I remember learning about ‘the Native Americans’ in history lessons and noting the ambiance that dipping into this rich culture created among my classmates. Names like ‘Star Blanket’ and ‘Wind Condor’ were marvels to us, thus we conjured up new names for ourselves, our own “Native-inspired” creations, along the lines of Honey Suckle and Pink cloud… It concerns me that we were more interested in making up our own names than we were with the tales of warriors counting coups or the damning consequences there were on a heritage that had been disturbed by ambition. As we were only thirteen, our ignorance could be put down to naïveté. Yet a dismissive fascination with the sensational aspects of Native American culture prevails even in adulthood.
There is a thriving subculture that celebrates cultural identity through art – art that forces us to look at Native American culture through fact-based appreciation and not schema-based indifference. A large aspect of it is directed towards portraying an honest interpretation of current cultural normality, especially when it comes to the Plains Indian tribes, such as the Sioux, the Cherokee, and the Choctaw. Chicago-based artist Chris Pappan, whose work was displayed at the Rainmaker Gallery in Bristol last summer, wrote that he “distorts images because people perceive a distorted image of Native Americans in the collective conscience.” Pappan’s method involves staging historical photographic portraits on old ledger paper and merging these with collaged maps of Chicago. This style forces a literal collide between a heritage overshadowed by condescending stereotypes and a contemporary existence that is striving to rid itself of this burden. The exhibition was aptly titled First People, Second City.
Western society’s unabashed portrayals of ‘Red Indians’ – whether in conversation or in popular films – makes it easy to see why artists like Pappan are compelled to showcase their version of reality. At the American Museum in Britain, an otherworldly place situated in the idyllic hills of Bath, the Spirit Hawk Eye exhibition depicts a dramatic version of Pappan’s heritage. Photographer Heidi Laughton’s evocative images communicate a society steeped in traditions in a way that blurs the lines between past and present. Laughton claims to “capture the present-day customs of the native people of California, Arizona,” yet one wonders what the likes of celebrated Chris Pappan and Award-winner Tony Abeyta would make of these self-consciously positioned, yet beautifully captured, portraits? It may help to clarify whether this curated photo-shoot can indeed be viewed as a true portrayal of modern life in Native American culture by emphasizing that the photographer herself is not of this heritage. It is not, therefore, far-fetched to imagine the stance she might have had in her approach to this portrayal: that of a spectator, yes, but – more poignantly – that of an admirer. As admirers, we don’t always see the entire truth of a complex and multi-faceted subject matter. An image of a young girl drowning out her teacher’s words and imagining herself wearing an elaborate headdress floats to mind.
Our reactions to other cultures show that, although we take great pride in the ‘melting pot’ that is the UK’s cultural dynamic, there still exists a strained difficulty when it comes to truly understanding the social, historical and aesthetic embodiment of other ethnicities. Our view of America, for example, may be so laden with schemas concerning Big Macs, uncomfortable debates in the Southern States, Barbie-esque teens in Porches and Hollywood that the capacity for considering other cultural aspects of that vast continent is overstretched. Perhaps the “collective conscience” would view Native American culture in a less tainted light if there was simply more information available to grasp. It sounds simple enough, yet our impressions of life’s minute complexities do not turn out like mathematical formulae.
The photographer, having lived in California for eight years, no doubt knew enough of Native American culture to witness the realities within it. The images she chose to portray, however, are not ones that depict quotidian life in a Native American community, but rather a vivid retelling of old beliefs and celebrated practices. I don’t know where all of her admiration stemmed from, but it is important to note that while Laughton’s work is thematic – Native American culture today, Speckled-wood design tomorrow – the works by Pappan and Abeyta are consistent in their singular theme: portraying Native American culture in an honest light. In this way, they, and others like them, take control, thus helping to break the oppressive schematic walls. It is their life’s work.
Originally published in XXY Magazine
First People, Second City exhibition, Rainmaker Gallery
An essay of the same title by Joanne Prince, Curator at the Rainmaker Gallery
Spirit Hawk Eye, The American Museum in Britain
Quotations from Chris Pappan, Contemporary Native American artist
Photos: Derwood Pamphilon