Native American art changed my life

Native American art changed my life. Native American artists, more specifically.

When I left my career in the sports media after 25 years to write about art, a top priority of mine was bringing more attention to Native American art and artists. I had always been attracted to Native American beliefs and practices. Seeking harmony with nature, living in balance with the earth, acknowledging the spirit of all living things, this always made more sense to me than white America’s crazed materialism, dogmatic religion and abuse of the environment. My hope was that in writing about Native American art, I could share the beauty of Indigenous cultures – and sneak in a little information about their historic and ongoing mistreatment – to a wider group of people while learning more myself.

I could never have imagined how the wisdom of every single Native American artist with whom it has been my sincere pleasure to speak with over the last four years would so deeply move me, inform me, inspire me. Through these dozens of conversations, I now see the world differently. Completely. I see this country differently. Very little of what I see I like, but I love these people and will forever be grateful to them for the enlightenment they’ve given me.

The first of these conversations might have been with Del Curfman (Apsáalooke). I was interested in Curfman because he’s from the same nation as my favorite artist Earl Biss. Curfman’s my junior by 20 years, but his quiet thoughtfulness impressed me sincerely. He taught me about Crow Fair and the myth of “disappearance.”

Del Curfman in studio with paintings from his "Vanishing" series.
Del Curfman in studio with paintings from his “Vanishing” series.

Shonto Begay (Diné) shared the ongoing impacts of Indian Boarding School, “a generation of the walking traumas.” He attended one.

From Eric Tippeconnic (Comanche) and Nocona Burgess (Comanche) I learned how artists are working as educators to fight historic stereotypes.

Gerald Clark (Cahuilla Band of Indians) introduced me to “creative sovereignty.” Brad Kahlhamer to “tribal ambiguity.” Michelle Schenandoah (Oneida) to “rematriation.”

I talked to Tony Abeyta (Diné) for an hour about his family. Rose Simpson (Santa Clara Pueblo) talked a lot about family too.

Bobby C. Martin (Muscogee) introduced me to Indian Christianity.

Billy Hensley (Chickasaw) told me about stomp dances.

Star Hardridge (Muscogee) and I spoke about being twins.

John Potter (Ojibwe) and I talked about everything.

Through these conversations and others I’ve learned about powwows, the Dawes Act, the Urban Indian Relocation Program, the “Sixties Scoop.” Whatever specifics these conversations have covered, they’ve always come back to one main point of emphasis: the Indigenous inhabitants of what is now called America are still here. Their cultures survive. They are contemporary.

Every single conversation I’ve ever had with a Native artist has come back to that subject at some point. Every single one. If you take nothing else from this article, realize that.

Native American Heritage Month

Tony Abeyta 2022 painting at Owings Contemporary

November is Native American Heritage Month in the United States. While perhaps well-intentioned, patronizing Native Americans or Blacks or women or Asian Americans or Latinos by giving them a month can be read as insulting. I see that now. Shouldn’t every month be Black History Month? Shouldn’t every month be Women’s History Month? Shouldn’t every month be Native American Heritage Month?

By proclaiming November “Native American Heritage Month,” doesn’t that signal to the country that Native Americans can be forgotten December through October?

This country exalts the white, slave holding, land stealing, colonizers who “built” it every second of every day of every week of every month of every year since it has been founded. When George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson are off our money, when their monuments are dismantled or shared, when their land has been returned and there’s a “Virginia Founders” month, then something approaching equality will have been achieved in America.

The good news is that you are in charge of who you celebrate every month. Every month is Black History Month to me. Every month is Women’s History Month to me. Every month is Native American Heritage Month to me. I’m writing just as many stories about Indigenous art in November as I did in April and August and October.

I don’t believe in Native American Heritage Month, I believe in Native American Heritage Year. Every year. And for the Indigenous knowledge and perspectives these artists I’ve mentioned – and more I haven’t – have shared with me, I am trying to pursue a Native American Heritage Life.

The settler colonial culture and society I grew up with as a white person in America is debased. They demand inequality. They demand losers so the winners can rise. They demand the earth be sacrificed for the white man’s desires. They demand women be subservient to men. They demand people be subservient to corporations. They demand all other races be subservient to whites. They demand money be the primary driver of all decisions, life’s supreme motivating factor.

I am pursuing a better way in my forties and Native American artists are helping show me the way. When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

Wyld Gallery in Austin, TX deals exclusively in contemporary Native American artwork.
Wyld Gallery in Austin, TX deals exclusively in contemporary Native American artwork.

You likely won’t be able to talk to Native artists with the frequency I’m afforded – although you can do so at Indian Markets and fairs and festivals. Visit one. You can find them all over the country. Listen and learn.

“Native America Calling” is a fantastic daily radio show and podcast focused on contemporary Native people and concerns. In one week, you’ll acquire more understanding about Indigenous America than all of your previous years combined. Decolonize your media. Find my Twitter and Instagram accounts (@seegreatart). Look through the accounts I follow for hundreds of Native American artists and activists and thinkers and organizations to follow.

Visit the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City. The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe.

Buy Native American art. Support Native American artists.

The benefits of doing so will change your life.

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