On the Limits of Native Identity

By: Matthew Irwin on Monday, March 23rd, 2015

Artists tackle Native American stereotypes in exhibition, films.

Film still courtesy of This is a Stereotype.

A trio of Santa Fe artists has created a new recovery project that confronts Native American stereotypes by literally breaking them and examining the pieces.

A film, This is a Stereotype, is the centerpiece of the project, but it began with a 2013 exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art in which the artist, Cannupa Hanska Luger, smashed his collection of ceramic “stereotypes.” Each piece took the form of a ceramic stereo (like a boombox) embodying different representations or appropriations of Native identity.

Cannupa Hanska Luger about to break a stereotype. Photograph by Anne Staveley.

“The Barrymore” recalled a photograph of Drew Barrymore donning of a chicken-feather headdress to discuss the celebrity’s cooptation of “cultural regalia” for a fashion trend. “The Ghost” represents the stereotype of Native American extinction, or the perennial idea that Native identity has been absorbed into American culture.

“The Barrymore” Photograph courtesy of This is a Stereotype.

And “The Luger” is Luger’s attempt to acknowledge his own limitations and biases as a Native and a critic of Native stereotypes. A supplement to the exhibit were four “imperfect” pieces that Luger sculpted after the four seasons and the four elements to represent a broader, more nuanced view of indigenous people.

“The Ghost” Photograph courtesy of This is a Stereotype.

After filmmaker Dylan McLaughlin and Luger created Breaking the Stereotype—a short video project in which Luger smashes his “stereotypes” on a rock—the two decided that the real work had just begun. They enlisted DJ and audio engineer, Ginger Dunnill, then began digging through film archives and recording interviews.

  “The Lugar” Photograph courtesy of This is a Stereotype.

The resulting short film is a mashup of archival footage representing Native Americans in popular culture, overlaid with disembodied voices talking about what it means to be “Native American.” These witnesses include Migizi Pensoneau and April Youpee-Roll of the comedy troupe 1491s; Douglas Miles of Apache Skateboards; Adrienne Keene, founder of the blog Native Appropriations; and artist Courtney Leonard, among several others. After on-screen text initially introduces and distinguishes each speaker, their voices begin to blend together and, often, contradict each other. They don’t meet, for instance, in their views on “Native American” or “American Indian” as the preferred term for indigenous peoples of North America. And, yet, the film sustains a tension over contemporary uses of the words “Native” and “Indian” that conflate the cultures, rituals, and histories of the nearly 570 tribes that fall within U.S. borders.

“Autumn,” “Winter,” “Spring,” and “Summer” Photograph courtesy of This is a Stereotype.

This is a Stereotype puts no limit on what it means to be Native. This is especially relevant to individuals who, even today, have to fight for recognition in politically charged and personally invested systems of exclusion that were established by colonial mandates such as the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and the Dawes Rolls. Instead, the film subverts the legal debate by locating identity within the individual, embracing the inherent contradictions of this process without ignoring that it still remains fraught for many who don’t know where they belong.

In this way, the project avoids the potential pitfalls of a project that seeks to undermine stereotypes; that is, it doesn’t create new ones. Rather, the project recovers Native identity by bringing Native voices into the present where they confront an American mythology that still holds them in the past.

 

Both films, the ceramic “stereotypes,” and more can be found at ThisIsaStereotype.com

Matthew Irwin is a freelance arts writer and PhD student (American Studies) at the University of New Mexico. A finalist for the 2015 Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant, he has written for The Austin Chronicle, Frieze, Glasstire, Hyperallergic, High Country News and the Texas Observer. His review of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements is forthcoming in Briarpatch Magazine.