In the early part of the 20th century, white Americans and Europeans, from anthropologists and art collectors to politicians and tourists, became fascinated by Native Americans. Convinced that Native lives were bound for extinction within a generation or two, many people wanted souvenirs from their journeys to Indian Country — the more intimate and sacred, the better. Sometimes they stole from the communities they visited. Sometimes they offered enough money that cash-strapped Native families were willing to part with precious possessions. And sometimes what white people walked away with wasn’t exactly what they thought it was. Today, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC) has a collection of about 200 Zuni pots, dating to the 1930s, that curator Valerie Verzuh told Pasatiempo were created as “secret ceremonial pots” to sell to the public.
“What really interested outsiders were parts of Native people’s lives that they don’t usually share, so these pots sort of satiated that interest,” she said. “They’re great art. They’re beautiful Zuni pots. But they’ve been artificially aged and they’re very exotic. They have these little cutouts, which are nothing that has been seen on Zuni pots before or since. They are a great example of how creativity comes out under duress.”
Three of the pots can be viewed in Into the Future: Culture Power in Native American Art, on exhibit at MIAC through Oct. 22, 2017. Verzuh arranged the case in which they are displayed to exemplify the way privacy that is integral to Native culture is often violated in the name of non-Native curiosity. “At the heart of this opposition is the dilemma of preserving tradition, or keeping it alive,” Verzuh wrote in the text accompanying the pots. “In the ongoing battle for the protection of proprietary indigenous knowledge, objects have powerful voices.” The pots are juxtaposed with a painting by Arigon Starr (Kickapoo), Pueblo Jones in Paris, which looks like the movie poster from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and references the spring 2016 sale of culturally sensitive Native American artifacts by a French auction house over the protestations of the tribes. The objects in the privacy case show that neither indigenous people nor the theft of their culture are relics of the past.
Into the Future includes nearly 100 historical objects, contemporary works of fine art, and more traditional art made by modern Native artists, some of which was in the MIAC collection and some of which came from private collectors and the artists. Verzuh looked for pieces that were highly narrative to tell the story of how Native culture has perceived its interaction with European-American colonialist culture — from the inside out. “It’s a perspective that people don’t really get, that colonized people have opinions about you,” she said. In a case dedicated to encounters with cultural outsiders are ceramic bobble-head caricatures made by Cochiti artists to reflect the strange new people who suddenly arrived on their land when the Transcontinental Railroad was built in the late 1800s.
A major theme of the exhibit is cultural appropriation, which is the taking of elements of a colonized culture by members of the dominant group. This is most recognizable around Halloween, when non-Native people wear Indian headdresses as costumes, but manifestations of cultural appropriation are everywhere, especially in the fashion world, where non-Native designers often use Native design elements or sacred clothing out of context. “In all cultures, there is clothing that is restricted to certain occasions or people,” Verzuh said. She went on to talk about the dresses sent down the runway in 2015 at New York’s winter Fashion Week by Marjan Pejoski, a Macedonian-born designer living in Bali, that were a direct copy of a dress line by Northern Cheyenne/Crow designer Bethany Yellowtail, whose work is included in the exhibit. Pejoski called his work a tribute to indigenous women, but didn’t seem to realize how the action of poorly copying designs that belong to Yellowtail’s family resulted in the opposite of his stated intentions. Verzuh also mentioned the time John Galliano was roundly pilloried during Fashion Week in 2013 for wearing what appeared to be a high-fashion mockery of clothing worn by Hasidic men, right down to the sidelocks, known in Yiddish as payos, that are grown to symbolize faith. “He was ostracized by everyone for this, but you can send a Victoria’s Secret model down the runway in a headdress,” she observed, recalling the 2012 debacle for which the popular lingerie company had to publicly apologize to offended Native communities.
“Every shape in a traditional Native design, all of the colors — this all has meaning to us. It may say that you are male or female, or belong to a particular society, or you’ve received certain honors, or it’s your family’s design,” Verzuh said. “If you take them out of context, if you don’t know how to speak the visual language, then it’s really disrespectful of that family or culture. It’s especially stressful for colonized people, who are trying to keep their culture alive, to be strong individually and in groups. Denigrating a symbol from a colonized group is part of colonizing. It means colonizing is still happening, that you are colonizing by wearing that headdress.”
Native clothing, jewelry, and accessory designers take a variety of approaches to using cultural imagery. Yellowtail, for instance, uses cultural symbols in her designs, whereas Virgil Ortiz, from Cochiti Pueblo, transforms the symbols he uses on his edgy leather jackets, bags, and bracelets so that their references are less direct. Orlando Dugi (Navajo) designs couture gowns that include feathers and complicated beadwork, but no cultural imagery, because he prefers to keep that within his family and community. Verzuh explained that the idea that symbols belong to a group — and not to any single individual to use to turn a profit — is part of the argument against the Paris auction of Native artifacts. “You have to consider the intention of the maker when you’re buying and selling these things. Where do they belong? What do they mean to the community? How did they leave the community? During the Holocaust, so many pieces of art were taken from Jewish families illegally, and what we’re saying is that this is similar. These items left our community under duress, we’ve managed to stay alive and vital, and now they need to come home.”
One room of Into the Future, directed at younger museumgoers, is populated by geometrical tapestry weavings of Disney characters and several versions of SpongeBob SquarePants, including one of him as the giant clasp of a bolo tie made by Ken Williams Jr. (Northern Arapaho/Seneca). “Acculturation has been a big deal in the history of this country. People come here and it’s supposed to be a melting pot; you’re supposed to melt into this nondescript Anglo-American-whatever,” Verzuh said. “Obviously, that’s never been a success. I just love the transformation of popular culture into Native American culture, and what kind of commentary that becomes. SpongeBob is very popular with kids, so how do you integrate that into their life on the pueblo? You have him and his friends do a Corn Dance. This is what I call reverse colonization — when you bring your culture to the culture that has colonized you, and transform that culture.” ◀