American Indians and the art establishment

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Dec 24 10:04:21 MST 2000

NY Times, December 23, 2000

Museums and Tribes: A Tricky Truce


ON a cold afternoon a little more than a year ago, members of several
Tlingit Indian clans in southeastern Alaska gathered for a transcendently
emotional ceremony that few of them had ever dared to imagine. An
intricately carved wooden beaver that plays a central role in their history
and culture was coming home after an absence of nearly a century.

This carving once graced the prow of a war canoe that ferried supplies to
these clans in the wake of a bombardment of their communities by the United
States Navy in 1881. One clan member, acting on his own, later sold it to a
traveling collector, and it disappeared.

In 1998, a clan elder was visiting a storeroom at the American Museum of
Natural History in New York when, he later recalled, he heard an "inner
voice" calling him to one shelf. When he found the shelf, he was astonished
to see the wooden beaver staring out at him.

Under the provisions of a sweeping law enacted 10 years ago, Tlingit clans
asked the museum to return the carving, and museum officials complied.

"The day it came back was something you couldn't even imagine," said
Leonard John, a clan member who helped arrange the return. "The whole
village was at the dock. People were crying and weeping.

"This is not just art to us," Mr. John continued. "It's something far
deeper, something with a healing and spiritual aspect. When our artifacts
left us and were scattered across America, they left a void. We lost our
honor and our value system. We were overwhelmed by social problems like
suicide and alcoholism. Now that they're coming back, people look at them
and feel their honor and their self-respect coming back as well. There are
still a lot of festering wounds, but the process of healing has begun."

The law under which the beaver prow was repatriated, the Native American
Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, was signed by President George Bush
in November 1990 after years of discussion among scientists, museum
curators and Indian groups. It seeks to reconcile two profoundly different
value systems, one based on the primacy of reason and science and the other
revolving around spiritual and religious values.

In the decade since the law was passed, it has had a profound effect on
museums and the philosophy on which they are based. At the same time, it
has had incalculable emotional and social impact on Indian tribes across
the country that have recovered long-lost artifacts, many of which have
enormous spiritual significance, as well as the remains of thousands of
their ancestors.

When the law was first enacted, some Indian leaders feared that they were
about to begin a period of bitter clashes with defiant museum curators.
Some curators feared that their collections would be gutted as they were
forced to return huge numbers of artifacts. Ten years later, however, both
sides agree that their fears were exaggerated, and many say the law has
actually increased understanding between tribes and museum administrators.

"I've visited quite a few museums and generally found them to be very
friendly and welcoming," said Dorothy Davids, who directs repatriation
efforts for the Stockbridge-Munsee band of the Mohican Nation, now based in
Wisconsin. "It was rough going for a while because museums really kind of
hate to give up what they have, but now there's a law. Most of them respect

There are still some areas of conflict, especially over efforts by some
tribes to recover remains that are many thousands of years old and that
scientists say should be studied for vital clues about the history of human
migration to the American continent. But many curators have come to agree
that Indians have a right to recover their sacred artifacts and the bones
of those they can legitimately claim as ancestors.

Full article at:


NY Times, December 24, 2000

American Indian Art: The Buckskin Ceiling and Its Discontents


THE buckskin ceiling is what some American Indian artists call the
invisible barrier that keeps them from rising to the top of their field.
Not everyone agrees on its definition, or its origins. Some people even
deny that such a barrier exists. But those Indian artists who claim to have
bumped their heads against it blame the buckskin ceiling for keeping them
out of major museum and gallery shows, and out of positions of power in the
art establishment. For them, the buckskin ceiling is an art- world bias
that makes space for traditional beadwork, buckskins and trading-post
blankets, and ignores almost everything else.

"The buckskin ceiling is that beyond which native people cannot rise in the
art world," Suzan Shown Harjo said. Ms. Harjo, a Cheyenne and Muscogee
Indian, is president of the Morning Star Institute, an American Indian
legislative group based in Washington. She spoke at the Smithsonian
National Museum of the American Indian in New York during a recent Atlatl
Native Arts Network conference. Atlatl, which takes its name from the Aztec
word for a wooden device used to catapult spears in battle, is a national
service organization for Indian artists. The Atlatl conference ran parallel
to "Who Stole the Tee Pee?," an exhibition at the museum through Jan. 21.

"A lot of museum directors and gallery owners are still stuck in trite
images of the past, of Indian fatigue or ennui," Ms. Harjo said. "There is
very little room for contemporary images, little room for anything except
those stereotypes that are laid on us by people who are not part of our

Many American Indians say that a recent history of genocide, resettlement
and forced assimilation has left them with a fragmented sense of themselves
as a people. Severed from their culture, Indian artists and curators are
often divided over what real Indian art was and is. Today, some of the most
persistent images in Indian art are not Indian at all.

"The imagery created in white American art, literature and early film has
probably had its most profound impact on our Indian sense of self," said
Richard Hill, an artist, educator and activist and a member of the
Tuscarora tribe who is one of the curators of "Who Stole the Tee Pee?"

"Some of our own people began to adopt these clichés and stereotypes," Mr.
Hill said. "They get an old picture from 1830 or 1850 and think it's real
Indian stuff. This image of the poor Indian on the back of the horse, they
both look like they're about to take their last step. Today that image is
probably the most popular image in Indian country. You can find it in all
the reservations, in beadwork, paintings, quillwork. We took that white
man's image, and somehow we adopted it. Partly because we know the consumer
will buy it. But partly because a lot of Indians thought the image was
true. `Look what happened to us,' they thought. `We are at the end of our
trail.' "

Full article at:

Louis Proyect
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