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Commentary: Native American Art And Culture Deserve A Fresh Look

Nancy Kranzberg

I attended an inspiring and educational talk titled "Mound City--The Place of the Indian Past and Present in St. Louis" given by Professor Patricia Cleary at The Missouri History Museum. Professor Cleary referred to the ground under the museum as the place where the indigenous Mississippian culture lived and thrived almost a thousand years ago. She went on to talk about the need to pay homage and give respect to those ancient peoples and their descendants in our city today.

A week later I found myself at the Nasher Museum on the campus of Duke University in North Carolina where I was inspired again by the special exhibition “Art for a New Understanding: Native Voices,1950s to Now." Sarah Schroth, the director of the museum, also referred to the land in and around the museum as having belonged to the Native Peoples of North Carolina and said, "By presenting, ‘Art for a New Understanding: Native Voices’ and its related programs, we are taking the first steps towards acknowledging those who were here first and who are still here."

The Nasher exhibition is the first to chart the development of contemporary indigenous art in the United States and Canada. For generations, Native North American artists have exhibited work mostly outside the mainstream art institutions. "Native Voices" begins to remedy that division, presenting approximately 60 works of art in a wide variety of media by Native American artists from many nations and regions.

The wall texts are equally as inspiring as the works themselves. I've decided to quote some of the artists’ thoughts and feelings.

Wab Kinew of the Anishinaabe in the anthology "Dreaming in Indian" says, "There is no one indigenous perspective--no one indigenous story. We are tremendously diverse peoples with tremendously diverse life experiences. We are not frozen in the past, nor are we automatically just like everybody else. That is why it is so important for everyone to share their own story. In revealing their personal truths, they help us all gain a better appreciation for the messy, awesome, fun reality of the world we live in."

Fritz Scholder says, "Somebody needs to paint the Indian differently because it is a subject matter that is probably the world's worst cliché, at least in this country."

On another wall text it is stated, "Today, there are more than 570 federally recognized Native tribes in the United States. In Canada, there are more than 600 recognized First Nations, Inuit and Metis government or bands. Although the term "indigenous" is used to describe all of these groups, each has their own distinct culture."

And Kathleen Ash-Milby (Navajo), associate curator of the National Museum of the American Indian, says, "There is no one way to be a native artist" in her reference to Kay WalkingStick’s use of minimalism with an indigenous twist.

Sometimes the Native artists re-examine history. Kent Monkman takes inspiration from nineteenth century U.S. art to challenge the ways the past has been presented. Monkman says, "Most of my work challenges history, or rather dominant versions of history. Western artists looking at indigenous art, indigenous people, indigenous cultures." His work in the exhibition is a re-creation of a Bierstadt landscape painting.

Terms such as traditional and contemporary are often used side by side. Melissa Cody who grew up on a Navajo Reservation in Arizona says, "I can still hold true to traditional roots in terms of my materials, my process, but also have the final product be reflective of my personal story as a contemporary young woman growing up both on a reservation and also in an urban setting in the city."

There have been specials on Native American life and culture on PBS with very profound messages. One young man said, "We are always referred to in the past tense, but we are still here. What took place a thousand years ago continues. We'd like to share what we know to make a better world."

We just need to listen and look at the Native American with a fresh eye and challenge the way we look and interpret our history.


Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than thirty years on numerous arts related boards.