National Museum of the American Indian

New York, NY



who stole the tee pee?, continued


Left to right: "Generic Guide," Ryan Rice, 2000, Kahnawake Mohawk, Photo: Roger Whiteside; Untitled, 1992, Susie Silook, Yup' ik, Photo:Roger Whiteside; "War Shirt #1," 1998, Bently Spang, Northern Cheyenne, Photo: Roger Whiteside; "Remote Woman,"1996, Roxanne Swentzell, Santa Clara Pueblo, Photo: Roger Whiteside)


Boarding schools, such as the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pa. -- pictured in a museum photo from the late 1800s -- removed the Native children from their homes, which distanced them from traditional role models. They were punished for speaking tribal languages and expressing Native thoughts. Some were abused and molested. Thus, many turned to alcohol to numb their senses. When these young people returned home, they could no longer communicate with their parents. However, boarding schools nurtured the arts in order to help Natives earn a living. And after growing up away from home, many young people came to prefer the new lifestyle.

After 1920, with tourism on the rise in Indian Country, entrepreneurs and the federal government saw an opportunity to transform America's romantic notions of the West into a cash crop for Natives. The arts became a new tool of salvation. But in order to sell to the visiting Easterners, artists needed to conform artworks to their tastes. Artists began implementing traditional imagery into non-Native works, such as dishes, cigar containers, and pincushions. Later, artists began creating variations on traditional themes, which can be seen molded in the ceramics of Virgil Ortiz (Cochiti Pueblo) and Roxanne Swentzell (Santa Clara Pueblo).

The section in the exhibition titled "Tolerating Tourists: Commodification of Culture" illuminates how Native art began to cater to economic demand, often leading Native Peoples to express themselves in degrading ways, as shown in the museum's photo of Navajo dancers entertaining a tourist train in 1963. Cultural authenticity was often sacrificed to please stereotypical notions held by the tourists.

The final section of the exhibition, "Beyond Smoke in Mirrors: Native American Self-Images," provides a context in which contemporary Native artists may offer a view of themselves. The works are not simply self-portraits because they offer a kind of self-analysis that is a look beyond the "smoke" of racial stereotypes and into a mirror that reflects truths about the artists' lives. Each artist who happens to be Native American experiences the world differently, and the works in this section reflect those diverse realities.

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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 4/6/11

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