“Strengthening the Bones”

By W. Richard West, Jr.

Founding Director and Director Emeritus – National Museum of the American Indian


I begin this morning with a lawyer’s caveats and disclosures rather than a museum director’s sense of automatic prerogative to speak on anything he likes.  First, what I say to you this morning is very much a personal perspective on Native arts and cultures.  I claim no special prescience or wisdom that makes what I offer now more important or significant than what anyone else in this distinguished group of artists and participants has to say.  I also know that the subject, Native arts and cultures, sits close to me and has for all of life.  I thus want to lend whatever I can in the way of experience and perspective to our discussions over the next day and a half without being presumptuous about their value.

Second, my journeys in Native arts and cultures have been multiple and are both personal and professional.  Genetics play a large part in my journeys.  I was born the son of a gifted and prominent Native artist, a painter and a sculptor, who had substantial impact on the course of Native arts in much of the late twentieth century.  My non-Native mother was a distinguished pianist and, had it not been for the untimely arrival of my brother and me, she might have pursued a career as a concert pianist.

So the arts generally and Natives arts specifically were all around me as I grew up in Oklahoma.  For my brother and me the Philbrook Art Center and the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, were practically second homes as two of the principal venues for much of my father’s work and professional life as a painter and sculptor.

In professional life I also made my way, ultimately if somewhat belatedly, back to the home field – Native arts and culture.  I admittedly had a considerable diversion into the practice of law, which my parents could never quite understand, especially since my younger brother compounded things by becoming a banker for a number of years.  I shall always be grateful that my Dad lived long enough to see me become the Founding Director of the National Museum of the American Indian.  He felt, in his own words, that, finally, I had “come in from the cold started earning an honest living”.

In the gentler climes and pace of retirement and retroflection, I value greatly the totality and the crosscurrents of the experience in Native arts that flowed from this personal path and biography.  I say this because it allowed me to see the Natives arts up close for a lifetime, while at the same time having the opportunity to see and know the Western arts context in which they live and develop in this country – and thus to know the issues that shape and sometimes challenge contemporary Native arts that originate in vastly different histories and traditions.  To state the point metaphorically, it is a long way from Bacone College near Muskogee, Oklahoma, or the Cheyenne communities in El Reno, Seiling, and Hammon to the Smithsonian Institution’s “museum row” on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

It is this meeting point, between worlds our own and not our own, between artistic traditions and histories originating in Indian Country and those not, that a dynamism and even tension exists that, for me, is important in our discussions here.  My point is perhaps best illustrated by two contrasting stories from real life.

The first involves Eugene Thaw, a highly successful and learned New York collector and art dealer, a generous benefactor of the NMAI, and at this point a close personal friend of mine who has an eye for Native material akin to God’s.  Many years ago, as he was introducing me to his collections at his home in Tesuque, New Mexico, he held up before both of us an exquisite carved Tsimshian bowl.  With a facial expression that can only be described as “rapt” and “reverent,” he said, “Nothing in the entirety of the Renaissance surpasses this in sheer aesthetic quality.”  From the standpoint of the system of aesthetics as we have come to know it in Western art, Gene was entirely correct.

The second anecdote involves my father and me, as a young child, at the Philbrook Art Center.  There, during a tour through the galleries that he and I often visited when there together, we came upon a Tlingit object in that museum’s significant Indian collections not at all dissimilar in artistic and aesthetic quality from the piece I saw many years later with Gene Thaw.

My father told me initially of the object’s remarkable beauty, including its material, the artist’s technical skill, the use of color, and the splendid lines of the piece.  Then, with a slight chuckle, he added, “The only problem is – that’s not what it really means.”

And therein lie questions and issues that I have pondered for all of my life in trying to understand the Native arts.  What does it mean to “create Native art”?  How do we define its meaning?  How do we measure its value and importance?  And what terms and standards apply?

In approaching these questions for the balance of my presentation, I want to use the following organizational scheme.  First, I want to have a look at the world that sits beyond Indian Country and that lives artistic life according to the maxims and dictates of Western art history.  Second, I then would like to address, as cultural and artistic counterpoint, how I view the differing approaches of the Native arts.

Having lived, as Director of the NMAI, directly across the National Mall from the National Gallery of Gallery, I certainly know the answers to these questions that Western art history and traditions provides.  At one time in its history, art in Europe was very much a part of daily living.  The creation of beautiful objects in churches, for example, was an undertaking on behalf of the community, and the material was used every day as part of its ritual and ceremonial life.

But European and Western art history took a sharp right turn with the arrival of the Renaissance in the sixteenth century.  These objects, figuratively speaking, left the churches and in the next two centuries moved into private collections and ultimately into private and public museums.  There they left behind their previous social, cultural, ceremonial, and ritual context and became, instead, “art objects”.

With that transition also came numerous rubrics of representation and interpretation that became and remain the very bedrock and undergirding of Western art history and artistic viewpoint.  Definitional distinctions and categories that correlated with artistic achievement, recognition, and value were established.  “Fine” art, which, for example, included two- and three-dimensional visual art, represented the far higher mark on the very linear Western path to “high art”.  By contrast, anything smacking of “craft”, such as ceramics, was relegated to the category of “low art” and had far lesser status in the Western artistic calculus.  The social and cultural context of objects was deemed largely irrelevant because “art objects” were considered to be purely individual creations with universal meaning.

Within these ground rules and definitional prescriptions, Native artists dating from the last half of the twentieth century have competed and worked as “fine artists”, but often with great challenges.  My father spent much of his life as a Native artist trying to get off the ethnographic walls of natural history museums and into art galleries and museums.  I have a painting at home, one of my favorites, by my Dad that was juried into the Corcoran Biennial in 1962, but the path to such places for Native artists at that time was highly infrequent and difficult – and it took a very daring art museum to sign on.

Even in museums that considered such paintings as “fine art”, the rules sometimes could be rather odd and narrow – and again defined in almost anthropological terms that were the cruel legacy of previous history.  I remember my Dad’s resignation as the chair of the jury for painting at Philbrook in protest over the institution’s refusal to accept a work by Oscar Howe because he was not “painting Indian”.  Cubism may have gotten Picasso and others into the MOMA in New York, but it kept Oscar Howe out of Philbrook a half century ago.  I seem to recall that Alan Houser and Dorothy Dunn had similar discussions regarding the parameters of being a Native artist and painter.

The takeaway from this part of my presentation is this:  I applaud and admire those Native artists or artists who are Native in successfully breaching the historical barriers that often have prohibited their being considered “fine artists” and thus capable of creating “high art” – the gold medal in Western art.  But it is a victory that still often leaves me puzzling and slightly troubled because it is premised on constructs for art and artistic expression that I do not necessarily consider our own.  I want to be sure, as a Cheyenne and as the Founding Director of the National Museum of the American Indian, that we also continue to recognize and value those precepts and values that have grounded Native arts and the creative process for the millennia.  And I thus now turn to the second part of my presentation this morning.

I want to describe as best I can the paradigm that undergirds and defines the creation of Native art – whatever medium may be at issue.  First, while it often comes as a considerable shock to those grounded in the traditions of Western art and less familiar with Indian material culture, the object, if anything, was a secondary consideration to the primacy of the ceremonial or ritual process that led to its creation.  In other words, despite the remarkable aesthetic qualities of much of the cultural material we created, our purpose, in the end, was not the creation of “art.”

A former colleague of mine at the NMAI spoke directly to this point when she wrote:

[T]he Native artist . . . [values] the creation [of art] . . . over the final product.  Process speaks to historical or cultural significance because it is testimony to cultural continuity and change.  It is the evidence of lost traditions, innovations, preserved cultural knowledge, historic perspective and vision of the future. . . . It takes into account a sort of ‘spiritual evidence’ that is integral to the creative process.  The integrity of the creative process is foremost.  The object is meaningless without it.

Native objects, in their most profound and ultimate dimension, really were statements and reflections – and were intended to be so – of collective and communal values as much or more than they were individual creative statements.

I remember visiting many years ago the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos, New Mexico.  I was looking at a truly magnificent ceramic pot sculpted by the hand and spirit of Popovi Da, the brilliant son of Julian and Maria Martinez of the San Ildefonso Pueblo.  I was content to stand there, transfixed, for a very long time, simply lost in its aesthetic beauty.

My eye, however, finally moved to a piece of text that had been placed next to the pot, and it turned out to be a statement by Popovi Da himself.  I have never forgotten it because it spoke volumes about Popovi Da’s world and how his personal creativity related to – indeed, arguably was subsumed by – that world:

We do what comes from thinking, and sometimes hours and even days are spent to create an aesthetic scroll in design.

Our symbols and our representations are all expressed as an endless cadence, and beautifully organized in our art as well as in our dance. . . .

There is design in living things; their shapes, forms, the ability to live, all have meaning. . . . Our values are indwelling and dependent upon time and space unmeasured.  This in itself is beauty.

My point is the following.  As the son of an Indian artist and a modest collector of contemporary Indian art, I always have loved and appreciated our cultural material for its sheer aesthetic qualities.  I have watched with pleasure as this material has come increasingly to be valued on the same basis by others outside the Indian community.

In representing, interpreting, and, most important, understanding the material and its meanings, however, it is not sufficient, in the end, to get bound up in debates over whether it satisfies Western standards and definitions of “art” – because we miss much in doing so.  A person can stand in awe of a Popovi Da ceramic pot for its beauty as “art,” but if he does not know the linkage between Popovi Da’s world view and community and his personal creative spirit, the cultural interpretation of the pot is incomplete – and it can be made complete only by honoring the place of that nexus in defining the meaning of the object.

Significantly, many contemporary Indian fine artists view the matter similarly.  Rick Hill, an artist, former museum director, and former member of the staff of the National Museum of the American Indian, puts the matter this way:

The main difference between Indian and non-Indian artists is that we are still community-driven. . . . Art is the cement that binds the Indian people together, uniting us with our ancestors and with generations yet to be born.  Through art we can take a look at why language is important, why ritual is important, why land is important.

With his characteristic frankness and edge, contemporary Apache sculptor Bob Haozous, the renowned son of the renowned sculptor, Allan Houser, and, in my view, a brilliant artist in his own right, makes the same point regarding the essential nature of Indian objects.

I want to see people participating in my work.  That’s totally contrary to what we’re taught in America – the artist as an individual, the genius.  I don’t want to see that in my work at all.  I’d rather see, at the most, a cultural reflection of being an Apache.  I’ve been fighting those concepts of individualism, uniqueness, and universalism, concepts that are totally contrary to tribalism.  Individualism denies a future or a past awareness.  You claim it, you own it, but you’re not a part of it.

In other words, through the millennia those Indian people we now call “artists” were not so much in the business of producing “art objects”.  They, instead, were creating aesthetically remarkable material whose primal importance lay not in the object itself but in the fact that it reflected – indeed, embodied – the processes, ceremonial and ritualistic, that defined the very community culturally.

As the Director of the National Museum of the American Indian, I saw first hand the complexity of representing Native art through this interpretive paradigm.  I remember the screeching, for example, of a critic for The Wall Street Journal, all of about thirty-five years old and hell-bent for cultural leather,upon her reviewing an inaugural exhibit of the NMAI at our George Gustav Heye Center in New York.  She loudly complained in the following terms:

A note explains:  ‘The different voices that surround some of the objects speak for them, since they cannot speak for themselves.’            Nonsense.  These objects . . . speak very eloquently for themselves . . . .              . . . .                                        Ironically . . . items [in the museum shop] are more respectfully displayed than the museum’s own artifacts.  Grouped by tribal affiliation and medium, they are in well-lit cases . . . with cards listing only the artist’s name and nation.  The museum’s curators would do well to study them.

I want to be somewhat more gentle with this critic than she was with us because her motivations, in one sense, are laudable and basically kind.  Specifically, she is disconcerted and dismayed by parts of our presentation because we declined to represent and interpret the objects exclusively as “art,” which, I would venture to guess, is, in her mind and in the Western art tradition, the highest compliment we possibly could pay to the material and the most significant meaning it could have.  In the end, unfortunately, her academic rigidity and unabated tone-deafness to potential multiple meanings of art and objects denied her access to insights she otherwise might have had if she listened and tried to absorb rather than only preached that which she knew.

I was born to know the vast and permeating nexus between the Native arts and the maintenance of cultural continuance in contemporary Native communities.  The statement that Native artists, past and present, are the “culture bearers of our Native communities” is not some mechanical and rote rhetorical cultural maxim – I believe that it also happens to be complete truth.  But if it is truth, then every person in this room has genuine responsibilities to our Native communities.  That belief and commitment guided me every day I sat in the Director’s chair of the National Museum of the American Indian, and it is the totality of why I agreed so readily to serve as a Trustee of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation.

So as is our wont as Native people, let me leave you as I began – with a story.  It is about a northern California basket-maker named Mrs. Matt, who was hired to teach basket-making at a local university.  After three weeks, her students complained that all they had done was sing songs.  When, they asked, were they going to learn to make baskets?  Mrs. Matt, somewhat taken aback, replied that they were learning to make baskets.  She explained that the process starts with songs that are sung so as not to insult the plants when the materials for the baskets are picked.  So her students learned the songs and went to pick the grasses and plants to make their baskets.

Upon their return to the classroom, however, the students again were dismayed when Mrs. Matt began to teach them yet more songs.  This time she wanted them to learn the songs that must be sung as you soften the materials in your mouth before you start to weave.  Exasperated, the students protested having to learn songs instead of learning to make baskets.  Mrs. Matt, perhaps a bit exasperated herself at this point, thereupon patiently explained the obvious to them:  “You’re missing the point,” she told them, “a basket is a song made visible.”

I do not know whether Mrs. Matt’s students went on to become exemplary basket-makers.  What I do know is that her sublimely poetic remark, which suggests the interconnectedness of everything, the symbiosis of who we are and what we do, the nexus between the intangible and the tangible, the interdependence of the physical and the spiritual, embodies a whole philosophy of Native life and culture that speaks volumes about the powerful and abiding relationship, against all odds and much of history, between the Native arts and our continuance as vital and living peoples and cultures into a future that the ancestors wanted – and fought and died for – on our behalf.  Let us never cease honoring their gift.

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