Rethinking American Indian Influence on Bushwick Art

Wendy Red Star "Four Seasons" (2006) (courtesy of the artist)
Wendy Red Star, “Four Seasons” (2006) (courtesy of the artist)

Wendy Red Star has spent a lot of time thinking about how to confront American Indian stereotypes in her art. In “Four Seasons” (2006), a woman of American Indian origin is surrounded by flat, cardboard animals and a mountain landscape whose crinkles and glare reveal it to be fake and the image staged.

This romantic, and generic, image of the American Indian as spiritually connected to a bucolic earth has inspired many non-Indians to make trips to reservations, visit museum exhibitions, partake in rituals, and read texts associated with the many different indigenous peoples of North America. However, this romantic image can lead outsiders to cherry pick ideas from the diversity of American-Indian spirituality so that they fit into their preconceived, romanticized New Age schemas.

In recent years, there has been a rising industry that commodifies a range of tribal rituals for outsider consumption. As the prominent American Indian scholar Vine Deloria Jr. observed in his 2006 book, The Word We Used to Live in: Remembering the Powers of the Medicine Men:

Sweat Lodges conducted for $50, peyote meetings for $1,500, medicine drums for $300, weekend workshops and vision quests for $500, two do-it-yourself practitioners smothered in their own sweat lodge — the interest in American Indian spirituality only seems to grow and manifests itself in increasingly bizarre behavior — by both Indians and non-Indians. Manifestos have been issued, lists of people no longer welcome on the reservations have been compiled, and biographies of proven fraudulent medicine men have been publicized. Yet nothing seems to stem the tide of the abuse and misuse of Indian ceremonies. Indeed, some sweat lodges in the suburbs at times seem like the opening move in a scenario of seduction of naive but beautiful women who are encouraged to play the role of ‘Mother Earth’ in bogus costumes.

My recent article on Bushwick Open Studios for Hyperallergic tried to discuss the influence of this heightened interest in American Indian spirituality on the new age symbolism that I saw in many art works. The article explored the symbolism given to animals, herbs, skulls, and demons. However, the article didn’t capture this fraught process of appropriation and commodification well enough.

The author at the library reading the Vine Deloria, Jr. books (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

I am grateful for a commenter’s suggestion to explore the writings of Vine Deloria Jr. I spent hours at Fordham’s library in the Bronx diving in and answering many of the questions that were bubbling in my mind about how certain fragments from American Indian spirituality now circulate in New Age circles and inform the iconography of mystical art in Brooklyn.

In this 1970 book We Talk, You Listen, Deloria observed how hippies appropriated and soon abandoned American Indians once their complex identities contradicted the simplistic image the hippies craved. And it’s crucial to join Deloria in acknowledging that Westerners search for clichés that don’t exist, falsely attributing their romanticized ideas of American Indians to today’s diverse community of numerous tribes. In a memorable scene, Deloria discusses his impressions of hippies in the late 1960s and early ’70s in California during the Alcatraz occupation, when a group of 89 individuals identified themselves as “IOAT” (Indians of All Tribes) and occupied Alcatraz Island from 1969 to 1971:

Hippies proudly showed us their beads and, with a knowing smile, bid us hello in the Najavo they had learned while passing through Arizona last summer. We watched and wondered as they paraded by in buckskin and feathers, anxiously playing a role they could not comprehend. When the Indians of the Bay area occupied Alcatraz, the hippies descended on the Island in droves, nervously scanning the horizon for a vision of man in his pristine natural state. When they found that the tribesmen had the same organizational problems as any other group might have, they left in disappointment, disillusioned with “Indianism” that had only existed in their imaginations.

Few of the artists in Bushwick are going to such extreme ends as the hippies from the 1970s. But as Vine Deloria Jr. observed, broadly speaking, there has been a rising interest in American Indian spirituality, which I think ripples out into the wider community and affects how artists approach mystical content in their art.

The many artists I met at Bushwick Open Studios were generally interested in spirituality, having picked up ideas from friends, mentors, texts, and a wider community of writers and artists. I understand the argument that an interest in herbalism, finding wisdom in animals, and the redefining of death as a transition can all be traced to several spiritual traditions. However, I do believe that ideas taken from the writings and rituals of the many groups of indigenous North Americans are having an impact and circulating more widely. In my article on Bushwick artists, I wanted to name and quote some of these sources and explore how variations, derivations, and echoes of these ideas manifest in contemporary art.

It was my intention to turn readers on to one of the more intriguing but less discussed projects in cultural studies, which is to detect how certain ideas originating in texts and oral histories from numerous tribes of indigenous North Americans have influenced scholars working in traditional Western academic disciplines, and subsequently their students. As Vine Deloria Jr. observed in his lesser-known 1979 book on reconciling American Indian and Western metaphysics, The Metaphysics of Modern Existence:

Modern physicists, incapable of expressing space-time perceptions in the English language, now often refer to Zuni or Hopi conceptions of space-time as the more accurate rendering of what they are finding at the subatomic level of experiments. Psychoanalysis, working with dream theories, are now more inclined to view the dream-interpretation systems of the Cherokee and the Iroquois as consistent and highly significant methods of handling certain types of mental and emotional problems. Geologists, attempting to understand the histories of rivers and volcanoes, are now turning to Indian legends in an effort to gain some perspective on the problem.

It is essential to push all readers and writers to transcend reductive stereotypes. However, I think it is also important to acknowledge that encounters with American Indian metaphysics have fueled the progression of quantum physics beyond the rigidity of Newtonian models, the evolution of dream interpretation beyond mechanistic Freudian modes, and the re-conceptualization of geological history beyond 19th-century positivism. In a similar way, I drew connections and emphasized similarities between American Indian proverbs and certain strands of “new age” spirituality in art at Bushwick Open Studios.

Cultural exchange is not an elegant process and stereotypes and romanticized attachments must be called out. In addition, there is a dispiriting tendency to lump the manifold diversity of all the different indigenous tribes of North America into certain underlying and overriding cultural characteristics. In his last book on medicine men, Deloria resolved this conundrum by including stories from several different tribes and subtly observing differences and similarities. Celebrating and comparing many different perspectives helps us to move beyond truisms.

Online art writing is at its best when it celebrates evolution, when authors seize the opportunity to be vulnerable and refine their thoughts publicly. In this way, we can all learn more together. For me, riding out this steep learning curve and developing more sensitivity to steer clear of perpetuating American American Indian stereotypes is a success story. As the Hyperallergic experiment continues and online art writing advances, I hope that all critics can be inspired to learn lessons from negative comments on their writing, to go and read a new book, to strain passionately and diligently towards new insights. Because if you truly love excellence, you are always hungry to evolve beyond what you thought last week.

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