The Racial Issues Faced by Native American Artists of Today

Students in my ART 4763: Native American Art and Material Culture course regularly make use of interviews in the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program’s Oklahoma Native Artists Project. Last fall, I asked students to bring together interviews from the Project with interviews or artists’ statements published elsewhere, in thematic discussions that explore the range and diversity of Native artists’ experiences. Last week, Project director Julie Pearson-Little Thunder and I presented papers about the use of oral history in art advocacy and pedagogy at the Oklahoma Arts Conference. As these students’ essays make clear, oral history is a vital tool in understanding contemporary art and experience. In this post, Zakery Frick returns with a discussion of racism in the contemporary art world, examining how it has impacted Native artists and how it continues to affect us today.

Ever since Europeans landed on the shores of the continent, Native American people have faced persecution, devastating wars, and cultural deterioration. Many tribes were completely wiped out, either violently or domestically, such as being absorbed into European culture. Today, many Native tribes do still exist, and despite what has been done in the past, they are proud and independent people. However, racism is still strong across the world against people of all cultures and ethnicities, and Native American tribes are no exception.

Several of the artists I will be using in my discussion have had some form of racial issue in their life, and not just from people who aren’t from a tribal background. How has art been affected by these racial issues? Opinions are mixed, with some artists thinking that traditional styles of work may be dying out because they aren’t respected outside the tribes, while others see it as an opportunity to make work that is really impactful and important. And some have even been victim to reverse-profiling, meaning that their work isn’t seen as traditional enough to be considered Native American art. In this essay, I will discuss these issues person by person, and will come to my own conclusion based on their evidence.

First, I would like to address the issue of schools and institutions not even considering Native American art and crafting to be real forms of artistic representation. They aren’t respected by the artistic world most of the time. Shan Goshorn had firsthand experience with this. When she went to college, she went to the Cleveland Art Institute to learn skills in silversmithing. However, when she started to make jewelry in the Native American style she was told to stop. “[I]t was very difficult because you absolutely had to do things their way,” she said, “In the silversmithing department, it was even more amplified. They just had no appreciation of Native American art. None.” Goshorn was the only Native American to be attending those classes, and it wasn’t just the silversmithing department. Her other interest, photography, also didn’t have an open attitude to Native American art. Despite these issues though, Goshorn graduated with a bachelor’s degree and is now a renowned political Native American artist, doing pieces of all kinds ranging from weaving to photography.

Norma Howard, untitled, watercolor on paper, 2016.

Norma Howard, untitled, watercolor on paper, 2016.

Another example of persecution against Native Art in schools is a recollection from Norma Howard, a well-known landscape painter, from when she was in grade school. She was in third grade and was drawing Indian figures on the chalkboard. “[The teacher] got mad at me. She told me, ‘Norma, what are you doing?’ You know, being a little Indian girl in the sixties, we were taught not to look at people in the eye.” Norma recounted what the teacher told her when she didn’t answer: “‘You aren’t supposed to be drawing what you’re drawing! You’re supposed to be drawing Presidents, and stuff like that.’” This confused her greatly because at home she was allowed to draw whatever she felt like. “And that really had an impact on me, when your teachers tell you not to do something. . . it has an impact on your life.” That interaction caused her to stop drawing for about 3 years, at least as consistently as she used to. However, she eventually went back to doing what she loved. Still, the fact that an educator actively discouraged her from drawing Native subjects, and the reaction to it afterwards, exemplifies the impact and issues of race in the educational setting.

Patricia Deadman, "A Day in the Park," 1996. Black and white negative printed on color paper.

Patricia Deadman, “A Day in the Park,” 1996. Black and white negative printed on color paper.

Some artists notice this kind of racial segregation when they move, as was the experience of Patricia Deadman, from Ontario. She was adopted at a young age by a non-Native couple, and lived in Woodstock. She then moved to London, Ontario, and was met with a very different atmosphere than when she lived in Woodstock. “There are not a lot of Native people in the city, but more than in Woodstock [Ontario], so you notice different tensions. You’re sitting on the bus and nobody sits beside you, that sort of thing. It’s like, ‘wait a minute . . .’ Why is this happening?” Because she was raised outside of tribal culture, Deadman didn’t really understand the reason for the tension around her. She recounts how in Woodstock, “you just go about your business. I was not really consciously aware or raised believing I was different.” In fact, she almost felt forced to be involved with Native matters because of the many Native issues that were being brought up during the 1980s. An artist who originally never identified as a Native American, just as a human, felt like she had to start getting involved because of the social and political issues around her. To me, that seems like a bad thing, because she felt she had to change her art style and basically her life outlook because of social pressure, even though she was having no issues personally.

Anita Fields, "Considering the Earth and Above," 2008. Installation at the Eitejorg Museum .

Anita Fields, “Considering the Earth and Above,” 2008. Installation at the Eitejorg Museum.

Some artists, such as Anita Fields, see the divide of cultures in the US and the racial history of the Native people as an opportunity for Native artists. “I think that for a Native American artist the role that we play is similar to any other culture. We have the opportunity to document events that are going on in the times that we know.” It could be an opportunity for artists to branch out; to be seen not strictly as a Native American artist, but as a unique artist in themselves. Fields feels that art is a conduit for cultures to come together, and share ideas. “Art is a powerful communicator. It carries the message of who we are. Again, the role of the artist has always been to document the times, document what is going on in the here and now.” She thinks right now Native American artists are growing in popularity, and as a result have a strong opportunity to show the messages of their people through their art to a world that is more open to learning and understanding new culture than it ever has been in the past. I think with the way social media works today, and how quickly things can be sent to people, Native artists have a major chance to educate others on what Native American art and culture really is, and abolish the stereotypical ideals that other cultures have of them.

Bill Rabbit, "Our Land," undated. Acrylic on canvas.

Bill Rabbit, “Our Land,” undated. Acrylic on canvas.

However, stereotyping isn’t just the fault of other cultures. Sometimes Native American tribes aren’t sure what they can define as Native American art, as was Bill Rabbit’s experience. Bill is an experienced and now very successful painter, but when he started out he was not part of tribal life or schooling. He lived in Wyoming and learned to paint there. However, the way he had learned to paint wasn’t the way that the Five Tribes Museum expected, so he was rejected. “The Five Tribes [Museum show] wouldn’t let me enter because I didn’t paint the traditional, flat-lined type of work. So, right in the beginning I had great advice from Randy Woods… Randy said, ‘Paint what you like and share with people, and if they like it, they’ll buy it and if they don’t, they won’t.’ So that was kind of how it started.” This was an issue because Bill was part of a generation who was starting to change the norm of what was considered Native American art at the time, even to Native Americans. Now he is a respected artist in his own right, and helped to make the idea of what constitutes Native American art a little more open.

Many Native American artists have varying feelings about the situation of racial influence on their culture. Some view it as opportunity to educate, and others view it as issues they simply had to overcome growing up or when trying to succeed. I do feel that racial restrictions such as those evident in the school system are horrible, and things definitely still need to change. Honestly I feel that a true artist doesn’t identify with a race or culture, but considering the history of the Native American people, I can understand the strong desire to represent your culture through your work, whatever that may be. With the widespread recent change of “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous People’s Day”, though, I think that is a sign that we are progressing in the right direction in regards to cultural acceptance.

Student essays posted on the blog are edited only for length and clarity. Did you enjoy this post? Check out earlier posts in this series by Jenn Johnson, Bridget DixonZak Frick, and Roxanne Beason!

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About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
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