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An Attempt to Shatter Native American Stereotypes in Brooklyn

A 19th C Sioux warrior shirt in the "Tipi" exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum (all images, unless other noted, are by author)

A traditional 19th-century Sioux warrior shirt in the Brooklyn Museum’s current Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains exhibit is made from buckskin, decorated with green and red pigment, hair, feather, fiber and a white and red beaded bear claw motif. Like all Plains war shirts, it could only be worn by males after acts of bravery in battle.

Bently Spang’s "War Shirt #3, The Great Divide" (2006)

Exhibited just a few feet away, Northern Cheyenne contemporary artist Bently Spang’s “War Shirt #3, The Great Divide” (2006) is made out of photographs, photographic film, sinew, velvet and found objects such as the compact disc pinned on the shirt’s center like a decorative medallion or amulet. Its arms are outstretched through a white plastic stand in the form of a “t” and two tiny white plastic toy horses flank either side of its base. Like the traditional Sioux shirt, Spang’s is now ensconced in a glass case but it has never been — nor will it ever be — worn.

Based in Montana and a self-described “multi-disciplinary” artist who has created photographic, video, sculptural and multimedia works, Spang is exhibiting two works in the Brooklyn Museum’s Tipi show, and at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City and the Denver Art Museum in new exhibits juxtaposing traditional and contemporary Native American art.

An archival photo of a tipi on the Great Plains. (click to enlarge)

Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains, which opened in February and closes in May, exhibits 160 objects from the Brooklyn Museum’s extensive collection of more than 700 Plains Indian objects from primarily the Crow, Kiowa, Lakota, Dakota, Shoshone, Blackfeet and Cheyenne tribes as well as several traditional works from other museums and contemporary Native artists.

The museum centers their exhibition on what is perhaps the most familiar Native American icon, the tipi (often known colloquially as a teepee or tepee), with the primary intention of correcting what the museum determined — partly through focus groups and surveys during the exhibit’s six years of planning — to be some of the most common fallacies about Native American culture in general and the tipi in particular.

Detail of a contemporary tipi liner on display in the "Tipi" exhibition (click to enlarge)

“One of the biggest misconceptions is that tipis are a thing of the past,” says Nancy Rosoff, Curator of Arts of the Americas at the Brooklyn Museum and co-curator with Susan Kennedy Zeller of Tipi. To correct this, Rosoff explains, the first object one encounters in entrance to the exhibit is a four-foot-high tipi by contemporary Native American artist Teri Greeves commissioned by the museum and encircled with traditional and unconventional beaded images: a Native-American Elvis wearing sunglasses and moccasins holding Native-American rattles; a trio of small buffalo; a Native American in traditional dress shaking hands with another in a US Army uniform.

The installation of the Blackfeet tipi, Great Falls, Montana, Lyle J. Heavy Runner, design owner and painter. Naomi Crawford, tipi maker. (click for a complete set of images from Brooklyn Museum's Flickrstream)

The exhibit’s most dramatic feature is a 27-foot tipi created by contemporary Native-American artist Lyle J. Heavy Runner especially for the exhibit and which visitors can enter after being implored by a plaque outside it to obey five traditional “tipi protocols” including no arguing, rude language or angry words allowed inside the tipi.

Several feet across from the tipi is a single row of multimedia photo essays more clearly prompting the visitor to transcend the modern/traditional dichotomy. Three large screens mounted on the stark white wall project simultaneously flashing images of three very different portrayals of Native American life. Two are by Native American artists, Bently Spang’s “Tsistsistas Summer 2010tsistsistas means “Cheyenne” in the Cheyenne language — documenting his return to the Northern Cheyenne reservation in southeastern Montana where he grew up and Ken Blackbird’s “Inside/Outside: Life on the Great Plains 1993-2009,” a collection of photographs showing the everyday and ceremonial life of Native Americans in Montana and South Dakota.

A view of the video screens with the photo essay by various Native American artists (click to enlarge)

In jarring contrast, the last photo essay is a group of sepia-toned early 20th century archival photographs of Native Americans from the museum’s collection. Several of these, like the image of a Native American in a three-piece suit surrounded by a Native baseball team wearing shirts emblazoned with the team’s name, “Indians,” were originally intended as crude evidence of the successful assimilation of Native Americans into American culture.

An archival image of Native American life from the Brooklyn Museum's collection

“Photographs of Indians in the past were about genetically documenting us,” says Spang, who in his own photo essay, which includes several images of his road trip to the reservation and few of ceremonial life, consciously tries to subvert what he imagines non-Native viewers might expect to see.

A photo of one of Ken Blackbird’s "Inside/Outside: Life on the Great Plains 1993-2009" video photo essay (click to enlarge)

“The exoticism that has been added to our experience — some of it exists — but we do have everyday lives — we have picnics,” he says. “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.”

Spang, who was also one of several Native consultants to the Brooklyn Museum exhibit and a contributor to the exhibition catalogue, argues that while the tipi may be a familiar and even overly comfortable icon of Native American life, it is also imbued with numerous misconceptions that merit correction or complication. The very word, “tipi” (the Sioux word for “dwelling place”) is a misnomer, says Spang, who explains in his catalogue essay that the name he grew up with is ve-eh, the Cheyenne word.

“There is a notion, that you can assign a single name to a word that is different for each tribe and to something that is different for each tribe,” he says.

A photo of one of Ken Blackbird’s "Inside/Outside: Life on the Great Plains 1993-2009" video photo essay (click to enlarge)

Similarly reductive is the incorrect idea that all Native Americans lived in tipis when the reality is that the tipi was only the dwelling place of Plains tribes from the vast Plains region that ranges from southern Texas to Alberta in the north and through twelve states and three Canadian provinces. And, according to Spang, two more erroneous notions abound: that the tipi is a “primitive” form and that all tipis have sacred or ceremonial use.

“The tipi is in fact one of the most brilliant and strongest architectural forms,” he says, noting how its unique ease of assembly and disassembly as well as its sturdiness was well suited to the nomadic Plains life and its sometimes extreme weather. While tipis were sometimes used for council meetings, their primary function, he explains, was as a family shelter.

Equally important to correct, says Rosoff, is the limiting of major exhibitions of Native American art to the National Museum of the American Indian or to museums such as the Peabody Essex Museum or Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology which both have considerable Native collections. “Native American art should be presented as art, not as anthropology or history,” she says. “Even if it’s functional, it’s still art.”

For contemporary artists like Spang, Greeves and Pratt, issues of inclusion and exhibition are far different but ultimately no less important. “Native artists need to be in every institution, not a singular institution. Let’s not relegate everything Native to the National Museum of the American Indian,” says Spang. “This is American art — so why not be in the Whitney? You don’t see Native artists in the Whitney or MOMA very often. That’s one of our challenges and that’s what we’re trying to confront and change.”

Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains continues until May 15, 2011 at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn).

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