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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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Daniel Larkin

A man once knocked Daniel Larkin off his bar stool and flung mean words. He got up, smiled, and laughed as the bouncer showed him out. He doesn't give anyone the power to rain on his parade. It's more...

13 replies on “Rethinking American Indian Influence on Bushwick Art”

  1. I love Hyperallergic, but this article should have been edited more thoroughly. That an American icon like Vine Deloria Jr. could have his name misspelled so many times makes me question the quality of the articles published here, not to mention whether or not the author actually read the works he cites.

    1. Emma, I assure that I did read the books. There was just am honest error in how the name got transcribed a few times. It’s embarrassing and I’m sorry. No disrespect was intended. I just went in and corrected all of them.

      1. There is also a weird autocorrect feature happening when I write Deloria’s name that makes it autocorrect to Deloris, so I think a technical glitch played a part

  2. I appreciate that you took the time to revisit your original article and go to the library. It’s still shaky ground, in my opinion, but it’s more qualified and you’re clearer about what you were intending to communicate. (I echo Emma on the typos, including in the tag.)

    1. LH, I enjoyed our exchange on the last article and appreciated your invitation to read Vine Deloria.

      There is a weird autocorrect glitch that keeps turning Deloria’s name into Deloris that I have had to battle even when writing this comment. I’ve gone through and corrected the article. It’s embarrassing and frustrating.

      I would be curious to hear more about what you consider to be shaky ground. I think dialogue and disagreement is healthy.

      I agree with Deloria that contemporary dream interpretation is heavily influenced by the efforts of psychoanalysts who dabbled in Cherokee and Iroquois sources. Having read Freud who beleived that certain symbols mean the same thing in everyone’s dreams. I think that we’ve evolved.

      There is a lot of exchange between different cultures in America. And I think that there is a complex process in which certain specific spiritual ideas are appropriated from certain american indian tribes and brought into the mysticism discourse, similar to how certain key Cherokee and Iroquois sources influenced dream interpretation.

  3. I have spent much time exploring the ideas of race and appropriation in my work. I am always questioning my own imagery and its connection to native spirituality. As a long time student of various indigenous elders, my use of themes like racism against indigenous, cultural appropriation and the destruction of indigenous culture come through sometimes without me even knowing it. This author needs to read more than Deloria’s writings and to find some indigenous native people to talk over these things with. If he’s in nyc, try locating some Taino families (even though they are from Puerto Rico I still consider that they never left because their ties to that island are so connected). Lenne Lenape over in NJ or Long Island Shinnecock; these nations are indigenous to the region and could offer some more insight….after all, they were the ones who first encountered european invaders and have a decidedly different perspective. They hid in plain sight to avoid extermination and are still there. Western tribes did not have that option so their point of view is different. The painting titled..”Hiding in Palin Sight”, a praise painting to Missisquoi Abenaki.

  4. This whole dialog makes me incredibly sad. I was an amazingly talented artist when I was young, then I was swept up & ruined by psychiatry. I managed to get off all the drugs in 2007 and recently remembered I am an artist. I draw now to heal myself, and I can clearly see I have more talent in my little finger than anyone within a hundred miles, but I will never be an “insider artist”. It’s all about politics, personality and branding and I am too old now to break in, which is A OK. I do my work for other reasons.

  5. The motives of whites are always to be mistrusted, and too much superficial interference can surely dilute and hamper the practices of native spirituality, but the more perceptive and questioning non-natives, stuck in a dead but still painfully dying culture, understandably want to connect with something real and earth-based. As a white person, I believe that the future lies not in the technocratic domination characteristic of the now worldwide, European born and U.S. corporate led rule, but in indigenous ways, not “going back” but newly formulated, and cognizant of the eternal truth of an interdependent community of life on earth.

    If this is “romantic” so be it, but rather than maintain the old cultural divide with a defensive paranoia that comes more from forced adaptation to the dominant culture than inherent native culture, indigenous people would be wise to know the great value of what they possess, share it and teach toward the species unification we all need if any of us are going to survive.

  6. I missed the original article, but I think it is great that you were willing to dig deeper into the topic. I studied Vine Deloria Jr’s writing in college before I went on to study the Middle East and read Orientalism by Edward Said, a must-read for anyone interested in cultural appropriation, romanticizing other cultures, etc.

    It seems to me that cultural appropriation comes and goes with fashion week. Tribal imagery has been everywhere the past couple of years. Before that, I feel like I was seeing a lot of Arabic and even one non-Arab artist who was using pseudo Arabic calligraphy in his work and that bothered me a lot.

    On the one hand, I can appreciate that the blur of media images we stew in all day long makes it difficult to interrogate the signs and symbols that emerge in one’s work. Also, it is important to acknowledge that to some degree, everything is up for grabs. However, it makes a difference how it is being used and the blindness with which certain cultural signs are being wielded. I think a simple answer is to say, if it doesn’t feel authentic to the culture and identity to which you belong (in my case white, Midwestern, middle class), you should have a very good reason to use it and not just borrow something because it’s cool.

    Just for the record, I’m not that concerned about typos on a blog. Even major news organizations print typos. 🙂

    1. Thanks Heather… yes i agree that pattern and motifs appropriated from different cultures cycle in and out… I can think vividly of a Russian fur moment, an aztec patterning moment, and yes the arabic pattern surge you mention…

      I also like the idea of moving beyond because it’s cool as a justification and trying to think more about reasons and motives… thanks for the thoughtful comment

  7. This is a good article Daniel; I might use this for my American religions course. I also suggest that you read a few other works on this issue, not only by Vine Deloria, but by other critical religion scholars who are thinking out loud about native American culture as a spiritual resource for non-natives. You should explore this issue further. It does beg the question, however, of whether indigenous spiritualities can provide present day models for alternative ways of creating just, balanced, human relationships, to the earth and each other. Can non-natives synthesize these indigenous world views without appropriating them? Is appropriation “with appreciation” that awful? These are vital questions!

  8. thank you for the article, as well as investing the time in an issue many find inconvenient. (one criticism is that, for a new york based blog with a story sited in brooklyn, the author could have sought out new-york based native artists (we do exist.)) while many article focus on the “what” of appropriation, understanding the “why” is equally important, and you do a good job of digging in.

    the collateral damage of casual appropriation is tied to the matter of power; the dominant society becomes the group that defines native culture, but the information being projected is skewed, thus mis-representing the very source. while the easiest examples focus on visual types (head-dresses, etc.) the same occurs with cultural knowledge.

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