3 Ways Public Art Promotes Pan-Indian Confusion

While being billed and paid for as an “homage to the gentle savages which once roamed the coasts and hills of this area thousands of years ago”:

Many of the images presented to you as “Native American Art”, and installed in places like Parks, Malls, Skate Parks, and other Public Spaces, and “Public Arenas”, are actually the romanticized interpretations by (a) someone who is not Native American and, (b) does not know enough about their subject matter to truly allegorize the sacred dances, symbols, and objects they attempt to vivify.

The result is a vitiated version of true Native American Cultural Representation Through Art. An impoverished image of who we are, and our physical connection to The Earth; The Animals; Our Ancestors; And All Of Us.

These images are created with the “understanding” that Native Americans are gone. That we no longer live in a physical sense.

We take up space in the imaginary place the artist has created. In the place with forests, and mesas; and lakes; and horses; and deer; and the Wolf howling at the Moon; and Iron Eyes Cody.

It’s probably the same place in your head….

The same place where “Indian Blankets” are half off. Where you can buy your own “Native American flute” out of a bucket at the door. Next to the Cigar Store Indian; and the “You Are On Stolen Land” t-shirts.

These images don’t just affect you. They affect us.

One: It Makes Us Forget Who We Are

Aside from beating us down by starvation literally; economically; educationally; culturally; and spiritually: these images help erase our sense of individuality in both Tribal and Personal identities.

We are enshrouding ourselves with the stereotypes they created for us.

We are letting them convince us that this is who we are. That we don’t exist unless we conform to these images. Their idea of “American Indians”, “Gentle Savages”, “Proud Chiefs”, and “Sexy Squaw”. Those are Halloween costumes.

We’re convincing ourselves that, unless we aren’t beading, or praying, or posting performative “Indian” [stuff] on social media that we aren’t Indians. That we don’t exist without the identities they try to place on us.

But we do. And that’s the First Way Public Art Promotes Pan-Indian Confusion: It makes us forget who we are.

Like, who we really are.

Two: Pan-Indian Images, Made By Non-Native Artists, Shut Out Contemporary and Authentic Native American Art and Voices (and create false subject matter experts, who only perpetuate the myths of colonization.)

The artists who rendered these images we see in public become considered subject matter experts, and go on to create more “culturally appropriate” or “culturally inspired” artwork for architects, corporations like tech companies, and more city governments, and municipalities.

These works of art are now cited as “Native American works”; and referred to as historically & culturally accurate representations of people–who are very much real, and alive, today–as though they were no longer here.

They contribute to the myth that we’ve just disappeared, somehow.

This is effectively re-colonizing these places with attenuated versions of us; homogenized stereotypes of the “Indians of California”. Representing the sanitized beginning, middle, and end of an entire civilization that “wasn’t” murdered, buried in mass graves; and pulverized, to be hidden in the very cornerstones of the institutions designed to govern them out of existence…. And yet, still came out fighting like Schrödinger’s Cat

These works of Public Art help to indoctrinate new generations into the Myth of The Colonization of California. The one where we all just simply disappeared; were “killed by the Spanish”; or “became Mexicans.” …That California was open, lush, and willing.

This not only prevents true Native American Artists from being featured, or recognized in their own homelands. But, the popularity, and entrenched nature of Public Art (something that’s usually made of steel, or metal, and set in concrete), literally cements these images in the public eye; helping to gloss over, and tune out the real history, living voices, and work of contemporary Native Americans as people and artisans. In favor of the commercialized, white-washed, Pan-Indian images and stereotypes that stalk us everywhere we go.

We have to stop considering non-native people as the gatekeepers of Native American culture, or the experts on our lives, and lived experiences.

Three: Works of Public Art Do Not Absolve Governments of Their Duty to Recognize and Honor Native American People

Public Artwork concerning Native American People should do the following:

  1. Never be a sculpture of a Native American person, unless it was actually made and designed by a Native American person, or a person of Native American Descent.
  2. Be built/created/assembled by Native American people;
  3. In print: acknowledge the Native American Genocide, California Genocide, or the Mass Murder and Removal of Native Americans for the Exploitation of Their Land and Natural Resources as the reason why the viewer is standing in an outdoor mall, and not a lush field–with rivers, fresh air, salmon, and singing forest animals–today;
  4. Recognize the People Whose Land We Are On by Name, and the name of the Tribal Nation as it may appear in Treaty;
  5. Recognize that Public Art cannot undo the past, but it is a way that we can all remember our history, honor our ancestors, and heal together from the sins of our fathers.

Public Art is a component, and not the whole solution.

These things should be employed in concert with serious policies of Native American Inclusion & Acknowledgment, like:

  • Native American Representation in City Government, City Events, City Planning
  • Renaming of Some Parks, Streets, Schools, and Other Public Buildings/Spaces
  • Establishing Historical Sites and Districts
  • Rehabilitating, Maintaining, and Protecting the Local Environment
    • Consider doing these things in a sustainable way, with native plants, non-neonicotinoid pest control, and by eliminating nitrogen (fertilizer) run-off.
  • Specifically Prohibiting Development in “Restricted Resource Zones”
  • Actively soliciting local Native American people, artists, and historians, for input and education about their history.

Just for starters.

Stay tuned….

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