Stereotype, Tradition, and Artistic Evolution: Thoughts On Native American Art

An old philosophy professor of mine was fond of Procrustes from Greek mythology and liked to tell the Procrustes story to illustrate a point:

Procrustes was said to be a bandit with a den on Mount Korydallos.  Meeting every passerby, he would offer them the hospitality of allowing them to sleep in his own bed. Yet there was a catch. Anyone too tall had to be amputated until they fit the bed perfectly. Anyone too short had to be broken with a hammer and stretched until they filled it out.

In philosophy, a Procrustean bed refers to the error of stretching all evidence to conform to a pet theory.  I’m sure nearly everyone has had the experience of running into a zealot, who is utterly enamored with some system of ideas.  And nothing is allowed to exist outside that system to the zealot, or count against the system.  Even what refutes the system becomes reinterpreted, becomes stretched into supporting it.

That is a Procrustean bed.  If too short, you must be broken until your dimensions fit the ideal perfectly.  If too tall, you must be chopped until your proportions are exact to the ideal.

The typecasting of Native American artists reminds me too of Procrustes and his bed.  Stereotype tends to be the standard of measurement.

Native artists are often judged by how much they live up to romanticized notions of shirtless savages chasing the buffalo under orange and purple sunsets.  Commercialism, rather than anything culturally intrinsic, often drives the prevalence of the stereotypical in Native American art.  Stereotype is what sells.  Stereotype is what outsiders with romanticized misconceptions want to write checks for.

And I am not saying there is no place for the familiar in Native art, or that all old motifs should be razed in a discard pile.  I think tradition, and artistic traditions can be beautiful.  I am not saying that a painting of a buffalo or an eagle cannot be moving.  If as a Native artist, buffalo running the plains, and eagles soaring through the badlands, are what you love and want to portray, I am casting no shade in that direction.

Yet what I am saying is that when Native Americans are limited to stereotypical expressions, it is like the full extent of our humanity is denied.  Room should exist for a Native artist to go off the stereotypical script.

Perhaps a Native artist wants to make something that does not immediately present itself as a ‘Native’ piece.  Perhaps a Native artist wants to create something, without having to first apply the filters of stereotype, old motif, familiar iconography, commercially comfortable symbolism.

We are so much more, as artists, as musicians, as writers, as people, than the stereotypes that pigeon hole us. Like Procrustes, the popular conception of Native Americans tends to cut off a few inches, or stretch a few limbs, to make sure we fit a preconception of what Native American is.

Native American art is always changing, since Native American culture itself is always evolving.  We are not dead.  Our artistic traditions are not dead.  And that is why I reject the essentialism, the notion that anything after a certain cut off point in history should be disqualified.  We are alive.  We never stopped evolving as a culture, and we never stopped interacting with and interpreting the world as artists.  Native American art is not some dead piece of taxidermy, embalmed forever in one era, but something alive, well, growing and breathing.

If we’re ultra purists, and disallow this evolution, in art, and in culture, then the only things admissible as true Native American art are relics of history. A person would have to go back before European contact, and look at perhaps a deer skin drum, or a winter count drawn on a buffalo hide, to find true Native American art.

Not even those paintings of buffaloes, or our beadwork, or star quilts, would count, because they probably incorporate modern techniques and materials, even if the subject matter is retro Native American.

A lot of those buffalo paintings are made from pastels purchased at the local Hobby Lobby.  A lot of that beadwork is made from things a person could buy at any Walmart.  And I’m not saying that is a bad thing.  To the contrary, I see no problem with any of that.  It is all a natural evolution.  It is where many of us find ourselves, at the crossroads of the collision of worlds.  It is real.  It is subversive in a way.  Keeping tradition alive in new mediums we adapt ourselves to.

Native American culture is a living, growing thing, rather than something locked in one particular era of history. So Native American art lives and grows also, taking influence from trends and techniques outside the culture, learning to interpret itself through new modes of expression, while at the same time often honoring its roots and traditions.

This is ok.  It is ok to be Native and make music with a guitar, or rhyme over a beat.  It is ok to be Native, and paint or craft with modern materials.  It is ok to be traditional, and create around traditional things.  It is ok to venture beyond the traditional, and create in non-traditional modes.  It is ok to do both, and at different times, for different reasons.

(It is my intent to offend no one with this, but merely push against a closing of the mind I commonly encounter when talking of Native American art.)