Life is made exciting by little imperfections. I am aware that my fatherís people, failing to understand the sheer avarice and homicidal impulse of settlers, didnít protect our cultures into the future. I get that. I donít get how many people point out to me that my ancestors should have killed theirs if we wanted religious, artistic or land rights. It seems an odd argument really. Kind of a ďweíre here so you are screwedĒ philosophy. Iíd like to hope not. In the 70s the Red Power Movement- no, really, whatever folks think about their other activities we have to hand them this one- clawed back some religious rights for indigenous folk. Many people donít know that until then our religious freedoms were impaired by actual law here in the US of A. In fact they still are in more subtle ways, but the laws recede. It makes people uncomfortable to talk about this stuff. Itís awkward. Itís embarrassing. Itís deeply wrong and unjustifiable. Yep yep. Iíve been accused of many things in reaction to my comments about the various ongoing conditions that make it difficult for Native people. One guy told me that although I might not myself be a horse thief that being Native American I am clearly descended from horse thieves and am therefore suspectÖ shouldnít talk about the past like that. Sadly Iím old enough to not feel that the 70s are so far in the past, but there you go. Iíve had hysterical students scream at me about relatives who were killed in the Northern Plains byÖ someone Native and my culpability for those deathsÖ. Iím not going to say Iíve heard it all, but I have heard a bit. Iím an artist. I make things or write things intended to enlighten, uplift, irritate, educate, arouse, invoke. I expect and accept that my work will stir the pot. Iíve brought my own spoonÖ hell, Iíll bring the pot too sometimes, Iím easy. I donít mind the argumentsÖ itís the silence that kills me. The things we are expected to accept without comment. The ongoing assaults. Art is an expression of soul, intuition, hope and observational skills. It is an invitation to dialog. Unfortunately sometimes it can also be converted into unhealthy fetish. More on that later.
The current crop of Native artists is vast, many layered, varied and rich. I curate our work sometimes. After the chaos, after all of the planning and making sure that all of the widgets and tape and nametags and mics and extra shoelaces and special foods and blue thumbtacks are all lined up, after Iíve corrected a particularly difficult name spelling for the fourth time, after whatever unforgivable gaffe Iíve committed this show, I like to look around. This is some great stuff. Some of my fellow Native artists are from cultures that have been substantially derailed. Some are from cultures just barely back on the rails. A few are from cultures deeply into a rebuild. Here they are anyhow: expressing, emoting and having the one more bit of faith that any of this is worth it. I am often struck dumb by the sheer power of it all. My colleagues inspire me. Our work, like that of any continent, is sometimes religious and sometimes secular. It is sometimes religious. It is sometimes religious. It is sometimes religious. Unlike Christian religious art, some indigenous religious art is not for consumption by the general public. This reality is going to make some folks feel left out. Donít take it personally, some of it isnít for consumption by all of us either. We donít put that stuff in museums or galleries. Unfortunately other people do it for us.
Nothing inspires greed like being told you canít have a thing. I used to nab cookies when my mom wasnít watching. I confess. I also confess to being generally a wicked person. No malice, but Iíve acted out of greed in my time. I understand it. We monkeys want to know, we want to see, we want the last cookie, we want to peek behind the curtain. Well Iím a monkey too. Let me tell you what I know about the curtain. Generally there is nothing there that will measurably change your life to know. Sometimes there are things there that you cannot unsee, like the time I accidentally walked into an occupied dressing room at the mallÖ shudder. Some indigenous religious art would change your life, some would haunt your nightmares, some would move you a step closer to oneness with everything and some would leave you bored. Thing isÖ if it isnít for you it just isnít. All of those things are true of work from your own spiritual tradition. I promise. In art school I had to study stuff from all over and there is spirit in things from everywhere. What there is, though, in stolen religious objects, in things taken from graves as recently as this year, in things that the people didnít want you seeingÖ what is in those things is cultural rape. It is voyeuristic to peek at peopleís spiritual stuff without leave to do so. What would Ms. Manners say?
Whenever I travel for work, to speak or read my poems or see my art installed, there will always be someone who wants to take me to the local pile of Indian stuff. This will range from the large city museum and its donated collection of baskets to the glassed in case at the local library with five random coins found in the nearby river, a ceramic tobacco pipe and a scrap of old brittle leather that still has four blue seed beads clinging to it. I have come to the conclusion that this is a behavior meant to make me feel at home. There is no real need to show me Indian stuff. I own a houseful of Indian stuff. When I get home from the trip I will have laundry to wash and it will be lousy with eau de Native teen. There will be my basket collection (frequently better than that of the museumís becauseÖ I know people), there will be my books, there will be my Indian furnishings and my Indian snacks in the kitchen and a pile of Indian junk mail to sort. Itís hard for people, they expect my life, desires, dreams etc. to be different from theirs if theyíve never met me. Alternately other Native people will drag me to some display or other so that we can be offended together. Either way, over the years, Iíve seen a fair few collections of stuff. Some are funny, some are sad and some give me bad dreams still. What I actually yearn for is for someone to explain to me why it is that people want to see, for example, a medicine bag unpacked and arranged in a glass case. The unsettling and unsatisfactory answer that I have come to: we as Native people are so much the subject of fetish and fantasy that even our nail parings are somehow riveting. Itís fundamentally depressing to imagine that someday my medicine bag, its scraps of various things, its dried bits of other things, its glob of resin, and its patina of fingers and years will be arrayed for all to see as some sort of representative scrap of one of my cultures. I find displays of Saint relics equally depressing. A shredded bit of the robe of St. Whatsis, patron of navel lint, placed forever in some baroque confection of a reliquaryÖ Iím glad that it comforts some people; please leave me and mine out of the life bits worship. This behavior is actually against my spiritual practice. Itís hardly a shock that some Native groups have a fairly recent tradition of burning everything at death in the hopes that it will prevent Aunt Gwesiís thimble collection from becoming a posthumous museum icon.
For me, not my Nation my clan or my family but for me, my medicine bag is a private altar, a collection of things whence I draw personal strength. It is deeply religious and I used to hope that it would be buried with me in the fullness of time. Since having that hope Iíve seen too many ritual masks, carvings, bags, pipes, dresses and what-have-you put on display for people to stare at. Itís embarrassing. Itís intrusive. In some cases itís infuriating. Itís also less enlightening for the viewer than some may think. From an anthropological perspective it might be interesting to know that I carry a blob of resin in my bag. Scientifically they could study it and find out where it came from. What no one knows is what it meant to me to have it in there. You can guess. You can theorize, which is just having a fancy guess. The story is the thing not the object. In the process of clearing out my dead Polish grandmaís stuff we came across collections of words scrawled on paper. Some were quotes, some were partial sentences, some shared space with shopping lists. I like to look at her notes as a literary medicine bag. I will never know what those words meant to her personally. I respect them as a process art piece, a collection of found word inspiration. I will also never put her scraps on display. Itís a kind of forensics that I find spiritually and artistically useless. I would rather display some of her textile work, some of what she wanted to share with other people, not the stuff she hid in her underwear drawer. There are words for people who want to look at that stuffÖ many of those words arenít nice.
Ok, so Iím the daughter of a man with a boy scout sensibility about right and wrong. His dad was that way too. I fail. I fail often. I have, on the odd occasion kept extra change given me by check-out people. As I mentioned earlier I have nicked cookies. I do return peopleís bags, notebooks and wallets if I find them. I poke about in them just enough to get contact info and then leave the rest alone. There is just stuff that isnít yours. So much interesting art is made in this world, so many beautiful people out there dreaming and creating to amuse you and me and everyone else. We are wealthy in art on this planet, wealthy in hopeful, generous people who want you to know what they think and have translated those thoughts into whatever medium amuses them. There is no good reason to rummage in folksí private stuff. What would your mother think? Go see art. Go participate in it live, nothing like it. I go about once a week to some event or other. I do try to leave the unwilling art shows alone. Iíve done enough bad stuff in my life not to need to seek out some kind of spiritual balance with conscious evil doing. If you want to get closer to Native people buy a book (buy mine if you like), go to a gallery of work intentionally sold by Native artists, attend an event. There are any number of options, but if you will, donít buy looted petroglyphs, donít go look at work the originating cultures donít want in a show. Try not to have too alien a view of Native art. Weíre just folks.