the first time, what was your reaction?
BS: When I first walked in, just seeing that gigantic tipi blew my mind. And it’s a usable size, not a prop. It didn’t belong indoors but you still couldn’t contain its power. How it was painted and who painted it, Blackfeet artist Lyle J. Heavy Runner from our Montana Native community, made it powerful for me as well.
JJ: Your “Tsistsistas Summer, 2010”, a photo-essay documenting your return to the Northern Cheyenne reservation in south eastern Montana, is one of the first works a visitor sees in the Tipi exhibit and it’s one you created especially for it. Why did you decide to create this photo essay for the exhibition?
BS: I tried to visualize my experience over a summer. In the pow wow shots I really tried to keep out images one might expect and mediated them so that the energy of the pow wow was really what was important. The fact that our experience has been framed as exotic — we are amazing, don’t get me wrong — excludes the fact that we do have everyday experiences as well. We have picnics, for example, like everyone else. If you go to a pow wow today, we don’t drag in tipis on our horses any more — we bring them in on our pick-up trucks. Photographs of Indians in the past were about documenting us, capturing the last images of a vanishing culture. To capture a person on film is in a sense to own them. In fact, a few years ago I saw a full-page ad in the New York Times selling these images, you could literally “own” an Indian, yet those images were my family pictures. So against that, this photo series is shot without people’s faces. “War Shirt #3” also voices some of that. It addresses the photograph as object and what it does when it’s put into Indian hands.
JJ: According to Brooklyn Museum Art of the Americas curator Nancy Rosoff and co-curator of the Tipi show, a visitor to the museum recently told her that he thought none of the works in the Brooklyn Museum exhibit belong in a museum, but should be in their original locations or at the very least, not exhibited at all. How do you respond to this type of critique?
BS: Should they be back in the Native community? Yes they should. Realistically, can they go back to the community? Some can and are through the NAGPRA law. Some need to go back to the earth. But the difficult circumstances around our existence have brought them here and we need to deal with it and we are. It’s always odd for me to see them in this context. The spiritual things have been made with a purpose. We always advise museums not to bring certain things into exhibitions. Some of them are very powerful spiritually and must be respected, it’s a reality — that’s our understanding of the world. Museums are seeing that they can’t just take this stuff and make what they want out of it. The Brooklyn Museum listened to us; they brought us in and they heard some of what we said. I don’t think anyone can hear all of it. They really gave us their all and I really appreciated that.
JJ: Some might wonder why an exhibition like this one is at the Brooklyn Museum rather than the National Museum of the American Indian. How do you respond?
BS: I think it would have fit fine there, they do terrific work. But we need to be in every art institution — not just a singular Native institution. Let’s not relegate everything Native to the National Museum of the American Indian. This is American art — so why not be in the Whitney? And I think part of that lies in the stereotypes: I’ve been told by contemporary curators and galleries, “your work is Indian so it belongs in an Indian museum, we don’t show that here.” You don’t see Native artists at the Whitney or MoMA very often. That’s one of our challenges — that’s what we’re trying to confront and change. That’s what I’ve been up against for the last 20 years. I think I should be able to exhibit in both spaces. Native artists have a lot of challenges and we’re taking on one at time. But I think the Brooklyn Museum opened the door with this exhibition and maybe it will open the door wider down the road. There’s a growing group of young curators that are very interested in exploring these changes who are also dealing with institutional changes and perceptions that are very slow to shift.
JJ: You said in another interview that “Everyone feels that they know who Native people are and yet they continually put us in one time period.” Do you feel the Brooklyn Museum exhibit successfully challenges this tendency?
BS: I think the most successful thing about the exhibition is that it really taps into the complexity of our existence. People are seeing not just historical aspects, but also some of what happened and what is happening in our community. The exhibit really illustrated parts of our existence pretty well and gives some essential information. I wish there were a few more personal perspectives from different people from different communities, maybe on video, and even a deeper political discussion. But, there is a degree of balance in this exhibit between challenging some notions and showing beautiful objects from powerful cultures. No matter what though, when you bring powerful objects from powerful cultures into a space, they automatically communicate layers and layers of information. It’s up to the viewer to figure out some of those layers.
JJ: At the end of your essay in the exhibition catalog, you write that the general public needs to reject stereotypes and embrace the Native voice. What is your best concrete advice about how we can do that?
BS: We first have a responsibility as Native people to do our part, to ensure our voices get out there using new media, the internet, etc. I give a lot of lectures across the country. At many of these lectures I have had people come up to me afterward crying and say, “I feel so bad about what my people did to your people.” The first few times I was really shocked. And then I wasn’t. The difficulty is that Native people have this cultural grief we are dealing with but there is also this guilt, on the non-Native side, that is so palpable — and there have been no mechanisms put in place by the powers that be for either side to resolve these feelings. When people come up to me and ask, “What can I do?” I say, “You’ve now heard from a living native person and I don’t fit the stereotypes. When those stereotypes come up, you must refute them, that’s your responsibility now. And that’s how change is going to happen.”
Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains continues until May 15, 2011 at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn).