The Impact of the Appropriation and Commodification of “Art” on the Cultural Identification of American Indians in the States of Texas and New York


This study examines American Indian artists’ self-identities and the factors that affect the way they identify. Two American Indian artists living or working in Texas and New York are compared in terms of how they define themselves as specifically American Indian artist. In-depth interviews were used to collect data for the project. Elements of self-identity that emerged from the interviews include the following: (1) art as a form of expression and resistance to domination of American Indians, (2) American Indian artists can correct stereotypes of native people through their art, (3) Indian artists may borrow cultural symbols from different tribes as a way of promoting Pan American Indianism, and (4) art of American Indians can reflect changes in traditions among the tribal people.

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    “Just Because You Have Feathers in Your Hair Don’t Make You an Indian,” says Laura Fragua in the title of a sculpture created in 1990 for the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum. This title leads one to pose the question, What does make someone an “Indian?” With the continued marginalization of Americans Indians occurring every day and the constant struggle for autonomy on the part of the oppressed American Indians, one must look beyond face value in order to truly see the culture beneath the “feathers.” This study looks at how American Indians self-identify and what affects the way they identify. How do American Indian adults living or working in Texas or New York define themselves? How do they choose to be seen by others? Why? Do they embrace their cultural heritage? Why or why not?

    In pursuing an answer to how American Indians form their cultural identity, one must realize that there are many factors involved in forming a cultural identity. With this in mind, this study focuses on art and aesthetics in American Indian cultures/societies, as well as any art created by American Indians; whether it was created to represent their culture or not. This study looks at a culture through the art created by members of society; interviewing these artists allows one to distinguish between art created as a reflection of one’s personal self and one’s representation of their culture as a whole. Can the distinction even be made, or is the answer deeper and more complex?

    The term “art” has many meanings to many different people. How do different American Indians define the term “art”? Can you be an artist and an American Indian, but not an American Indian artist? Is there a line of social restrictions (specific behaviors or dictates attached to certain races to be practiced in certain places or areas) being drawn between American Indian cultures and that of the mainstream? If so, where is this line drawn and for what purposes?

    Often, American Indians who create and sell their artwork, whether it is pottery, paintings, sculptures (including objects such as dream catchers), baskets, poetry, elaborate clothing, or dance performances, are known to occasionally borrow from different tribes or adopt the stereotypes created for them by “non-Indians.” Is the borrowing of symbols and art forms from different tribes culturally acceptable? If so, why? Is the adoption of stereotypes taking place in order to capitalize on the misconceptions already in existence?

    What causes American Indians to identify themselves the way they do? Approximately five adult American Indians will be interviewed throughout the course of this research. Each informant interviewed will have different views and different stories to tell. The similarities and differences are equally important and will be greatly valued.

    This article is a reflection of the study at hand and a review of previous authors’ research on the same or similar topics. The statements made are backed by the opinion of informants and other well-researched studies; they are the principal investigator’s personal voice and deductions drawn from research and interviews conducted.

    What Is Being Researched and How?

    The general research question with which I began this research is this: If American Indian “art” is being appropriated by the dominant society and used for hegemonic purposes, do American Indians re-appropriate what has been turned into a stereotype and use those images and art forms for personal gain? The topic of research includes whether or not American Indians themselves capitalize on how non-Indians perceive their art forms, and how this affects the way American Indians form their self-identity/cultural identities. The original research plan was to interview five American Indians ages 18 and older living or working in Texas and New York. Only two interviews could be completed during the summer. Each of these interviews lasted approximately one hour. General questions are asked during these interviews that help to better understand their perspectives. Furthermore, the attempt is to uncover what reasons different American Indians identify the way they do. Many factors affect the formation of personal identity and the interview questions were constructed to allow the informants to discuss these factors.

    Two life history interviews were also conducted with the volunteers. These interviews took approximately one hour each. The life histories will help to better understand informants on a deeper level. Knowing more about key points in their lives and how they have grown up will hopefully reveal the events behind what has caused them to identify the way they do.

    The researcher was also able to observe the artists creating their pieces and to gather information on what each step in the creative process meant to the informant. The observations took approximately one hour each.

    Literature Review: Why Native Americans Identify the Way They Do

    A culture can be shaped by events unique to a people’s experiences over time. This “history built around a people’s longevity” (Shanley 1997:676) encompasses languages, customs, and other factors that define a culture. It is the base on which people form their self-identities. It is also, however, shaped by cultural appropriations or political and ideological dominations by the mainstream culture or society. According to Castile, the federal government was expropriating Native American images for its own symbolic and hegemonic purposes, thus “Indian images were useful in the process of the self-invention of a new “American” national identity” (Castile 1996:743). As a result of America’s capitalist economy, a market has been created for ethnic identities over the years and thus giving way to the commodification of those identities (Castile 1996). As those identities are commodified, the government has regulated the use of authentic cultural images and symbols or even who might genuinely call themselves members of a specific culture. As anthropologists, we have our own conceptualizations. Viewed from the perspective of an anthropologist who is an American citizen, these actions on the part of the government advocate the dominance maintained by the mainstream society. They have created a market as a way to further keep the diasporic American Indians, who struggle to maintain sovereignty and autonomy, marginalized and stratified.

    A great deal of literature demonstrates the uncountable number of injustices imposed upon Native Americans by the government and mainstream society over the years. Even now when Native Americans are encouraged to speak out and represent their culture, the ones encouraging them are still dominant, demonstrating a clear show of power just by inviting Native Americans to speak (Shanley 1997). Our own conceptualizations of other cultures and societies have to do directly with how we have been socialized ourselves and where we stand as “others” in the eyes of those we choose to study and represent through our research as anthropologists. These conceptualizations will dictate what types of information will be received from informants and how accurate the portrayal will be. This is a reminder that everything is relative. In the words of Dominguez, it is “…about the potential meaningfulness of assuming, creating, denying, perpetuating, recognizing, or adopting difference” (Dominguez 1989:11).

    The American Indians’ struggle to keep their cultures alive persists, but as much as it persists, stereotypes remain and are perpetuated. This causes a disparity between the mainstream society and the American Indian “others.” We as Americans try too hard to “fix” what we have done wrong to the American Indians, and we do not try hard enough to release our grasp of control or domination over them. Often times this is probably because so many Americans are oblivious to the effects they have on the “others” that so fascinate them. According to Kathryn Shanley, the American Indian is almost seen as America’s pet, which Americans think they know so well and sometimes love. “Indian” images have been used by the government for political purposes in order to re-create the “American National Identity.” These images, such as that of Sacagawea for example, have been expropriated and misconstrued to represent the colonizer’s desires (Castile 1996:743). It is becoming more and more evident that this misconstrued view of American Indians has occurred and is still in occurrence. These views remain throughout society because we as Americans keep them alive. For example:

    Indians continued to be icons of American exceptionalism for novelists and artists, who exploited white stereotypes of Indians in a nationalistic effort to define American culture. Romantic authors like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (The Song of Hiawatha, 1855) and James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans, 1826) successfully captured the imaginations of Euro-Americans and made the “noble savage” a permanent feature of a distinctly American identity. [Hoxie 1996:190]

    We still see The Last of the Mohicans on bookstore shelves and even created as a feature-length film. Often people view pieces like these (Cooper and Wadsworth’s fictional creations) as authentic or classic pieces.

    The use of these preconstructed images, which have been formed to strengthen this so-called “American Identity,” by non-Indians in turn leads to the further marginalization and oppression of the American Indian people because negative and sometimes derogatory “re-processed” images are usually created as well alongside the “noble savage,” such as “the drunken Indian,” the “Indian-giver,” and so on. These negative images are created to justify the colonizers’ expropriation of “Indian” images and life ways: “Raw conquest of these people, with subsequent expulsion from their lands, might otherwise seem unjustified; it eases the collective conscience if they had it coming” (Castile 1996:743–744). What was not expropriated from the American Indians was often considered “brummagem” (Castile 1996) or less valuable, like the reservation lands also left to them by the colonizers. This might serve as a reason for American Indians to accept the images of their culture that have been reshaped by their oppressors, because those images that have been taken from them have been the more valuable ones all along. This is a way for American Indians to take back, or re-appropriate what has been taken from them.

    During the late 1970s and early 1980s, a man named Gregory J. Markopolous began claiming American Indian identity and transformed himself from a “white man” into an authentic-looking Native American, when he was only one-quarter American Indian. He changed his name to Jamake Highwater and wrote numerous books, such as The Primal Mind: Vision and Reality in Indian America, when in actuality he had not grown up on a reservation or even in an American Indian community. He capitalized on a cultural identity that was not even accurately portrayed in his writings. People feel more self-assured, clever, and more American by appearing to know about American Indian culture.

    By the beginning of the twentieth century, some flamboyant individuals had chosen to exploit the Indian’s romantic appeal for commercial gains by posing as Native Americans…Commercial exploiters of Indian identities, however, wished to be accepted as Indians in Euro-American society as part of a self-serving public-relations strategy. [Hoxie 1996:190]

    It is easy for people like Markopolous who “play Indian” to do so because of their assured romanticized notion of what that means and because of how the colonizers have appropriated and commodified “Indian” images. Those who “play Indian” contribute to the blurring of the lines between reality and fiction. Even some American Indians are considered not to be “Indian enough.”—“In appropriating their constitution of their Other, I was “othering” their Other—liberating the other from its author(s)” (Dominguez 1989:15). This is precisely what Markopolous was doing. Though, when Hoxie speaks about this exploitation of Indian identities, it leaves one wondering whether or not American Indians do this themselves out of necessity or desire, because non-Indians have already set the trend. Do American Indians willingly “other” themselves?

    Sometimes American Indians accept the image imposed upon them because it is being shown in a positive light for a change, for example, the “noble savage.” For this reason, the tribe from which Gregory Markopolous was descended accepted him openly into their community after he had written The Primal Mind. Dominguez reminds us that Otherness is different from Selfhood (Dominguez 1989). This leads us to question whether American Indians practice collective self-determination in their struggle to maintain sovereignty and autonomy. In search of answers, let us look at “art”: “‘Art’ has offered a medium through which they have been able to make themselves visible on their own terms, allowing them, more or less, to intervene in the representations circulating ‘about’ them” (Myers 2004:7). Some American Indian artists today are reclaiming the right to represent their people as opposed to letting others represent them. You might say it is their way of regaining power. Some American Indians today use “art” to re-appropriate derogatory images and stereotypes so as to attain sovereignty and self-empowerment, to once again have control of how their “Native authenticity and identity” is portrayed. These artists, as well as those who hone a craft and capitalize on it in more subdued ways, “skillfully appropriate the touristic gaze” (Mithlo 2005:22). Is this being practiced among the majority of American Indians? Is there a consensus of coalition between different Native American cultures in this respect?

    An American Indian artist named Shelly Niro submitted a photography and film exhibit entitled Pellerossasogna (Red Skin Dream) to the 50th La Biennale Di Venezia in 2003. The exhibit consisted of a series of photos of an American Indian woman wearing an American flag bandana on her head, aviator sunglasses, and a t-shirt that read differently from photo to photo. The t-shirt read:

    The Shirt
    My Ancestors
    were annihilated
    murdered and 

    They were
    lied to
    tricked and

    Attempts were
    made to
    enslave and
    displace them

    I get
    is this
    [Mithlo 2005:32]

    Notice the words in the second verse. They are ironic because most of the stereotypes and proverbs created by the colonizers to marginalize, disparage, and degrade American Indians have been created portraying American Indians as the dishonest tricksters, for example, “Indian-giver.”

    As a result of stereotyping and marginalization, American Indians often are too eager to address obvious misrepresentations and they engage in oppositional behavior to correct and inform non-American Indians. This approach might not leave much room for self-representation and self-expression. Art, however, does. It also allows for not only the power of self-representation, but also for making political statements as well (another form of resistance).

    Speaking of resistance, “The use of marking and naming as an act of sovereignty is articulated by many American Indian artists as a means of empowered expression” (Mithlo 2005:28). I witnessed an example of marking in the Four Corners Region of the Southwest when a Navajo marked the pottery he sold with the word “Diné” on the bottom. I assumed this was done to reclaim his heritage/name and to express power through his own self-expression. I recall asking about the marking, and the artist replied, “We call ourselves Diné. It’s so that you know it’s real.”

    Art created to be viewed by an audience invites the viewers to think and interpret the art through different perspectives; however, stereotypical images such as mascots do not. Those images just perpetuate the stereotype, while the “true art” offers the artist the luxury of representing his or her own culture the way he or she chooses and presenting the message of his or her choice. Just because an American Indian produces art does not mean it is an accurate and genuine portrayal of a specific American Indian culture. Art forms differ, as do the contexts in which and for which they are created. For now, the larger question that comes to mind is: Do American Indians practice intertribal borrowing because they feel an alliance between all tribes throughout the Diasporas, which have been dominated by the colonizers/oppressors? Have they chosen, as a result, to form a larger pan-Indian identity?

    Research Design

    For the sake of being organized and concise, this research study was broken into steps. The first step was getting in touch with contacts who were able to put the principal investigator in contact with possible informants to interview. Once informants were obtained, qualitative interviews were conducted and recorded with the informants, using general interview questions, a life history interview, and observation of the creative process. Quantitative information was also studied through sources open to the general public such as a census taken in specific locations. As more informants were being recruited, and interviews conducted, the search of the literature continued on the topic and on similar corresponding topics in order to further enrich the knowledge of previous research. The next step in the research design was to organize and code/index the data collected. This step was tied in with the next step of analyzing the data, because in both steps connections were drawn between each informant as well as noting the differences. A comparison between findings and the literature already studied were also made. The final step was forming conclusions and elaborating on them in a final research analysis.

    Personal Reflections on Research

    There are many things that I had to be aware of while conducting this research. The first was making sure that the data were valid and not one person’s idea of truth. Cultural relativity was always kept in mind, as well as my own personal conceptualizations and biases. I did not know the culture or society being researched;they were teaching me. I did not assume that I was knowledgeable about their culture. I was there to learn who they were personally, whether it involved their cultural heritage or not. It was important to keep in mind that I am a part of mainstream society, the same group that had subjugated, stratified, dominated, and appropriated American Indians for years. It would have been contradictory to my previous statement if I had used coercion in any way with my informants; therefore, I took care not to do so.

    One of the key factors that made the distinction between self-identity and collective cultural identity even more uncertain, I have come to realize, was technology and the role it played in people’s everyday lives. One of my informants was a graphic design art director, while another created activist art for his personal gallery. Both of these artists were in their twenties and were the products of their generation, just as the methods they used to create their art were also products of the advancing technological age. One of these artists used high-tech graphic design programs to enhance or even create his art, some of which was created to represent an entire Creek or Seminole culture. I wondered if these artists were as excited as I was about the new methods used to create art, because it might broaden their options when looking for ways to practice self-expression or emphasize sovereignty. The new methods might even help to disseminate information on those being oppressed through emotionally moving visual pieces. Or are some of the members making up these American Indian societies/cultures feeling as if these new methods were just ways to suppress the value of their original heritage, traditions, and life ways?

    Advancements in technology might also (intentionally or not) lead to the dissemination of the capitalistic view (the view that has created and perpetuates the misconstrued images and stereotypes of American Indians). This may occur through the extended Internet use, globalization and marketing, and even tourism. When advancements ensue, everyone is affected and will evolve accordingly. What will result?

    Analysis and Conclusion

    This research is still a work in progress and will be continued in the future. The two interviews that have been conducted were very detailed and the informants have been very informative. The informants were given the pseudonyms Mark and Josh for this research report. Mark and Josh are both full-blood American Indians and both are practicing artists. This analysis is divided into sections based on the questions that my informants were answering and the topic to which they referred. The passages seen in this analysis are transcriptions from recordings made at the time of the interviews. This research was approved by the Institutional Review Board of the University of North Texas. Informed consent was received from both interviewees.

    Self-Identity and Misconceptions

    My results have shown that some American Indian artists view self-identity to be different from cultural identity. Self-identity can include cultural identity depending on what one wishes to embrace or express. For example, when Mark was asked how he self-identified, he responded:

    Informant: You have to know about your culture…you actually have to have pride in yourself – because – um – confidence exudes from you – but to be tribal – isn’t like when people think of – that we’re – self proclaimed medicine man…the part is – is how you present yourself and what kind of direction you want to go into – so mine is art –

    Mark personally identifies as an artist, but he also has pride for his culture and he lets that show through his art.

    Another of my informants, Josh, expressed similar feelings. He views art as a self-expression. Therefore, if one strongly identifies as an American Indian, it will be reflected in one’s artwork: “…When I think of art I always – always – think of it as a self-expression – basically it’s a self-expression – in like – or – or an extension of yourself – so if basket weaving is what you do – then that’s what you do.”

    The “self” comes out always in one’s art, and that is important because once one acknowledges that, they can choose what type of message they wish to send. The art is then more than just a painting or song; the art becomes a self-expression, a representation, or a form of resistance. This is emphasized in the following conversation:

    Informant: …[Y]ou are that person every day – you don’t say well – I’m an anthropologist – but I go home and that’s it – you know – if I do my art – um – that – if I’m doing a Choctaw piece … I’m Choctaw doing the painting – I’m Choctaw after – I’m Choctaw when I talk to other Choctaws – so your life does have to stand and get – jarred and tried also – but if you do the work – if you do the research – do everything right – then it becomes a positive element – so – in so many words – the art has to transcend who you are … so – it’s what can you leave with your talent – so my talent’s my art – so the best way to do that is to do something that people haven’t seen before –

    When Mark says that “the art has to transcend who you are,” he is referring to the “self,” and we can see that he understands art to be more than just paintings or the like, because he says “it’s what can you leave with your talent.” This implies that one may speak through their work and leave messages for their audiences.

    During interviews, when informants were asked what they thought of Hollywood’s portrayal of American Indians over the years, I received statements such as this one:

    Informant: back then – I call it – Hollywood Indians – and that’s because – you never have the – well it’s Indians watching Indians – all you’re doing looking at the past is looking at – um – white people dressed up in brown makeup…so they’re living a stereotype which is a bad stereotype of how the tribe is…that’s the only perception they have – and…that’s why you see a lot of um – bad representations back then – you see a lot of bad stereotypes coming from that – but in the same aspect – it’s not all bad because in that pain right there that you see – you see a lot of – um – producers and actors making a lot of – Native documentaries – right now – doing it the right way – you’ve got people like me that’s – that’s seen it all the badness – and turn around and do art the right way – the way it’s supposed to be done – um – so you start to – you even start to see all about the stereotypes with the mascots…after a while you see…that it wasn’t made by Natives – it was made – in – in conception – to be respectful – but they did it the wrong way – and they never asked us because we would have never agreed to it – and so – in the aspects of media – broadcast –film – art – in all those aspects – in all those outlets you see – a bad representation because there weren’t enough Natives to contribute or even be in that position to make that change – so – what – what you do see is a lot of people who are non-Indians making a – a misconception of people without even doing any kind of research –…– but – when you start – um – to see it in various avenues of art – you start to see a lot of people who do – have the same message I do – that are making a change now –

    Here we can see that Mark and possibly his community are aware of misconceptions and stereotypes of American Indians perpetuated by the mainstream, but we also can see that Mark understands that there is room for correction, and in a sense, a chance to set the record straight for future generations. Note when he speaks about “Native documentaries,” and also note his last two sentences.

    Like Mark, Josh understands that a stereotype exists surrounding American Indians and that it is perpetuated. He feels that personal art and traditional art may be one in the same, however, he views typical “traditional art” as something that promotes the “romanticized Indian,” this might be why his style is so different from folk art and the type of art his father created, which depicted Natives on plains and the like. Note the conversation on art today versus traditional art:

    Researcher: So do you think there’s like a definite, defined line between your personal art and traditional art…

    Informant: I think it’s both intertwined – because I know like – for like real traditional work – they were depicting certain things that were – you know – going on at that time – well from these like traditional – like from ledger artwork – like – like in pueblo pottery and stuff – and – and I think like it had a lot of necessity for what they were doing with it – now I think a lot of the work that’s done traditional and stuff like that – is promoting the romanticized Indian that I think a lot of people want to see – and it’s – it’s become – almost in a bad way too – because it does promote what we aren’t –

    Informant: My dad was what you would call – what most people call – like a traditional artist – I guess…he painted a lot of like – uh – plains – scenes of the Indians – stuff like that…if you were to look at his paintings – and look at what he had been doing his whole life – you’d know what kind of person he was – that’s what was neat about his work – you know – but yeah – he – he did – and I – I can’t paint like him –

    Josh goes on to talk about the importance of creating one’s personal art. He says, “It does – it might not pay off now – but it will – and if it doesn’t pay off till your dead – well then that’s that – you know – it’s like – it’s worth it to like – strive for something that’s right – you know to be truthful.”

    The Money Side and Borrowing

    For the majority of my informants, creating art is about making money, but it is also about accurately portraying and preserving some of the Native culture, as you can see when Mark says:

    Informant: On the art side – you always do it for money – but the direction for my work is directed at preserving culture…there’s a lot of art that you do see – that doesn’t have the same – cultural preservation represented because you can see a Katlyn piece…that shows Choctaws but has a Teepee…so that’s not supposed to be there – so you can kind of see where the artist actually – drew something because – the mainstream wanted it to be like that – just to make a general buck to sell to the public…I think there’s so many artists that are different – that are good artists – that are my tribe that don’t…do the art because…they don’t feel like they could make the money –

    This last sentence demonstrates how some artists belonging to either the Seminole or Choctaw tribes (which are the tribes Mark belongs to) may not want to create pieces at all because they feel as though they might not make enough money in that profession, so they choose not to create art rather than risk creating inaccurate pieces and making a profit off of a bad portrayal. They would rather make money in a different way than disgrace their culture.

    “So – my part about the art is that – I do it for – my generation – for myself to learn – I do it so – I could represent my parents – the ones that have passed on – my um – tribal – my tribal people.” Mark is lucky enough to have a job that pays him well enough, and allows him to express himself as well as represent his people. I believe that Mark knows this and is thankful, though he also realizes that others are not as fortunate.

    Researcher: So why do you personally create art…

    Informant: Okay…at different times I do it for different reasons…because I know when I was a little bit younger…yeah I did it for money – you know – I was wanting money and I thought this is the only way I can make money and this is what I like to do maybe I can – I was thinking of maybe kind of scheming – and then – then there were times too when I was even younger…when I just wanted to do it – that’s just something I wanted to do and I wanted to prove…the other reason why I did art too was to maybe – well – it was to talk about my culture – but not only about my culture but just mainly talk about myself…there’s a bunch of different reasons why I think a lot of artists do it…I know mine was always because it was kind of a natural thing that just came to me…

    In this passage, we hear Josh’s voice. We see that he also creates art to profit from his talent, but in the same breadth he had always created art as a self-expression because it was always a part of who he was. Also in this passage, you can catch a glimpse of the younger side of Josh, the side that saw art as a privilege to be abused and exploited.

    When asked if borrowing symbols between tribes was accepted, Mark replied:

    Informant: Well – to me the Kokopelli symbol is made for Southwest only – that when – I could never put it in the Southeast because it never existed – in my region – that’s never – I could never show documentation of why it was there – but you could – it depends on which way you’re thinking – if your thinking to do mainstream – you’re just trying to show Native American oneness – then of course you show symbols from each tribe – then you can show it in a collage – or…a documentary of several pieces – then I can see representing a symbol with work for that area – but – for me to adapt it into my art – it’s not – it’s disrespectful – because it’s disrespectful to my elders – and also disrespectful to the people who did make the Kokopelli symbol –

    To Mark, borrowing is okay only in this way, to educationally show the Pan-American Indian. For him, to borrow in any other way or for any other purpose would be disrespectful.

    Informant: don’t insert into anything – or don’t grab anything or don’t try anything without at least learning what it was – that’s why everybody tells stories why something is – but um – you don’t – you know – it’s like you’re grabbing a snake – you don’t want to grab a snake – you know – unless you want to get bit – but um – the Kokopelli – it depends on what kind of stage or what kind of audience you shoot it to – when you’re trying to make a dollar – that’s why you see the Kokopelli – if you see it made by a company made in China – that’s why – it’s represented like that…at the end – is it there to make a difference for someone who’s watching

    Mark acknowledges that some create pieces with borrowed symbols just to profit from their use. However, he also states that it is not how he personally was taught. The larger community does not accept that action and if it is taking place, it is done by only a few. It is practiced by a group of deviants to gain capital, whether it is resistance in another form cannot yet be said.

    Truth and Resistance

    Informant: My part for art is – it – it’s always intent is to tell the truth – you’re – what you’re trying to do is – you’re trying to preserve your culture – and that’s the way I do it – you’re trying to really show what really was – at the same time is that – my paintings are told from my eyes – not the historical view – so I get to change history the way it’s supposed to be – because a lot of people complain – that’s not the way it is – but if you do listen to the right people – you do get to paint a piece that shows the correct way it was –

    Mark speaks about portraying the truth here, by doing one’s research before creating a piece, but he also mentions that his paintings are told from his eyes. Figure 1 shows one of Mark’s pieces. In this example, Mark has chosen to accurately portray an American Indian wearing regalia; however, he creates his piece with the slightest hint of resistance. Note the title of the piece, “Looking Forward to Hope,” shown in Figure 1, and the pose and gaze of the painted figure. This resistance is underlying, or muted, but it exists and shows all the oppression imposed upon American Indians in the past. However, the piece also shows Mark’s personal feelings of hope for the future. This piece depicts Mark’s message to his audience. Though, the message may be subtle, it does exist.

    Informant: So but back then – it wasn’t – in so many words it wasn’t cool to be Native back then – because everybody taught the Indians to be white – in so many words – to join into the melting pot – or going – to join into the mainstream so they can be socializable with everybody else – and blend into the culture –

    Mark’s acknowledgement of the colonizers’ attempt to assimilate the Natives into the dominant culture here gives an insight into why he chooses to teach and send messages through his art.

    Now we move again to Josh, to see if he practices resistance in any way.

    Researcher: Okay – so I’m interested in like how symbols are used in art…do you use like specific symbols in you work…

    Informant: I do now

    Researcher: Yeah

    Informant: I didn’t used to before – I didn’t used to repeat anything – but now I repeat a lot of things – like this picture right here – this is one of them – [gets painting] – and I’ve been using this Frankenstein a lot –

    Researcher: Uh huh

    Informant: And I’ve been using like high heels and stuff a lot – in a lot of work – and what – what like this Frankenstein’s – the reason why I’ve been doing it again and again – are because – of uh – this is actually for a social commentary – and stuff like this – I’ve been doing some stuff like this too [gets out another few pieces] – it’s like a print

    Researcher: Oh I love printmaking

    Informant: All the – all the body parts are from different – parts

    Researcher: Oh I see –

    Informant: Even the prints and papers themselves – I stole like other people’s prints and printed on them

    Researcher: Uh huh

    Informant: …in the print shop at the time too…I was doing it irresponsibly – and like ironically Frankenstein was made irresponsibly – like from different parts – so…Doctor Frankenstein had this greed and lust to make like – which was like perverted and a bad thing to do – but he didn’t realize he was wrong – so – same thing with Indians now – it’s become my symbol for Indians – is this Frankenstein – and – where – you know – like – the United States government – the Europeans came to this continent – and felt the need that they needed to colonize them – and force all their beliefs upon them – from the Spanish…English and the French – and so – all that converged beyond – displaced Indians everywhere…so that’s what that means now it’s like – that’s why I use him for my symbol because I think people can identity with that…at first it catches them off guard – they look at it and it’s like – oh – it’s just Frankenstein – but that’s where – that’s where the other things come in – you have to know a little bit about what’s going on – with um – with the image of the piece…the thing that – that I’ve really found out a lot too – was…shoes and certain heels and everything have become like a symbol of like a lot of power – like that it’s power over men and things that have changed since the sixties – you know…so that’s why that has appeared a lot in my – in my work and stuff like that as well –

    This passage gives excellent examples of how Josh comprehends the oppression imposed upon the colonized by the dominant colonizers. This is reflected in his work through the repeated images of Frankenstein, which, as he explains, is his symbol for American Indians. Refer to Figure 2 for an example of his use of Frankenstein as a symbol. By using this symbol for American Indians, Josh expresses the Pan-American Indian identity. The pieces of Frankenstein’s body represent the remains of different tribes that have been dispersed through the colonizing experience. By using these images and symbols, the heels as well, to demonstrate power over others, Josh is also exercising his right and ability to resist the mainstream stereotypical portrayal of American Indians. By discreetly disguising his true expressions through his mixed media, and confusing the audience, he shows his understanding and comprehension of past injustices inflicted upon his people, and shows a stronger Pan-American Indian image in his Frankenstein. He repeats this image in his work usually alongside images of high heels, which he connects with power over others; this inadvertently implies that American Indians are the underdogs who also have power and strength enough to reclaim their right to self-expression. This style of fooling or “pulling one over” on the audience is similar to Shelly Niro’s photo exhibit, which was mentioned previously in the Literature Review section. Both artists practice this style of creating art that contains specific private blurbs for self-knowledge. This can be seen as a form of muted resistance.

    Josh also demonstrated resistance to tradition in his piece, “Bringing Home a White Boy” (Figure 3). The heels are seen again and an image of a stereotypical young American Indian girl bearing a shy, though deviant expression. The implication of this piece is that an American Indian girl is in an interracial relationship, which is going against tradition, but also demonstrates the change in norms from generation to generation. Josh advocates change, self-expression, and difference; he uses the stereotypical “Indian” image as well for his own purposes, to mock the ones that had originally created the “othering” image. He’s reclaiming the image for himself. This can be seen in his other pieces depicting American Indians with one stereotypical feather sticking out of their heads.

    Change and Art

    Art is not only an outlet for change but here we see that art itself has changed over the years and continues to change with new expressions, new technological advancements, and the like:

    Informant: Art being what my parents or grandparents – back then – art – art wasn’t a necessity – so they really didn’t need it – because they were trying to survive back then…they did work on the farms – they worried about the social dances – but nobody really collected art…there’s a big split from what was and what is now – um –media and all that’s taught us that – the world is so closer – you know – when you do a painting it can be seen in Australia – you know – very quickly…that whatever you draw – can be seen through media – internet – and can be – you know – that it’s just an art exhibit – no one doesn’t fly just for one art exhibit no more – now that they can…on the internet – or they can read it in a book – or there’s even e-books now that you can go see…

    Researcher: Do you think that that change is good – um – you know – the change – of technology – like the fact that it’s so easily accessible to so many people around the world.

    Informant: Yeah…if you know what you’re doing – as far as the internet and all that – you know it as a tool – you can do films – blogs – discussions – you can um – dissect a piece – or – if I’m here – and there’s a – an art class in say – New York – then you can do a video conference and I can just look at it and dissect it – and also talk with the teacher and say – this is wrong – this is what it is – but also give them facts from other links to another place – or another website that does show the correct way or show the old photos.

    Informant: Yeah – well my interpretation of art – art isn’t art – everybody says art is art – but art – you know – there’s so many levels – art – art can be pretty – art can deliver a message – art can um – you know – it can detail the historical – you know – part in history – it’s change…to me art is – more about – what you can do to um – change – you can do it in a message – you can change – you can show the correct way how history was made.

    Mark speaks again about how art can be used to correct misconceptions about history through many different methods, for example through online classes, virtual exhibits, and so on.

    Like Mark, Josh openly accepts change. He said, “With art – it’s that it should evolve – like – it’s just like life – you know – it’s never the same as it was before – it keeps on evolving and as you change – it should change too…you can do bad work for a long time and then – but it’ll change.” Like people change, their art changes, the same can be said of culture. As people and times change, cultures are bound to evolve and adapt as well.

    When asked how he thought most “Native” people would react to such radical changes in art, Josh replied:

    Informant: A lot of people won’t like it…I know that there’s a lot of like Kiowa and Creek people that – look at me and – and – for a long time they’ve always been like – oh yeah Josh’s…weird…so like I said – it’s a two-way thing…I did a commission…for the Kiowa Casino – and – the guy asked me…hey we like what you do – why don’t you do one of your paintings – we like your technique and everything…but we want this one to be a Kiowa-themed one – and we don’t want any of your – politics – or…any pornography – and I was like oh – no politics or pornography…okay – this is going to be hard…I started drawing upon a lot of my family history and so – that’s all I did – and I ended up just painting myself on there and then I ended up painting my – um – my grandfather – my mother – and like um – the creation story of how it became – and so – I did it my way…I made it on my terms – and – and it still remained a Kiowa piece…I might not be a traditional Indian in anyway or anything – you know I don’t even know a lot about my culture either – but um – it’s like I feel like I’m a traditional Indian because I don’t worry about being traditional – I don’t worry about – well what would an Indian be doing back then – what would they be doing – nah – I feel like I just do that automatically – and I don’t worry about them –

    Josh demonstrates confidence in his work and his unique style. He acknowledges that he does not know a great deal about his cultural heritage, but he feels as if he is not doing his people an injustice by creating his work because he learns and grows as an American Indian when he creates it, just as his ancestors learned and grew when they created their pieces.

    In some instances, art’s purpose has not changed so greatly. For example, Josh states:

    Informant: …[C]ause you see like the Kiowa…there was only men were allowed to paint – and –…they had to be born of a certain – way – to – to be the ones that could paint and draw –…and they had to be given like permission either through like signs or dreams or like things – so it wasn’t something they could do – and it wasn’t like – they didn’t paint for art’s sake – they didn’t paint for like uh – for just beauty and decoration – but they did paint out of an expression – and – and they felt that it would help promote something that they needed – or that everyone needed – so – it was a whole group effort

    When Josh says, “They felt that it would help promote something that they needed – or that everyone needed – so – it was a whole group effort,” we can see that long ago, art was used to promote what was felt was a necessity. Similarly, Mark mentioned that art may be used as a way to teach or to correct past misconceptions, which American Indians today also feel is a necessity.

    Informant: anybody can be Indian – but it depends on how – how much you want to share – how much you – how much you know before you want to teach – because there’s too many people who are Native – who look one hundred percent – but don’t do anything to improve the way of life for the future – (Mark)

    Both Mark and Josh want to make a change for the better. It is good to know about one’s culture, to have pride, and to teach future generations, but change is not something to fear or suppress. Again, cultures change just like people change. Here, Josh speaks again about how change is a good thing:

    Informant: because there’s like this thing going on with like…a lot of Indians – and a lot of the older people – they’re just like – man – you know – we’ve got to start preserving this and they’re real proud of this – and – and it’s funny because they say we need to talk to the elders…I did a show out in New Mexico…and…we were so angry because I – I was there like arguing with a lot of the elder artists and they were like well we need to ask the elders – and I was like – those elders are just as screwed up as some of us – I was like – we need to start changing – we need to make new traditions – new things that are good – because these thing have been bad for so long…and they’re going to keep promoting this – so some people want to hold on…I’m saying – it’s fine to let things just die off – because things will come back again – if it’s the truth – it will always remain – so like you said – culture – yeah – things will come back.

    We can see here how change is thought to be a necessity to life. It is something inevitable, and Josh embraces that concept.


    Last year, during a visit to the ruins of the Ancient Puebloans at Mesa Verde National Park, Chaco Canyon, Aztec Ruins, and Canyon De Chelly, the big question that everyone wanted answered was why the Ancient Puebloans just got up and left. People thought that maybe there was a severe drought, but that was disproved; people thought they were attacked, but that was disproved. They did not realize that the answer was simple and in front of their eyes. The Ancient Puebloans probably just left because it was time to leave. It was time for a change. It is because of change that it is not wrong or right to preserve one’s traditions or heritage. Things will change whether people preserve certain ways or not. Even how people’s identity changes, they grow with change and with heritage. If one starts out with a certain amount of cultural identity, they will most likely not lose it, but instead, add to it. Even if they cease to practice certain traditions, those remnants of the traditions practiced and the ideas behind them will always remain with that person and with those they are passed on to.


    • Castile, George Pierre. 1996 The Commodification of Indian Identity. American Anthropologist, New Series 98(4):43–749.
    • Dominguez, Virginia R. 1989 Different and Difference. Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly 14(1):10–16.
    • Hoxie, Frederick E. 1996 Encyclopedia of North American Indians. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
    • Mithlo, Nancy Marie. 2005 Reappropriating Redskins Pellerossasogna (Red Skin Dream) Shelly Niro at the 50th La Biennale Di Venezia. Visual Anthropology Review 20(2):22–35.
    • Myers, Fred. 2004 Ontologies of the Image and Economies of Exchange. American Ethnologist 31(1):5–20.
    • Shanley, Kathryn W. 1997 The Indians America Loves to Love and Read: American Indian Identity and Cultural Appropriation. American Indian Quarterly 21(4):675–702.

    Figure 1: "Looking Forward to Hope," by "Mark"

    Figure 1. "Looking Forward to Hope," by "Mark"

    Figure 2: "Curse of the Electric Pencil Sharpener," by "Josh"

    Figure 2. "Curse of the EElectric Pencil Sharpener," by "Josh"

    Figure 3: "Bringing Home a White Boy," by "Josh"

    Figure 3. "Bringing Home a White Boy," by "Josh"