Contemporary native artists discuss their work, stereotypes and ‘hipster racism’

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Jim Denomie, R. Vincent Moniz Jr and Heid Erdrich were part of a panel discussion held at Minnesota Public Radio on August 8, 2012

Recently I had the pleasure of sitting down with author and fiber artist Gwen Westerman, painter and sculptor Jim Denomie, actor and spoken word artist R. Vincent Moniz, Jr. and poet Heid Erdrich. We talked about many things, including what it means to be a contemporary Native artist working in a world that still has stereotypical notions of what it means to be an American Indian.

Listen to the conversation:

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The conversation is part of a series of listening sessions in which MPR staff members engage with artists from diverse communities to find out more about what issues are most important to them. You can find the first of those conversations here.

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Gwen Westerman

Gwen Westerman says that right now is actually a great time to be a Native artist, in part because of the Legacy Amendment, which has helped to fund artistic projects and cultural intitiatives.

It’s not just the money that helps get this flow going; it has a lot to do with the energy we as Native people share in terms of telling our stories. And we’ve been telling our stories for a long time in a lot of different ways.

I think it’s a good time in that people are ready to listen – ready to listen with their eyes, with their ears, ready to listen with their hearts and minds as well, so while the river’s getting crowded we’re all going with the flow here and it’s impressive to me to be a part of group efforts over the last couple of years because we don’t collaborate, but when all the pieces are put together it’s an incredible story. There’s a strong, strong thread that’s woven through everything that we do, so to me that says that we’re all in a good place, and that we’re all coming from the same place as well, from our hearts and our heads.

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Jim Denomie

Visual artist Jim Denomie agrees that now is a great time to be an artist – he says that attitudes toward his work have changed dramatically over the years, for the better.

When I first went back to art school I felt an expectation by a lot of people to do native art – Indian art and in most people’s minds it’s a stereotypical genre – imagery of buffaloes and teepees, spirits and eagles and things. I grew up in South Minneapolis as a contemporary Native American person; I didn’t grow up traditionally or on a reservation so my world view incorporates a contemporary experience. And so my work reflects that. But I also work in the traditional storytelling aspect and so when I was creating some of these contemporary political, social stories visually it wasn’t understood and therefore not critiqued and supported by my professors, my art teachers at the U.

People would say ‘why don’t you paint a good Indian painting and go down to Sante Fe? you’d make a lot of money.’ And I’d say, ‘well if I’m in this just to make money I could be painting Elvis on black velvet.’ It was a choice to be honest and innovative. And when you put yourself out there and you take a risk… you’re subject to criticism and disappointment. But the response has been great by my fellow community members and the art community at large in terms of recognition and grants and museum collections. It all just encourages me to keep moving forward.

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Actor and spoken word artist R. Vincent Moniz

While the audience for Native art has improved over the years, actor and spoken word artist Vincent Moniz says there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to teach people to respect Native cultures. He gave the example of a Tumblr site called “Hipsters in Headdresses” which calls out non-Indians, predominantly young white women, who pose for photos wearing headdresses as a sort of fashion statement.

And I think for me the frustration is that that larger stereotype has seeped into the Twin Cities here… there’s a … I don’t know what to call it – a really overt ‘hipster racism’ – a kind of “oh no, I know the headdress was worn by specific leaders of your race but I’m doing it ironically – it’s funny.” And I really feel like there is a subconscious want to know more about us and so you reach into what you have and what you have is basic stereotypes – ‘Indians wear headdresses and put on face paint.’ There’s even a T-shirt line where there’s an Indian woman all in white surrounded by wolves… or the Urban Outfitters with their Navajo underpants. That was funny!

There are way more teaching moments out there than there are “oh you get it, you understand what you’re doing.” You have to reach past the decapitated heads on baking powder, or the football logo, or wherever it is, because our particular oppression is a commercialized nightmare. So it’s important to be able to have these teaching moments – to be able to say I’m not that headdress – THIS is how it is.

Read commentary: If Native-themed goods are used to make a profit, Native people should benefit

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Poet Heid Erdrich

Poet Heid Erdrich says these stereotypes are still ever-present in the publishing world.

In literature it’s such a fine line. People will take on the voices of native people, there are genre books written about native people which will always outsell any book written by an indigenous person. I don’t know how we’ll ever catch up except that there’s a lot more of us in this hemisphere – the book will be gone before we catch up!

More books are written everyday about Native people than by Native people. So it’s really really difficult. And it’s not commercial to tell the story of a people who don’t have redemption at the heart of their narrative. We don’t get Oprah books because we don’t have an easy ending – we don’t have that same sense of history as a closed loop – I think – I think we have more a sense a time repeating and I don’t want to generalize too much but I think that the story is not over, the story always continues is not satisfying necessarily to other people.

The indigenous people who do get big grants in this country often are people who will capitulate to the stereotypes – even though they may be excellent writers – I still believe they capitulate to the stereotypes and often play to a non-native audience. And when you actually are writing to a native audience, people don’t get it. They’re like “there’s no leather and feathers here – there’s no beads, no spirituality, no bowl of stubbed out sage in the middle of your poem – this isn’t an Indian poem.” They might not even recognize it whereas Native people might, and I’m saying “might” because we’re a diverse peoples even within individual tribal groups – you have so many different ways of experiencing your cultures. So I think appropriation for writers is complete. That is the norm, and the true Native voice has just a little squeaky place to fit in – it’s very difficult. People still don’t accept it – they don’t like the vision, they’re not happy with the politics involved – I think it’s really really difficult.

That said there are some amazing new writers right now who I’m really happy to read.

Many thanks to Heid Erdrich, R. Vincent Moniz Jr., Jim Denomie and Gwen Westerman for participating in this series.

All photos by MPR reporter Nikki Tundel

  • http://www.greglmueller.com Greg Mueller

    Great MPR topic… I am a white caucasian male, and a sculptor. I was recently approached by the Dakota Sioux on collaborating with them on an element of a sculptural memorial for the 38 Dakota executed in Mankato 150 years ago. It is an interesting and educational process; weaving my more contemporary aesthetic with the visions and traditions of the Dakota Elders and Dakota Artists.

  • Human Beings 2012

    It’s 2012 Now and we are all Human Beings. Keep up the good work. As a Human Being it’s time now to work as a team….Again may I remind you we are all Human Beings and we can tell the stories that we need to tell and we can dress and think for our selves.

    Thank you. We are all Human Beings.

  • Gary Bartlett{Wooten}

    According to my late grandmother I am part native not Indian as Columbus and his croanies tagged us.I am proud to be part Blackfeet /Sue native,but when I hear or see the word Indian it is an awful reminder of the first lie that is being circulated by natives in conversation and writings.We are natives,not Indians!I am a proud native artist and not to be given the name given by the bloody hands of a butcher!It would ease my soul and those who suffered and died before us if word Indian never falls from the lips of a native brother or sister ever again. G Blet the native artist.