English version of my original Dutch article on Contemporary Native American art, published in 'Decorum', journal of the department of Art History, University of Leiden, March 1997, issue 1+2 (also published on this blog, see HERE).
Jimmie Durham, Pocahontas’ underwear, mixed media, 1985
‘I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there. It was a beautiful dream . . . . the nation's hope has broken and scattered. There is no centre any longer, and the sacred tree is dead’. 
‘While the entire world is in an identity crisis, the New Indian still knows who he is’ 
These quotations, the first of the Lakota Black Elk on the massacre of Wounded Knee in 1890 and the second by artist Fritz Scholder (Luseno) from the early seventies, show the North American Indians in this century have experienced turbulent changes. After the various Indian nations and tribes were subdued and banned to reservations, it was thought that America's original inhabitants would disappear very soon. Nearly a century later, despite the social and economic problems, the Native Americans found a defined identity in a totally changed world.
Also artistic the Native Americans manifest themselves in various ways. In the reservations, which are relatively isolated from the rest of American society, a revival can be observed of the traditional arts. This applies especially to the peoples in the south-western United States (Navaho, Pueblo, Hopi) and for the peoples of the Canadian west coast (Haida, Tlingit, Kwakiutl). Elsewhere in North America there is also a revival of various tribal traditions.
These artistic expressions are not limited to nostalgia. Many of these artists are experimenting with new materials and shapes to give the traditional imagery a contemporary face. The most famous artists who work in this way are the ‘sand painter’ Joe Ben Jr. (Navaho) and the goldsmith and sculptor Bill Reid (Haida).
Joe Ben Jr., The Four Arrow-people, sand and pigment on earth (http://www.tribalexpressions.com/painting/ben.htm)
In this context I will discuss the more recent emerged artistic expressions. Beside artists of Native American origin who work in the tradition of their own cultural heritage, since the fifties a new phenomenon emerged, called ‘pan-indianism’, a movement that was close related with the increasing political and emancipatory struggle of the original inhabitants of America. This new activism was mainly originated by Native Americans living outside the reservations, and mostly had received university education.
Although the first and for a while the only Indian with a university education, the famous Indian affairs commissioner Donehogawa or Ely Parker, lived in the nineteenth century, the Native Americans in general are still an underclass minority in American society. This new activism was mainly originated by Native Americans living outside the reservations, most by Native Americans citizens living in the cities. From the fifties however, there were more Indians who followed an academic education.
They were mainly representatives of this group who reconsidered their own identity. Also there were several political organizations established as ‘The National Congress of American Indians’ and militant movements like the ‘American Indian Movement’ (AIM) and ‘Red Power’ and organized political actions which sometimes took the attention of the world press, like the occupations of Alcatraz (1969) and Wounded Knee (1973, see this documentary by Roelof Kiers for the Dutch television of that time, Dutch and English spoken). In both cases these were intertribal actions, organized by AIM.
These activities can’t be understood out of context of the general protest movement of the sixties. The rise of the emancipation movement of Native Americans took place at the same time as the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam demonstrations. However, the most important Native American writer of that time, Vine Deloria Jr. (Lakota), president of the ‘National Congress of American Indians’ during the seventies and author of We talk, you listen, God is Red and Custer died for Your Sins, stipulates the differences with the Afro-American emancipation movement. Although he clearly expresses his sympathy for the Civil Rights Movement, in Custer died for your Sins (the title refers to the U.S. General Custer in 1876 with the Seventh Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. Army was massacred by the Lakota, the Western or Teton Sioux , led by Sitting Bull at the Little Bighorn) that the Native Americans strive for other goals than e.g. the Afro-Americans. In his view the main aim of the natives is not to integrate into American society, because Western culture is imposed on them involuntarily. In his manifesto Vine Deloria Jr. pleas as much as possible autonomy for the indigenous population, for self determination, land and particularly the maintenance of their own cultural heritage. In this regard he particularly criticizes the romantic attitude of some Westerners to the 'noble savage'. He rejects a fashionable interest in Indian mysticism in the western world, in his opinion it is outright theft of ideas, from one hypocrisy after first massive genocide was committed on the Native Americans.  These ideas are also in line with that of Pam Colorado (Oneida), professor at the University of Toronto: ‘In the end non Indians will have complete power to define what is and what is not Indian, even for Indians ... When this happens, the last vestiges of Indian Society and Indian rights will disappear. Non Indians will then 'own' our heritage and ideas as thoroughly as they now claim to own our land and resources’.
Bill Reid (Haida), The Raven and the First Men, cedar wood, 1980 (Vancouver, British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology)
The New Indians
It was in the context of renewed Indian activism ‘Pan-Indianism’ emerged as an artistic movement. It was not a movement relying on a particular cultural or tribal tradition. The first ‘Pan-Indian art’ of the New Indians, as these artists called themselves, was particularly protest art, inspired by Pop Art. Using irony these artists challenged the discourse of the dominant American culture.
The most famous representative of this movement was the late Fritz Scholder (1937-2005). Scholder was a teacher at the Indian Art Institute in Santa Fe (Arizona) from 1964 to 1969, an institute which taught both traditional Native American art and Western art. His Pop Art-like works Scholder explains in an ironical way and expose abuses while he denounce Western stereotypes.
Fritz Scholder, Super Indian 2# (with Ice-cone), acryl on canvas, 1971
A typical work is Super Indian # 2 (with Ice-cone). In this work Scholder shows a stereotype image of an Indian from the Great Plains with an ice-cone. This paradoxical work could be interpreted in two ways: whether it is about the traditional Indian who became a part of today’s consumers culture and thus has become a kind of brand , or it is about the Indian self-conscious, which, while retaining traditions are able to maintain in today's society. With these kind of works Scholder ‘tries to rewrite American history’. 
T.C. Cannon, Andrew Myrick, oil on canvas, 1974
Another striking example of the engaged art of the New Indians is a work of Tommy Cannon (Caddo / Kiowa), entitled Andrew Myrick. This work refers to a notorious event in Native American history during the war of the Eastern or Santee Dakota in Minesota in 1862. As the easternmost group of the Dakota / Sioux nation, in contrary to the western branch where the great and more than twenty years struggle had yet to begin, the Santees were already incorporated in U.S. reserves and were dependent on food supplies from the U.S. government. Because the distribution was in the hands of corrupt merchants the Santees received almost nothing of the Government’s supplies. This was the reason for Chief Little Crow to complain. In response one of the merchants Andrew Myrick answered: ‘If they're hungry, let them eat grass’. This incident was the immediate cause of the great revolt in Minesota. Myrick was one of the first people who were killed. When the Santees slain him they filled his mouth full of grass and they mocked him with the words ‘Myrick is eating grass himself’. 
The work of Wayne Eagleboy (Onondaga), We-the people is a clear example of the style of the New Indians. The title refers to the text of the U.S. Constitution. We see the American flag, but instead of the stars we see with a barbed wire behind the faces of America's original inhabitants. An effective metaphor for the outsider in his own country, a theme that often plays a role in the contemporary art of the Native Americans.
Wayne Eagleboy, We-the people, acryl and barbed wire on buffalo skin, 1971
Exiles in their own land
Beside the New Indians, other artists emerged who reflect on their Native origin. In this context, we need to pay some attention to the writer N. Scott Momoday (Kiowa). This writer and professor of English literature at Stanford University (California) is one of the most influential theorists in the field of modern Native American culture in the United States. Although he is not a descendant of one of the various peoples of the Pueblo Indians (the Kiowa of the Great Plains were nomadic, although they are linguistically related to e.g. the Tewa, who have lived in Pueblos), he spent a part of his life in Jemez Pueblo, an ancient holy site that plays an important role in his work. This is reflected strongly in his novels, like House Made of Dawn (Pulitzer Prize 1969). The central theme of his work is ‘living in exile in your own country’. He argues the Native Americans, despite the domination, still have a spiritual connection to the land of their ancestors. Restricted in their freedom by political, bureaucratic and economic factors, it is hard for the Indians to continue their relationship with a particular location in freedom. 
According to Vine Deloria Jr. is this the central issue of the ‘Fourth World Nations’, a concept which he defines as follows: ‘The Fourth World are all aboriginal and native peoples Whose lands fall within national boundaries and techno-bureaucratic administrations of countries of the First, Second or Third Worlds. As such, they are peoples without their own countries or, people who are usually in the minority, and without the power to direct the course of their collective lives’. 
Several contemporary artists of Native American origin are concerned with this issue. Frequently these artists were born in reservations, but educated in the cities. The artists dicussed here have returned to their origins which they investigate from a new perspective. The relationship between people, history and land is a major issue for them. The artist George Longfish (Seneca / Tuscarora) introduced the term ‘land base’. Longfish: ‘... the interwoven aspects of place, history, culture, physiology, and their people a sense of themselves and their spirituality and how the characteristics of the place are all part of the fabric. When rituals are integrated into the setting through the use of materials and specific places and when religion includes one walks upon the earth- that is land-base’. 
Longfish considers the Navaho art of sand painting as an example of ‘land base’ because ‘sand as an artistic medium is a microcosm of the surrounding desert’ , a form of art, religion and place in one.
George Longfish, You can’t rollerskate in a Buffalo-herd, even if you have all the Medicine, acryl on canvas, 1979 (Lippard, p.110)
In his work You can’t skate in a Buffalo Herd You, even if you have all the medicine is the ‘land base’ element is very evident. In this abstract work the central circle and the motive of the four corners dominate the composition. Pictographic characters refer to landscapes and footprints. The circular shape and the characters resemble the type of shield that was formerly used by the nomadic tribes of the Great Plains. The appearance of the four directions is a very typical element of the Navaho sand painting, as applied by Joe Ben Jr., a traditional working Navaho artist, who in 1989 exhibited at the famous exhibition of Jean Hubert Martin Magiciens de la Terre, in the Centre Pompidou in Paris. 
You can’t rollerskate ... could be a typical work might call pan-Indian, because elements are included of two different Indian cultures (those of the Great Plains nomads and those of the Navahos in the canyon areas of Arizona). These elements are not a part of the tradition of Longfish’ own origin; the Seneca and Tuscarora were sedentary farming peoples of the U.S. east coast. Longfish uses the circle motive, because he ‘was interested in the circle philosophy of the Native Americans. This title was chosen to put some ‘lightness into a serious painting’. 
In the context of this circle philosophy the following quote of the Lakota poet / mystic Black Elk of the early twentieth century is very relevant. Black Elk: ‘In almost everything the Idian does you find the circle motive, because the Power of the World always works in circles and everything tries to be round ... The flowering tree was the living centre of the circle and the circle of the four winds made him grow ... The sky is round and I've heard the earth is round like a sphere just like the stars. The wind turns around when it is at the very most. Birds build round nests because their belief is equal to ours. The sun rises and sets in an arch. The moon does the same and they both are round’.
Jaune Quick To See Smith, Osage Orange, oil on canvas, 1985 (Lippard, p. 20). See also this dissertation Beyond Sweetgrass; the life and work of Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, by Joni L. Murphy, University of Kansas, 2008.
An artist who deals with a same kind of theme is Jaune Quick to See Smith (Salish). In her abstract work she is influenced by both the Native American pictographic tradition as the ‘classic modern masters’ like Klee, Gris, Picasso and Miró. Quick to See Smith's use of color is inspired by the desert of New Mexico, where she lives. This is not the area where her ancestors came from (the original habitat of the Salish lay in the north-western states of Idaho and the State of Washington), but she also considers herself as a pan-Indian artist. She participates regularly in the so-called powwows, a twentieth century intertribal ritual, in which many elements of different tribes and cultures from across North America brought together in an eclectic way.
Quick to See Smith calls her more or less abstract work ‘narrative landscapes’, where 'the epic element is visible only to one who is able to live in the barren, empty landscape itself'. Quick to See Smith: ‘When we talk, we talk in the past, and future present. When I paint I do the same. When you grow up in this environment, live is not romantic ... Thus living language and are not embellished but simple and direct. I feel that in my paintings as well ... I paint in a stream of consciousness so that pictographs on the rocks behind me muddling together with shapes of rocks I find in the yard, but all made over into my own expression. It's not copying what's there, it's writing about it’.
The work shown here, Osage Orange, is a clear example of such a ‘narrative landscape’. Between the abstract lines and color fields pictographic characters are all visible, pointing to recognizable figures, like humans, horses, snakes, a moose, astrological constellations and a canoe. The work as a whole represents a combination of natural forces and historical events, an imprint of space and time, according to the landbase philosophy always connected. The title refers to a small tree which branches were once used to make bows. When the first settlers came to the Osage Oranges were used as markers for barbed wire. ‘So this little shrub played two very different roles in two different cultures', sais Quick to See Smith.  So even this apparent non-political work can’t be understood out of context of the current situation of the Native Americans.
Jimmie Durham, We have made progress, mixed media, 1991
‘Don’t worry, I'm a good Indian. I'm from the West, love nature, and have a special, intimate connection with the environment. I can speak with my animal cousins, and believe it or not I'm appropriately spiritual (even smoke the pipe). I hope I am authentic enough to have been worth of your time, and yet educated enough that you feel your conversation has been intelligent. I've been careful not to reveal to much, understanding consumers is a product in your society, you can buy some for the price of a magazine ... I feel fairly sure that I could address the entire world if only I had a place to stand . You (White Americans) made everything your turf. In every field, on every issue, the ground has already been covered’. 
With these somewhat cynical words Jimmie Durham begins his essay The Ground has already been covered, in ‘Artforum’, summer 1988. This article describes the overall occupancy of the original Indian land by the white dominant culture, both materially and spiritually. The land has been splintered in unities with defined but artificial borders and in almost everything the occupation is noticeable, even considering ideas and language. In a certain way the concept of Durham fits in the notion of ‘exile in their own country’ of Scott O Momoday and Vine Deloria Jr. The tone is rather sarcastic and laced with cynical irony, a major strategy of the artist.
Jimmie Durham (Arkansas 1940) is a Cherokee, one of the nations which in 1834 were expelled from their original habitat (approximately the current Georgia) and past the infamous ‘Trail of Tears’ to the ‘Indian Territory’, the current State of Oklahoma, more than one thousand kilometers to the west. In the words of Durham the Cherokee are ‘a nation of losers’, a notion that plays an important role in the work of this artist. 
Jimmie Durham began his career as a political activist in AIM until the movement was unbound in the early eighties. From that moment he focussed on his art, which indeed always involves commitment. Durham: ‘It would be impossible, and I think immoral, to attempt to discuss American Indian Art sensibly without making central political realities’. 
After a time, having lived in New York ( ‘the only place in the United States for an Indian somewhat liveable’), in 1989 Durham moved into Mexico, as ‘in the U.S. the homeland of the Cherokee has buried where for us it is not allowed to stay’. After his Mexican period, Durham left the American continent and lived successively in Japan, Belgium, Ireland. and finally Germany (Berlin) 
Jimmie Durham, Selfportrait, mixed media, 1986
Key issues in Durham's work are identity and origin, language, the ‘subjective and ideologically loaded history’ (compare with Fritz Scholder), the stereotypes non-Indians have on Indians and the postmodern notion that almost everything has been said or written ( See ‘The Ground has already been covered’). In his statements Durham is often very outspoken and provocative. By example he considers the vast oeuvre of Picasso as a ‘form of environmental pollution’. The 'vast profusion of images doesn’t contribute to communicate great ideas', states Durham. 
In his art he confronts the audience with their own stereotypes and prejudices by holding a mirror. In ‘The Ground has already been covered’ he projects all prejudices, stereotypes and romantic falsifications that non-Indians have on Indians to himself. Durham confronts the reader with all manner of ironic ambiguity to unmask certain fixed ideas and refute them. Durham doesn’t have much hope on improvement. In a double interview, together with the Cuban artist Ricardo Brey on the eve of the Documenta IX in Kassel, he calls himself an ‘anti-optimist’. He explains that this is not the same as a pessimist, the difference is between a nuance he only knows the Cherokee language. The bottom line is the phrase ‘probably not’ could mean a ‘maybe’, the hope of a ‘nation of losers’. Durham calls this his main philosophy: ‘Our life is in an intolerable way absurd. Everything is so banal, so absurd, that you aim to grin at it. I am not doomster, but I tend to say probably not’. 
Durham work consists of installations, ready-mades and text, in which he show many possible ambiguities and paradoxes. He considers his ready-mades as one of the most ‘Native American elements’ in his work. Since the first confrontation with the Europeans the Native Americans were masters to let their new goods undergo a ‘Duchamp-like metamorphosis’. Cooking pots, beads and blankets were so transformed they were immediately identifiable as ‘Indian objects’.
Jimmie Durham, Karankawa, mixed media, 1983 (Lippard, p. 217)
Karankawa (1983) is a clear example of Durham's ready-made objects. The processed skull was from a person belonged to the Karankawa, an extinct indigenous people, which Durham found at the beach of Texas. By putting the skull on a socle this person regains some of his dignity. Durham added the eyes, one outward (by a shell) and the other inward (through an empty candle holder).
An other work in which he uses the motive of the outward and inward eye is Self Portrait from 1986. It is one of his most macabre objects. We can see the template of a human body covered with scars and wounds and filled with texts, surmounted by a mask. With this work Durham might give the appearance that he introduces himself to the viewer. Among the texts are some excerpts from his essay The ground has already been covered, but are mixed with other text fragments. Irony and self-mockery are again a part of his strategies.
In the autumn of 1995 Durham exhibited in the Netherlands for the first time, with his installation The Center Of The World, in Museum ‘De Vleeshal’ in Middelburg. In the huge space Durham made a few subtle changes. First was a network of steel cables along the walls, which were laced as small objects, bones, walnuts and iron scrap. In the corner stood a chair showing a phone. On a small monitor in a different corner was a performance video display, which showed how Durham in the middle of a field was trying to install another phone. While he was doing this, there was a persistent ringing. At one point from outside of the image of the monitor someone threw with a stone the handset of the phone. But the sound of the ringing continued.
Somewhere on the wall was stuck a little note with the following message: ‘Please understand that, in spite of all appearances I am not your enemy. It is my duty to find the truth and I will. I hope it will cause as little trouble as possible’. 
Added to this installation Durham wrote a small booklet with poems, short stories, anecdotes and individual claims. The texts were written in the Cherokee , English, Japanese and French, the languages spoken in the various places where the artist had lived. These texts were more confusing than enlightening. For example: ‘Grandmother Spider said: “When I die bury me with my face to the East”. The Spring after, tobacco grew where her vagina was. That is the reason we smoke tobacco’. This seems another example of how Durham confronts the viewer (especially the viewer who is seeking for exotic and mystical truths of a ‘spiritual Indian’) by saddling him with semi-profound wisdom, as he did In his essay The ground has already been covered.
In the foreword of the booklet it seems Durham unveils some of his intentions. The main theme of this installations are perhaps surprising and illogical associative ‘connections’. Durham: ‘If you follow one line it seems logical, if you follow a second it could still be true, but with the third everything falls apart’.
The booklet ends with the poem ‘The Center Of The World’. Here Durham cuts the word ‘invisibilite’ in different smaller units and adds new elements, so that more new ‘connections’ are created, such as ‘business’ and ‘visibilité’. Finally, he suggests that the concept ‘The Center of the World’ was not chosen randomly for this location, because in Middelburg the telescope was invented (by Zacharias Jansen and Johannes Lipperhey in 1608), an instrument that has achieved again ‘new connections’.
In this installation he spectator is the ‘Center of the World’. All around him are logical and non-logical ‘connections’ and it is up to the spectator whether he uses these lines to come to interact. Durham doesn’t make it easy and frequently gives the signal ‘wrong connection’ (almost literally, see the telephones). In my view the ringing phone on the monitor view represents Durham futile attempts to make contact, as he tries in The Ground has already been covered in ‘Artforum’ ( ‘I could address the entire world if only I had a place to stand’). Although all options are open this again fits in Durham philosophy ‘probably not’.
Jimmie Durham, The Center of the World, at 'De Vleeshal' (detail)
Jimmie Durham, The Center of the World, at 'De Vleeshal' (detail)
Position and place
The first thing that strikes after discussing these artists is the enormous diversity. Now this fact is not as spectacular as the traditionally Native America was a great patchwork of very different peoples, languages and cultures. It is striking, when initially expected that decimated the Indian population at the beginning of the twentieth century would soon disappear, since the sixties a great revival can be observed from various political and cultural events, not necessarily exclusively belonging to a specific tribal or cultural tradition.
Remains for us to see if the categories which Susan Vogel has developed for classification of contemporary African art, also applicable to the contemporary art of Native America (this was a part of the original assignment in 1996, FS, see also http://www.susan-vogel.com/publications.html). At first sight maybe a little bit. In the traditional reserves is sometimes referred to ‘Traditional Art’ or ‘Functional Art’. Furthermore you can find many examples of ‘Extinct Art’ (eg tourist ‘totem poles’ in Vancouver, fixed ‘sand paintings’ of the Navaho or other ‘traditional objects’, mainly commercial artefacts for the tourist markets).
Yet I believe there is a danger in applying these types of African art on the contemporary art of the Native Americans. The situation of America's original inhabitants is completely different than those of black Africa. Africa consists largely of former colonial countries, which are now the third world. The Indians of North America belong to the ‘Fourth World’, indigenous peoples are now dominated by imported culture, in this case within the boundaries of a First World country. This fact is, as previously shown, often essential on their contemporary art. To quote Jimmie Durham again: ‘It would be impossible, and I think immoral, to attempt to discuss American Indian Art sensibly without making central political realities’. Although the Fourth World issues in some areas of black Africa will play a role, perhaps as in southern Africa, where a very small minority of Bushmen is dominated by White Africans, Asians, Bantus and Zulus, is generally an African problem other than those of the North American Indians.
However, the history and current status of the Indians in Canada and the United States (often a minority and exiles in their own country) is an essential element for a decent understanding and interpretation of the contemporary Native American art and culture .
Jimmie Durham, Dead Deer, 1986. At the moment this work is exhibited in Het Stedelijk Museum Bureau in Amsterdam. Exhibition 'In Between Things', from 12 June - 8 August 2010, Stedelijk Museum Bureau, Rozenstraat 59, Amsterdam (see http://www.smba.nl/en/exhibitions/) .
 Dee Brown, Bury my heart at Wounded Knee, New York, 1970, (Dutch edition, Begraaf mijn hart bij de bocht van de rivier, Hollandia, Baarn, 1973, p. 381)
 Axel Schultze, Indianische Malerei des Nord Amerikas 1830-1970, Stuttgart, 1973, p. 75
 Lucy Lippard, Mixed Blessings; New art in multicultural America, New York, 1990, p. 117
 Lippard, p. 117
 Schultze, p. 75.
 Brown, p. 44, 48
 See about this history http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/Indian.html[
 Lippard, p. 109
 Lippard, p. 109
 Jean Hubert Martin, Magiciens de la Terre, Musee Nationale d’ Art Moderne Centre Pompidou, Parijs, 1989, p. 92-93
 Lippard p. 109
 Ton Lemaire, Wij zijn een deel van de Aarde, Utrecht, 1988, p. 22
 Lippard, p. 119
 Lippard, p. 14
 Jimmie Durham, The ground has already been covered, in ‘Artforum’, summer 1988, New York, p. 101.
 Domenic van den Boogaard, Let Geerling, Outsiderart betekent uitsluiting; een gesprek tussen Ricardo Brey en Jimmie Durham, ‘Metropolis M’, nr. 4, Utrecht (The Netherlands) 1992, p. 24.
 Lippard, p. 204
 Hans Hartog Jager, Durham verstrikt bezoekers in netwerk van draad en botten, NRC Handelsblad (The Netherlands), 20-5-1995.
 van den Boogaard, Geerling , p. 24.
 idem, p. 25
 Jimmie Durham, The Center of the World, Middelburg, 1995, see http://vleeshal.nl/en/publicaties/jimmie-durham-document-3 .
 Although most of the Native American cultures of North America were non alphabethic (perhaps the Delaware, or Leni Lenape of the Eastern US Coast were an exeption) the Cherokee developed after the European invasion an alphabet of their own. This alphabet was developed by Sequoya (1760-1843), who used the phonetic European system by developing his own characters. The alphabet of Sequoya is still used by the Cherokee (see http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/535250/Sequoyah)